See why Great Britain offers so much as a travel destination. From thousand-year-old castles and cathedrals to contemporary art museums and scenic hikes, there is something for everyone. Begin your tour with a look at the scope of all Britain has to offer—and a few off-the-beaten-path ideas for getting to know England, Scotland, and Wales.
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A Visitor’s Guide to Britain
Over the course of this and the next 35 lectures, I hope I’ll be able to convey to you my enthusiasm for Britain and to point out some of the best places you should visit there when you have the chance to go. Even if you’re just an armchair traveler, stay with me and learn about the history and culture of an island nation that has played an outsized role on the global stage.
One of the quintessential experiences of travel in England is to pass through the great oak door of a rural parish church like All Saints, and into the musty interior, where a brass-eagle lectern holds the Bible, where stained glass windows retell biblical stories, and where old grave markers commemorate the passing of village squires through the centuries.
The great cathedrals overshadow the parish churches and draw the lion’s share of visitors’ attention.
Equally impressive are the medieval castles. Wonderful to visit today for people of all ages, they show in the clearest possible way just how dangerous and warlike life in Britain used to be.
By looking at the great structures built in Britain between 1500 and 1700, it’s possible to trace the rise of political stability in Britain. Henry VIII, who is notorious to us for having married six wives and killing two of them in the 1530s and 1540s, also managed to abolish private armies, which made internal warfare less frequent than it had been in the foregoing age, during the Wars of the Roses.
For most of its history, Britain was far more rural than urban. Even today, despite a population of 65 million, it retains much wild country and large areas of farmland. The hillsides have been baren of trees for so long, it’s hard not to think of this landscape as the natural condition.
One of the very best ways to visit Britain is on foot. If you have time, I counsel you to walk part of one of the great networks of footpaths that originated in ancient times and have been carefully preserved right up to the present.
Britain in the Age of Industry
We think of industrialization as linked directly to cities, and eventually, that was true, but the earliest industrial factories were built in hilly rural areas, where fast-flowing rivers powered water wheels linked to the machinery. In the Derwent Valley of Derbyshire, at Cromford, you can visit the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill, built by Richard Arkwright in 1771.
Britain was not only a rising industrial nation in the 1700s, but also it was a great seafaring nation, which projected its power across the world and built an empire on which the sun never set. No wonder it still bears so many signs of its seafaring traditions. The obvious place to start is at Portsmouth on the south coast, where you’ll find, immaculately preserved, the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson. During the pinnacle of the British Royal Navy’s wartime engagement in 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson was shot and subsequently died on the deck of his flagship.
Visiting the Highlights of London
Many visitors from abroad devote much of their time in Britain to its capital, London. That’s a pity in a way, because London is so unrepresentative of the country as a whole. On the other hand, there’s no denying what a treasure house it is of fascinating places and magnificent buildings. If I had to single out three as particularly deserving of your attention, I would make the uncontroversial choice of the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, about which I’ll have more to say later in the course.
Buckingham Palace is far more recent. Begun as a much smaller house in 1703, it was enlarged in the 1760s and again, much more extensively, in the 1820s. Only when Queen Victoria moved in, on her accession in 1837, did it become the principal London residence of the monarchy.
Just as the Houses of Parliament look older than they really are, so do many other parts of London and Britain’s other cities. The bulk of the big, public buildings are Victorian or Edwardian, constructed some time between 1830 and the beginning of World War I.
Equally engrossing are London’s museums, many of which also date to the Victorian era, and which continue to show you something new even after dozens of visits. The grandest of them, all housed in palatial buildings, are the British Museum, whose entrance is reminiscent of the Parthenon in Athens, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, named for the Queen and her husband Albert.
Side by side with the museums are the art galleries, so extensive that to attempt a visit to all their rooms is a recipe for exhaustion. The grandest are the National Gallery, which fronts onto Trafalgar Square; the National Portrait Gallery, right next door; and the Tate Gallery.
Special-Interest Tours of Britain
Depending on who you are and what you like, you might want a tour of Britain linked to some special interest. In recent years, for example, some of the most picturesque castles and colleges have offered “Harry Potter” tours, showing the particular rooms and quadrangles where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were made. Of more durable interest, and already a centuries-old tradition, are literary tours. Certain authors are linked so strongly to particular landscapes that they are inseparable.
Similarly, Wordsworth and Coleridge tours will take you to the areas of the Lake District they loved best, and where they lived for many years. College tours in the old university town of Oxford will show you where J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis lived and worked. The Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child, two pubs nearby, were the meeting places of their literary circle, the Inklings.
Here are a few practical tips. First, Britain has a mild climate; low winter temperatures rarely go below freezing and high summer temperatures rarely go above 75 degrees Fahrenheit or 24 degrees Celsius. IIt rains a lot, so it’s a good idea to take good waterproofs or be ready to switch from planned outdoor to indoor activities. It’s a long way north of the equator, which means that in summer the days are long and the nights are short.
To go in winter, by contrast, is to face short days, where it’s hardly light before 9:00 am and getting dark again by 4:00 pm, even in the south around London, with an even shorter day in Scotland.
On the other hand, spring and autumn visits are likely to be less crowded than midsummer tours, when tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world are flocking in, augmented further by Britons themselves, whose school summer holidays are usually the second half of July and all of August.
The Paradox of Tourism in Britain
The great paradox of tourism is that no tourist wants to be jostled by thousands of other tourists. It’s simultaneously possible to be one and to think that all the others are horrible. The two, best ways to deal with the paradox are to go at times less likely to be crowded, and to go to the countless beautiful, but hitherto-neglected, or under-visited places of Britain. I’m going to talk about some of the busiest and some of the most obscure sites in these lectures, but I promise you, the scope in Britain is inexhaustible.