Stonehenge – New Look for an Ancient Site

Stonehenge is one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable sites in England; and with around a million visitors each year, it is also one of Britain‘s most popular tourist attractions.  Which is why, last week, English Heritage finally opened the long-awaited state-of-the-art visitor centre which aims to offer a guest experience fitting of such a magnificent slice of British pre-history.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

For those who have visited Stonehenge, few can disagree that it is a truly enchanting site; huge monoliths standing eerily on the Salisbury Plain and shrouded in mystery.  Pre-dating the Egyptian Pyramids, why did an ancient people go to the effort of creating this ring of stones; a pre-historic calendar mapping the seasons? An ancient burial place? Or a site of worship to a pagan god?  There are theories but still no one really knows!  And more to the point how on earth did they do it?  The stones are estimated to be around 50 tonnes each and are believed to have come from the Preselli Hills of South West Wales, some 250 miles away!

New Stonehenge Visitor Centre
New Stonehenge Visitor Centre

So there is no denying the appeal of Stonehenge, however many of those who have already visited, also agree that the overall visitor experience has not, in the past, done it justice.  In 1989 a government committee called the visitor facilities a “national disgrace” – a tiny gift shop and snack bar, underground toilets which flooded and a narrow tunnel to reach the stones themselves.  And then whilst you were trying to immerse yourself in the enigma of the stones, your audio guide was competing with the traffic noise from the A334 route which ran to within less than a 100 yards away.  But fortunately, this is all now set to change so that guests can enjoy modern comforts on their exploration of this ancient site.

Stonehenge's New Exhibition
Stonehenge’s New Exhibition

The A334 was finally closed in June offering a more peaceful visitor experience and the new facilities of the long-awaited visitor centre, which opened last week, are a world apart from those previously offered.  Modern but elegant, the grey low-standing building blends in to the moorland landscape perfectly and, located 1.5miles from the main site, it is unimposing and does detract from the atmospheric surroundings of the stones themselves.  Within, guests can enjoy an enhanced gift-shop and cafe but also a stunning range of exhibitions; from a 360-degree projection which catapults you back through the millennia of the site’s history, to an array of genuine ancient and priceless artefacts dating back to the peoples who constructed it.  A highlight is the 5,500 year old skeleton, and subsequent facial reconstruction, of a man excavated from a nearby barrow burial mound – was this Stonehenge’s first ever visitor?  And all this before you even make your way via the shuttle transfer or a stroll through nearby woodland to reach the majesty of the Stonehenge itself.

The new centre means an increase in admission and that pre-booking a slot for your visit is essential but we think it’ll be worth it for the enhanced experience – it may have been several thousand years in the making but, it seems, visitors to Stonehenge are finally getting the treatment they deserve!

A History of Wales, in an Afternoon!

From ancient castles to stunning scenery, there is so much to see in Wales that you could easily spend a week or two touring here; however if you have a limited time-frame and want to see England and Scotland too, many people spare just a couple of nights to get their taste of Welsh culture, and head for Cardiff, the Welsh capital city.  If this is the case for you then make sure you visit St Fagans National History Museum.

Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale

I had been to St Fagans several years ago, but only recently re-visited when some family friends were in the area.  Upon arrival, I was instantly reminded that it is a museum with a difference – there’s no peering at fossils through glass here!  In fact it is Wales‘ leading open-air, living museum located in over 100 acres of its own beautiful parkland and gardens in the grounds of St Fagans Castle, a 16th century manor house, on the outskirts of Cardiff and a stone’s throw from Cardiff Castle itself.

St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum
St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum

St Fagans aim is to provide visitors with a history of Wales throughout the ages from the earliest Celtic settlements through medieval history to our more recent industrial heritage.  And it does this not through stuffy exhibitions but by allowing you to actually walk through some forty real historic buildings, each of which was originally constructed in a different era of Welsh history and in a different corner of the country but painstakingly moved and re-erected brick by brick in the grounds of St Fagans.  The fact you can enter these buildings, restored to how they would have originally appeared with superb attention to detail, allows you to literally step back in time and immerse yourself in what life was like for the people of Wales.

Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans
Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans

Some of the highlights include traditional farm buildings (complete with their own animals!), functioning watermills, peasant cottages, a chapel, a school and various Victorian period shops including an operational bakery which still offers local Welsh treats prepared using traditional methods.  My favourite attraction however was the row of terraced workman’s cottages, typical of those you’ll find in communities throughout the valleys of South East Wales to this day.  At St Fagans however each of these six tiny identical houses has been laid-out and furnished to a different generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As you wander into each cottage, into their little gardens and vegetable patches and along the changing cobbled path you can literally walk through the ages from the early 1800’s right through to present day and get a glimpse of Welsh life from previous generations and see how it has changed in such a short time.

So if you find yourself on a time budget in Wales next Summer, head to St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff where you can experience centuries in half a day!

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.

Great Expectations of the Dickens Museum!

Whilst mulling over the purchase of some Christmas presents this week I was first told that “procrastination is the thief of time” and then, when I opted for a cheap item, that I was a “Scrooge”!  I was slightly insulted by the comments but then realised that they were actually both quotes from Dickens novels.  Like Shakespeare, Dickens’ works and characters seem to have pervaded our lives and language, much of the time without us realising.  That’s when I added a visit to the newly reopened Charles Dickens Museum in London to my Christmas list.

Dickens Museum Library, London
Dickens Museum Library, London

In 2012 England celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth and what better a finale of this bicentenary than the re-opening of the Charles Dickens Museum on Monday after its massive £3.1 million investment.  Located in the writer’s former family home in Bloomsbury central London, the museum has been welcoming visitors since 1925, but was struggling to keep up with the through flow.  Following this lottery funded investment the Victorian town house located at 48 Doughty Street has been completely restored to its former glory whilst the neighbouring house has also undergone extensive conversion to house a brand new visitor centre, learning centre and cafe.  The aim is to secure the sites for future generations and provide a visitor experience for the 21st century.

Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey, London

And it seems to be achieving its aims; the upgraded museum now offers visitors the opportunity to step back in time and walk around the immaculate Grade II listed building  which is completely furnished and decorated as Dickens himself would have known it.  The location where he penned some of his most famous works, including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, the house is bustling with memorabilia including a range of documents, photographs, manuscripts and the writing desk which he designed himself.  Guests can also experience the family kitchen, drawing room and the newly opened attic room which now houses a range of personal materials detailing his troubled childhood.  And once you’re finished at the museum you may want to pop over to Westminster Abbey to visit his final resting place in the Poets Corner.

So this Christmas, after I have revisited the familiar story of “A Christmas Carol” once again, it will be with great expectation that I open my Christmas presents in the hope that someone will have given me an admission ticket for the museum.  And if they haven’t?  Bah humbug!