Discover a piece of historic England this spring. From Hadrian's Wall's flushable toilets to Wolf Hall’s grand historic houses, Alex Williams takes a look at some of the country’s best heritage sites and attractions.
In 122 AD Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’ (aka the marauding Picts) of the north. The result, four years later, was a marvel of engineering, marching 73 miles from coast to coast along England’s wild northern frontier covering both the North East and North West. Housesteads in Northumberland is the wall’s most iconic site and the best preserved from 16 Roman forts. Once home to 800 restless, battle-hungry soldiers, its remains include a hospital, barracks and even flushable toilets!
Vindolanda, nearby, is a live archeological site throwing up new treasures each year. Excavations run in the week from April through to September; failing that, the museum is packed full of Roman artifacts, including Vindoland’s famous writing tablets and Britain’s oldest handwritten documents at 2,000 years old. Whilst you’re in the mood for all things Roman, why not check out the Roman Army Museum just opposite, whose 20-minute 3D film steps into the sandals of one of Hadrian’s loyal legionaries.
The 1066 Battle of Hastings was pivotal for English history as the armies of two powerful men, the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and the invading Duke William II of Normandy, clashed in a muddy field in East Sussex. The victor, ‘William the Conqueror’, built Battle Abbey, near Hastings, four years later as penance for the bloodshed. Today it’s looked after by English Heritage as part of a site that includes a museum and the battlefield itself. Stroll around the abbey’s atmospheric ruins, stand in the spot where King Harold was shot through the eye and see the battle retold through dramatic films and interactive displays.
2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, a groundbreaking document setting forth – for the first time in history – the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best preserved of four original Magna Carta copies, displayed inside the 13th century Chapter House. From March 7, the 1215 charter will be rehoused in a dramatic new enclosure as part of a new interactive exhibition. Through media installations, fun interactive and stylish graphics, visitors will be able to learn about Magna Carta’s creation, its historical connection to Salisbury and its legacy today.
If the dramatic final episode of BBC’s Wolf Hall left you craving more, the National Trust has a number of historic houses opening this spring which doubled up as filming locations. Montacute House in Somerset, for example, lent its sweeping lawns to the jousting sequences, including the tense scene in episode five where Henry VIII is knocked down from his horse. A glittering Elizabethan mansion built from honey-coloured ham stone, Montacute opens on March 2 and is well worth a visit for its Long Gallery, with over 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits on loan from the National Gallery (including portraits of Henry and Anne Boleyn).
Another property, Great Chalfield Manor in Wiltshire, starred in the series as Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s idyllic family home. This charming 15th century Tudor manor is wrapped round by a moat and pretty Arts and Crafts garden, with terraces, topiary houses, yew sculptures and, from late spring, dreamy clouds of Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot). The house is accessible by guided tour only, between Tuesdays and Fridays (11am-4pm) and on Sundays (2pm-4pm), from April 1. Highlights inside include the North Bedroom with its ornate oriel windows and grand four-poster bed.
The Victorians were mad about industry, peppering England’s agricultural landscape with factories, collieries and railway lines. Beamish – The Living Museum of the North, in County Durham, recreates what life was like for many of the rural communities affected by industrialisation. Plunge the depths of a mine, experience the unforgettable smell of coal, oil and steam, and meet costumed characters as you wander around the open-air museum’s homes, shops and buildings. Visit between April 9-26 to get nostalgic at The Great North Festival of Transport, with steam engine rides, working horse demonstrations and a colourful parade of miners’ banners.
Opened in 1842, the Victoria Tunnel runs beneath Newcastle-upon-Tyne from Town Moor to the River Tyne. It played an important role during the Victorian era in transporting coal wagons from Leazes Main Colliery to riverside jetties, ready for loading onto Tyneside’s ships. The tunnel closed in 1860 but remained untouched and was later turned into an air-raid shelter during WW2. Part of it is now open for guided tours, which include evocative sound and visual effects – listen out in the pitch-black darkness for the rattle of oncoming coal wagons.
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