A few days ago I discovered that there are now 30 people following this blog and I immediately felt guilty for not writing more regularly! Admittedly, I doubt that there are 30 people out there pining away and suffering for lack of my blogposts, but still, the fact remains that a small group of people have decided to follow my blog because they found what I had to say in previous posts interesting and I feel that, by not providing new material, I am somehow disappointing them.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of an informative and entertaining topic to write about (well, I did have one idea, but I know it will take a good deal of research and I don’t think I have time for it right now). In the meantime, I thought I would cheat a bit and use some previous material. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a presentation about UK Culture to a local primary school here in St John’s. I agreed and then spent the next couple of weeks agonising over designing a presentation that was both amusing and educational. Honest to God, I don’t know how teachers ever manage to plan lessons for five full days every week. My presentation was only an hour and I spent AGES on it! Anyway, I thought I would use some of the pictures from the powerpoint I made to firstly give a brief introduction to the UK (this post) and secondly to talk a little bit about famous London landmarks and their history (next post). I know that a lot of this might be fairly old hat to anyone who lives in the UK and/or has a good grasp of geography, but I promise I will try and write something original next time!
So first of all, here is a map of the UK. It is important to note that although Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the rest of Ireland is independent. The reasons for this are complicated and involve religion, colonialism and other difficult subjects which I won’t go into here.
I will now go round each of the four countries in turn and talk about an attraction or custom that is unique to that country. First, England. Capital: London. Patron Saint: George.
Here we can find Stonehenge – a famous prehistoric monument that also featured prominently in a children’s book called “Stig of the Dump”. I’ve never actually visited Stonehenge, so my own impressions of it have been gleaned almost entirely from this book and a couple of BBC documentaries!
There are numerous theories as to why the stones were positioned in that particular spot and in that particular formation – and probably even more theories about how the monument was constructed by prehistoric people who only had primitive stone tools to work with. The main origin theory involves the sun and its yearly cycle – the idea was that the standing stones would act as a sort of gigantic sundial, tracking the sun’s movements throughout the year and culminating with the summer solstice, which is why you will find groups of Druids and other New Age folk gathered there on Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big tourist attraction and VERY expensive to get in, but apparently there is a little-known road that takes you very close to the monument for free – or you can visit the other stone circle at Avebury, which is not only in better condition, but attracts much fewer tourists, due to being relatively unknown.
The next country is Scotland. Capital: Edinburgh. Patron Saint: Andrew.
I decided to stick rigidly to stereotypes for this one, using the picture below to illustrate the national costume AND the most famous Scottish musical instrument, the sound of which is supposedly the aural version of Marmite i.e. you either love it or hate it. The odd, bag-like thing hanging on the front of the kilt is called a sporran and is commonly made of animal fur or hair – this one is probably horsehair. It was used in olden times to carry coins or other small items – rather like a bumbag!
The third country is Wales. Capital: Cardiff. Patron Saint: David.
I couldn’t think of any national landmarks – at least, not any that would be particularly well known by many people outside Wales – so I decided to use a picture of a red kite. A few decades ago this bird was virtually extinct throughout much of the UK, apart from a small population in Wales. After an intense breeding program, the population has recovered and can now be found across the British Isles. A couple of places in Wales have red kite feeding stations where tourists can watch the birds guzzling down large amounts of meat and get a lot closer to them than is usually possible.
The Welsh language was also seriously endangered for a while, but now that the Welsh government has made it compulsory for every child who goes to school in Wales to learn Welsh until the age of 16, the language is unlikely to die out any time soon – although most Welsh people still use English as their primary language. Welsh is infamous for its impossible spelling and unusual sounds – “ll” being a prime example (it’s pronounced a bit like the English sound “cl”, but not really). One small town in Wales holds the distinction of having the longest place name in Europe. Take a look at the picture below (you can click on it to make it bigger) and see how far you get in pronouncing it!
The name literally means: “The Church of Mary in the Hollow of the White Hazel near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave”. For convenience, the name is often shortened to “Llanfairpwllgwyngyll”. If you want to learn how to pronounce it, have a listen to the audio clip below:
The fourth and last country that makes up the UK is Northern Ireland. Capital: Belfast. Patron Saint: Patrick.
I have to confess that apart from a vague knowledge of the religious “troubles” there, I know next to nothing about Northern Ireland, but I did remember that it has a very famous national landmark – the Giant’s Causeway.
This geological marvel is made up of around 40,000 mostly hexagonal columns of basalt, produced by a volcanic eruption and subsequent erosion over several million years. The Giant’s Causeway is a big tourist attraction and is now owned and managed by the National Trust. There is also a legend attached to the Causeway – the version I will relate below is taken from Wikipedia, but there are a couple of others (easily accessible via a quick Google search) that differ slightly from this one.
The Irish giant Finn MacCool* (awesome name!) was challenged to a duel by another giant called Benandonner, who lived in Scotland. Finn accepted the challenge and built a bridge across the sea so that Benandonner could cross over to Ireland and meet him in battle. However, when Benandonner began his journey across the water, Finn saw him coming and suddenly realised how massive the other giant was. Overcome with fear, he decided to hide so that he would not have to face his opponent. His wife (named Oonagh) disguised him as a baby and placed him in a cradle. When Benandonner arrived and saw the “baby”, he thought it was Finn’s son and understandably assuming that if the child was that size, the father must be even more enormous, he turned tail and fled, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not pursue him.
There are numerous plotholes in this story and neither of the main protagonists comes out of it well, but everybody loves a good legend, so I’ve included it anyway. It is interesting to note that there are similar basalt formations across the sea at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland – supposedly the other side of the Giant’s Causeway that Finn MacCool built.
Lastly, I will briefly mention the UK flags. You will notice that the flags of three out of the four UK countries are represented in the Union Flag (see pic below), but Wales has been left out. Possibly the people who created the flag felt that it had enough going on already without a large red dragon in the middle of it, but I personally feel they missed out on a good thing by not including it**.
And that concludes my brief introduction to the UK. As you can see, I kept it very short and tried to include as much amusement and interest as I could manage, seeing as the age of my original audience ranged from 7-11 and I didn’t want to inundate them with facts and figures that they would never remember! My next post will use the part of my presentation that I devoted to London landmarks and their history – it even has a cartoon episode!
*Fionn mac Cumhaill, in Irish.
**I mean, come on. This is much cooler, right?
(I just had a quick google and discovered that Wales isn’t represented on the Union Flag because it was originally counted as a principality rather than a kingdom like the other countries. Which means we’re missing out on having a dragon because of a minor technicality! To whom should I address my strongly worded letter??