England is a beautiful country filled with numerous world-famous sites from its long, rich and varied history. However, there are also a plethora of lesser-known historical English places that are also fascinating – and well worth a visit in their own right.
Here are just a brief selection of some of England’s hidden historical gems.
1. St Dunstan in the East
The majestic ruins of the ancient church of St Dunstan-in-the-East represent one of London’s best hidden gems and now form the centre point of a pretty public garden. First built in the early 12th century, the church was severely damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 before being largely repaired and rebuilt.
Following the Blitz during World War Two, St Dunstan was not reconstructed. Instead the ruins form the boundaries of a picturesque public garden in the very heart of London.
An ideal place for a little peaceful relaxation and escape from the city’s hustle and bustle, these Grade I listed secluded ruins are a real treat to discover.
2. Lower Slaughter on the Wold
Nestled within the Cotswolds in England, Lower Slaughter on the Wold is a quintessentially English village built along the River Eye. The village features a 19th century water mill with a waterwheel and chimney, as well as beautiful 16th and 17th century homes made from Cotswold limestone.
You might recognise the village from the 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, within which Lower Slaughter on the Wold starred as Highbury, with notable characters crossing the footbridges over the Eye.
3. Cloud’s Hill
Cloud’s Hill is an isolated idyllic cottage in Dorset, England, and is known as the former home of T. E. Lawrence. The humble cottage became a sanctuary for Lawrence, who returned from Arabia as the media’s romanticised hero pictured in Arabic dress, becoming ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘.
The cottage has been owned by the National Trust since 1936 and is open for the public between 11am and 5pm every day, remaining largely as it did when T. E. Lawrence lived there.
Saltaire is a Victorian model village in Shipley, West Yorkshire in England, known for the Victorian Salt’s Mill and associated residential area besides the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and European Route of Industrial Heritage, Saltaire’s name reflect’s its roots as an industrial village situated by the River Aire.
Today, you can wander the streets of Saltaire’s Italianate-inspired buildings and stop by Roberts Park, named for Sir James Roberts who took over the village when its founder, Sir Titus Salt, died.
5. Avebury Ring
Avebury Ring in Wiltshire, England, is a stone monument which encircles the town of Avebury and is believed to have been constructed between 2,850 and 2,200 BC.
Now comprised of a bank and a ditch with a 1.3 kilometre circumference containing 180 stones making up an inner and outer circle, the Avebury Ring is not only 14 times larger than Stonehenge, but was almost certainly completed before its famous counterpart.
It is believed the site was built as some kind of public setting where rites or ceremonies would take place – not religious ones in the sense we’d recognise them, but ones in which they could express proto-religious beliefs about world order and community hierarchy. The site was abandoned around 1,800BC.
6. Tyneham Village
Tyneham Village in Dorset was temporarily evacuated in 1943 during the height of World War Two so the army could prepare for D-Day, but its residents never returned and it is now a ghost village.
Just before Christmas 1943 as the Allied World War Two effort was reaching a crucial stage, the War Office (now Ministry of Defence) requisitioned Tyneham so that the army could prepare for D-Day, 7 months away, by using the land as firing ranges for training troops. The village was temporarily evacuated and all of the 225 residents – mainly fisherman and farmers and their families – were given 30 days to leave.
They had no idea at the time, but they were never to return. After the war, in 1948 the Army placed a compulsory purchase order on the land – the villagers were not allowed to return and it has remained in use for military training ever since.
7. Clifton Rocks Railway
The Clifton Rocks Railway is a former underground funicular railway linking Clifton to Bristol Harbour, now open to the public via pre-arranged tours.
Constructed in the late 19th century inside the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, Clifton Rocks Railway was built to reduce the impact of a railway system on the picturesque local surroundings.
It opened to the public on 11 March 1893, carrying a total of 6,220 passengers on its first day. Though it was initially a success, by 1908 the company in charge was declared bankrupt, and were forced to sell to Bristol Tramways.
8. Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker
The Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker is an enormous Cold War-era subterranean shelter and former operations centre in Brentwood, Essex.
In 1952, the spectre of the Cold War loomed ever-more menacingly over Britain. With Europe already firmly divided into two hostile and ideologically opposed camps, and with the Korean War raging in East Asia, the nuclear arms race became increasingly frenetic. In October 1952, Britain became the third country to test successfully an independently developed nuclear bomb after strategically and ideologically aligning itself with the United States.
It was against this terrifying backdrop that construction work began on the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker.
The Kelvedon Hatch bunker was later designed to house up to 600 civilian and military personnel, including the Prime Minister and other high-ranking cabinet officials. In the event of a nuclear attack, the centre’s tasks would have consisted of supplying protection to nearby Ministry of Defence workers, coordinating the survival of the local population, and continuing the operations of the government.
9. Ordsall Hall
Ordsall Hall is a Tudor manor house in Salford that was the seat of the Radclyffe family for over 300 years. With sections of the house dating as early as the 1360s, it is a hidden gem amongst the busy city streets, and allows guests to experience the every-day lives of its past Tudor occupants.
The Hall first appeared in written records in 1177 as ‘Ordeshala’, and by 1251 was likely a house when William de Ferrers exchanged it for land in Pendleton with David de Hulton. In around 1355, the manor passed to the Radclyffe family, beginning 20 years of bitter ownership feuds before in 1374 Sir John Radclyffe at last secured it. Over the next 300 years of Radclyffe occupancy the Hall was expanded significantly, and generations of their colourful family walked its Halls.
10. Pickering Place
Pickering Place in the Mayfair borough of London is the smallest square in England. It is also the last place in London where a duel was fought.
The courtyard is the covered remains of a garden that existed when houses were first built here in the mid-1660s when the Earl of St Albans secured a lease from King Charles II.
In 1731, some of the nearby houses and tenements were demolished, and the square was named Pickering Court, after William Pickering – a coffee merchant and son-in-law of Widow Bourne, founder of Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd wine merchants, whose shop still operates on the premises.
Later known as Pickering Place, the tiny square started its life much like any other Georgian terrace – lit by gaslights, with stately homes lining its corners. However, despite Mayfair’s upmarket reputation, in the 18th century the square’s secluded location facilitated its notoriety for gambling dens and bear-baiting – as well as its shady reputation as a popular location for duels.
The most famous duel that took place here was that in which Beau Brummel – a close friend to King George IV and inventor of the cravat – fought here, though like many London legends, it’s slightly uncertain whether the duel took place at all.