24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Practical information for visitors to the UK

These pages are designed to help you negotiate the practicalities of your visit to the UK.

And see below for details on...

A useful source of more detailed practical information (although more aimed at long-term visitors and settlers) is the Just Landed website at http://www.justlanded.com/english/UK.


Although Britain is part of the European Union, it does NOT use the euro currency. The only currency in general use is the British pound (£, pound sterling, GBP). At the time of writing, £1 corresponds to approximately €1.15 or US$1.50. Exchange rates fluctuate significantly, so please check carefully before making transactions. All charges associated with the Congress will be set in pounds.

Visitors who struggle with the shillings and guineas found in historical and literary sources may welcome the reassurance that Britain decimalised in 1971. One-hundredth of a pound is a penny (plural pence, abbreviated ‘p’).

Banks typically open from 09.30 to 16.30 or later: there is no lunchtime closure. There are also cash machines (ATMs) within easy reach of the Congress venue and city-centre hotels.


Mains electricity (line power) in the UK conforms to the European 230-volt, 50-hertz AC standard. The locally standard connector, however, is the bulky and distinctive BS 1363 plug, with three rectangular pins. Adaptors for the most widely used international plugs (suitable for most laptops) are available at airports and in electrical shops. Some equipment may need a specialist transformer to work properly.


At the time of writing, Manchester is basking in an unaccustomed heatwave with temperatures hitting 28°C (82°F) and near-constant sunshine. This is expected to persist until early on Tuesday 23 July, when there may be rain, although probably no immediate drop in temperature.

This is all very unusual. Typically, in late July, the weather is mostly dry with temperatures around 16°C (61°F).

There is a widespread cultural belief that it always rains in Manchester. Indeed, it’s often suggested that the cotton industry thrived particularly in a damp climate which made it easy for cotton roving to stick together. In fact – as Alex Hall, historian of meteorology and our Congress social media supremo, has pointed out – the statistics don’t bear this out.

That said, it will rain at some point. Congress branded umbrellas will be available for sale from the desk at University Place.            

Measures and quantities

The 12-hour clock is in common use: you will see references to 9am (09.00), 1pm (13.00), 6pm (18.00), etc. 12.00 is 12 noon; 00.00 is 12 midnight.

The British love for standardised weights and measures, and will frequently rely on three or four different and conflicting standards at the same time and for roughly the same purpose. One particularly entertaining consequence of the country’s tepid embrace of the metric system is that short distances are routinely measured in metres (especially by younger people), whereas longer distances are almost always reckoned in miles (1 mile = 1.6 km). Road signs give distances only in miles.

Similarly, cans and bottles of beer, wine and other drinks are sold in fractions of litres; but draught beer can by law only be sold in pints, or halves or thirds of pints (1 pint = 568 ml. The extra 68ml over a half-litre is important. As the old prole remarks in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘A ’alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy.’)


The international dialling code is +44. National calling numbers within the UK generally have the prefix 0, which is not used in the international form. If, for instance, you have been placing international calls from the United States to 011 44 161 275 5850, the equivalent from within the UK is 0161 275 5850.


The law in England since 2007 imposes a complete ban on smoking in ‘enclosed workplaces’, which includes pubs, bars, restaurants, and university buildings of all kinds. Please help the Congress organisers by observing this law: it is enforced, and any smoking on the premises will create serious difficulties, cleaning charges, and possibly fines for us.

The general solution for smokers is to go outside for a few minutes. Please note, however, that the University of Manchester particularly asks that smokers move away from building entrances rather than congregating around the doors.

Many pubs offer outdoor seating (‘beer gardens’) with shelters, and sometimes heaters, to allow smokers to smoke in comfort. The Kro Bar on Oxford Road has the largest beer garden near the Congress site.

Some hotels offer designated bedrooms for smokers. It’s illegal to smoke in a room not designated for smoking.

Note also that some shops sell cigarettes and tobacco but do not display them for sale. This is usually indicated by a grey closed cabinet behind the service point. You can still ask for the products and buy them as normal.


Anyone in the UK can buy and drink alcohol from the age of 18, and most of us do.

It’s not uncommon, however, for pubs and retailers to be very careful about the risk of underage service, requiring proof of age from anyone who appears to be under 25 or even older. Passport or driver’s licence should suffice.

For advice on what to drink and why, and for the enigma that is the British pub, see the Drinks guide.

Basic retail outlets in the UK explained

These are self-explanatory once you’ve found them and walked inside. But if you need to ask for directions, you need to know what to ask for:

  • a newsagent’s sells newspapers – but also snacks, soft drinks, tobacco (almost always) and alcohol (sometimes).
  • an off-licence sells beer, wine and spirits, alongside most or all of what a newsagent’s sells. (So named because it is licensed to sell alcohol ‘for consumption off the premises’ only: a pub has an ‘on-licence’).
  • a convenience store or mini-supermarket sells a moderate range of food and drink and household goods, and will probably have an off-licence section.
  • a supermarket is a bigger store with a fuller range.
  • a chemist’s is the usual term for a pharmacy (though that term is understood). Some medicines, including basic painkillers, are available on the open shelves; others can be purchased ‘over the counter’ (ie, subject to advice from the staff). A limited number of chemists, called dispensing chemists, have a pharmacist on site who can make up prescriptions supplied by a doctor.
  • a post office can send parcels and international mail.


Tips (gratuities) are customary for a limited range of services. There is a wide variety of opinion as to the ‘correct’ tipping policy even among local inhabitants, but the following conventions are widespread.

  • Restaurants and cafés with table service: 10 to 15% (depending on level of service). One of the few situations in which tipping is generally expected.
  • Taxis: not everybody tips. Some passengers add two or three pounds to the fare, or round up to a convenient value.
  • Hairdressers: not everybody tips. Some customers add up to 10%.
  • Hotels: optional porter services, if used, generally attract a tip. Room service and cleaning typically don’t, although tipping is more widespread in expensive international-style hotels.

Saying ‘keep the change’ is a more natural and a more common tipping mechanism than applying a percentage.

Some restaurants and other businesses apply a service charge, typically at 12.5%. This may serve as an automatic tip, but there is actually no guarantee that the money goes to the staff who served you. The obvious way to find out is to check with the staff themselves. Service charges are always optional. You can, if you wish, have the service charge removed and substitute your preferred tip in cash.

Whatever you do is unlikely to cause embarrassment. But note that many retail workers are not allowed to accept tips, and cash tipping in pubs (other than pub-restaurants) is completely unknown. If you attempt to tip bar staff, there will probably follow several minutes of unproductive confusion as they attempt to explain the correct charge. For further information on the mysteries of pubcraft, see Passport to the Pub, linked to from the Drinks guide.

Britain vs England vs the UK, etc

The nomenclature attached to these islands and their component parts presents a morass of complexities as deep as the Atlantic ocean in which they stand. The best medium-length discussion we can find is here:


Short version for current purposes:

(a) England covers about half of the big island. Using ‘England’ to refer to the whole island, or anything greater than the island, will offend somebody.

(b) The north of England is not in Scotland, no matter how far north it is (with the arguable exception of Berwick, but that’s very much for advanced players only).