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England's greatest artistic contributions have come in the fields of theatre, literature and architecture. The country is also, right or wrong, a treasure house of art and sculpture, from every age and continent. Most visitors are overwhelmed by the stately homes of the aristocracy, and England's fine collection of castles and cathedrals. Though motorways, high rise and tawdry suburban development characterize England's 20th century architectural heritage, modern architects like Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rodgers are creating dramatic and innovative structures like the Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and Lloyds of London building.
Anyone who has studied English literature at school will remember ploughing through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Morrissey, and painful though it might have been at the time, no-one can deny England's formidable contribution to the Western literary canon.
Perhaps England's greatest cultural export has been the English language, the current lingua franca of the international community. There are astonishing regional variations in accents, and it is not unusual to find those in southern England claiming to need an interpreter to speak to anyone living north of Oxford.
The majority of English who profess religious beliefs belong to the Church of England, which became independent of Rome in the 16th century. Other significant protestant churches include Methodist, Baptist and Salvation Army. One in 10 Britons consider themselves Catholic, and there are now over a million Muslims and sizeable Hindu, Jewish and Sikh populations. Despite this variety of religions, most English are fonder of their churches as architectural icons of grandeur and stability than as houses of religious piety.
Though England is not famous for the quality of its cuisine, London's recent renaissance in quality is spreading to the provinces. Travellers will find a remarkable variety of dining options from all over the world, though those on a budget should be wary of overdosing on fish 'n' chips, eggs 'n' bacon, and sausages 'n' mash.
England is the largest of the three political divisions within the island of Great Britain. Bound by Scotland to the north and Wales to the west, England is no more than 29km (18mi) from France across the narrowest part of the English Channel. Much of England is flat or low-lying. In the north is a range of limestone hills, known as the Pennines, to the west are the Cumbrian Mountains and the Lake District. South of the Pennines is the heavily-populated Midlands, and in the south-west peninsula, known as the West country, is a plateau with granite outcrops, good dairy farming and a rugged coastline. The rest of the country is known as the English Lowlands, a mixture of farmland, low hills, an industrial belt and the massive city of London.
England was once almost entirely covered with woodland, but tree cover is now the second lowest in Europe (after Ireland). Since early this century the government has been planting conifers to reverse this situation, but the pines have turned the soils around them acid and destroyed large areas of ancient peatland. Other common trees include oak, elm, chestnut, lime (not the citrus variety), ash and beech. Although there isn't much tall flora around, you'll see plenty of lovely wildflowers in spring - snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, primroses, buttercups and cowslips all lend a touch of colour to the English countryside. On the moors there are several varieties of flowering heathers.
The first-known inhabitants of England were small bands of hunters, but Stone Age immigrants arrived around 4000 BC and farmed the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, constructing the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who began arriving in 800 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages (the former is still spoken in Scotland, the latter in Wales).