The United Kingdom is a land full of history, culture, and a good dose of quirkiness. From the bizarre laws of old to the peculiar sporting events, we have lots to entertain.
As a lifelong Londoner and a UK road-tripper, I’m here to offer up some fun facts about the UK that’ll help any visitor understand our strange little island(s).
So here is a list, with not just the fact but an explanation of why we are the way we are. Some of these facts may appear on other lists, but I’ve also compiled some that aren’t so obvious to tourists.
1. UK vs Great Britain vs England
We tend to use the terms United Kindom and Great Britain as if they are the same thing, but they are actually slightly different. It’s important to the distinctions in the UK.
If you head up to Scotland and tell them how much you are enjoying England, they might get a little offended. Each part of the UK has a strong regional identity.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the overall sovereign state.
Great Britain is more of a geographical term – the name for the island made up of the countries of England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is on the island of Ireland, but separate from the Republic of Ireland which is its own sovereign state.
In the map above, Great Britain is made up of the red, blue and green sections. The UK is made up of the red, blue, green and yellow sections. The island of Ireland is grey and yellow, but Republic of Ireland in grey is its own country, separate from the UK with different currencies, passports and laws.
I live in London, which is in England, which is on the island of Great Britain, which is part of the United Kingdom. Any clearer?
2. Strange Place Names
We have some utterly comical place names, some of which are not particularly family-friendly. Perhaps you would like to visit the villages of Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter in Gloucestershire? Or Nether Wallop in Hampshire?
I’ll let you Google the ones with expletives in them – these are usually historical names that were in place before they became rude.
And of course, there is the famous Welsh village – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. No, I didn’t just fall head-first onto my keyboard.
3. The Knowledge
This is the exam that drivers must take to become an official London licensed black cab driver. It typically takes 3-4 years to pass the exams and requires the driver to learn thousands of streets in London so they can navigate the capital city without a map or sat-nav.
Unlike other newer cities, London is not on a grid. We have hundreds of one-way, narrow and twisting roads. To pass The Knowledge taxi drivers must demonstrate that they can navigate the shortest route between any two points in the city.
If you are visiting London and using a black cab – they know the city extremely well.
4. The Oldest Underground Railway
The world’s first underground railway is London’s Tube network. First opened in 1863, it has expanded and been upgraded significantly since then.
The most recent line to be added to the system is the Elizabeth line. It’s definitely the best one as it runs past the back of my flat all the way to Heathrow airport.
5. The Oldest Inhabited Castle
Windsor Castle is an official residence of the British Monarch and is the oldest castle that is still used as a residence after being built in 1070.
6. The Longest-reigning Queen
When Queen Elizabeth II died, she had reigned for more than 70 years. She didn’t quite break the record for the longest-reigning monarch, as Louis XIV of France became king when he was 4 and lived for another 72 years.
7. The Head Of State Cannot Enter Parliament
This isn’t actually a law, but a convention that dates back to the 1600s when King Charles I entered the House of Commons to arrest some MPs. Since then no British monarch has entered the House of Commons.
The State Opening of Parliament is done by the monarch in the House of Lords, not the Commons where the elected Members of Parliament sit.
8. Nobody Knows What The Most Famous Landmark Is For
Stonehenge is one of the UK’s most famous landmarks and a very popular UK destination. The site was originally created from wood and is older than the Pyramids of Giza. There are many theories, but no definitive answer for the purpose of this strange collection of rocks in Wiltshire.
For the adults only – for a funny video about Stonehenge, search for Stonehenge by Ylvis on Youtube. I’m not including the actual video here as it does have some naughty words, but I do find it very entertaining.
You can pay to visit Stonehenge, but you also get a pretty good view on the A303 road. It’s a busy road but all the traffic slows down anyway to get a good look – although if you are the driver obviously you shouldn’t take your eyes off the road…
9. Best National Animals
The symbolic eagle of America is no match for the UK equivalents. The national symbol of England is the lion. Wales has the dragon, as shown on its flag.
Best of all, the national animal of Scotland is… the unicorn!
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland hasn’t got an official national animal, but I think the Scottish unicorn makes up for it.
10. Bizarre Competitions
The UK hosts some bizarre events. The annual cheese rolling event in which competitors chase a wheel of cheese down Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire is a notable example.
The cheese rolling competition is fairly well-known now, but what about the World Peashooting Competition? Or the annual Ottery St Mary Tar Barrel competition in which people set fire to barrels and run down a street carrying them – a tradition so old that nobody knows why they started doing it in the 17th century.
The UK is good at weird.
11. There’s A Pub On The Biggest Military Vessel
Pubs are a significant part of British culture – the full term is Public House and these venues have historically been a social hub across the UK.
You might join in a pub quiz on a weekday (I love pub quizzes sooooo much!) You might go for a Sunday roast at a pub. Or simply pop in for a pint after work on a Friday with colleagues.
Pubs are so essential that in 2018 a pub was opened on the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s largest warship! A brewery created ales specifically for this floating pub, but unfortunately for most of the crew, it’s only available to officers and senior crew members.
12. The World’s Shortest Commerical Flight
The shortest commercial flight is between two Scottish islands. The flight between the Orkney islands of Westray to Papa Westray in Scotland takes around one minute and it is a daily scheduled flight operated by Loganair. The record for this 1.7 mile flight was just 53 seconds.
13. British Police Don’t Carry Guns
British police do not routinely carry guns. There are specially trained firearms officers, but if you see a police officer on the street often the only weapon they carry is a baton.
Some officers undergo additional training to carry tasers, but only a small number of officers go through the strict selection and training process to carry firearms.
Gun crime is relatively low in the UK, and if officers do have to fire at a suspect it is rare enough that it will make national news.
14. Making Tea In The Microwave is Sacrilege
Ok, I exaggerate somewhat. However, when a TikTok emerged of an American woman demonstrating how to make hot ‘British’ tea, we had a lot to say.
It was wrong on every single level, and we were collectively aghast at the errors. Tea is not made by putting water into a mug and heating it up. You do not then pour in a lot of milk, and briefly add a teabag for 20 seconds. The horror!
To be clear – you put a teabag in a mug (unless you are fancy and use loose-leaf tea). Boil a kettle and add hot water to the mug. Let it brew for 3-5 minutes, based on personal preference. Remove teabag. Add milk to make it your preferred shade of brown, and then sugar if desired.
If you choose to make your tea in a different way, that’s totally fine. But if you are using a microwave, it’s not the British way.
I say this mostly in jest, of course!
15. Mix and Match Units Of Measurement
We use what could politely be called a ‘hybrid’ system of imperial and metric units of measurement – but I think ‘bonkers’ is a more accurate description.
Milk and beer come in pints, but wine and water come in millilitres. People are weighed in pounds and stones, but food is weighed in grams. We buy fuel in litres but fuel efficiency is measured as miles per gallon. Speaking of which, a UK gallon is not the same size as a US gallon.
Why all these inconsistencies? Because we are British and contrary by nature.
The real answer is probably a mix of factors such as the historic use of imperial, but having to measure some things in metric to match European Union requirements (at least when we were still in the EU).
16. People From Northern Ireland Can Choose To Claim Irish Citizenship
People who are British citizens but were born in Northern Ireland can choose to become Irish citizens automatically. This means that they also have the choice for sporting events like the Olympics to represent either the UK or Ireland.
Personally, I also qualify for Irish citizenship as my mother was born and grew up in Ireland, but my chances of representing either country in any sporting competition are basically zero!
17. Quizzes With Wrong Answers Are Very Popular
Ah, the range of British TV panel shows. On the surface, these look like normal quizzes, but the panels are usually made up of a least a few comedians and the aim is for the show to be funny. Not necessarily to give the correct answers.
The show QI trips contestants into giving the obvious and commonly believed but actually incorrect answer. When the obvious answer is given, they are accompanied by klaxons, horns and lights as well as deducting points from the contestant. It’s common for a contestant’s answer to be a negative amount.
The political satire panel show Have I Got News For You usually gets a few funny wrong answers for each correct answer. Politicians and journalists appear on the show as well as comedians, and contestants are expected to make fun of themselves, as well as making fun of the government.
8 Out Of 10 Cats Meets Countdown is a quirky British show that combines an older serious quiz show about words and numbers with the new style panel show.
Generally, the point of these shows is to be entertaining, not for people to win, which is why there are no prizes. I encourage you to look up a few clips on YouTube – it’ll give you a good sense of British humour. And the video below is one of the best.
18. There Are Some Very Strange Laws
There are many comical laws in the UK that date back centuries and just haven’t been repealed.
The Salmon Act of 1986
The Salmon Act of 1986 made it illegal to ‘handle salmon in suspicious circumstances’. Although it sounds ridiculous, it doesn’t actually refer to things like walking around with salmon while wearing a fake moustache and looking a bit dodgy! It’s about receiving and disposing of fish that may have come from an illegal source, but the wording is still very silly.
Entering the Houses of Parliament
It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour. This law was put in place in 1313 when people actually wore suits of armour into battle, and it has never been repealed.
Being Drunk In Charge of a Cow
It is illegal to be drunk in charge of a cow. Thanks to the Licensing Act of 1872, you cannot be in charge of cattle, horses, carriages or steam engines when drunk.
Being Drunk In A Pub
It is illegal to be drunk in a pub – the Licensing Act of 1872 also makes it illegal to be in a public place, such as the pub in which you have been drinking.
Measuring The Economy With A Chocolate Frog
For many people, the term chocolate frog will evoke thoughts of the Harry Potter world. But if you mention a Freddo chocolate frog, it means something different to the Brits.
This chocolate bar in the shape of a frog was once just 5p, and an hour of work at minimum wage would allow you to buy 72 Freddos. The chocolate bar has since risen at a rate beyond inflation and is currently found between 25p and 30p depending on where you buy it from. These days, an hour on minimum wage will only buy you 42 Freddos.
Yes, we are talking about tiny numbers and chocolate, but ‘Freddonomics’ is sometimes used as a demonstration of how pay increases don’t always keep up with the inflation of food costs.
And it’s just one of those fairly benign things we like to moan about.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of facts and some insight into British culture. I’ll keep adding more as they occur to me!
Whether you’re planning your next trip to the UK or simply exploring from the comfort of your home, remember that there’s always more to learn and marvel at in this strange little corner of the world.