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England is looking forward into the new century while trying to forget many of the developments of the previous 100 years. That period witnessed the fall of the empire, the loss of the trading base and the nation's inability to adjust to a diminished role in the modern world - from colonial empire to member of the EC. But while the Family may have taken a right Royal battering, many of the other august institutions at the cornerstone of British life have muddled their way through with a stiff upper lip and a strong sense of protocol.
The notion of England as a gentle, fabled land freeze-framed sometime in the 1930s, when community life revolved around the post office, the country pub and the local vicarage. The country is now better known for vibrant cities with great nightlife and attractions, contrasted with green and pleasant countryside and national parks. After five years of Tony Blair's Labour government, 'new' Britain is a country with a fresh and cuddly Royal family and an alternative aristocracy of media stars like Victoria and David Beckham to capture the ire and adoration of the masses. Still, a country that gives a wig-wearing ex-junkie balladeer a knighthood must be doing something right.
Anyone who spends any extended period of time in England will sympathise with the locals' obsession with the weather, although in relative terms the climate is mild and the rainfall is not spectacular. The least hospitable months for visitors are November to February - it's cold and the days are short. March and October are marginal - there's more daylight but it can still be very cold. April to September are undoubtedly the best months, and this is, unsurprisingly, when most sights are open, and when most people visit. July and August are the busiest months, and best avoided if at all possible. The crowds on the coast, at the national parks, in London and popular towns like Oxford, Bath and York have to be seen to be believed.
For the sporty, the traditional Oxford/Cambridge University Boat Race is held in London on the River Thames in late March; the famous but gruelling Grand National steeplechase takes place at Aintree, Liverpool, on the first Saturday in April; the FA Cup final takes place in May; Lawn Tennis Championships, complete with strawberries & cream and tantrums by major players, take place at Wimbledon in late June; the champagne-quaffing set head for the Henley Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames also in June; and the Cowes Week yachting extravaganza pushes off on the Isle of Wight in late July.
Those uninterested in ball games and fast-moving animals should check out the Chelsea Flower Show at London's Royal Hospital in May; the Trooping of the Colour pageantry on the Queen's birthday in London in mid-June; the bacchanalian Glastonbury Festival music extravaganza which swamps Glastonbury's paddocks in June; and the riotous (in the best possible sense) Caribbean carnival in London's Notting Hill in late August.
Travellers' cheques are widely accepted in English banks and you might as well buy them in pounds to avoid changing currencies twice. Change bureaus in London frequently levy outrageous commissions and fees, so make sure you establish any deductions in advance. The bureaus at the international airports are exceptions to the rule, charging less than most banks and cashing sterling travellers' cheques for free. Cashpoints (ATMs) are very common in Britain: most are linked to major credit cards as well as the Cirrus, Maestro and Plus cash networks, but if a machine swallows your card it can be a nightmare. Most banks insist on chopping it in half and sending it back to your home branch - very helpful.
If you eat in an English restaurant you should leave a tip of at least 10% unless the service was unsatisfactory. Waiting staff are often paid derisory wages on the assumption that the money will be supplemented by tips. Some restaurants include a service charge on the bill, in which case a gratuity is unnecessary.