Official name: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Area: 244,820 square kilometers (94,526 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Ben Nevis (1,343 meters/4,406 feet); on South Georgia Island, Mount Paget (2,934 meters/9,626 feet)
Lowest point on land: Fenland (4 meters/13 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern Hemisphere; divided between Eastern and Western Hemispheres
Time zone: Noon = noon GMT
Longest distances: 965 kilometers (600 miles) from north to south; 485 kilometers (300 miles) from east to west (Great Britain only)
Land boundaries: 360 kilometers (224 miles), all with Ireland
Coastline: 12,429 kilometers (7,723 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
The United Kingdom (U.K.) is located on the British Isles, an archipelago off the northwestern coast of Europe. The major islands in the British Isles are Great Britain (often simply called Britain) and Ireland; numerous smaller islands are found nearby. Only the northern part of Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, with the rest of the island comprising the Republic of Ireland. At 244,820 square kilometers (94,526 square miles), the United Kingdom occupies a slightly smaller area than the state of Oregon.
The United Kingdom has numerous overseas territories and dependencies scattered around the world. Dependencies in the Caribbean Sea include the British Virgin Islands (the eastern half of the Virgin Islands), Anguilla, Montserrat, and the Cayman Islands. The Turks and Caicos Islands, which also belong to the U.K., are located in the Atlantic Ocean at the southeastern end of the Bahamas. Other territories situated in the Atlantic are the archipelagos of Bermuda and Saint Helena. Further south in the Atlantic are the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), the largest of the United Kingdom's dependencies, as well as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Other dependencies include the Chagos Archipelago in the northern Indian Ocean; the Pitcairn Islands in the south central Pacific Ocean; and Gibraltar, south of Spain's Mediterranean coastline.
Several islands near Great Britain are crown dependencies; they belong to the country's royal family but are not technically part of the United Kingdom. They include the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and the Channel Islands in the English Channel.
Warmed by the North Atlantic Drift, the United Kingdom enjoys a temperate climate, with the temperature rarely exceeding 32°C (90°F) in the summer months or dropping below -10°C (14°F) in the winter. During the winter, mean monthly temperatures range from 3°C (37°F) to 5°C (41°F). Mean summertime temperatures range from 12°C to 16°C (54°F to 61°F). Rainfall is lightest along the eastern and southeastern coasts, and heaviest on the western and northern heights, where annual precipitation can exceed 380 centimeters (150 inches). Average annual rainfall across the country is just over 100 centimeters (40 inches), with rain distributed evenly throughout the year.
The United Kingdom has four primary regions: England (130,373 square kilometers/ 50,337 square miles), Wales (20,767 square kilometers/8,018 square miles), and Scotland (78,775 square kilometers/30,415 square miles), all on the island of Great Britain; and Northern Ireland (14,120 square kilometers/ 5,452 square miles), on the island of Ireland. Each has a distinctive topography.
England and Wales occupy the southern half of Great Britain. England is composed mostly of rolling hills. The highest elevations are found in the north. In the northwest, a region known as the Lake District includes a number of small lakes, and the terrain reaches higher elevations in a range known as the Cumbrian Mountains. In the north-central region, there are limestone hills known as the Pennine Chain. In the southwest, a peninsula with low plateaus and granite outcroppings makes up the region known as the West Country.
Wales is a rugged region with extensive tracts of high plateau. The Cambrian Mountains cover almost the entire area and include Wales's highest point, Mount Snowdon (1,085 meters/3,560 feet). There are also narrow coastal plains in the south and west and small lowland areas in the north.
Scotland, which occupies the northern half of Great Britain, is primarily mountainous. Its Highlands contain the highest peaks in the United Kingdom. South of the Highlands are the Central Lowlands, containing the valleys of the Tay, Forth, and Clyde Rivers. Beyond this are the Southern Uplands, with moorland cut by many valleys and rivers.
Northern Ireland consists mostly of low-lying plateaus and hills.
The United Kingdom is surrounded by water. The British Isles are bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the north and northwest and the North Sea on the east. The Irish Sea lies between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. South of Ireland and west of the southernmost tip of Great Britain is the Celtic Sea. Northwest of Great Britain is the Sea of the Hebrides. Beyond that sea and its islands are the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
About 200 kilometers (125 miles) off the coast of Dundee, Scotland, lies the Devil's Hole, a series of deep trenches in the North Sea that reach depths of 230 meters (760 feet). Britain has coldwater coral reefs at ocean depths of 200 to 1,000 meters (656 to 3,281 feet).
The English Channel lies along the southern coast of Great Britain, separating it from the European mainland. The narrowest point in the channel, known as the Strait of Dover, is 34 kilometers (21 miles) wide. The northern part of the Irish Sea, which separates Great Britain from Ireland, is known as the North Channel, while the southern part is called St. George's Channel. The narrow channel between the main island and the Isle of Wight is called the Solent. The Bristol Channel separates Cornwall in southeastern England from Wales.
By far the largest of the British Isles is the island of Great Britain (228,300 square kilometers/88,150 square miles), the largest island in Europe. Ireland is the second-largest isle. Several smaller archipelagos near Great Britain are part of the United Kingdom. The most extensive are the Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Orkney Islands are a smaller archipelago, located just north of Scotland. Much further north, in the North Sea, are the Shetland Islands. The Isles of Scilly lie at the other end of the country, off the southwest tip of England in the Celtic Sea. Besides these archipelagos, there are also many isolated islands, large and small, near Great Britain. These include the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, the Isle of Anglesey in the Irish Sea, and Arran, off the western coast of Scotland.
Dug between 1988 and 1991, the Channel Tunnel opened for use in 1994, at a final cost of $21 billion. At 50 kilometers (31 miles) long, it is among the longest tunnels on Earth; 38 kilometers (24 miles) of the tunnel are submerged beneath the English Channel.
The coasts of both Great Britain and Northern Ireland are very irregular, with many long peninsulas and deep bays, firths (estuaries), and inlets. The most even part of the nation's coastline is the eastern coast of England. Along the southeast coast, white chalk cliffs that rise to 250 meters (825 feet) border the Strait of Dover. Several short promontories, including Dungeness and Beachy Head, mark England's southern coast. The whole of southwestern England is a peninsula called Cornwall, which extends 120 kilometers (75 miles) west into the Atlantic.
The western coast of Wales curves around Cardigan Bay, at the east edge of St. George's Channel, with the Lleyn Peninsula at its northern end. The coastline features rugged cliffs, coves, and sandy beaches. Further east are Liverpool Bay and Morecambe Bay on England's northwestern coast. As the coast approaches Scotland, both in the west and the east, it becomes even more irregular than in the rest of the country. The broad Solway Firth marks the end of England's northwestern coast and the beginning of Scotland. It is separated from the North Channel by a long, narrow peninsula, ending in the Mull of Galloway. Further north are two more great firths, the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Lorn, with another long peninsula, Kintyre, between them. Further north on the western coast there are numerous narrower but still lengthy inlets. Cape Wrath marks the northwestern end of Great Britain.
The eastern coast of Scotland has two deep, broad, indentations, with a headland between them. Further south is the Firth of Forth. Along the eastern coast of Northern Ireland is a large sea inlet known as the Strangford Lough.
The largest lake in the United Kingdom is Lough Neagh (396 square kilometers/153 square miles), in the center of Northern Ireland. Southwest of Lough Neagh are the Upper and Lower Lough Erne, which extend across the country and into Ireland. Scotland is a region of many lakes; here they are called Lochs. Loch Lomond (70 square kilometers/ 27 square miles) is the largest lake in Great Britain. Loch Ness is famous for its legendary Loch Ness monster. There are no large lakes in England or Wales. On the northwest coast of England, however, near the border with Scotland, there is a region called the Lake District containing many small, picturesque lakes.
Rivers are plentiful throughout the United Kingdom, but most are short, as the sea is always nearby. The longest rivers are found in England and Wales. The Severn River is the longest in the nation (352 kilometers/220 miles). The Thames (322 kilometers/200 miles) is England's best-known river and the second-longest in the U.K., with more than forty locks. Other English and Welsh rivers include the Humber, Tees, Tyne, and Great Ouse in the east, and the Avon, Wye, Dee, and the Exe in the west. Scotland's river system is largely separate from that of England. The two major rivers of Scotland's central lowland are the River Clyde and the River Forth. Scotland's longest river, the River Tay (188 kilometers/ 117 miles), is farther north. Northern Ireland's major rivers are the Erne and the Foyle, which marks part of the border with Ireland.
There are no deserts in Great Britain.
Most of England consists of low plains and rolling downs (uplands), particularly in the south and the southeast, where the land does not rise higher than 305 meters (1,000 feet) at any point. Running from east to west on the Scottish border are a series of sandstone ridges known as the Cheviot Hills, and from north to south from the Scottish border to central England are the Pennines. South of the Pennines lie the Central Midlands, a plains region with low, rolling hills and fertile valleys. Southern England is the site of three ranges of low hills, the Cotswolds in the west and the North and South Downs in the east. The Rannock moor lies in the center of Scotland, at an elevation of 303 meters (1,000 feet). Foothills surround the mountains of Scotland and Wales. The majority of Northern Ireland consists of low plateaus and hills. In the east, small hills called drumlins surround the area of Strangford Lough.
The United Kingdom has no tall mountains by world standards, but there are many lower, rugged ranges. The Highlands of Scotland are dominated by the Grampian Mountains and their subsidiary mountain ranges. Ben Nevis (1,343 meters/4,406 feet), the highest peak in the United Kingdom, is in this region, and there are more than forty peaks that rise higher than 900 meters (3,000 feet). At the southern end of Scotland are the Southern Uplands, with summits of 838 meters (2,750 feet).
The Cumbrian Mountains are the highest mountains in England. They are located in the northwestern Lake District. Scafell Pike (978 meters /3,210 feet) is the highest peak in the range. Farther south, the Cambrian Mountains occupy most of Wales and house its highest peak, Mount Snowdon. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons are located in southern Wales.
Numerous caves of all sorts are distributed throughout Great Britain. Many are in limestone karst terrain in England and Wales. Sea caves are abundant in Scotland, including Fingal's Cave, which inspired a composition of the same name by the nineteenth-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The West Country of England, located on the southwestern Cornwall Peninsula, is the site of Exmoor and Dartmoor, low plateaus with granite projections. The Cairngorm Plateau in Scotland, located adjacent to the mountains of the same name, is a broad, barren desert-like region with an elevation of more than 1,220 meters (4,000 feet).
The Channel Tunnel is a set of tunnels underneath the Strait of Dover that connects southeastern England to northeastern France. An extensive series of canals in England links many of its southern rivers and cities. A canal runs across Scotland to connect the Clyde and the Forth, while the Caledonian Canal cuts across northwestern Scotland. There is also a canal connecting Lough Neagh with the Irish Sea. Great Britain's major bridges include the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol; the Humber Bridge in Yorkshire; the Forth rail bridge in Scotland; and London Bridge, the Tower Bridge, and the Millennium Bridge, all in London.
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Norwich, John Julius. England & Wales. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Scotland. New York: Knopf, 2001.
UK 2002: The Official Yearbook of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Norwich, U.K.: Stationery Office, 2001.
Lake District National Park Authority Online. http://www.lake-district.gov.uk/ (accessed April 24, 2003).
Visit Britain. http://www.visitbritain.com/ (accessed April 24, 2003).
Welcome to Scotland. http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/home/scotland/scotland.html (accessed April 24, 2003).