From Jersey up to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond, Britain is packed full of historic sites worth exploring. Here’s a few suggestions for reliving the nation’s long history, from Arthurian legends to its more recent nuclear past.
Soaking up the Saxon past at Sutton Hoo
When unearthed more than seventy years ago, the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo yielded some of the richest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. Treasure-hunters had been digging here for centuries without much luck. By the time Edith May Pretty bought the nearby property in 1926, tales of gold were just rumours, whispered stories told by the old men of the village. Yet Edith was intrigued, and finally, in 1938, she invited local archeologist Basil Brown to excavate the site. On his second dig the following year, Brown uncovered the remains of a vast burial chamber, later identified as a seventh-century Saxon ship – perhaps the last resting-place of King Redwald of East Anglia.
The site today, on a bluff above the River Deben, remains a wild, unkempt heath, open to the wind. Though Sutton Hoo’s main treasures have long since moved to the British Museum, the site’s absorbing visitor centre houses finds from subsequent digs, as well as reproductions of the main pieces and a life-sized re-creation of the burial chamber and contents. But don’t miss out on the main attraction; and remember it really isn’t “just a mound”.
Sutton Hoo (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is off the B1083 Woodbridge to Bawdsey Road in Suffolk.
Tracing the horrors of the Pendle Witch Trials
It’s Sunday evening around the campfire, and the drumming is intensifying. Entranced by the rhythm, half-naked girls are dancing wildly around the fire, leaping through the flames. Pentacle flags flap in the wind, and a shaman summons the spirits. It’s summer solstice at the Pendle Witch Camp, and it’s clear that four hundred years after the most notorious witch trial in Britain, bleak, windswept Pendle Hill has lost none of its powers to enchant.
The year was 1612, nine years after King James of Scotland ascended the English throne. Both fascinated and terrified by witchcraft, the paranoid king brought in harsh statutes for anyone found guilty of covenanting with the spirits or uttering spells. And so when ten women and two men, mainly from two rival peasant families from villages on the slopes of Pendle Hill, were forced into lurid confessions of witchcraft – drinking blood, burning effigies and using black magic to cause paralysis and even death – they didn’t have a hope. After five months of imprisonment in the jail at Lancaster Castle, all but one was found guilty and hanged in front of huge crowds on Lancaster’s Gallows Hill.
With its sinister history, it’s fitting that this isolated part of Lancashire should remain some of the most wild and unspoiled areas of the country, the brooding landscape of the ancient Forest of Bowland, of which flat-topped Pendle Hill forms an outlier, starkly at odds with the industrial cityscapes further south. You can also explore the area – visiting sites connected to the witches – by car on the 45-mile Pendle Witches Trail, which leads from the Pendle Heritage Centre, where you can read up on the trial, through the bucolic Ribble Valley and over the heather-clad slopes of the Trough of Bowland.
Visiting the fertile plains of Cerne Abbas
Most celebrated of all Britain’s chalk carvings has to be the Cerne Abbas giant, just north of Dorchester in Dorset. He’s been used in adverts peddling jeans, condoms and bicycles, and in 2007 shared the hill with a giant doughnut-wielding Homer Simpson (there was a movie to promote), but he’s attracted interest for a lot longer than that. And no prizes for guessing why: for this fellow, the “Rude Man” as he’s also known, is possessed of a rather alluring and unashamedly large phallus.
Legends explaining his significance run back to ancient times: he was a Roman tribute to Hercules; a Celtic British icon; a Saxon deity; and a slain Danish giant. But as there’s no written evidence of his existence till the late seventeenth century, most of these stories can be relegated to folklore. More convincing interpretations place him during the English Civil War, when he was carved as an insulting caricature of Oliver Cromwell while others suggest he was a parody of Abbot Thomas Corton, expelled for malpractice from the nearby Benedictine Monastery. Whatever his genesis, however, it is his status as a fertility symbol that has always resonated most strongly with visitors to the site.
The best place to see the giant in his full glory is from the viewing area just off the A352 south of the village of Cerne Abbas.
Uncovering myths in Glastonbury
Towering over the Somerset Levels, a lone pinnacle in an open expanse of marshland, the five-hundred-foot-high mound of Glastonbury Tor has invited myth and conjecture for centuries. The tower-topped hill is visible for miles around, and has (allegedly) served as everything from the Land of the Dead to a meeting point for UFOs.
Glastonbury’s most fabled legend is its association with the mysterious Isle of Avalon – water levels around here are now much lower than they were in the past, meaning the Tor was probably once an island – and it was to Avalon that King Arthur was allegedly brought following his mortal wounding at the Battle of Camlan in the mid-sixth century.
Many of Glastonbury’s legends overlap, and so Arthurian tales are intertwined with another enduring local myth: the Holy Grail. Finding the Grail was the ultimate quest for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, though it would seem that they didn’t have too far to look. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, attempting to establish Christianity in this heathen corner of the Roman Empire, buried the Grail at the foot of the Tor. The spring of blood that miraculously flowed forth is now marked by the Chalice Well, though the waters’ red colouring has more to do with its rich iron content than any sacred symbolism.
Indulging in some amateur archeology on Hadrian’s Wall
Indiana Jones never had it this hard. Not once, in any of the films, do you see him stooped over a designated plot of turf, back aching and fingernails crudded with dirt, as a fine drizzle sweeps in from the North Sea. But then, this is rural Northumberland, not some studio set in LA, and the huge garrison fort that you’re helping excavate is very real indeed – a two-thousand-year-old medley of military quarters, bathhouses and civilian homes that constitutes the largest collection of Roman buildings on Hadrian’s Wall.
Built in 122 AD, the Wall ran 76 miles from the Tyne to the Solway Firth, its entire length dotted with milecastles, turrets and, as at Vindolanda, forts. The garrison here was home to around five hundred soldiers, whose daily lives are being pieced together by a similar number of volunteers each summer – unlike other historic sites, who work only with trained researchers, Vindolanda opens what’s left of its doors to everyone, giving ordinary members of the public the chance to play intrepid archeologist.
It’s tough work and you’ll probably shift a fair few barrow-loads of disappointingly empty earth before finding anything. But when you do, gingerly extracting a clogged piece of wood that was once a lady’s hair comb or a rotting strip of leather that turns out to be an archer’s thumb guard, the sense of discovery is electrifying.
Vindolanda (www.vindolanda.com) is 35 miles west of Newcastle.
Slipping into the time tunnel at the Museum of Brands, London
The West London Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is an unforgettable time warp. The main part of its collection comprises an enthralling chronological social history, represented by a vast assemblage of domestic products, toiletries, clothing, food, toys and more. Items range from the Victorian era to the present, laid out in a low-lit “time tunnel”. The earlier decades take you through a fascinating haul of human trappings, from the first Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin to World War II-era cosmetics.
It’s absorbing stuff, but when you start to recognize items from your own lifetime it gets particularly compelling. Browsing retro Daz, Britvic, Bisto and Kellogg’s packaging, you’ll be amazed at how these everyday objects resonate with the child in you. The toys are the stuff of collectors’ dreams: heaps of Star Wars paraphernalia, Planet of the Apes and Jim’ll Fix It board games, and the mighty Buckaroo. The winding route means you can lose yourself in the detailed displays, emerging hours later, awed and blinking, into the lobby. From the Mary Quant stockings to the Toilet Duck, Opie’s collection is a historical account, a nostalgia trip and a clever study of advertising all in one.
The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is at www.museumofbrands.com.
Indulging in mead and murder at the Battle of Tewkesbury
For one weekend every summer, the genteel Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury turns the clock back to 1471, hosting in a field nearby a re-enactment of the bloody Battle of Tewkesbury, a decisive moment in the Wars of the Roses. It’s the centrepiece of the annual Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe.
Most participants are sticklers for authenticity. Many spend the weekend as their medieval counterparts would have, living in tents, cooking over fires and so on. Spectators, however, are free to live a less ascetic lifestyle, sampling hearty food like hog roasts and traditional beers and meads, watching jousting and archery contests, and wandering among the colourful array of jesters, acrobats, jugglers, falconers, magicians, fire-eaters and storytellers. History buffs can go on guided tours of the battlefield site, and there’s much to keep kids entertained, from treasure hunts to the chance to make their own shields and wimples.
The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival (www.tewkesburymedievalfestival.org) is held annually on the second weekend in July.
Hunkering down in a nuclear bunker, Fife
For those of a certain vintage, who shivered through the ever-looming catastrophe of the Cold War years, Fife’s Secret Bunker place brings home the reality of a nuclear strike with all the visceral force of a punch to the guts. Yet even if you’re too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis or the beautiful, disturbing animated film When the Wind Blows, this is a grimly fascinating window on a time when vaporization was but a push-button away.
The bunker’s entrance lies deep within the bowels of a wooded rise, which – incongruously – overlooks some of Britain’s most scenic coast and bucolic countryside. It’s cunningly disguised within a kind of neo-vernacular farm building, which leads to a reinforced concrete walkway that goes down… and down… and horribly down further, till it feels like you’re on a particularly clammy bad trip to the proverbial centre of the earth. Once you’ve finally reached the shelter itself it’s more like Das Boot meets Tomorrow’s World, with corridors, dorms and antechambers glaring in submarinal sterility. Rows of spartan bunk beds sit primed for uneasy dreams, while a plant room straight out of a 50s B-movie processes the bunker’s air and generates its electricity.
Most unsettling of all is the main control room, still equipped with its primitive computers and control panels, military maps and clunky old red telephones hotwired for that fatal call.
The bunker is located at Troywood, some three miles north of Anstruther – see www.secretbunker.co.uk for more.
Peering into the gloom of the Jersey War Tunnels
Head north from St Aubin’s Bay up Jersey’s main valley road to St Lawrence, and you can step back nearly seventy years to the saddest and most poignant period in the island’s history. Jersey was occupied by German troops for most of World War II and five long years were a time of isolation and struggle during which over three hundred islanders were sentenced to prison or sent to concentration camps. The Germans carried out a number of defensive construction and engineering projects in the Channel Islands but the excavation of Hohlgangsanlage 8 (Ho8), a series of hillside tunnels in central Jersey, was by far the most elaborate and dangerous. Totalling over a kilometre in length, the complex was originally designed to be a weapons store but as the war drew on and casualties increased, the Germans converted it into an impregnable hospital.
Today Ho8 is a museum of wartime Jersey, sometimes simply called the Jersey War Tunnels. The displays are stuffed with memorabilia relating to the harsh realities of German occupation. There are also film clips to watch, and a reconstruction of the hospital’s operating theatre and wards. It’s an engrossing experience with a strong anti-war message, but it’s chilling too so when you emerge, you’ll be glad to see daylight once more.
Jersey War Tunnels, Les Charrières Malorey, St Lawrence, Jersey, www.jerseywartunnels.com.
Going back to the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge
On paper, it may not sound exactly fun: a UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to showcasing the extraordinary industrial heritage of a small slice of the Shropshire countryside. But if learning about the history of iron-smelting doesn’t sound like a top day out, be reassured: the mix of interactive exhibitions, historic re-creation and general light approach means there is much to enjoy at Ironbridge.
Most people make a beeline for the iconic Iron Bridge itself, designed by Abraham Darby in the late 1780s, but it’s a good idea to visit some of the museums first to get a sense of why and how the world’s first cast-iron-built bridge – a material previously far too expensive to use on such a scale – came to be constructed here. There are ten museums scattered over an area of six square miles, each dedicated to a different aspect of industry – from iron-smelting to tile-making and ceramics. Between them they create the most extensive industrial heritage site in the whole of England.
Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, www.ironbridge.org.uk.