The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the UK) occupies most of the territory of the British Isles. It consists of four main parts: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. London is the capital of England, Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, Cardiff— of Wales and Belfast — of Northern Ireland. The UK is a small country with an area of some 244,100 square kilometres. It occupies only 0.2 per cent of the world’s land surface. It is washed by the Atlantic Ocean in the north-west, north and south-west and separated from Europe by the North Sea in the east and by the English Channel in the south. The Strait of Dover or Pas de Calais is the narrowest part of the Channel. The North Sea and the English Channel are often called “the narrow seas”; they are not deep but are frequently rough.
In the west the Irish Sea and the North Channel separate the UK from Ireland. The seas around Britain provide exceptionally good fishing grounds. The country has many bays favourable for shipping. In their shelter are Britain’s main ports such as London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and others.
One will not find very high mountains or large plains in Great Britain. Everything occupies very little place. Nature, it seems, has carefully adapted things to the size of the island itself. The highest mountain is Ben Nevis in Scotland, 4,406 feet high. The longest river is the Severn in England.
The population of the United Kingdom is over 57 million people. Foreigners often call British people “English”, but the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh do not consider themselves to be English. The English are Anglo-Saxon in origin, but the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are Celts, descendants of the ancient people, who crossed over from Europe centuries before the Norman Invasion. It was this people, whom the Germanic Angles and Saxons conquered in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. These Germanic conquerors gave England its name — “Angle” land. They were conquered in their turn by the Norman French, when William the Conqueror of Normandy landed near Hastings in 1066. It was from the union of Norman conquerors and the defeated Anglo-Saxons that the English people and the English language were born.
The official language of the United Kingdom is English. But in western Scotland some people still speak Gaelic and in northern and central parts of Wales people often speak Welsh.
The UK is a highly developed industrial country. It is known as one of the worlds largest producers and exporters of machinery, electronics» textile» aircraft, and navigation equipment. One of the chief industries of the country is shipbuilding.
The UK is a constitutional monarchy. In law, Head of the State is Queen. In practice, the country is ruled by the elected government with the Prime Minister at the head. The British Parliament consists of two chambers: the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
There are three main political parties in Great Britain: the Labour, the Conservative and the Liberal parties.
The flag of the United Kingdom, known as the Union Jack, is made up of three crosses. The big red cross is the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of England. The white cross is the cross of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. The red diagonal cross is the cross of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
Education in Britain
In England and Wales compulsory school begins at the age of five, but before that age children can go to a nursery school, also called play school. School is compulsory till the children are 16 years old.
In Primary School and First School children learn to read and write and the basis of arithmetic. In the higher classes of Primary School (or in Middle School) children learn geography, history, religion and, in some schools, a foreign language. Then children go to the Secondary School.
When students are 16 years old they may take an exam in various subjects in order to have a qualification. These qualifications can be either G.C.S.E. (General Certificate of Secondary Education) or “O level” (Ordinary level). After that students can either leave school and start working or continue their studies in the same school as before. If they continue, when they are 18, they have to take further examinations which are necessary for getting into university or college.
Some parents choose private schools for their children. They are very expensive but considered to provide a better education and good job opportunities.
In England there are 47 universities, including the Open University which teaches via TV and radio, about 400 colleges and institutes of higher education. The oldest universities in England are Oxford and Cambridge. Generally, universities award two kinds of degrees: the Bachelor’s degree and the Master’s degree.
There are eight public, or bank holidays in Great Britain, that is, days when banks and offices are closed. They are: Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Mayday, Spring Bank Holiday and Late Summer Bank Holiday. The observance of these days is no longer limited to banks. All the public holidays, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day observed on the 25 and 26 of December respectively, do not fall on the same day each year. Most of these holidays are of religious origin, though for the greater part of the population they have long lost they religious significance and are simply days on which people relax and make merry. Certain customs and traditions are associated with most bank holidays. The reason is that many of them are part of holiday seasons, like Easter and Christmas seasons. Besides public holidays, there are celebrations, festivals, and simply days, on which certain traditions are observed, but unless they fall on a Sunday, there are ordinary working days.
February, 14 is St. Valentine’s Day. It is a day for choosing sweethearts and exchanging love tokens. Generations of young people have considered St. Valentine to be the friend and patron of lovers and have sent gifts and hand-made valentines to their sweethearts. A valentine was a colourful card with a short verse composed by the sender. Now thousands of ready-made valentines are sent through the post every year.
Pancake Day is a popular name for Shrove Tuesday — the last day of enjoyment before the fasting of Lent. On this day Christians confessed their sins to a priest. Many people still traditionally eat pancakes. One of the main events of this day is the pancake race at Olney. The competitors in the race are local housewives who make their pancakes and run from the village square to the church.
The fourth Sunday in Lent is Mothering Sunday — a day of small family reunions. On this day absent sons and daughters return to the homes and make gifts to their mothers.
April, 1 is April Fool’s Day — the day when practical jokes are played* Any person may be made in April Fool between midnight and noon. Children are, of course, very keen supporters of the tradition. You can step in a basin of water, or receive a letter with a deceiving message. If you are young and innocent, you can be sent to fetch some non-existing thing, like pigeon’s milk.
Another popular British tradition is Halloween, celebrated on October, 31, the eve of All Saints9 Day. Halloween’s customs dated back to a time, when people believed in devils, witches and ghosts. They thought that they could do all kinds of damage to property. Some people tried to ward off the witches by painting magic signs or nailing a horseshoe. Today the day is marked by costume-balls or fancy-dress parties. On the night of Halloween children or grown-ups visit houses and ask the residents if they want ‘trick’ or ‘treat’. If the people in the house give children a ‘treat’ (money or sweets), then the children will not play trick on them. Another Halloween custom is to scrape out a pumpkin, cutting eyes, nose and mouth in its side and lighting a candle inside. This is made to scare the friends.
All manner of general and esoteric societies, institutions, museums and foundations can be found in England.
One of its more prestigious learned societies is the Royal Society (1660), which awards fellowships, medals and endowed lectureships based on scientific and technological achievements.
The British Museum contains a wealth of archaeological and ethnographic specimens. Its extensive library — containing ancient and medieval manuscripts and papyruses — was merged in 1973 with several other holdings to form the British Library, a centralised repository.
The Zoological Society of London maintains the London Zoo and also conducts research, publishes journals, and supports a large zoological library.
The Royal Botanic Gardens are significant both as a research institute and as one of England’s many places of great natural beauty.
There are also notable university libraries at the University of Cambridge and at the University of Oxford (the Bodlerian Library).
Art galleries abound in England.
The best known are based in London and include the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery (with superb collections of John Constable and the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Wallace Collection.
British Traditions and Customs
British nation is considered to be the most conservative in Europe. It is not a secret that every nation and every country has its own customs and traditions. In Great Britain people attach greater importance to traditions and customs than in other European countries. Englishmen are proud of their traditions and carefully keep them up. The best examples are their queen, money system, their weights and measures.
There are many customs and some of them are very old. There is, for example, the Marble Championship, where the British Champion is crowned; he wins a silver cup known among folk dancers as Morris Dancing. Morris Dancing is an event where people, worn in beautiful clothes with ribbons and bells, dance with handkerchiefs or big sticks in their hands, while traditional music- sounds.
Another example is the Boat Race, which takes place on the river Thames, often on Easter Sunday. A boat with a team from Oxford University and one with a team from Cambridge University hold a race.
British people think that the Grand National horse race is the most exciting horse race in the world. It takes place near Liverpool every year. Sometimes it happens the same day as the Boat Race takes place, sometimes a week later. Amateur riders as well as professional jockeys can participate. It is a very famous event.
There are many celebrations in May, especially in the countryside.
Halloween is a day on which many children dress up in unusual costumes. In fact, this holiday has a Celtic origin. The day was originally called All Halloween’s Eve, because it happens on October 31, the eve of all Saint’s Day. The name was later shortened to Halloween. The Celts celebrated the coming of New Year on that day.
Another tradition is the holiday called Bonfire Night.
On November 5,1605, a man called Guy Fawkes planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament where the king James 1st was to open Parliament on that day. But Guy Fawkes was unable to realize his plan and was caught and later, hanged. The British still remember that Guy Fawkes’ Night. It is another name for this holiday. This day one can see children with figures, made of sacks and straw and dressed in old clothes. On November 5th, children put their figures on the bonfire, burn them, and light their fireworks.
In the end of the year, there is the most famous New Year celebration. In London, many people go to Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve. There is singing and dancing at 12 o’clock on December 31st.
A popular Scottish event is the Edinburgh Festival of music and drama, which takes place every year. A truly Welsh event is the Eisteddfod, a national festival of traditional poetry and music, with a competition for the best new poem in Welsh.
If we look at English weights and measures, we can be convinced that the British are very conservative people. They do not use the internationally accepted measurements. They have conserved their old measures. There are nine essential measures. For general use, the smallest weight is one ounce, then 16 ounce is equal to a pound. Fourteen pounds is one stone.
The English always give people’s weight in pounds and stones. Liquids they measure in pints, quarts and gallons. There are two pints in a quart and four quarts or eight pints are in one gallon. For length, they have inches» foot, yards and miles.
If we have always been used to the metric system therefore the English monetary system could be found rather difficult for us. They have a pound sterling, which is divided into twenty shillings, half-crown is cost two shillings and sixpence, shilling is worth twelve pennies and one penny could be changed by two halfpennies.