Travel to the UK: 13 Common Misconceptions About the United Kingdom
1. Place names
When I first moved to England (mind my usage of words) I had lots of trouble with scroll-down country selection boxes. While most major websites and forums had "United Kingdom" available, for some the entry was missing and I could either find a distinct "England" one, or even in some cases "Britain" or "Great Britain".
So, for those confused, here's a comprehensive guide:
England is a country, basically William the Conqueror's kingdom, with numerous small subjugated kingdoms like York, Essex, Cornwall or Wessex. England's flag is white with a red cross.
Wales is another country, the peninsula-like little brother on the western side of England. In Wales, people speak both English and Welsh, and they are proud of their Celtic heritage.
Scotland is another country, situated to the north of England. Scottish people are proud of their de-centralized independence from London, have their own culture, traditions, language and an awesome accent when speaking English.
Britain or Great Britain is the large island where Wales, England and Scotland are located. Inhabitants of Great Britain are the Brits or Britons. However, most prefer to keep their own country's term, as in Welshman, Scotsman or Englishman.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, part of the isle of Ireland, but not part of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is mainly inhabited by protestant Irish and Scots that migrated to Northern Ireland during the 18th century
The United Kingdom was formed in 1707. It used to mean the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland", but ever since the Republic of Ireland left the union, it's only called the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
The British Isles include Great Britain and Little Britain, or Britain and Ireland along with over six smaller islands around the larger two.
The British Islands refer to the islands of the United Kingdom, meaning Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Bailiwick of Jersey, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, Alderney, Ham, Sark and the Isle of Man. "British Islands" is a legal term used in the United Kingdom.
Ireland means the island where part of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland are located.
The Republic of Ireland is the larger, Catholic part of Ireland which left the United Kingdom and is now independent.
2. The Weather
It's a common misconception that the United Kingdom has extremely bad weather with constant rainfall and fog. I left Hungary and arrived in Britain with two umbrellas packed in my suitcase, yet I used it less times than back home.
Thing is, the United Kingdom's rainfall is not at all special when it comes to countries with Oceanic climate. The UK is in fact only 70th on the rainfall toplist between countries, behind nations such as Switzerland, Norway, Albania, Japan, New Zealand or Iceland. In fact, there are 12 US states with more rain than the United Kingdom.
The fog misconception was well-in-place during the mid 20th century and the industrial revolution, Britain was in fact dark and misty from pollution. But switching to green and reducing emission led to London having lots of sunny and completely clear days all over the year (the only way I ever saw it out of three visits).
3. The language
I've heard and read many times about a stereotypical "British accent". However, no such thing exists. What most people perceive as the "British accent" is a southeastern one, only spoken by a fraction of the population.
The English spoken by the citizens of the United Kingdom is extremely diverse, with hundreds of regional accents having their own slang, vowel pronunciations, intonations and sentence structure. A Scouse accent may prove to be impossible to understand for someone with a West Country one.
4. Free healthcare
There's a widespread misconception about free healthcare in the UK, often referred to as "walking into a hospital, receiving medical care, then leaving". This is a huge misconception which rises from the fact that citizens do pay for healthcare, and they pay a lot.
The government provides more services to the citizens of the United Kingdom, and at the same time asks for more. Taxes are much higher than in the USA, with 20% income tax for those earning average income, 40% for the wealthy and 45% for the really rich. This is marginally greater than in the USA, which explains how the government can spend more on citizen health.
For a quick explanation, imagine paying for 15 doctor's visit in advance each year. If you get sick or have a condition that demands more visits, you benefit from the system. But most citizens will only visit the doctor 8-10 times at most, meaning that they "pay" more in the UK than they would in the USA.
It's a widespread misconception that British people are xenophobic and are completely hostile to those from the European continent as well as to Americans. In fact, everyday jokes and history supports the fact that the English are utterly hostile even to the other countries within the United Kingdom.
However, as I personally experienced, this is far from truth. Britain has been reaping the benefits of immigration for quite a while, and while a large group of citizens would prefer strict border controls to fight illegal migration, they usually have little problems with tourists or clean migrants.
In fact, my experience proved that they are open to foreigners and help them whenever possible, with hopes of learning about the life outside the island.
A lot of tourists expect medieval stone buildings in the United Kingdom, or the famous brick houses that were built during the industrial revolution. While terraced housing is a widespread thing, one seldom sees medieval townhouses outside UNESCO heritage areas.
There are lots of landmarks as well as castles, but the UK is not any special with them than the rest of Europe. The only thing remarkable in the UK is the amount of restored landmarks (especially castles) with the government's investment in tourism and the fact that unlike in many cities in Germany where WWII was too severe for original houses to be reconstructed, British towns were mostly rebuilt to reflect their original pictures.
So, if you visit the United Kingdom, you can expect lots of modern, recently constructed buildings especially for hotels and tourist centers, along with the ever-scattered historical landmarks. But don't expect to time-travel to a medieval world, especially if you aren't visiting Oxford, Cambridge or Durham.
Some people claim British food to be bland, however this arises from the fact that these people probably never tried the specialties. Visiting Britain, eating fish and chips and then proclaiming the food boring is the same as if someone visited France, ate only onion soup and then shouted out loud how boring the cuisine was.
Spending some time with exploration in the British cuisine highlights many different courses prepared from different meats, vegetables with all kinds of seasoning. The main reason for British food to be the opposite of bland is that it technically includes English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish cuisines. Lamb meet, beef steaks, puddings, all kinds of fish prepared... the only ever-recurring thing is potato.
8. Warm beer
British people don't like ice-cold beer, that's pretty much a fact. Yet they don't drink warm beer either, British pubs prefer serving beer on "cellar temperature" which is a lot colder than room temperature or the often referenced "pee".
Another widespread misconception is British people's consumption of tea. Tea time is an expression associated with a break from job where the British sit down to a table to read newspapers, eat cookies and sip tea. While this habit is observed by some, it's not at all widespread.
In fact, the misconception most likely arises from the fact that in many regional variations of the English language in Britain, dinner or supper is referred to as tea. So the next time your British friends tells you they'd take an hour's break to make and have tea, ask them whether they are eating their last course of the day. They probably are.
10. Expensive travel prices
Comparing American and British gasoline / petrol prices, it's easy to assume that travel costs at least three times as much in the United Kingdom as in the USA. However, there are two things to consider:
- Distances are smaller in the United Kingdom. In fact, you can drive from Scotland's Edinburgh to London in seven hours, the same amount of time it'd take to travel from Boston to Baltimore without leaving the BosWash agglomeration.
- Another thing to consider is the price of rail tickets. If bought in advance through the internet, they can marginally reduce travel costs and times. You could get from London to Edinburgh in four hours for around fifty pounds, which equals to around eighty dollars.
11. All Britons live in London, the only major city
There's a huge dissonance in population density within the United Kingdom, but it does not mean that all Britons live in the one-big-city of London. 84% of the British population lives in England, but only 16% of those living in England reside in the capital (which is remarkably large never the less, superseding the population of New York City in 2015 with 8.6 million inhabitants).
In fact, Manchester is only a bit smaller than Chicago and Glasgow in Scotland has the size of Dallas in Texas. Comparison is quite hard as British cities are made of multiple cities bound together, with "London" having a mere 70 000 inhabitants by definition, yet the scales show that the UK still bolsters some cities worthy to visit outside London.
And yes, as many Britons would say, London is neither equal to England or the United Kingdom. Some even refer to London as a distinct country.
12. Dressing posh
Some people think British are only ladies and gentlemen in the finest garments available to them, with all citizens running about in suits and blazers with the ladies wearing gowns and skirts.
While this may be true for London (the city of London, to be specific), the British way of dressing up is not at all different to the rest of Europe or the USA. In fact, British people tend to have a wide variety of clothes they can wear all around the year due to the small change in the mean temperature from summer to winter.
13. The Queen and the monarchy
A widespread misconception is that the Queen still possesses legislative powers in the United Kingdom, capable of overruling anything or re-instituting the monarchy anytime. This is quite false, while the Queen is an important figure in UK politics, her powers were reduced to nothing but a symbol, someone to sign certain papers and hold speeches.
The other misconception about the monarchy is that the British royal family is a nuisance to the nation with a lavish life that is paid for from taxes. While house Windsor does spend a lot on their living costs, all supplied by the parliament, a contract between King George III. and the parliament left the royal lends forever lent to the British government in exchange for the politicians paying the family's living.
Considering this and the current land prices along with the fact that the Queen is the world's largest landholder, as long as this contract is in place the parliament will never lose, only profit from the royal family. And of course, there's the hefty sum that the Queen's appearances bring in regards to tourism.
© 2015 Medvekoma