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Ten Historic Tourism Treats in England

Summer is coming to an end, but while seaside holidays in Britain may soon be over, there are still lots of opportunities for holiday fun.

Even when summer is over, there have been many opportunities for holiday fun throughout English history. Here are ten things to enjoy at any time of the year.

A breath of fresh air

During the summer months of the 18th Century, people flocked to Tunbridge Wells from London and Bath to drink the spa’s waters and to enjoy the exciting social life taking place on the Pantiles, the bustling street at the heart of the settlement. The Pantiles got its name from the new tiled surface created after Queen Anne’s son tripped and fell during a visit while she was recovering from one of her many pregnancies and stillbirths.

This postcard shows people relaxing on the Common that still exists today beside Tunbridge Wells. Just behind the buildings lies the Pantiles, the social centre of this popular historic spa town. Historic England Archive PC08200

Tunbridge Wells’ attractiveness during the summer was because of the proximity of the lush Kent countryside to the lodgings occupied by visitors. This was in contrast to Bath, which by the 18th century was highly urbanised, and during the summer, it was deserted because it was prone to pollution, dust and disease.  

Kenilworth Castle – gardens fit for a Queen

One of the most enthusiastic travellers during the second half of the 16th century was Elizabeth I. She travelled to enjoy aristocratic company, and to indulge in her love of pageantry, music, poetry and theatre, but she was also interested in seeing, and being seen, by her subjects. She also used her progresses to evade potential plagues in London, which were often at their worst during the late summer months.  

In his efforts to woo Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley also created a new garden at Kenilworth Castle in her honour. This has been reconstructed in recent years by English Heritage © Historic England Archive DP082993

Hosting the Queen was prestigious, but potentially expensive. For towns it might be costly for a corporation to prepare for her presence, but it might also increase the prosperity and prestige of the town. When the Queen visited Sir Nicholas Bacon at Gorhambury (Hertfordshire) in 1577 he brought a dozen cooks from London who cooked 60 sheep, 8 oxen, 18 calves, 34 lambs and 10 kids, as well as a bewildering range of accompaniments.

The Gorhambury extravaganza, which cost just over £100 a day to stage, was eclipsed by the festivities put on by Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, at Kenilworth Castle (Warwickshire) in 1575. His nineteen-day long festival of feasting, hunting and theatrical performances cost around £1,000 per day to stage.

Beware – vandal at work

The embankment of a railway line or the side of a motorway bridge may now be scarred by a spray-painted tag, an act of vandalism that disfigures our urban environment, but some graffiti is highly prized because it was created hundreds of years ago. Castles, such as Dover Castle, often have walls on which bored soldiers garrisoning the fortification scratched their names. Rochester Cathedral has a pioneering project to record the graffiti in the church, which includes a range of religious figures, but also boats and birds, the handiwork of visitors and worshippers.

This incised graffito in Ashwell Church shows the medieval Gothic cathedral of St Paul’s before it was badly damaged by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and subsequently demolished. A Brodie.

In the west tower of the parish church of Ashwell (Hertfordshire) there is a graffito of medieval St Paul’s Cathedral, which is a work by someone who had clearly seen the magnificent Gothic church, probably during the traumatic mid-14th century. The vandal/artist shows great skill in depicting its tall spire and elaborate tracery windows.

Messing about in boats 

During the 18th century, canals began to be established primarily to move cargo around England, but as early as the 1770s, purpose-built passenger boats, were running on the canal between Altrincham and Manchester. By the early 19th century, inland waterways were carrying thousands of passengers each year, alongside the raw materials and products from the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

At Sowerby Bridge Wharf (West Yorkshire), these holiday hire boats are now tied up where once industrial boats worked © Historic England Archive DP073898

Today there are more than 12,000 cruisers afloat, including more than 4000 boats for hire on Britain’s canals and on the Norfolk Broads. Therefore, if you fancy messing around in boats, as well as enjoying the canals and their architecture, there are also major industrial facilities to admire as you glide past, and often remnants of our military past. During World War II, many canals became stop lines to impede enemy forces if they successfully landed on England’s south coast and so there may be pillboxes and other defensive structures alongside canals to look out for.

Tired of grand houses and palaces?

There are many expansive country houses with beautiful gardens and wonderful landscapes to explore, but England also has a wealth of smaller houses dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and these have contributed to creating charming historic towns and villages throughout the country. Places as different as Lavenham with its mediaeval timber framed houses to Cotswold villages with their stone cottages are magnets for tourists.

Dove’s Cottage at Grasmere in Cumbria is also a popular destination because it was the home occupied by the poet William Wordsworth © Historic England Archive DP056060

Some modest houses attract visitors because of the people who lived in them. The home of George Bernard Shaw at Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire is a modest-sized, house, but within are intriguing displays about the author’s life, including perhaps only place in the world where a Nobel Prize for Literature sits beside as Oscar for Best Screenplay.

A visit to Britain’s front line

The Isles of Scilly are renowned for their natural beauty, mild climate and the magnificent gardens of Tresco Abbey. What is less well known is that these islands were at war for centuries. In 1651, England, including Scilly, went to war with the Dutch Republic, but soon a peace treaty was signed in which the islands were omitted by mistake. Thankfully, peace finally returned to Scilly in 1986, and not a shot had been fired!

This modern aerial photograph shows Star Castle to the left, with part of the walls around the Garrison in the bottom right of the image © Historic England Archive 23938/016

Effectively once in a generation, when this country was under threat from an enemy, new defences were created on the islands. Today, holidaymakers can relax while staying in the star-shaped Elizabethan Star Castle sitting atop the Garrison on St Mary’s. On Tresco there are 16th and 17th century fortifications and during the 18th century over 2km of stone walls were constructed to defend St Mary’s, followed in the 20th century by pillboxes around its coastline. Therefore, alongside Scilly’s natural beauty, there is plenty to inform and entertain anyone with an interest in our national history.

A museum for all tastes

England has a remarkable collection of museums. The earliest example was in Oxford where portraits and curiosities owned by the university were put on display in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library from the 1620s. The Ashmolean Museum opened in Oxford in 1683 and the British Museum in London followed in 1753. As provincial towns and cities grew in size, they also opened museums celebrating local history and often featuring collections donated by local dignitaries.

Pollock’s Toy Museum in Camden in London, located in a mid-19th-century building, has a collection of mainly Victorian toys displayed throughout its six small rooms © Historic England Archive DP134704

Today, a tourist’s dilemma is which museum to choose; there is potentially something to interest every taste. Could anyone half a century ago have imagined that popular attractions would include the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in Devon and the Derwent Pencil Museum in Cumbria?

Trouble at the mill?

A number of industrial sites around the country, once busy factories and mills, are now popular tourist attractions. Most of these no longer manufacture any products, but during the 18th and 19th century active industrial sites were regularly being visited by inquisitive tourists, people who had not yet heard of health and safety.

Quarry Bank Mill at Styal (Cheshire), which is cared for by the National Trust, dates from the 1780s onwards and is now open to the public as a museum of the cotton industry © Historic England Archive EPW028134

The German visitor Johanna Schopenhauer described a mill that she visited in Manchester: ‘A steam engine, placed in the basement, activated the many wheels and spindles in various stories above’. She also saw children at work, but did not comment on this as being inappropriate.

The Derwent Valley in Derbyshire had a pioneering role in England’s industrialisation, featuring Sir Richard Arkwright’s water-powered spinning mills, including Cromford Mill dating from 1771, as well as modern mineral mines and canals. The Honourable John Byng visited the site in 1790, though he was refused access as he was likely to disturb the girls at work, but he was more successful when he visited Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria factory at Stoke on Trent.

This sporting life

Today there is a major sporting event on somewhere every week and people travel long distances to follow their football team, to watch the Grand Prix at Silverstone or to queue for tickets at Wimbledon. During the 19th century, England led the way in the codification and popularisation of sports as different as horse racing, boxing, cricket, football and tennis. Tourists can still visit a number of internationally important historic sites, including the world headquarters of a number of sports.

The original Wembley Stadium was built in 1922-3 for the 1924 World’s Fair as part of the British Empire Exhibition. This Aerofilms photograph shows it on 25 April 1925 during the FA Cup Final between Sheffield United and Cardiff City © Historic England Archive EPW012731

Many of these sporting facilities are so large that the best way to illustrate them is from the air and Historic England’s archive has modern aerial photographs as well as photographs from the Aerofilms collection, which illustrate the diversity of the country’s sporting heritage.

Full steam ahead

The scientist Dr Richard Beeching is most famous for his review of Britain’s railway lines and as a result of his recommendations many economically unviable lines were closed during the 1960s. Dr Beeching was reacting to changes in the way that people travelled around Britain, including how they went on holiday. Instead of going by train to well-connected towns, cities, and seaside resorts, car ownership meant that families could go anywhere and this changed the whole shape of Britain’s tourism industry.

The Sir Nigel Gresley steam locomotive still runs on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a treat for children of all ages © Historic England Archive DP064586

Dr Beeching’s programme of closures inadvertently created a new stream of tourism and leisure through the creation of heritage railways. Up and down the country, enthusiasts lovingly restore and care for locomotives, old railway stations and stretches of railway line on which tourists can enjoy a blast from the past.

I am an architectural historian and historian who has researched everything from Roman forts to 20th century airports. My main interests are the history of tourism, prisons and law courts, and medieval architecture and sculpture.

2 comments on “Ten Historic Tourism Treats in England

  1. nanette pigaga

    Prior to the Ashmolean, it’s original collection was held by the great plant hunters and explorers, John Tradescant the Elder and his son, John Tradescant the Younger. It was they who opened this collection of curiosities known as the “Ark” to the paying public, thus the first museum in the UK was born.

  2. Jon Scourse

    Please consider Lincoln. It’s a wonderful historic city with probably the finest cathedral in England, a nearby Norman Castle with its Magna Carta and Victorian Prison and the historic quarter. Everyone that visits us is overwhelmingly enthusiastic and surprised at what a great place it is, especially for a weekend break

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