Some reflections on my experience visiting historic sites on the isle of Great Britain.
Over the past several weeks I have visited a smattering of historical sites through England, Wales, and Scotland. My experience has been very small; it is my impression that many if not most towns and cities and some uninhabited fells and dales have some sort of historic building, ancient ruin, or archaeological site. My experience was also that, on average, sites cost about £20 per adult with another £3 in coinage for parking.
Rome inhabited England from the middle of the first century through the opening of the fifth. Attributed with introducing stone construction to the area, several of their ruins remain.
We visited Hadrian’s wall at Housesteads (55.0133°N, 2.3303°W) and Vindolanda (54.9911°N, 2.3612°W) as well as seeing bits of Roman remains in a few other sites. These were my favorite ruins of the trip. Housesteads was completely open, without barriers or signs, and we were free to explore the ruins as up-close and personally as we wished. Vindolanda was much more impressive, being a town not just a fort and an active achaeological site. The museum and Vindolanda was well worth a visit, and its contents demonstrated how rapidly it was making discoveries as guides had newer information than exhibits, which themselves had newer information than placards.
The term “castle” appears to be used for just about any multi-story stone structure designed to be both a residence and a defensible position. The ruins of Hylton castle (54.9225°N, 1.4432°W), for example, is a single large keep with living quarters on the upper floors, complete with battlements, murder holes, and defensive towers. The Bamburgh castle (55.6090°N, 1.7107°W), Alnwick castle (55.4157°N, 1.7060°W), and Tower of London (51.5080°N, 0.0762°W) are the more expansive large keep with multiple curtain walls and plenty of supporting buildings. Of these, the Tower of London had the best audio tour deserving more time than we had physical stamina to give it; Alnwick castle was the prettiest outside; and Bamburgh castle was the least touristy and most affordable (£4 per person).
We saw other castles too, but the four mentioned above were the most noteworthy. The Rhuddlan castle ruins (53.2892°N, 3.4646°W) looked quite nifty and may have been my favorite had we been able to tour it, but we were too late in arriving to enter it.
Castles were built from the early middle ages clear through the 18th century. Because they were needed throughout that time there seem to be few if any unmodified old castles: all of those we visited, even the ruins, had been extensively renovated in the 18th century.
As a rule, the churches were the oldest buildings we saw. Some still stood from the 12th century, and others were in ruins. There appeared to have been a great closing of churches in the 19th century after which many had their roofs stripped off for the lead they contained and subsequently the churches fell into ruin. While visiting these church buildings was interesting and the sites passing impressive, I felt just a bit off treating a place of worship as a spectacle.
I must confess my favorite churches were the ruins. Lindesfarn was amazing, and I also enjoyed the ruins we found in many little villages throughout the island.
Many of the historical buildings we saw, including the interiors of most of the non-ruined older buildings, dated to the post-renaissance decadence of the 18th century. Gold-fiber fabrics and opulent dining sets and coronation jewels, marble statue fireplaces and intricate leather wallpaper and myriad paintings, mansions and terraced lawns and quarter-mile reflecting pools…. It was impressive, sometimes beautiful, but ever overdone, even jarring. An excerpt from Longfellow’s classic “The Day is Done” comes to mind:
Not from the grand old masters, not from the bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of time
For like the strains of martial music, their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor, and tonight I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet, whose song gushed from his heart
Like showers from the clouds of summer, or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of toil, and nights devoid of ease,
Still heard, in his soul, the music of beautiful melodies.
There is something about fanciness that suggests, to me, hiding from a dirty world. The simple exposed austerity of castles and forts and ruins that felt quite the opposite, of fighting off that dirt and making a place of cleanliness and comfort despite it. I know this is not a historically proper feeling, but it is the overall impression of the castle and fancy room visits we made.
The opulence of the Edwardian and Victorian ages is not for me. I can see myself building a giant keep with three-meter-thick walls, but not living inside an opulent English drawing room.