England is an old, old place.
It is much older than the US, where Europeans first set up camp sometime in the 1500s if you count the Spanish settlements in Florida, which many Americans are not willing to do as it does not jibe well with the current political situation to admit that there were Spanish-speaking people in what would become the US long before there were English-speaking people.
It is even older than Sweden, whose capital city of Stockholm was founded in the 1200s and where even the Viking settlements tend to peter out when you get much earlier than 700 or so. The Romans colonized Britain two thousand years ago, and displaced an even older settled culture when they did so.
So if you like historic sites, England is full of them.
If you go to see these sites, you should join English Heritage. They’re a sort of National Historical Society, and they run many of the sites across the country. For the princely sum of about $75 you can buy a 9-day family membership, which entitles you to free admission into all of their sites, plus free parking – which, alone, is worth the price of admission, since free parking is not really a European concept. Land is too valuable there, unlike in the midwest where we have more of it than we know what to do with. I wasn’t sure we’d get our money’s worth out of the price, but I went along with our membership because I figured that even if we didn’t there are some groups that I don’t mind donating money to. And we probably made back our membership fee in three days, so there you have it. They have not paid me for this endorsement, but if anyone from English Heritage reads this I'd be willing to entertain offers.
We saw a lot of historical sites in England, and we loved them all.
Our first was Salisbury Cathedral.
We set out early one morning (well, early for us – we rarely managed to get everyone moving before 10am or so, which is one of the prerogatives of being on vacation) to Salisbury, a town not all that far from where Julie and Richard live.
Nothing is all that far from anything in England, by midwestern standards – it’s a small country. But you have to take into account the roads, which are small, twisty and rarely lead you directly from anywhere to anywhere, so even nearby places can be a bit of a journey. Fortunately we enjoyed traveling – good company and lovely scenery will do that – so it worked out well for us.
Salisbury is a fairly good-sized town, and the Cathedral both reflects and likely was the cause of this. It was build in the mid-1200s and enlarged periodically over the centuries until it became a truly grand structure, one that retains much of its impact even surrounded by the modern city of Salisbury. It really is a most impressive building, as you come up on it from the town.
We spent the better part of an afternoon there, and explored it thoroughly – it is a structure that rewards that kind of exploration.
Lauren was very impressed by the fact that it remains an active church – there are signs all over telling you to be quiet if a service happens to be going on. What really amazed Tabitha, however, was that in the Chapter House in the back part of the Cathedral you can go right up to an original of the Magna Carta. It’s just there, under glass, and you can linger over it but not photograph it. It is surprisingly neatly written. “Completely awesome,” was Tabitha’s verdict. Having finished a medieval history unit at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School right before we left no doubt helped.
The next historic site we visited was a rather less-well-known site called Muchelney Abbey. One of the many advantages of visiting friends in a foreign country is that they know about places like this one. It’s slightly older than Salisbury Cathedral, having mostly been built in the 12th century on the site of older monasteries dating back possibly to the 600s, and by the 1500s it was a minor but relatively prosperous Benedictine institution. When the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII it fell into the hands of the Earl of Hertford, who immediately demolished most of it. What remained in 1552 is pretty much what remains now, though a later church was built just off to the side.
It took us a while to get to Muchelney, because England has had its wettest summer on record this year and the roads in this area – never all that dry – were flooded. At one point we had to turn around within sight of the Abbey and come at it from a different angle, but eventually it worked out.
Not surprisingly, we were pretty much the only ones there. Stephen, the English Heritage employee running the place, was so glad to have company that he kept us engaged in lively conversation for quite some time, and told us that we could picnic anywhere we wanted on the grounds. He was very nice.
The Abbey itself is a lot of fun – you can explore it pretty well in a couple of hours, and its odd blend of brown and grey stone makes for a very attractive structure. You can also explore the grounds, which retain the foundations of all of the walls so you can see how big the place used to be. Out on the grounds we found the remains of a tomb – Stephen said it was from the Knight Protector of the place (“He was probably named John – they’re all named John”) who was buried in a spot that was at the time within the church in exchange for his services.
They also have a sense of humor. Up on the ceiling of one of the rooms is a large fake bat, for example, and they also provide a couple of monk’s habits for the kids to try on.
Monks were apparently a lot more dangerous than we realized.
From Muchelney we went to Okehampton Castle, which dates to shortly after the Norman Conquest.
Okehampton is a difficult place to get to, because you have to trust that the tiny little streets marked by even tinier little brown English Heritage signs are actually the ones you should go down – Richard and I, in the lead car, missed one of the last turnoffs and ended up heading out of town again – but once you get there it’s lovely.
Like most of these sites, it is guarded by one lonely ticket-taker who seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors to liven up her day, even if we did get there toward closing time. And like most of these sites, you can climb around on the ruins as much as you please.
And when you do, you might find graffiti from the 19th century, as on the flat stone in the center of this photo.
Okehampton is a bit of a walk, though, as it sits at the top of a hill built at the top of another hill, so it’s recursively hilly that way. But it’s worth the climb.