Groups are spoilt for choice when it comes to heritage attractions in England. Angela Youngman provides a well-informed glance at some of the most signifi cant historical attractions that commemorate the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215
Kings, knights and monks have certainly left their mark on the British architectural landscape. Everywhere you look, there are examples of their power and piety. Often romantic and dramatic, yet always occupying a dominant position in town or country, these buildings attract millions of visitors every year.
To celebrate the history and individual characters of the sites, numerous special events are held every year including re-enactments, flower festivals, plays and children’s festivals. For group travel organisers, castles, abbeys and cathedrals provide considerable tour potential as single site visits or as part of a wider tour.
Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, imposing castles have been constructed to exert control over the population, with royal castles such as the Tower of London and Windsor Castle becoming emblems of power and majesty. Over the years, castle design has undergone considerable change, from the simple motte-and-bailey seen at Stansted Mountfitchet Castle in Essex to the great concentric castles of Wales where Edward I built his ‘iron ring’ of fortresses; each more complex than the last. Perched high above the sea at Harlech, this castle seems to rise out of a vertical cliff face. The height and strength of the walls appear almost untouched by time as they still stand more or less their full height, and access has recently been made easier, as a new gateway and bridge has been installed.
Conwy is a classically walled town, with 22 towers guarding walls that are over three quarters of a mile long, accompanied by another eight huge towers marking the castle itself. It is an imposing site set against the stunning skyline of Snowdonia. Just a little further down the coast is Caernarfon, the most famous castle built by Edward I. This acted as his stronghold, a royal palace and a seat of government. The unique polygonal towers situated at the mouth of the River Seiont, together with the lofty walks, create an impression of immense strength. In Anglesey, Beaumaris Castle is positively awesome.
The castle is partially surrounded by a water-filled moat and has four concentric lines of fortifications located inside each other. Beaumaris would have been an attackers’ nightmare, due to the 14 major obstacles that had to be overcome before entering the final part of the castle, including walls full of arrow slits and murder holes. South Wales too has its own fortress strongholds, such as Pembroke and Cilgarren, both of which were owned by the Earl of Pembroke, one of the key participants in the saga surrounding King John and the Magna Carta. Some castles have assumed legendary status. Tintagel in Cornwall is forever linked to the tales of King Arthur’s birth, with subsequent activities based on the Knights of the Round Table.
The role of castles was not confined to the medieval period. Many saw action in the 17th century civil war, while Dover Castle’s maze of tunnels were used in the Second World War during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Dover is the largest castle in England, featuring fortifications dating back to Roman times. One of its most unusual features is its underground Napoleonic barracks.
Many castles continue to have a prominent ceremonial function. Edinburgh Castle is home to such events as the Edinburgh Tattoo, which attracts thousands of visitors annually, while Windsor Castle remains the home of Her Majesty The Queen.
Kenilworth, Ludlow and Middleham are among the many castles that currently lie in ruins, while others have been transformed into stately homes, such as Arundel in Sussex, which houses the personal possessions of Mary Queen of Scots. In Northumberland, Alnwick Castle became the setting of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, home to the famous scene where Harry learns to fly a broomstick. More recently, it was used as a film location for ITV’s Downton Abbey.
The great walled garden at Alnwick is another irresistible attraction as it contains beautiful water gardens, floral borders and an unusual Poison garden. Castles were still being built in Victorian times. Balmoral Castle is a spectacular example of Scots Baronial architecture, created by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In many areas, cathedrals and castles stand side by side. Those typically included are Norwich, Durham and Lincoln. Norwich is home to two cathedrals, a medieval Anglican cathedral and a Victorian-style gothic building containing thousands of fossils in its walls and floors. At the apex of the triangle between these two cathedrals is the Norman castle, built high on a mound above the town, providing spectacular views from its ramparts and interesting tales of its former role as a prison.
Despite its links to Robin Hood and King John, Nottingham Castle harbours an unusual attraction for visitors through its collection of sandstone caves. Guided tours transport visitors from the top of the castle mound, through a network of passages to street level.
Fascinating and sometimes gruesome tales are told along the way, with Nottingham Castle the former prison of King David of Scotland and the Earl of Mortimer, in addition to boasting the legendary route for Robin Hood’s many excursions.
With 2015 celebrating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, there are special commemorative events scheduled at cathedrals, castles and abbeys throughout the UK. Durham, Lincoln, Salisbury and Hereford all have original copies displayed, together with exhibitions detailing its rich history. From April 2015, a special joint ticket will be available combining entry to Lincoln Cathedral and the newly renovated Lincoln Castle, where an original copy of the Magna Carta will be sealed in a brand new, purpose built vault. Alternatively at Salisbury, an eight-month long programme will explore different aspects of the Magna Carta, including a flower festival with giant panels depicting each of the barons present at the signing. Other displays aim to reflect the chaos before the signing and the peace that should have come as a result. Group bookings are already being taken, as it’s set to become one of the most stunning events of the year.
Unfortunately, there was little peace following the signing of the document and King John subsequently laid siege to numerous castles, such as Rochester in Kent and Framlingham in Suffolk. The 1215 siege at Rochester will be re-enacted this summer, though will not have quite the same impact as King John succeeding in breaching a corner of the Keep and causing it to collapse. The enthusiasm of the re-enactors will undoubtedly attract large crowds to the spectacular event. The story of King John came to an end at Worcester Cathedral, where he remains buried. Further east, another English king was recently re-interred at Leicester Cathedral. The simple white tomb marks the final resting place of Richard III, England’s last warrior king. His original grave was unearthed in a council car park during an archaeological excavation, not far from where he currently lies.
The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII resulted in a chequered history for the hundreds of abbeys scattered around the UK. Many became cathedrals and churches or were left to decay, becoming romantic ruins like Tintern in Wales and Riveaux in Yorkshire. Special events are often held, such as the re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings, which take place close to the Battle Abbey every year.
Other abbeys were transformed into great houses and stately homes. Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire boasts fascinating links to both Jane Austen and Queen Victoria, and Woburn Abbey has become a historic house as well as a safari park. Woburn Abbey was a Cistercian monastery from 1145, but was later dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538, when it is said that the last Abbot was hung from a tree in the park for treason. Woburn Abbey became a permanent home in 1619, occupied by the 4th Earl and his family. The original monastic buildings were sadly destroyed in a major rebuilding project towards the mid-18th century. Medieval pilgrims travelled miles to visit sites such as Walsingham in Norfolk – a tradition that still continues. Each year, thousands of pilgrims flock to the ruined abbey to worship at the Anglican or Roman Catholic shrines. Walsingham is also a popular group tour destination, located en route to the North Norfolk coast, alongside Holkham Hall and Sandringham. Lindisfarne Priory on the Northumberland coast is ideal for tour groups seeking to discover its timeless beauty and heritage. With pleasant walks around the harbour, a ruined abbey with wonderful architecture, a small castle and good shopping, Lindisfarne has much to offer, but beware of tide times. At high tide, Lindisfarne becomes an island surrounded by the North Sea. Over Christmas, tourism opportunities continue.
The long established Lincoln Christmas Market held outside the cathedral is extremely popular, combined with many others including Winchester, Exeter and St Albans. Group travel organisers can take advantage of special facilities and discounts to make visits even more attractive, such as Powderham Castle and its private tours involving secret doors and haunted landings.
Such sites often offer a multitude of facilities, thus providing ideal venues for group visits. Tour an abbey, then a safari park; explore a castle and learn about falconry; visit a cathedral and discover hidden political secrets, historic documents and pilgrim routes. Castles, abbeys and cathedrals may have their roots in the past, but they are still vibrantly alive and are popular tourist destinations.