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Notes on Great Britain
Thoughts after crossing the world's third most populous island
Over the last two weeks I traveled across the island of Great Britain, from the west coast to the east coast, and from the north to the south. I also have no more finished blog posts saved up (I wrote a bunch before departing on my trip and scheduled them to publish automatically) and want to maintain my Monday-Thursday schedule, so the following random hodgepodge is the result. Back to economics-related content on Thursday.
There will forever be confusion over the difference between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. And for good reason, as it's a confusing system. The United Kingdom is a "country of countries", containing England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is an island on which England, Wales, and Scotland are located. England is the most populous country in the country of United Kingdom and is located on the island of Great Britain.
The United Kingdom is sometimes one entity, for example with the United Nations, where the United Kingdom has a seat. Other times the constituent countries of the United Kingdom are their own entities, as with FIFA and the World Cup, where England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each have their own teams.
In order to be even more confusing there are also remnants of the British Empire that are not officially part of the United Kingdom, or any other country, but are viewed as self-governing territories. This includes the widely visited Bermuda and Grand Cayman, and the much less widely visited South Georgia Island near Antarctica.
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I hope you're all taking notes. To sum up, Great Britain is an island that includes the countries of England, Wales, and Scotland. Those three countries along with a fourth country, Northern Ireland, make up the country of the United Kingdom. So what's it like to visit?
They take whisky to a different level in Scotland. Scotch Whisky is world-renowned, and there are over 140 distilleries in a country of under six million. Besides that, pubs all over the island have tremendous whisky lists. In one small pub on the island of Islay (pronounced EYE-lah), I counted nearly 1,000 different whiskies, some of them incredibly rare. There are tiny pubs throughout Scotland that have bottles that would sell for thousands on the open market. At the excellent Pot Still in Glasgow, the bartenders were like sommeliers but for whisky. You can tell them a region, flavor profile, and price point, and they will literally climb up ladders and pull hard-to-reach bottles for you to try. It was impressive.
Many of the distilleries do tastings and/or tours, and the range of tasting room aesthetics is hilarious. At Lagavulin, tastings are done in a basement storeroom with fluorescent lighting. Guests are surrounded by hundreds of whisky barrels filled with product yet to be bottled. An old Scotsman in nondescript clothes cracks jokes and leads the tasting. Guests sit on hard wooden chairs. At Macallan, tastings are done in a gigantic glass and steel hall that was built to impress. A woman stands next to a Bently and waits at the front gate to check in guests. A young man in a spiffy vest and tie leads the tasting. After which you can relax on soft couches and buy more from the bar. The experiences couldn't have been more different (I prefer the Lagavulin approach).
Edinburgh is a very cool city. The photos you see on Instagram don't need to be filtered or re-touched to make the old town look incredible. The only negative is that the word is out - Edinburgh is now packed, at least on summer weekends.
Travelers who are traveling to Great Britain should add York to their itinerary. Located about halfway between London and Edinburgh and on the main rail line, it makes for a great stopover. The Cathedral of York, known as the York Minster, is one of the most spectacular in all of Europe. The old town is well-preserved and chock full of pubs and restaurants that have been around for centuries.
York's history is fascinating. It was originally founded as a Roman army garrison and became one of the largest outposts in the Roman Empire. Constantine the Great was crowned Emporer of Rome near the current site of the York Minster. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was one of the most important cities in England, and to this day the Archbishop of York ranks second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. Walking along the city walls one can see the original Roman fortifications, remains of a 13th-century abbey destroyed during the English Reformation, and several medieval gates that are still standing.
Scotland and England are expensive. Sites that are free to visit in other countries, such as churches or colleges, often cost around $20. A train ride from Edinburgh to York, although fast and efficient, cost around $50. There aren't a lot of deals to be had.
The weather on Great Britain is absolutely beautiful. Based on 15 days on the island, I can confirm that it is generally around 60 degrees (freedom units), and is almost always sunny. Apparently, the locals like to tell everyone it's a rainy place to keep tourism down. Now you know the truth.