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The different names of the several countries in the United Kingdom are a little bit confusing. People often talk about England or Great Britain, although they mean the United Kingdom. In fact, there is England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and the islands north-west of France.
Great Britain is the name of the island which includes England, Scotland and Wales, but does not include Northern Ireland. When we talk about the United Kingdom, we mean Great Britain and Northern Ireland. British Isles is the name that refers to all the islands off the North-West coast of the European continent: Great Britain, the whole of Ireland (Northern and Southern), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. But it is important to remember that Southern Ireland, called the Republic of Ireland or Eire, is completely independent.
England is already a huge topic to write about by itself, but writing about the whole United Kingdom in a limited amount of pages would definitely be impossible, so this report is just about England and the English.
2 Geographical notes
The United Kingdom (UK) is a very small country (244108km2), compared to others, but only 9 other countries have more inhabitants (55,9mio). London is the world´s seventh biggest city. The highest mountain is Ben Nevis, at 1342m, and you can find it in Scotland. The longest rivers are the Severn (354km) and the River Thames (346km). In the whole country the Greenwich Mean time (MET- 1 hour) is used.
3 England and the different races
England is probably a country with one of the largest mixtures of cultures and races in the world. For example, many people from Wales, Scotland and Ireland have settled in England; and Jews, Russians, Germans, and Poles have come to Britain during political changes in the rest of Europe. Before World War II, people came mostly from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In the 1950s, people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hong Kong were encouraged to come and work in Britain. Today, 2 million British people are of West Indian or Asian origin and you recognize that if you walk through London. Most of the small shops, like newsagents or food shops, are operated by Indians. Nowadays the policy is to encourage these communities to continue speaking their own languages as well as English. The children of immigrants are often taught their own languages in school, and there are special newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programmes for the Asian community. This latest wave of migration has of course caused problems. There is certainly racial tension and racial prejudice in Britain today. Foreigners are unemployed or just get low-paid jobs, however slowly, both sides are learning to accept their new neighbours and are starting to take over customs of other cultures. For example, the British are becoming more adventurous in their cooking and eating habits, and Chinese, Indian and Pakistani restaurants are very popular. Another example can be found on the music scene, where reggae music has become very influential.
England was a Roman Catholic country until 1534, when King Henry VIII decided to divorce his queen, Catherine of Aragon. The pope refused to allow this. Henry was so angry with the pope that he ended all contact between England and Rome, divorced Catherine of Aragon without the pope´s permission and married Anne Boleyn. After that, the Parliament named Henry head of the church of England. This was the beginning of the Anglican Church. Today there are not only Protestants, but different churches (denominations), such as the Roman Catholics (6 mio), Methodists (1,2 mio), Baptists and other smaller groups. Methodists and Baptists are particularly strong in Wales. Although there is complete religious freedom in Britain, there have been tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland recently. Britain's immigrants have also brought with them their own religions which they continue to practise. There are Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from the Indian subcontinent, Rastafarians from the West Indies and the largest group of Jews living in Europe.
5 The educational system
5.1 Nursery school (under 5 years)
Children do not have to go to school until they reach the age of five, but there is some free nursery school education before that age. However places in the public nursery schools are not available for all who would like them, because the places are usually given to families under special circumstances, for example, families with only one parent. Because of the small number of nursery schools, parents in many areas have formed playgroups where children under 5 years can go for a morning or afternoon a couple times a week.
5.2 Primary education (5 to 11 years)
Primary education takes place in infant schools (pupils aged from 5 to 7 years) and junior schools (from 8 to 11 years).
5.3 Private education (5 to 18 years)
Some parents choose to pay for private education, in spite of the existence of free state education. These schools are very expensive and they are attended by about 5 per cent of the school population.
5.4 Secondary education (11 to 16/18 years)
Secondary education was introduced in 1944. Indeed, children must go to school until they are 16 years old, and pupils may stay on for one or two more years if they wish. Secondary schools are usually much larger than primary schools and most children (80 per cent) go to a comprehensive school at the age of 11. These schools are not selective, which means pupils don´t have to pass an entrance exam there.
In every school in England it is tradition to wear a school uniform, which is usually a suit and tie for the boys and a skirt and blouse for girls. By the way, boys and girls often go to separated schools, which means there are separate schools divided by sex.
6 The political system
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. That means it´s a monarchy which has very little power and can only reign with support of the Parliament. Parliament consists of two chambers, known as the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament and the monarch have different roles in the government of the country, and they only meet together on symbolic occasions such as the coronation of a new monarch or the opening of Parliament. In reality, the House of Commons is the only one of the three which has true power. It is here that new bills are introduced and discussed. If the majority of the members are in favour of a bill, it goes to the House of Lords to be debated and finally to the monarch to be signed. Only then does it become law. Although a bill must be supported by all three bodies, the House of Lords only has limited power, and the monarchy has not refused to sign one since the modern political system began over 200 years ago.
The English play some different sports. For example, they like rugby. It´s one of the national sports, although they can only compete with New Zealand and Australia. Then there is cricket, a game similar to baseball. There is a patter, a thrower and some field players. The thrower tries to hit one of three poles behind the patter, who has to play defensively. Training matches for this sport last up to 5 (!) days. Polo is a sport of the richer, where the player sits on a horse and has to hit a ball with a "polo-stick" and score goals. We all know croquet, the nice game for the garden, but real fanatics are the English if the sport is soccer. The English soccer is one of the best and most exciting, and a lot of people go to the soccer grounds.
The English have festivals which are different than those we are used to For example, there is St. Valentine´s Day on the 14th of February. On this day people send cards to the ones they love or someone whom they have fallen in love with. People usually do not sign these cards and a lot of time is spent trying to guess who has sent them.
On the day before Ash Wednesday, called Pancake Day, the English traditionally eat a lot of pancakes.
On the 1st of May they have a maypole and they dance like we do.
On the 31st of October there is Halloween, which means "holy evening". Although it is a much more important festival in the United States than in Britain, it is celebrated by many people in the UK. It is particularly connected with witches and ghosts. At parties people dress up in strange costumes and cut horrible faces in potatoes and other vegetables and put a candle inside, which shines through the eyes. People may play difficult games, such as trying to eat an apple from a bucket of water without using their hands. In recent years children dressed in white sheets, knocked on doors and asked whether you would like a "trick" or a "treat". If you give them something nice, a "treat", they go away. However, if you don´t, they play a trick, such as spilling flour on your front doorstep.
The most important festival of the year is Christmas. The customs on this day are very similar to Christmas in Austria. The English have a Christmas tree and there are presents. Children leave a long sock or stocking at the end of their beds on Christmas Eve, hoping that Father Christmas will come through the chimney and bring some presents. Traditional food on this day is turkey, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake or a hot mince pie.
Food, both eating it and cooking it, is a favourite topic of conversation in Britain these days. Most people, men as well as women, are much more interested in food and cooking than they used to be. They see cooking as an art which makes life more enjoyable. Fundamentally there is breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner/ supper.
The traditional breakfast is cereal with milk and sugar, then fried bacon and eggs, or scrambled eggs on toast, or boiled eggs and toast, and finally toast and butter with marmalade or jam. Usually the English drink tea or coffee.
This may be a big meal with 2,3 or 4 courses: a starter, e.g., soup: then the main course,e.g., meat or fish and chips; then a pudding or dessert, e.g., apple pie and custard sauce; then perhaps cheese and biscuits. Lunch may also be a snack, e.g. some soup, a salad or some sandwiches.
The traditional tea is usually bread with butter and jam, scones, cakes and biscuits. Tea is drunk with milk or lemon and sometimes sugar.
9.4 Dinner/ Supper
Dinner is the big meal in the evening and it´s like a large lunch with 2,3 or 4 courses. People who eat a big meal at midday often have only a small meal in the evening. This is called supper, and there may be only one course, e.g. cauliflower cheese.
10 The character of the English
England is far away, but not only in distance. The English are completely different compared to continental Europeans. That the cars drive on the "wrong" side is just the begining and it is quite normal if you eat a pizza with chips on it and pour loads of vinegar all over this. Yes, it is true, the British have other, sometimes mysterious, customs.
In France you are impolite if you let a conversation drop, in England it is rash to keep it up. No one blames you for silence. Being modest is another huge difference between the English and the continental Europeans. An Englishman will say, "I have a little house"; when he invites you to stay with him you´ll discover that the little house is a place with three hundred bedrooms.
Those in England do not work too hard. They work rather slowly, with over-long strides. In the army they say, "Never refuse a job, never volunteer for one".
The English punctuality is more than a habit; it´s a vice. If you are invited for eight-thirty, that means eight-thirty in England and not eight-twenty-nine or eight-thirty-one. In France you would have to come around nine-fifteen.
11 Sights of London
The easiest way to travel around London is by bus or tube. These run from the center ot the city right into the countryside. If you travel by London Transport, you will recognize a strange thing - the English people queue up. They don´t push and just stay on their place in the queue. Moreover, the British are very polite and modest. If an English person wants to say that what he has done was excellent, he would say something like: "It was nothing really amazing, I should have done much better."
The Buckingham Palace is the main residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A famous ritual is the Changing of the Guards which takes place every day. Basically, the Guards are not allowed to move while they are on duty. The Horse Guards are stationed in Whitehall near Buckingham Palace.
Piccadilly Circus is a large roundabout with a spring in the middle. This is the place where the youngsters meet. At Piccadily Circus, there is Rock Circus, a museum which shows all famous rock and pop musicians of the past and present.
There are the Houses of Parliament (where Big Ben is inside) and where the government has its seat.
Most of the royal members married in Westminster Abbey, which is right next to the Houses of Parliament.
Everyone knows Madame Tussaud´s. It´s one of the most famous sights London has to offer. Every star has his/her own wax figure there.
There are amazing stories to tell about The Tower of London. In earlier times, the Tower was a prison and the Beefeaters were the warders.
There are many more sights to visit, like Covent Garden, London Dungeon, Royal Albert Hall, St. Paul's Cathedral, V&A Museum, the Museums of Natural History, Science, and London Transport Museum, Tate Gallery, Cabinet War Room , Tower Bridge, Victoria Station, Camden Market, Petticoat Lane Market, HMS Bellfast, ...