Tag Archives: United Kingdom

York: A Walking Tour of the City’s Most Medieval Destinations

York is a bustling English city with incredible medieval roots. Join me on a walking tour of the city’s medieval sites including the most intact city walls in Britain, a castle and prison, a street straight out of the Middle Ages, a magnificent cathedral, and a Holy Roman emperor’s sword!  Let’s go back in time to explore medieval York.

 

One of things that York is best known for is its city walls.  York has more miles of intact walls than any other city in Britain!  The walls date back all the way to Roman times, and you can see the best preserved structure from Roman Multiangular Tower Yorktimes if you visit the Multiangular Tower in the Museum Gardens (the free, public, botanic gardens in the center of York).  The tower is a defensive structure that is, likely, and addition to the Roman walls built around 310 A.D.  While the surviving Roman structure are fascinating, we’re here to see the medieval city walls, which constructed from the 12th to the 14th century.  The medieval walls are interrupted by four gatehouses which are known asBootham Bar York “bars”.  These bars not only provided a way to close off the city in times of war but also to restrict traffic and allow the collection of tolls.  Collecting tolls to enter a city is not a modern invention!  The oldest of these gatehouses is Bootham Bar.  Bootham’s archway dates from Norman times, but the rest of the gatehouse was constructed during the 14th century, when the structure was heightened to add a portcullis.   In 1501, a larger knocker was added to Bootham Bar because the gate was kept locked and any visiting Scots were required to knock and obtain the permission of the Lord Mayor to enter the city.  I would imagine most people followed the rule because the heads of traitors were often mounted on the gate! Today, visitors are welcome climb across and through Bootham Bar while they walk along the 2.5 miles of walls surrounding York.  The walls are the most complete of any English city, and I found the scenery along the wall walk to be incredibly beautiful.  Here’s a link to  map of the city’s walls, which I used during my walk.  If your mobile device can’t access the internet in the UK, be sure to print out a copy before you leave your accommodations.

 

York Minster The next stop on our tour of medieval York is the city’s most famous and most popular tourist destination.  York Minster, officially the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York, is a Gothic cathedral built over a period of 250 years between 1220 and 1472.  I bet you’re wondering why it’s called a “minster”? The first church on the site was built in 627, and during Anglo-Saxon times, important churches were called minsters, hence the cathedral’s name.   Many also don’t know that York Minster was originally built as a Norman-style cathedral but was dismantled as the Gothic architecture replaced the previous one. Today, York Minster has the highest proportion of surviving medieval stained glass of any European cathedral. This includes, what I considered to be the highlight of my visit to the minster, a chance to see the breathtaking rose window, which is often referred to as the “Heart of Yorkshire”.

 

 

If you’re like me, you might be interested in seeing how York looked during medieval The Shambles Yorktimes.  The Shambles is a street that allows us to do just that.  Many of its half-timber buildings date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.  The name “Shambles” is likely short The Shambles Yorkfor “Great Flesh Shambles (Shelves)”, indicating that all of the butcher shops of the city were once located along this street, all the way up through the Victorian Era.  Outside some of the shops, you can still see metal hooks that meat once hung on. Slaughter houses were located behind the store fronts, and meat would be sold from what is now the window bottoms. Looking up, it’s evident that the second floor hangs over the street, likely to prevent the sun from hitting the meat for sale.  Visitors will also notice that the sides of the streets are higher, creating a channel through which the blood and remains of the butchering process could be washed away. Medieval Europe was definitely not known for its sanitation!  Don’t worry because the butcher shops are long gone and today the street is lined with shops, pubs, and restaurants and is a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike.

 

The next stop on our tour is lovely St. Helen’s Square, which is the site of one of the most elegant Mansion House Yorkbuildings in York, Mansion House.  When I visited, Mansion House had beautiful trees of petunias standing in front of it, so I couldn’t help but stop and smell the flowers.  In England, a “mansion house” is home of the city’s Lord Mayor.  Completed in 1732, York’s Mansion House is the oldest in England, making it twenty years older than even London’s equivalent.  The Lord Mayor of York, who is also Chairman of the City Council, is appointed by that council each year and serves as the city’s civic head and its first citizen.  So why are we stopping at an 18th century structure on a tour of medieval York?  Well, since York’s first Lord Mayor was appointed by King Richard II in 1389, the Lord Mayor is second in precedence only to the Lord Mayor of London.  So the Lord Mayor of York would have presided over the city in medieval times.  In addition, York’s Mansion House is open to the public and features period furnishings, one of the largest collections of city-owned silver in England, and a display of civic regalia, including a sword once owned by a medieval Holy Roman Emperor.  That’s what makes Mansion House a worthy stop on our tour of medieval York!

 

So we’ve seen a medieval city walls, a towering cathedral, a street straight of the Middle Ages, and some medieval weaponry.  Let’s finish off our tour of medieval York with a castle, albeit one with a rather tragic past.  Clifford’s Tower, the keep of York Castle, has a dark and sad history.  In 1190, a group of 150 Jews were offered the official protection ofClifford’s Tower York the king against a mob of violent anti-Semitic riots sweeping through England.  A group of local gentry, who owed large debts to Jewish money-lenders, saw widespread rioting against Jews as an opportunity to rid themselves of their debtors.  Fearing betrayal, the Jews locked out the royal constable, who summoned knights and siege engines to open the tower by force. A local monk, who was inciting the mob gathered outside, was accidentally killed by a falling rock.  This event further enraged the crowd, who increasingly called out for Jewish blood. Faced with the fear of being killed by the mob or being forced to be baptised, most of the 150 Jews inside committed suicide and then set fire to the keep, which was wooden at the time.  A few Jews who did not take their own lives died in the fire, and the remaining were killed by the mob. An investigation, ordered by the king, was later held, and the city was forced to pay a heavy fine. However no people were ever tried or punished for the horrific crimes.  The tower was rebuilt out of stone and used as a jail until an explosion destroyed the interior in the 17th century. The ruins became a tourist attraction and are managed today by English Heritage. In 1978, a memorial tablet was installed at the base of the tower to remember those that died there, and in 1990, the 800th anniversary of the pogrom was held on site.

 

While you’re at Clifford’s Tower, I highly recommend visiting the York Castle Museum.  Located on the site of a former York Castle Museumcastle, the museum is located inside of an 18th century prison that once held both male and female prisoners.   If you purchase tickets to the museum you can tour (for free) a section of the original prison cells and what learn what life was like there for some York Castle Museumrather infamous inmates.  The museum itself contains many fascinating and regularly changing exhibits.  The main attraction for me was Kirkgate, an entire Victorian street that has been recreated inside the museum.  You can wander in and out of each of the shops along the street.  Each shop is based on an actual business in York, some of which are still in operation today!  Some of shops include Banks Music, Sessions Printers, Cooper’s Saddlers, Horsley’s Gunsmith, Cooke’s Scientific Instruments, Edward Allen Taxidermist, The Little Dust Pan Ironmongers, Kendrick’s Toy Dealers and Fancy Repository, George Britton’s Grocers, and John Saville the Pharmaceutical Chemist.  You’ll also wander into an alleyway known as Rowntree Snicket which shows us the poverty of Victorian cities and a working class family’s home.  While exploring the street, you might run into one of many Victorian characters who can tell you more about their lives or catch the Magic Lantern Show.  York Castle Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world, and therefore, I consider it a “must” to any trip to the city.

 

Locations in York

I’ve created a clickable map with all of the destinations mentioned on our tour.  Click on the map below and then click on the marker for each location to get detailed walking or driving directions to it.  York is a very walkable city, so I’d recommend plotting out a route by using the map and then hoofing it, like I did.  Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum are a bit of a distance away from the other sites, so you might want to see those on a different day, use public transportation, or hail a taxi to reach them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chatsworth House: An Opulent Day Out in Derbyshire

Chatsworth HouseChatsworth House is a spectacular mansion house and estate located in the Peak District of England.  The home has seen its share of famous personalities.  MaryChatsworth House Queen of Scots was held as a prisoner at Chatsworth numerous times between 1568 and 1572, and the house’s owners, Bess of Hardwick and Sir William Cavendish, were entrusted by Queen Elizabeth I as the Scottish monarch’s jailors.   Other famous visitors to the house were Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were entertained there in 1843. Chatsworth Chatsworth Housewas also the filming location for] the 2015 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, and the 2013 TV version of Death Comes to Pemberley.  Experts believe that Jane Austen actually based descriptions of Pemberley on her visits to Chatsworth House.  You can see a photo of me and Mr. Darcy (well, his statue!) below.  The 2008 film the Duchess (also Chatsworth Housestarring Keira Knightley), based on a biography of Georgiana Cavendish, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, was also filmed at Chatsworth.   The fascinating tour of the state rooms  introduces you to all of these personalities and gives us “common people” a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the ultra rich upper crust.

 

Chatsworth is located on a 35,000 acre estate that contains a plethora of gardens and landscapes to explore.  The Cascade at Chatsworth House was voted best water feature in England by a panel of experts.  Originally built in 1696 by a French hydraulic engineer who worked for Chatsworth HouseLouis XIV, it was redesigned and doubled in size 1708.  The Cascade is a set of 24 stone Chatsworth House Gardenssteps over which water flows from a set of fountains at the top, where Cascade House, a faux Baroque Temple is located.  The Cascade is one of many water features in Chatsworth’s 105 acres of gardens.  Be sure to allocated some time during your visit to explore them.  Some of my favorites were the Grotto House and Pond, the maze, the rock garden, and the Ravine.  There’s also an adventure playground and a farmyard for the children.  As a nice break in your day out, have a bite to eat in one of the estate’s restaurants, located in the former stables, and browse through the lovely gift shop.  You and your family can enjoy an entire day out at Chatsworth Estate!

Location of Chatsworth House

Chatsworth is located in Derbyshire, England, about 1.5 hours outside of Manchester, in an area known as the Peak District.  The mansion and gardens can get very busy, so I would advise purchasing your tickets online and arriving when they open.  Then take the earliest tour of the house and explore the gardens and grounds after.   Click the map below for directions to Chatsworth House and Estate.

After visiting Chatsworth, consider a side trip to Haddon Hall.  It’s only 20 minutes from Chatsworth.  We combined both into a lovely day out.  For more on Haddon Hall, see my post “Haddon Hall: The Finest Example of a Medieval and Tudor Manor House in Britain”.

Chatsworth HouseChatsworth House

Bath: One of the Most Romantic Cities in Britain

Bath is one of the most romantic cities in Britain.  From visiting historic sites, to perusing art galleries, to shopping in local stores and boutiques, to taking in the natural landscape, there are so many things to do that you may not have enough time for them all.  Let me do the planning and prioritizing for you.  Here are my choices for the top six places to visit in Bath.

 

1. Parade Gardens

One of my favorite places in the city is Parade Gardens, which overlook the weir, or low dam, along the River Avon.  The floraParade Gardens Bath l beds are exquisite, and three-dimensional features (like the ones inParade Gardens Bath the picture) are on display in the summer months.  I couldn’t resist packing myself a small picnic, gathered in a local grocery store, and sprawling out on the lawn to have lunch. As luck would have it, a band was playing in the bandstand, so I had free entertainment on my leisurely afternoon.  Talking a walk or having a picnic in a local garden is a great way to take a break from the frantic pace of sightseeing and a cheap alternative to lunch or dinner in a pricey restaurant. You may even experience some free entertainment and get a chance to unwind like and with the locals.  Now that’s good travel!

 

2. The Weir at Pulteney Bridge

Putleney Bridge Bath One of the most romantic sites, especially in the evening, in Bath, England, is the weir, or low dam, at Pulteney Bridge.  Completed in 1774, the bridge connects Bath with another nearby town across the River Avon. On the north side, the bridge contains a series of lovely shops, but the western side is the most beautiful.  Against the backdrop of the Palladian-style buildings and bridge, the horse-shaped weir in the river is stunning. Stick around long enough to watch tourist boats make a u-turn at the weir, and come at sunset to see the water and buildings aglow with beautiful lighting.  The location is so impressive that it was chosen as location for one of the most important scenes in the 2012 movie version of Les Miserables. Take a walk along the riverbanks and a stroll through the adjoining Paradge Gardens. I was there on a solo trip, but I highly encourage you to bring someone special.  I guarantee that you won’t leave without a kiss or two and a memory that you won’t soon forget!

 

3. Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey (officially the Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Bath) was founded way back in the 7th century as an Anglo-Saxon Bath Abbeymonastery.  A plaque on the church testifies to the fact that the first king of England, Edgar, was crowned at Bath Abbey, not Westminster, in 973.  Next, the Normans constructed a cathedral on the site, but it gradually fell into disrepair. The current form of the abbey exists because of restoration work in 1610, the 1820’s, and the 1860’s.  Today, visitors enter at the West Front where they marvel at stone carvings of angels ascending long ladders to heaven. While some have attributed this artwork to the visions of a former bishop, modern experts point, instead, to the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament.  Artwork, such as this, was used in the past as a teaching tool to educate the often illiterate public about Bible stories and Christian theology. Next time you’re in a historic place of worship, take a look at the stained glass windows and see if Bath Abbeyyou can “read” the religious stories designed on them.

The spectacular Gothic fan vaulting of the ceiling of Bath Abbey was constructed in the early 1500’s and restored between 1864 and 1875.  A vault is a stone ceiling built along the same principles as an arch. The immense force of their weight pushes down the sides, making the vaults, if left to themselves, structurally weak.  So the fan vaulting distributes the weight of the roof down ribs that transfer it to the flying buttresses on the outside of the church. These ribs and buttresses prevent the walls from bowing out and collapsing.  Fan vaulting is unique to England where it was first developed in the mid-1300’s. Next time you’re at a Gothic cathedral, take a look at the outside to see if flying buttresses Bath Englandare helping to support the weight of the structure.  Medieval architects were geniuses to design and build such immense structures in stone and mortar. Imagine being a medieval peasant and looking at these huge buildings. They would have been the tallest and more grandiose thing that you’ve ever seen!

Outside of Bath Abbey, I took a photo of this marble fountain thinking that it was particularly lovely.  Upon closer inspection, I realized the motto “water is best” was carved into the base. After doing a bit of research, I learned the fountain is called “Rebecca” and was installed in 1861 by the Bath Temperance Association, which was a national movement that advocated abstinence from alcohol and attempted to influence the government to pass laws to regulate and even prohibit the sale of alcohol.  It’s a teetotaling fountain! And here I thought it was just a girl fetching water for her family.

 

4. Fashion Museum

One incredible place to visit in Bath is the Fashion Museum, which features fantastic displays on the history of attire from Fashion Museum Bath the 18th century to the present.  One of the many exhibits, at which I was amazed, was a display of mantuas, which you can see in this photo. In the mid to late 18th century, women would wear these elaborate dresses for important occasions at the royal court.  The enormous skirts were meant to show off the luxurious fabrics, such as silk, the fancy embroidery, often done in gold or silver thread, and the complexly woven pattern, all of which pointed to the wealth of the woman wearing it.  The fabric, alone, of the dress is likely to have cost the equivalent of £5,000 ($7,000)! Ladies, I don’t think you’re gonna find this garment at Primark.

 

5. The Royal Crescent
Royal Crescent Bath EnglandThe Royal Crescent in Bath is the one of the best preserved examples of Royal Crescent Bath EnglandGeorgian architecture in all of England.  This row of 30 terraced houses was built between 1767 and 1774 in the Palladian style. The Royal Crescent is the first arc of terraced homes to be built in the “country in the city” style, with each home having a views of parkland directly opposite them.  Each original owner bought a length of the facade of the building but hired his own architect to build a home behind it. So while the front appears to be uniform architecturally, with minor variations like balconies, the back is completely different. Of the 30 houses, 10 are still full-sized townhomes, 18 have been split into flats, one is a hotel, and the last is Number One Royal Crescent, a historic house museum which is worth a visit to see how people lived during Georgian times.

 

6.  The Roman Baths

Roman Baths BathThe Roman Baths in Bath, England, is one of my favorite museums in the world.  TheRoman Baths Bath baths date all the way back to Celtic times when the hot springs were used a place of worship for the goddess Sullis, whom the Romans associated with Minerva (Athena to the Greeks).   During their occupation of Britain, the Romans constructed a bathing complex, over a 300 year period, including a barrel-vaulted main bathhouse, a frigidarium (cold water bath), caldarium (hot water bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and a temple to the goddess Minerva.  The site also contains 18th century neo-classical buildings, including a redecoration of the terrace around the original Roman main bath and a Grand Pump Room, where visitors can still “take the waters” by drinking it (I thought it tasted gross!), as well as enjoy a meal at the posh restaurant.

Roman Baths Bath

Roman era hair combs

The museum hold countless artifacts from archaeological excavations at Roman Baths Baththe site.  Using modern lighting and visual projection techniques and actual archaeological remains, museum curators have recreated Roman bathing rooms (in their original locations) so that visitors can experience what they looked like.  The museum also hires interpreters, in period costume, to interact with visitors so they can learn more about the experience of Romans and Britons at the baths. Thousands of artifacts are also on

 

display. Some of my favorites are the countless objects that people had thrown into the sacred spring as offerings to the goddess Minerva.  They range from 12,000 coins, to metal pans for holy water, to curses written on pieces of lead or pewter, asking the goddess to harm someone who had crossed the worshiper. The Roman Baths Museum is a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in Roman Britain. It’s not to be missed!  Check out their wonderful gift store too.

 

Locations in Bath

I’ve created a special map that includes all of the locations mentioned above.  Click on the map below, and you’ll find each location marked on the map.  Choose the location to get specific directions to that place.

 

Blenheim Palace: The Only Non-Royal Palace in Britain

Blenheim Palace is the only non-royal and non-clergical house in England Blenheim Palaceto be designated a palace.  Since 1722, Blenheim has been the home of the Dukes of Marlborough. The palace was a reward from Queen Anne to the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, who led British and allied forces to victory Blenheim Palacein the 1704 Battle of Blenheim during the War of Blenheim Palacethe Spanish Succession.  The palace is also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, whose paternal grandfather was the 5th Duke of Marlborough. Designed in the English Baroque style, Blenheim is still the home of the 12th Duke and his family, although the magnificent state apartments and expansive gardens are open to tourists.

 

Blenheim Palace’s formal gardens and over 2,000 acres of parkland wereBlenheim Palace transformed by noted landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown from 1764-1774 into the masterpieces that they are today.  The landscapes look completely natural, but they were completely engineered by Brown, including the gigantic Great Lake and Grand Cascades waterfall. Other than the elaborate interiors of the palace, my favorite part was the grand formal gardens, especially the water terrace shown in the Blenheim Palacephotograph.  Other highlights of the grounds include the Marlborough Maze, Victorian Rose Garden, Temple to Health in the Secret Garden, and the Butterfly House. You can spend an entire day at Blenheim Palace and its expansive, beautiful grounds.

 

Getting to Blenheim Palace

The palace is located outside the town of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, only 20 minutes from the city of Oxford.   Blenheim can get very crowded with tour groups, so buy your tickets online and arrive when they open.  Take the earliest tour of the inside of the palace, and then explore the gardens and grounds after.  If you don’t have a car, take the S3 bus from Oxford Train Station right to the gates of Blenheim, like I did.  Click on the map below for directions.

After your visit to Blenheim, consider a day in Oxford.  Here’s my guide to the medieval city.

 

 

 

Oxford: You Can Say “I Went to Oxford!” by Visiting the University City

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.

Radcliffe Camera OxfordOur 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 Bodleian Library OxfordLibrary 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.

 

Trinity College OxfordIf 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 tOxfordhe 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.

Merton College OxfordAnother lovely academic institution to visit is Merton College, which was founded in the 1260s.  Merton contains one of the university’s oldest quadrangles, namedOxford 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.

 

University Church of St. Mary the Virgin Oxford

Don’t miss the unique columns at the entrance!

University Church of St. Mary the Virgin OxfordAnother 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 Alice's Shop Oxfordfounder 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: A Historic Medieval Adventureland

Warwick CastleWarwick Castle brings history alive to its visitors with many exciting and interactive exhibits and attractions.  Guests can tour the opulent castle Warwick Castleinteriors, 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 CastleWarwick 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 Warwick CastleCastle’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!

Warwick Castle

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.

 

Location

Warwick Castle is located just 40 minutes, by car or rail, outside of Birmingham, U.K.  Click on the map below for specific directions.

Warwick Castle

 

Wells: A Medieval Cathedral and Palace and the Oldest Street in Europe

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.

 

Wells Cathedral

Beautiful scissor arch above the main altar

Wells CathedralOfficially 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.

Wells Cathedral

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 Wells

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.

 

Bishop's Palace WellsHeading 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: A Day Trip to London’s Seaside Resort

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 PierBrighton 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!

 

Royal Pavilion BrightonWhile 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 chinoiserieRoyal Pavilion Brighton 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 Royal Pavilion Brightonpalace, 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.

 

Royal Pavilion Brighton

Royal Pavilion BrightonThe 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!

London: My Favorite Classic Sites in the British Capital

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

London Hindu templeBAPS 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

Kew Palace LondonKew 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 Kew Palace Londonmadness”, 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.

 

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace LondonMost 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 homeBuckingham Palace London 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 Buckingham Palace Londonis 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

Palace of Westminster LondonMost 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 Houses of Parliament LondonWestminster 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 Westminster Londonstands 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!

 

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge LondonIf 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

Tower of LondonThe 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 Tower of LondonHeritage 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 Tower of LondonYeoman 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 Tower of Londonthat 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

Horse Guards Parade LondonYou 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 Horse Guards London4:00, 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 Horse Guards LondonRoyals.  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

Camden Market LondonCamden 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 Stables Market Londonare 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

St. James Palace LondonIf 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.Changing of the Guards St. James Palace London

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.

Cardiff Castle: Explore Ten Centuries of History in One Fascinating Destination

Cardiff CastleIf 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 Cardiff Castlebuilds 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 Cardiff Castle clock towerthe 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 Cardiff CastleBurges 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, Cardiff Castleincluding 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.

 

Cardiff Castle air raid tunnels The final stop is a trip down into the tunnels beneath the battlements. Cardiff CastleDuring 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.

While in Cardiff, take an easy and fun day trip to St. Fagans National Museum: A Living History Museum of Welsh Life.

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