We decided when we were in London that we’d like to drive up to Edinburgh rather than catching the train, so we could see some local colour and check out some of the smaller cities in England. It was an awesomely fun drive, and we managed to mix in some natural sights with some historical wonders and hearty meals!
Here are some great moments we absolutely loved.
Stratford Upon Avon
Despite my desire to see the Bard’s hometown, this was a bit of a disappointment. Sure, it’s beautiful naturally, and the riverside cathedral and sense of small-town peace beside the water were amazing. However, the town does capitalise HEAVILY on the Shakespeare heritage, and this strays often into disingenuous money-grubbing and cheap gimmickry. The steak pasties however, were amazing.
We stayed in Nottingham at a place called Robyn 7, which is a 200-plus year old whiskey bar that’s for private club members only (well, the drinking part, anyway) and run by an excitable Eastern European chap who made sure we had everything we needed. We dropped our bags and then headed out, eager to find a pub to watch the Iceland V England game in and have a feed, both of which were accomplished in fine style at a great little pub. We were very careful not to exclaim too loud about going for Iceland, surrounded as we were by vociferous English fans!
The next day, we went for a wander, checking out the historic Nottingham Castle (yes, from Robin Hood, among other things). My favourite fact about it was that it was burned down by the villagers as a response to their local lord supporting a particular piece of legislation, and he refused to fix it for years as a silent rebuke to the town! We also went out to Wollaton Hall, a beautifully maintained old house that was restored by siblings years ago and has since been turned into a deer preserve and natural history museum. It stands imperiously on a hill of beautifully sculptured lawns, and we saw resting different species of deer resting around the grounds (as well as some pesky squirrels and a kestrel or two!) while we ate our lunch. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area or passing through.
Gisborough Priory is all but gone, except an astonishing and mammoth remaining wall, that acts as a gateway to a green and very English field. Walking around the layout gives you a definite sense of its scale and the importance of the priories within English historical life, and the green glade cultivated beside the site was tranquillity in emerald hues.
Hyland Castle is deceptively small until you realise what you’re looking at is the gatehouse to the original castle, which housed a family of groundskeeping staff. The original castle must have been immense, given the size of the remaining site.
Bishop Auckland is an interesting mix – it was once ruled by prince bishops (as the name suggests) who had military training and powers as well as ecclesiastic office. They ruled the land for centuries, presiding over the spiritual and physical well-being of residents and workers from the nearby mass of collieries. While some of the bishops had ‘unpopular’ opinions, they seem to have been remarkably effective at maintaining peace and order and building the church’s reputation with the common folk. There was also a performance of a choral piece from the time of the Bishops’ greatest influence, which was a 40-part choral arrangement, performed in a circle and delivered by speakers in the portrait hall for the entertainment of visitors. The castle grounds also had a deer hide, but all we saw were some very soggy and chatty sheep.
Barnard Castle is 900 years old. That fact alone is amazing, but for something so old to still have this incredible solidarity and presence on the landscape is remarkable. We toured the grounds there enjoying a bit of history and a rainless stroll around the grounds, and then wandered down to the cliff base to truly take in the scale of how the castle must have looked to invaders, perched on the hilltop like a brooding stone dragon.
The ruins at Tynemouth are spectacularly preserved and include a priory and castle, as well as 20th century battlements and gun emplacements. It must have been quite a sight (and quite a site) positioned defiantly on the headland. The remaining ruins give some interesting insight into how defensible a position it was, and how clearly the power of church and state were linked at various times in England’s history.
Warkworth Castle is a pretty interesting site, historically speaking. It’s less of a castle than a very fortified house, but its design is so ingenious and complex that it definitely stands out as something worth learning about. We did the audio tour, and outside of the cheesy re-enactments done by voice actors, it was a great way to learn the historical and engineering story of the place.
Hadrian’s Wall is incredible. This was definitely on Sarah’s list, given her study of Latin and Roman history in school. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for George R R Martin’s Night’s Watch Wall here. In its heyday, it was 15 feet high and ran for more than 100kms, across the continent and was staffed heavily by roman sentries and soldiers, some from as far away as modern Romania. Being there now is a mix of antiquity and rural life, with hikers and wildlife dotting the scenery and stunning ruins along the road. It’s possible to do it by road, cycle or foot, and if we had more time, I definitely would have pushed for a slower road.
Nothing says ‘awkward’ like crashing a christening in your backpacker gear, but that’s very nearly what we did at Lanercost Priory. While the newly minted infant and family used the chapel, we wandered the ruins of this astonishing priory, which once played host to Edward I during his final convalescence in the 1200s. The building is incredibly intact for an outdoor site, with the carvings easily readable despite the assault of the elements. The scones and tea were also fantastic, and recharged us after a morning out in the brisk wind.
Carlisle Castle is officially the most besieged place in England, over its expansive history. Not much to look at on first glance, but one hell of a historical site, having been a core site of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion and the execution of the Jacobean survivors (the account of whose executions made both of us flinch). We also saw some young military cadets have a passing out parade, which took me back to my days as a school cadet.
We went to Pooley Bridge in the Lakes District for Sunday roast and it didn’t disappoint. A loch of gravy, in which an isthmus of potato led to a great continent of roasted lamb, overgrown on one end with fresh garden vegies and beside a monolith of cider. We sat nestled in between groups of hikers and surrounded by lush countryside and expansive lakes, it was a great place to take the slow road (dodging coaches along the way) and enjoy the journey with a bellyful of English food.
All in all, northern England was lovely, despite the occasional heavy rain (we saw nothing of Hartlepool besides sleet and wind farms) and VERY long days. The below photo was taken at 10:30pm.