When I moved across the pond I wasn’t just moving to England. I was also taking up residence in Great Britain and the United Kingdom, not to mention the British Isles. Some of these might seem to be the same thing, but they’re not. Allow me to explain the difference, and along the way, share with you the main attractions.
Let’s begin with England. Add the countries of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and we have the United Kingdom. Subtract Northern Ireland and we’re left with Britain. Though they kind of like it when you add the ‘Great’, it isn’t absolutely necessary for this quick geography lesson.
Britain, in other words, is the big island to the right of Ireland — itself politically divided between Northern Ireland and the entirely independent Republic of Ireland.
The British Isles is the name for all the big and little islands grouped together here. There are over 6,000 of them. Granted most are tiny, inhabited only by birds having a rest, and the occasional lost tourist.
Though it would be nice to daydream about pulling up to one of the smaller islands in your rowboat and claiming it as your private kingdom, planting your flag and perhaps issuing your own stamps to send postcards to those poor unfortunates who don’t have their own cozy island, alas they all either belong to, or are under the protection of, one of the countries mentioned above.
England is perhaps synonymous with Britain because it is the largest, most populated, and most powerful of the countries that make up the UK. Top tip: never make the mistake of confusing Scotland with England.
A long time ago when the Romans ran Britain, they built a wall — Hadrian’s Wall, picturesque ruins of which still exist — to keep the Scottish, though they weren’t called that yet, on their side. These days the Scots, who as anyone who’s seen Braveheart knows have a historically grumpy relationship with their southern neighbour, might prefer that wall be repaired and fully staffed again.
There wasn’t a wall between England and Wales, just an earthwork called Offa’s Dyke, basically a glorified premillennial ditch built by an ancient king. That’s the first millennium, of course, not the one 1,000 years later with the Y2K bug everybody was so worried about.
What I like about Great Britain (I don’t get over to Ireland much) is that it’s not great at all, at least by one definition of that word. In fact, at 81,000 square miles, it’s kind of small for such a big player on the world stage: only the size of about two Ohios.
Yet there’s great diversity of landscape, from the fabled white cliffs of Dover on the southeast coast, to the turquoise lagoons in magical Cornwall on the southwest; the rocky coastal beauty of the Isle of Wight at the bottom, to the rugged rocky mountain majesty of Scotland up top, though the highest summit, at 4,400 feet, is modest by US standards.
Wales is its own land of enchantment, complete with an exotic looking language that can’t make up its mind if it wants to be too stingy with vowels or too generous.
We’ve got our own great lakes, the Lake District (Edward Tiffin was born in this neck of the woods); amber waves of grain in the breadbasket of Suffolk, not far from London; and more quaint villages scattered all over the land that you can shake a walking stick at.
There’s Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood used to redistribute wealth, Tintagel where King Arthur preferred round tables to those boring square ones, Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare rewrote the English language, Bronte country nestled in the Yorkshire moors, and seemingly endless meadows of sheep, cows, and the occasional lost-looking llama to keep your selfies company.
As for picturesque ruins, aside from old Roman walls where the grass is always greener on the other, possibly barbarian-filled, side, we specialise in fixer-upper castles and abbeys. We have a ready supply of people who like to dress up as kings, noble women, monks, archers, blacksmiths, etc., to populate them during the summer to make you feel at home when you visit, if for example your visit is scheduled for the Middle Ages.
To think, all this in the space of two Ohios. We’ve got buckeyes, too, though we call them conkers. You’re free to use that one if you ever get tired of being ‘The Buckeye State’.