I am going to England in a year. I want to experience some of the touristy sites, but I want to see what England is really about. Rick suggests getting away from the tourist traps. I am open to specifics that would satisfy the need to experience good English cuisine, historical sites, interact with the real English culture, excellent photo ops, and have an all-around great experience. I enjoy personal suggestions because "been there/done that" is the best word-of-mouth way to go. Thanks.
Pubs. Pubs. Pubs. You want to meet people? Go down the local! And seek out local activities if you can. Over the years I have gone to a town snooker championship in Wales, an eisteddfod at a church (also in Wales - all locals, no tourists, and they made me sing!), a historical farm machinery fair in Yorkshire, a church fete or two (various locales), and a village cricket match (boring-to-me-sport but quintessentially English experience that I would not trade for anything). Back when, I would look for ads in the local paper or posters on lamp posts, but now of course these things are online! A semi-touristy thing that seemed very local and was astonishing in its greatness was the rehearsal for Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral - almost no one there, and the organist went crazy with the Bach. It was tremendous, and then those of us who did show up went... down the pub! And speaking of sports, you might try to take in some football. Choose a 2nd or 3rd division team in a town you're visiting, and see a match. Excellent fun!
Bill, I won't give you a lot on the popular sites in London, or the other popular areas like the Cotswolds, Bath, and Cornwall (all of which have excellent reasons to visit). But I'll make a pitch for Dartmoor, if you are looking for the off the beaten path kind of spot. My wife and I enjoyed a day where we just pulled off the highway and explored the northern part of Dartmoor National Park. Little towns like Gidlieigh and Chagford, country lanes just wide enough for one car with hedgerows along both sides, pubs and charming town squares. And that's before you go hiking on the moors, which is the real star attraction of the area. Look for Scorhill Stone Circle. A little challenging to find (near Chagford) but it is described in Rick's guidebook briefly. Our experience that day hiking out to a stone circle with nobody around was a highlight. Enjoy!
Seven days isn't a lot of time, especially if that includes the day you arrive. You also don't want to spend a lot of time going from one place to another. I think it's best to concentrate on one or two areas to get a better feel for what it is really like there. My husband and I just returned from our first trip to England two weeks ago. We wanted to see a lot more than what was feasible so we had to whittle away at our agenda long before we went. What do you really like? We don't like crowds so as much as we would like to see London we decided to skip it. We are nature lovers so we just visited the Cotswolds and the Lake District. There is plenty of history and photo ops in those areas. We took 530 pictures! Blenheim palace and Hidcote Manor gardens near the cotswolds were wonderful. We stayed in farmhouse b&bs. Both were well off the beaten path and provided opportunities to talk to the British people.
It's difficult to get at the heart of a country (if there is such a thing) in only a week. Instead let me suggest that you find some theme to base your trip around that might take you to different places. What draws you to England in the first place? Is it the history? Literature? Shakespeare? The Royals? The beer? The Beatles? etc. You could build an itinerary around one or two themes and see where it takes you. The real England will be in the streets and pubs all around you that you choose to go to. Definitely start up conversations with people. Maybe shop in a grocery or a clothes store for souvenirs rather than postcards and such. Depending on your "themes" you could still see some great touristy sites, too. I often quote a passage from Helene Hanff's book 84 Charing Cross Road that I think is right on target: " I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: 'It's there.' " FWIW, I first went seeking the England of 18th-19th century naval warfare and the England of Sherlock Holmes. It was there.
I was in London for about 7 days a while back and did lots of day trips. Took the train to Salisbury and then a bus trip to Stonehenge; train down to Leeds Castle, train to Oxford..... Other good day trips via train are to Cambridge, York, Bath, ......boat to Greenwich. So many things to do. I found a book at my local library "Day Trips Out of London" - it was full of ideas. I found the train system very easy and several places had buses waiting
to take tourists to the "main event" e.g. Leeds Castle.
Matt's post is really wonderful. Even in London or other "touristy" places, there are plenty of ways to have "real" experiences, and a great way is to focus on an interest. It drives me crazy when people say things like "we wanted to see the real Italy, so we didn't go to Rome." I'll just add that if you aren't interested in London, not only can you skip it, but you may do better flying into another airport entirely. For instance, if you want to focus on the north of England, you could fly to Manchester. Coming from Oregon, you'll probably want to fly Delta from Portland to Amsterdam; from there, you can change (via their partner KLM) to various English airports (Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, as well as London Heathrow).
I agree, Matt said it very well. And Kira's got it right re pubs. Some of our best experiences in Britain were casual conversations in pubs. One of these led to a rendezvous several days later and a driving tour of the northern Lake District with a couple who knew it well. I think you could have a fine week in and around London, and I wouldn't try to travel around too much in just a week. But Harold has a good suggestion if you want to avoid London, fly into Manchester. Iceandair flies between Portland and Manchester (and Glasgow if you're interested) via Reykjavik, generally cheaper than the nonstops to Europe.
Personally if you want to experience British culture from a wide variety of angles I'd visit Newcastle upon Tyne...why go to you tube and look up "passionate people passionate places". Or google that phrase. The locals will talk to you, invite you places share a beer and a laugh, Newcastle has the best nightlife in the UK, the roman wall, many many Norman castles, great architecture ( grey street one of the best in Europe) a fantastic coast
Line, great museums (look at beamish museum) Durham cathedral that has books on show that are 1400 yrs old !!! And two saints buried there. Durham near Newcastle is one of the quaintest cities in Europe and the American travel author bill brysons favourite...but above all the place has great friendly people..trust me you go out in Newcastle with an American accent or no accent you will be talking to the locals all night......look up passionate people passionate places...!