To begin to get to grips with England, London is the place to start. Nowhere else in the country can match the scope and innovation of the metropolis, a colossal, frenetic city that’s going through a convulsion of improvements as it gears up to host the 2012 Olympics. It’s here that you’ll find England’s best spread of nightlife, cultural events, museums, galleries, pubs and restaurants. However, each of the other large cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool – makes its own claim for historic and cultural diversity, and you certainly won’t have a representative view of England’s cities if you venture no further than the capital. For the most part it’s in these regional centres that the most exciting architectural and social developments are taking place, though for many visitors they rank a long way behind ancient cities like Lincoln, Canterbury, York, Salisbury, Durham and Winchester – to name a few of those with the most celebrated of England’s cathedrals – or the university cities of Cambridge and Oxford, arguably the two most beautiful seats of learning in the world. Most beguiling of all, though, are the long-established villages of England, hundreds of which amount to nothing more than a pub, a shop, a gaggle of cottages and a farmhouse offering bed and breakfast. Devon, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and the Yorkshire Dales harbour some especially picturesque specimens, but every county can boast a decent showing of photogenic hamlets.
Evidence of England’s pedigree is scattered between its settlements as well. Wherever you’re based, you’re never more than a few miles from a majestic country house or ruined castle or monastery, and in many parts of the country you’ll come across the sites of civilizations that thrived here before England existed as a nation. In the southwest there are remnants of a Celtic culture that elsewhere was all but eradicated by the Romans, and from the south coast to the northern border you can find traces of prehistoric settlers, the most famous being the megalithic circles of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Then of course there’s the English countryside, an extraordinarily diverse terrain from which Constable, Turner, Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and a host of other native luminaries took inspiration. Most dramatic and best known are the moors and uplands – Exmoor, Dartmoor, the North York Moors and the Lake District – each of which has its over-visited spots, though a brisk walk will usually take you out of the throng. Quieter areas are tucked away in every corner of England, from the flat wetlands of the eastern Fens to the chalk downland of Sussex, the latter now protected as England’s newest national park. It’s a similar story on the coast, where the finest sands and most rugged cliffs have long been discovered, and sizeable resorts have grown to exploit many of the choicest locations. But again, if it’s peace you’re after, you can find it by heading for the exposed strands of Northumberland, the pebbly flat horizons of East Anglia or the crumbling headlands of Dorset.