Cathedrals, castles, museums, mills, steel furnaces…if you’re looking for something heritage-like to do in England, you’re going to have to check out – guess what – English Heritage. The clue’s in the name and English Heritage looks after over four hundred heritage, historical and archaeological sites, from Stonehenge to the world's earliest iron bridge* [add Ironbridge listing]. It also helpfully maintains a public archive, called, er, the English Heritage Archive. And it also takes charge of those blue plaques in London – you know, the ones declaring that famous people were born there or once lived there or wrote some of their work there, and that we will have put up to us someday in recognition of our bestselling novels. Oh yes.
The official line is that English Heritage has the role of ‘directly managing the national collection of sites, monuments, archive records and photographs taken into state care since the 1880s’, which, although it makes monuments and sites sound like surly teenagers, is a lofty and noble aim and one which Has To Be Done otherwise some of the most vital history of England would fall into ruin. (We can almost hear the opening bars of Jerusalem here and are even getting a bit misty eyed.) And, if all this wasn’t enough, English Heritage has free entry to around 250 of its attractions, which shoots them right to the top of the Freedom2Explore favourites list. In short, we love them.
Obviously English Heritage is now on your list of things to do the next time you’re released from the office, so here are ten of their attractions to get you started. (For Stonehenge, see our accompanying National Trust feature – English Heritage manages the stones themselves, while the National Trust is in charge of over two thousand acres of the surrounding World Heritage Site.)
The Iron Bridge: There are many sites around England that we could say are among the most important in English history – just don’t ask us to make a top five list – and Ironbridge in Shropshire is one of them. It’s the oldest iron bridge in the world, dating back to 1779 and one of the most famous symbols in the country of the English Industrial Revolution. Based at Telford, Ironbridge is part of a World Heritage Site which includes ten other historical sites and museums. Plus, any time we’re near the site, or even thinking about it on the bus (as you do), we get to say IRON-bridge to ourselves like Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. Win. [add two listings for this with same text – one for The Iron Bridge and one for Ironbridge.]
Derwentcote Steel Furnace: Also one for Industrial Revolution historians, Derwentcote is the earliest and probably the most complete steel-making furnace in Britain It dates back to around 1720 was and once the centre of Britain’s steel industry before closing down in 1891. The furnace is only about ten miles from Hadrian’s Wall, so there’s plenty to see and do around the area – keep your industrial kick on by seeing Tanfield Railway, Path Head Water Mill and Winlaton Cottage Forge, all within about three miles.
Apsley House: The Wellington Museum: Once known as ‘No 1 London’ because of its prestigious address, Apsley House was the home of the first Duke of Wellington, and is regarded as one of London's finest mansions. Just like our house, then. Have a nosy at the Duke’s art collection with works by Velazquez, Rubens, Van Dyck and Goya, and gaze enviously at the collections of porcelain, silver, sculpture, furniture and memorabilia. Then take a trip up the road for your pre-booked Afternoon Tea at the Ritz.
Aldborough Roman Fort: You can’t take a look at English heritage without taking in the Romans, and Aldborough Roman Fort in York has plenty to see and do. This former Roman site was once the capital of the Romanised Brigantes, the largest tribe in Britain, and you can still see one corner of the defences laid out among a Victorian arboretum as well as two mosaic pavements in their original positions. All this, and also a museum with collection of Roman finds, post Roman archaeological finds and a section of the original town wall.
Carlisle Cathedral: One of English Heritage’s free attractions, Carlisle Cathedral dates back to 1122 and is still the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Carlisle. It’s had a turbulent history but has carried on with regular services throughout most of its nine hundred years, and has acquired many items from over the centuries that are worth a trip to see. Check out the east window with its fourteenth century stained glass, or the Brougham Triptych, a sixteenth century carved Flemish altar.
Dunstanburgh Castle: Based at Alnwick in Northumberland less than six miles away from Alnwick Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle was built around 1313 by Earl Thomas of Lancaster and stands on a headland reached by a coastal walk from nearby Craster. Have a look at the gatehouse and the Lilburn Tower, look north to Bamburgh Castle, or have a family picnic in the grounds. Craster Beach is a minute or two’s walk away, with coastal walks, fishing and boating all available.
St Catherine’s Castle: Head to Readymoney Cove in Cornwall (we like ready money) to see the free St Catherine’s Castle, one of a pair of artillery forts constructed by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The forts were built to protect Fowey Harbour, and are two storeys high with gun ports on the ground level. You can also take a look at English Heritage’s Restormel Castle six miles away, a thirteenth century circular shell keep on an earlier Norman mound beside the River Fowey.
Whitby Abbey: Yup, the town where Dracula landed in Bram Stoker’s novel. Shiver. We shall hastily assert that we know vampires don’t exist and move on to telling you about Whitby Abbey, one of England’s most important archaeological sites. It was founded in 657 by St Hilda and has been used over the centuries as a kings’ burial place, a meeting place for Celtic and Roman priests and the home of saints as well as a busy settlement in its own right. The Whitby Abbey Visitors’ Centre has several attractions and interactive displays, including one where you can interview Dracula himself. Not that he actually exists. Pass the garlic.
Dover Castle: One of the most famous English Heritage properties, Dover Castle above the cliffs of Dover has centuries of history to explore from Roman times up to World War II. The kids should be kept more than happy here, with medieval tunnels, tunnels from World War II, the Great Tower where costumed actors introduce medieval life at King Henry II's court, one of Europe’s best-preserved Roman lighthouses, and the keep with its recreation of Henry VIII’s private rooms.
Castlerigg Stone Circle [use Borrowdale listing]: Not quite Stonehenge, but well worth seeing, these 38 ancient stone circles in Cumbria are part of a group of fifty and were probably built around five thousand years ago. Bring a picnic and enjoy the views across to Skiddaw, Blencathra and Lonscale Fell, or try some rock climbing, explore the surrounding Site of Special Scientific Interest or go canoeing or swimming in the area’s many lakes and rivers. And, um, if you’re into pencils (hey, who isn’t?), the Cumberland Pencil Museum is less than a mile away.
That should be enough to start you off on your English Heritage quest. And while we said it above, it’s a delightful fact so we’ll say it again – most of English Heritage’s four hundred attractions are free. The rest average from around £4 – £7 but are free if you have English Heritage membership. This starts from £47 per adult per year and also includes free membership for up to six children under 19, which we think is a jolly good deal. So off you go. And drop into the forums afterwards to let us know how you got on.