Geography of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK, is in Western Europe. It comprises the island of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and the northeastern one-sixth of the island of Ireland (Northern Ireland), together with many smaller islands. The mainland areas lie between latitudes 49°N and 59°N (the Shetland Islands reach to nearly 61°N), and longitudes 8°W to 2°E. The Royal Greenwich Observatory, in South East London, is the defining point of the Prime Meridian.

The UK lies between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, and comes within 35 km (22 miles) of the northwest coast of France, from which it is separated by the English Channel. Northern Ireland shares a 360 km international land boundary with the Republic of Ireland. The Channel Tunnel ("Chunnel") bored beneath the English Channel, now links the UK with France.


The United Kingdom has a total area of about 245,000 km², almost a quarter-of-a-million square kilometres.

Physical geography

The physical geography of the UK varies greatly. It includes the chalk cliffs of Kent and Dorset, the rolling hills and fields of southeast England, the granite cliffs of Cornwall, the mountains of Wales, the uplands of the Peak District and the Pennines, the lakes and mountains of Cumbria, the Scottish lowlands, highlands and islands, and the fields, lakes and mountains of Northern Ireland. The country can be roughly divided into highland and lowland along the Tees-Exe line.

The overall geomorphology of the UK was shaped by the combined forces of tectonics and climate change, in particular glaciation.

The exact centre of the island of Great Britain is disputed. Depending upon how it is calculated it can be either Haltwhistle in Northumberland, or Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire.


The geology of the United Kingdom is varied and diverse. This gives up to the wide variety of landscapes found across the UK. This variety, coupled with the early efforts of UK based scientists and geologists to understand it, has influenced the naming of many geological concepts, including many of the geological periods (for example, the Ordovician period is named after the Ordovices, a people of early Britain; the Devonian period is named after the county of Devon in south-west England).

The oldest rocks in the UK are gneisses which date from at least 2,700 Ma ("Ma" means "millions of years ago") in the Archaean Period, which are found in the far north west of Scotland and in the Hebrides, with a few small outcrops elsewhere. South of the gneisses are a complex mixture of rocks forming the North West Highlands and Grampian Highlands in Scotland. These are essentially the remains of folded sedimentary rock, deposited over the gneiss, from 1,000 Ma, with a notable 7 km thick layer of Torridon Sandstone being deposited about 800 Ma, as well as the debris deposited by an ice sheet 670 Ma.

The remains of ancient volcanic islands underlie much of central England with small outcrops visible in many places. Around 600 Ma, the Cadomian Orogeny (mountain building period) caused the English and Welsh landscape to be transformed into a mountainous region, along with much of north west Europe.

The Welsh Skiddaw slate deposits formed at around 500 Ma, during the Ordovician Period. At about this time, around 425 Ma, north Wales (and south Mayo in Ireland) experienced volcanic activity. The remains of these volcanoes are still visible, for example Rhobell Fwar, dating from 510 Ma. Large quantities of volcanic lava and ash known as the Borrowdale Volcanics covered both Wales and the Lake District, still seen in the form of mountains such as Helvellyn and Scafell Pike.

In the Silurian Period, between 425 and 400 Ma, the Caledonian fold mountains formed (the Caledonian Orogeny), covering much of what is now the UK to perhaps 8,000 feet (2,500 m) thick. Volcanic ashes and lavas deposited during this period are still found in the Mendip Hills and in Pembrokeshire.

Volcanic deposits formed Ben Nevis in the Devonian Period. Sea levels varied considerably, with the coastline advancing and retreating from north to south across England, and with the deposition of numerous sedimentary rock layers. The Old Red Sandstone of Devon gave the period its name, though deposits are found in many other places.

During the Carboniferous Period, around 360 Ma, the UK was lying at the equator, covered by the warm shallow waters of the Rheic Ocean, during which time the Carboniferous limestone was deposited, still found in areas such as the Mendip Hills and the Pennines. The coal measures were formed at this time, in river deltas, swamps and rain forests. Coal can be found in many areas of the UK, as far North as Sutherland and as far south as Kent, though it has largely been mined in the Midlands, northern England and Wales. Also formed were the Millstone Grits.

During the Permian and Triassic Periods, much of the UK was beneath shallow seas, leading to the deposition of sedimentary rocks such as shale, limestone, gravel, and marl. The seas finally receded to leave a flat desert with salt pans.

At the beginning of the Jurassic Period, the UK was under-water again, leading to the deposition of sedimentary rocks which now underlie much of England from the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire to the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, including clays, sandstones, and the oolitic limestone of the Cotswold Hills. The burial of algae and bacteria below the mud of the sea floor during this time resulted in the formation of North Sea oil and natural gas.

In the Cretaceous Period, much of the UK was again below the sea and chalk and flints were deposited over much of Great Britain. These are now notably exposed at the White Cliffs of Dover, and form Salisbury Plain, the Chiltern Hills, the South Downs and other similar features.

The last volcanic rocks in the UK were formed in the early Tertiary Period, between 63 and 52 Ma, with the major eruptions that formed the Antrim Plateau and the basaltic columns of the Giant's Causeway. Further sediments were deposited over southern England, including the London clay, while the English Channel consisted of mud flats and river deposited sands.

The major changes during the last few million years, during the Quaternary Period, have been brought about by several recent ice ages, leaving a legacy of U-shaped valleys in highland areas, and fertile (if often stoney) soil in southern U.K.

Mountains and hills

The ten tallest mountains in the UK are all found in Scotland. The highest peaks in each part of the UK are:
*Scotland: Ben Nevis (Aonach Mòr, 1,344 metres)
*Wales: Snowdon (Cambrian Mountains, 1,085 metres)
*England: Scafell Pike (Cumbrian Mountains, 977 metres)
*Northern Ireland: Slieve Donard (Mourne Mountains, 852 metres)

The ranges of mountains and hills in the UK include:
*Scotland: Cairngorms, Cheviot Hills, Scottish Highlands, Southern Uplands, Grampian Mountains
*Wales: Brecon Beacons, Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia, Black Mountains, Preseli Hills
*England: Chilterns, Cotswolds, Dartmoor, Lincolnshire Wolds, Exmoor, Lake District, Malvern Hills, Mendip Hills, North Downs, Peak District, Pennines, Salisbury Plain, South Downs, Shropshire Hills, Yorkshire Wolds
*Northern Ireland: Mourne Mountains, Antrim Plateau, Sperrin Mountains

The lowest point of the UK is in the Fens of East Anglia, in England, parts of which lie up to 4 metres below sea level.

Rivers and lakes

;Main articles:
*List of lakes in the United Kingdom;
*Rivers of the United Kingdom;
*Waterfalls of the United Kingdom.

The longest river in the UK is the River Severn (220 mi, 354 km) which flows through both Wales and England.

The longest rivers in the UK by country are:
*England: River Thames (215 mi, 346 km)
*Scotland: River Tay (117 mi, 188 km)
*N. Ireland: River Bann (76 mi, 122 km)
*Wales: River Tywi (64 mi, 103 km)

The largest lakes in the UK by country are:
*N. Ireland: Lough Neagh (147.39 sq mi, 381.74 km²)
*Scotland: Loch Lomond (27.46 sq mi, 71.12 km²)
*England: Windermere (5.69 sq mi, 14.74 km²)
*Wales: Lake Vyrnwy (3.18 sq mi, 8.24 km²)

The deepest lake in the UK is Loch Morar with a maximum depth of 309 metres (Loch Ness is second at 228 metres deep). The deepest lake in England is Wastwater which descends to 79 metres (258 feet).

Artificial waterways

"Main articles:" Waterways in the United Kingdom, Canals of Great Britain, Reservoirs and dams in the United Kingdom

As a result of its industrial history, the United Kingdom has an extensive system of canals, mostly built in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, before the rise of competition from the railways. The United Kingdom also has numerous dams and reservoirs to store water for drinking and industry. The generation of hydroelectric power is rather limited, supplying less than 2% of British electricity mainly from the Scottish Highlands.


The UK has a coastline which measures about 12,429 km. The heavy indentation of the coastline helps to ensure that no location is more than 125 km from tidal waters.

The UK claims jurisdiction over the continental shelf, as defined in continental shelf orders or in accordance with agreed upon boundaries, an exclusive fishing zone of 200 nmi (370 km), and territorial sea of 12 nmi (22 km).


*Cardigan Bay
*Lyme Bay
*Bristol Channel
*Thames estuary
*Morecambe Bay
*Solway Firth
*The Wash
*Humber estuary
*Firth of Forth
*Firth of Tay
*Moray Firth


The geology of the UK is such that there are many headlands along its coast, here are some of the most notable ones:
**Land's End
**The Lizard
**Cape Cornwall
**Start Point
**Berry Head
**Hartland Point
**Foreland Point
**Old Harry Rocks
**St Alban's Head
**Portland Bill
*Isle of Wight
**The Needles
**St. Catherine's Point
**North Foreland
*West Sussex
**Selsey Bill
*East Sussex
**Beachy Head
**Cape Wrath
**Gower peninsula
**Rhins of Galloway
**Filey Brigg
**Flamborough Head
**Spurn Head

Coastal change


In total, it is estimated that the UK is made up of over 1000 small islands, some being natural and some being man-made crannogs, which were built in past times using stone and wood and which were enlarged by natural waste building up over time.

*Islands of England
**Isles of Scilly
**Isle of Wight
**Farne Islands
**Isle of Portland
**Walney Island

*Islands of Scotland
**Orkney Islands
**Shetland Islands
**Inner Hebrides
**Outer Hebrides
**Bass Rock
**Fair Isle

*Islands of Wales
**Skomer Island
**Skokholm Island
**Ramsey Island
**Bardsey Island
**Holy Island

*Islands of Northern Ireland
**Rathlin Island


The climate of the UK varies, but is generally temperate, though significantly warmer than some other locations at similar latitude, such as central Poland, due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. In general, the south is warmer and drier than the north.

The prevailing winds are southwesterly, from the North Atlantic Current. More than 50% of the days are overcast. There are few natural hazards, although there can be strong winds and floods, especially in winter.

Average annual rainfall varies from over 3,000 mm (120 inches) in the Scottish Highlands down to 553 mm (21.8 inches) in Cambridge. The county of Essex is one of the driest in the UK, with an average annual rainfall of around 600 mm (24 inches), although it typically rains on over 100 days per year. In some years rainfall in Essex can be below 450 mm (18 inches), less than the average annual rainfall in Jerusalem and Beirut.

The highest temperature recorded in the UK was 38.5 °C (101.3 °F) at Brogdale, near Faversham, in the county of Kent, on 10 August 2003. The lowest was -27.2 °C (-17.0 °F) recorded at Braemar in the Grampian Mountains, Scotland, on 11 February 1895 and 10 January 1982 and Altnaharra, also in Scotland, on 30 December 1995.

Human geography


"Main article:" Demographics of the United Kingdom

Political geography

"Main article:" Politics of the United Kingdom

National government

The UK is governed as a whole by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Of the four countries that make the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved administrations and parliaments/assembly:
*Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland Assembly
*Scotland - Scottish Parliament
*Wales - Welsh Assembly

England, despite being the largest country in the UK, has no devolved system of government and is governed by UK government ministers and legislated for by the UK parliament. Within England, London has a devolved assembly but proposals for elected Regional Assemblies in England were rejected in the first referendum covering North East England. "See Government of England."

The UK (specifically, Northern Ireland) has an international land boundary with the Republic of Ireland of 360 km. There is also a boundary between the jurisdiction of France and of the UK on the Channel Tunnel.

Local government

Each part of the UK is subdivided in further local governmental regions:
*England: Unitary Authorities, county councils, district councils, parish councils
*Wales: Principal areas, communities
*Scotland: Council areas, communities
*Northern Ireland: Districts

Historically the UK was divided into counties or shires: administrative areas through which all civil responsibilities of the government were passed. Each county or shire had a county town as its administrative centre and was divided into individual parishes that were defined along ecclesiastic boundaries.

Between 1889 (1890 in Scotland) and 1974, the political boundaries were based on the traditional counties, but due to changes in population centres, the traditional counties became impractical as local government areas in certain highly urbanised areas. The Local Government Act 1972 created a new system of administrative counties, designed to take account of the widely differing populations across different parts of the country.

In the 1990s further population growth led to more political changes on a local level. Unitary authorities were formed across the entire of Scotland and Wales, and in larger cities in England. Many unpopular administrative counties were also abolished at this time, leading to a mixture of two-tier and single-purpose authorities. Further reorganisations are planned if and when regional assemblies in England are revisited in the future.

Economic geography

The economic geography of the UK reflects not only its current position in the global economy, but its long history both as a trading nation and an imperial power.

The UK led the industrial revolution and its highly urban character is a legacy of this, with all its major cities being current or former centres of all forms of manufacturing. However, this in turn was built on its exploitation of natural resources, especially coal and iron ore.

Primary industry

The UK's primary industry was once dominated by the coal industry, heavily concentrated in the north, the Midlands and south Wales. This is all but gone and the major primary industry is North Sea oil. Its activity is concentrated on the UK Continental Shelf to the north-east of Scotland.


At one time or another virtually every product that can be imagined has been made in the UK. In particular its heavy manufacturing drove the industrial revolution. A map of the major UK cities gives a good picture of where this activity occurred, in particular Belfast, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham.

Today there is no heavy manufacturing industry in which UK-based firms can be considered world leaders. However, the Midlands in particular remains a strong manufacturing centre.

More recently, high technology firms have concentrated largely along the M4 motorway, partly because of access to Heathrow Airport, but also because of agglomeration economies.

Finance and services

Once, every great city had a stock exchange. Now, the UK financial industry is concentrated overwhelmingly in the City of London and Canary Wharf, with back office and administrative operations often dispersed around the south of England. London is one of the world's great financial centres and is usually referred to as a world city.

Regional disparity

The combined effect of changing economic fortune has created the so-called North-South divide, in which decaying industrial areas of the north of England contrast with the wealthy, finance and technology led southern economy.

This has led successive governments to develop regional policy to try to rectify the imbalance.

This is not to say that the south is uniformly wealthy: some of the worst pockets of deprivation can be found in London.

Natural resources

"Main article:" Economy of the United Kingdom

Historically, much of the United Kingdom was forested. Since prehistoric times, man has deforested much of the United Kingdom.

Agriculture is intensive, highly mechanised, and efficient by European standards, producing about 60% of food needs with only 1% of the labour force. It contributes around 2% of GDP. Around two thirds of production is devoted to livestock, one third to arable crops.

In 1993, it was estimated that land use was:
*Arable land: 25 %
*Permanent crops: 0 %
*Permanent pastures: 46 %
*Forests and Woodland: 12 %
*Other: 17 %
*Irrigated: 1,080 km²

The UK has a variety of natural resources including:
*Geological: coal, petroleum, natural gas, limestone, chalk, gypsum,silica, rock salt, china clay, iron ore, tin, silver, gold, lead.
*Agricultural: arable land, wheat, barley, hill farms, sheep

The UK has large coal, natural gas, and oil reserves; primary energy production accounts for 10% of GDP, one of the highest shares of any industrial nation. Due to the island location of the UK, the country has great potential for generating electricity from wave power and tidal power, although these have not yet been exploited on a commercial basis.


Current issues

The United Kingdom is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has met Kyoto Protocol target of a 12.5 % reduction from 1990 levels and intends to meet the legally binding target of a 20 % cut in emissions by 2010. By 2005, the government aims to reduce the amount of industrial and commercial waste disposed of in landfill sites to 85 % of 1998 levels and to recycle or compost at least 25 % of household waste, increasing to 33 % by 2015. Between 1998-99 and 1999-2000, household recycling increased from 8.8 % to 10.3 %.

International agreements

The United Kingdom is a party to many international agreements, including:Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulphur 94, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Seals, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands and Whaling.

The UK has signed, but not ratified, the international agreement on Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants.

ee also

*British overseas territories
*Conservation in the United Kingdom
*Demographics of the United Kingdom
*Extreme points of the United Kingdom
*Geography of Scotland
*Geography of England
*Geography of Ireland
*Geography of Wales
*Geography of Europe
*List of caves in the United Kingdom
*List of places in the United Kingdom
*List of conurbations in the United Kingdom
*City status in the United Kingdom
*Towns of the United Kingdom
*Transport in the United Kingdom


* [ CIA Factbook]
* [ UK Government Statistics]

External links

* [ UK climate averages provided by the Meteorological Office]
* [ Ordnance Survey geofacts page]

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