Leisure Time in Britain


Nearly all British people in full-time jobs have at least a four-week-holiday a year, often in two or three separate periods. The normal working week is 35-40 hours, Monday to Friday. People who have to work in shifts with 'unsocial' hours are paid extra for the inconvenience. More overtime is done (at extra pay) than in most other Western European countries, but there is relatively little 'moonlighting'- that is, independent work for pay in leisure hours. (Another way of saying this is that the 'black economy', involving work paid privately in cash and not officially recorded or taxed, is relatively small.)

There are only eight official public holidays a year, only one of them in the six months before Christmas. None of them celebrates anything to do with state or nation, though the first Monday in May was made a 'bank holiday' (national holiday) by a recent Labour government as the British holiday in honour of working people.

The most obvious - and traditional - British holiday destination is the coast. No place in the country is more than three hours away. The coast is full of variety, with good cliffs and rocks between the beaches, but the uncertain weather and cold sea are serious disadvantages. Also, two weeks in a hotel room with balcony and private bath can now cost less in Spain or Greece, with flight included, than the same in a British hotel. Most of the hotels in the numerous seaside resort towns were built in the railway age, between 50 and 100 years ago, and now seem to be used as much by people going to conferences as by those on holiday. Going to a conference can be a sort of holiday, even in working time and with expenses paid.

People who go for a one or two-week-holiday to the coast, or to a country place, tend to take their caravans or tents to campsites, or rent static caravans, cottages or flats. Some take tents, but their optimism is usually disappointed. Many town dwellers have bought old country cottages, to use for their own holidays and to let to others when they are working themselves.

People on holiday or travelling around the country often stay at farms or other houses which provide 'bed and breakfast'. These are usually comfortable and better value than hotels.

By now the holiday resorts most popular with the British are on the Mediterranean coasts, or yet further south. In 1988 a third of all British people went abroad, mainly to places where warm sea and sunshine can be confidently expected. Most travel by air on 'package' holidays, paying for flight, local tax and hotel or flat all together, others travel by car or bus and ferry. If affluence continues to grow and spread more widely, it seems likely that foreign travel will grow more quickly still, particularly in winter to places not too far from the equator.


The importance of participation in sport has legal recognition in Britain. Every local authority has a duty to provide and maintain playing fields and other facilities, which are usually very cheap to use and sometimes even free. Spectator sport is also a matter of official public concern. For example, there is a law which prevents the television rights to the most famous annual sporting occasions, such as the Cup Final and the Derby (The sporting calendar), from being sold exclusively to satellite channels, which most people cannot receive. In these cases it seems to be the event, rather than the sport itself, which is important. Every year the Boat Race and the Grand National are watched on television by millions of people who have no great interest in rowing or horse-racing. Over the years, some events have developed a mystique which gives them a higher status than the standard at which they are played deserves. In modern times, for example, the standard of rugby at the annual Varsity Match has been rather low - and yet it is always shown live on television.

Sometimes the traditions which accompany an event can seem as important as the actual sporting contest. Wimbledon, for instance, is not just a tennis tournament. It means summer fashions, strawberries and cream, garden parties and long, warm English summer evenings. This reputation created a problem for organisers of the event in 1993, when it was felt that security for players had to be tightened. Because Wimbledon is essentially a middle-class event, British tennis fans would never allow themselves to be treated like football fans. Wimbledon with security fences, policemen on horses and other measures to keep fans off the court? It just wouldn't be Wimbledon!

The long history of such events has meant that many of them, and their venues, have become world-famous. Therefore, it is not only the British who tune in to watch. The Grand National, for example, attracts a television audience of 300 million. This world-wide enthusiasm has little to do with the standard of British sport. The cup finals of other countries often have better quality and more entertaining football on view - but more Europeans watch the English Cup Final than any other. The standard of British tennis is poor, and Wimbledon is only one of the world's major tournaments. But if you ask any top tennis player, you find that Wimbledon is the one they really want to win. Every footballer in the world dreams of playing at Wembley, every cricketer in the world of playing at Lord's. Wimbledon, Wembley and Lord's ( Famous sporting venues) are the 'spiritual homes' of their respective sports. Sport is a British export!


Organised amateur cricket is played between club teams, mainly on Saturday afternoons. Nearly every village, except in the far north, has its cricket club, and there must be few places in which the popular image of England, as sentimentalists like to think of it, is so clearly seen as on a village cricket field. A first-class match between English counties lasts for up to three days, with a six-hour-match on each day. The game is slow, and a spectator, sitting in the afternoon sun after a lunch of sandwiches and beer, may be excused for having a little sleep for half an hour.


For the great mass of the British public the eight months of the football season are more important than the four months of cricket. There are plenty of amateur association football (or 'soccer') clubs, and professional football is big business. The annual Cup Final match, between the two teams which have defeated their opponents in each round of a knock-out contest, dominates the scene; the regular 'league' games, organised in four divisions, provide the main entertainment through the season and the basis for the vast system of betting on the football pools. Many of the graffiti on public walls are aggressive statements of support for football teams, and the hooliganism of some British supporters has become notorious outside as well as inside Britain.


Rugby football (or 'rugger') is played with an egg-shaped ball, which may be carried and thrown (but not forward). If a player is carrying the ball he may be 'tackled' and made to fall down. Each team has fifteen players, who spend a lot of time lying in the mud or on top of each other and become very dirty, but do not need to wear such heavily protective clothing as players of American football. There is some professional Rugby League in the North, but elsewhere Rugby Union is played by amateurs and favoured by the middle-class. It is also the game played at most 'public schools', including Rugby itself, where it was invented. International matches, involving England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France, are played in capital cities with crowds of up to 80,000, but a match between two top clubs may be watched by only a few hundred spectators.

Most secondary schools have playing fields, and boys normally play rugger or soccer in winter and cricket in summer; girls play tennis and rounders (similar to baseball) in summer and netball and hockey in winter. Hockey is also becoming more and more popular at boys' schools, and there are many men's amateur hockey clubs. Men's basketball is played by a tiny minority.


Golf courses (together with the bars in their club houses) are popular meeting places of the business community; it is, for example, very desirable for bank managers to play golf. There are plenty of tennis clubs, but most towns provide tennis courts in public parks, and anyone may play tennis cheaply on a municipal court. There are cheap municipal golf courses in Scotland but few in England. The ancient game of bowls is played, much more sedately than in southern France, mainly by middle-aged people, on reserved level stretches of beautifully kept grass, often in municipal parks.


The biggest new development in sport has been with long-distance running. 'jogging', for healthy outdoor exercise, needing no skill or equipment, became popular in the 1970s, and soon more and more people took it seriously. Now the annual London Marathon is like a carnival, with a million people watching as the world's star runners are followed by 25,000 ordinary people trying to complete the course. Most of them succeed and then collect money from supporters for charitable causes. Many thousands of people take part in local marathons all over Britain.

The first fully organised Olympic Games of the modern era were held in London in 1908, and every Olympic sport has its practitioners in Britain. For a long time now British teams have not won many medals. After many years of complaints that governments had not provided enough resources, or material encouragement, Prime Minister Wilson appointed a Minister for Sport in 1974. This post has often been held by a politician with a sporting background - in 1988 by a former rowing star.


Rowing is one Olympic sport which has a great history in Britain, beginning in some schools and universities. Some regattas on the Thames have been spectacular social events for well over a hundred years, and today's best rowers have had international successes. But with dozens of other sports, including gymnastics, large resources, and hence money, are needed to encourage popular participation to discover talent and develop its potential. Although plenty of new sports centres have been built, they have difficulty in competing for an adequate share of public expenditure. In the conditions of the 1980s some local authorities had to close public swimming pools.


Cycling is a fairly popular pastime, but few people take it up as a serious sport, and it is not a very popular spectator sport. Sailing and horseriding are popular among those who can afford them, and some yacht races attract wider interest, particularly the regattas off Cowes, in the waters sheltered by the Isle of Wight.

Horse racing is big business, along with the betting which sustains it. Every day of the year, except Sundays, there is a race meeting at at least one of Britain's several dozen racecourses. Nine-tenths of the betting is done by people all over the country, by post or at local betting shops, and it is estimated that a tenth of all British men bet regularly on horse races, many of them never going to a race course.


Greyhound racing had a remarkable revival in the 1980s, and by 1988 it had accounted for about a quarter of all gambling. Its stadiums are near town centres, small enough to be floodlit in the evenings. Until recently the spectators were mostly male and poor, the surroundings shabby. The 1980s have changed all this, with the growth of commercial sponsorship for advertising. There are fewer stadiums and fewer spectators than in 1970, but the old cloth cap image has become much less appropriate. But one thing has not changed. The élite of Britain's dogs, and their trainers, mostly come from Ireland.


Horse racing accounts for about half of all gambling, dog racing for a quarter (after increasing by 27 per cent in 1987-88). The total gambling expenditure is estimated at over three billion pounds a year, or nearly 1 per cent of the gross domestic product - though those who bet get about three-quarters of their stake back in winnings. There is no national lottery, though premium bonds are a form of national savings, with monthly prizes instead of interest. About half of all households bet regularly on the football pools, although half of the money staked is divided between the state, through taxes, and the operators. People are attracted by the hope of winning huge prizes, but some winners become miserable with their sudden unaccustomed wealth. Bingo sessions, often in old cinemas, are attractive mainly to women, and have a good social element. More popular are the slot machines in establishments described as 'amusement arcades'. There has been some worry about the addiction of young people to this form of gambling, which can lead to theft.


The most popular of all outdoor sports is fishing, from the banks of lakes or rivers or in the sea, from jetties, rocks or beaches. Some British lakes and rivers are famous for their trout or salmon, and attract enthusiasts from all over the world.


The British do not shoot small animals or birds for sport, though some farmers who shoot rabbits or pigeons may enjoy doing so. But 'game birds', mainly pheasant, grouse and partridge, have traditionally provided sport for the land-owning gentry.

Until Labour's election victory of 1964 many of the prime ministers of the past two hundred years, along with members of their cabinets, had gone to the grouse moors of Scotland or the Pennines for the opening of the shooting season on 12th August. Since 1964 all that has changed. Now there are not many leading British politicians carrying guns in the shooting parties, though there may be foreign millionaires, not all of them from America. Some of the beaters, whose job it is to disturb the grouse so that they fly up to be shot, are students earning money to pay for trips abroad. But there is still a race to send the first shot grouse to London restaurants, where there are people happy to pay huge amounts of money for the privilege of eating them.


Another sport, also associated through the centuries with ownership of land, is the hunting of foxes. The hounds chase the fox, followed by people riding horses, wearing red or black coats and conforming with various rules and customs. In a few hill areas stags are hunted similarly. Both these types of hunting are enjoyed mainly by people who can afford the cost of keeping horses and carrying them to hunt meetings in 'horse boxes' or trailer vans. Both, particularly stag-hunting, are opposed by people who condemn the cruelty involved in chasing and killing frightened animals. There have been attempts to persuade Parliament to pass laws to forbid hunting, but none has been successful.


London has several dozens of theatres, most of them not far from Trafalgar Square. A successful play can run for many months or even years. Outside London some quite big towns have no public theatre at all, and hardly any town has more than three. But there are private theatres, some attached to colleges or schools. Innumerable amateur groups produce plays, often with some professional help, in these theatres which they hire or borrow, or in halls temporarily equipped with makeshift stage furniture. Shakespeare is honoured by a great modern theatre in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born. But serious theatre needs subsidy to survive.

Several first-rate orchestras are based in London. The largest provincial centres also maintain permanent orchestras, which give regular concerts. All these orchestras occasionally visit other places to give concerts, and some financial help is given to them by the Arts Council or by local authorities. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, in central London, is leased by the government to the Covent Garden Opera House Trust, which receives a government grant. Seasons of opera are performed there and also of ballet by the Royal Ballet, which has in recent years been one of the most successful of British ventures in the arts.

Touring opera and ballet companies visit the principal theatres in major towns. Throughout every summer opera of the highest quality is performed in Glyndebourne, 90 kilometres south of London but visited by people who come from London and its suburbs.

In recent years Local enterprise has been responsible for the development of 'festivals' of the arts in several places, of which the best known is the annual International Festival of Music and Drama in Edinburgh, held in late August. As well as the performances by musicians, etc. from all over the world, the 'fringes' of the Festival produce an interesting variety of plays by less established companies. Among other such festivals are those held at Bath, Aldeburgh (connected with the composer Benjamin Britten), Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands and Llangollen in northcentral Wales. The Three Choirs Festival, which circulates among the three western cathedral cities of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford, has a continuous history going back to 1724.

British governments have been less generous than many others with subsidies to serious or experimental drama, music and ballet. There is a Minister for the Arts (not a member of the Cabinet) and an Arts Council which receives a grant from the government (£194 million in 1991-2). Part of this money is used to sustain the performing arts, but it is easy to complain that some performances are helped which do not deserve such help. The whole question of subsidy to the arts creates a dilemma for politicians dedicated to the market, and reluctant to use tax revenues to support the expensive enjoyments of minorities, however worthy. Yet they do not wish to be accused of philistinism. Meanwhile, some big companies are helping by sponsoring performances.

>From about 1930 until quite recent times the cinema enjoyed an immense popularity, and the large cinemas built in the 1930s were the most impressive of the buildings to be seen in the streets of many towns. More recently the rapid spread of television has brought a great change. In 1946 the average British person went to the cinema forty times a year, but by the 1980s the figure had fallen to 1.2 time's, and 1,500 cinemas were closed during this period. Most films shown are from Hollywood, but some British films have won great international success. For foreign language films there is a healthy prejudice against 'dubbed' English soundtracks, and such films are usually shown with English subtitles.

Censorship of the theatre 'for the preservation of good manners, decorum and the public peace' was at last abolished in 1968, but some films are classified as unsuitable for children. More than half of all households have video equipment, sometimes used for viewing films on the home-TV set. Video-film hiring is big business.


Visitors to provincial England sometimes find the lack of public activities in the evenings depressing. There are, however, many activities which visitors do not see. Evening classes, each meeting once a week, are flourishing immensely, and not only those that prepare people for examinations leading to professional qualifications. Many people attend classes connected with their hobbies, such as photography, painting, folk dancing, dog training, cake decoration, archaeology, local history, car maintenance and other subjects. Classes may be organised by local education authorities or by bodies like the. Workers' Educational Association, and in them people find an agreeable social life as well as the means of pursuing their own hobbies. All this, together with the popularity of amateur dramatics, can provide, some comfort for those who fear that modern mass entertainment is producing a passive society.

Other groups meet regularly for a mixture of social and religious purposes or for the pursuit of hobbies. For young people there are youth clubs, some, but not all, of them connected with churches.

Young and old spend leisure time working together for good causes, raising money for the benefit of victims of famine, flood or misfortune. All of this demands a good deal of organisation and innumerable committees. Most of all money is needed, and the workers for charities spend much time in trying to extract funds from the rest of the community to supplement the subscriptions which they pay themselves. Subject to the regulations made by the public -authorities and with their permission, the supporters of a charity may organise a 'flag-day', normally not more than once a year in any town. They stand in the streets with collecting boxes into which generously disposed passers-by put money, receiving in exchange little paper 'flags' to pin on their coats. Other devices are 'bazaars' or 'sales of work', where home made food and unwanted clothes are sold, and opening speeches are made by persons of importance. All these activities turn out to be social occasions. In the course of doing good the public spirited develop their social lives, meet their friends and enjoy themselves.

Public libraries, maintained by the local authorities, are well developed and progressive, and allow people everywhere to borrow books without charge. The books in the lending section are always kept on open shelves, and library staffs are very helpful in getting books on request from other libraries through the exchange system. Most libraries report an increase in borrowing over the past few years, so television does not seem to be stopping people from reading, as it was feared that it would. Many towns have well and imaginatively kept museums and art galleries, with no charge for admission at least until 1990. By then some of the national museums were charging for admission.

England is famous for its gardens, and most people like gardening. This is probably one reason why so many people prefer living in houses to living in flats. Particularly in suburban areas it is possible to pass row after row of ordinary small houses, each one with its neatly kept patch of grass surrounded by a great variety of flowers and shrubs. Some people who have no garden of their own have patches of land or 'allotments' in special areas. Enthusiasts of gardening - or do-it-yourself activities - get ever-growing help from radio programmes, magazines and patient shop-keepers.

Although the task of keeping a garden is essentially individual, gardening can well become the foundation of social and competitive relationships. Flower shows and vegetable shows, with prizes for the best exhibits, are popular, and to many gardeners the process of growing the plants seems more important than the merely aesthetic pleasure of looking at the flowers or eating the vegetables.

Two traditional British institutions, the pub and fish-and-chip shop, have been transformed in the past two or three decades. A few pubs still have gloomy walls and frosted-glass windows, ugly bars where people drink standing up. But in most of today's pubs, although the customers still buy their drinks at the bar, they usually carry them away to sit comfortably at tables in an ambience both civilised and aesthetically pleasing. Many pubs have tables outside, sometimes in well-tended gardens, with swings for children. Many of them provide food, not only sandwiches but salads and hot dishes, often very good and usually good value. The opening hours were liberalised at last in 1988, allowing pubs to stay open all day. However, some still keep to the old practice, so long imposed by law, of closing for about three hours in the afternoon. Although a lot of trouble is caused by people who get drunk, mostly at weekends, the British drink less alcohol than most other Europeans. They now drink less beer but more wine than in the past.

Fish-and-chip shops no longer wrap up their wares in newspapers, to be eaten in the street outside, but provide more commodious containers. Most offer chicken or sausages too, or quite often Chinese dishes. Some indeed are run by people who originally came from China or Hong Kong. They have their rivals like hamburger and fried chicken bars. And most of the ubiquitous Indian and Chinese restaurants are prepared to put their rice and curry, or their noodle dishes, in little boxes to take away. But these are serious meals, with a preparation time of twenty minutes, so takeaway customers can avoid delay by telephoning in advance.

For eating out in towns there is a marvellous variety of choice. Many of the Indian restaurants are very good indeed. Other restaurants are of several different nationalities, some providing simple dishes, some more ambitious. British people eat out in restaurants or hotel dining rooms more now than in the past, not only for conferences, business or club meetings, but as a family activity.

There is a strong tradition of hospitality, and most entertaining in people's homes is free and easy, informal, and without rituals. The old afternoon tea party has lost popularity, even on Sunday, partly because few people dare to eat the fattening scones, butter and jam and cakes which go with the traditional English tea. Instead, friends and relatives are asked for drinks before lunch or dinner, or for a meal which nowadays is sometimes a buffet supper eaten away from the table.


The mid-twentieth century has brought three great and obvious changes to family life: contraception, personal mobility, and a concern for the equality of women. Along with these, and linking them, we have a value system which rejects the idea that anyone is superior to anyone else, and hence a rejection of established authority except that which arises within a self-conscious peer-group. Old accepted patterns of behaviour, including courtship and the ways by which men and women meet, have disappeared, and have been replaced by nothing definable.

At home most parents do not restrict the movements of their children, in particular their daughters, as much as they used to. Girls are expected to go to work when they finish their education, no matter at what age between sixteen and twenty-three. They meet men at work, within their peer group and through their friends. Some form stable relationships early, others have several relationships in succession. Most young people have sex before marriage. Most are successful in avoiding unwanted pregnancy at this stage, some marry if pregnancy does occur. Increasing numbers of couples set up home without being married.

For those who become pregnant and are unable or unwilling to marry, abortion has been available, subject to restrictions, since 1967. The restrictions are not very precise, and their meaning depends mainly on the interpretations of individual medical practitioners. Even so, the number of legal abortions carried out in any year has not exceeded 160,000. The main effect of the easing of the law has been to reduce the incidence of bad effects on the health of women enormously. A large proportion of abortions are performed on married women who already have several children.

In one way the new acceptance of extra-marital sexual activity has been bad for women; it is easier for men to avoid responsibility, and in a world where people are encouraged to think that they have a right to whatever they want, some women suffer from being treated without the personal respect which older values expected men to show.

Most women who marry continue to go out to work until they have children, and few have more than two children. The birth rate declined in 1965-77 as in most other countries, and in 1987 was around the EEC average at 13 per 1,000 population.

Most women with very small children stay at home to look after them, unless they can make other arrangements. Few married couples live near to their own parents, and grandparents are likely to go out to work themselves. There are not enough places in nursery schools to provide for all the mothers who would like to go to work, but a few workplaces provide crèches, and children can be left with private 'childminders' registered with the local authorities.

Parents have become more indulgent to their children in every way, giving them more presents and money and not exercising much discipline. There is so much variety that generalisation is unwise, but serious misbehaviour, including vandalism, by young children, has increased ten times over in the best twenty years, and is often blamed on weak parental control. The 'problem families' are well known to the huge army of social service workers.

In well-adjusted families modern life gives scope for more collective family activity, which is helped by owning a car and garden. Improved housing has made family life more private, and with this new privacy there has been a decline in the informal social control of neighbours' opinions. While the nuclear family of parents and children has, grown closer together (except where the children demand and take more independence), the extended family has become weaker. Young people, when they marry, tend to live well away from their parents and other relations, often in different towns; and many people in non-manual careers move from one town to another at intervals of five, ten or fifteen years, so that many children hardly know their aunts, uncles or cousins.

Whatever the reason, the nuclear family as an institution has not universally adapted itself to these recent changes. Until 1971 divorce was obtainable without much difficulty on the ground of 'matrimonial offence', but then a new law allowed divorce by agreement, defined as 'irretrievable breakdown of marriage'. When married people have difficulties they may ask for help and advice from the unpaid counsellors of a private organisation, the former Marriage Guidance Council, now called 'Relate'. In spite of these efforts, the divorce rate has doubled in the last ten years, and is now the highest in any Western European country. About a third of all marriages end in divorce, and a much smaller number in legal separation. The legal costs involved in divorce and separation may be substantial, but are often funded from the legal aid system, paid out of tax revenue. Meanwhile the number of couples who set up home together without marrying has increased enormously.

The legal arrangements for a divorce or separation normally require the father to pay a weekly allowance to the mother, but not all fathers keep up their payments. Magistrates' courts spend much time trying to put pressure on defaulting fathers, but the ultimate sanction, prison, does not help anyone. Many children of divorced parents, as well as those of unmarried mothers, depend on social security payments for their support, and some of them also need help from the local authorities' social services.

The word 'permissiveness' is used to describe a characteristic of modern times. The laws allow actions which were once forbidden, and when people break the laws every effort is made to treat them as victims of circumstances rather than as people deserving anger and punishment. Meanwhile the old social controls of religion, extended family and close-knit neighbourhood have been weakened. The new freedoms, along with the newly-available material goods, have created opportunities for freer and more varied living; and where they produce misery (for example, among the victims of individual anti-social acts) the public authorities have a vast and caring apparatus through which to help. Professional social workers have to make difficult decisions - for example when to recommend that their local authority should take into its care children who are neglected or ill-treated by their parents. Children in care are often sent to live with other families who then act as foster parents. Some decisions have gone wrong, and the damage and distress caused by such errors has done some harm to public confidence in the official social services.

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