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What are the icons of England?

  • Published
  • By Natalie Benge
  • 48th Fighter Wing Community Relations Advisor
A Web site celebrating the things that make England unique was launched a year ago in January 2006. "Icons - A Portrait of England" helps the public enjoy and celebrate the country's cultural treasures. Anyone can nominate their favourite icons and the things they cherish most about life in England today. With these nominations, the icons project will piece together a portrait of England in the 21st century. People can vote on each other's nominations and submit anecdotes and comments about their chosen icons.

After the first year, there were 934 nominations for icons of England, covering a wide range of images, including Rupert Bear, Blue Peter badges, Tower Bridge, the Daleks, Conkers, HP sauce, Seaside rock and Wallace and Gromit. Some of the most popular icons include:

Houses of Parliament

Soaring above the River Thames is the Palace of Westminster. Originally a royal dwelling, it was built by Saxon ruler Edward the Confessor in the 11th century, and William I moved there from the Tower of London after the Norman conquest. All this stopped in the 16th century when it was adopted as the assembly place for the House of Commons and House of Lords.

In 1834, a fire broke out that destroyed much of the old palace. The magnificent Gothic Revival masterpiece we see today was built between 1840 and 1888 and designed by Charles Barry. The Houses of Parliament has survived most of the turbulent times since it was built. Although heavily damaged after the London Blitz, the building still stood and became a symbol of democratic resistance to fascism. The "Mother of all Parliaments" is very popular with tourists, who can go into the Strangers Galleries to watch proceedings of either the Lords or Commons. The Commons can be highly entertaining during Prime Minister's Question Time, when backbench Ministers of Parliament and the premier take part in the very English ritual of exchanging polite but vicious insults.

Pillar Box

The Royal Mail red pillar box is one of the most familiar items of British street furniture. Introduced in 1853, only 13 years after the foundation of the penny post, it meant posting a letter no longer involved making a trip to the nearest Post Office. Pillar boxes always bear the monogram of the reigning monarch, and some of the most iconic examples of this particular icon are those that show the initials V.R., for Queen Victoria, making them over a century old. Though we may take pillar boxes for granted, a tour through their changing designs and an exploration of the part they play in the national postal collection system can be surprising and fascinating.

Afternoon Tea

It's said that Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, introduced this fashionable pause for tea, cake and sandwiches in around1830. Usually served between four and five in the afternoon, it was generally eaten in the drawing-rooms of the upper classes and staved off hunger pangs during the long wait between lunch and dinner. In the average English household, afternoon tea is little more than a swig of hot tea and a biscuit, but the traditional version seems as popular as ever in London hotels like the Dorchester and Claridges, and in tea rooms in the West Country.

The quintessential afternoon tea features crust-less sandwiches, cakes and pastries, and tea served in bone china cups from a silver teapot. The cream teas served in the West Country with scones, fresh cream and jam, are a delightful variation on the theme.

Real Ale

No village pub would be the same without the sight of a regular supping real ale from his tankard. But what makes it so special? Consumers will tell you it's all in the taste. The ale must be 'alive' when it is drunk, with yeast still present in the container from which the beer is served. It goes through secondary fermentation that allows the complex and interesting flavours to develop, producing a far more full-bodied mouthful. It should be served without the aid of added gas, and dispensed from a hand pump. The drink's profile has been raised by the Campaign for Real Ale.


What's the strangest job in England? Being a Beefeater, or rather, Yeoman Warder, has to be in the Top Five. If you're lucky enough to join, there are only 35 Beefeaters at any time, you'll get to live in the Tower of London itself. The rent is deducted from the Beefeaters salary. You'll also get a whopping 7 weeks' holiday a year and two very smart uniforms. The Blue Undress Uniform is for everyday wear and was granted to the Beefeaters by Queen Victoria. The formal-wear version is the very famous red and gold tunic with a Tudor bonnet, designed in 1552 - Queen Elizabeth I herself introduced the ruff! Originally, the Beefeaters were invented by King Henry VII as his personal bodyguards. The job description has changed in the last five hundred years, though; nowadays the Beefeaters act as guides to the Tower of London, attend state ceremonies and look after the all-important ravens. The legend states if the ravens leave, the White Tower will crumble and the collapse of England will follow.

The Black Cab

London prides itself on having the best taxi service in the world. Its Austin black cabs are an instantly recognisable part of the landscape of the road (although not all of them are black). Officially known as the hackney carriage, they began as a set of fewer than 20 horse-drawn carriages in the early 17th century. By Cromwell's time, there were 200, and cab-driving had become a fully fledged profession. So professional has the job traditionally remained that all London cabbies are still expected to acquire the Knowledge, a famously difficult back-of-the hand familiarity with the complete A-Z of the capital. Did you know that drivers are not legally obliged to pick you up if the cab is moving (even if their yellow light is on)? Or that the fares are still set by Parliament? Now you know whom to blame

Look out for more English icons in future articles

Information taken from

For more information on living in Britain call Natalie Benge, Community Relations Adviser, at 266-3145, or email