Welcome to census Britain: A portrait of the nation in 2012

Once a decade, a huge national poll tells us who we are. But what do we look like up close? From divorces in Blackpool to Satanists in Bristol, our writers paint a fascinating portrait of the UK in 2012

The divorce capital

Donna Leak is getting her decree absolute in March. "You meet a lot of girls in Blackpool who are divorced – a lot of my friends are either split up or going through one and at such a young age that it is ridiculous really," said the 27-year-old sales assistant.

According to the census, Donna and her friends are not alone. Despite its fun-loving bucket-and-spade image, the Lancashire resort, it was revealed this week, is the divorce capital of Britain. Whilst 9 per cent of the rest of the country have seen their marriages officially break up, in Blackpool the figure is 13.1 per cent.

Theories abound. Some suggest the problem is down to the transient nature of the tourist trade; others claim it is due to the availability of cheap out-of-season accommodation that draws hard-up divorcees to the place.

But Ms Leak believes there is another issue. "I think too many people rush into it. I was with my husband for six years but as soon as we got married it all became a strain and we ended up splitting up. I wanted to divorce him when I was 22 but he wouldn't agree, then he proceeded against me when I was 23," she said. "You say goodbye and then you have to move on," the mother of two, who is now in another relationship, adds.

Not that there is any lack of respect for the institution of marriage. "When I entered marriage I really thought it was for life. I didn't want my children growing up in a broken home.

"My parents have been married for 40 years – they are celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary. I suppose they argue now and again over who makes the tea but they have a strong marriage.

"It is about compromise. You have to compromise because you won't both think the same thing.

"You have to work at it because it is hard work. You still need individual space otherwise it gets too much. But you also need time together, you have to put it aside, otherwise there is no point being together. That is when the arguments start and the divorce happens."

John Benson, a butcher, was married for seven years and has been divorced for the past five. He too is in another relationship and wants to marry again but believes the town's historic appeal could be the reason for the unusually high number of marriage splits.

"People say it is down to the holidaymakers and all that. There are more people playing the field and there is more temptation," explained the 35-year-old father of two.

"It was a similar situation for me. My wife fell for someone she worked with. I found their letters. I was upset," he adds.

"But we get on well for the kids now. Divorce happens all over. It's just one of those things."

Jonathan Brown

The place no one wants to leave

It's a good job Blaenau Gwent boasts an abundance of natural beauty, because from the census figures it appears a significant minority of its inhabitants aren't doing their sightseeing anywhere else. Thirty per cent of residents don't own passports, almost double the national average of 16.9 per cent.

According to tourism officer Alyson Tippings, there's plenty to see and do at home, among the lush hills dotted with medieval churches and nature reserves. "The valleys have so much heritage and beauty," she said.

But the area's MP, Labour's Nick Smith, said residents would love to get away more often, but just don't have the money. Only two-thirds of working age people are in employment. "Family budgets are tight," he said.

Kickboxer Aron Williams, 20, who upped sticks to Cardiff to star in MTV's reality show The Valleys agreed. He said: "They don't have the chance to see the world, and therefore don't need a passport."

Liam O’Brien

The Hampshire Buddhist

"Anywhere is a good place to be a Buddhist," says 78-year-old Robert Elliot. "But Hampshire is a very good place." The borough of Rushmoor, on the eastern edge of the county, was revealed to have the highest concentration of Buddhists in the country – 3.3 per cent of the population – thanks to its ties to the Gurkha community. But the 2,500-year-old religion has devoted followers throughout the county.

"We have two main groups in the society, one following Zen and the other Theravada," said Mr Elliot, secretary of the Hampshire Buddhist Society. "We have fortnightly meditations at the Quaker Friends Meeting House in Southampton and it varies, sometimes there are quite a few who come along, sometimes not so many – on one occasion it was just me and my wife. I follow the Theravada path, within the forest tradition, so I tend to practice from home, wandering from my home near the village of Bishopstoke. There's a nice atmosphere, we are privileged by being in a quiet place."

Anumber of prominent monks settled in or near Hampshire, including Ajahn Sumedho, a former US navy medic who served in the Korean war before training as a monk for 10 years in Thailand. He founded the Cittaviveka Forest Monastery in West Sussex. Followers of the Theravada path, like Mr Elliot, place great importance in meditation in tranquil wildernesses and while some take a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, others find the Hampshire countryside just as fulfilling.

"Buddhism is about the ability to let things happen and to trust that there is a wonderful purpose in life," said Mr Elliot.

Charlie Cooper

The Satanists

The Devil has a foothold in the British Isles – and more of his disciples reside in Bristol than anywhere else.

Of the 1,893 people that declared themselves Satanists in the 2011 census, 34 hail from the city – curiously also the setting for the popular vampire drama Being Human.

Although no-one was available to comment from the UK Church of Rational Satanism or other Satanist communities, local occultists were happy to offer an insight.

An employee at Good Timez, a Bristol shop specialising in the occult, suggested that the city's proximity to Glastonbury and ley lines – geographical alignments believed to carry mystic energy – might account for its abundance of spiritualists.

On his website, Lee Banks, founder of the UK Church of Rational Satanism, describes the church's mission "to see past delusional doctrines and religious propaganda and harness the 'self' to our personal advantage."

In 2004, the Royal Navy officially recognised its first Satanist sailor, Chris Cranmer, and permitted him carry out his rituals on-board ship.

"It's quite a scary thing to find out that there are so many Satanists in Bristol," said Jill Carroll, owner of Mystiques, a spiritual supplies shop. "What we do as spiritualists is ... work in the light, whereas Satanists work for themselves, they are the dark.

Charlie Cooper

The Godless city

If you take a trip to Norwich, you'll be encouraged to visit its two cathedrals and its 32 medieval churches. And, according to the census, you'll have them all to yourself. More than 56,000 people (42.5 per cent) claimed they had no religion, just a few thousand lower than the number who define themselves as Christian. A further 65 listed their faith as Heavy Metal, while 783 still believe putting "Jedi Knight" is hilarious 35 years after Star Wars first arrived in cinemas.

The Archdeacon of Norwich, the Venerable Jan McFarlane, right, says that while she cannot "dispute the figures", they don't represent what she sees on the ground. "In Norwich we have a church on every corner and they are packed to the point of overflowing with people there for carol services. You can't even get out of the vestry," she said.

"It's very hard to believe that we're a godless city. It could be the fact that on a census, you're asked to tick a box asking whether you're religious when it's a much more complex issue."

Local historian Michael Loveday says that Norwich has always been an "out-of-the-box" type place. "When people are asked 'Are you part of an established religion?', they think 'I'm not going to be pigeonholed'. But that doesn't mean they're not caring, pluralistic, socially inclined and welcoming in the way taught by the established churches," he said.

For Masoud Gadir, the president of the Norfolk and Norwich Muslim Association, the growth in Norwich's godlessness is unsurprising. "In a lot of cities, including Norwich, people are turning to materialism and money," he said. "They believe in other Gods: alcohol, money and drugs. When you see people drinking and womanising, the last thing they're going to be thinking about is God. Perhaps people are seeing the current rows in the church – for example, over women bishops – and wondering how they can have the same stance on religion, and yet appear to be pulling in different directions."

Liam O’Brien

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