If it came to ‘Heritage per square kilometre’ the United Kingdom would win hands down. It’s a tiny island with an immense history and UNESCO haven’t missed a bit of it. From Neolithic Orkney to Maritime Liverpool there isn’t an aspect of the UK’s thrilling past that’s been overlooked. There’s royal pomp and pageantry, politics, paternalistic philanthropy, colonialism, industrialism, romance, religion and more than a dash of dastardly deeds, apparitions, ancient mysteries and, of course, a few murders.
So if I’ve missed a few in my pick, you’ll have to forgive me and put all the blame UNESCO’s way for being so very generous with their UK designations in the first place.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Blenheim stands alongside Castle Howard and Highclere as one of the finest and most beautifully preserved English Romantic Palaces. You might recognise it from its many movie appearances (think ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’). But as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, caretaker of Capability Brown’s magnificent park and landscaping and curator of a fascinating and important art collection, Blenheim’s been playing a starring role in English architectural, social and cultural history for centuries. Wandering around on your own is mesmerising but for some real passion take a tour, the guides are wonderful. www.blenheimpalace.com
Maritime Greenwich, London
Even if you simply caught a Thames River Boat and just sailed past Maritime Greenwich you’d find it awe-inspiring. Time is measured here, the ideas and discoveries of England’s great scientists, astronomers, navigators and thinkers are celebrated and nowhere expresses the nation’s nautical tradition more eloquently. And for the geeks among us Thor saved the world here in the second movie. Visit The Queen’s House for the art collection, The Old Royal Naval College for seafaring legends and the ancient Royal Park for famous deer and exceptional views. www.visitgreenwich.org.uk
Palace of Westminster, London
Better known as The Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster is London’s most famous landmark, home to beloved ‘Big Ben’ and the seat of central government in the UK. The Palace, viewed in its entirety from across the River Thames, is imposing. Up close, the graceful Gothic architecture is delicate and intriguing. But to lift the lid on ancient traditions and intimate secrets, book an in-depth guided tour with Afternoon Tea on the Terrace – nothing could be more quintessentially British. www.parliament.co.uk
Dorset and East Devon Coast
Cliffs, crags, sea stacks, natural stone arches, miles of sand and many fossils make up the 185 million year old marvel that’s the Dorset and East Devon Coast. Known as ‘The Jurassic Coast’ this was the UK’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site and its 95 mile long stretch is one of the best known and best loved walks in England. Whether you do it in bite-size bits – stopping off for fossil hunting and amazing seafood – or you hike the whole lot at once, The Jurassic Coast is truly stunning. www.jurassiccoast.org
Precise and monumental, Stonehenge is the world’s only surviving Lintelled Stone Circle. Archaeologically significant, sacred, historically unique and totally enthralling this Late Neolithic structure has mesmerised for millennia. The very size of the stones and the distances they were carried as early as 2500BC defies imagining and various theories as to Stonehenge’s function have been suggested over the centuries. Today it’s generally accepted as a Temple aligned to solar movement so if you want to see it serve its purpose visit with 1000’s of others for the annual Summer Solstice celebrations. www.english-heritage.org.uk
Edinburgh Old & New Town
Back in the 18th century when the great and good of Edinburgh abandoned the Old Town’s tenements in favour of Georgian grandeur in the New Town, little did they think that both ‘towns’ would be UNESCO World Heritage Sites within a few centuries. Edinburgh New Town is the yardstick by which all masterpieces of town planning are measured. It’s elegant, austere and very beautiful and a complete contrast to the Medieval, higgledy-piggledy fascination of Edinburgh Old Town. For the mighty castle, ghouls and ghosts and graveyards, the Museum of Scotland and St. Giles Cathedral you want Edinburgh Old Town. And you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and some of the loveliest homes in the world in Edinburgh New Town – you can even see how the other half used to live in the National Trust’s restored Georgian House on Charlotte Square. www.nts.org.uk/property/georgian-house
Tower of London
The Tower of London’s past might be gloom and doom laden, but for intrigue, espionage, treachery, confounding mystery and sheer atmosphere it doesn’t have an equal anywhere. If you were treasonous (or in a lot of cases just out of Royal favour) back in the day, this is where you’d meet your fate either at the end of a botched blade or – if you still had a bit of clout – a sharp sword. Henry VIII beheaded wives, enemies and friends alike here and Queen Elizabeth I executed Mary Queen of Scots. The magnificent Crown Jewels are on display at the Tower of London under guard of the famous Beefeaters and you can take a – wary – look at the legendary, flightless ravens (there has to be at least six ravens in residence or the Tower will fall, so to defy prophesy it’s customary to clip their wings). Understandably there are more than a few ghosts roaming around and, whether you believe or not, I defy you to tour the entire Tower without at least one shiver. www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon
Honourable mention has to go to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the enchanting and elegant City of Bath, marvellous Maritime Liverpool and tiny, desolate and far-flung St. Kilda – if you don’t like sailing, 17 hours on a boat from Lewis for St. Kilda might be a bit of a thought, particularly as they’ve been known to get halfway and turn back because of the weather.
In short, I’ve just scratched the surface of the UK’s heritage. My advice is: make your own list and even if you just stick with UNESCO’s 28 sites, there’s more than enough to make several historic holidays in the UK.
While much of the world is putting up trees for Christmas or lighting menorah for Hanukkah, there is another spiritual celebration awaiting us in December, one that is mysterious, ancient and intriguing, allowing a perfect excuse to visit this beautiful and historic corners of the British Isles.
Let us tell you about winter solstice…
Frost & berries © Unhindered by Talent
While temperatures have been plummeting in Europe for what feels like many months already, winter solstice actually marks the official beginning of winter. Most people in the UK will be aware of the day winter solstice falls on, as it’s also the shortest day and longest night of the year. Not everyone will know though that this is also the time when the sun appears lowest in the sky due to the Earth’s angle on its axis and its position relative to the sun. It is for these reasons that celebrations are focused on the specific time the sun rises, reaches its peak and then sets. This year the sun will be at its highest point at 11:12 am on 21st December.
There is evidence to suggest that this astronomical event has been recognised since neolithic times, when the stars, moon and sun influenced farming and mythologies and theories about life. Archeologists say that Stonehenge was built in around 3100 BC for the marking of the sun’s setting on winter solstice, and a prehistoric monument of similar age found in Ireland called Newgrange was built on a man’s line of sight for the sun’s rise on the same day.
Newgrange © Collin Key
While Stonehenge is a magnificent and mind-blowing sight to see at any time of the year, marking winter solstice here a once in a lifetime experience, with several solstice stalwarts from a number of “New Age Tribes” gathering to mark the most important day in their calendar. Winter solstice is seen as an occasion of ‘spiritual awakening’ and people watch the sun to see what it predicts for the year ahead.
With access to Stonehenge being limited all year round and in particular on winter solstice, there is a special organised tour on the day so you’ll need to book tickets in advance.
Winter solstice at Stonehenge © Mark! Ch.
Not far from Stonehenge is Glastonbury, a place more famous for its muddy music festival that its historic roots as one of the most popular places to celebrate winter solstice. On what is believed to be a man-made mound – though it has never been excavated to investigate further – stands Glastonbury Tor: a lonely church tower believed to be the last in a long line of monuments that have stood here in honour of both winter and summer solstices. This site has connections to many historic legends, including that of King Arthur. Climb up to have breathtaking views of the sun rising and setting across the patchwork of green fields that make up the surrounding countryside.
Glastonbury Tor at dawn © midlander1231
If you’re looking to become an observer – or participant – in winter solstice in Glastonbury or Stonehenge, you could combine this experience with a stay in the Somerset countryside, where rolling hills will keep you away from the hustle and bustle of cities, and may just provide the perfect backdrop to your own private winter solstice celebration.
First image © Hackworth