Long-distance travel may still be disrupted by the pandemic, but how about a spot of time travel with historically-themed staycations? Here are some of the top destinations for anyone curious to step into Britain’s past this summer.
A trip to Salisbury is your launchpad to exploring one of the undisputed historic treasures of the United Kingdom: Stonehenge. How and why did Neolithic Britons create this iconic circle of standing stones? What kinds of rituals were performed here? Theories abound, some more plausible than others (we can probably write off the one about Merlin being involved, but who knows?). If you want to get up close with the megaliths, it’s possible to book the 'Stone Circle Experience', which will allow you to wander around the stones and commune with the ancient spirits (or simply take some Stonehenge selfies).
A Salisbury staycation has more attractions for history buffs. The other biggie is Old Sarum, an Iron Age fort that was later occupied by the Romans and eventually evolved into the earliest iteration of Salisbury. This became one of England’s most important places in 1086 when William the Conqueror gathered the most powerful landowners of his new realm and made them pledge their loyalty in what became known as the Oath of Sarum. Yet another historic attraction to discover is Salisbury Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture which houses one of the few copies of Magna Carta.
It almost goes without saying that London has more places of historic note than you can shake a guidebook at. Everything from the bridges across the Thames to the alleyways of Whitechapel has tales to tell from across the centuries. One of the most interesting places, for anyone interested in 20th Century history, is hidden from view. This is the labyrinth of the Churchill War Rooms, a time capsule of World War Two where you can follow in the footsteps of the Prime Minister. Here, you can see the bed where Churchill would take his naps in between life-and-death decisions, and visit the Cabinet Room where pivotal meetings took place (the arms of Churchill’s chair bear the scratch marks where he dug his fingernails in during anxious meetings).
Then there’s the Tower of London: castle, treasury, prison and epicentre of intrigue and violence. So much has taken place here throughout its almost thousand-year history – notably, the execution of Anne Boleyn, and the alleged murders of the 'Princes in the Tower' by their power-hungry uncle, Richard III. Today, many visit just to catch a glimpse of the Crown Jewels (including the St Edward’s Crown, which was crafted for Charles II), and get to know the Tower’s famous ravens.
History abounds in Edinburgh, especially when you walk the Royal Mile – a thoroughfare that runs through the Old Town and connects two iconic sights: Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace. A royal residence, military garrison and prison perched on an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle was the site of several violent skirmishes, from the Wars of Scottish Independence to the Jacobite rebellions. Today, visitors can gaze up at the wooden beams of the Great Hall, which dates back half a millennium, and also see the Stone of Destiny, the fabled slab used in the inauguration of monarchs.
Holyrood Palace, meanwhile, is the Queen’s official residence in the Scottish capital and synonymous with some of the most turbulent events in Scotland’s past. This was once the home of Mary Queen of Scots, whose chambers are on display today. You can even explore the supper-room where, one evening in 1566, she was dining with her private secretary David Rizzio when her jealous husband and his accomplices charged in and stabbed him to death before her eyes.
The great walled city of York is a must-visit for history lovers, and not just because of its emblematic attraction of York Minster. Undoubtedly one of the world’s great cathedrals, it was completed in 1472 after centuries of construction and is famed for its medieval stained glass windows and intricate vaulted ceilings. While seeing this staggering building up close is a true bucket-list event for anyone interested in the nation’s past, the city also boasts a very different attraction in the form of Jorvik Viking Centre.
Taking its name from the Old Norse name for York, the centre recreates the city as it was during the 9th and 10th centuries when it was under Viking control. Animatronic characters, immersive dioramas and displays of excavated Viking artefacts make this as close to a time warp back to the Viking age as you can imagine. Afterwards, you can take a turn on the medieval city walls that encompass the centre – these are the best-preserved such walls in England.
The town of Chepstow in Wales may not be as obvious a destination as the likes of London and York, but it happens to be where the country’s oldest surviving stone castle stands. Construction began on Chepstow Castle soon after the Battle of Hastings, and centuries later it would be besieged during the English Civil War. Marvellously preserved for a structure so old and battle-scarred, the fortress played a key part in establishing Norman hegemony in the region, and today looks like it’s sprung directly from any number of fantasy epics.
Another picture-postcard historic landmark close to Chepstow is Tintern Abbey, which dates back to the 13th century and fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century. Open to the elements, this sprawl of Gothic arches became a place of pilgrimage for Romantic artists and writers who regarded it as a vision of the sublime, and it was famously a source of inspiration for Turner. It’s a fascinating monument, both for Tudor aficionados and anyone with a passion for English art.