British Isles – Around the World from A to Z – B
British Isles – Around the World from A to Z – B
This week in our virtual tour Around the World from A to Z, the British Isles is featured. I have already written about Britain here, but in this article I will also include differences to look out for when driving in the British Isles as well as safety tips for pedestrians, safety tips for solo female travellers. I also highlight some features in my favourite region, plus share six ways you can travel sustainably in the British Isles.
The Needles Isle of Wight England
Photo via Pixabay.
So, let me introduce you to British Isles and give you a few insights
As you may or may not already know, I am a dual citizen, both British and Canadian. I was born in Great Britain. I am English and when I talk about my home country, I refer to England, but when asked where I’m from, I usually say I am from the UK (United Kingdom). Confused? To confuse you further…we also talk about the British Isles. But England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles are not one and the same.
England is in Great Britain along with Scotland in the north and Wales in the west. Great Britain is part of the United Kingdom. Great Britain is an island, while the United Kingdom is made up of both Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Let me help clear up some of the confusion (hopefully).
The British Isles
Sometimes confused with Great Britain or the United Kingdom, these three entities are, in fact, not the same. The British Isles is neither a country nor a single political state.
The British Isles is actually an archipelago made up of over 6,000 islands. In case you don’t know where it is…it is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, north of France, across the English Channel which separates it from mainland Europe.
Great Britain is the largest island in the British Isles archipelago and Ireland, or Éire in Gaelic, is the second largest. Other islands and groups of islands in the chain include Isle of Man, Isle of Anglesey, just off the coast of northwest Wales, the Outer Hebrides (including Lewis and Harris, Barra, and Grimsay), the Inner Hebrides (including the isles of Skye, Mull, and Iona), the Shetland Islands & the Channel Islands (including Jersey and Guernsey).
Great Britain is the largest island in the British Isles and is comprised of three countries: England to the south (where I’m from) the largest country of the three, Scotland to the north and Wales to the west of England.
Ireland is the second largest island in the British Isles and is located to the west of Great Britain. It is split between two countries, the Republic of Ireland which takes up the bulk of the island in the south (26 counties) and Northern Ireland (sometimes referred to as a country, province or region) in the northeast corner (6 counties).
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom (aka the UK, the U.K. or Britain) is an island nation and a sovereign state (a political entity) that not only includes the countries of England, Scotland and Wales but also Northern Ireland. The full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State for the UK.
Republic of Ireland
While Northern Ireland has been part of the UK since May 3, 1921, the Republic of Ireland is an independent sovereign state with its own parliamentary system. Similar to the USA, the head of state is the President of Ireland. When travelling between the two countries, there is no border control and you probably would not notice you were in a different country, until you stop to purchase something using cash.
Europe, European Union and Schengen Area
Although geographically located on the European continent, neither the United Kingdom nor the Republic of Ireland are members of Europe’s Schengen Area, an area of Europe made up of 26 member countries between which border checks have mostly been abolished.
Since Brexit, the United Kingdom is now no longer part of the European Economic Union, whereas the Republic of Ireland is still a member. The Republic of Ireland is also part of the European Currency Union, which means the currency is the Euro, whereas, in Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK, the currency is the pound sterling.
Still confused? Don’t worry…even I get confused!
Ye Dolphin pub in Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, England
Ye Dolphin is a traditional English pub very close to the sea on the east coast of England. Photo is by Michael Cummins Photography via Pixabay.
Driving in the British Isles
Not all roads in the British Isles look like the road pictured above. Whether you’re driving on a narrow road like this or on a busy motorway, the rules of the road vary slightly in both the UK and Ireland compared with those in Canada.
So, I thought I’d share some tips for Canadians planning to visit and drive in the British Isles when we can travel again. Following are just a few that I know from experience may be confusing for Canadians driving in Great Britain or Ireland. Please note: my experience is in Great Britain not Ireland.
- A reminder that they drive on the left in both Great Britain and Ireland, so you’ll be sitting on the right side of the car not the left.
- As a visitor from Canada, you can drive in the UK and Ireland for up to 12 months on your Canadian driving licence. However, if you did not pass your driving test in and have a driving licence for a vehicle with manual transition, you will only be able to rent an automatic car.
- The rules of the road in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are different than in Canada, so you may need to familiarize yourself with the rules of the road before you go. You can find them on the Highway Code website for the UK, here for Northern Ireland and here for the Republic of Ireland.
- There is no equivalent to turning right on red in the UK or Ireland. When turning left, you MUST wait for green unless it is a free-flowing, merging lane with or without a give way (yield) sign or otherwise indicated.
- On roundabouts, the traffic moves clockwise not counter-clockwise, so you enter the roundabout via the left side not the right, and you yield to traffic coming from the right. Some roundabouts have more than one lane. Unless otherwise indicated, the left lane is for for left turns (exits between 6 and 10 on a clock), the right lane is for right turns (exits roughly between 2 and 6 on a clock). Either lane or the centre lane can be used if you’re travelling straight ahead (roughly between 11 and 1 on a clock). If in doubt, follow the signs and lane markings for your route, but whatever you do, do not cross lanes once you are on the roundabout until you’re ready to exit but watch for traffic in the left land that may be travelling faster than you!
- You may come across a series of mini roundabouts. Don’t panic! Approach them slowly, yield to traffic already in the first roundabout and proceed with caution and follow the lane markings for your route.
- Some crosswalks (or crossings in Brit speak) may look completely different in the UK and Ireland. Instead of traffic lights, you may see a yellow flashing beacon at either side of the road with white stripes across the road. These are called zebra crossings and you must stop for pedestrians waiting to cross. Other crossings to look out for, some of which are similar to those in Canada (i.e. controlled by traffic lights), are Pelican crossings, Puffin Crossings, Toucan crossings (pedestrians and cyclists), Pegasus crossings (pedestrians and horses) and school crossings.
- Road markings are the opposite colour to those in Canada. White is used for centre lines while yellow is used on the side of the road to indicate no parking zones. Double yellow lines indicate no parking or stopping at any time!
- You must NOT park on a crossing or on the zig zag lines on either side of a crossing, and you must not stop on yellow cross-hatched intersections.
- Broken white lines at junctions (intersections) indicate that you must give way (yield) to traffic on the main road, but you do not need to stop if the main road is clear of traffic. However, solid white lines indicate that you must come to a complete stop before entering the road even if it is clear.
- Speed limits in the UK differ to those in Canada and road signs still use miles not kilometres (in the Republic of Ireland they are in kilometres). On most roads, the speed limit is higher than in Canada. However, in built up areas the default speed limit is slightly lower, at 30 mph (48 kmh) unless otherwise indicated. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a mini-bus, the speed is lower. Be sure to check the sticker on the vehicle.
Abbey Road, St John's Wood, in north west London
The zebra crossing on Abbey Road was made famous by the Beatles’ album by the same name. The Beatles were famously crossing over the road on the album cover. Photo via Pixabay.
Although you may not drive while visiting the UK or Ireland, you will be a pedestrian. Here are a few tips that I know to be different from those in Canada.
- In the UK and Ireland, they drive on the left side of the road. So when you are crossing the road, the traffic closest to you is coming from the right not the left. When crossing the road, follow the Green Cross Code. Before crossing, we were always taught to look left, look right, and look left again. But now with more vehicles on the roads you should look all around for moving traffic and look again before crossing.
- Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way at an intersection unless there is a zebra crossing or the pedestrian crossing light is on green. Instead, if there is no crossing, pedestrians must wait for a gap in the traffic before crossing and you must walk across the road as quickly as possible.
- If a car has stopped at the intersection and it’s safe to do so (i.e. no car is entering the intersection from the main road), you may cross, but it should be behind the stopped car not in front.
- Pedestirans DO have the right of way at a zebra crossing. However, for your own safety you should wait for traffic to come to a stop in both directions before crossing. If you wish to cross, wait at the side of the road by the zebra crossing to indicate your intention, and give drivers time to see you and stop before stepping onto the crossing.
- On busy and/or wide intersections, as well as at various points along a busy or wide road, you may see crossing islands between lanes travelling in different directions. You may cross to the island if the lane nearest you is clear (traffic will be coming from the right) and wait for the opposite lane to clear (traffic will be coming from the left) before crossing.
- Some roads, especially in rural areas, have no sidewalks, nor gravel shoulders like we have here in Canada. Some, like the ones in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, where I travel to frequently, may not even have grass verges. For your own safety, you MUST walk on the right side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, so you can see vehicles coming towards you and take evasive action if necessary.
- Pedestrians are NOT allowed to walk on motorways or the slipways to/from them unless in an emergency. You can recognize a motorway by the signs being blue not green. It is also not recommended to cross a dual carriage way as the traffic travels as fast as on a motorway. If you are walking and need to cross a motorway, you must find a pedestrian or road bridge or an underpass to do so.
Stunning coastline near Newquay, Cornwall
Photo via me 🙂
Where to go in the British Isles?
Well it really depends on what your interests are, how long you’re staying and what style of trip you’d like.
I have travelled extensively in Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales—but I have to admit, I have yet to visit Ireland (although it’s on my bucket list). I have a few favourite places – too many to list in this blog post, but you can discover a few here. Instead, I am going to highlight just one region that is my favourite and is ideal for anyone who likes to get outdoors in nature, who loves culture, history and heritage, and who loves to be by the ocean.
The region is South West England, which encompasses the seven counties of Cornwall (where my mum now lives), Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
I have visited and travelled through all seven counties at various times throughout my life. However, Cornwall is my absolute favourite but I am probably biased. I holidayed in England’s most southerly county throughout my formative years, and as an adult, my mum moved here a few years ago and I visit regularly for several weeks at a time and love it—no matter what time of year!
A coastal footpath (the South West Coast Path) runs the entire length of the southwest coastline (its the longest signposted footpath in England at 630 miles) starting in Minehead, Somerset on the north coast and ending in Poole, Dorset on the south coast.
The path meanders near cliff edges around coves, bays and rocky inlets, from where the ocean views are magnificent, it undulates up and down craggy cliff-sides (don’t worry, there are usually steps or curves to lessen the steepness of the path) and across beautiful golden sand beaches, one of which stretches for 2 miles, it crosses over wide river mouths and small streams, and passes through quaint fishing villages and bustling seaside towns.
The South West Coast Path is dotted with historical, cultural and industrial artifacts (the tin mines on the Cornwall and Devon Landscape are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site), prehistoric rock formations – (both natural and man-made) eroded by the ocean and wind over millennia, bird sanctuaries and nature reserves, and familiar filming locations of period TV dramas and various movies.
South West England is a haven for history and archaeology enthusiasts as well as nature lovers. You’ll find an abundance of National Trust sites (both natural landscapes and man-made structures) most of which are open to the public throughout the year.
For history and archaeology enthusiasts, the whole area abounds in centuries old cathedrals, castles and churches, museums and art galleries. You’ll find thatched cottages and farm hamlets, ancient stone circles, quoits, fougos, wells and forts, as well as other prehistoric archaeological remains and artifacts. In fact, Wiltshire, the county in which Stone Henge is located, has the most prehistoric monuments. You’ll also find industrial relics and engineering marvels from the areas more recent past, including tin mines built during the industrial revolution era.
For those that love the outdoors, you’ll find moorland heaths with wild horses and other wild animals, gorse bushes and fields of flowers, woodlands and forests, waterfalls, rivers and estuaries, and of course miles and miles of stunning coastline. You can also visit public gardens and parks, estate home gardens and botanical gardens with biomes that include plants from around the world.
The South West is also the filming location of many period dramas and movies and you’ll even find an open-air theatre on the cliff side near Penzance in Cornwall. And for those who like a little tipple, you’ll find craft beer brewers, cider makers and even vineyards and wineries and of course plenty of traditional pubs.
You can’t go wrong going to South West England, especially Cornwall, which is the warmest county in the British Isles due to its southerly location. However, the summer months are usually busy and more crowded due to the school holidays.
For me the best time to visit has always been May when the spring flowers are blooming on the coastal cliffs. Mid-September to mid-October is also a good time to avoid the crowds. You’ll need to pack clothing for all weathers (except snow) and wear layers when outdoors as the weather can range from very warm to bitterly cold (due to the offshore winds) these times of year.
Oh…I forgot to mention the food! Cornish pasties, cream teas and fish and chips made with freshly caught cod! Must eats while in Cornwall!
Eilean Donan Island, near Kyle of Lochalsh in the Highlands Scotland.
A restored 13th century castle sits on top of the island which is connected to the mainland by a footbridge. Photo via Pixabay.
Is it safe to visit the British Isles as a solo female traveller?
The British Isles are no less safe than anywhere else in Europe, & I would say from my own experience in Great Britain, it is a safe destination for a solo female traveller from Canada, especially since you speak the same lingo (albeit with a different accent).
Obviously, like most destinations, even Canada, there are areas that are unsafe for a lone woman, particularly densely populated urban areas, and I definitely would not advise you to walk anywhere alone at night (heck, I wouldn’t even walk alone at night in the village where I live).
However, most places are safe to travel solo during the day by car, public transport, by bike, and even on foot, but call a taxi (or hale an official Black Cab in London) at night.
I especially don’t recommend walking or cycling on narrow country lanes (alone or with a crowd) at night as it can be dangerous to do so. Not only are there no street lights but often there is no room for an approaching car to swerve if you’re in the road.
As with any destination, take the usual precautions when out and about, such as keeping an eye on your belongings and keeping jewellery and other valuables hidden from prying eyes, especially while travelling on the Tube in London, not posting your whereabouts on social media, avoiding unsavoury areas, and trying not to look like a lost tourist.
Always let someone you trust know where you’re going, especially if you’re hiking in the countryside or going out at night. Never leave your drink unattended in a pub or bar, don’t accept drinks from a stranger unless you see it being poured, and, if you use an Uber or similar service, send somebody the car and driver’s details before getting in, just to be on the safe side.
I provide more safety measures solo female travellers can take in this blog post.
Headland Hotel, Newquay, Cornwall, England
Pictured is the family-run Headland Hotel in Newquay, Cornwall, which is a Grade II listed building. The owners strive to reduce food miles using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients in their restaurants, to save energy by using hybrid equipment in their gym and an energy saving heating system, and to reduce waste by using paper saving initiatives. Photo via Pixabay.
6 Ways to travel sustainably in the British Isles
1. Stay sustainably.
Choose accommodations that use sustainable practices, such as using shampoo and conditioner dispensers instead of single use plastic bottles, that serve meals prepared with fresh, local ingredients, that Struve to reduce waste and that use energy saving equipment and heating systems.
Consider staying in family run bed & breakfasts and boutique hotels or even a heritage-listed building instead of international owned hotel chains.
Cemaes, Isle of Anglesey, Wales
Pictured is Cemaes, a fishing village on the north coast of Anglesey in Wales. Situated on Cemaes Bay, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is partly owned by the National Trust, it is the most northerly village in Wales. Photo via Unsplash.
2. Immerse yourself.
Instead of only visiting tourist hotspots in London and environs, visit off-the-beaten track destinations away from the city and immerse yourself in country life, living and activities.
Consider visiting small rural communities and small coastal ports and fishing villages (the coast is less than an hour away from London). Eat in family run restaurants or a country pub with a carvery.
Get out in nature and go hiking or biking in national parks, Royal parks, country parks and, depending on the time of year, go on a garden or farm tour.
Learn about the country’s past by visiting historical towns and villages, country estates and castles, cathedrals, churches and chapels (even if you can’t go inside), castle ruins, ancient monuments and prehistoric artifacts (not just Stone Henge).
Visit industrial heritage and archeological sites and discover how the British Isles led the industrial revolution.
Visit the UNESCO Word Heritage, the National Trust, British Heritage and the National Garden Scheme websites for ideas on where to go. (Or ask me to plan an itinerary for you!)
Canal boat in West Yorkshire, England
A canal boat is a relaxing way to see parts of the country you don’t get to see by road or rail. Photo via Pixabay.
3. Tour sustainably.
Whether travelling independently, on a self-guided tour or on an escorted tour, choose an itinerary that includes sustainable transportation routes, i.e. routes that include trains, boats and buses instead of routes that require you to rent a car or fly between destinations.
When visiting cities, use public transport where possible, such as the underground, trams, buses, light rail, boats and ferries.
The rail network is second to none with many routes leaving from London (likely your first port of call if you’re not travelling via Ireland). Trains are generally clean and safe, include food and beverage services, restrooms, and free wifi and private overnight cabins (on some routes). A rail journey can be a very relaxed way of getting from A-Z as well as seeing the British countryside.
Rail passes are available that allow you to travel by train on multiple days to multiple destinations without needing to purchase separate tickets, and costing less. You can choose to travel on consecutive days or, for more flexible travel, non-consecutive days, over a set period of time (e.g. 3-day, 7-day, 15-day or 30 day periods).
Some passes are regional so be sure to purchase the right pass if you plan to travel to different regions. Also, be sure to purchase before leaving Canada especially if visiting in high season. Some passes can ONLY be booked ahead and are sent to your home address to ensure you are a visitor not a resident. (PS: Did you know you can book 24 months in advance with cancellation up to 30 days prior to departure. Ask me how!)
Public buses are also an affordable way to travel and give you some degree of flexibility especially on short journeys. However they are slower than trains and may make frequent stops (which can be a bonus) if you’d prefer to hop-on and hop-off at specific points along the route.
You’ll find public buses connecting rural communities as well as coastal towns and villages which negate the need to rent a car and find and pay for parking (especially at busy times of year).
Consider a canal boat holiday for part of your stay and see parts of the country you wouldn’t be able to get to by car. Canal boats also include accommodation and because they go less than 4 miles an hour it’s a very relaxed way of enjoying the British countryside (and even urban landscapes).
Ribblehead Viaduct or Batty Moss Viaduct in the North Yorkshire Dales
Stay longer and discover hidden gems such as the Ribblehead Viaduct in Yorkshire. This photo is significant as it highlights some of England’s unique and stunning landscape, an industrial and engineering masterpiece and a sustainable way to travel. Photo via Pixabay.
4. Stay longer.
While most people travelling to the British Isles for the first time spend much of their vacation in London and its environs, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and other areas of England, such as the West Country, the Midlands, East Anglia, and the North, have much to offer too and they are all a train or bus ride away!
Consider extending your stay so you can tour more of the British Isles and immerse yourself in the different regions. By staying longer and experiencing more during the same vacation it will not only help the environment but also help the economy in smaller communities where you’ll spend your vacation dollars (or pounds)!
Below are some of the things you’ll discover by staying longer and touring further.
If you tour Great Britain and Ireland, you’ll find that we don’t all speak the same, and that there are numerous regional dialects and accents. In Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and in parts of southwestern England, some people even speak a different language, keeping their national heritage alive.
You’ll also discover a variety of regional cuisine, including neeps and tatties, grouse, black pudding, shortbread, scotch pie and, of course, haggis in Scotland; Welsh rarebit, barabrith, leek soup, Caerphilly cheese and Welsh cakes in Wales, Irish stew, soda bread, Barmbrack, coddle and boxty (pancake) in Ireland; as well as numerous regional foods from around different parts of England (too many for this post).
Of course, for those that like a tipple or two, you’ll find regional beers and ales, as well as regional spirits, and even home grown wine, as well as traditional cider (do not give it to kids)!
For nature lovers, photographers and outdoorsy peeps, the British Isles have a variety of rural landscapes for you to explore including hills and dales, moors and heathlands, mountains, lakes and lochs. There are chalk cliffs and escarpments, narrow winding gorges and wide valleys with meandering rivers to explore. At the coast you’ll find rugged cliffs, bays and coves, golden sand beaches (some that stretch for miles) and rocky pebble beaches. In the east you’ll find flat fens with dykes that seem to stretch for miles. And around the country you’ll come across waterfalls and babbling brooks, forests, woodlands and thickets.
Despite the notion that Britain is crowded you’ll also find plenty of undulating farmland framed by high hedgerows, ancient stone walls or lined with tress, often dotted with tors and other unusual rock formations or hummocks and ridges indicating archaeological remains lie below.
There is also an abundance of public foot paths, nature trails and rights of way that traverse all over the land, even through private property, so you can be far from the madding crowd and in your own carefree world (it’s probably one of the main things I miss from my homeland).
Howth Head Peninsula, Dublin, Ireland
Although never likely to be as crowded as Dublin itself, when you travel off-peak, you could find yourself enjoying beautiful spots like this all to yourself. Bliss! Photo via Pixabay.
5. Travel off-peak.
Travel in the off-season when the tourist hot spots are less crowded and prices are cheaper. While some local amenities and/or sites may be closed during the winter, many businesses in tourist areas stay open throughout the year and could benefit from off-peak visitors.
Not only will it be cheaper for you, you’ll benefit from not having to queue to get into popular sites, and you’ll often get a chance to chat with the owners/staff at your accommodations, in restaurants and small stores and learn about hidden gems and other local insights.
Consider travelling in mid-May when the weather is fairly mild, the spring flowers are in full bloom but local schools are not on holiday yet. By May the days are also starting to get fairly long so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.
Or travel in October when the autumn colours adorn the trees. The weather is usually cool and breezy (especially at the coast) but if you’re lucky you’ll have days with warm late summer weather scattered throughout your stay.
If you prefer warmer weather, early June before school is out and early September after the kids go back to school, are good times to visit. However tourist spots may still be somewhat crowded and accommodation prices higher.
If your interests lie in urban centres and indoor activities (such as visiting estate homes, museums, galleries, shopping) or culinary experiences in restaurants and pubs, winter can be a great time to visit and the establishments will appreciate the out-of-season business.
Even coastal cliff hikes and beach walks can be fun in winter as long as you don’t pick a stormy day to do so. (Been there, done that, just for the fun of it! 😂)
Whichever season you travel, you should book ahead as much as possible and if travelling in the winter, you may want to check to see what’s open and closed for the season, to avoid disappointment.
Loch Leven near Glencoe, in the Highlands of Scotland.
Photo via Pixabay.
6. Support local.
Instead of waiting to purchase souvenirs in the duty free stores at the airport before your flight home, support local businesses by collecting souvenirs from a variety of stores during your stay.
Souvenirs bought at places you visited will have more meaning and be more memorable and significant than souvenirs bought in a rush at the airport. They’ll serve as reminders of the locations you stayed, sites you visited and places you explored, and be reminiscent of enjoyable moments during your vacation.
Not only that, but the communities and store owners where you purchased them will benefit economically rather than the large conglomerates selling items at the airport. They’ll often also be cheaper!
Consider purchasing craft items that were made locally instead of mass marketed souvenirs. Not only do the stores where you purchase them benefit, but the local artisans will also benefit.
If you’re worried about space and weight in your suitcase while you’re travelling, consider donating items of clothing you probably won’t wear again to a local charity store. Or choose items that don’t take up a lot of space or that can fit inside something else. If it’s a breakable or can be damaged, carry it in your hand luggage and forgo the duty free bottle at the airport!
A landscape painting of an area you visited can be rolled up and placed inside a protective tube that doesn’t weigh too much. It’s a great way to be remember how beautiful the British Isles are and may even inspire you re-visit one day.