Arts

Britain has a colourful and important cultural history that stretches back centuries. While theatre and literature are at the forefront of these historic achievements - there have been few world-renowned British painters or composers - the UK's latter-day popular culture and conceptual art movements resonate throughout the world.

Literature

Travelling in the footsteps of storied English, Scottish or Welsh writers can be the highlight of any trip to Britain. Ambling through the cobbled streets of Canterbury recalls Chaucer's ribald comedy, while strolling in the Scottish glens should easily evoke the spirit of Robbie Burns. Spirits of a different variety should be sampled in the pubs of Wales, some of which inspired the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

For most lit lovers, a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is a must. Not only is this the historic hometown of Western literature's greatest playwright, it's also the world centre of Shakespeare performance and the home of the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company.

Shakespeare is also a big part of London life, with seasonal performances of the Bard's work at the Globe (pl63), an authentic recreation of an Elizabethan theatre-in-the-round. Look out for the blue plaques (www .blueplaque.com) on buildings throughout the city; along with other prominent British people, they show where legendary authors, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll, once resided.

Among the most telling of contemporary Scottish novels are the works of Irvine Welsh, whose Trainspotting and The Acid-House explore the underbelly of life north of the border. John King, his English counterpart, chronicles similar dark themes in uncompromising novels such as Skinheads and The Football Factory. Most contemporary British authors produce far more whimsical fare, with JK Rowling's Harry Potter series a world-leading publishing phenomena, and the works of Nick Hornby (High Fidelity and A Long Way Down) and Helen Field ing (Bridget Jones's Diary) speaking of the humorous side of everyday life.

Cinema & TV

While the BBC is perennially threatened by funding cuts and tabloid suggestions about how it should be run, it remains the world's finest public service broadcaster. While many complain about its bureaucracy, there's no denying its astonishing level of innovation and creativity. In TV comedy alone, its legendary gems have ranged from Monty Python's Flying Circus to The Office. Travellers should catch a few episodes of Little Britain, a rabidly successful BBC comedy populated by entertaining characters from all four corners of the country, including a certain Welsh village and its determinedly solo gay resident.

Britain's home-grown film industry moves through periods of ebb and flow, although most of its worldwide hits - including Love Actually, Shakespeare in Love and Bend it Like Beckham - occupy the heart-warming side of film narrative. For a whiff of originality try Vera Drake, Trainspotting, Shaun of the Dead or Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Music

British artists enjoy huge record sales around the world, with entertainment juggernauts like the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Paul McCartney routinely toppinglists of highest-grossing concert tours. Back home, the reality is much edgier. Although Coldplay is in danger of becoming ubiquitous, bands like Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and British Sea Power continue to attract the art school crowd, while talented youngsters like Sheffield's Arctic Monkeys can still burst on the scene as if they were born with 50 great songs ready to play. There's also a great depth of classical music performance in Britain, with several cities hosting their own renowned symphony orchestras.

Visual Arts

Britain's contribution to contemporary art has undergone a transformation in recent years, with new galleries and public art creating feverish debate in pubs and tabloid newspapers. While cities like Glasgow, Manchester and London house some of Europe's finest galleries, exciting new developments such as the capital's Tate Modern

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION...

With Hollywood relying on clever set construction to make its movies, filmmakers in Britain can simply step outside. From untouched rolling vistas and dark London streets to castles, cathedrals and villages that have remained unchanged for centuries, the country is a giant outdoor movie set waiting to happen. For visitors, this means the fun of identifying familiar or not-so-familiar backdrops from favourite movies.

Among recent epics, the latest version of Pride and Prejudice brought Keira Knightley to the windswept vistas and handsome country houses of Lincolnshire (p220), Derbyshire and the Peak District (p215), while the 2006 movie version of The Da Vinci Code scoured the country for historic sites. Among its real-life sets - some of them standing in for other locations named in the book -were Winchester Cathedral (p188), the National Gallery (p159) and the story's climatic Rosslyn Chapel in Edinburgh.

The Harry Potter movie series is the most prominent user of British locations. From train stations to suburban streets and even London Zoo, these films stretch across England, with the magical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry being comprised from interiors and exteriors at Gloucester Cathedral, Wiltshire's Lacock Abbey, Northumberland's Alnwick Castle and Oxford's Christ Church College (p206). The most popular site for visitors, though, is Hogsmead Station. Played in the movie by the charming Goathland Station (p225) on the North York Moors, it has barely changed since opening in 1865.

Not surprisingly, London remains England's movie location capital with hundreds of films shot in and around the city since directors first began yelling 'action' more than a century ago. Celebrated movies shot here include Elizabeth (Tower of London), Notting Hill (have a guess), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Staples Market and Borough Market), The Madness of King George (St Paul's Cathedral and Royal Naval College, Greenwich) and Shakespeare in Love (Marble Hill House and the Thames River near Barnes). Also check out 28 Days Later: it includes some incredibly eerie scenes of empty London streets.

(pi63) and Newcastle's Baltic (p228) have become dramatic and incredibly popular showcases for the most recent artistic movements.

Public art has also taken on a new role, with the Angel of the North - a giant metal sculpture known locally as the Gateshead Flasher - becoming a symbol of northern pride, while arguments over what should occupy an empty Trafalgar Square plinth show that artistic debate remains surprisingly strong. Britain's contemporary artists can always make the front pages of the tabloids, with guerrilla artist Banksy regularly stoking the fires of controversy by smuggling his works onto the walls of august galleries or depositing his installations in prominent public places.

ENVIRONMENT The Land

At less than 600 miles from north to south and under 300 miles at its widest point, Britain is roughly the same size as New Zealand or half the size of France. There's a huge array of landscapes, including the craggy Snowdonia mountains in northwest Wales (p271), the rolling Yorkshire Dales in England (p224) and the barren, windswept islands off western Scodand (p264).

Wildlife

Mosdy famous for being run over on roads, hedgehogs are commonly found throughout Britain, including in urban settings where they scavenge for food at night. Another night-time scavenger, although a far rarer sight, is the red fox. While deer occupy large estates, particularly in the north, you are much more likely to see a grey squirrel. This ubiquitous tree-hopper may look cute but it was originally an interloper from North America and has pushed the smaller, indigenous red squirrel closer to extinction.

While it might seem that pigeons dominate the skies, Britain's colourful and varied birdlife includes river-dwelling herons, coastal guillemots and the ever-popular red-breasted robin. In the wilds of Scodand, you may spot a golden eagle, Britain's largest bird of prey.

Environmental Issues

Farming methods adopted after WWII saw the swift demolition of much of Britain's archetypal patchwork landscape, replacing stone walls, ancient wetlands and centuries-old hedgerows with vast, open fields. These hedgerows - knotty shrubs and bushes that sheltered some of Britain's most vulnerable flowers, insects and small mammals - have almost disappeared in some regions, taking their rare flora and fauna with them.

While experiments with alternative energy have seen wind and solar farms emerging across the UK, there remains a not-in-my-backyard rejection from many communities to these developments, leading the government to seriously suggest a new generation of nuclear power plants to meet the nation's future energy requirements.

FOOD & DRINK

The words 'British' and 'cuisine' never used to be uttered in the same sentence without a nervous laugh or gagging reflex. Those days are long gone and there's now a rich variety of well-prepared regional dishes alongside an impressive array of cosmopolitan options, reflecting the nation's burgeoning ethnic diversity.

Staples & Specialities

While the rib-sticking breakfast fry-up has changed little over the years, Britain's other traditional dishes have been reinvented for foodies at some of the nation's finest restaurants. These newly revered dishes -still available in less gourmet fashion at pubs across the land - include fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, Sunday roast and ploughman's lunch: a salad heavily reliant on pickles, cheese and cold pies rather than fresh vegetables.

Most Brits have also embraced a huge variety of ethnic cuisines, with Chinese and Indian restaurants now more common than traditional English chippies. Indeed, curry from the Indian subcontinent is the most popular food in Britain, with cities like Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester vying to be the nation's curry capital.

Where to Eat & Drink

There's a good variety of eateries in most towns, with vegetarians catered for on many menus. Cities often have vegan and vegetarian-only restaurants if you prefer not to sit with the meat-eating crowd. While not every pub serves food, most provide inexpensive, filling meals. It's also the perfect opportunity to try some regional beers. If you've been raised on lager, a traditional bitter or ale is a bit of a shock - not as cold or as effervescent. Keep in mind that Scotland has introduced a nonsmoking ban in pubs and restaurants, with England and Wales set to introduce similar bans in 2007.

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