No one enjoys knocking England more than the English, but – modesty and self-deprecation aside – it’s a great place to visit or explore, and whether you’re a resident or tourist the country retains a boundless capacity to surprise, charm and excite. England has always had a history and heritage to be proud of, and a glorious regional diversity – from coast to hills, festivals to foodstuff – with few parallels. But for all the glories of the past, in recent times it’s had an injection of life that makes it as thrilling a destination as any in Europe.
As more and more people choose to holiday at home, it’s worth recalling just how much England has changed in the last two decades for locals and visitors alike. Who could have predicted city breaks and shopping sprees in Leeds and Bristol, or the all-conquering march of music and arts festivals, or that camping would become cool? Accommodation and food in particular, the two essentials on any trip, were once a lottery, with many English hotels and restaurants seemingly intent on removing hospitality from the hospitality industry. Not any more. In boutique B&Bs, designer hotels and yurt-festooned campsites, there’s an embarrassment of rich beds for the night, while an ever-expanding choice of real English food and drink – locally sourced and championed in cafés, restaurants and pubs, at food festivals and farmers’ markets – challenges every lazy stereotype.
The English also do heritage amazingly well. There are first-class museums all over the country (many of them free), while what’s left of England’s green and pleasant land is protected with great passion and skill. Indeed, ask an English person to define their country in terms of what’s worth seeing and you’re most likely to have your attention drawn to the golden rural past. The classic images are found in every brochure – the village green, the duckpond, the country lane and the farmyard. And it’s true that it’s impossible to overstate the bucolic attractions of the various English regions, from Cornwall to the Lake District, or the delights they provide – from walkers’ trails and prehistoric stone circles to traditional pubs and obscure festivals. But despite celebrating their rural heritage, the modern-day English have an ambivalent attitude towards “the countryside”. Farming today forms only a tiny proportion of the national income and there’s a real dislocation between the population of the burgeoning towns and suburbs and the small, struggling rural communities.
So perhaps the heart of England is found in its towns and cities instead? Many, it’s true, have a restless energy and a talent for reinvention. So for every person who wants to stand outside the gates of Buckingham Palace or visit the Houses of Parliament, there’s another who makes a beeline for the latest show at Tate Modern, the cityscape of downtown Manchester or the revitalized Newcastle waterfront. Yet this flowering of urban civic pride is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been steady since the Industrial Revolution, and industry – and the Empire it inspired – has provided a framework for much of what you’ll see as you travel around. Virtually every English town bears a mark of former wealth and power, whether it be a magnificent Gothic cathedral financed from a monarch’s treasury, a parish church funded by the tycoons of the medieval wool trade, or a triumphalist civic building raised on the back of the slave and sugar trades. In the south of England you’ll find old dockyards from which the navy patrolled the oceans, while in the north there are mills that employed entire town populations. England’s museums and galleries – several of them ranking among the world’s finest – are full of treasures trawled from its imperial conquests. And in their grandiose stuccoed terraces and wide esplanades, the old seaside resorts bear testimony to the heyday of English holiday towns, at one time as fashionable as any European spa.