There’s a host of top historic and cultural landmarks in England to visit, including Hadrian’s Wall, Stonehenge and Bletchley Park to name but a few.
Reflecting a wealth of myriad influences, the historical places of England are as diverse as this island nation’s history. Indeed, the country we know today as England has witnessed the rise and fall of many cultures, civilisations and empires. From pre-historic peoples to Celtic tribes, Roman conquerors and Anglo-Saxon and Norman invaders, England is a country forged of many influences.
We’ve put together an experts guide to English historical places and heritage attractions, with our top ten places to visit.
1. Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park is an English country house and estate in Milton Keynes, 50 miles north of London. Originally the eccentric home of the Leon family, as Adolph Hitler’s campaign to invade Europe intensified, Bletchley Park was taken over by the government, who deemed it the perfect place to move the Government Code and Cypher School.
Bletchley Park, known by the codename Station X, became the site where the British managed to decipher the machinations of the Enigma, the highly effective code encryption machines used by the Nazis.
This team of code-breakers included mathematician Alan Turing, has been estimated to have shortened the war in Europe by more than 2 years, and saved the lives of around 14 million people.
Today, visitors can explore the history of Bletchley Park’s role during the war.
2. Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall is a magnificent remnant of Roman Britain and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Built under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 130 AD, it took six legions to complete this once 73 mile wall – 80 miles by Roman measurements.
The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was once thought to have been as a fortification to keep out the Scots, but today historians believe it was a way of monitoring movement between the north and south in an attempt to consolidate the Empire.
Despite the significant undertaking in its construction, Hadrian’s successor as Roman head of state, Antoninus Pius, abandoned the wall following the former’s death in 138 A.D.
Large sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain intact in northern England and these are surrounded by various Roman monuments, forts and other ruins. There are several ways to visit all of these sections and sites, notably as part of the National Trail, which is a signposted walk, by bus, by bicycle and via tour groups.
Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.
3. Roman Baths - Bath
The world famous Roman Baths complex in Bath, UK, contains an incredible set of thermal spas and an impressive ancient Roman bathing house. First discovered in the 19th century, the Roman Baths are one of the best preserved ancient Roman sites in the UK and continue to be a major tourist attraction.
The Romans Baths were initially built as part of the town of Aqua Sulis, founded in 44 AD, and intended as a visiting spot for Romans across the Empire. The baths were a focal point for the town: a place for socialising and spirituality.
Today, the Roman Baths offer an incredibly comprehensive insight into the lives of the ancient Romans in the town and around Britain. While the site looks quite small from the outside, a visit can last several hours.
Among other sites at the Roman Baths, there is a comprehensive museum dedicated to exploring the lives of the ancient Roman citizens of Bath and an ancient drain used as an overflow system. Around the Great Bath itself, explore the numerous saunas, swimming pools, heated baths and changing facilities at the site.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire is a world renowned, magnificent site consisting of standing (and lying) stones, some transported from South Wales.
The construction of Stonehenge took place between 3,000 and 1,600 BC and is considered to be one of the most impressive structures of its time, especially considering each stone weighs around four tonnes and that its founders had little by way of technological advances to assist them in moving the stones over the hundreds of miles that they travelled.
The purpose of Stonehenge has remained a mystery, despite extensive archaeological investigation.
Stonehenge is managed by English Heritage. Anybody wishing to access the stone circle of Stonehenge must arrange this in advance with English Heritage and these visits can only take place outside normal working hours. During normal operating hours, visitors walk around the circle on a set path and are given free audio guides explaining different aspects of Stonehenge.
In 2010, archaeologists discovered a second henge next to Stonehenge. Hailed as the most exciting find in half a century, this second henge was made up of a circle of pits – thought to have once contained timber posts – surrounded by a larger circular ditch.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
5. St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral, with its vast dome, is an iconic feature of the London skyline and known across the world. It is the city’s central church (a Grade I listed building) and the seat of the Diocese of London.
The current building of St Paul’s Cathedral was built between 1675 and 1710, designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren. Its construction was part of a major rebuilding programme in the City after the Great Fire of London. However the site on which it sits has been home to cathedrals since 604 AD. In fact, the St Paul’s Cathedral seen today is the fourth of its kind.
St Paul’s fascinating history is inextricably intertwined with that of the nation, with images of the dome surrounded by the smoke and fire of the Blitz being symbolic of Britain’s wartime defiance. It was at St Paul’s Cathedral that the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.
Many of important events from around the world have been marked at St Paul’s including the end of the First and Second World Wars, the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, royal jubilees and birthdays and commemorations of events such Remembrance Day and 11 September 2001.
St Paul’s Cathedral is also a famous burial site. Its crypt houses many world famous icons, including Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Christopher Wren, whose funerals were hosted at the cathedral. Though not buried at St Paul’s, the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill was also held here.
Guided tours are available and last approximately 90 minutes.
6. The Tower of London
The Tower of London is a famous fortress and prison. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was executed here 1536, as Henry was off wooing his next wife, Jane Seymour. First commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror, it was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century.
The Tower of London was also used as a residence for monarchs of England, and it was traditionally used by monarchs in the run up to their coronation. However the Tower is most famous for its use as a prison.
Only seven people were executed within the Tower’s walls – including Anne Boleyn – but the list of people who at one time or another were imprisoned in the Tower of London reads like a who’s who of 1,000 years of Britain’s history. The spot near to the scaffold where Anne Boleyn was executed is marked with a memorial, and she is buried in the nearby church of St Peter ad Vincula which may also be explored.
There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower: the beefeaters, ravens, site of the menagerie and just walking around it to soak up the history. Allow plenty of time for your visit.
7. Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is an iconic medieval structure and the site of many historic royal and national events, from coronations and weddings to burials and even deaths.
Over 3,000 people are buried at Westminster Abbey. There are 600 tombs and monuments to see, many of them Royal and open to visitors. Some of the most famous royals buried there are Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and Henry III. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in the Abbey and there is a service each Remembrance Sunday.
Funeral services for important figures and royalty are also held in the Abbey and over time prominent funerals at the Abbey have included those of Winston Churchill, George VI, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth I.
In addition to the numerous burial sites and architectural features, one of the most impressive sites at Westminster Abbey is the Coronation Chair, produced in 1300-1301 under the orders of King Edward I. Its purpose was to accommodate the Stone of Scone, which the king had brought from Scotland. To have an informed visit and to see the most interesting parts of Westminster Abbey, take a tour, as just wandering around can be overwhelming.
8. Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world – home to over 900 years of royal history. The building of Windsor Castle began in the 1070s at the behest of William the Conqueror. Since that time, the structure of Windsor Castle has been embellished by many of the monarchs of England and the UK.
Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features including the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel – the burial place of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.
The castle remains a favourite home of Queen Elizabeth. There are numerous exhibitions and tours at Windsor Castle – a typical visit can take up to 3 hours.
9. Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is an area of HM Naval Base Portsmouth which is open to the public. Managed today by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the dockyard contains several historic and famous ships including HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose.
Also housing the Royal Navy Museum and still part of an active naval base, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offers visitors a great insight into the British navy, both its past and present.
10. Ironbridge Gorge
Ironbridge Gorge is a historical landscape in Shropshire that played a vital role in sparking the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, and remains a powerful symbol of the period. Spanning an area of some 5.5 square kilometres, it is often cited as the birthplace of modern-day industry and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986.
Amongst its contributions to the development of industry, Ironbridge Gorge was the place where coke iron was discovered in the blast furnace of Coalbrookdale in 1709. The name Ironbridge Gorge also refers to an important landmark, the World’s first iron bridge, built there in 1779.
Today, visitors to Ironbridge Gorge can truly immerse themselves in this fascinating period of history. Not only can they see the iconic Iron Bridge, but also a variety of other sites including homes, factories, mines, warehouses, foundries, and the stunning natural beauty of the Gorge itself. There are 10 Ironbridge Gorge museums, each telling a different aspect of the area’s story.
There are ten Ironbridge Gorge museums, each telling a different aspect of the area’s story.