The British Isles and landscape

The coastline of North Cornwall, a rocky part of the British landscapeThe topography of Britain is extraordinarily diverse.  It ranges from low-lying, flat, almost featureless, countryside through gentle heath, harsh, remote, moorland, rolling hills and mellow river valleys to reasonably impressive glaciated mountains cut through by bubbling, tumbling, streams.  Farmland is a neat patchwork quilt of peaceful fields, divided by hedges or, in upland areas, drystone walls.  There are cool pine forests and insect-busy sun-dappled broad-leaved woodlands.  The coastline is an assortment of treacherous mudflats and coastal wetlands, family-friendly sandy or shingle beaches backed by dunes or proud, sea-eroded, cliffs, and even rock-jagged fjord-like inlets.  It is a constant surprise that the landscape varies over surprisingly short distances.  I read a book by an American once (just the once), who wrote something like, “You have to remember that the UK is jolly small by our standards.  But there are significant geographical variations over relatively short distances.  It is a kind of microcosm.”  I like that.  The one constant, mostly, is the greenness of the countryside – though there are, you may observe, a seemingly infinite number of shades of green.  That said, parts of Britain, particularly the south and east, are prone to prolonged dry spells when the grass turns shades of khaki brown.

The British Isles is, of course, an archipelago.  It includes more than 6,000 islands, including the independent state of Ireland).  I like to imagine that someone took a boat out and counted them.  The definitive number depends on your definition of ‘island’.  Does a rocky outcrop lashed by the Atlantic and populated by a couple of scraggy gulls count?  Anyway, of that 6,000, a touch over 130 islands are permanently inhabited by more than 1 person.  These include the Shetlands, Orkneys and Western Isles off the coast of Scotland, Anglesey in North Wales, the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall, Portsea Island in Hampshire and the nearby Isle of Wight – and Canvey Island in Essex (famous for giving birth to Dr Feelgood).

The South Downs in Hampshire, near the village of East Meon, is a softer part of the British landscapeThe largest island in the group is the island of Britain itself, which is about 600 miles long and 300 wide at its widest point and contains the nations of England, Wales and Scotland.  Although Britain seems roomy enough when you’re in it, it is a relatively small piece of land.  France is more than twice as big as Britain, eleven US states are larger and the entire United Kingdom would fit neatly into Alaska seven times over.  Unlike Alaska, however, nowhere in Britain has been left untouched by man (apart from, possibly, the odd wave-lashed rocky outcrop).  Of course, the landscape has been shaped by wind, rain, ice and sea long before mankind started fiddling around with it.  Indeed, until about 8,000 years ago, Britain was not an island at all, but physically attached to continental Europe across what is now the North Sea, a submerged area known as Doggerland.  Mankind began settling permanently in Britain sometime around 10-12,000 BC.  He has tamed the landscape, assaulted it, exploited it and cared for it.  Within the last few centuries, he has covered it with cities, largely unplanned, and connected them by means of a haphazard network of dirty grey-brown roads and railways.  Britain should be universally ugly; yet it manages to offer up scenery of not only genuine loveliness, but also astonishing variety.

Britain contains no massively spectacular geographic features, such as the Alps or the Grand Canyon; it is all presented on a relatively modest scale. The great beasts that used to live on the island either gave up, or were hunted to extinction years ago.  Apart from the odd snake (and, in my experience, cows), there are few dangerous animals.  The closest place to wilderness is the Scottish Highlands – or possibly the Welsh mountains.  These parts of Britain, together with the English Lake District, the Pennines and other upland areas such as Dartmoor, can still be hazardous, even in the 21st century, especially for inexperienced, ill-equipped, people.  They offer an unpredictable kind of beauty, far from the softer, more tamed, lowlands.

Britain’s natural landscape can perhaps be best appreciated in its 15 National Parks, from the South Downs at the bottom of the map, to the Cairngorms at the top.  However, geography and history have ensured that each region and nation of Britain is noticeably, sometimes subtly, different.  Indeed, one of the things that makes our little island so special is that, historically, each region and nation developed its own unique character.  People say that these local identities are in the process of being overwhelmed by a bland uniformity of Britishness.  Look at the high streets, they say; same shops, same signs; similar buildings wherever you go.  Mass media encourages a sharing and, therefore inevitable blending, of cultures.  There is truth in this, but the differences are still there in the architecture (look above the shop fronts and in the older villages), accents, slang, place names – and even food.  The stories are different too – although as you get to know Britain better, you begin to see how many of these overlap regional and national borders, joining up to form part of a much larger tale.

Click or tap to learn about Britain’s National Parks.

Click or tap for an introduction to the different regions and nations of Britain.

Meanwhile, here’s a few pictures to keep you going. Click or tap an image for more information.

Thurne Mill in Norfolk - a low-lying part of the British landscape

Golden Cap on the Jurassic, coast, Dorset

Glenfinnan Memorial, Loch Shiel, the 45, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Stuart standard

Conwy Castle, Wales

A view of Derwent Water from the top of Cat Bells

The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle

HMS Victory, visit Portsmouth, Dockyard

Visit Worcester Cathedral

The Royal Exchange

Normanton Church, Rutland Water

%d bloggers like this: