South East of England
by Enza Ferreri
Oxford - Bodleian Library
The counties of the South East are, from east to west and clockwise:
Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Surrey, Middlesex (a former county but now part of the Greater London), the Royal County of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire.
The South East is not larger in size than other regions, but it has a higher number of counties. The counties that surround London are called "home counties".
The Royal County of Berkshire is so called for the presence of the royal residence of Windsor Castle in the county.
The South East is the region of England which, maybe because it's the closest to the continent of Europe, is the most developed culturally and economically.
It is here, after all, that the Romans first landed in Britain, on the Kentish coast near Sandwich, where there is still a plaque on the beach to remember Caesar's legions landing on these shores.
It is here that the Romans later founded, on the banks of the river Thames, Londinium, which was to become the capital of this province.
The South East is the dominant area of England and indeed of the British Isles, for population size, level of wealth, cosmopolitan sophistication.
It is the most expensive area to live in, and the one that attracts most people from other parts of the country. It is also the most rapidly growing region, despite planning controls directed toward restricting its growth, such as the so-called greenbelt to prevent or regulate building around London. You don't find in the South East many derelict areas or boarded up buildings as you may find elsewhere, because everything is instantly re-developed.
London itself is a victim of urban sprawl that has been checked too late.
The Greater London is sometimes almost impossible to define, due to its recent expansion in the fashion of an oil pool.
To delimit the area covered by it, a reference often used is the M25, the motorway ring-road which, surrounding the city in its circular embrace, offers a boundary by tacit convention.
London hosts the administrative headquarters not just of Britain's government but also of many of the country's financial, commercial, industrial enterprises. The area as a whole has an extensive range of manufacturing industry (brewing, clothing, furniture, and printing). Since the transportation systems have improved, retailing, advertising, service and high-technology industries, and nuclear and space research facilities are gradually moving to the counties outside London.
A greenbelt policy has slowed down the expansion of London, and the region as a whole still has one-third of its area devoted to farming or horticulture. Not coincidentally, the county of Kent is called "the garden of England" and growing hops to make beer is so common there that oast-houses are disseminated all around its landscape.
One of the most notable features of the South East is how different a county is to the next.
For example, Kent is very rural, whereas Surrey next door has a completely different, suburban face. The so-called commuter belt is just another extension of London in the home counties.
London is the focus of the national transport system. The country's mainline railway network is based on the London termini. London is served by five airports: two major international airports at Heathrow (where the national airlines fly) and Gatwick, a third international airport at Stansted in Essex specialised in the increasingly popular low-cost flights and no-frills airlines, Luton Airport at Luton in Bedfordshire, and the City Airport.
The Port of London is the largest and commercially most important in the UK.
Broadwater Lake in Farncombe, Godalming, Surrey
Eight new towns have been established in the South East, the most famous (or maybe notorious) of which is Milton Keynes, the town of the roundabouts.
In addition, four existing towns have been expanded to take the overflow of London population.
London is the cultural capital of Britain: art galleries, museums, libraries, theatres, concert halls, music venues, literary circles, scientific institutions, auction houses and many others are numerous here.
South East England is coastlines, cultural cities, gently rolling countryside, historical villages.
Among its attractions are: Brighton, Oxford (pictured above), Canterbury, the Isle of Wight, Kent (Garden of England), the Cotswold Hills, Reading, Windsor Castle, the River Thames valley, Winchester, the New Forest, Chichester, Lewes, Marlow, Henley, St. Albans, Portsmouth, Eastbourne, the Seven Sisters cliffs of white chalk (pictured right) and Beachy Head, the South Downs range of hills, Guildford, High Wycombe, Tunbridge Wells, Hastings, Bognor Regis, Dover, the Cinque Ports, Southampton, Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs.
The South coast area between Brighton and Eastbourne is part of the South Downs National Park and has some beautiful countryside. From Beachy Head you can enjoy great views from the top of what are Britain's highest chalk cliffs. Birling Gap is also a point from which to admire the Seven Sisters cliffs towering over the beach below. A feature of this stretch of coast is Rottingdean Windmill, in the village of Rottingdean. Few miles north of Brighton there is a beauty spot named the Devil's Dyke, with delightful views across the South Downs hills.
The green county of East Sussex has gorgeous countryside, and you may be lucky enough to see a herd of red deer there. The Weald is a vast area of outstanding natural beauty starting north-east of Petersfield from the New Forest in Hampshire and stretching across Surrey and Kent in the north, and West and East Sussex in the south.
The Weald was once a large forest, hence its name which in Old English means "woodland". Today it is covered with rolling hills, beautiful valleys, sandstone outcrops, small fields, classic English pasture, scattered farmhouses, streams forming steep ravines ("gills"), ancient pretty villages sometimes going back to Norman times, sunken lanes and paths.
Part of the Seven Sisters near Eastbourne, Sussex
The Weald has however maintained its forested character. There are patches of heathland and copious woodlands, often centuries old, a unique habitat for animals and plants that cannot live elsewhere.
Ashdown Forest is at the centre of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Originally a Norman royal deer-hunting forest, it is now the South East's largest free public access space, for walking and enjoying superb views of the Sussex countryside, and "home" of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is a vast area, nearly two thirds of which are heathland, a rare habitat protected because of its wildlife, and the rest of which is woodland.
The people of the South East perhaps do not have a strong sense of regional identity. The Sussex Downs and the Bedfordshire plain or Oxford and Canterbury do not have not much in common except one thing: they are all within the magnetic pull of London. There are more loyalties to individual towns, and traditional rivalries between them. As for Londoners, they feel they belong to neighbourhoods, like Chelsea or Hampstead, Greenwich or Primrose Hill, which become urban villages and are often called that, rather than to the metropolis as a whole.
Enza Ferreri is an Italian web author, Philosophy graduate and former journalist living in London.