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GREAT BRITAIN (England, Wales & Scotland)




On the banks of the Severn On an extended visit to the Black Country of the English Midlands, we find that much of the region's history is bound up with the River Severn, an artery of trade since medieval times, and the canals which feed into it. The Severn flows more or less south from Wales down through the English heartlands to its mouth at Bristol, passing by such ancient river ports as Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Bewdley and Worcester. In the 18th century the Severn Gorge at Ironbridge became the hub of an industrial revolution; canals were built to augment England's natural waterways and port towns like Stourport-on-Severn came into being at this time.

Cotswold Gold Exquisitely manicured, the halcyon Cotswold villages of Painswick, Broadway, Bibury and Bourton-on-the-Water could easily be stage sets, admired by coachloads of visitors. Come roam instead the streets of more substantial towns like Burford, Chipping Campden and Stow-on-the-Wold and especially such understated gems as Winchcombe, Cirencester, Tetbury or Wotton-under-Edge, well-supplied with wool merchants' imposing churches and welcoming pubs, cosy stores and fine old market halls.

Bookworms Make Hay Hay on Wye is a bookworm's heaven nestled in the verdant valleys where England meets Wales. Even the town's crumbling medieval castle has been turned into one of thirty or more bookstores. And as one might expect in a community with such scholarly aspirations, Hay-on-Wye recently became the twin town of Timbuktu, that ancient but impoverished centre of learning in sub-Saharan Africa... Further north along the Welsh border lies St Deiniol's, the private library of the magnificently eccentric nineteenth-century polymath Sir William Gladstone and today, arguably, Britain's finest residential library. St Deiniol's offers a rarefied but congenial retreat for the true booklover, within easy reach of the mountains, castles and coastline of North Wales.

Ring in the New Edinburgh's New Town remains arguably Britain's finest surviving example of Georgian town planning and architecture. Two centuries on, the austere terraced townhouses and the luxuriant private parks wear a comfortable patina. Worlds away from the tenements and 'wynds' of the Old Town, these are the streets, the bars and cafes inhabited by the casts of characters created by Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin.

"For many years I wanted to capture the very particular romance of living in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful and entrancing cities of the world," writes McCall Smith in the forward to one of his 44 Scotland Street novels, which first appeared as a daily serial, appearing daily in the pages of The Scotsman newspaper.

Gentlemen, start your engines! The vessel docks, you're waved out into the daylight, clattering ashore onto virgin territory... western Scotland provides many an opportunity for intrepid road journeys, whether clattering up out of a ship's hold and onto the narrow, winding roads of a Hebridean island, or weaving between the crags of Glen Coe and out across the windswept heathland. There are gentler pleasures too, perhaps watching the ducks at leisure in the placid shallows of Loch Lomond, or of inspecting the priceless porcelain and silver conserved in many a Highland castle.

Glasgow's wee secret The BBC's long-running Taggart crime series shows only too well how bleak Glasgow looks on a bad day, when bitter winds sweep past the Strathclyde Police HQ. An unlikely cultural capital, Glasgow's unashamedly Victorian streetscape provides the setting for an assemblage of fine galleries and museums. Enjoy a cuppa or a plate of 'haggis, neeps and tatties' at the Willow Tea Rooms (locals claim that Glasgow invented the tea room) designed by Art Deco pioneer and local golden boy, Charles Rennie Mackintosh a century ago.

Secrets of London's East End Foodies and fashionistas delight at the Old Spitalfields Market, but pass up 'Banglatown' in the over-hyped Brick Lane for more authentic kebabs or curries in the back streets of Whitechapel. Where else could a synagogue rub shoulders, quite literally, with one of the city's largest mosques?

Castles in the Air Britain’s tumultuous history is enshrined in stone, inscribed across the battlements of castles across the realm. It finds expression in battlements and towers, in once-impassable moats, now just grassy ditches, but equally in the elegant drapes and furniture of drawing rooms refurbished in more peaceful times.

But I couldn't possibly leave my silver... their valuables are equally precious to them, Virginia, and that's why house-swapping works wonders for most of those who give it a go. How else could you afford three months in a central London apartment?

Cambridge: the soaring Gothic tracery of King's College Chapel; a timeless image of an ethereal England far removed from the twenty-first century. As one commentator put it, “the city of Cambridge… lies like a cat in a basket, its back curled against the comfortable curve of the river… occasionally stretching indolently on the lawn

Cornish pasty. Some call it 'a beautiful frame around a plain picture'. Indeed, the charm of Cornwall, mainland Britain's smallest and least robust vestige of Celtic ways, derives not from the wintry moors but from the endless variations on a theme of absurdly picturesque coastal villages, tucked into sheltered bays.

Docklands Devilry: Where better to start exploring London’s past than the banks of the Thames, for centuries the main artery of the greatest mercantile city the world had ever known? Dozens of pubs once crowded into seamy Wapping, east of Tower Bridge. Best-known is the Prospect of Whitby, formerly the Devil’s Tavern, which has hosted Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens at its pewter-topped bar.

Exploring English markets... In London it's Brixton for African and Caribbean groceries, Borough and Spitalfields for gourmet produce... and the centuries-old weekly markets in towns like Salisbury, St Albans and Hertford, all across England. The big wholesale markets have shifted to the outskirts of London, but the English still enjoy shopping the old-fashioned way.

Eyam, the Plague Village When Catherine Mompesson remarked one fine evening, "How sweet the air smells", her husband George realised she would be dead within days. In August 1666 that sweet-smelling sensation was the first precipitous step towards a rapid but painful death from bubonic plague. Mompesson recognised only too well the hallmarks of the epidemic which had devastated Eyam, the Peak District village of which he was rector. Eyam's devastating losses - and the village's quiet heroism - have passed into history.

Fell, force, beck and dale Mountains in miniature and sixteen lakes: the Lake District's crags and valleys are England's closest approach to a wilderness, a landscape whose colours and textures reflect centuries of settlement. But there is nothing precious about the tortuous back roads and the vistas they afford of glacial lakes, bare-flanked ranges and snow-dusted summits; snug cottages and stone-walled meadows.  

Hertfordshire is a green enclave, a vestige of an agrarian England within an hour of London. The county town is a tangle of cobbled streets; Norman spires rise above the oaks and beeches bordering the centuries-old Hertford Commons. The valley of the River Lea is crisscrossed by several 19th century waterways along which gaily-painted barges still glide.

Hostelling in Britain Meet the British at their most idiosyncratic, for generations have grown up with hostelling and hearty country rambles. Places like Cwm Idwal on the edge of Snowdonia or Pwll Deri, a cottage above the Irish Sea, are all invitations to breathe in some raw, bracing British air.

If the English pub never transplanted well to the colonies, the mother country's version extends a genuine welcome to all ages and all social strata. In a climate so often uninviting, there's no better bolthole than a cosy nook inside a 'public house'. Many pubs, too, boast a long history, lending your pub crawl a worthy purpose.

If the ravens ever leave... the Tower will crumble and the Kingdom will fall. Charles II took the warning to heart and ever since, the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London - Beefeaters to you and I - have tended a flock of these villainous birds, each individually named and its wings clipped. Many centuries older than Big Ben or the Houses of Parliament, that magnificent jumble of turrets and battlements is much more than a notorious prison and showcase for the Crown Jewels.

London's Lesser-Known Gems In London you can always retreat to a gallery or museum you haven't seen before - and not just to keep warm and dry. Smaller galleries, often founded as private collections, shelter many of the world's greatest art treasures, the great masterpieces reproduced again and again in books or prints. Here are just a few of these gems.

London: Love It or Leave It Had a good weekend? Yeah, went to Paris / Prague / Pisa! Or was that Barcelona, Berlin or Bratislava? One of London's attractions is the ease of reaching almost anywhere else. The rise and rise of no-frills carriers like easyJet and Ryanair has brought dozens of European cities within reach for affordable weekends away. Here are some tips.

Lutyens' Legacy Sir Edwin Lutyens designed an imposing capital in India for the British Raj - and a circular playroom so that no child need ever be put in a corner. His fine country houses are still admired all over England.

Making The Cut With sawdust strewn across the floor and a well-worn timber chopping block in constant use, R. Hussey, Licensed Butcher and Game Dealer, in Wapping, just east of the Tower of London, is one of Englandís truly old-fashioned 'High Street' butchers. The store is so small that customers line up outside in the cold for their Scotch eggs, lamb chops, Cumberland or Lincolnshire sausages. How do Hussey and his ilk survive in the face of competition from supermarket chains?

Secret Welsh Rarebit Edward I of England created a chain of fortresses to subdue the restive Welsh. Even now, centuries later, whenever we call into a village store, enveloped in the lilting tones of the Welsh language, we feel we’re in another country. But they do share that English passion for privacy… finding a certain sea-front inn on the Llyn Peninsula becomes quite a challenge.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre reborn Southwark, south of the Thames, has always been a place apart, avoided by London’s more sober citizens; a crossroads and a staging point.  William Shakespeare worked with the Burbage brothers, who in 1598 shifted their purpose-built playhouse - London’s first - here from Shoreditch.  The reborn Globe is unmistakable - its thatched roof, whitewashed walls and circular profile resemble no other building in twentieth-century London

Snow falling on Scotland Sit out the squalls to catch the vistas of snowy crags rising above still lochs. Fishing craft rest at anchor on fine, crisp mornings; a watery sun warms the cold stone of 18th century dwellings. Join a Christmas house party at a secluded country house hotel… have you got what it takes to survive Hogmanay?

The path less taken Beyond Cambridge lie the windswept marshlands, the fens, of East Anglia, beyond them the Norfolk coast. Masterpieces of medieval architecture rise unexpectedly from the fields, towering above the rows of bowed poplars and elms. On the Norfolk coast beyond, centuries-old trading ports rub shoulders with starchy Victorian seaside towns.

Review or order any of the above stories by contacting Philip Game

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