England, Wales and Northern Ireland fall within the group of islands known as the British Isles. Scotland is also part of the United Kingdom but has its own WDP organisation.
We are small, about 80th in the world when countries are ranked according to area (under 165,000 square km or 64,000 square miles for England, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Wales is rural in character, straddled by mountains and bounded by a rugged coastline. Its large coalfields to the South provided a key export from cities such as Newport, Swansea and Cardiff.
Northern Ireland boasts Lough Neagh, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Western Europe, as well as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway, a mass of interlocking basalt columns off the Antrim coast, caused by an ancient volcanic eruption.
England has less dramatic landscapes but has a spectacular coastline, especially in the West Country, while the north has lakes, mountains and large areas of moorland and forest. England has the highest level of urban development.
People have shaped our landscape, first through farming. Livestock grazed on hills, causing large areas of natural woodland to disappear. In the late Middle Ages, common land was enclosed by powerful feudal barons. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some parts of the country were depopulated, as industrialisation drew people from the countryside to growing towns and cities
Growing through seafaring, exploration, piracy, trade and colonisation, we were among the first in the world to industrialise, exploiting our own geological resources of coal, slate and tin and, later, those of the countries we colonised. We saw significant developments in science, maths, medicine and industry.
We are increasingly aware of the role of the Empire in the slave trade that spanned the world and the effects of climate change resulting from these technological advances. But bringing together people from different parts of the world has, over 200 years, also resulted in mutual enrichment of cultures through the movement of people – both to and from – the United Kingdom.
People, Diversity and Migration
The population of England, Wales has also been enriched over the centuries by waves of migration. Early immigrants included people from mainland Europe, such as the Huguenots, fleeing from religious persecution, who were given royal protection.
Diplomacy, trade and academic learning have always accounted for large numbers of writers, thinkers and politicians. As Britain’s influence overseas spread, those from further afield came to live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, often around ports, as in the case of London, Liverpool and Cardiff, all of which have long-standing Chinese and Jewish communities.
During the twentieth century, workers from the British Empire, later the Commonwealth, came to the UK to take jobs in the public sector, as transport workers, nurses, etc. Some of them had a difficult time when they first came. However, diversity is now a way of life in our towns and cities
All this has led to rich cultures in multi-ethnic communities such as Birmingham, Leicester, and, in London, the East End and Southall. Bevis Marks synagogue in the East End dates back to 1701; Woking, in Surrey, is the home of England’s first mosque, built in 1889 by a Hungarian immigrant; Neasden’s Hindu Temple occupies a huge site in North West London. There is a building in London’s Brick Lane that has been a Methodist chapel, a Huguenot church, a synagogue, and is now a mosque.
Immediately after the Second World War, there was a wave of immigration mainly from the Republic of Ireland and Jamaica. This was followed by a larger wave, mostly from other Commonwealth countries, especially Pakistan and India.
However, in the 21st century, more immigrants have come from Europe. According to the Office for National Statistics, the three most common countries of birth of immigrants to the UK are Poland, India and Pakistan.
Women, Family and Health
In broad terms, since the beginning of industrialisation and the movement from the country to the towns throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the birth rate has risen and infant mortality has fallen throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The average woman in 1800 had between 5 to 7 children. Parents probably lost 2 or 3 of their children in the first few years of life. Infant mortality now stands at 4 per thousand and new figures from the Resolution Foundation indicate that the number of children living in relative poverty is on course to hit 37 per cent, topping the previous record high of 34 per cent recorded in the 1990s.
By the end of 2021, it could be that the majority of children in single parent families or in larger families – with two or more children – live in relative poverty.
The relationship between the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland has not always been straightforward or peaceful.
In the 13th century, Wales experienced oppression and conquest at the hands of King Edward I of England, symbolised by his line of imposing castles stretching across North Wales.
More recently the pressure exerted on Wales has been cultural and linguistic rather than military; up until the early 20th century school children in Wales were stigmatised by having to wear a ‘Welsh Not’ around their neck if they were caught speaking their native Welsh language.
Concern grew about the language’s decline and possible extinction, and after years of campaigning it was finally made an official language in 2011. According to the census data, it is now spoken by around 19% of the population of Wales.
There is a strong emphasis on Welsh-medium education and it is now possible to complete one’s education, including university, entirely in Welsh. Alongside this is a thriving Welsh music, media and cultural industry.
The Welsh translation of the Bible by William Morgan (1588) and its use in non-conformist churches throughout the 19th and 20th centuries played a significant part in perpetuating the language through difficult times. Today, the Welsh language remains a foundational aspect of Welsh identity, particularly in the North and West of the country.
Since 2007, Wales has had its own government with certain functions devolved to the capital Cardiff from the Westminster Parliament.
Northern Ireland was founded in 1920 following the Irish War of Independence which resulted in the partition of Ireland forming Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This led to periods of civil unrest when, in 1968, violence erupted.
Conflict continued in Northern Ireland for over 30 years with terrorist attacks in mainland Britain, the Republic of Ireland and even continental Europe. This period of time is known as The Troubles during which 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.
During the 1970s, influential in seeking ways to end the violence were Nobel prize-winners Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams who founded the Community of Peace People.
In 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement signalled the end of most of the violence and, as a result, a power sharing Assembly was established with representatives from both Unionist and Nationalist communities being elected and taking seats, forming a power sharing Executive.
The Assembly was suspended in January 2017 following allegations of corruption and mismanagement of a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The Assembly was reinstated three years later, in January 2020, after all sides had resolved their differences with a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, both women.
Many in the government and voluntary sectors, schools, churches and the community have been working towards managing conflict, embracing diversity and enabling greater respect and mutual understanding. The Corrymeela Community, since its foundation by Ray Davey in 1965, has also been working to transform division through human encounter at its Centre in Ballycastle and beyond.
Traditional family life is no longer the norm in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The most common size, at 9,609,000 households, is two people. The second most common household size is one! A recent study found that the average age of a single woman getting married is now 30.8 years, up just over eight years from 1971, when the average was 22.6 years. In 2017, just over half of the population (51.0%) aged 16 years and over in England and Wales was married. Even though, we celebrated the progress women have made in our society, we still struggle to combat violence in our homes, improve the lives of those living in poverty and support those with disabilities, physical, mental and emotional. Life expectancy for women in the UK is 82 years.
Food and Drink
The slightly damp climate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland means that traditional food is often comforting and warming. It is interesting to note that meals that are seen as a core part of the nation’s identity – such as fish and chips – have often been introduced by refugees and settlers from other countries. Similarly, there is a great love of Chinese and Indian takeaway food and ‘chicken tikka masala’ is a favourite. There are national dishes and special regional variations in each country, for example Welsh cakes and Northern Ireland champ. England can claim many local delicacies and foods which are now exported all around the world, including Cheddar cheese, Cornish pasties and clotted cream, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Yorkshire pudding.
Broadly speaking, children start school at five, move from primary to secondary education at 11 and complete their schooling at 18. England Wales and Northern Ireland have both state and independent fee-paying schools, though the latter are beyond the reach of many families.
Although Oxford and Cambridge Universities did not allow women to graduate until 1920, women now make up more than half of those studying for first degrees. They are still in the minority only in science, technology, engineering and maths.
The Brexit vote of 2016 saw the UK opting to leave the EU with a narrow majority. Four years later this has come into effect and January 2021 saw England Wales and Northern Ireland, with Scotland embark on a new chapter outside the European Union. We await the results of our new status with interest.
World Day of Prayer
As a single World Day of Prayer organisation, the three voices of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have come together to present this year’s service, recognising our differences but also our common ground.
Currently, the WDP National Committee includes 17 different Christian denominations. We allocate over 40 grants to national and international charities. We support prayer partners in Albania, sending representatives to visit the WDP in Albania on a regular basis.
We continue to review what we do and to adapt to changes in communication and technology.
Our office in Tunbridge Wells co-ordinates the distribution of service materials, including activities for children and youth and our website carries news of all we do.
We also post on Twitter and Facebook and have been delighted with the number of ‘hits’ we get.