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10 things you didn't know about the UK

Written by
Alec Curry

Inventors of champagne and stamps, lovers of golf and the equals sign, it's fair to say that the United Kingdom is one quirky place. In celebration of all things British thanks to this weekend's upcoming royal wedding, we have rounded up 10 things you might not know about this combination of nations.

1. Inventors of champagne

Controversially, in 1662, the British physicist and naturalist Christopher Merret was the first person to document the deliberate addition of sugar to wine, essentially creating the fizz we love today. Dom Perignon is commonly considered the first person to invent champagne, later in 1697. Either way, they both stumbled on a delicious

2. Largest library in the world

Although a small island, it is England that houses the world’s largest library with over 174 million books. The British Library in London’s King’s Cross area is a Grade 1 listed building thanks to its interesting architecture and unique collection. Among the fantastic selection is the world’s earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, dating from the Tanf dynasty in 868; two 1215 copies of the Magna Carta; and one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

3. Users of stamps

The United Kingdom was the first country to use postage stamps. Issued in May 1840, the first stamp was known as the Penny Black and featured the then-monarch, Queen Victoria. England is now the only country in the world that doesn’t have its name on its stamps, probably due to its history, and putting a postage stamp with the Queen’s image upside-down is considered an act of treason. Something you might want to give a miss next time you’re sending a postcard!

4. A nod to the Royal Wedding

Of course we had to include a fact relating to the Royals! Windsor Castle where Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle are due to marry today was built in 1080, making it the oldest royal residence in Britain. It also happens to be the largest royal home in the world.

5. The equals sign

What is the United Kingdom without Wales? There have been many great scientists hailing from the land of hills. One of them is renowned Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, from Pembrokeshire, who invented the “equal to” sign in his final mathematical text of 1557. If that wasn’t enough, he was also the first person to use the ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ sign (previously invented by a German mathematician) both of which are still in use today.

6. Overconsumption of gin

It’s no secret that the Brits love a drink (or three), but who would have thought laws had to be introduced to put a curb on it? Popularised by William of Orange in 1688 and providing an affordable alternative to brandy, gin became the go-to spirit with numerous distilleries opening around the country. By the early 1700s, this fragrant juniper drink had become so over-consumed, particularly by the poor, that it reached epidemic proportions. During this era, known as the Gin Craze, Parliament passed five Acts, in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747 and 1751, designed to control the consumption of gin.

Gin Tonic in a bar
7. Largest lake

Surprisingly, it is Northern Ireland, not Scotland or the Lake District, that houses the largest lake in Europe. At 151 square miles and 800 billion gallons, Lough Neagh supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s water supply. This beautiful lake is a protected area thanks to the wonderful array of wildlife and flora inhabiting the surrounds. Ancient Irish legend also says that an underwater city occupies Lough Neagh…

8. Bog snorkelling

Yes, that’s right… bog snorkelling. A sport undertaken in parts of Wales and Ireland, this event started out as a way to increase tourism to Waen Rhydd Bog, near Llanwrtyd Wells -Britain’s smallest tow. Now, it is a highly anticipated international event open to anyone aged over 14. The aim is to swim any stroke through the 60 foot channel but with your head fully submerged while wearing full snorkelling gear. Ready for the challenge?

9. Capital city

Believe it or not, London hasn’t always been England’s capital city. Steeped in history and dating back to 150BC, Winchester in the county of Hampshire was one of the first places for settlers in the UK. In 871, Alfred the Great established Winchester as the capital where it remained until the battle of Hastings. Following the defeat and a loss of wealth to the area, London then became the new main city.

10. Viking traditions

Up Helly Aa harks from an ancient Viking tradition and takes place on the island of Shetland in Scotland on the last Tuesday of January every year. Celebrating fire and the region’s rich heritage, this event is a great excuse for a wild party, often lasting 24 hours or more. Around 1000 participants dress in Viking costume and partake in a torchlight parade which culminates in the burning of a wooden long boat thrown into the sea. A wonderful spectacle to witness, this event really does celebrate the best of Scottish history.

Ready to explore the United Kingdom's quirky side? Get in touch with one of our travel designers today who can help create your perfect trip.

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A Luxury Discovery of the United Kingdom

For such a small island, Britain is incredibly diverse and the unique character of each region will come to life on this grand tour through some of the country’s most beautiful locations, starting in the capital city, London and ending in the rugged Highlands of Scotland.

On your first day in London you’ll head to the City of Westminster and the imposing Westminster Abbey for a private tour. With your guide you’ll walk up Whitehall past Downing Street to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. A second day in London will be devoted to the historic City, home to the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

To the west of London is the town Windsor, dominated by the imposing grey stone building of Windsor Castle. Through the Wiltshire countryside you’ll stop by Stonehenge, a UNESCO-listed site and one of the most important pre-historic remains in the United Kingdom.

In Bath you’ll discover how this elegant Georgian town came to be following the discovery of the hot springs by the Romans and the subsequent mediaeval settlement. Bath lies towards the southern tip of the beautiful Cotswold hills and as you head north you’ll discover some of the secret places that lie hidden in the heart of this popular region.

A day trip to Oxford will conclude your discovery of southern England and the next day you’ll head north to the wilder landscapes of the English Lake District. In the central Lakes you’ll explore the literary connections of the region and in the northern Lakes you’ll be welcomed onto a private estate by the lady of the house.

Heading north in Scotland, by way of Hadrian’s Wall and the more modern border, continue on to Edinburgh and explore Scotland’s cultural capital. Head east towards the coastal town of St. Andrews and spend a night in rural Perthshire before heading north towards the Highlands.

Pass through the Trossachs National Park and onto Glencoe, one of the most haunting and atmospheric landscapes in the Highlands. The West Coast region is one of Scotland’s most beautiful, with the deep blue of coastal lochs and inlets contrasting with the purples, oranges and browns of the glens, which change constantly throughout the seasons.

Visit one of Scotland’s most spiritual locations at Iona, a tiny island of the coast of neighbouring island Mull. On your return south-east back towards the central belt you’ll stop at the famous Loch Lomond before reaching Glasgow.

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Royal London and Downton Abbey

Embark on a journey through the world of Britain’s aristocracy on this unique trip that takes you from some of the finest properties in London to the beautiful countryside which doubled for villages in the television series Downton Abbey, and on to Windsor, home of one of the many residences of the Queen at the heart of Royal Berkshire.

You’ll spend three nights in London, visiting iconic sights such as Westminster Abbey with a private guide to help bring their history to life. Learn about the fascinating history of the Tower of London which has not only served as a prison but also houses the Crown Jewels. Then, a walking tour through the heart of Royal London will give you a window into the world of British pomp and ceremony as you take in sights like Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade and stroll through St James’s Park to see Buckingham Palace. You will also visit the British Royal Family’s residence Kensington Palace, where you’ll get to explore the beautiful gardens and enjoy afternoon tea in the Orangery. Speaking of which, this trip also includes afternoon tea with an etiquette expert at one of the city’s top venues during which you will learn about the history and etiquette involved in this English ritual. 

Equipped with the necessary manners, it’s off to the London of Downton Abbey. With connections to Lord and Lady Carnarvon, your guide is ideally placed to tell you all about the filming locations, as well as places in London that are connected to Downton Abbey’s era. From London, you’ll head west to Berkshire where a trip through the English countryside will lead you to Bampton, where many of the series’ village scenes were filmed.

This part of the country boasts one of the most beautiful Victorian castles in England, Highclere, the country seat of the Earl of Carnarvon. You will be welcomed into the Saloon for tea and homemade biscuits and then taken on an exclusive tour of the Main State Rooms and Castle bedrooms, as featured in Downton Abbey. Your next stop is the stately Windsor Castle, the Queen’s favourite home. Your guide will have plenty of stories to share about those who have lived there before.

The final stop on this journey is the Tudor masterpiece Hampton Court Palace where you will see Henry VIII’s vast kitchens and the beautifully manicured gardens.

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