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Flag of United KingdomThe United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an island group to the north of the continent of Europe. Britain, the largest island, includes the separate countries of England, Scotland to the north and Wales to the west. Smaller islands off the coast of Scotland include the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. Islands to the south are the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Isles, and the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Sark. To the west of Wales lies Ireland, divided into Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland or Ulster in the north. The Isle of Man lies between Northern Ireland and Britain.

London, on the River Thames, is the capital city. Important cities in England are Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool on the River Mersey, Manchester and Newcastle on the River Tyne. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland with Glasgow the second most important city. Cardiff is the capital of Wales, Swansea its second city and Belfast the capital of Northern Ireland.

The landscape is very varied. Scotland and Wales are mountainous with Ben Nevis (Scotland) the highest peak in the UK and Snowdon the highest peak in Wales. Although thousands of years of human activity have removed most of the original forests, Kielder Forest in Northumberland, the New Forest in Hampshire and others in Wales and Scotland are a substantial size.

The UK’s climate is temperate, in part because of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. In general the winters are more severe in the north and the weather more mild in the south.

Among the indigenous trees in Britain are the oak, holly, hawthorn, and pine. The mild climate and the ready availability of water support a wide variety of flowers and other plants.

The large wildlife of the islands has been killed off over the years, but many small animals remain: foxes, squirrels, rabbits, hares, badgers and otters. In some areas such as Richmond Park and the New Forest there are herds of deer; wild ponies are found in the New Forest and on Dartmoor. Seals are found off the coast particularly in the North Sea. Trout and salmon flourish in some of the less polluted rivers, where they have been encouraged for the sake of sport fishing.

Birdlife includes owls, blackbirds, sparrows, starlings, thrushes, pigeons, crows, grouse, seagulls, kingfishers, ducks, swans and puffins. The kestrel is the most common bird of prey, found even in central London; the golden eagle and the osprey are found only in the wildest areas of Scotland. Bird watching is a popular hobby in the UK.

There are many types of butterflies including the common blue, the large white, the red admiral, the tortoise shell and the swallowtail.

All the UK’s wildlife has suffered from human intervention: habitat destruction, pollution from industry, from vehicles and from sewage disposal, pesticide residues and, in some cases such as rabbits, foxes or birds of prey, from deliberate attempts at extermination. However, bodies such as the National Trust (founded in 1895 and the UK’s oldest conservation organisation) have led the way in habitat protection. The first Nature Reserve was established in 1895. Successes have included the reintroduction of the osprey.

Although very little remains of the domestic buildings of Britain’s prehistoric peoples, their graves, religious monuments and defensive structures can be seen throughout the islands.

Long barrows and chambered tombs, dated around 3000 BC were collective burial places. The round barrows which followed them in the second millennium BC were for individual burial. Stone circles such as those at Avebury, Stonehenge, and Callanish date from around the same time as the round barrows but are often built on earlier timber monuments. Causewayed camps, such as Windmill Hill date from the time of the long barrows. The hill forts of Cadbury Castle and Maiden Castle were built in the first millennium BC and lasted until the Roman invasion.

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The Romans brought with them a wholly different lifestyle and the architecture which supported it. Towns such as Canterbury, Colchester, Lincoln, London and York included public buildings such as basilicas (law courts), baths and theatres. The most famous example of Roman military architecture is Hadrian’s Wall, marking the frontier between Roman Britain and Scotland. The Roman Villa, generally a large and well-appointed building at the centre of a substantial estate was another major introduction to Britain. The largest, such as the “palace” at Fishbourne in West Sussex, had beautiful mosaic floors, their own bathhouses and central heating.

The “Dark Ages” after the decline of Roman Britain led eventually to a Christian Britain whose architectural remains include Celtic crosses and Saxon churches.

The Norman invasion brought a distinctive style of architecture seen in cathedrals such as Durham, Southwell and Winchester and in many castles such as Durham, London’s White Tower and Newcastle. In church architecture the Norman style developed during the Middle Ages, into Gothic, e.g, Lincoln Cathedral and then Perpendicular.

From the Tudor period the most significant building still remaining is Hampton Court Palace. Hardwick Hall, Longleat and Burghley House show how the wealthy and powerful were now, in more settled times, building great homes for themselves, rather than military strongholds and castles.

A major change came when James I commissioned Inigo Jones to build the Queens House in Greenwich. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought one of the greatest periods of English architecture, dominated by Sir Christopher Wren. The Great Fire of London in 1666 gave Wren enormous scope for new work of which the most famous is St Paul’s Cathedral.

During the Georgian period classical architectural styles became dominant. Landscaping became fashionable with Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton’s design for Chatsworth, Blenheim and Stowe among the finest. Bath is one of the best examples of Georgian urban design.

Of the great houses, Chiswick House, built for Lord Burlington who had been impressed by Palladio’s architecture during a visit to Italy, was particularly influential.

Victorian Britain saw completely new types of architecture: railway stations, town halls, factories and glass houses (Kew Gardens)

Two influential movements at the end of the Victorian age and in the early twentieth century were Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. Arts and Craft inspired by William Morris was a return to simplicity and is probably best known through the country houses of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Art Nouveau was more influential in Europe than the UK, but Glasgow’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a significant designer and architect in this style.

After the First World War one of the major influences on architecture was the Modern Movement. Its followers drew their inspiration from the USA and its skyscrapers and industrial buildings and, particularly, from Le Corbusier.

During the 1950s and 1960s much inner city housing was torn down in slum clearance programmes and replaced by high-rise tower blocks. These failed as family housing and many, in their turn, were pulled down in the eighties and nineties.

Current architecture is characterized by the dramatic shapes and structures made possible by modern materials and computerized structural design. Sir Richard Roger’s Lloyd’s Building and Sir Norman Foster’s Stanstead Airport and Air Force Museum are excellent examples.

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