Chapter 26

Ten Great British Places to Visit

In This Chapter

● Sites to see of Britain’s prehistoric and early historic past

● Castles, cathedrals, and more

You don’t need me to tell you to visit the Tower of London or Edinburgh Castle or Buckingham Palace or Stratford on Avon: You’re bound to do those places anyway. Here are some other ideas for places to visit if you’re looking for a sense of the history you’ve read about in this book. Maybe they were on your list already, but if they weren’t, put them on now.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is up in the Orkneys, and it’s worth putting it down on your travel list for that reason alone - if you haven’t been up to the Orkneys, you haven’t lived. Skara Brae is a beautifully preserved Neolithic village, one of the most complete examples we have. At Skara Brae you get a real sense of going back in time to the distant dawn of civilisation, when humankind emerged from the grip of the ice and first made inroads into the environment. And that’s just the hotel. Forget Stonehenge - that was for special occasions. At Skara Brae you can see how people lived.


The isle of Iona was the haven of peace where St Columba (see Chapter 5) set up his community of monks, and a religious community still exists there today. The abbey was founded much later on by the Benedictines, and you can find the ancient Kings of Scots all buried there, too. The place still has a sense of quiet and peace: You don’t go so much as a tourist as you do a pilgrim.

Hadrian's Wall

Just reading about Hadrian’s Wall doesn’t do it justice: You have to experience it for yourself. The best way is to put on a pair of stout shoes and start hiking - plenty of Youth Hostels are along the way to help you - but you can do it by bus or car, too. Hadrian was no fool: His wall goes through some of the most beautiful countryside in England, but the cities at either end, Carlisle and Newcastle upon Tyne, are well worth visiting, too. If it’s wet (it usually is) think how the Romans would have felt, stuck up there in the cold instead of sunning themselves in Tuscany. (Or, if you prefer, think how you’re feeling, stuck up there in the cold instead of sunning yourself in Tuscany).


American writer Bill Bryson was bowled over by the city of Durham and couldn’t understand why the British didn’t shout about it more. Durham is a World Heritage Site, and it’s not hard to see why. Durham Cathedral has one of the most dramatic sites you can get, right on top of a cliff with the river Wear running round three sides of it. Then when you come out, you find there’s a castle just next door. It’s a beautiful medieval town, small but with a proud history. Don’t miss it. Oh, and see what you make of the accent.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is just where a castle should be, high up on a rock where you can pour boiling oil on people’s heads. If you wanted to control Scotland, Stirling was more important than Edinburgh, so the castle was forever changing hands between the English and the Scots. Edward I had to take it twice. There’s a magnificent renaissance Great Hall built by James IV, and the town’s well worth visiting, too. And that’s not all. Base yourself in Stirling, and you’ve got three battlefields all within easy reach: Stirling Bridge (1297, Scots beat the English), Bannockburn (1314, - Scots trash the English), and Sheriffmuir (1715, Scottish Jacobites beat pro-English Scots but forget to tell anyone, so everyone thinks they lost). The area also has monuments to William “Braveheart” Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Pack a copy of Robert Burns before you set off.


Beaumaris Castle is just how you imagined a castle: round towers and a moat. It’s been so well-preserved because, like so many castles, it didn’t actually see much action until the English Civil War (see Chapter 13), when those round towers weren’t going to be much use against heavy cannon. The castle is right on the sea, so you get lovely views, and it’s just the place for a sailing holiday. You might even learn some Welsh. Croeso.


If you haven’t been to Northern Ireland, then you have a treat in store. The area is breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s difficult to know what best to choose. There’s the famous Giants’ Causeway on the Antrim coast, or the city walls of Londonderry, and all of Belfast is worth exploring. But the City of Armagh gets the prize because you probably wouldn’t think of it otherwise. The city is small enough to “do” easily, and it has two cathedrals (one Protestant, one Catholic - that’s Ulster for you!). Armagh is the ancient seat of the Kings of Ulster, and the famous Brian Boru is buried here. Then there are beautifully elegant Georgian terraces and an eighteenth century observatory, all in the lovely local stone which glows in the sun. You can see Jonathan Swift’s own copy of Gulliver’s Travels and listen to it being read by a twenty-foot giant. But then Northern Ireland has a thing about giants.

Chatsworth House

You can find lots of mansions in beautiful parkland that will take your breath away with their sweeping drives and their deer parks and lakes, but Chatsworth House in Derbyshire takes some beating. It’s huge, for one thing, and it’s in a gorgeous setting in the Peak District. Chatsworth is the home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire, including the famous Georgiana who went round at election time kissing the voters. The rooms are superb, and there’s a magnificent eighteenth century water cascade outside that makes the hillside look as if it’s dancing. Even the gardeners are famous. Joseph Paxton got the idea for the Crystal Palace (see Chapter 18) from the beautifully elegant Chatsworth greenhouses. If you can only manage one stately home, make it this one.


Ironbridge is an amazing place. It’s a beautiful little valley in Shropshire, as well as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. If you find yourself switching off at the words “Industrial” and “Revolution”, think again. You can visit a Victorian town at Blist’s Hill or see the amazing things the already pretty amazing Darby family managed to do with iron at Coalbrookdale (head to Chapter 16 for more on the Darbys and other important inventors of the age). Not to mention the elegant iron bridge that gives the town its name. The whole valley is a World Heritage Site and rightly so. The Romantics saw beauty in the sheer elemental power of industry: Go to Ironbridge and you can see what they meant.

Coventry Cathedral

Coventry was pretty impressive even before the terrible night in November 1940 when it was flattened by the Luftwaffe. The cathedral, founded by Leofric of Mercia and his famous wife Lady Godiva, was the pride of the town. When the Germans bombed Coventry, they were trying to destroy something of England’s sense of its heritage and identity. The city was so badly destroyed that the British never forgot it, and the Germans coined a new word, Koventrieren, to mean more or less what people would soon mean by Hiroshima or Dresden. After the war, Coventry became a sort of symbol of how Britain was going to pick herself up and face the future. There were well-paid jobs going in Coventry’s big car factories, and the city centre was rebuilt in the latest futuristic style. Best of all was what they did with the cathedral. Instead of demolishing the ruins, they left them as a permanent memorial, and built a totally new cathedral next to them. The theme was peace and reconciliation, and Coventry forged strong links with its devastated counterpart, Dresden. Coventry’s two cathedrals remain a monument to British hopes for the future.

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