Throughout the UK, there is an abundance of historical properties that have seen some of the most powerful figures of the country enter through their doors, to stay, live, legislate, celebrate or rule. These places offer an exceptional opportunity to visitors to explore the surroundings that have played a part in history

Dover Castle stands proudly on the iconic white cliffs looking out over the Channel. At the very heart of Dover Castle stands King Henry II’s magnificent 12th century palace, built to showcase his power and wealth. Henry’s massive kingdom stretched across Europe, so he built the Great Tower to royally entertain international pilgrims within the mighty walls of the castle and impress them with his wealth, before they travelled on to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Visitors today will be equally impressed by the recreation of the king’s showy display of wealth. There are several floors to explore, filled with furniture, paintings and wall-hangings all displaying the vivid reds, golds and blues which brightened the palace in its glory days. As well as being amazed by the startling 12th-century colour schemes – which prove the middle ages were anything but drab – visitors can meet equally colourful characters either in the form of 3D holograms or on certain days, ‘live’ costumed performers portraying key people from King Henry’s royal court. They linger in the private chambers, guest rooms, the great hall, kitchen and armoury, giving a sense of the 12th century power struggles and politics which gripped Henry’s enormous pan-European Angevin empire. An exhibition provides more of the story behind the dynastic struggles between one of the most powerful and enigmatic kings in English history and his two sons, Richard the Lionheart and ‘Bad’ King John.

A visit to Dover Castle can easily fill a whole day and the Secret Wartime Tunnels are another unmissable highlight. In World War II, these tunnels secretly housed 700 personnel who manned telephone exchanges, plotted the progress of ships and aircraft and even operated on wounded troops. There are two tunnel experiences to explore. A free guided tour of the underground hospital follows the story of an injured wartime pilot as doctors fight to save his life. There is no pre-booking required as the tours run on a free-flow basis and can accommodate 30 people per tour. The ‘Operation Dynamo Experience’ vividly retells how 338,000 stranded troops were rescued from French shores in May 1940, masterminded by Vice Admiral Ramsay from his tunnel headquarters. Dramatic sets reveal the countdown to war, the lightning strike of the German army across Western Europe, and the trapping of the British Army on the open beaches and around the shattered town of Dunkirk.

Other aspects of a visit to Dover castle to enjoy include the restored and authentically furnished Fire Command Post and Port War Signal Station giving a vivid impression of Dover Castle’s role during World Wars 1 and II, deep, dark and eerie medieval tunnels, a battlements walk, the royal chapel and the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum.

A free train operates for those who find the steep slopes within the castle challenging. There is a group discount of 15% available for groups of 11 or more and free entry for the coach driver and tour leader.

Info:    01304 211067     www.english-heritage.org.uk/dovercastle

OSBORNE HOUSE

Bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a family retreat away from the affairs of state, Osborne on the Isle of Wight still retains the grandeur and opulence associated with the great monarch, who also became Empress of India. Although the house overflows with personal artefacts – from the artworks and objects the royal couple gave to each other, to the charming nursery equipped with cradles and plaster casts of the arms and legs of their children as babies – its private and state rooms still bear the formality and splendour that are the mark of this powerful queen.

Some of the priceless gifts Queen Victoria received as Empress of India can be seen displayed in the Indian-influenced Durbar Room, complete with intricate plaster walls and ceiling. The gold Drawing Room dazzles and the table in the adjacent Dining Room has places set out to the centimetre – servants used a ruler to ensure they were perfectly positioned.

Outside, where the queen spent much of her time dealing with papers, reading, sketching, walking and riding, the terraces immediately behind the house have formal parterre flower beds and fountains – although in the distance is more natural sweeping grassland and woodland. There is also a pretty walled garden to stroll through, which supplied cut flowers to the house, a wild flower meadow and miniature flower, fruit and vegetable plots – one for each of the nine royal children to tend.

Just a 20 minute stroll through these lovely grounds is Queen Victoria’s private beach, now open to visitors for a second year. Just as captivating as it was over 150 years ago, when it was a peaceful retreat for Queen Victoria, it is a hit with visitors, who can enjoy the lovely sea views from the comfort of a deckchair, paddle in the bay’s sheltered waters and sample ice cream sundaes in the beach café. Seaside attractions – including traditional games like skittles and quoits – are in full swing each day to the end of September, and at weekends in July and daily during August, there will also be Punch and Judy shows to enjoy – one of Queen Victoria’s favourite entertainments.

Queen Victoria’s diaries record many happy days spent at the beach with her family, where they played together, bathed, collected shells, fished, sketched, admired the views and took boat trips. The royal children learnt to swim in a special floating bath moored a few hundred metres offshore, which was designed by Prince Albert to keep them safe. The monarch too enjoyed taking a dip and her bathing machine, built to maintain her modesty, is now on display at the beach. It was at Osborne beach that Queen Victoria swam in the sea for the first time. “I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled,” she wrote.

A minibus shuttle service runs to and from the beach. There is a 15% discount for groups of 11 or more and free entry for the coach driver and tour leader.

Info: 01983 200022     www.english-heritage.org.uk/osborne

DURHAM CATHEDRAL

Durham Cathedral has had a role in many of the key historical events which have shaped Britain today, including the Reformation and the Civil War, and is the spiritual home of several key saints including St Cuthbert, St Aidan, St Hild, St Margaret and the Venerable Bede, many with royal associations and royal blood. It has been a place of prayer and pilgrimage for a more than a millennium; the stunning Norman Cathedral was built in 1093 to replace a Saxon monastic church. It houses the shrine of St Cuthbert who was the seventh century Bishop of Lindisfarne and the tomb of the Venerable Bede, author of the early eighth century The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, who is known as the Father of English History.

Durham Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Europe. The stone vaulting in the nave marks a turning point in the history of architecture, as pointed arches were used successfully for the first time instead of Romanesque semi-circular arches. This allowed the building to reach a greater height, paving the way for the Gothic style.  Durham Cathedral forms part of the Durham UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the first inscribed in the UK, and is a busy community offering daily worship. It serves the City of Durham and surrounding county, the Diocese of Durham and the wider north east region. It attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local communities. Guided tours of the cathedral are available, along with specialist tours and talks. The Undercroft Restaurant serves homemade refreshments and a new shop stocks a range of books and gifts. The cathedral is open to groups from 9.30am to 5.00pm with extended hours in the summer, and pre-booking is required to make the most of the visit.

Highlights for 2013 include ‘Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’, in which the world-famous Anglo Saxon gospel is the centrepiece, on display in Durham on loan from the British Library from 1st July to 30th September.  Group packages are available to coordinate a visit to the exhibition and a visit to the cathedral. Another highlight for this year is ‘Jewels of the North’, a spectacular festival of flowers and design. It will be created by renowned floral designers Pauline Lund and Judith Clancy, working with local members of NAFAS flower clubs. The cathedral will be filled with stunning floral arrangements on an unprecedented scale from 30th August to 4th September.  Kate Adie is the festival’s patron and in autumn 2012 she joined with members of NAFAS as they developed ideas for the festival.

Info:         visits@durhamcatheral.co.uk       0191 374 4051     www.durhamcathedral.co.uk

BANK OF ENGLAND MUSEUM

Housed within one of the most iconic buildings in the City of London, the Bank of England Museum offers a unique experience which brings to life the 319-year history of the powerful Bank of England, an institution which has contributed to shape the history of the City of London and the United Kingdom as a whole. Interactive displays, audio-visuals and artefacts dating from Roman times to the present day combine to offer visitors a walk through time that will fascinate young people and adults alike. Among the many and varied displays there is a genuine gold bar that can be touched and lifted, although its weight – an astounding 13 kilos, equivalent to 28 pounds or two stone – will take some people by surprise! The museum also explains in an entertaining and informative way the current role of the bank at the centre of the UK economy, which includes working to maintain stable prices, detecting and reducing threats to financial stability and issuing banknotes.

From 17th May until 31st December 2013, the museum also presents ‘Cartoons and Caricatures’, a new exhibition encompassing more than two centuries of colourful and satirical visual comment on the bank and its activities. The exhibition will consist of published and unpublished prints and drawings from consummate artists such as James Gillray, John Tenniel and, more recently, Steve Bell.

For groups of between 15 and 50 people, the museum offers free presentations that can be tailored to suit the interests of the group. They can include a short film or talk, after which questions might be invited on any aspect of the bank and its functions, both past and present. The popularity of these talks means that advance booking of presentations is essential.

Coaches can stop for a limited time in front of the museum and there are coach parking facilities at St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican Centre, both just a short distance away.

Info:  0207 601 3833 / 3866 / 3951    www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum     education@bankofengland.co.uk

LEEDS CASTLE

Leeds Castle has been home to some highly influential and significant families throughout an incredible 900 years. Owned by no less than six medieval English queens, the castle was also the royal palace of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and its role as host to the rich and famous continued right into the twentieth century, when during the 1930s especially, it was one of the great country houses of England and a centre of lavish hospitality for leading statesmen, European royalty and film stars.

Visitors can explore these 900 years of history throughout the castle and also enjoy over 500 acres of beautiful grounds and gardens. Throughout 2013 there is a new programme of daily activities on offer, so whatever the weather on the day, a group visiting Leeds Castle will always have something exciting to enjoy. New for this year, groups can experience punting on the moat, floating through the ancient arches in an elegant wooden punt. The experience offers visitors an inspiring new perspective on the castle for the first time in history.

Visitors who have worked up an appetite for lunch can visit the oak-beamed 17th century Fairfax self-service restaurant and groups receive a discount on a variety of pre-booked hot and cold meal options. During the summer, an excellent value for money picnic lunch option is available to enjoy in the grounds. The Leeds Castle shops offer unusual and quality gifts for friends and family and are also where groups can make use of their 20% discount on the souvenir guidebook, available in five languages. A useful compact mini-guide of Leeds Castle is also offered to groups at the special price of just 50p!

Dedicated, free, hard-standing coach parking is available close to the ticket office at the entrance. Visitors with disabilities are welcome and Leeds Castle offers a dedicated transport service for those with limited mobility. A selection of free educational trails, worksheets and fun information guides are available to download from the website in various languages. Leeds Castle is located near Maidstone in Kent.

Info: www.leeds-castle.com         01622 765400  enquiries@leeds-castle.co.uk

WADDESDON MANOR

A Renaissance-style château in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor belongs to one of the most influential European families in history, the Rothschilds. Known for their patronage of the arts, this house was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and has always housed an exceptional collection of art. Today it contains one of the finest collections of French 18th century decorative arts in the world.

In addition to the art inside – including paintings, tapestries, furniture, silver and fabrics – the grounds outside have plenty to see. The Victorian garden has a parterre and an aviary, and with shops, restaurants and a plant centre Waddesdon has a lot to offer for group visitors.

The Rothschilds continue to buy and exhibit art, including both modern and older pieces. New for 2013, inside the manor there is fascinating exhibition entitled Sacred Stitches featuring treasures from the ecclesiastical textiles collection. From late May in the dining room, Spanish artist Joan Sallas will be producing some astonishing recreations of 17th and 18th century table sculptures using only folded linen, and due to popular demand, the Fantasy from the Fire Maiolica exhibition will also remain in place for another season.

International artist Bruce Munro has created a new light installation, entitled Cantus Arcticus in the coach house at the stables.  Inspired by a piece of music of the same name by Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus is 15 abstract bird forms rendered in slender glass tubes occupying the coach house floor. Light cascades from above each piece, casting soft pools that change colour in response to Rautavaara’s music, which is playing in the space.

In the gardens, a new permanent piece for the collection has been unveiled this year: Xavier Veilhan’s striking red horses and carriage, Le Carrosse, can be seen in front of the manor. The horses and carriage have been abstracted into angular forms, creating an exhilarating sense of speed.  And from June onwards artist Philippa Lawrence will be planting a design in bedding on Tree Hill entitled Darning the Land: Sewn, which is inspired by unseen aspects of the textile collections in store. The layout for the summer carpet bed for 2013 will depict a design based on Baroness Edmond de Rothschild’s 17th and 18th century lace.

Waddesdon runs an extensive programme of events throughout the year, including the Summer Plant Fair (8th– 9th June) and Chilli Festival (31st August -1st September). There are always group rates available, coach drop-off points and parking and free refreshments for coach drivers.

Info:     www.waddesdon.org.uk       01296 653226

FONMON CASTLE

Occupying a beautiful situation in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales, Fonmon Castle is unusual in that it is still lived in as a home. Since it was built by the St John family around the year 1200, it has amazingly only changed hands once. The occupants have included many dukes and the family of King Henry VII of England, and later on, Colonel Philip Jones, one of Oliver Cromwell’s right hand men. Controller of the Lord Protector’s household, member of the council of nine, an MP and a Privy Councillor, godfather to Richard Cromwell, his influence increased as Cromwell’s health declined. At the time, an English MP was heard to moan “We cannot longer have this country ruled from a small castle in Wales”.

Visitors today can visit Fonmon Castle from April to September. There are guided tours throughout the afternoon and there is free access to the garden and grounds. For groups of 16 or more the castle is happy to accept bookings in advance, both during and outside of normal public opening hours. For such groups they can offer anything from morning coffee to an evening meal with or without a tour. The most popular option is to combine a tour with delicious afternoon teas served in the beautiful Georgian Library.

Info:         www.fonmoncastle.com    (01446) 710 206         Fonmon_castle@msn.com

ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL

Surely one of the UK’s most iconic landmarks, for more than 1,400 years a cathedral dedicated to St Paul has stood at the highest point in the City. St Paul’s is London’s cathedral and embodies the spiritual life and heritage of the British people. Frequently at the centre of national events throughout the centuries, traditions have been observed here and radical new ideas have found expression under the iconic dome. In many cases these events have left some physical record as well as echoes in the intangible memory of the building.

The present cathedral is the masterpiece of Britain’s most famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, but it is at least the fourth to have stood on the site. It was built between 1675 and 1710, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. This was the first cathedral to be built after the English Reformation in the sixteenth-century, when Henry VIII removed the Church of England from the jurisdiction of the Pope and the Crown took control of the life of the church. St Paul’s is home to the tombs of many key British figures, including John Donne (1572–1631), the poet and clergyman who, after a raffish youth, went on to become Dean of St Pauls from 1621 until his death. Two of Britain’s most distinguished military commanders of the Napoleonic Wars were commemorated with state funerals here and later, great monuments on the church floor: Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1806 and Arthur Wellesley Duke of Wellington in 1852, both of whom are interred in the Cathedral crypt. St. Paul’s has seen an incredible amount of famous faces in recent years too;  Dr Martin Luther King stopped at St Paul’s to speak from the west steps en route to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and in 2012 the Dalai Lama was welcomed to receive the Templeton prize. Royal weddings and anniversaries have frequently been celebrated at St Paul’s, including the Diamond Jubilee Thanksgiving Service for Queen Victoria in 1897, the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and Queen Elizabeth II’s Gold and Diamond Jubilees.

Visitors today can explore the breathtaking interior, take a touchscreen multimedia tour, visit the crypt and enjoy meals and snacks in the restaurant. Guided tours and group rates are available.

Info: 020 7246 8357    admissions@stpaulscathedral.org.uk   www.stpauls.co.uk