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Quintessential England

Quintessential England

If you want to get a sense of contemporary English culture, and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. Here are a few highlights—things you can take part in with relative ease.

Pints and Pubs

Pop in for a pint at a pub to encounter what has been the center—literally the "public house"—of English social life for centuries. The basic pub recipe calls for a variety of beers on draft—dark creamy stouts like Guinness; bitter, including brews such as Tetley's and Bass; and lager, the blondest and blandest of the trio—a dartboard, oak paneling, and paisley carpets. Throw in a bunch of young suits in London, a generous dash of undergrads in places such as Oxford or Cambridge, and, in rural areas, a healthy helping of blokes around the television and ladies in the corner sipping their halves (half pints) and having a natter (gossip). In smaller pubs, listen in and enjoy the banter among the regulars—you may even be privy to the occasional barney (harmless argument). Join in if you care to, but remember not to take anything too seriously—a severe breach of pub etiquette. Make your visit soon: the encroachment of gastro-pubs (bar-restaurant hybrids) is just one of the forces challenging traditional pub culture.

Daily Rags

To blend in with the English, stash your smart phone and slide a newspaper under your arm. If you’re on the move, pick up free copies of the Evening Standard (in London) and Metro (in London and on local trains and buses in various other cities), or head for a park bench or café and lose yourself in one of the national dailies for insight into Britain's worldview. The ramifications of the Leveson Inquiry into the role and relationships of the media in 2012 rumble on in the press from the tabloid Sun, the biggest-selling daily (though there is discussion that the topless model on Page 3 might be dropped), to the i, the cheapest and shortest of the dailies, and the Sunday papers, such as the Observer and the more conservative Sunday Telegraph. For a more satirical view, the fortnightly Private Eye, with its hallmark cartoons and parodies, offers British wit at its best.

A Lovely Cuppa

For almost four centuries the English and tea have been immersed in a love affair passionate enough to survive revolutions, rations, tariffs, and lattes, but also soothing, as "putting the kettle on" heralds moments of quiet comfort in public places and in homes and offices across the nation. The ritual known as "afternoon tea" had its beginnings in the early 19th century, in the private chambers of the duchess of Bedford, where she and her "ladies of leisure" indulged in afternoons of pastries and fragrant blends. Department stores, hotels, and tearooms offer everything from simple tea and biscuits to shockingly overpriced spreads with sandwiches and cakes that would impress even the duchess herself. Some restaurants are now even offering a different tea with each course of the meal. But, if tea isn’t your cup of tea, coffee is fine too.

Sports Fever

Whoever says England isn’t an overtly religious country hasn’t considered the sports mania that’s descended here, and not merely because of the effects of the 2012 Olympic Games in London or Andy Murray winning Wimbledon in 2013. Whether water events (such as Henley, Cowes, and the Head of the River Race) or a land competition (the Grand National steeplechase, the Virgin Money London Marathon, a good football match), most bring people to the edge of their seats—or more often the living room couch. To partake in the rite, you'll need Pimm's (the drink for swank spectators of the Henley Royal Regatta) or beer (the drink for most everything else). You may experience the exhilaration yourself—which, you'll probably sense, is not for the love of a sport, but for the love of sport itself.

Updated: 2013-10-15

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