Great Places – England

      England is a truly special place. It sports great history, architecture, education, literature, and beauty. Travel through this country and remember some of the most famous names in Western Civilization, such as, Shakespeare, Churchill, Newton, and William the Conqueror. Here is my tribute to the best travel destinations in this rich country. Later, view the photo album which will soon follow.
      1. London
             London is another of the world’s great cities. It is staid and proper, just like many Brits, but the people are helpful and there are a plethora of sights and attractions. In fact, London is worth an entire week if travel plans allow.
            The most visited attraction in the city is the Tower of London, which has an extremely storied history. The Tower of London, located on the north bank of the Thames, near London’s Financial District, has been a home to England’s monarchs, a weapons storage facility, a treasury (it still holds the Crown Jewels), and, most famously, a prison. Many an enemy of the state met his or her end, frequently by beheading, within the confines of the Tower. The visitor is escorted though the complex by a resident “beefeater”, dressed in a uniform which is reminiscent of Tudor England.
           Must sees on the visit include the White Tower, the dominant structure within the complex, which dates back to the 11th century, the Jewel House, which houses the British Crown Jewels, Traitor’s Gate, the entryway for prisoners arriving from Westminster Hall, and the Bloody Tower, so-named since it was the residence of Edward IV’s two sons whose bones were later found nearby, after their uncle, Richard III, ascended the throne. One of the cells, the cell of “little ease” was so small (4 ft x 4 ft) that prisoners could not fully stand up, nor lie straight out. Imagine how uncomfortable it was!
            There are a number of places in London which are icons of travel — known and/or recognized all over the world. These include Big Ben and Parliament, the seat of government in England. “Ben” is actually the name for the bell, although the Bell Tower dominates the skyline here. The architecture is neo-gothic and is both striking and exquisite in its detail. The complex is huge, lavish, and ornate, and a tribute to the British who keep the area spotless.
            Tower Bridge is one of the most distinctive and beautiful bridges in the world. It has become one of the enduring symbols of London. It is at the eastern end of the city and spans the Thames, very close to the Tower of London. The “Tower Bridge Experience” provides lots of information about the history, operation, and construction of the bridge. However, it is disappointing in that the top level is an enclosed area, instead of being outside for a great view. Pictures can only be taken through a few tiny windows.
            Buckingham Palace is another “must-see” in London. The palace is still the city residence of the Royal Family. The public is allowed to view the state rooms, but not the private living quarters of the Queen, her family and guests. Perhaps most impressive is the “Changing of the Guard” which takes place at 11:30 AM every day from April to mid-July, then goes to an alternating day schedule for the remainder of the year. During the summer months, crowds are huge so it is advisable to arrive early in order to stake out a territory. It is quite the ceremony, but then the Brits are known for their pomp and circumstance.
            A lesser known, but just as regal, ceremony is the “Changing of the Horse Guards” which takes place at 11 AM each day at the Horse Guards building behind 10 Downing Street.
           Westminster Abbey is a beautiful church in its own right. The exterior resembles the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but, inside, it is more like a museum or a mausoleum, in that it contains the tombs of, or memorials to, most of the kings and queens of England, as well as many other notables. It is solemn inside because it is the burial place of so many, and pictures cannot be taken as a consequence. Some of the special memorials are particularly elaborate, such as the tombs of Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Of special note is the Poet’s Corner which has busts or plaques to England’s famous literati.
           Besides these mega-attractions, there are many other places worthy of the traveler’s time and energy. Harrods department store is one of the most interesting shopping facilities in the world. Besides the architecture and the store decorations, almost anything buyable can be found here. Trafalgar Square is one of Europe’s great gathering places, with its fountain, its pigeons, and its sculptures. London’s parks, such as Hyde Park and Green Park, are noteworthy since they offer a peaceful respite in a crowded, hectic location.
           St. Paul’s Cathedral, the setting for the very public marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, was designed by Christopher Wren, the famous architect who practically rebuilt London after its devastating fire of 1666. The church claims to have the second largest dome in the world (after St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City). The interior, the setting for many lavish state ceremonies, is striking, especially the ceiling and dome. The outside of the cathedral is also very attractive, but it needs cleaning.
                       British Airways’ London Eye, a large Ferris wheel on the south shore of the Thames River, offers spectacular views of the city.
           There are also, as one would expect, some major museums in London. Most notable are the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (the Tate).
           The British Museum, on Trafalgar Square, is the oldest public museum in the world. The most famous holdings of the museum are the Elgin Marbles, 5th century B.C. reliefs from the Parthenon, in Greece. Other particular delights include a collection of Egyptian Mummies and the Lindsfarne Gospels, which date to the 7th century and are illustrated.
            Other sights in London, include Piccadilly Circus, London’s equivalent to Times Square in New York City, a neon, garish confluence of streets which has become one of London’s great gathering places. Not too far away is Covent Garden, a group of London streets centering on the Central Market, a covered mall with numerous shops and stalls surrounded by a plaza, frequented by street performers and crowds of people.
            For an unusual experience, have lunch in the “Cafe in the Crypt”, in the bowels of St Martin-in-the-Field Church, right across from Trafalgar Square.
            Take the “Big Bus Company” tour, a red double-decker that stops at numerous places on the tourist map. The ticket holder may get off anywhere, sightsee, then hop on another bus to continue the tour. There is also a narrator on each bus who describes the attractions.
            Across the Thames, tourists will find an exact replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater which offers productions year round, weather permitting, since the theater is outdoors.
            One of the favorite excursions from London involves a cruise down the River Thames to Greenwich, England, home of the Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Observatory, the original home of Greenwich Mean Time, the time standard for the entire earth and the location which demarcates zero degrees Longitude. Boats leave from the Westminster Pier at various times throughout the day.
            Another, slightly longer, day trip is an excursion to Brighton, on the south coast of England to visit the Royal Pavilion, an unbelievably elaborate palace. The architecture is Eastern and the furnishings Chinese. It was used as a residence by King George IV, but when Queen Victoria succeeded him, she moved the royal quarters back to London, so the palace ceased to be a resort for the monarchy. It was, however, purchased and restored to its former elegance by the city of Brighton, and is worth a hour or two. Brighton is also known for its beach.
            A third excursion is eastward to Canterbury Cathedral which is not only an impressive church, but is also a repository of a considerable amount of history, particularly involving the events surrounding the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 (his remains were housed here until 1538). The church is also known for its medieval stained glass and the tomb of the Black Prince (son of Edward III).
            Still another excursion from London takes the visitor to Leeds Castle, certainly one of the most beautiful castles in all of Europe. It is a classic, Medieval castle, complete with moat. It is incredibly romantic and picturesque, with its varied-colored bricks and pleasant, spotless grounds. The interior is meticulously decorated with extravagant arrangements of fresh flowers, as well as period furniture.
            An additional side trip from the city lies northwest at Windsor Castle, the residence of the English royals, which has a history dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, who had it built in 1070 AD. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world with its 1000 rooms. Note in particular, St George’s Chapel, where ten British monarchs are buried, and the State Apartments, with its many historical treasures. When the Queen is in residence, there is a Changing of the Guard ceremony here which is as good as the one in London.
       2. Stonehenge
             Stonehenge, located on the Salisbury plain west of London, is a series of huge stones arranged in concentric circles, thought to be approximately 4,000 to 5,000 years old. Prehistoric people are thought to have brought the stones many miles, quite a feat since many of them weigh several tons. Most scholars think that the stones have either a spiritual or astronomical purpose, or perhaps both. There seems no doubt that they are arranged in conjunction with the passage of the seasons and/or time.
             Visitors are allowed to walk along a circular path which surrounds the complex. Excavations reveal that more circles were planned outside the current alignment so that what is seen today was part of a much grander scheme.
             After visiting Stonehenge, stop by the concession stand, next to the parking lot, and sample the “rock cakes”, delicious, chunky, ginger-flavored scones filled with raisins — a wonderful, tasty treat.
             Not far from Stonehenge are the Stourhead Gardens, considered the nicest gardens in all of England, and among the best in the world. These are landscape gardens famous for their blending of nature with some man-made classical structures. A two-mile walk around the lake is very spiritual and tranquil, with many opportunities along the way for quiet contemplation and great views. A small village at the end of the walk provides evidence of the area’s Medieval past, and a cute pub offers respite and sustenance.
       3. Bath
             Bath, England is a beautiful, little city of Georgian Architecture with Roman echoes. The Roman Baths are the major, but by no means the only, tourist attraction. (Rent an Audio-guide for a richer experience.) Also in the city is the Bath Abbey, a lovely old church and the Royal Crescent, a stately group of Georgian apartments high above the city, next to an expansive park. The homes along the narrow streets are festooned with flowers making for a very attractive walk.
             Splurge while at the Roman Baths by stopping for tea at the Pump Room where visitors are treated with style and serenaded with beautiful music.
       4. Hadrian’s Wall
             Hadrian’s Wall, in the far northern part of England, dates back to 120 AD, when the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, had the wall built to separate the most northerly reaches of the Empire from the Scottish barbarians. The wall is much lower than it was originally, but is surprisingly intact for much of its 120 km (75 mile) length. It was dotted with “forts” where Roman soldiers were quartered and tended to. These forts are in ruins now, but enough remains to offer the visitor a glimpse into what life might have been like back then. Housestead Fort is one of the largest and most interesting.
        5. Cotswolds
             The Cotswold Villages are small, quaint towns in England, with strange sounding names (Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Chipping Campden, etc). The houses and other buildings are made of stone (from the area, so they have some sameness to them) and the overall effect is like stepping back in time. The area makes a great drive, stopping and strolling at several towns, enjoying a pint or two at others.
             Stratford-on-Avon, a lovely town at the southern end of the Cotswold is perhaps the most important of the villages and, of course, famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Everything in the town is about “the Bard”, including the beautiful Hathaway Cottage where Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, lived. Parking in town is very difficult, with numerous restrictions, and the area is extremely crowded with tourists for much of the year, but it is certainly worthy of a morning or afternoon, especially for fans of Shakespeare.
             The village of Chipping Campden is the quintessential Cotswold Village. The buildings are all constructed with the honey-colored Cotswold stone which characterizes the area. Just northeast of the village are the Hidcote Manor Gardens, well worth a slight detour.
             The town of Broadway is also pleasant to stroll, especially along High Street, with its lovely homes and other buildings.
             Bibury is another beautiful town, noted for its Arlington Row, cottages from the 17th century which are protected and preserved by England’s National Trust.
             Lastly, the town of Cirencester offers scenic walks and lodging for those inclined to spend several days in the area.
             Hike along Warden’s Way, a footpath connecting Upper and Lower Slaughter and, if time permits, to Bourton-on-the-Water.
        6. York
             York, England, a walled, Medieval city in the northern part of the country, is a well-preserved look at England during the Middle Ages. The city center is pedestrian-only, cobbled, and loaded with charm. Walk the city walls for a great perspective on the area. However, visit during the daytime, since the shops close and everyone seems to disappear after 6 PM.
             The York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, is stunning inside, with its intricate choir screen, made of stone, depicting kings of England, and its beautiful Chapter House.
             Travel north from York into Northumberland to visit the Durham Cathedral, another of England’s Norman churches whose construction began in the 11th century. Also visit the nearby Norman Castle.
             While in the York vicinity, get a good map of the area and take a driving tour of North York’s Moors National Park for an intriguing look at this landscape, made famous in the classic novel, Wuthering Heights.
        7. Lake District
             The Lake District of England is a major vacationland for the British who flock here during the summer months, as well as for tourists who are drawn to its isolation, in the northwestern part of England, far from the major tourist areas to the south. Lovely towns abound, such as Windermere and Grasmere, and the lake and mountain scenery is beautiful. It has obviously become popular because of the opportunity for water sports and recreation and as a place to “get away from it all”.
             An interesting day trip from the Lakes region is to drive south to Stoke-on-Trent, one of England’s major centers for the production of fine china. Factories such as Wedgwood and Spode, which are world-famous in the field, offer retail outlets for the purchase of china, and some, like Wedgwood, offer tours of the facility where the fascinating process is demonstrated and discussed.
         8. Oxford
              Oxford, England is, of course, immediately associated with the great University, one of the world’s best. The town of Oxford is a typical university town, in that all life seems to revolve around the people and events of the college. The “campus” is fairly spread out but extremely pleasant to stroll. One can’t help but feel somewhat spiritual or awed by the fact that so many of history’s greatest scholars, writers, scientists, etc. walked these same streets and pathways. Oxford is known as the city of “dreamy spires” since so many steeples stretch heavenward here. Notable structures include Christ Church and the Radcliffe Camera. Oxford even has its own “bridge of sighs
              In the vicinity is another of England’s remarkable castles. Warwick Castle is another classic castle, very large, formidable, high on a hill — a true fortress. The interior of the castle is elegantly displayed, with wax figures representing residents and visitors, and realistic scenes in the rooms, as they were in 1898. The settings are very impressive, with great attention to detail, such as, running water in the bath, the lighting of a cigarette lighter, etc. In the great hall, there is a fantastic display of medieval armor and weaponry, and the furniture throughout the castle is extraordinary. The castle grounds are also meticulous and provide a wonderful experience.
              Also near Oxford and well worth a visit is Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture and, perhaps more importantly, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Be sure to check out the Long Library, over 180 feet long, the Salon (parlor), with its wall and ceiling paintings, and, especially, the Park and Gardens.
         9. Cambridge
             Cambridge, England, like Oxford above, is a university town with an incredibly exalted tradition. Numerous colleges (31 in all) make up this university. Of note are the King’s College Chapel, with its awe-inspiring fan-vaulted ceilings and its altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi, painted by Rubens. Once again, there is a “bridge of sighs”, this time over the Cam river and it is interesting for visitors to either watch or participate in an age-old tradition at Cambridge — “punting on the Cam”, which involves poling a flat-bottomed boat down the river.          
        10. Wales
                Wales, located to the west of England, is part of what is known as Great Britain, ruled by the Prime Minister and Parliament of London, and paying allegiance to the England’s monarch, but is, in every other sense of the word, a separate country. Fiercely independent and proud, the Welsh people definitely possess their own individuality.
               Despite its size, Wales has almost 300 castles (some in ruins), so the country is a castle-lover’s dream come true. Some of the more notable ones are Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy, and Harlech in the north, and Cardiff and Powis in the south. Another important sight is St David’s Cathedral, built in the 12th century to commemorate the country’s patron saint. Also on the site is are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.
               Wordsworth fans will want to know that the ruins of Tintern Abbey can be found in the far eastern part of South Wales, near the town of Monmouth. Walk the marked woodland path to Devil’s Pulpit for a commanding view of the valley and the abbey.
        11. Chester
              Chester, England, is a marvelous example of the preservation of the past by design. It looks like a thoroughly Medieval city, yet most of the buildings date to the 1700’s and 1800’s, but were built in the older Tudor style so seem much older. There are even Roman elements dating back to the 1st century.
              The combined effect is truly charming and Chester is a delightful place to spend the day. There are almost two miles of intact walls which can be walked for free. Check out the photogenic Eastgate Clock (built in 1897 although giving the illusion of older) and listen to the Town Crier who, twice a day, calls out information about special events.
              Shopping is handled in an unusual way at The Rows, Tudor-style buildings which have shops on both the ground level and the second storey. Upper shops are connected by a balcony so that shoppers don’t even get wet when it rains. The Rows are prominent along several streets of town, including Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate, and Bridge Streets.
              Beatles aficionados will want to know that just 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Chester is the city of Liverpool where numerous tours take visitors to famous Beatles’ locations.


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