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The Geography of Britain

The Geography of Britain

A group of about 5,000 islands off the north-west coast of mainland Europe form what we call the British Isles. The largest island, which is also the largest isle in Europe, is Great Britain. Ireland is the second largest after Britain. Here, we discuss the geography of Britain.
Claudia Miclaus
The geography of Britain is quite large. British Isles is the geographical term for a group of about 5,000 islands off the north-west coast of mainland Europe between the latitudes 50ºN and 61º. The largest island is Britain or Great Britain, which is also the largest island in Europe. It consists of England, Wales, and Scotland. The next largest island is Ireland, which is made up of Northern Ireland (or Ulster) and the Irish Republic (also known as Eire). Britain and Northern Ireland, together with a number of small islands, form the United Kingdom (which is almost 20% smaller than Italy) and Northern Ireland. In every usage, however, Great Britain is used to mean the United Kingdom. The Isle of Man, between Ireland and Britain, and the Channel Islands, off north-west coast of France, though recognizing the Crown, have their own parliaments and are self-governing.

Physical Traits

Great Britain is just under 1,000 km long and just under 500 km across in its widest part. The most mountainous region is Scotland (with Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis - 1,343 m), which also has a wide lowland area between the Grampians and the Southern Uplands, where most of the large towns, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, and three-quarters of the population are located. Much of Wales is also mountainous and in England, the Pennine Range (the 'backbone of England') extends to 224 km (although the highest peak is only 895 m high). The rest of England tends to be rather undulating, and not even the large agricultural plains of East Anglia are perfectly flat. In Ireland all the highland areas are around the edge, but there are no peaks over 1,100 m.

Rivers in Great Britain are quite short - the longest rivers are the Severn and the Thames - but their easy navigability has made them an important part of the inland transport network for the transportation of bulk products, such as coal, iron ore, and steel.

Human geography


With 57 million people, the United Kingdom ranks about fifteen in the world terms of population, with England (46 million) by far the most populous part (followed by Scotland 5 million, Wales 2.8 million and Northern Ireland (1.5 million). The population is increasing very slowly and in 1976 - 78 and 1982 actually fell. The estimated age distribution in 1985 was 21 %< 16; 64% 16- 64; 15%> 64. Although there are more than 6% more male than female births, the higher mortality of men at all ages means that there are more females than males (29 million against 27.6 million).

The average population density in Britain is about 239 per sq. km, compared with, for example, 190 per sq. km in Italy. England, with 361 inhabitants per sq. km, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world (the rest of Britain is much lower: Wales 135 per sq. km, Scotland 65 and Northern Ireland 111).

Conurbations and New Towns

The highest densities are to be found in conurbations, which are groups of once separated towns that have grown to form a single community. Although Britain is short of housing, planners like to keep a belt of undeveloped land around cities known as green belt to reduce pollution and provide open spaces for leisure. This has meant that the only alternative to the redevelopment of slum areas in conurbations (such as the Docklands development in London) has been the creation of New Towns as Harlow in Essex. The industrial area in these purposes - built towns is separated from housing and there are greener, open spaces. New Towns have partially failed, however, especially since many are near enough to conurbations, people to use them as dormitory towns (towns where a large percentage of the population commutes daily to work in a conurbation) and recent government policy has been to expand existing towns like Telford and Milton Keynes (formed from the amalgamation of a group of villages), which is cheaper than creating an entirely new town.

Weather and Climate

Britain has a generally mild, temperate climate. The weather, however, tends to be very changeable as a result of constant influence of different air masses. There are few extremes in temperature, which rarely goes above 32ºC or below -10ºC. Annual rainfall is fairly evenly distributed, but ranges from more than 1,600 mm in the mountains areas of the west and north to less than 800 mm over central and eastern parts. This is because depressions from the Atlantic bring frontal rainfall first to the west and because western Britain is higher and so gets more relief pain.