Oxford is best known for its world-renowned university. One of the charms of exploring Oxford is simply walking around town to explore the historic architecture associated with the colleges. Here are my highlights of a day out in Oxford.
Our first stop is Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford building that was constructed from 1737 to 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library at Oxford University. The building is named after John Radcliffe, a doctor who left a considerable sum of money, in his will, to the university for the express purpose of constructing a library of science. In 1850, the science collection was moved to a newly built science library, and the Radcliffe Library of Science changed its name to the Radcliffe Camera to reflect its new function as a reading room (“camera” meaning “room” in Latin) for the Bodleian Library. Head on over to our second stop, the Bodleian, the main research library at Oxford. Not only one of the oldest libraries in the world but also the second-largest library in the United Kingdom, after the British Library. If you’d like to go inside, both a mini tour (30 minutes) and a full tour (60 minutes) are available. Check out their website for more details.
If you’re going to Oxford, you have to tour at least one of its historic colleges. Pick one or two that you’d like to see, or better yet, book a tour with a local blue-badge guide who can get you into multiple colleges. I took a tour, and the guide’s thorough knowledge of the Oxford system, the buildings, and the history helped me to much better understand a university that is far different than anything we have in the United States. Generally, students live, eat, and attend tutorials (which is the main way in which students are taught) at their college, but the university runs lectures, laboratories, examinations, and libraries and grants degrees. Faculty and students belong to one of the colleges, and students apply for admission to a specific college, rather than to the university as a whole. My choice for the best college to visit is Trinity. Trinity College (officially the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity) is one of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope, a member of Parliament and wealthy landowner, in 1555. The college currently has 400 students holding a wide variety of majors. Trinity College, like most of the colleges at Oxford, is open to visitors, but each college charges their own entrance fee.
Another lovely academic institution to visit is Merton College, which was founded in the 1260s. Merton contains one of the university’s oldest quadrangles, named Mob Quad, built between 1288 and 1378, which was designed to provide accommodations for members of the college. Merton’s most notable alumni include poet T. S. Eliot, theological and philosopher John Wycliffe, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, four Nobel Laureates, and writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who was also a professor of English language and literature from 1945 to 1959. However, it’s not all academics at Merton; while I was visiting, I took in a cricket game and watched students punting (propelling a flat-bottomed boat in the shallow river), which is a favorite pastime here in Oxford.
Don’t miss the unique columns at the entrance!
Another location that’s a must-visit when in Oxford is the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church has been a Christian place of worship for over 1,000 years. When Oxford University was first being formed in the 13th century, students and scholars used the church as a meeting place, lecture hall, and a place of worship. Oxford University’s library and treasury were once even housed in the church. In 1420, Oxford University moved its facilities to other buildings, but the church retained its prominent position in the community and university life.
University Church is known for several important historical events. In 1556, Thomas Cranmer, who was the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, was put on trial for heresy at University Church. His trial was organized by the Roman Catholic government, led by Queen Mary, who detested Cranmer for his part in helping her father, King Henry VIII, create the Church of England and remove her mother, Catherine of Aragon, as Queen, in favor of Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was found guilty and was burned at the stake just around the corner from the church. Two decades later, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, preached many of his most important sermons at University Church. Even though he was educated at Oxford, he denounced many members of the university for “laxity and sloth”, he was never invited to preach there again.
Our last stop is a literary one, but it has more of a whimsical and sweet nature. Alice’s Shop is a location right out of Lewis’ Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland series. The author (whose real name was Reverend Charles Dodgson) was a retired Oxford professor who decided to write and illustrate a story for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College. That book became Alice and Wonderland. One of the scenes that Carroll wrote about in its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, was a small grocery shop, called “The Old Sheep Shop”, which Alice frequented to purchase candy. Today, that shop is named “Alice’s Shop” and is frequented by visitors who want to experience a piece of literature, and perhaps, purchase some Alice in Wonderland gifts as a souvenir of the historic city of Oxford. Wouldn’t they make a unique Christmas or birthday gift!
Warwick Castle brings history alive to its visitors with many exciting and interactive exhibits and attractions.Guests can tour the opulent castle interiors, explore the dungeons where live actors and special effects bring gory tales to life, experience what preparing for medieval battle was like during the days of Warwick the Kingmaker, join the Countess of Warwick (in mannequin form) to see a Victorian high society weekend at the castle, participate in numerous children’s activities including a Princess Tower fairy tale, climb the towers and ramparts, and take part in a multimedia journey through 1,100 years of history.There’s something for everyone in the entire family at Warwick Castle.
Warwick Castle also has some incredible siege weapons on display including this ballista, a large catapult used for firing arrows or stones. Even more impressive is Warwick Castle’s trebuchet, which is the largest reconstructed siege weapon in the world. Trebuchets were designed to hurl giant projectiles at castle walls to attempt to demolish them, or at least to make holes large enough to allow foot soldiers to storm the fortress. Large rocks and stones were the usual projectiles of choice, but dead animals and manure were also used in the hopes of spreading disease among the besieged garrison and forcing them to surrender. If you visit Warwick Castle, you can see a trained crew fire the giant trebuchet, from a safe distance of course. Believe me, it’s a site not to be missed!
During your visit, you can also tour the extensive gardens, including, my favorite, the peacock garden! Although formal gardens have existed at Warwick Castle since at least 1576, when Queen Elizabeth I visited, the famous peacock garden was designed by the Victorian landscape gardener Robert Marnock. The castle has over 20 peacocks wandering the gardens, bearing their name, among manicured hedges, fountains, ponds, and topiary peacock sculpture. Explore this and over 64 acres of landscaped grounds at Warwick Castle.
Warwick Castle is located just 40 minutes, by car or rail, outside of Birmingham, U.K. Click on the map below for specific directions.
The medieval city of wells is located two hours outside of London by train. That makes it a lovely day trip from the British capital. Visitors come to explore its magnificent cathedral, moated bishop’s palace, and the oldest street in Europe.
Beautiful scissor arch above the main altar
Officially the Church of St. Andrew, Wells Cathedral was built between 1175 and 1490 and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The church is most famous for its glorious facade featuring over 300 life-sized sculptured figures, including Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, early Christian missionaries to Britain, bishops and abbots, kings and princes, angels, and the twelve apostles. All of these sculptures were designed to help the illiterate parishioners learn stories from the Bible. For example, a series of small niches under the upper course depicts a scene of the dead rising from their graves at the Last Judgement, and, above the central portal, the Virgin Mary is shown being crowned Queen of Heaven. Wells Cathedral was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in the Gothic style which had developed on the European continent.
The cathedral is also known for its Chapter House, which is considered by many to be most beautiful in England. Like other chapter houses, it was designed to be a place where the chapter, or group, of clerics would meet to advise the bishop or to lead the diocese in his absence. The staircase, seen in this picture, was built from 1265 and 1280, while the attached octagonal Chapter House was constructed between 1286 and 1306. One branch of the stairs leads to the Chapter House, while the other brings one to Chain Gate, a two story structure which connects the cathedral to Vicar’s Close, located across the road from the cathedral.
Vicar’s Close, located next to Wells Cathedral, is believed to be the most intact, continuously inhabited, medieval residential street in all of Europe. The 27 residences were built over 650 years ago to accommodate the members of the church’s choir, who could lived in this small community apart from the temptations present in the town of Wells. In addition to the vicar’s houses, the close included a common hall, kitchen, bake house, chapel, and library. Originally there were 44 residences built around a quadrangle, but in 1582, a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I reduced the number to the current 27 and converted the quadrangle into a close, or dead end street. Today, nine vicars choral and three choral scholars live on Vicar’s Close, and along with boy and girl choristers, provide all of the choral music for Wells Cathedral.
Heading back to the center of town, you can get a bite to eat at one of many cute cafes and pubs or stop into browse in some of the quaint shops. Next, head on over to the medieval Bishop’s Palace, which has been the residence of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years. Cross the flagstone drawbridge to explore the historic site. It may be a tranquil site now, but in the 1300’s, this gatehouse and moat were designed to protect the bishop in times of war and disease and to project an air of authority and power. Explore the original bishop’s palace, the 13th century chapel, and the ruined Great Hall, which was once the largest medieval hall in England, after Canterbury and Westminster Hall in London. The site also includes the current bishop’s home and offices (located in the north range and tower) and over 14 acres of gardens, including beautiful pools which are fed from natural springs, or wells, for which the city is named. Each of these man-made pools flow into the swan-filled moat surrounding the palace. How dreamy!
Wells makes an interesting day trip from London, Bristol, or Bath. Click on the map below for driving or rail directions.
Brighton is one of my favorite day trips from London. The seaside resort and city of Brighton is located just a one hour train ride outside the British capital. Since the mid-1800’s, Brighton has been a popular destination for tourists who come to enjoy its beaches, amusements, shopping, art and cultural scene, and historic structures. Brighton is also considered to be the unofficial LGBTQ capital of the country. With over 7.5 million visitors a year, Brighton is the most popular seaside destination in the UK for overseas tourists.
Brighton Palace Pier is one of the highlights of any visit to Brighton. Originally opened in 1899, the pier became an entertainment venue until the theater was damaged in 1973 and demolished in 1986. Today, Palace Pier features an amusement park with rides, arcades, roller coasters, games, concession stands, a carousel, trampolines, and an indoor soft play area for children. Brighton Palace Pier is old fashioned fun for the entire family!
While in Brighton, you can’t not visit the truly mesmerizing Royal Pavilion. The Royal Pavilion was built in stages between 1815 and 1822 as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV while he was Prince Regent. Instantly recognizable, the Royal Pavilion is an Indian-style palace, complete with domes and minarets. The interior is lavishly (and that’s an understatement) decorated with French antiques as well as furniture and objects in the chinoiserie decorative style, which was popular at the time. The palace also featured the latest technologies of the day including gas lighting, fully-plumbed bathrooms, and water closets. In 1845, Queen Victoria, who disliked the public attention she attracted when staying at the palace, had the British government sell the Royal Pavilion to the city of Brighton. During World War I, the Royal Pavilion functioned as a military hospital for soldiers from the British and Indian armies. After the Second World War, the palace was renovated to return it to its original appearance during the reign of George IV, and the Royal Pavilion was subsequently re-opened as a tourist attraction. The interiors are breathtaking, and I was most impressed by the sumptuous Banqueting Hall with its 30 foot high chandelier hanging from the claws of a giant silver dragon. Below it, six smaller dragons appear to be breathing light into lotus-shaped shades to illuminate the room. I’ve never seen anything like it! Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside, so you’ll just have to visit the Royal Pavilion to see it for yourself.
The lovely gardens at the Royal Pavilion are the only fully restored Regency Era gardens in the United Kingdom. The creation of the original gardens took over 40 years. To achieve this feat, rows of houses were demolished and the main road of the town was even diverted! The original gardens featured plants brought in from all over the world, but the restored Regency garden purposefully only includes plants known to be grown in England before 1830. Today, the Royal Pavilion gardens are tended using organic principles and are a haven for migrating wildlife. Bring a picnic and a good book and enjoy!
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, commonly referred to as the Neasden Temple, is a Hindu temple located in the Neasden area of northwest London. The mandir is the largest Hindu temple in the UK, and until the year 2000, it was the largest Hindu temple outside of India. The London temple enthusiastically welcomes visitors to explore or to worship. During my last visit to London, I made the short bus trip out to the temple and was blown away by the incredibly intricate stonework decorations and the sheer immensity of the structure. An engaging “Understanding Hinduism” exhibit provides visitors with a basic yet comprehensive introduction to the temple and the worship practices that you might experience there. In looking back to my numerous trips to London, my visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was one of my most memorable experiences in the city. Good travel is about exploring and opening your eyes to places, cultures, and experiences that are new to you. A visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir provides you with just such an opportunity.
Kew Palace is most famous for being the summer home of King George III. Originally built in 1631, the palace was leased by Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to house her three eldest daughters. The next monarch, King George III, purchased the palace, and he and his family occupied it during his “fits of madness”, which was most likely the disease porphyria, from November 1788 to March 1789 and again in 1804. After that Kew Palace was rarely used until it was closed up in 1818, upon the death of Queen Charlotte. Although the Dutch House is the only part of Kew Palace that remains standing, I found the visit to be a fascinating exploration of the lives of the London royals who lived there and of George III”s illness and the strange treatments that he had to endure. While at Kew, be sure to take the time to explore the immensely beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with over 40,000 different species of plants spread across a 326 acre site including 40 historic buildings.
Most people know Buckingham Palace as the London residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but did you know that Buckingham Palace wasn’t occupied by a king or queen until 1837? The palace was originally Buckingham House, a three story residence owned by the Dukes of Buckingham. In 1761, King George III bought Buckingham House for his wife to use as comfortable family home close to the main royal palace, St. James. In 1826, King George IV began to transform it into a true palace, nearly doubling the size. However, he never moved in, leaving Queen Victoria to be the first British monarch to occupy the Buckingham Palace in 1837. Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, found the new palace to be too small for court life, so they added an entire wing, which is the facade that most people see today and the one that is in my picture.
Today, Buckingham Palace is not only the main residence of the Queen but also the administrative center of the monarchy. The palace contains 775 rooms including 19 official state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. Buckingham Palace is used for receptions and ceremonies to recognize people who have provided extraordinary services to the country in the realms of industry, government, charities, sport, medicine, military affairs and other fields. That’s over 50,000 guests a year! In addition, the Queen and the Royal Family entertain visiting heads of state and government leaders from other countries. Even if you’re not invited by the Queen, you can still see the inside of Buckingham Palace since it’s open during the summer for tours. Visitors can also tour the Queen’s Gallery, to see selections of the priceless works of art owned by the Royal Collection, and the the Royal Mews, to see the horses, carriages, and automobiles that the Royal Family use for ceremonial transportation. For more on the latter, see my blog about the Royal Mews.
The Palace of Westminster
Most people refer to the structure as the Houses of Parliament because both the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet there. Why is it called a palace then? The Palace of Westminster is owed by the Crown and is still considered a royal palace for ceremonial purposes. This arrangement continues a long tradition of Westminster being the home of both the Crown and Parliament. The kings of England lived in a royal palace that stood on the site from the 11th century to 1512, when it was destroyed by fire. The only building that remains from the original palace is Westminster Hall, which was built in 1097. The fire caused the king to move out and Parliament to move it, making Westminster the seat of government. Another fire in 1834 destroyed the Houses of Parliament again, and a competition was held to find an architect to redesign the palace. The new Palace of Westminster, completed in 1870, was built in the Neo-Gothic style and contains over 1,000 rooms spread over 8 acres, some of which were reclaimed from the Thames River. The new palace contains two famous towers: Victoria Tower and Elizabeth Tower. The largest and tallest is Victoria Tower which stands at the southwestern corner of the palace and holds the Sovereign’s Entrance, used during the Queen’s State Opening of Parliament, and over three million documents in the Parliamentary archives, spread over 12 fireproof floors. At the north end of the palace, the Elizabeth Tower, named after Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee, contains the Great Clock of Westminster and the 13.8 ton bell known as Big Ben, which chimes every quarter-hour. Yes, you read that correctly. The bell, not the tower or the clock, is named Big Ben. That’s a fun fact that you can impress your friends and family with. Don’t forget to tell them you learned it at Fit to Embark! Visiting London? Members of the public are welcome to enter the Houses of Parliament to see debates in either chamber. You’ll need a ticket, so check out their website for details. During the summer, while Parliament isn’t sitting, visitors can take fascinating audio tours of the entire palace. Seeing the magnificent interiors and learning about the history of the building and the functions of Parliament is, in my opinion, a must when in London!
If you thought this structure was London Bridge, you are mistaken, my friend. This iconic piece of late 19th century engineering is Tower Bridge, named after the famous Tower of London that sits close by. The rather unimpressive London Bridge sits further upstream and was built in 1976. Yes, I said 1976. The previous London Bridge of Victorian fame was sold, in 1968, by the Council of the City of London to Robert McCulloch, a Missourian entrepreneur, who purchased the bridge for a little under $2.5 million dollars. He had the bridge shipped, piece by piece, via the Panama Canal, to California and then overland to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it was reassembled spanning the Bridgewater Channel Canal. So you don’t even have to leave the United States to visit London Bridge! You’re probably wondering why McCulloch bought London Bridge and shipped it all the way to America. He was hoping to attract tourists and home buyers to the region, and indeed, succeeded in doing so. Since the land was an abandonded military airstrip, McCullogh had been able to obtain it for free from the state of Arizona, with the promise he would develop the property. McCullogh sold so many homes that he recouped the entire cost of the bridge’s purchase, transportation, and re-assemblage. Now that’s what I call a wise investment!
The Tower of London
The famous or infamous (or both!) Tower of London, originally built in 1078 and expanded over a series of decades, has served as a royal palace, fortress, prison, mint, zoo, barracks, and armory, all at different times of course. Today, Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London (its official name) serves mainly as a tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the days of the Tower being a military installation are over, a detachment of the Queen’s Life Guard is posted at the Tower, as it is still considered a royal residence. In addition, the Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, live on the premises and serve as the ceremonial guardians of the Tower and the Crown Jewels, which are safeguarded and open to the public on site. Where does the term “beefeater” come from? No one really knows. Some historians believe it refers to the fact that the Yeoman Warders were provided large rations of beef by the sovereign, at a time when meat was expensive and, therefore, uncommon in the diet of most Englishmen. Just don’t call them “beefeater” to their faces. The Yeomen Warders are retired from the Armed Forces of Commonwealth Realms and, to qualify, must have at least 22 years of experience as an officer and must hold a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. And they’re still continuing to serve Crown and country. That’s impressive! If you visit the Tower be sure to take one of their excellent daily guided tours.
Horse Guards Parade
You can see the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11:00 on weekdays and at 10:00 on Saturdays at Horse Guards Parade. The ceremony is far less busy than the one at Buckingham Palace, so you’ll be able to stand up close to see the horses and soldiers in all of their regal splendor! In addition, you can see mounted soldiers standing guard at Horse Guards Parade until 4:00, when they dismount and stand guard on foot. For more information about changing the guard at Horse Guards Parade, see my blog about that very subject.
The Queen’s Life Guard is made up of mounted cavalry soldiers from the regiments named the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. Since 1660, they have stood guard at Horse Guards Parade, which serves as the official entrance to St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace.
Historically, Horse Guards Parade served many functions. It’s built on the land that one served as the tiltyard (the field for jousting) of Whitehall Palace, which tragically burned down in 1689. The current buildings, which date from the 18th century, originally served as headquarters of the British army. The Duke of Wellington, as commander-in-chief, once had his office there. Today, Horse Guards Parade is best known as the location of Trooping the Color, a military parade (held in June) which serves as the official birthday celebration of Her Majesty the Queen.
Camden Market is my favorite place to shop in London. It’s actually not just one but six adjoining markets selling crafts, clothing, souvenirs, food, and much, much more. The markets are located in Camden Town surrounding Camden Lock of Regents Canal. With it huge variety of stores and merchandise, you can find just about anything and spend several hours there. They even have an outdoor food court featuring vendors cooking up a wide variety of tasty international dishes. While the markets are open daily, some vendors are there only on weekends, when crowds are also the largest. While there, walk along the locks themselves, which used to aid barges moving up and down Regents Canal and check out the fantastic Stables Market, located in what was once the stables of the horses that pulled barges along the canal. If you’re looking for London souvenirs, Camden Market is, in my opinion, the best place to buy them.
Guards at St. James Palace
If you’re looking to see the Queen’s Guard up close and personal, head on over to St. James Palace. Two guards are posted in their sentry boxes outside the palace, right on the street. They’re so close, that I got yelled at by one of them for taking a picture while he was walking his patrol. A little scary but kind of fun! You can also see a smaller but much less crowded version of the changing of the guard at St. James Palace at around 12:15 on weekdays.
St. James Palace is actually the most senior of the royal palaces in the UK. Built by King Henry VIII, between 1531 and 1536, St. James served as the residence of British monarchs until 1837 when Queen Victoria took up residence in Buckingham Palace. Today, the royal court is still formally based there, and ambassadors to the UK are officially assigned to “the court of St. James”. The palace is used for royal receptions and ceremonies and also serves as the London home of the Princess Royal, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and Princess Alexandra.
St. Fagans National Museum of History is a living history and open-air museum located outside the city of Cardiff, Wales. According to TripAdvisor, St. Fagans is one of the top ten free attractions in the entire United Kingdom, and in 2011, Which? Magazine named the museum as Favorite Visitor Attraction in the United Kingdom. What draws so many people to St. Fagans? In my opinion, there’s no better way to learn about the past than by going to a living history museum, and St Fagans is one of the best one that I’ve been to (and as a history buff and teacher, I’ve visited many!). At St. Fagans, you interact with historical interpreters, dressed in period costume, in order to experience how the Welsh lived, ate, dressed, worked, behaved, worshiped and played, from Celtic times to the present.
The museum is made up of more than 40 buildings, from throughout Wales, that have been moved to the site. You can definitely spend all day at the museum! Some of my favorites buildings are:
St Teilo’s Church may seem plain from the outside, but once you step inside, you’ll be blown away! The church was built in the 12th or 13th century and shows off how religious structures were once elaborately decorated with brightly colored wall paintings all over. The church was taken apart, moved, and reconstructed at St. Fagans, piece by piece.
The Abernodwydd Farmhouse is a timber and thatch farmhouse that shows how a relatively well-off Welsh family would have lived in the 17th century.
The 1936 post office is made up of two adorable rooms and was originally run by a father, his daughter and her husband. Deliveries were made by bicycle, and the counter also served as a wireless (that’s radio) repair shop. The building was moved to St. Fagans in 1992.
The row of houses for iron-ore miners allows visitors to marvel over how entire families lived in tiny homes consisting of only three rooms! Visiting each row house shows how living conditions and styles have changed over time, as the contents of each portray a different period of history: 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955, and 1985. These row houses will make you appreciate how lucky we are today to have as many things as we do.
The tailor’s workshop, which was originally built in 1896, is stocked as it would have looked in the early 1950’s. I got a kick out of seeing the fashions of the time and how they were hand-made.
The 1880 general store is divided into three sections over two floors. The store once served as a bakery, ironmongery (place to buy items made of iron), grocery, gentlemen’s outfitters, chemist, and animal feed retailer. Today it’s still stocked to the brim!
The 1771 toll house represents a time when local landowners built private roads (also called turnpikes) and charged tolls for their usage. Sound familiar? Local riots caused the eventual banning of toll houses by Parliament in 1864.
St Fagans Castle was built in the 16th century and later remodeled in the Victorian Era, as it became part of the Earls of Plymouth’s estate. Some of the mansion’s rooms contain original 16th century features, while others, such as the marvelous Victorian kitchen, contain furnishings from later time periods. In 1947, the family donated the mansion and its estate to the National Museum of Wales, who transformed the grounds into St. Fagans National Museum of History. Behind the castle are a reflecting pond and beautifully manicured gardens that would be perfect for a picnic.
Take a trip back in time to see these and over 30 other structures at St Fagans National Museum of History. Before going, check their website for special events and programs that are commonly held at the open air museum.
Location of St. Fagans
St. Fagans National Museum of History is located just four miles outside of Cardiff. For specific driving directions, please click on the map below. For satellite navigation purposes use the postcode CF5 6XB.
When I went to St. Fagans, I took the bus from Cardiff. You have 3 different bus options:
If you’re visiting the Welsh capital city of Cardiff, Cardiff Castle should be on your “must-see” list. The castle is a hit for people of all ages and interests. Children will love exploring the tunnels, the ruined motte and bailey castle, and the wide open spaces. Adults will enjoy touring the magnificent interiors of the Gothic mansion and experiencing what it was like to live in air raid shelters during World War II. The easiest way to visit the castle is to divide it up into three parts, each of which represents a different period of history.
The oldest part of the castle is a motte and bailey structure that was originally built by the Norman invaders of England all the way back in the 11th century. The year is 1066; William the Conqueror wins the Battle of Hastings and establishes himself as king of England. He needs to assert his power over the conquered English and Welsh people, so he builds a series of castles and fortifications across those lands. In Cardiff, he orders the construction of a wooden motte and bailey castle, which was later converted into a stone structure in the 12th century. The bailey, also called a keep, is located on top of the artificial hill. The lord and his family would live inside, and this keep would serve as a final defensive structure if the bailey was taken by attackers. The bailey is the lower courtyard, surrounded by a wooden palisade (later, a stone wall), where outbuildings, such as stables, kitchens, and storehouses, were located. In the 1400’s and 1500’s, Cardiff Castle was expanded beyond the motte and bailey to become a full-sized medieval castle with outer curtain walls as a means to prevent Welsh rebellions against the English crown. After the English Civil War, a garrison was established at the castle to protect against an invasion by the Scots. This military presence prevented Cardiff Castle from being destroyed, like many other fortifications, by Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. During the early 19th century, the wealthy Marquesses of Bute inherited the castle, and the aristocratic family spent millions of pounds to remodel it into a Gothic fantasy mansion, to conduct archaeological work, to landscape the grounds, and to restore the motte and bailey castle to its 12th century design, which can still be seen today. Explore these medieval parts of the castle castle by taking a walk around the battlements and by climbing up into the Norman keep to see the ruined interior of the 12-sided structure and to take in the incredible views of the city.
Next up on our visit are the opulent interiors of the Gothic mansion. The third Marquess of Bute hired architect William Burges to redesign the castle into a stunning Gothic revival mansion. If you only have enough time to take one tour of the mansion, make it the 50 minute guided tour of the castle apartments, including the Guest Tower, the Arab Room with its incredible ceiling, the Chaucer Room filled with images from the works of the medieval author, the Nursery, the bedrooms full of religious imagery, the Library with its immense collection of books, and the armor-filled, two-story Banqueting Hall. For me, the highlights of this tour were the elaborately decorated, first on-suite bathroom in Cardiff and the gorgeously-mosaiced roof garden with its quirky fountain. The decoration of the mansion’s rooms is so elaborate that Cardiff Castle has been called a “three dimensional passport to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold” and the “most successful of all the fantasy castles of the nineteenth century.” If you have time, you can also take the 30 minute guided tour of the inside of the 150 foot tall clock tower to see the Marquess’ bachelor suite of rooms (which he used before he married), including a bedroom, servant’s room, and fantastical summer and winter smoking rooms.
The final stop is a trip down into the tunnels beneath the battlements. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as air raid shelters for an estimated 1,800 citizens of Cardiff. The self-guided tour allows visitors to see recreated bunks, kitchens, toilets, and first aid posts and to experience, through the use of multimedia, what it was like for people to shelter in these tunnels from German bombs being dropped on the city around and above them.
A visit to Cardiff Castle is a trip back in time through Welsh and British history that the entire family will enjoy. For more information about the castle and for opening times and special events, visit their website.
Cardiff Castle is located on Castle St. in Cardiff. For specific driving or walking directions, click on the map below.
London is full of world-class sights and historic palaces fit for a queen, but I’m going to show you several destinations in the British capital that most tourists miss. As an avid anglophile who’s been to London five times, take a trip with me to these four lesser known but equally smashing London attractions.
#1 A Time Machine to the Past
You’ve wandered into the home of Huguenot silk weavers, and as you peak around the corners and meander up the creaky stairs, no matter where you turn, the family always seems to be just out of sight. Wigs and clothing have been tossed onto the back of chairs, and unfinished plates of food have been left on the elaborately set table in the midst of dinner. With a blob of fresh ink on the paper, someone has stopped writing, mid sentence, a letter to a trusted confidant. In the candle-lit kitchen, a pipe, still emitting the faintest amount of smoke is left, as if the user is just about to return for another puff.
Visitors freely move through the Dennis Severs’ House in silence, allowing them to ponder the sights and smells of each room, piece together the mystery of what they’re witnessing, and wonder if they just stumbled out of a time machine. The house is set up as a “still life drama”, that feels more like you’ve stepped into an immersive theater experience than a museum. And that’s exactly how Severs wanted it to be. He devoted his entire life to restoring his 19th century home in a way that recreated scenes of Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian life, complete with period furnishings and lack of electricity, to vividly portray how a single, fictional family lived, from rags to riches, over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
As a historian and history teacher, I’ve been to countless museums, and the Dennis Severs’ house is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I don’t say that lightly.
Be aware that due to the special nature of their museum experience, the Dennis Severs’ House is only open on certain days of the week at particular times, usually on Sunday afternoons, Mondays at lunch time, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. I highly recommend the Silent Night candlelit tour, held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. Check their website for specific opening hours and to book your self-guided experience.
#2 The Other Changing of the Guard
We’re all familiar with the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Soldiers in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats marching in precision to the beat of military music, while gaggles of tourists watch, awestruck by all of the royal pageantry. But did you know there’s another changing of the guard in London, one that fewer tourists know about and attend? And this one involves horses!
Every day, no matter what the weather, members of the Queen’s Life Guard ride from their Hyde Park barracks to Horse Guards Parade to take over their duties as guards for the royal residences. The ceremony, with all its pomp and circumstance, takes place daily at 11:00AM. At this Changing of the Guard, unlike the one at Buckingham Palace, you won’t have a giant iron fence blocking your view, or be jumping up and down in the air in a vain attempt to see over the heads of hundreds of tourists standing in your way. Arrive around 10-15 minutes early, take your place at the ropes, and wait to watch the spectacle to unfold right in front of you.
If you miss the ceremony, you can still see two mounted members of the Queen’s Life Guard on duty from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM at the Whitehall entrance to Horse Guards Parade. At 4:00PM, the cavalry soldiers dismount and remain stationed there until 8:00PM. You’re welcome to take a selfie but don’t get too close!
#3 House Hunters Through Time
Do you enjoying peering into the homes of others by watching shows like House Hunters on HGTV and other DIY channels? Then you’ll love the Geffrye Museum of the Home! This unique museum is dedicated to showing how home decor, style, and taste have evolved from the 16th century to the present. You’ll see a chronological sequence of recreated living rooms from Tudor times, through the Victorian Era, to the 1960’s and today. And the museum is set in a restored 19th century almshouse with award-winning, picnic-worthy, period gardens. The Geffrye Museum (closed on Mondays, except for bank holidays) is a fascinating glimpse into the past and a tranquil oasis in a busy urban metropolis.
#4 Transportation Fit for a Queen
During the summer months, tourists flock to Buckingham Palace to tour what is, perhaps, the most famous residence in the world. Even if you’re not in London during the summer, you can still catch a glimpse of royal life and see how the monarch travels in royal style. The Royal Mews, which house the Queen’s working stables and the royal collection of coaches and state automobiles, are located just adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Visitors can admire the Gold State Coach, ridden in by British monarchs at every coronation since 1821, horse-drawn carriages used in royal weddings, jubilees, state visits, and the State Opening of Parliament, and even classic automobiles which ferry around Queen Elizabeth II. The newest member of the fleet is the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which was first used in 2014 for the Queen’s 80th birthday and contains wood from Admiral Nelson’s flagship, H.M.S. Victory, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and other palaces and cathedrals scattered throughout the country. Whether you’re there to see the state coaches or visit
with the magnificent horses, a trip to the Royal Mews makes you feel like a monarch, if only for a short time. You might even catch a glimpse of the daily messenger coach that has been bringing royal mail
between Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Palace since 1843! Be aware that the Royal Mews are closed on Sundays.
The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate St. in the Spitalfields area of London. The closest Tube stop is Liverpool Street. Visit their website to book your tour. Click on the map for directions.
The Changing of the Life Guard is held daily at Horse Guards Parade at 11:00AM. Horse Guards Parade is located on Whitehall, with the closest Tube station being Charing Cross, on Trafalgar Square. Click on the map for directions. From Trafalgar Square, walk up Whitehall until you see the two mounted cavalry soldiers. Walk through the arch and into Horse Guards Parade.
The Geffrye Museum is located at 136 Kingsland Rd. in the Hoxton area of London. The easiest way to get there is to take the Overground (marked as orange on subway maps) to the Hoxton Station, which is located immediately behind the museum. Alternatively, you can take the Tube to Liverpool Street Station and then Bus 149 or 242 to the Museum (or walk for 20 minutes). Click on the map for directions.
The Royal Mews is located on Buckingham Palace Road. Click on the map for directions. With Buckingham Palace in front of you, walk to the left of the palace, past the Queen’s Gallery, and up Buckingham Palace Rd. You’ll walk along the wall that separates the palace gardens from the city and eventually see the Royal Mews on your right.