When planning UK tours, whether it be an England vacation or one to Scotland or Ireland, and embarking on destinations you have not experienced before, you possibly read up on it and make a list mentally or on paper of the highlights you wish to see and visit. I have always thought a picture was as good as a thousand words. Well, this is certainly true in many cases. However, there is usually a story behind the picture that needs to be told. With this in mind, I have selected a number of iconic sites in Britain you might well visit on a UK vacation, and have added a little background. I found it difficult to restrict the number of sites, but obviously, I am not writing a book. So, here are a few which I believe have an interesting story to tell.
The Tower of London
I was taken to see the Tower of London as a child, but when I returned as an adult on a trip to London, I found I appreciated it much more. Located overlooking the River Thames, it can be seen from viewpoints far away. It is a complex of buildings surrounded by high walls and a moat and was founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, along with a number of iconic sites throughout Britain at the time. It has been used as an armoury, a treasury, home to the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of England. It was used as a prison at various times, between 1100 and 1952 AD, and famous inmates have included Queen Elizabeth I (before being crowned queen), James I of Scotland, Henry Vlll’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Samuel Pepys, and Flora MacDonald. The tower is, and has been for centuries, “policed” by, to use their nickname, Beefeaters, who are otherwise known as Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace. They have performed a ceremony almost every night since the 14th Century where the Chief Yeoman Warder and night watchman ritually lock up the gates of the tower. Two things to conclude with are that you need plenty of time to do justice to the Tower of London, and you need to beware of the ghost of Anne Boleyn who haunts the “Bloody Tower!”
My first visit to Stonehenge was at a time when you could actually go right up to the site and even touch the stone pillars. Now, sadly, it can only be viewed from a distance. This site is located in Wiltshire, about 2.5 hours drive from London. The story behind Stonehenge goes back a long time. The first “incarnation,” according to experts, was around 5,000 years ago. However, as a stone circle, it only goes back a mere 4500 years! It was originally used as a cremation cemetery. The fascinating thing about Stonehenge, for me, is the fact that some of the very heavy and large stones were brought from 32 kilometres/20 miles away. Bear in mind, the average stone weighed 25 tons! Other smaller but still heavy stones were brought from Wales, a distance of 250 kilometres/135 miles away. Stonehenge is renowned as an amazing engineering feat and I’m not surprised.
The Houses of Parliament
I have an affinity for this iconic site as, sitting in my living room, are two gargoyles from the original roof of this building. They came to me as a family heirloom. They were presented to my uncle when he retired as he was, at the time, in charge of the restoration of the Houses of Parliament for which he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire). I was once given a private tour of the building and learned that there were 1000 rooms, 100 staircases, and 5 kilometres/3 miles of passageways. I even had the opportunity to enjoy a beer in one of the bars (yes, they sell alcohol). I also learned that the original Houses of Parliament were first built in 1600 and that in 1604, Guy Fawkes endeavoured to blow them up. He didn’t succeed but a disastrous fire in 1834 did destroy the original building. The current edifice was built in 1870. Within it, there are two chambers – the House of Commons (recognized by the green leather seats) and the House of Lords (red seats). Anyone can go into the visitors’ gallery and listen to debates. Guided tours are also available on London vacations. Incidentally, anyone want to make me an offer for the gargoyles?
There’s an old joke that this wall, which basically divides England from Scotland, was originally built to keep the Scots out of England, but perhaps now, the reverse is the case. Depends on who you talk to, I suppose. From what I could see, a decent ladder could have allowed anyone to cross it, as it is only 4.6 metres/15 feet high. However, at the time of building Hadrian’s Wall, England and Scotland didn’t exist. It simply was the northern border of Roman Britain at the time. The wall stretched from one coast to the other and was 117 kilometres/73 miles long. It was named after the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, who authorized it, taking 15,000 members of the Roman army over 6 years to build it in the 2nd century. Today, not a lot of the wall remains due to destruction, theft, and wear and tear, but there are still large parts remaining. Check out the best places to see it in Northumberland.
One of my childhood heroes was Robin Hood who lived in Sherwood Forest, and I really wanted to go there and see first-hand what kind of forest it was. I had a cousin who lived not far from it and when I went to visit her, she broke the news to me (and it was like being told there is no Santa Claus) that the forest was pretty well gone. However, we went to see it and yes, some portions of the forest remains, but you have to use your imagination to resurrect the escapades of Robin Hood. There are some very old oak trees known as The Dukeries near Worksop in Nottinghamshire and each year in August, there is a week-long Robin Hood Festival. A medieval atmosphere is recreated, with actors portraying the major characters from the legend plus jesters and strolling players. The Sherwood Forest Art and Craft Centre, which is situated in the former Coach House and Stables of Edwinstowe Hall, is in the heart of the forest and includes craft demonstrations and exhibitions.
Canterbury Cathedral in Kent is one of the oldest and most famous Christian churches in England. Parts of it date back as far as the 6th century AD. It is and has been the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. The current structure was completed in 1077 AD and became famous as a place of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages after Archbishop Thomas Becket was killed there on orders from King Henry II in 1170 AD. The current pope at the time canonized Becket and this elevated him to sainthood, making Canterbury Cathedral a pilgrimage shrine. You may be aware of the book written by Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, which references pilgrims coming to Canterbury.
Naturally, we are all aware of Cambridge as a seat of learning. It is one of the world’s oldest universities and is, in fact, the third oldest surviving university, founded in 1209 AD. It has produced 89 Nobel Peace Prize winners and “educated” Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking, plus 15 British prime ministers as well as the infamous spies, Philby, Burgess, and MacLean.
If you are interested in a total list of eminent graduates, do check out this site.
Cambridge has 31 individual colleges and 100 libraries containing 8 million books. I have a friend who goes over there every year to complete his research on some obscure aspect of mathematics. However, not everything about Cambridge is academic. A lot of British humour has emanated from here through what is known as the Cambridge Footlights, famous for its comedy shows. One set of alumni with roots in this show is the Monty Python team (most of them anyway). Three activities I have personally enjoyed here, and which visitors can enjoy on UK tours, are walking around the hallowed colleges with their all-pervading ambience, punting down the River Cam through the backwaters of the colleges, and been present to hear the King’s College Choir perform.
If in Edinburgh, Scotland, on one of your UK tours, the one thing that will immediately catch your eye is Edinburgh Castle, which is perched on top of a rocky promontory known as Castle Rock, slap bang in the middle of the city. There has been a royal castle on this site since the 12th century and it has been used as a royal residence, a prison, and an army garrison. In the lower depths of the castle are several dungeons which can be visited. It is also home to the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the notorious Stone of Scone, the traditional coronation stone of all Scottish and English monarchy, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. At one time, it was taken by the English in the 13th century as spoils after a battle. It resided in Westminster Abbey for centuries but was stolen in 1950 and later found abandoned in Scotland. Eventually, it was decreed that it be returned to Scotland where it now resides. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the Mons Meg cannon, which dates back to the 15th century. At 1 pm, each day except Sunday, you can hear the ritual cannon fire which has been used as a time signal since 1861. One of the most famous of Scottish events is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place in August each year in front of the castle. This is a parade of military bands including bagpipes and drums which, when I heard them, raised the hairs on the back of my neck. At the end of the Tattoo, a lone piper stands on the castle ramparts and plays a haunting tune in memory of the dead.
I first became aware of this iconic site when I visited Northern Ireland. The major part of the Giant’s Causeway is located here but runs under the Irish Sea and appears again on the east coast of southern Scotland. I quote the local Irish tourist board, “The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It is located in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland.” The name came from myths and legends which have been passed down. The “official” version is that two giants had an argument and one of them saw how strong the other was so ran back over the sea to Scotland (he was a giant after all), and tore up the causeway as he went. Today you can stroll on the causeway on the Irish side before it enters the sea. It is basically a collection of stepping stones which, although weathered, have stood the test of time. The tallest are about 12 metres/39 feet high.
As you’ll discover on UK tours, there are many other iconic sites in this land, and all have a tale to tell, and as time goes by, the stories become more numerous. What better destination for these to accumulate but in the United Kingdom.