London and Heathrow, or Gatwick for the cheap fliers, will likely be your first introduction to British life. In many ways these are just airports, bland and lifeless, peppered with a flat pretense of security and intimidation. Still, note the pubs, a Wetherspoons among them (See chapter 5, the pub). You will find the first and strongest traces of British culture here, in a pub. While the airport pubs are, like any airport establishments, strangely devolved from the standards and comforts of reality outside the airport walls, one can still find a pint of real ale and a talkative drunk racist amidst the pacing businessmen and stag does waiting for the boarding call to Mallorca.
Unless you’re Tom Hanks, you’ve got to leave the airport at some point. And the London awaiting you is a frenzy of traffic and knife-crime. The city, first called ‘Londinium’ by the Romans at they settled it in 50 AD, is a hot mess of history and development, two millennia of growth and urban blight coalescing in a crowded, foul smelling, surprisingly expensive metropolis.
If you have the time, interest, and budget, there’s bounds to do. Communists can enjoy a rich Marxist history; Marx himself is buried at Highgate Cemetery, as he enjoyed his final years of exile in London. Fans of Downton Abbey can visit Buckingham Palace, No. 10 Downing Street, or any of the other wanton anachronisms of a culturally irrelevant age. There are gardens, museums, and architecture abound. But it’s like going to New York City, or any other significant place that is interesting and cultural, but may as well be a country of its own.
So get out of London. England is great, but the fun thing about the UK is that it’s got several countries to choose from within its borders! Actually, to be more technically precise, Great Britain offers the most to travelers. But it gets messy and annoying, so just remember not to call out Scots, Welsh, or Manx — and be careful who you call English.
Wales, or ‘Cymru’ to the native occupants, is a small country in the southwest of Britain, a property of the crown within the British commonwealth. For context, Princess Diana was technically the princess of Wales, which she owned with her jug-eared husband. While often missed by EuroRailing backpackers, Wales offers some of the finest natural beauty of Britain, boasting untouched vales reminiscent of the days of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Peppered sparsely amid these values are small towns, most of which were killed by Ronald Reagan’s friend, Margaret Thatcher. Now they’re just places to get beat up or do documentaries about alcoholism. But Cardiff, capital of Wales, is a lively college town built around a magnificent castle.
The most important thing to know before visiting Wales is that, in some sense, it is a separate country from England. And the locals are, in a very definite sense, not English. You will know the Welsh by their accent, an ambrosic brogue of a people conquered, who have spent the last 900 years singing and drinking. The singing thing is not a joke, the Welsh have always been quite fond of song, and hold a strange pagan singing competition every year called the Eisteddfod. They do have their own language, which uses fewer letters than our own, and uses them as creatively as the letters might be used.
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is the name of a small town in Wales, with the longest name in Europe.
While Cardiff is a scenic and growing city, visitors should be warned that the drinking culture is considered excessive by British standards. And the British really like to drink. Cardiff University accounts for the base of the debauchery, but 18 year-olds from all over Britain travel to Cardiff for various events and tours; any justification of binge drinking. One particular event, the Carnage pub crawl has resulted in a number of assaults and desecration of public property including several war memorials.
But Cardiff is a lively town, and there are plenty of places to drink, hear music, and have a good time that are completely free from twatish 18 year-old Brits. Be warned: keeping up with Brits, even at chill hipster bars, is a dangerous move.
The North is best avoided. While I write with some authority on the subject, I’ve never actually visited the North, because I am a reasonable, even-tempered individual. Though I did once pass through Manchester on a train. Manchester, and Liverpool to the west mark the effective southern borders of the north. While these cities do posses some charm and culture, the northern spirit is always waiting in the shadows. Plus, a true northern accent is utterly indecipherable, even to a seasoned citizen of the world.
The Welsh hold the grand British alcoholism title, Northerners take a close second, and hold the uncontested status as Britain’s alcohol-related street-crime capitol. The northerners are rough. Back when England was a quaint and simple place, the north was a hub of oceanic commerce, Liverpool especially.
Consequently, the people of the north are a brutish violent sort, descended from pirates and alcoholism. Looking further back, the north of England spent over a century under Viking rule. For further evidence of the dangerous northern character, we present a small clip from the British equivalent of the Jersey Shore, the creatively named Geordie Shore. Geordie is what the most northern of northerners are called, people from Newcastle.
There isn’t too much else worth mentioning about the north. They like soccer and racism. The Beatles were from Liverpool, and the Bronte sisters were from Yorkshire. But these days the north is just a good place to get stabbed, or watch the darts on television.
Boastful Americans beware — the British take drinking more seriously than we do. They’re just better at it, and they get a lot more practice. Their illegal drinking starts at 14; at 18 they can go down to the pub and get shitfaced. And they do. The pub is the social nexus of Britain. The country has bars, clubs, venues, et al, but the British Public House stands at the heart of them, offering cheap libations in friendly, weather-worn wooden settings.
Unfortunately, the traditional British pub of yore was killed by Tiny Tony Blair and his smoking ban, which drove Britain’s drinking population into home-based alcoholism in 2007, a final dictate of his reign. The contemporary drinking house has been standardized by J.D. Wetherspoons, a chain of pubs founded in 1979. The business model is straightforward — buy up old decrepit pubs, clean them up, standardize the menu, and remove any trace of character or ambiance. Wetherspoons pubs are brightly lit, offer a variety of cheap, quality booze, and have no music. Plus the bathrooms are clean. But there are nearly 1000 Wetherspoons in Britain, and the number is always growing.
British nights out vary in severity and risk depending on the age and social desperation of parties involved. At one end are the regulars; a few alcoholics among them, who settle into the pub around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and usually head home by 11. At the other end are marauding bands of university freshmen, who take buses to visit other large university towns and drink at them. It’s similar to how sports teams like to trek around challenging other sports teams, but with lots of drinking.
Thankfully, at the end of every night out in the UK is the chippy alley — small clusters of little kebab shops that never close ready to dispense a massive pile of chips (fries) slathered in gravy, curry, cheese, or all of the above. This traditional folk remedy halts the progression of alcohol poisoning; providing essential fat and nutrition to stumbling pissed-up drunks.
British cuisine is known for a bland heartiness; a practicality best displayed in the Cornish pasty, meat and vegetables wrapped in a pastry casing specially designed to be eaten by coal-covered Cornish miners. The cuisine of modern Britain combines this parsimony and practicality with an abundant franchise culture.
One of the finest examples of the more domestic end of British cuisine is Gregg the Baker’s Hut of Pastry. This craft boulangerie boasts nearly 1700 locations throughout Britain. Greggs is known for selling a wide variety of cheap, tasteless pastry with fillings ranging from egg to hen to turkey and cranberry, when in season, and a wide variety of sandwiches.
But it’s the chip shop that forms the cultural core of British society. These bright little outposts dispense an astonishing variety of fried and battered foodstuffs, typically through the wee hours of the night. Alongside the kebab shop, these ‘chippy alleys’, in a lot of ways, make the British nightlife possible.
On the other end of the spectrum, British fine dining benefits from the nation’s close proximity to the European continent, and France, particularly. British haute cuisine is influenced by the latest trends and techniques from the continent, while we Americans are condemned to marvel at trends long since passed. Heston Blumenthal is the king of British culinary adventurousness: A leading pioneer of molecular gastronomy, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant offers an array of foams, gels, and exploded fricassees, redefining the meaning of food for Britain’s hungriest aristocrats.