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ENGLAND: Culture

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ACTIVITIES

England may be densely populated but it is also crisscrossed by footpaths and rights of way, which provide access to just about every nook and cranny of the country if you want to take a short stroll. The more energetic should tackle at least one long-distance walk. The best of the hikes include the South-West Coast Path around the dramatic shores of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset (up to 14 days); the picturesque Cotswold Way (five days); and the dramatic moorland and coastal scenery of the Cleveland Way (up to a week). Cycling is another great way to get off the beaten track and down some unexplored country lanes; the main roads are best avoided. The best beaches for swimming are in Devon and Cornwall; the best surf is on Cornwall's west coast, notably at Newquay.

London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won't know where the hell you are, at least the names will look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the city's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. Doing some travelling by bus helps fit the city together. Use your international England cellular phone rental to navigate this beautiful city.

Canterbury Cathedral

The most impressive and evocative, if not the most beautiful, cathedral in England is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of All England. Like most cathedrals, it evolved in stages and reflects a number of architectural styles, but the final result is one of the world's great buildings. The ghosts of saints, soldiers and pilgrims fill the hallowed air, and not even baying packs of French children can completely destroy the atmosphere. After the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, the cathedral became the centre of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in WWII and parts of the town have been insensitively rebuilt, but it still attracts flocks of tourists, just as it has for the past 800 years - though numbers may decrease now pilgrims are charged a US$5 fee to enter the cathedral.

Stonehenge

Five-thousand-year-old Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe, but it remains both a tantalising mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience. It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known about the site's purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not the site's religious significance but the tenacity of the people who brought some of the stones all the way from South Wales. It's estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch. The downside of Stonehenge is that it's fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes between new age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.

The Cotswolds

This limestone escarpment, 18 miles north-east of Bristol, overlooking the Severn Vale, is an upland region of stunningly pretty, gilded stone villages and remarkable views. Unfortunately, the soft, mellow stone and the picturesque Agatha Christie charm have resulted in some villages being overrun by coach tourists and commercialism. Renowned villages include Bibury (claimed to be the most beautiful village in England); the chocolate-box town of Bourton-on-the-Water; and the breathtakingly pretty Chipping Camden. The best way to explore the Cotswolds is to walk; the 100-mile Cotswold Way is a gem of a hike, full of history and interesting terrain that make the abundance of quaintness easier to swallow.

Oxford

Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, scholarship and bizarre high jinks. The views across the meadows to the city's golden spires are guaranteed to appear in three out of 10 English period dramas, but they manage to remain one of the most beautiful and inspiring of sights. Back in the real world, Oxford is not just the turf of toffs and boffs, it was a major car-manufacturing centre until the terminal decline of the British car industry and is now a thriving centre of service industries. The pick of the colleges are Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen, but nearly all the colleges are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition. Don't kid yourself, you wouldn't have studied any harder in such august surroundings.

York

This proud city attracts millions of visitors, but it's too old, too impressive and too convinced of its own importance to be overwhelmed by mere tourists. For nearly 2000 years it has been the capital of the north, and played a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. Its spectacular Gothic cathedral, medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of teashops and pubs make it a great city for ambling around. York Minster is the largest cathedral in Europe, and right up there with the world's great buildings. The city's Museum Gardens are amongs the most beautiful in Britain and include a number of picturesque ruins and buildings. Use your international mobile phone rental to locate these attractions.

Lake District

The most green and pleasant corner of a green and pleasant land, the landscapes of the Lake District are almost too perfect for their own good: 10 million visitors can't be wrong, but they can sure cause a few traffic jams. The area is a combination of luxuriant green dales, modest but precipitous mountains and multitudinous lakes. Each of the lakes has its own distinct character: wisdom holds that Ullswater, Grasmere and Windermere are the prettiest, but Wast Water, Crummock Water and Buttermere are equally spectacular and far less crowded. Be prepared to hike into the hills, or visit on weekdays out of season if you have any desire to emulate the bard and wander lonely as cloud.

Durham

Durham is the most dramatic cathedral city in Britain. It straddles a bluff surrounded on three sides by the River Wear and is dominated by the massive Norman cathedral which sits on a wooded promontory, looking more like a time-worn cliff than a house of worship. The cathedral may not be the most refined in the land, but no other British cathedral has the same impact. The cathedral shares the dramatic top of the bluff with a Norman castle and the University College, while the rest of the picturesque 'city' (population 38,000) huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.

 
 
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