How England made the English: What James Bond and the Fat Controller can tell us about a nation

Simon Garner

"There's this scene at the end of Dr No," says writer Harry Mount. "James Bond is in Jamaica. His arch-enemy is dead and his beautiful girlfriend is about to leap into a double sleeping bag with him. And yet, despite being in tropical paradise, Bond says he longs for 'the douce weather of England - the soft airs, the heat waves, the cold spells - the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year'."

It is the English weather, Mount contends, along with its geography and geology, that shape how England is seen and how the English see themselves. It is this questing for the 'essence of Englishness' that fascinates Mount in his new book 'How England Made The English'. And Mount certainly has a knack for uncovering the curiosities and idiosyncrasies that have made the English what they are.

"Our weather has stayed the same for centuries," Mount tells Yahoo! News. "The climate is a temperate, rainy one. It dictates our national character, the way we look, the way we dress, the way the country looks. But it is also uniquely accommodating to plants, animals and humans.

"The Gulf Stream is key to our climate's 'Englishness'. London shares the same latitude as Irkutsk in Siberia and yet its climate is not sub-Arctic; it's also the same as Calgary in Canada and that's hosted the Winter Olympics.

"Its warming influence is largely the reason why England is so packed. The hospitable weather conditions allowed us to settle just about anywhere we wanted stretching back thousands of years."

While the geology of England - its gentle landscapes and quality of agricultural land - greatly aided widespread settlement, Mount believes its sheer variety also helps makes England so interesting.

Related: [Barbecues, booze and bungalows: The English words that aren't really English at all]

"There can be incredible variations in geology over what are relatively small areas," Mount says. "No other country in Europe packs so many different stones into such a small area. It is what makes our counties so individual, from the granites, slates and sandstones of the West Country to the limestones of Yorkshire. The honey-yellows and browns you see in Cotswolds villages and the Oxford colleges is Jurassic, oolitic limestone. It's the reason why these particular areas are so popular with tourists.

"And of course the fact that we are an island is central to who and what we are. It's a small, over-populated island and we are a reserved, private population who recoil from intrusion. If there was still a land bridge we would undoubtedly feel more European."

Mount believes that it's only by being somewhere other than England that one fully realises the uniqueness of the place. "The best qualified are the people who have lived abroad," he says. "Those people will probably have lived in a place with more extremes. For example I lived in New York for two years. The summers were hot and the winters were cold. I was really struck all the more when I came back to England by how gentle it was.

"When I was in America my friends there couldn't believe I wore the same shoes for a weekend walk as I wore to the office. They'd kit themselves out in all the equipment - hiking boots, the lot. It was the same approach to cycling - they'd never bike across town in a suit to go to work. It's because our weather, geography and geology is so temperate that there's no need for such preperations and why we love a good walk - whatever the weather. Nowhere is very far from anywhere else and you'll never get fatally caught out. The greyness of England is true but it is also a great virtue."

Here's just a few of the fascinating facts featured in 'How England Made The English'

London only gets 1,500 hours of sunshine a year. Rome basks in 2,500 hours of annual sun. Northumberland gets just 1,350 hours;

It only rains, on average, once every three days in Britain. London is dry 94% of the time. The city is drier than Istanbul and south-east England has less water available per person than Sudan or Syria;

Chalk provides the best foundation for typical English sporting pursuits. It's why cricket was first played on the short, downland grass of the chalk downs of southern England. It's also ideal horse racing and training country;

No one in England is more than 70 miles - or two hours' drive - from the sea;

The British Isles are made up of 1,374 islands;

Sheffield has the highest number of trees per head of any city in Europe;

The marshiness of the south bank of London explains why the north was first settled and why the major administrative and commercial areas of the city were founded there - it also explains why the south was so unfashionable for centuries and why it can be hard to get a taxi to take you south of the river;

Just as Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow the Anglo-Saxons had forty different words for hill - and they play a part in many of the place names for our towns and villages we use today;

The English country garden has the potential to be more ecologically diverse than the lushest West African, Malaysian or Brazilian rainforest;

The tall hat worn by the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine is a symptomatic of the changeover from horse-drawn coaches to railways. The guard of the coach became the guard of the train and for many years after the train guard wore the old coach guard's uniform.

'How England Made The English' was released in paperback on April 4 by Penguin, priced £9.99.