England’s Top Five Cathedrals.

Following the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a car-park in Leicester, the body is likely to be re-interred in the grounds of the nearby Leicester Cathedral – a situation which, combined with the opening of a dedicated exhibition, has seen a twenty-fold increase its visitor numbers.  Leicester Cathedral, however, is just one of a number of English cathedrals which remain incredibly popular with visitors looking to explore their history, wealth of cultural artefacts and some truly stunning medieval architecture. But which are England’s most beautiful and interesting cathedrals?  Here are some of our favourites:

Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

A stunning gothic masterpiece, Salisbury Cathedral is a bit of a front-runner.  Built, as one of many English cathedrals after the Norman invasion of 1066, Salisbury is home to Britain’s tallest cathedral spire but also Europe’s oldest working clock dating back to the 1300s.  Visitors can view an original copy of the Magna Carta or climb the 332 step spiral staircase of the main tower, which leans almost two feet, and offers spectacular views over the city and the Salisbury Plain to Stonehenge and beyond.

Winchester Cathedral.
Near to Salisbury, Winchester Cathedral was once the site of a small Anglo-Saxon church but was later transformed in to the magnificent cathedral that still stands today.  Guests once flocked to here to visit the final resting place of St Swithun, whose remains supposedly offer healing qualities to the sick, whilst visitors today are more likely to enjoy the exhibition dedicated to Jane Austen who is laid to rest within the cathedral grounds.

Canterbury Cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral Stained glass windows.
Canterbury Cathedral Stained glass windows.

Possibly England’s most renowned cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral is currently basking in the limelight following the recent enthronement of a new Arch Bishop of Canterbury.  The cathedral has been the destination of pilgrimages since the middle ages and the murder of the then bishop Thomas Beckett as related in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Today’s pilgrims come in the form of tourists who flock to see the magnificent 12th and 13th century stained-glass “Miracle Windows” and the cathedral’s surrounding medieval structures such as the monastic ruins and the revived herbarium.

York Minster.
The seat of the Archbishop of York, York Minster’s importance in the Anglican Church is second only to that of Canterbury.  The Minster is the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe, dominating the York skyline and, from the 602 metre tall central tower, offers stunning views over the surrounding countryside towards the Dales and Moors.  Guests can enjoy the intricate gothic architecture and the world’s largest area of medieval stained glass in a single window.

St Pauls Cathedral.

St Pauls Cathedral Interior
St Pauls Cathedral Interior

Burnt down twice in its history, most recently in the Great Fire of London of 1666, St Pauls Cathedral as it stands today was a 35 year labour of love of architect Sir Christopher Wren.  And its magnificent dome remains an unmistakable feature of London’s iconic skyline today.  At the time of building, the dome was the second largest in the world, behind only St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and in the interior is painted with intricate frescoes of the life of St Paul.  Visitors today can explore the cathedral from top to bottom from the crypt through the whispering gallery to the Golden Gallery at the very pinnacle of the dome.

These are five of our top selected English Cathedrals but there are many more besides.  In Wells the towering cathedral dominates what is essentially a small town, Lincoln Cathedral appeared in the “Da Vinci Code” film, Durham Cathedral enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status whilst Liverpool boasts no fewer than two cathedrals (both Anglican and Catholic).  If you want to explore England’s cathedral cities then why not tailor-make your own tour by contacting us here.

Forget St Valentine for Romance, think St Dwynwen!

People keep telling me that love is in the air at the moment as we approach Valentine’s day; but with the shops bursting with garish pink cards and florists trying to sell me bucket loads of roses at twice the usual price, for me, it’s just not happening…  Cupid seems less the god of love and more a plump little cherub attacking me with his bow and arrow and trying to steal my wallet!  So where do we turn for a bit of true romance instead of this plastic impersonation?  My suggestion is the lovely land of Wales!

Welsh Love Spoons
Welsh Love Spoons

In Wales we have an ancient tradition of the giving of love-spoons.  It may not at first sound particularly romantic, presenting your potential love interest with a kitchen utensil, but it is the thought and effort that goes in to them that provides the romance.  The age-old tradition is thought to have originated when sailors were at sea and would spend their lonely hours on board the ships meticulously carving and shaping these spoons from bits of wood whilst they lost themselves in thoughts of their loved-one at home.  Developing over the years from simple designs, many became skilled to achieve incredibly intricate carvings with a wealth of specific features which symbolized different meanings in their own relationships; everything from hearts and flowers to anchors, chain-links, wheels and key-locks can appear on a love-spoon.  After months of work the spoon would be presented to the loved-one, usually as the symbol of the start of a serious relationship.

St Dwynwen
St Dwynwen

Love-spoons are still given in Wales today and if you visit friends here, you will often see one hanging on the kitchen wall.  If you want to see carving in action let us know and we can point you in the direction of a fabulous family-run love-spoon workshop and gallery in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales.

Welsh myth is also bubbling with romance!  Forget St Valentine, we have St Dwynwen with St Dwynwen’s day celebrated on January twenty-fifth each year.  The legend goes that the prettiest daughter of a 5th century King, Dwynwen fell in love with a Prince named Maelon but the King had promised her marriage to another suitor.  Frustrated that he couldn’t be with his love Maelon forced himself upon her and she ran in to the woods to escape; as she fell asleep beneath the trees she was visited by an angel who granted her three wishes and told her that Maelon had been turned to ice for his wicked behaviour.

Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey
Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey

Dwynwen wished firstly that she would never marry, as her father wished her to, and that God would protect and meet the wishes of all true lovers.  For her third wish, she forgave Maelon and wish that he be thawed.  Dwynwen became a nun and a recluse setting up her own chapel on the remote island of Llanddwyn off the coast of North Wales and living out her days alone but for rare visits from star-crossed lovers.

So for a truly romantic trip, why not tour Wales; the nation’s majestic landscapes of dramatic mountains and untouched coastlines dotted with ancient castles offer the perfect romantic back-drop.  From Cardiff or Pembrokeshire, make your way to Anglesey in North Wales before walking hand-in-hand with your loved one across to the remote tidal island of Llanddywn and to the ruins of the very church where St Dwynwens stayed, and here you can present her with your love-spoon.  How’s that for romantic?  And not a tacky love-heart shaped box of chocolates in sight!

Downton Abbey has the X Factor

With the Autumnal weather setting in here in Britain, and the Summer holidays well and truly over, many people dread their Sunday evenings at this time of year.  For me however Sunday evenings just got a whole lot better as I can once again indulge in a guilty pleasure with the return of Downton Abbey to our television screens.

The period costume drama, set in Edwardian middle England, has just returned to the British television schedules for its third season and appears to be going from strength to strength.  Whilst it wouldn’t do my street cred much good to admit I’m a fan, I can’t be the only one tuning in; last Sunday’s episode saw it watched by over a third of the viewing public with figures at times reaching levels achieved by the latest series of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor which precedes it in the schedules.

Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey

One of the show’s attractions has to be the top class acting; Maggie Smith has just scooped a grammy for her role and there is a raft of other young British talent in the cast.  For me though, the main appeal is the escapism, the opportunity to lose myself in a bygone era of smart dress suits and frilly dresses and all set against the magnificently grandiose back drop of the Abbey itself.  The show is filmed at the magnificent Highclere Castle, a Victorian manor in central England which is still privately owned by the Carnavon family whose generations have lived there since the 17th century.  The family however open their home and gardens to visitors throughout the Summer months and next year it is at the top of my list for places to visit.

Downton Abbey is currently screened in over 100 countries around the world, so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss a chance to tune in when it comes to a network near you.  Or if you fancy the real thing, why not come over to England and wander the gardens and grounds of Highclere Castle yourself as you pretend to be one of the Crawley family – I won’t tell anyone if you won’t!