The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Highland Britain. England

Category: Land + People

Britain has a great diversity of physical characteristics and, despite its small area, contains rocks of nearly all the main geological periods. There is a contrast between the generally high relief of western and northern Britain and the lowland areas of the south and east. In general, the oldest rocks appear in the highland regions and the youngest in the lowland regions.


Though England cannot be considered as a very hilly country still it is far from being flat everywhere. The most important range of mountains is the Pennine range, regarded as ‘the backbone of England’. It stretches from the Tyne valley in the north to the Trent valley in the south — a distance of about 250 km. The whole range forms a large table-land the highest point of which is Cross Fell (983 in), in east Cumbria above the Eden valley. Being an upland region the Pennines form a watershed separating the westward-flowing from the eastward-flowing rivers of Northern England. They also form a barrier between industrial areas (Lancashire and Yorkshire) on their opposite sides. Both sets of rivers have cut valleys into the uplands, two of which have created important gaps — the Tyne Gap and the Aire Gap. They have road and rail routes, which follow the rivers and link West Yorkshire with Lancashire and Cumbria. Some rivers flowing from the central Pennines have cut long open valleys, known as dales, which attract tourists because of their picturesque scenery. Rainfall in the Pennines is abundant, and their swiftly flowing streams used to provide power for woollen mills. Today the area is used for water storage: reservoirs in the uplands supply water to the industrial towns on each side of the Pennines.

Across the north end of the Pennine Range there are the grassy Cheviot Hills. The highest point is the Cheviot (816 m), near the Scottish border. The Cheviot Hills serve as a natural borderland between England and Scotland.

In north-west England, separated from the Pennines by the valley of the river Eden lie the Cumbrian mountains. These mountains form a ring round the peak of Helvellyn (950 m). Other peaks are Scafell (978 m) and Skiddaw (931 m).

The valleys which separate the various mountains from each other contain some beautiful lakes (Windermere, Grasmere, Coniston Water, Ennerdale Water, Thirlmere, Ullswater, Hawswater). This is the celebrated Lake District, where many tourists resort every year, and where the famous poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Quincey lived and wrote.

Thirlmere and Hawswater are in use as reservoirs for the Manchester area, and permission has been granted for Manchester to take water from Ullswater and Windermere. Crummock Water supplies Workington and other towns of West Cumberland.

The region is sparsely populated and sheep rearing is the main occupation of the farmers. A typical lakeland farmhouse is built of stone, quarried locally, and roofed with slate, also obtained in the region. Around it are a number of small fields, separated from one another by dry stone walls.

The Lake District is exposed to the westerly winds and rainfall is exceptionally high. The village of Seathwaite, with an annual average rainfall of 3,300 mm, claims to be the wettest inhabited place in the British Isles.

The South-West Peninsula of Great Britain includes the counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. The region is made up of a number of upland masses separated by lowlands, which, apart from the Plain of Somerset, are of limited extent. The uplands of the South-West Peninsula are not ranges of mountains or hills, but areas of high moorland, the most extensive being Dartmoor and Exmoor. On the north side of Dartmoor the land rises to over 600 m (Yes Tor — 619 m, High Willhays — 621 m). These are the highest summits in England south of the Pennines. Much of the area has been eroded, resulting in a series of platforms between 150 and 300 metres.

The South-West region is essentially an agricultural area. The areas of best soil occur around the southern borders of Dartmoor, in northern Devon and in the Vale of Taunton. On the lower land between the moors, both in Cornwall and Devon, are fertile river valleys.

The westernmost point of the English mainland is Land’s End, a mass of granite cliffs which plunge with dramatic steepness into the sea. The most southerly point of Great Britain is Lizard Point, a mass of serpentine, greenish metamorphic rock, which people living in the neighbourhood carve and polish into attractive ornaments.

The South-West Peninsula presents numerous attractions for the holidaymakers and the artists, and tourism is one of the most important activities of the region.

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