So you think British food is terrible and all the beer is warm?
If you are an English speaker, you probably walk around with a fair number wrong ideas about what to expect in the UK, picked up from stories and movies, gathered from British songs and absorbed from British legends.
You think you know the place. But the clichés are far from the whole story and you may know a good deal less about the UK than you think. Here's the truth behind some of the most common myths about the UK.
1. British Food is Bad, Bad, Bad
How wrong can you get?
After World War II, the UK lived in austerity. A whole generation grew up eating the "mend-and-make-do" equivalent of food that could be scrounged together on rations,not knowing what good food was all about.
But that really is ancient history. British people are much more discerning about what they eat and what's acceptable, even in the British equivalent of the boondocks. After all, cookery programs on UK television are so sexy people call them food porn.
London has as many excellent restaurants as New York and certainly more types of cuisines to sample than Paris. But wonderful food is not confined to the capital city. Michelin stars and AA Rosettes are liberally scattered around the country. And wherever you go, stick to unpretentious preparation of brilliant local ingredients and you are bound to dine well.
Try one of these:
2. All British Beer is Warm
While it's true that British beer drinkers don't really like ice cold, chilled beer, they don't like it warm either. Beer in pubs is kept at cellar temperature which is much cooler than normal room temperature. That's the best temperature at which to enjoy the subtleties of flavor and the brewers art. Lagers are served colder but if you really want ice cold beer, order a bottled lager which will be refrigerated.
It really is a matter of climate though. The British don't often enjoy iced drinks and the default serving of juice or Coke will be without ice - though you'll be asked and either given a few cubes or directed to an ice bucket to help yourself. Once you've been in the UK a while, you'll understand why this is so. Though not often freezing cold, the climate here is rarely hot enough to make chilled beverages appealing.
Find out more about British pubs and British Beers:
3. Everything Stops for Tea at 4 o'clock
Surprise! Lots of people like coffee. And time for a nice cup of tea, or "a nice cuppa" as we often say, could be any time. But except for Christmas, when there's all that cake to get rid of, nobody really has time for long and elaborate afternoon teas with sandwiches, cakes, cream cakes, scones with jam and cream and crumpets. And the sort of tea services you might see in a refined Agatha Christie murder mystery, are collecting dust in the top of a cupboard. On the Antiques Road Show, beautiful silver tea services of museum quality are regularly estimated at a fraction of what you'd expect, because no one uses them anymore.
But there is a silver lining to this disillusioning cloud. Because it is not an everyday event, a real afternoon cream tea has become a spectacular treat. Make time, during your visit, for at least one proper afternoon tea at a hotel or country tea shop. And while you are consuming mass quantities of cakes and cream and sweets and delicate sandwiches, wash it all down with milky tea. Yes, the British, for the most part, drink their tea with milk. Don't knock it till you've tried it. It's wonderful. And now for some rather special afternoon teas we've enjoyed:
4. All Welshmen Sing
Well maybe not all of them, but the Welsh certainly do like a rousing group sing-along. All male choirs and chorales are relatively common community activities in Wales. Welsh choirs can be counted upon to give heart to the national team before a Rugby match. It has to do with the resonant timbre of the Welsh male voice - think Antony Hopkins, the late Richard Burton and the ageless Tom Jones and you can see where I am going with this.
If you happen into a local pub after a big sporting event or a local festival, you might just encounter a group of boisterous men blending their voices. And unlike beery men the world over, you're more likely to encounter harmony than dissonnace in Wales.
If you'd rather listen to an all male Welsh choir in tamer surroundings, plan on visiting for the National Eisteddfod, a celebration of Welsh culture held every August in a different part of Wales.
5. It's Always Foggy in London
Not any more. Forget the romantic movies from the 1940s and 1950s that you may have seen on television. London's pea soup fogs were not caused by damp weather but air pollution. Millions of households burning soft, smoky coal for heat used to fill London's air with such a pall of soot that one nickname for the city was "The Smoke".
As early as 1306, King Edward I, tried to ban the burning of soft coal for fuel but it took about another 700 years of pollution before people came to their senses. In 1952, a historic pea-souper turned day into night in London for four days during which time 4,000 people died. It's estimated that another 8,000 people died from after effects of exposure to the sulphur dioxide rich smog in the following days.
In the 1956 Clean Air Act, burning anything but smokeless fuel - primarily anthracite coal - was banned once and for all in London. Within a few years the blackened facades of public buildings were cleaned, and London fog became a thing of the past.
To find out what the weather is like in London and the rest of the United Kingdom, have a look at my Climate and Weather Charts for England, Scotland and Wales.
6. Everyone Eats Huge Breakfasts
A complete full English Breakfast, as served in hotels and bed and breakfasts is pretty much the same all over the UK with some regional variations that make it a full Scottish, a full Irish or a full Welsh breakfast.
The classic includes eggs, bacon, sausages, sauteed whole mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, baked beans and toast. In parts of England you might be offered fried bread or a slice of black pudding. Move up to Scotland and they will include oatmeal (with a dash of salt)and some kind of fish - kippers or smoked haddock. Over in Wales, they are likely to include cockles and laverbread - a soft spinach-like vegetable of cooked seaweed. And over in Ireland they'll probably add potato farls with honey - a sort of bread made of leftover mashed potatoes and flour.
So does anybody really eat this way all the time? Don't be silly. The British say the same thing about American breakfasts and how many Americans do you know who eat giant waffles with whipped cream and strawberries every day?
People who do a lot of hard physical labor may have at least part of a full English every day, but most people save it for a weekend or vacation treat and are more likely to go out for one than in the past. And a lot of people will eat a fry-up (the other name we give it) it as a lazy weekend supper.
Here's a tip though - if you are on a tight budget and you are offered a full English breakfast included in the price of your room, eat up. You may not have to eat again until tomorrow morning.
Valerie France, our very fussy correspondent in the north, has some strong opinions about what constitutes a good English breakfast. See what she has to say.
7. Healthcare is Free for Everyone
Well, yes and no. Residents of the UK and some others, defined by a specific set of rules, do have totally free access to the National Health Service (NHS), though fees are charged for dental care - even on the National Health - and eyeglasses.
But, as a short term visitor, you'd only qualify for emergency treatment in the emergency room of a hospital (they call that Casualty or Accident&Emergency here), a GP's office or a walk-in center that offers Emergency Room type services. If, as a result of your emergency treatment, you are admitted to hospital, booked in for a follow up out-patient appointment, or given a prescription to fill, as a visitor you will have to pay, so don't leave home without medical insurance.
Access to the National Health is partly based on residence rather than citizenship. So even if you are British, if you live outside the UK for more than six months you could loose your access to the National Health.
8. The Queen Rules England
The Sovereign, whether King or Queen, is the symbolic head of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She represents its history and continuity, with few real powers. When a new Prime Minister is elected by the members of his party he visits the Queen and she formally "asks" him to form a government. It's only a sort of ritual though. The Tower of London would probably sink into the Thames if she ever decided to not ask.
The Queen has the power to appoint some high ranking clergy and to grant some honors - knighthoods and such - in her annual birthday honors list. But all of these appointments are with the advice and consent of her officials.
The real power of the Queen and also, increasingly, of Prince Charles, is a matter of behind the scenes influence. Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for sixty years and takes her role very seriously. She has known all the Prime Ministers, the MPs and power brokers throughout those sixty years, so most people assume she has built up a certain amount of wisdom and experience. No one knows what she discusses with the Prime Minister during their regular meetings, but it would not be surprising if various Prime Ministers have sought her advice and opinion.
Because there is no written constitution, the Queen's role is a matter of custom and any behind the scenes influence she wields can only be deployed subtly and with the utmost discretion.
Still, the Royal Family are a great tourist attraction and visitors love the spectacle of Royal occasions, palaces and castles.
9. Great Britain, The United Kingdom and England Are All the Same
Don't call a Scotsman or a Welshman "English" if you value your health. The complicated history of the British Isles has resulted in a complicated approach to its various names.
- Great Britain is an island occupied by three distinct countries - England, Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Wales have their own devolved governments.
- The United Kingdom is composed of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, in fact, its full official name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
- The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney,Sark, Herm and the Irish Sea Isle of Man are British and recognise the Queen as their symbolic head of state but they are neither part of Great Britain nor the United Kingdom and they are not members of the EU either.
- The British Isles have no offical status but are the customary way to refer to all of the islands round these parts, including Great Britain, the Channel Isles, The Isle of Man and, much to the chagrin of people in the Irish Republic, all of Ireland.
To be on the safe side, refer to the whole place, in coversation and in mailing addresses, as "The UK" and remember not to call a Scot an Englishman.
10. Travel is Always Expensive
Petrol (gasoline) is expensive and train travel, booked at the last minute, can be. But British trains, if booked well in advance, can be remarkably cheap and are Britain's great bargain. Recently, I traveled from London to Birmingham by train, a distance of about 120 miles. A travel agent offered me a full fare ticket that was about £180 for the round trip. But I had plenty of time so I went online, and through normal channels, bought an advance ticket for the same journey for £24. Anyone with a credit card can do the same thing, dealing with official rail companies on the internet from anywhere in the world.
If you can't bear the thought of giving up your spontenaeity to plan ahead, you could buy a Rail Pass before entering the UK. They are prepaid rail cards that offer unlimited train travel within a specified period of time. But be warned, you will usually pay a bit more than if you simply bought the tickets in advance.
Confused about how to do that? Not to worry, help is at hand: