Britain is probably the most written about country in the world and yet down every lane, round every corner, in every town and village, there are still unexpected treasures and surprises.
Below are some memorable anecdotes and entertaining nuggets of information that may not appear in the guidebooks but will serve to enrich your visit and maybe give you something to throw into the conversation, making friends exclaim, ‘I never knew that!’
London owes its existence to the River Thames and was founded by the Romans in 52 AD at the north end of their wooden bridge across the river’s lowest crossing point. From that first London Bridge, London expanded to become the world’s largest city and port in the 19th century with over half the world’s shipping traffic sailing up the Thames into London’s docks. Because of this, a conference in Washington in 1884 decided that Greenwich in London should become the location of the Prime Meridian, or O degrees longitude, the place where East meets West, putting London at the very ‘centre’ of the world. Today it is the world’s most cosmopolitan city.
Stonehenge is the earliest known example in Britain of architecture, where building materials were shaped and molded together to create a structure. Built up over 2000 years from 3100 BC to 1100 BC, Stonehenge is the most recognizable prehistoric remain in Europe. The original bluestones were transported 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales over 4500 years ago - around the same time that the Pyramids were being built. Initially the site served as Britain’s earliest crematorium and then as a solar temple and observatory, with the stones aligned to the summer solstice.
Direct successor to Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral was completed in under 40 years, from 1220 to 1258, and is the only English cathedral to be constructed in a single architectural style, Early English. The site was decided by the best archer of the time, who shot an arrow from the top of the previous cathedral at Old Sarum to the north - the foundation stone was laid where the arrow landed. Salisbury’s spire was added in 1320 and at 404 feet is the tallest spire in Britain and the tallest 13th century structure in the world. Inside the cathedral is Europe’s oldest working clock, dating from 1386. The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the water meadows, virtually unchanged since John Constable painted it in 1825, has been voted England’s favorite view.
Dartmoor, the largest area of granite in Britain, is the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known Sherlock Holmes adventure, the Hound of the Baskervilles. The story was based on a real 17th century squire called Richard Cabell who lived on the edge of the moor at Brook House near Buckfastleigh. He had an evil reputation and when he died in 1670 huge, black dogs were seen galloping across the moors, breathing fire and howling. Several real Dartmoor locations are featured in the book and Baskerville Hall is thought to be based on Hayford Hall, next door to Cabell’s own house at Buckfastleigh.
In September 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from near the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth to cross the Atlantic and found a new colony in America, which they called Plymouth after the place where they had spent their last hours on English soil. Amongst their provisions were ship’s biscuits baked by Jacka’s Bakery, established in Plymouth in the 16th century and now the oldest working commercial bakery in Britain. The very first English colony in America, which did not survive, was founded by a man from Devon, Sir Walter Raleigh, on Roanoake Island, Virginia, in 1585.
‘Last nigh I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ In 1927 Daphne du Maurier was exploring Cornwall when she came across a romantically dilapidated Elizabethan house called Menabilly on the south coast near Fowey. Menabilly inspired Manderley, the house in her novel Rebecca. She went on to live there herself for 25 years from 1943 until 1969. After her death in 1989 du Maurier’s ashes were scattered on the cliffs at Menabilly. Locations from her books are found across Cornwall, notably Frenchman’s Creek on the Helford river and Jamaica Inn, standing alone on the bleak and eerie Bodmin Moor. Not far from Jamaica Inn stands Dozmary Pool, associated with another famous Cornish person, King Arthur. The pool, apparently bottomless, is said to be the home of the Lady in the Lake and the resting place of Arthur’s sword Excalibur.
While Arthur was born at Tintagel on Cornwall’s north coast, he is buried at Glastonbury in Somerset, the fabled Isle of Avalon. In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey found a great oak coffin beneath the abbey’s Lady Chapel bearing the words ‘Here lies interred in the Isle of Avalon the renowned King Arthur’. Inside were the bodies of a large, powerful man and a tall woman, assumed to be Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. The Holy Grail is also said to be buried at Glastonbury, beneath Glastonbury Tor. It was brought there for safekeeping in 63 AD by Joseph of Arimathea, who built the first Christian church in Britain to watch over the Grail, making Glastonbury the birthplace of Christianity in Britain.
Bath sits on top of Britain’s only hot spring. The Romans built an elaborate series of baths to exploit the spring and called the surrounding town Aquae Sulis. After the Romans left in 410 AD, the baths lay forgotten for over 1300 years until the 18th century when the town developed as a spa and social centre due to the efforts of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash. Bath is now the best-preserved Georgian town in England, with the Royal Crescent regarded as the finest single example of Georgian architecture in the world.
Bath appears as the postmark on the world’s first stamped envelope, thanks to Ralph Allen of Bath, who was instrumental in developing the world’s first postal system.
Wales, which boasts the oldest language in Europe, was the world’s first industrialized nation, with coal and iron from the Welsh hills feeding the world’s first large-scale iron and steel industry in the 18th century. Cardiff was once the largest coal exporting port in the world, and used that wealth to build Britain’s finest civic centre. Wales also houses the world’s smallest cathedral city, St David’s, the largest castle in Britain after Windsor at Caerphilly (where they also make cheese) and Britain’s oldest stone castle at Chepstow. In addition, the Brecon Beacons hide Britain’s deepest caves and rare Welsh gold is considered the finest in the world: Since the time of George V, royal wedding rings have been made from Welsh gold (including Princess Diana’s) and Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas bought a Welsh gold ring to celebrate his marriage to Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2000.
Chester has the best-preserved city walls in Britain. It also has the oldest sporting venue in Britain, the Roodee, where horse races have been run since 1540. The black and white Chester Rows, dating from the 14th century, consist of two tiers of shops and are unique in the world. The main road enters Chester via the Grovesnor Bridge over the River Dee, which when it was built in 1832 was the largest stone arch in the world, with a span of 200 feet. Princess (later Queen) Victoria was the first person to cross the bridge.
The Lake District is England’s largest National Park and contains England’s highest mountain, (Scafell Pike - 3209 feet), and England’s deepest lake (Wastwater - 258 feet), as well as England’s biggest lake (Windermere).
The poet William Wordsworth was born in the Lake District and lived most of his life in and around Grasmere, where he is also buried. His lyrical poems about the beauties of the Lake District attracted thousands of tourists and made the Lake District Britain’s first tourist area. Wordsworth’s ‘host of golden daffodils’ can still be seen beside Ullswater.
It was to protect these natural beauties that the National Trust was created and Brandelhow Wood beside Derwentwater was the first property ever purchased by the National Trust, in 1902. The father of Beatrix Potter was the first member of the National Trust and she drew inspiration for her wonderful children’s stories from her holidays as a girl in the Lake District. The success of her books enabled Beatrix to buy a number of properties in the Lake District, like Hill Top Farm, which she left to the National Trust on her death.
More then one in eight of all marriages in Scotland still take place at Gretna Green, a legacy from the 18th century, when marrying without consent was allowed in Scotland but not England. Gretna’s position as the first village in Scotland after the border made the Old Blacksmith’s Shop the chosen venue for eloping couples from England.
Glasgow became Scotland’s biggest city through industry, which seems only fair since the Industrial Revolution was born here on a quiet Sunday afternoon in May 1765. Engineer James Watt was walking across Glasgow Green on that day, grappling with the problem of how to build a practical steam engine, when he hit upon the idea of a separate condenser. That one flash of inspiration gave industry the power source it needed to change the world forever - and the magic spot where Watt thought of it is marked today by a boulder. Glasgow also possesses a much-neglected treasure, Scotland’s most complete medieval cathedral, St Mungo’s, which boasts the finest Gothic vaulted crypt in the world.
For some people the most beautiful place in the world, Skye was home to Flora Macdonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. She is buried on the north of the island. As a thank you to John MacKinnon, who had sheltered him on Skye, Bonnie Prince Charlie left behind his secret recipe for a delicious whisky and honey drink which became known as Drambuie. Skye also boasts the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, Dunvegan, which has been the home of the Clan Macleod since the 13th century.
As well as being home to the world’s most famous monster Loch Ness is the second deepest lake in Britain (755 feet) and holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales put together.
The Battle of Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746 was the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Although described as a battle between the Scots and the English, there were more Scots fighting for the English Duke than for the Scottish Prince. The two opposing commanders, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland, were both aged 25.
Braemar sits at a height of 1,100 feet above sea level and is officially the coldest place in Britain. It also boasts Britain’s highest 18-hole golf course. The first Braemar Games were thrown by King Malcolm III in 1057 as a means of determining his best soldiers for the forthcoming battle against his father’s murderer Macbeth.
Known as the ‘home of golf,’ St Andrews is the location of the governing body of golf known as the R & A: It takes its name from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club founded in 1754. St Andrews Old Course is the most frequent host of the Open Championship, golf’s oldest major. St Andrews is also home to Scotland’s oldest university, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. It was attended by Britain’s first female student in 1862 and by Prince William from 2001 to 2004.
When it opened in 1890 the Forth Railway Bridge was the biggest bridge in the world and the world’s first large structure made from steel. Today it is still the second longest cantilever bridge in the world after the Quebec Bridge, and an iconic symbol of Scotland. The bridge is so large that for the first 100 years of its existence, it required continuous painting giving rise to the expression ‘like painting the Forth Bridge’ meaning a never ending task.
Every summer Edinburgh hosts the world’s largest arts festival, which includes the world’s largest military tattoo, held on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. In 2004 Edinburgh became the first ever UNESCO City of Literature, an appropriate accolade for the birthplace of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Ian Rankin and Harry Potter, who came to life at Nicolson’s Cafe in Edinburgh’s Old Town where J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter story.
The Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle is the second-largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor and portrays Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films. Alnwick Garden, the inspiration of the Duchess of Northumberland, occupies 42 acres of the castle grounds, and is centered around Britain’s largest water feature, the Grand Cascade. The gardens include a Poison Garden, the world's largest wooden tree house and a Japanese Cherry Blossom Orchard.
The three miles of ancient walls that encircle York are the longest city walls in England. York Minster is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and has more medieval stained glass than any other cathedral in Britain. The Great East Window, created by John Thornton in the 15th century, is the largest single area of medieval glass in the world. Thornton was also responsible for York’s most secret treasure, a ravishingly beautiful stained glass window called the Pricke of Conscience, which portrays the final fifteen days to the end of the world, and is unique in Europe. This can be found in a little church called All Saints, hidden away just across the River Ouse in North Street.
Sherwood Forest today is a fraction of the size it was in Robin Hood’s day when it was a royal hunting ground. What remains is centered around the village of Edwinstowe. Robin Hood is said to have married Maid Marian at St Mary’s church there. Not far away in the forest is the Major Oak, one of the oldest and biggest oak trees in Britain, with a hollow trunk 30 feet round inside which Robin Hood and his Merry Men would hide. Buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s is the Revd, Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, who compiled the first edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon on St George’s Day, April 23, 1564 and died exactly 52 years later on April 23, 1616. He was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity church where he was also baptized. When he returned to Stratford as a rich man in 1597 he bought New Place, the second largest house in the town and the only one made of brick. New Place was later purchased by a disagreeable parson called Francis Gastrell who became irritated by people gawping over his garden wall at the precious mulberry tree that Shakespeare had planted there, and he chopped it down. This annoyed the people of Stratford who started to throw stone’s through Gastrell’s window until the irascible parson finally lost his temper and razed the whole house to the ground. He was run out of town and no one with the Gastrell name has been allowed to live in Stratford since.