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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the United Kingdom.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the United Kingdom.
As the poet Brian Harris wrote in his 1967 poem In Passing, “To be born in Wales… with music in your blood / And with poetry in your soul, / Is a privilege indeed. / Your inheritance is a land of Legend, / Of love and contrast.”
From the proliferation of castles to its myth-filled mountains, from its patron saint, St David, who caused a hill to rise beneath him as he spoke to his followers, to the huge red dragon on its flag, one doesn’t need to know much about Wales to suspect it might have a story or two up its sleeve. Visit Wales has designated 2017 the Year of Legends and it promises to unfold as an eventful 12 months, with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which was filmed in and around Capel Curig in Snowdonia, opening in cinemas in May, legends of sport coming together in Cardiff’s National Stadium of Wales for the UEFA Champions League Final, and Hay Festival, one of Britain’s best loved literary gatherings in the Brecon Beacons, celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“Where else do you get the chance to sit down and have the best historians in the world, the best politicians, the best authors come and talk to you?” asks musician and broadcaster Cerys Matthews, a vice president of Hay Festival Council.
“Such a deep and rich vein of legendary stories, literature, art and history runs through Wales,” she adds. “All my life I’ve been learning about these legends. There are so many it’s difficult to know where to begin.”
As a start point, Matthews cites The Mabinogion, a collection of magical Celtic tales found in manuscripts dating from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is one of the richest sources of Welsh stories featuring King Arthur as a recurrent character, though it is earlier, in a Welsh poem dating to AD 600, that he first appeared.
Wales’s most famous poet, Dylan Thomas, also owes The Mabinogion his name, which was taken from a character in the collection.
So richly inspiring is the Welsh landscape, and so many writers and artists hail from – and flock to – its hills and valleys, that ancient bardic traditions tell of foolhardy souls sleeping on the slopes of Cader Idris in Snowdonia National Park, where, it is said, you’ll wake up as a madman or a poet, or, alarmingly, possibly not at all.
Such stories say something about Welsh identity. (“We are a sad people,” wrote Harris. “Our sadness being wrapped in harps and music.”) There’s the bittersweet tale of St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of love, who after a bad experience (the man she loved was turned into a block of ice) decided she didn’t ever want to get married and spent her life as a nun on Llanddwyn Island, off the coast of Anglesey, praying that all lovers from then to eternity would be looked after. Today lovers can visit Dwynwen’s well on the tidal island where the sight of active fish augurs a faithful partner.
Even sadder is the tale of Gelert, the faithful canine friend of Llywelyn the Great, the 13th-century Prince of Gwynedd, who returned from hunting to find his dog covered in blood.
Believing Gelert had torn apart his infant son, Llywelyn killed the dog only to find his child safe with a dead wolf, seen off by Gelert, lying next to him. Today Beddgelert, meaning “Gelert’s grave”, is one of the prettiest villages in north Wales with a monument to the faithful hound. Llywelyn,
it is said, never smiled again.
For something more cheerful, Matthews cites the tale of the goddess Rhiannon as one of her favourites from The Mabinogion. “She’s an early example of a female with a great sense of humour in literary history.” The story goes that Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, spots a beautiful woman on a gleaming white horse. “He thinks, ‘I like the look of her,’” says Matthews, “and tries to catch her up, but the faster he goes, the distance doesn’t get any less and this goes on forever until eventually he gets close enough to say, ‘Will you stop?’ And she said, ‘Why didn’t you say that earlier? My horse is knackered.’”
Another feisty heroine appears in the myth of the Lady of the Lake. “It’s connected with the stories of the fairies, the otherworldly creatures who, according to some legendary traditions, were the inhabitants of these islands before the Celts came,” explains Dr Aled Llion Jones, senior lecturer at the School of Welsh at Bangor University. “The idea is that they were driven away, in this case,
under the water, which is where gifts to the water – throwing coins in and so on – come from.”
The most famous version of the story is connected with a lake, Llyn y Fan Fach, in the Brecon Beacons under the ‘Black Mountain’, from which emerges a beautiful enchantress with whom a local farmer falls in love. Unions between mortals and immortals don’t tend to end happily and so it is that the Lady of Lake, ultimately, returns to the water, taking her cattle with her, but, oddly, not her children – though she does pass on to them the secrets of herbalism and medicine and they become the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Perhaps the ultimate Welsh myth is that of the dragon. “We have the best flag in the world,” says Matthews proudly. “Who else has got a red dragon? And you can chase that dragon back through history.”
A symbol of King Arthur and Wales through the ages, the dragon is particularly closely associated with the legends surrounding Dinas Emrys in northwest Wales. “It is the story of a king who wants to build a castle and overnight it falls down and so the wizard Merlin comes along and explains that, under the foundation, there are two dragons fighting,” says Professor Raluca Radulescu, co-director of the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Bangor University. “Lo and behold, when they look, it is the Welsh dragon fighting the Saxon dragon.”
The latter dragon is white; the Welsh one, of course, red. There is another layer to the story, adds Llion Jones: “In this context the dragon is the prophetic symbol of sovereignty of the isle of Britain”. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century book, The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon also presages the coming of Arthur.
“He was one of the last British warriors resisting the Anglo-Saxons,” says Llion Jones, “so this whole story is connected with the origins of nation and nationality in Wales coming out of that period. “Dinas Emrys is a very striking part of the landscape. It’s an old Iron Age fort, which is another thing: many of the places that became associated with the legend of Arthur were either Roman sites or sites of previous fortresses and fortifications,” he continues, citing Caernarfon in the north and Caerleon in the south as examples. (The latter, claimed Geoffrey of Monmouth, was, in fact, Camelot, Arthur’s legendary court, and today boasts the only Roman legionary barracks in view in Europe.)
Yet no Arthurian site is more dramatic than Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. The region of Snowdonia claims to harbour the watery resting place of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, either in Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Dinas or Llyn Ogwen, and the great mountain itself is said to be where Arthur slew Rhita Gawr, a giant so fearsome he wore a cloak made from the kings he had vanquished. “Arthur was responsible for dispatching and burying him and raising the cairn on top of the grave, which became the mountain,” says Llion Jones.
“Yr Wyddfa, the Welsh name for Snowdon, means ‘burial place’.” Arthur himself is rumoured to be buried in a number of places in Wales (and also in England too), but one of the most notable sites associated with him is Bardsey Island, off the Llyˆn Peninsula, hailed as the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur sleeps in a cave until his return in Wales’s most dire hour of need. Merlin’s early Welsh roots are as a prophet poet. The famous Arthurian wizard has a particularly close link with Carmarthen, his birthplace in southwest Wales. The earliest surviving Welsh manuscript, The Black Book of Carmarthen, featuring tales of Arthur and Merlin, was compiled in the town and a well-known rhyme predicts, “When Merlin’s oak comes tumbling down, down shall fall Carmarthen town.” The oak in question stood in the town until it befell a series of misfortunes – poison and, in one version of the story, fire.
“They cut it down and immediately Carmarthen was flooded,” smiles Llion Jones. Today a fragment of tree branch remains in Carmarthenshire County Museum.
“Merlin becomes associated with Arthur later,” explains Radulescu, “so the two separate legendary strands get brought together in the 12th century, which is when the Arthurian legend becomes popular across Europe.”
Later still, Owain Glyndwr, the last self-proclaimed native Prince of Wales who lived and fought in the late 1300s and early 1400s, captured the public imagination. Taking over from King Arthur as the
ultimate Welsh warrior-hero, Glyndwr can be remembered today by walking Glyndwr’s Way, a national trail that follows his story through mid-Wales, or by visiting Conwy Castle in north Wales, which was held by Glyndwr’s forces for several months.
Snowdonia’s Harlech Castle also played a key role as his residence and court. Today the heroism of his cause is associated with the stirring “Men of Harlech”, though in truth the song was inspired by a later siege at the castle. Nevertheless, listening to the rousing tune sung in glorious Welsh voices at sports matches, or even pubs afterwards, no doubt with the flag making an appearance nearby, it is hard to resist. So enduring are Welsh legends they can be found in every corner, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places.
No image of an archetypal English village is complete without a thatched cottage or two. In fact, a straw topped dwelling is as much a part of the rural idyll as rolling fields, tolling church bells and duck ponds on the village green.
A thatched roof is not only an elegant solution to topping a beautiful old cottage, but also a communion between such a building and the rural landscape in which it invariably inhabits. By crowning a house with locally grown reeds or straw, a connection is explicitly drawn between that man-made structure and the natural world that surrounds it.
Were they more commonplace in the US, a thatch would surely be the epitome of what the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called “organic architecture”, a philosophy promoting a harmonious relationship between human dwellings and the natural world.
However, Lloyd Wright coined the famous phrase in 1939 and thatched cottages have been a feature of the British landscape, and the south of England in particular, since at least the Bronze Age. The process evolved during the Roman occupation of Britain from AD43 onwards, as the development of basic agricultural tools made it easier for locals to harvest cereal crops for thatch (the Romans themselves insisted on clay tiles). Archaeological excavations of various sites at which Vikings settled in Northern Britain unearthed many shaped stones that are thought to have weighed down ropes used in the thatching of roofs, suggesting the craft continued during the early Middle Ages. William Shakespeare has a connection to two of Britain’s most famous thatched properties.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the Warwickshire village of Shottery was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife and the place in which the couple later courted. Anne was born in the former farmhouse in 1556, a time when thatched roofs were banned in the nearby town of Stratford-upon-Avon for fear of fire risks, but this particular building lay just outside the area of jurisdiction.
Since the cottage was built in 1463, a second floor was added and the original long straw thatch has been replaced and restyled many times. With its proximity to Shakespeare’s own birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage remains perhaps Britain’s most popular thatched property, the combed wheat reed-topped structure enjoying the attentions of the village’s two million visitors each year. Meanwhile, the roof of the Shakespeare’s Globe, opened in 1997 on London’s Bankside, was based on the original 1599 Globe Theatre, a reed-thatched structure in which many of the Bard’s plays, including Hamlet and Macbeth, were first performed. While the modern amphitheatre has the appearance of a true thatch, there is actually a fully fire-retardant lining underneath. (There has been a law against thatched buildings in London ever since the Great Fire in 1666).
Another of Britain’s greatest writers, William Blake, lived in a thatched cottage in the village of Felpham from 1800 to 1803, during which time he began several of his greatest poems, including the hymnal Jerusalem.
The cottage, one of the poet’s only two surviving homes, was bought by the Blake Cottage Trust in 2015 and plans are underway to convert it into a museum. By the 19th century, almost one million thatched properties dotted the British landscape, according to Sun Life and Royal Exchange insurance records. That number dwindled to less than 35,000 by 1960, but thatching has seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to private investment and planning controls. An English Heritage report estimated that about 24,000 listed buildings in England currently have thatched roofs.
Prized yet practical
It is easy to see why a thatched roof is so prized – think of them in terms of a hairstyle for a cottage; each one temporary, individual and indicative of the character contained within. Some are cropped neat and conditioner smooth, others a little unruly yet not without charms. Even the colour varieties are similar, from the light blonde of some ‘long straw’ roofs to the grey-brown of water reed and the dark roots of a smoke-blackened thatch.
While the colour is largely the result of locally available materials, many of the other characteristics of a thatched roof are dictated by more practical considerations. The steep roofs, for example, are purely a necessity so that rainwater runs off quickly – a 45-degree pitch is the minimum requirement, whereas 50 degrees is preferable. Likewise, the distinctive sweeping curve of thatch that sits over ‘eyebrow’ windows in the eaves of any house are largely designed for purpose rather than elegance. The distinctive personalities of various thatches mean that the creation and maintenance of them is a meticulous craft.
Steve Fowler, of Oxfordshire master thatchers Fowler & Sons, has been thatching roofs for more than 40 years. According to Steve, an average sized cottage can take around five weeks to re-thatch, while thoroughly learning the trade can take many years. “It depends on the individual,” he adds. “In a couple of years you can learn the basics and it takes another couple of years to get competent as each roof is different. You need to be able to apply what you have learnt to each individual roof.” The key to a good thatch, he says, is keeping the surface neat, tidy and level, while also ensuring the roof is able to breathe. “Thatch has a good insulation value in the winter and can also be nice and cool in the summer,” he says. “It’s a natural, green product.”
A brighter future
That final, perhaps surprising point is key. While thatched cottages will always have a certain nostalgic charm, they are not simply a period feature. “Thatch is not only part of the rural heritage of the UK, but also a very sustainable, renewable, biological material for new builds, so it can be part of the modern vernacular building as well,” says Marjorie Sanders, the president of the National Society of Master Thatchers. Demand for the society’s apprenticeship scheme is high and, as Marjorie notes in Thatches and Thatching, her 2012 book co-written by Roger Angold (and containing a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales no less), more than 700 new thatched properties are built in Britain every year.
Nevertheless, Marjorie would like to see more developers consider thatching as a viable option.
While cost and ease are a factor, she believes the long-term benefits are greater, but a change in attitude and perception is required. “How much more difficult is it to forget the bottom line for a moment and think instead about the long-term sustainability of the building? This is
why thatch is so important. I’m not suggesting all buildings should be thatched, but the materials we use should be much kinder to the environment.”
So next time you take a trip through the English countryside and gaze longingly at a quaint thatched cottage, take extra comfort from the fact that this traditional craft is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also pointing the way to a brighter future.
In her 1922 book Knole and the Sackvilles, the poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West described her family home thus: “It is, above all, an English house. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky…” To this day the mellow-stone country house at Sevenoaks, Kent appears in perfect harmony with its 1,000-acre medieval deer park.
Born at Knole in 1892, Vita recalled how occasionally a stag would stray into the banqueting hall, “puzzled but still dignified”, and admitted that even she, “after a lifetime of familiarity”, found it “impossible … to follow the ramblings of the house geographically”. With its dizzying array of towers and chimneys, Knole looks, as Vita’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel Orlando, “more like a town than a house.” The Sackville family acquired Knole in 1603 –members still live here today, although the National Trust now owns it – and transformed an earlier archbishop’s palace into a show house for their treasures. These included the perquisites (or ‘perks’) enjoyed by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, who as Lord Chamberlain to KingWilliam III and QueenMary II disposed of Stuart royal furniture that had fallen out of fashion. Chairs, footstools, state beds and sofas all dulymade their way to Kent. A century later Charles’ great-grandson, John Frederick, 3rd Duke of Dorset, added a wonderful art collection, including a rare set of portraits he commissioned of Knole’s servants that one can see displayed in the Brewhouse Café while enjoying a spot of afternoon tea.
To her dismay, Vita was barred from inheriting Knole because it was entailed to the male line. She nevertheless based Chevron, the grand house in her novel The Edwardians, on Knole and, with her husband Harold Nicolson, she bought the then-derelict Sissinghurst Castle and created the world-renowned gardens there, adding another jewel to Kent’s crown.
The Key to England
Indeed Kent dazzles with such jewels, claiming more castles and historic houses – some 39 of which welcome public visitors – than any other English county. Within a day’s horse ride from London, the Garden of England made a refreshing rural escape and playground for sovereigns and aristocrats through the centuries. Its coast, their frequent departure point for the Continent, has also been a first line of defence against invasion. Magnificent country retreats and bristling maritime fortresses pepper the landscape, each in its different way as quintessentially English as Knole.
Known as the Key to England for its role as guardian of the coast, Dover Castle, crowning the White Cliffs and boasting more than 900 years of heritage, is the most iconic of English maritime fortresses. In the 16th century Henry VIII added the formidable coastal castles of Deal and Walmer, but his connections with Kent are every bit as romantic as military. Mindful, perhaps, of family history, Henry lavished money on Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, helping to make it the embodiment of a fairytale palace. Just a century earlier, it had been owned by Henry V’s widow, Catherine de Valois, who fell in love and secretly married the handsome clerk of her wardrobe, Owen Tudor: the couple’s grandson, Henry VII, became the first king of the mighty Tudor dynasty.
Tour further west towards Edenbridge and you come to Hever Castle and Gardens, famous as the double-moated childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. You can visit her reputed bedroom, while an exhibition of costumed figures, outstanding Tudor portraits and intriguing artefacts plot the course of her ill-fated royal romance, life and times, including her two books of hours (prayer books), one of which she allegedly clutched as she went to the scaffold on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason in 1536.
Much of Hever Castle’s splendour today is owed to William Waldorf Astor who, upon declaring America “no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live”, came to Kent, and restored and extended the castle from 1903. A multimedia guide, complete with interactive ‘rub away’ images, allows you to see how the castle looked pre-restoration.
Near neighbour Penshurst Place was also once owned by Henry VIII, who used it as a hunting lodge, but since 1552 the fortified manor house has been in the noble Sidney family. It bears the marks of at least eight periods of architecture, medieval to Victorian – as current incumbent Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle explains: “Penshurst has never been knocked down and rebuilt because no one ever had a huge fortune.
Everyone simply added to what was here.” So, too, Penshurst’s gardens, with records dating to 1346, are the epitome of continuous evolution. Ben Jonson lauded its orchard fruit and flowers, “fresh as the air, and new as are the hours”, in his 1616 poem, To Penshurst; the 16th-century classical Italian Garden still enthrals; charming yew-hedged ‘rooms’ entice; and recent innovations like the Blue and Yellow Border, featuring specially bred ‘Penshurst Blue’ and ‘Penshurst Yellow’ irises, keep adding surprises.
The gardens at the home of Charles Darwin, Down House at Downe, may be modest by comparison but they provide fascinating insights into the mind of the great Victorian scientist. Here in his open-air laboratory, Darwin used plant and insect life to carry out experiments, 12 of which are now recreated for visitors. You can just picture him in his beloved greenhouses poring over orchids, feeding insectivorous plants with specks of meat to observe their tentacles curl, or pacing the Sandwalk – his ‘thinking path’ – while reflecting on his findings.
Darwin escaped from London to the peace of Down House in 1842 and lived here for 40 years until his death.
It was in his “capital study” that he collated the evidence and wrote his groundbreaking works on evolution (scandalous to many God-fearing Victorians) including 1859’s On the Origin of Species. While an exhibition and multimedia guide give context, you are brought closer to Darwin the man, his wife Emma and their boisterous children via the comfy clutter of family life on display here: not least the piano Emma played so that Charles could test the responses of earthworms to various sounds.
Our final highlight takes us to Second World War leader and two-times prime minister Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved family retreat away from the stresses of political life. Now in the care of the National Trust, Chartwell at Westerham reflects the complex character of the man behind the British bulldog persona: his passion for painting revealed by more than 125 canvases in his studio at the bottom of the apple orchard; his love of nature and landscape palpable in the hillside gardens with inspiring views over the Weald of Kent.
“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted,” Sir Winston once declared, and rooms, displayed as in the 1930s when he, Clementine and their four children were in residence, are packed with memorabilia bearing witness to his wide-ranging activities. There is a £7.1 million appeal to keep Churchill’s possessions – including his Nobel Prize in Literature, his speech box, medallions, hairbrushes and hundreds of books – in this domestic setting where they rightly belong. For at Chartwell, as in Kent’s other country houses and castles, you are put in touch not simply with history but with the fascinating lives of the people who made it.
Entering Winchester along the poker-straight Roman road that leads to a bronze statue of Alfred the Great speaks volumes about the part Hampshire has played in Britain’s early history. From Danbury hillfort, considered to be one of the best-preserved Iron Age settlements in Europe, to the historic dockyards in Portsmouth, Hampshire, on England’s southern coast, has featured consistently as an important centre in the tapestry of Britain’s past from its most primitive colonies to the Second World War.
Hampshire was also the beloved home of Jane Austen for much of her life and 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of her death. Celebrations and special events will take place across the county from Steventon, where she was born, to Winchester, where she died.
In and around Basingstoke, benches sculpted in the form of an open book will be positioned in places that influenced Jane’s work.
In Winchester, Rain Jane pavement art, which only appears when wet, will remind walkers on rainy days that one of Britain’s finest authors strolled there too.
Her wonderful books were greatly influenced by this beautiful county with its perfect hamlets and provincial life that shaped many of the characters in her novels.
Tucked into the peaceful countryside on the fringes of the North Wessex Downs, the population of this sleepy village hasn’t changed much since Jane Austen was born here in 1775. The rectory, where she spent the first 25 years of her life and wrote Pride and Prejudice, Northcazger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility (though they weren’t published until later), no longer stands. But the church, where her father, George, was the rector and Jane was baptised is still used for services. In June 2017 Steventon will host a music recital entitled Jane Austen Suite and conducted by local composer, Philip Andrews.
In 1809, Jane and her mother and sister, Cassandra, moved from Southampton to Chaw ton, where they were given a cottage by Jane’s brother, Edward. A return to the tranquillity of rural life allowed Jane’s love of writing to find its freedom once again, and it was here that she re-wrote and published some of her most acclaimed works from Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice. The house is now a public museum and beautifully preserves the traditions of early 19th-century middle-class life. Taking a stroll around the village itself you half-expect to bump into Mr Elton emerging from a church service.
Cadwallader Bates, the pleasingly Arthurian-sounding 19th-century historian, wrote of Bamburgh Castle as “the very cornerstone of England”. Fifteen hundred years ago, it quite literally was. Its pre-Anglo Saxon name, Din Guarie, even encouraged some to believe that this fortress, towering aloft dolerite rock, was once the “Joyous Guard” of Arthurian legend, castle of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad.
Visitors to the castle today will find the sandstone monolith strikingly situated between the village of Bamburgh in Northumberland – the northernmost county in England – and the Farne Islands, which lie a couple of miles off the coastline and house a famous seabird sanctuary.
There have been settlements at Bamburgh since prehistoric times (regular archaeological digs take place here and spectacular finds have included a gold plaque known as the Bamburgh Beast and the Bamburgh Sword) but for its earliest recorded origins, we must go back to AD 547. That fateful year in the life of the castle was when the Germanic King Ida the Flamebearer and his fierce invaders, known as the Angles, who hailed from the German/Danish border, seized Bamburgh.
By the early 5th century, the Romans had all but left Britain after three-and-a-half centuries of rule, rendering the country’s internal borders defenceless. Making full use of their advantage, for over a century the Angles had busied themselves raging and raiding their way through East Anglia, Lincolnshire and up into Yorkshire. But it was in AD 547 that they made their most important acquisition yet: that of Bamburgh. While Ida no doubt held strongholds in the region, the then Din Guarie was by far the most significant in the establishment of his emerging kingdom of Bernicia, which was centred on the rivers Tyne and Wear. It became his capital and thus the seat of the most powerful leader in northern “Angle Land” (which, of course, later came to be known as England).
By AD 603, Ida’s grandson, the fiercesome King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, seized control of Deira (known today as the Yorkshire Wolds). He defeated rival Angle chief Aelle in Deira, as well as the Celts, to form, with the unification of Bernicia and Deira, a new kingdom: Northumbria. This powerful new realm constituted almost a third of Britain’s mainland.
To perceive Bamburgh as the cornerstone of England was, then, no exaggeration; at the height of its power, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain were ruled jointly from York and Bamburgh and the province remained ferociously autonomous right up until the Norman Conquest.
In homage to his wife Bebba, King Aethelfrith named the castle – or “burgh” – after her. And hers was no nominal influence; she ruled Bamburgh herself after her husband’s death. Over time, Bebba’s Burgh would be compounded as Bamburgh.
The reign of king and saint Oswald – successor to Aethelfrith – who ruled during the 7th and 8th centuries, would come to be known as the “golden age” of Northumbria, during which time he ruled jointly from Bamburgh Castle and a monastery in nearby Lindisfarne and introduced Christianity to the kingdom. But post this golden time, after the eventual demise of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, Bamburgh Castle has endured, enjoying a long and often chequered after-life.
Escaping to the countryside needn’t involve extended journeys or sacrificing stylish accommodation. Just a short drive from London, Lavenham Priory dates back to the 1200s and yet mixes a rich sense of history with contemporary, stylish touches. It makes for the perfect destination when one wants to take a breakfrom hectic city life.
Originally belonging to an order of Benedictine monks, Lavenham Priory is one of the oldest buildings in the Suffolk village of Lavenham. The medieval half-timbered house boasts a historic herb garden, a water well, an underground culvert, and all sorts of historic and interesting nooks and crannies.
On the outside of the building, there are some fine examples of decorative pargeting, as well as beautiful carved barge boards on the gables. It is even rumoured that there is a secret underground passageway connecting the Priory to the nearby Swan Hotel, which was built during the Reformation in the 16th century.
To experience a sense of the building’s history first-hand, one can choose between a stay at Lavenham Priory’s luxury self-catering cottages or the additional Heritage Rooms for up to 15 guests in flexible accommodation.
Lavenham itself also offers so much for the discerning visitor. Described as the “finest medieval town in England” thanks to its lavish status during the time of King Henry VIII, the modern village is home to many nearby National Trust properties and the majestic Lavenham Church, not to mention the boutique shops, art galleries and antique warehouses. East Anglia’s beautiful beaches are just a short distance away, as is the gorgeous Suffolk countryside known as Constable Country. Dining options in Lavenham range from tearooms, gastro pubs, bistros, cafés and fine dining restaurants. The award-winning Great House restaurant and the vibrant and welcoming Number Ten restaurant are both just a short walk from Lavenham Priory. Meanwhile, the world-famous Swan Hotel and Spa is less than 100 metres away.
The dictionary definition of a village is simple: a collection of houses and buildings that is smaller than a town, larger than a hamlet, and in a rural setting. The real picture, however, is far more difficult to define. Britain’s villages are more akin to a patchwork quilt of fabrics in every size, shape and pattern imaginable. Each one has a charm and a character all of its own, and for visitors that’s precisely where the appeal lies.
This difference is strikingly clear when one moves between neighbouring regions. Just as dialects vary from one postcode to another, so too do the village scenes. From humble cob houses with neatly thatched roofs to rows of half-timbered houses criss-crossed with extravagant patterns, Britain’s villages are a living, breathing embodiment of the country’s rich history.
Indeed, no cluster of buildings, tangle of streets or intersection of roads is the same from one village to the next; what Britain’s bigger towns and cities boast in uniformity and precision, its villages counter in variation and charm. Here is our pick of five villages whose beauty lies in their uniqueness – just be sure to take a camera.
Endorsements don’t come much better than from a certain William Morris, who once declared Bibury “the most beautiful village in England”. Indeed, the designer isn’t the only one to have fallen in love with this typical Cotswold village just a short drive from Cirencester.
Perhaps the most photographed of its chocolate-box scenes is Arlington Row, a string of cottages built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and later converted into weavers’ cottages. Emperor Hirohito is said to have stayed here and fallen in love with them, Henry Ford liked the cottages so much he tried to ship them over to the US, and you might just recognise them if you’ve ever left the country: a blue-hued version of the row has graced the inside cover of British passports since 2010.
Elsewhere in the village, life centres on the square of St Mary’s Church – an ancient building with a charming combination of Saxon, Norman and medieval influences – on the banks of the River Coln, which runs through the village, and the vast expanse of Bibury Trout Farm. The latter takes in 15 acres of the Coln Valley, one of the most beautiful in the Cotswolds.
In the summer of 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed from France aboard the Du Teillay, landing on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 2 August. It was the start of the “Forty-Five” or the second Jacobite rising, which ended not in the restoration of a Stuart monarch, but in bloody ruin on the fields of Culloden, the last full-scale battle fought on British soil.
The dramatic tale has received a recent boost in popularity thanks to American author Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling historic fiction series Outlander and the popular television adaptation – although Gabaldon takes a severely critical view of the oft-romanticised Prince Charles, characterising him as egomaniacal, out of touch and a disastrous tactician. Yet this last hope for the Jacobite Stuart dynasty remains a fascinating symbol of a turbulent quest for identity, faith and nationhood that still has resonance today.
The origins of the risings lie in the 17th century. The restoration of the Catholic King Charles II to the throne ended the Commonwealth era that followed the English Civil War, but not the accompanying religious turmoil Charles’s brother and successor, King James II and VII, introduced promoting religious tolerance, but that alarmed the Anglican establishment, who interpreted it as a propping up of the Catholic minority.
When James’s second wife gave birth to a son, heralding the continuation of a Catholic dynasty, the king’s son-in-law, William of Orange – a staunch champion of Protestantism – began to assemble an expeditionary force. A group of seven English noblemen (the “Immortal Seven”) sent William a formal invitation in 1688 to come to England and overthrow the monarch, promising that the people would rise up and support him. The invitation was a key political strategy, making palatable the invasion of a foreign power.
William landed with a Dutch army at Brixham in Torbay, Devon, that November and James’s support quickly dissolved, with major defections from the English army; James fled to Catholic France. William’s victory, known as the Glorious Revolution, made him and wife Mary, the oldest daughter of James II and VII, joint monarchs and was a relatively peaceful transition.
However, James still had staunch supporters in the Scottish Highlands – the term “Jacobite” is derived from “James” – who saw this as a coup by force and refused to pledge loyalty to the new monarch.
Led by the Viscount Dundee, and supported by troops from Ireland as well as Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland clans and members of many Scottish noble families, the rebels defeated William’s superior army at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689.
An English soldier is said to have escaped by making a death-defying jump across the wooded gorge –you can still visit the spot, now known as Soldier’s Leap. But the Jacobite forces went on to suffer heavy defeats, and when William offered the Highland clans a pardon in exchange for taking the oath of allegiance, they accepted.
Mod, punk rock and indie were all born on the streets of London, and while big-name brands hog the real estate on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, you can still count on Carnaby Street to remain true to its iconoclastic roots. Here, you’ll find Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green, Shinola and A.P.C within walking distance of each other. For real street cred though, drop into Lambretta, Oi Polloi and Baracuta.
Next, go east: Shoreditch and its surrounding areas are buzzing with creative, independent talent. Boxpark, on the corner of High Street is an eat/ shop/drink space made up of storage containers, housing brands such as Hype, The Brokedown Palace and the exclusive Idris Elba x Superdry collab.
And while London is the home of British menswear, the scene in Manchester is hotting up too. Check out the Northern Quarter, for stores like A Shop Called Wood that stock brands from Penfield to YMC. You’re bound to find something exclusive that no one else will have.
Sometime in the summer of 1975, a young lad sporting a shock of green hair and a home-made T-shirt that said “I hate Pink Floyd” walked into a Chelsea boutique. He didn’t know it then, but that moment would change the history of music, pop culture and fashion. Because the young lad’s name was John Lydon, and the shop he had just entered was SEX, the kinky, transgressive fetish boutique run by raconteurs and art-savants Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
Alongside Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, the trio would create the phenomenon that were the Sex Pistols and kickstart the punk revolution. It’s hard to overestimate the influence of punk rock on contemporary culture – you can credit (or blame) it for everything from Nirvana to Etsy, from Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” to Rihanna’s faux hawk. And it all begun in that tiny 450sqft shop that McLaren once called “a cross between a school gym and a padded cell.”
If that’s not enough for you to make the trek over to 430 King’s Road, just remember that since the Eighties, Westwood has used the shop – now called World’s End – as a testing ground for her most outre, forward-thinking fashion. From punk to the “New Romantics”, from bondage outfits to “Climate Revolution” T-shirts, this little Victorian building is as important to modern culture as any museum or gallery.