If you're American, then the state or territory in which you're born is a defining feature of your life. It has different laws to neighboring states and a different history. In theory, it's an arbitrary line on a map, just like any border, but the difference between being on one side and being on the other can be culturally and financially enormous.
This is not so when it comes to English counties. There are strong cultural histories for each county, but there are so many crisscrossing identities between the various towns, cities, counties and regions that the county itself does not define that much.
Counties are primarily used for administrative purposes, but if you live in Berkshire, you may happily commute to Wiltshire daily and have absolutely no beef with the locals. Laws are the same in different counties, and cultures may cross between them. Accents, of course, are so numerous that any given county may feature dozens of them!
There are 48 geographical counties in England, which have their basis in 39 historic counties, though it can depend on which map you are using. How many of them can you recognize from a rough outline? It's time to test your knowledge with this challenging quiz!
Berkshire is pronounced Bark-shire, because obviously you can't go around pronouncing things the same way they are spelled in England, as that would be terribly old-fashioned. It is one of the wealthiest and most populous counties, despite being one of the smallest, because of its proximity to London and access to the Thames River.
Somerset, pronounced "summer-set," is another one that is not said the way it is spelled. It is home to the city of Bath, a glorious place to visit, as well as Longleat, a stately home that has its own safari park and is well worth seeing. A large portion of Longleat has been painted as though its owner was on LSD (which, at the time, he was).
Kent is the most pronounceable county and the wealthiest outside of London. It benefits from commuter access as well as Eurostar heading through it. Dover, the most important port in the UK, is in Kent, which means it is (Brexit notwithstanding) an incredibly prosperous place.
Norfolk is one of the counties of East Anglia and home to the cathedral city of Norwich. Sadly, as Norfolk is very flat and at sea level, it is very threatened by climate change. There are estates there already turning areas into wetlands, anticipating that they cannot be saved with even a very minor rise in sea level.
Wiltshire is unfortunately home to Swindon, a town that not many people like. However, outside of Swindon are some of the loveliest rolling hills in the world. Wiltshire is on the M4 motorway from Bristol to London, thus a wealthy place with plenty of jobs.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is mostly in North Yorkshire. The county of Yorkshire is divided into three "ridings," which operate individually for administrative purposes. The Bronte sisters grew up in Malham, a village in the Dales, not far from the industrial cities of Leeds and Bradford.
Manchester is now a big and important enough city to warrant its own county. The BBC moved many of its operations to Salford in Manchester a few years ago, and the area is now modern and prosperous, having pivoted away from its industrial roots.
Hampshire is the home of Jane Austen, whose house you can visit there. Being in the South of England, it is one of the sunniest counties and thus a great place to spend the summers. You can even grow quality wine there!
Shropshire is a very rural county on the Welsh border. Its primary town is Shrewsbury. Shropshire is notable for its Ironbridge Gorge, which is a UNESCO heritage site containing a number of settlements that date back thousands of years.
The Dukes of Northumberland have always controlled the Scottish border, and as such, held the balance of power in England. The Percy family have thus featured in several of Shakespeare's history plays. Northumberland is home to large chunks of Hadrian's Walls, as well as some of the biggest wind farms in the UK.
It's pronounced "gloster-shire." The county is named for the absolutely lovely town of Gloucester. The common "-cester" ending is an old Anglo-Saxon word that hails from the Roman "castrum" meaning fort. It is also the root of the word "castle."
Just like its friend Berkshire down south, Derbyshire is pronounced Darbyshire. It is a gorgeous northern county and home to Chatsworth, the house that inspired Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's stately home. If you visit, make sure to see some of the caves of the Peak District, as well as the beautiful peaks.
Essex gets a bad reputation, which isn't very fair. It is just to the northeast of London and thus has a lot of suburban commuter types in it. However, people think of it as home to orange-tanned people with leopard hair extensions, and it really is a lot more than that!
Devon usually goes without its -shire suffix, though it used to use it. It is one of the two counties that fill the "foot" of England - if you picture the entire UK like a person sitting facing Ireland, with Wales as the belly and Scotland as the head and shoulders, Devon is the knees!
A hearty Lancashire hotpot can help keep the weather at bay in this chilly northern county. Lancashire is where the House of Lancaster hails from - they were the victorious party in the Wars of the Roses that eventually placed the Tudor dynasty on the throne.
Warwickshire is another triumph of outdated spelling, being pronounced "worrik-shire." It's a stunning county that is home to the river Avon, and thus the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and where his house is open for visits.
The East Riding is the second of the three ridings of Yorkshire - we've already mentioned the North. The East has the fewest big towns and is dominated by the national park. Its coastline borders the North Sea.
Worcestershire sauce isn't the only lovely thing in this very pretty county. The northeast portion of the county is very much influenced by Midlands industrial history, but most of it is very rural. This means there is a great combination of good transport links and quiet countryside.
Princes Charles is Duke of Cornwall, a title that he has held since marrying Camilla Parker-Bowles and a way of avoiding making her another Princess of Wales. Cornwall is the most westerly and southerly county, and many people who do not wish to fly abroad go there for their summer holidays.
Nottinghamshire is named for the county town of Nottingham, naturally. It is a northern county that has some glorious countryside. It is not very wealthy, being a little remote for some of the greater prosperity of the industrial age, but it is very beautiful.
There are actually two counties of Sussex, legally speaking - East and West. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are the Duke and Duchess of Sussex generally though. The prince wanted this particular title as the first Duke of Sussex (born 1773) was known for campaigning for racial justice, such as abolishing slavery and giving equal rights to Jews. In this way, the choice title honors Harry and Meghan's modern, diverse marriage and progressive beliefs.
Middlesex is not really a county anymore, functionally speaking. It has been gobbled up by London, or technically, the county of Greater London. London is the only megacity in the UK and has a massively disproportionate financial and political impact on the country, which is a source of a great deal of tension.
This is a larger county in the east of England, just north of East Anglia. Lincolnshire shares borders with plenty of other counties, notably including its border with Northamptonshire, which at 20 yards long is the shortest county border.
Bedfordshire is an easily accessible county that benefits from being southerly enough to be in easy reach of London (with the M1 motorway going straight there in an hour or so), while not being so close that it has become too built up. It is home to Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedfordshire and a stately home that is well worth a visit.
Leicestershire is pronounced "lesta-shire," and it's about as far away from the coast as you can get in the United Kingdom. Leics, as it is known by the postal service, is a country that benefited enormously from the industrial age, though it is not as wealthy now.
Northumberland covers the eastern half of the border with Scotland; Cumbria covers the west. The county town is Carlisle, which is the last stop on the border before you go into Scotland. Cumbria is home to the Lake District, a region so stunning that the Romantic poets themselves waxed lyrical about it in many of their best works.
Buckinghamshire is home to the Chiltern Hills, which are a protected "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty." However, it's also bang on the main commuter routes from Birmingham to London and was thoroughly populated before the Chilterns were protected. This means it is home to some of the nicest and priciest non-urban real estate in the world, as well as some very dense and very nice towns like Marlowe. If you can get your mitts on a house there, the price will never go down.
The county town of Cheshire is the city of Chester. This county is between Manchester and Liverpool, which between them are the most important city and the most important port in the region. That means it has been protected by a "Green Belt," which limits construction in the county and keeps it very rural and pretty.
Cambridgeshire is home, unsurprisingly, to the city of Cambridge, where the self-professed best university in the world can be found. Cambridge is especially noted for its many great scientists, as well as its Footlights theatrical group that produced a number of the greatest British performers working today.
Oxfordshire is home to Oxford, the other truly world-class English university outside of London. As well as being rife with adorable little villages made out of local stone, the county is also only about an hour from London by train, meaning that it is an incredibly desirable place to live.
Bristol sits at the mouth of a major estuary and is a very important port city. It has a population of just under three-quarters of a million and is home to a top-notch university as well as a great deal of culture and some major BBC offices. It is also the last stop in England on your way from London to the major Welsh cities of Cardiff and Swansea.
The Welsh counties of Monmouthshire and Powys can be found just over the border from this beautiful rural county. Herefordshire is so proud of its cows that they appear on the county flag! Under 200,000 people live in the county, but there are a great many cows to make up for it.
Rutland is the fourth-smallest county, ahead of only the Isle of Wight, plus the City of London and City of Bristol (the former of which is not to be confused with Greater London). Rutland is notable for having a very large reservoir, but not a lot of people. Tradition has it that people from Rutland are called "Raddle men."
Durham is an unusual county, for a couple of reasons. It's not an urban county even though it has the name of its county town, Durham, in its entirety (as opposed to Durhamshire). To distinguish the two, the county is usually referred to as "County Durham."
Northamptonshire is another landlocked county that is bang in the middle of England, sited in the East Midlands and the most southerly of the counties in this region. It is known historically as "The Rose of the Shires."
Surrey is one of the so-called "Home Counties," the wealthy counties that border London. Curiously, its country town is not Guildford, despite this being the biggest town; Surrey used to contain parts of London and thus had its headquarters there. When the county borders moved, the council did not, meaning Surrey is arguably governed from "abroad."
Situated in the West Midlands, there are no major cities in Staffordshire, but there are a lot of very nice smaller towns that are still large enough to have their own cathedrals. The village of Flash in Staffordshire is the highest village in England, being 1519 feet above sea level.
Tyne & Wear is the home of Newcastle, the most important city in the Northeast. The county is named for the two major rivers upon which the city stands. Newcastle is home to Wallsend, so named for being the place where Hadrian's Wall meets the North Sea.
Liverpool is a very important port city and the county created for it, Merseyside, has a population of 1.3 million. The county also includes the Wirral peninsula and some more rural areas.
The Isle of Wight is its own county and was a much-loved summer vacation site for Queen Victoria, whose Osborne House still stands there. The Isle of Wight is reachable by ferry or catamaran, but the quickest way there is the hovercraft! The island has some of the best fossil beds in the UK.