The first thing to remember about England is, of course, that it forms part of an island. It takes up just under two thirds of the island of Great Britain, the rest comprising Scotland and. It’s an oft-repeated but still helpful fact that nowhere in England is more than 75 miles from the sea; that said, some areas can feel very far inland. In simple terms, England’s geography is easy to describe; you can see it in terms of a division between a broad south-eastern core radiating out roughly from London, which is generally low-lying, fertile and easily traversable land, and the north and west, lumpier and bonier with uplands, hills and mountains dominating, intersected with strong rivers and characterfully-named valleys. All this is accentuated by major rivers like the Severn and Trent draining in alternate directions from the massy spine of the island and pointing out to sea.
That binary geographical division is too simple, of course. Within those two zones, there are a multiplicity of exceptions, contradictions and islands of unusualness; it wouldn’t be England if there weren’t. We might say the south-east is low-lying, but that varies between rolling low hills, gentle undulations and steppe-like flatness. Even within the flatness, there’s variety. No-one would confuse the flatness of Lincolnshire, its tall poplars spearing the sky, with the horizon-filled bleakness of parts of the Cambridgeshire fens or the pretty wetlands of the Norfolk Broads. Something else always overlaps and brings a different level of interest. There are plenty of ways to divide England up, down to County level and beyond, but we’ll try and look very broadly at the country’s regions:
London, the south-east and East Anglia
London remains the gravity well of England, exercising a huge influence on the surrounding region with its population of more than eight-and-a-half million and sprawling footprint. Well-sited for both land travel and waterborne trade, it was once the largest port in the world, though the inflow of goods now happens further down the broad Thames Estuary. The city is surrounded by the so-called Home Counties, a generally well-off region of green, rolling countryside and farmland interspersed with commuter and market towns. To the north east is the great bulge of East Anglia, a low-lying region that has traditionally provided much of England’s agricultural wealth and whose wool trade led to mediaeval prosperity for its northern centre, Norwich. There’s much variety within, from the serene waterways of the Norfolk broads, through the woods, heaths and flint houses of the Breckland down to the intricate muddy creeks of the Essex coast. Much has been altered through time, particularly the now-drained Fens, once the theatre for some extremely specialised ways of eking out a life in a broad expanse of marshes, islands and causeways. To the south of London are Kent and Sussex with their picturesque villages and the rolling hills of the Weald, and the close proximity of the Continent – France is easily visible on a clear day from Dover’s heights.
Wessex and the south-west
The counties of the Thames Valley and South-West that make up the ancient kingdom of Wessex again display a diversity of landscapes, but are dominated by green, undulating farmland, villages and mid-sized towns. There are some special landscapes within, often in close proximity. Gloucestershire is blessed with deep and impossibly verdant valleys and combes, where houses of warm yellow stone nestle, giving way to broad and (sometimes) sunlit uplands with breath-taking views; not far to the south is the more open landscape of Somerset with its massy tors and the tamed wetland of the Levels; to the east, Wiltshire has its hoarily ancient landscape of chalk and downs, littered with ancient barrows – a place that still feels like the beginning of everything. Further to the south are the counties of the Channel Coast, Hampshire and Dorset, rich in good harbours and from very early on places where both contacts overseas (as through two safe expanses of water at Poole and the Solent) and necessary defence (Roman forts, mediaeval castles, Victorian batteries) have left their mark. Here too there are distinctive landscapes, underpinned by the very ancient geology that has given the area the name ‘Jurassic Coast’ and left fine Purbeck Marble and Portland Stone beneath the heathery purple of the ‘isle’ of Purbeck.
Devon and Cornwall
On England’s south-west peninsula, the landscape continues the trend of getting wilder and hillier. More sparsely populated, it is a stunningly beautiful and evocative region of picture-perfect fishing villages hanging on hillsides at the mouths of the rivers than run down from the hilly interior, of romantically forlorn towers from the old tin mines hanging on the rocky coast like sea-birds and the wild and distant world of the Moors, ecologically and visually distinct from the rest of the country.
The Midlands and the Marches
The central mass of the country, roughly the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, has often been critical to its history, but generally without receiving much credit or wistful empathy. Providing much of the motive power for the Industrial Revolution that began here, it is still a region of great industrial (and post-industrial) cities and conurbations, but there’s also plenty of greenery, especially in the south and west. Indeed, in its western reaches, running up to the Severn valley, the country is increasingly idyllic, and some of England’s finest sites lie there in a landscape of alternating hills and valleys, with a high concentration of castles and fine reminders of mediaeval religious devotion.
The North of England has a rugged and hardy aspect, and you can easily feel it travelling through the Pennines, England’s stony spine, across the wild beauty of the Yorkshire Moors or the empty-feeling wild beauty of the Cheviots or Otterburn Ranges or down to the sheep-rearing country of the Hadrian’s Wall region with its rocky back, the Great Whin Sill, rearing out of the green earth; it’s there, too, in the stark and ancient beauty of the Lake District’s fells, the mining heritage and the Viking feel of so many of the place-names. But that’s not the whole story; again, there’s the overlap. Yorkshire has the Moors, but it also has the verdant richness and beauty of the Vale of York, once thick with Roman villas, and there are some truly magnificent mediaeval monasteries and cathedrals here, many of which looked outward and sent missionaries to Germany and Scandinavia, and produced some of the greatest art of the age. There are great country houses, wonders of industrial genius and beautiful gardens and villages, some of England’s finest modern sculpture and great museums and galleries.