Ten Great British Places to Visit - dummies

By Seán Lang

If the Diamond Jubilee 2012 in celebration of Queen Elizabeth or the London Olympics inspires you to visit the UK, here are some suggestions for your trip.

You don’t need anyone to tell you to visit the Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial (the site of the Diamond Jubilee concert), Tower of London or Stratford on Avon: You know that. Instead, here are some not-so-common ideas for places to visit if you’re looking for a sense of the history.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is up in the Orkneys, and putting it down on your travel list is worthwhile for that reason alone – if you haven’t been up to the Orkneys, you haven’t lived. Skara Brae is a beautifully preserved Neolithic village, one of the most complete examples. At Skara Brae, you get a real sense of going back in time to the distant dawn of civilisation, when humankind emerged from the grip of the ice and first made inroads into the environment.


The isle of Iona was the haven of peace where St Columba set up a community of monks, and a religious community still exists there today. The abbey was founded much later on by the Benedictines, and you can find the ancient Kings of Scots all buried there, too. The place still has a sense of quiet and peace: You don’t go so much as a tourist as you do a pilgrim.

Hadrian’s Wall

Just reading about Hadrian’s Wall doesn’t do it justice: You have to experience the Wall for yourself. The best way is to put on a pair of stout shoes and start hiking, but you can visit by bus or car, too.

Hadrian was no fool: His wall goes through some of the most beautiful countryside in England, but the cities at either end, Carlisle and Newcastle upon Tyne, are well worth visiting, too. If the weather’s wet (which it usually is) think how the Romans would have felt, stuck up there in the cold instead of sunning themselves in Tuscany. (Or, if you prefer, think how you’re feeling, stuck up there in the cold instead of sunning yourself in Tuscany.)


American writer Bill Bryson was bowled over by the city of Durham and couldn’t understand why the British didn’t shout about it more. Durham is a World Heritage Site, and seeing why isn’t difficult. Durham Cathedral has one of the most dramatic sites you can get, right on top of a cliff with the river Wear running round three sides of it. Then when you come out of the cathedral, you find a castle sitting just next door. Durham’s a beautiful medieval town, small but with a proud history.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is just where a castle should be, high up on a rock where you can pour boiling oil on people’s heads. If you wanted to control Scotland, Stirling was more important than Edinburgh, so the castle was forever changing hands between the English and the Scots. Edward I had to take Stirling Castle twice.

The castle has a magnificent renaissance Great Hall built by James IV, and the town’s well worth visiting, too. And Stirling Castle’s not all. Base yourself in Stirling, and you’ve got three battlefields all within easy reach: Stirling Bridge (1297, Scots beat the English), Bannockburn (1314, Scots trash the English), and Sheriffmuir (1715, Scottish Jacobites beat pro-English Scots but forget to tell anyone, so everyone thinks they lost). Pack a copy of Robert Burns before you set off.


Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey is just how you imagine a castle: Round towers and a moat. The castle is right on the sea, so you get lovely views, and the site’s just the place for a sailing holiday. You may even learn some Welsh. Croeso.


If you haven’t been to Northern Ireland, then you have a treat in store. The area is breathtakingly beautiful, and knowing what’s best to choose is difficult. See the famous Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast, or the city walls of Londonderry, and all of Belfast is worth exploring.

But the City of Armagh gets the prize because you probably wouldn’t think of it otherwise. The city is small enough to ‘do’ easily, and it has two cathedrals (one Protestant, one Catholic – that’s Ulster for you!). Armagh is the ancient seat of the Kings of Ulster, and the famous Brian Boru is buried here. Beautifully elegant Georgian terraces and an eighteenth century observatory can be seen in Armagh, all in the lovely local stone that glows in the sun.

Chatsworth House

You can find lots of mansions in beautiful parkland that will take your breath away with their sweeping drives and their deer parks and lakes, but Chatsworth House in Derbyshire takes some beating. Chatsworth’s huge, for one thing, and lies in a gorgeous setting in the Peak District. Chatsworth is the home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire. The rooms are superb, and a magnificent eighteenth-century water cascade flows outside that makes the hillside look as if it’s dancing. If you can only manage one stately home, make it this one.


This site’s a beautiful little valley in Shropshire, as well as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. If you find yourself switching off at the words ‘Industrial’ and ‘Revolution’, think again. You can also visit a Victorian town at Blist’s Hill. Not to mention the elegant iron bridge that gives the town its name. The whole valley is a World Heritage Site and rightly so.

Coventry Cathedral

Coventry was pretty impressive even before the terrible night in November 1940 when it was flattened by the Luftwaffe. The cathedral, founded by Leofric of Mercia and his famous wife Lady Godiva, was the pride of the town. When the Germans bombed Coventry, they were trying to destroy something of England’s sense of its heritage and identity. The city was so badly destroyed that the British never forgot it.

After the war, Coventry became a symbol of how Britain was going to pick herself up and face the future. Well-paid jobs were available in Coventry’s big car factories, and the city centre was rebuilt in the latest futuristic style. Best of all was what they did with the cathedral.

Instead of demolishing the ruins, they left them as a permanent memorial, and built a totally new cathedral next to them. The theme was peace and reconciliation, and Coventry forged strong links with its devastated counterpart, Dresden. Coventry’s two cathedrals remain a monument to British hopes for the future.