It’s easy to take it for granted when you work, as I do, in a room that has survived since the Tudor age. But Henry VIII, our most notorious monarch, and his palace near the tourist honeypot of London, is only the start...
A time traveller's guide to Britain, from Neolithic Orkney to Victoria's seaside retreat
The UK boasts remnants of generations past as far back as the Romans and Prehistoric Credit: istock
Lucy Worsley, historian, author, TV presenter and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces
1 May 2019
Every so often, an American colleague comes to visit our curators’ office at Hampton Court Palace, and at some point the conversation will always take exactly the same turn. “I can’t believe it,” says the visitor, who probably works at some Transatlantic museum or historic site. “In Britain you just have so much history.”
It’s easy to take it for granted when you work, as I do, in a room that has survived since the Tudor age. But Henry VIII, our most notorious monarch, and his palace near the tourist honeypot of London, is only the start.
My own career has taken me from being a young architectural historian working on the castles of Derbyshire, to the tremendous range of museums run by the city in Glasgow, and eventually to a royal palace – and it’s truly a struggle to say which place I liked best. In no other country in the world are you always within eight hours’ travel of such a diversity of scenery and story.
I grew up in Berkshire, spending much of my time messing around in boats on the river Thames in true Wind in the Willows style. One of my earliest jobs involved organising the media extravaganza called National Mills Day (the second Sunday of every May – what do you mean you haven’t heard of it?) and I loved visiting windmills and watermills all over Britain for my work.
But my real passion has always been Britain’s Industrial Revolution – not so much the technology but the stories of the human lives that were lived in houses and factories, great and small. My work in television history has taken me from the mills of Lancashire to the extraordinarily beautiful fantasy worlds of the rich, such as Sir Walter Scott’s creative reimagining of Abbotsford, a baronial castle near Edinburgh which became his home.
Textile mills sprung up during the Industrial Revolution Credit: getty
In 2019 the places across Britain that you really must visit come to mind thick and fast: Kensington Palace in London, the palace wrapped in gardens where exactly 200 years ago Queen Victoria was born; Manchester, where in the same year the heartless regime of Victoria’s uncle George IV saw the “Peterloo Massacre” carried out on peaceful protestors asking for the vote.
It’s also a good year to celebrate the life of Nancy Astor, as it was a century ago, in 1919, that she was elected the first female MP. You can visit her sensationally luxurious home at Cliveden, Berkshire, now a palatial hotel set in a National Trust garden. It’s now doubly famous, of course, as the place Meghan Markle chose to spend her last night as a single woman before her wedding. And you can – even within the same eight hours if you want to – visit Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland which re-opens its doors to visitors this year.
If you’re looking for something more low-key, Noor Inayat Khan – the descendant of Tipu, Sultan of Mysore – was a member of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Executed when she was captured, the “Spy Princess” is commemorated with a statue sitting quietly in the corner of a leafy London square.
Cliveden hosted Meghan Markle before her wedding day Credit: istock
Going out to visit a historic place is good for you on so many levels. Thinking about the past teaches you all sorts of skills that are vital for modern life: skills of looking, learning, questioning and assessing the evidence to draw conclusions. You’re also often likely to be spending the day with people you love – not to mention that there’s usually cake involved.
But most of all, taking a visit to the past makes you conscious of something we rarely notice: the passage of time. Walking in the footsteps of the people who have gone before us will just for a moment make the hours stop still. This feeling of immortality is brought to you with pleasure by the people, like me, who work in and welcome you to the historic places of Britain – and there are plenty of time periods to explore.
Lucy Worsley is joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces and a presenter of BBC historical documentaries
How to see the UK through the ages
By Sophie Campbell
Prehistory denotes the period of human existence before written records. In Britain, it falls into three broadly overlapping periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, all related to the materials in use at the time. It began around 800,000 BC and lasted until the Romans arrived in AD43.
Orkney's Ring of Brodgar
Arguably the richest concentration of British prehistoric sites can be found in Wiltshire and evidence of early cultures have been unearthed not only at the popular site of Stonehenge (english-heritage.org.uk), but at Avebury, Silbury Hill, and West Kennet Long Barrow (all listed on the same English Heritage website).
You will need to travel much further north, to the wild islands of Scotland, to find one of the UK’s most impressive Stone Age sites. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a beautifully preserved Unesco World Heritage Site (whc.unesco.org/en/list/514) incorporating the 5,000-year old dwellings of Skara Brae, the chambered tomb of Maes Howe, Stenness henge and stone circle, and the massive Ring of Brodgar.
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
If you’re seeking the single best site in Britain, it has to be Grimes Graves in Norfolk (again, see english-heritage.org.uk), a Neolithic flint mining complex which pock-marks the heathland.
The Romans arrived in Britain in AD43, partly inspired by Julius Caesar’s visits the century before. They wanted tin, lead, possibly gold, hunting dogs, English slaves (apparently excellent) and a buffer zone on the edge of empire. Or was it an ego trip for the new Emperor Claudius? Whichever, they stayed here for around 400 years.
The Roman baths at Bath
The landing site is much debated. Was it Chichester in Sussex, the county home to Fishbourne Palace and Gardens (sussexpast.co.uk), the largest Roman residence found in Britain, and Bignor, with its fine mosaics? Or Richborough, Kent, where they built a fort in the marshes and, 15 miles due south, a rare Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle.
A rare Roman lighthouse can be seen at Dover Castle Credit: GETTY
The most popular single site is of course the bathing complex in Bath (romanbaths.co.uk), rediscovered in 1775. But Hadrian’s Wall Country is probably the finest region, unrivalled in the number and variety of its Roman sites. They are linked by the second-century wall, which in itself is an 84-mile long National Trail. Make for its less-visited ends: Senhouse to the west, at Maryport, and Segedunum to the east, beside the Tyne at Wallsend – the latter has a Historical Combat Day on Aug 10.
All Saints in Brixworth dates back to the eighth or ninth century
As the Roman Empire weakened, Britain was left vulnerable to marauding tribes from northern Germany and Scandinavia who established rival territories until they unified in the tenth century under King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great.
Christianity defined the era and Northamptonshire has the largest surviving Anglo Saxon church. All Saints in Brixworth dates back to the eighth or ninth century and its whitewashed interior emphasises its fine Romanesque brick arches and apse. Nearby All Saints Earls Barton with its joyously decorated tenth-century tower is also worth a look.
Sutton Hoo (nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo), near Woodbridge in Suffolk, is home to a superb Anglo-Saxon ship burial discovered just before the Second World War, transforming attitudes to the ‘Dark Ages’. It recently reopened on Good Friday after a £4 million redevelopment, including a new viewing platform.
Anglo Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo
William the Conqueror seized the English throne in 1066 from the Anglo Saxons, changing Britain forever: keeps and cathedrals arose, using building methods never seen before on our shores. This powerchitecture is defined by sturdy Romanesque construction and vivid carving.
In London, the White Tower at the Tower of London (hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london) is the best – and first – example of a Norman motte and bailey with a sturdy keep strategically placed on a mound. But if you’re looking for sheer Norman might, Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site has to be the best. The nave of the stunning hulk of a cathedral, high above a loop of the River Wear, has massive chevroned columns, and the Quire and Galilee Chapel are both Norman. The nearby castle is also Norman and both it and the cathedral will be lit up for Lumiere’s 10th birthday (lumiere-festival.com; November 14-17).
The Church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, probably built in the 1140s, is a fabulous find. It’s tiny but alive with carvings of animals, faces and symbolic depictions of water and the tree of life. Its history is mysterious, but it’s an absolute treat to visit.
Durham boasts both castle and cathedral
The mediaeval period encompasses the Early, High and Late Middle Ages – Early being Anglo Saxon, High dating from the Norman invasion to the reign of Henry III, and Late ending with the arrival of the Tudor dynasty in the pugnacious form of King Henry VII – and the era is marked by armour-clad knights, ambitious kings and daring quests.
Edinburgh’s ‘Auld Toon’ – a perfect contrast to the Georgian New Town – sits below broody Edinburgh Castle (edinburghcastle.scot). Built by King David I, highlights include the Royal Tour with the canon Mons Meg and the thirteenth-century Stone of Destiny, returned to Scotland in 1996 after centuries beneath the English Coronation Chair.
Other sites of note include St Mary’s Priory in Abergavenny with centuries of tombs and Lincoln Cathedral, built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries and a stunning example of the mason’s art (look for the Lincoln Imp and for the Apprentice Wall). The nearby castle holds one of just four iterations of the 1215 Magna Carta in its vault.
New Place, Straford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
Welsh-born Henry Tudor seized the crown from Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, and his dynasty lasted for over a century. Three of his children were monarchs but on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 the crown passed to the Stuarts.
If it’s Tudor finery you’re after, Stratford-upon-Avon has fine vernacular buildings, five of them run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (shakespeare.org.uk), including the famed playwright’s home at New Place. There’s also Ann Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s farm where you can turn your hand to Tudor farming.
Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire is a wonder to behold with its wonky walls and crazy half-timbering still standing after 500 years. But if you’re looking for charm, scale and royal connections, Hampton Court Palace is hard to beat. Here, Henry VIII’s Great Hall has carved eavesdroppers, the original painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and the Tudor tennis court. The excellent re-enactments are based on real incidents.
Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
The Georgian era began in 1714 when German-speaking George, Elector of Hanover, stepped off the boat at Greenwich to become King George I and the Stuart dynasty gave way to over a century of Georges.
Bath came into its own in the Georgian period
During this time Bath really came into its own, particularly in the late Georgian and Regency period. A lot is known about the city and its social life – partly thanks to Jane Austen – and about its gorgeous, if gimcrack, architecture. No 1 Royal Crescent (no1royalcrescent.org.uk; adults £10.60, children £5.30) shows daily life in the eponymous crescent and the Bath Preservation Trust’s fascinating Museum of Bath Architecture shows how the builders did it. Don’t miss the 18th century Pump Room at the Roman Baths and the atmospheric Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum on Landsdown Hill.
Keeping up with the Joneses, Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent and Thermal Spa was built by the fifth Duke of Devonshire in the late eighteenth-century as a direct rival to Bath. It’s about to re-open as a five-star hotel and spa so watch this (hot) space.
Buxton Crescent, Buxton, Derbyshire
Eighteen-year old Princess Victoria was woken on June 20 1837 to be told she was Queen. Who was to know that her reign would last for almost 64 years and that she would still be mesmerising the British public nearly 200 years on?
Manchester’s Victorian architecture, often in striking red sandstone, reflects the huge wealth of the era which came partly from the cotton trade. Alfred Waterhouse worked here for 12 years: his Town Hall, with its 280-foot clock tower, is shut for restoration until 2024 but you can see his spectacular Prudential Assurance building (now courts) and the Manchester Museum.
Manchester Town Hall
One of Britain’s best Victorian reenactment sites can be found at Rochester; a decidedly Dickensian affair, with festivals in summer and at Christmas (join the costume parade at the Dickens Festival June 1 & 2).
Queen Victoria herself loved Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, redesigned in the Italianate style by the Prince Consort. Here you can see the bedroom in which she died, the private beach complete with bathing machine, the Swiss chalet-style house she and Albert built for the children and the stupendous, icing-sugar white, completely OTT Durbar Room, added in the 1890s at the height of Empire.
Osborne House, Isle of Wight