Welcome to the UKthruMYeyes!

The most popular category to visitors is castles, which is my favorite too.  To celebrate some changes that are coming to the blog this week I will write and post about two new castles I visited.

Please share my blog with others and come back regularly.

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Bolsover Castle

If your hear doesn’t beat when you first see a castle then there is something wrong with you.

About

Bolsover Castle is a stunning castle perched on the top of a hill overlooking the beautiful English countryside. It is unusual in that it was built as an estate house to look like a castle. It received the nickname “Little Castle” when built. I always imagine the first reaction of medieval travelers as they rode their horses and carriages up the road for the first time as I approach the castle by car.

Location

It is east of Chesterfield (home of the Church of the Crooked Spire) about 20 miles, southeast of Manchester.

My Experience

Perched on top of a hill up from the motorway (highway) I stopped to take in the sight and take a picture of the castle above me. King Charles I was entertained at the castle in 1634 by the Cavendish family. Queen Mary visited the estate in 1912.

This is what the houses looked that surrounded the castle when it was built.

The landscape is beautiful on top of the castle hill.

I drove through the narrow, winding, stone street known as Castle Street. It is the same in all medieval castle towns. Visitors approach from the unprotected rear of the castle, away from the view of the tower. That is one indication this tower was never meant to be a fortress but rather a home, a place to entertain.

View of Bolsover Castle from inside the courtyard

The castle is in amazingly pristine condition. Restoration work was complete in 1999 that uncovered much of the original woodwork and the color of the rooms inside the castle. The Cavendish’s were consumed with horses evidenced by the enormous stone structure for shoeing the horses, a large stable and a “riding house”. The castle stables are one of the best preserved in England. No other castle I have visited had such extensive stables.

Standing outside the Terrace Range looking towards the Little Castle

You can imagine life size pictures and statues along the wall. This is the view of the Gallery.

The “Terrace Range” is a series of guest rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, drawing rooms, galleries and other entertainment areas. The elongated building overlooks the countryside below and must have been spectacular view 400 years ago when it was built. The former living area today is a remnant but it has been restored enough to see how spectacular it must have been when Charles I visited.

From the front of the Small Castle looking at the Terrace Range

This is the back entrance to the Little Castle from the inner courtyard through the outer wall.

After the stables and Terrance Range is the approach to the “small castle” on the crop of the hill. Between the Terrance Range and the castle is an outer circular wall protecting the castle. As you walk through the gate you see a beautiful courtyard with gardens, statues and water fountains. There were few people the day I visited and it was most peaceful. As the picture shows above the water fountain was elaborate.
Visitors are required to enter the castle through a main entrance created by the Cavendish’s to provide a spectacular view of the valley below. It is highly decorated and intended to create an impressive entrance. It requires a person to stop and admire the surrounding landscape.

This picture was taken from inside the inner courtyard.

This is the front view of the Little Castle as you walk down the path from the Terrace Range.

The castle itself is four stories high with an abundance of small rooms. Unlike a larger, more elaborate castle, Bolsover has the same number of rooms just much smaller. Each room is highly decorated with ornate handcrafted woodwork and some of the original colorful paint has been restored. As in all castles, the higher up a person stayed or worked the more important the person. The “upper class” is a term used today derived from this practice.

Many of the rooms had been restored and were ornate.

Another view inside the Little Castle

The rooms were marked with wall plaques with explanations of their usage and some of the rooms had some interesting history. Cavendish’s bedroom had a private guardrobe (toilet) and a way to sneak “guests” into his room from the outside. There is a maze of guest areas, additional bedrooms, fireplaces, gathering places throughout the castle which must have left a unique impression on the guests of the Cavendish’s.

The Background and History

Before the Norman conquest Bolsover was in the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. William the Conqueror granted the area to William Peverel after the Battle of Hastings. There was a rudimentary castle built on the hill during this time but the Peverels lost the castle when they were on the wrong side against King Henry II in 1152. A medieval castle was later built on the site but didn’t survive the siege as a result of the revolt against King John in 1223 when one of the towers was breached. It fell into ruin and much of its materials sold off. To an Elizabethan traveler it appeared as a “great building to an old castle”.

Charles Cavendish purchased the castle in 1608. Cavendish was a soldier with a passion for arts, music and architecture. His tombstone in the graveyard of the church nearby says he was a man whom, “wisdom, honor, content, made happy”. It is believed that Cavendish hired the brilliant designer Robert Smysthson to work with him on the design of the building. It was built over the foundations of the previous medieval castle.

The Little Castle

Intricate records were kept and have survived showing the details of how the castle was built. In 1612-14 50 men were on site with women, boys and even girls to help them. Some of the “boys” were apprentices but other children were employed carrying stone and sand. The castle was an interesting combination of both old and new architectural ideas.

Four years after the work on Bolsover began Charles Cavendish died. His son William used it as his country home until his death in 1676. William lived in nearby Welbeck Abbey but visited the castle frequently. He had a household of 45 people which included his wife and 5 children. The entire group usually ate together in the early afternoon and was usually finished by mid-afternoon. A menu survives showing different tables for “my lord”, the steward, gentlewomen, children, nurses, grooms and “those that wait upon the masters’”. The lower tables had only mutton and porridge while William had “larks, pies and other small boiled meat”.

This is a great view of the gate to enter the Little Castle from the front.

The castle played a key role in the extraordinary life of William Cavendish. He was known to be a voracious philanderer. His second wife Peg was a writer who authored his biography and chronicled much of his life. In her own words with regard to his wandering ways, “Whether this be so great a crime to condemn him I will leave to the judgment of young gallants and beautiful ladies.” From all accounts he was a loving husband who wrote many poems to both of his wives and his mistresses.

His first wife, heiress Elizabeth Bassett, died when he was fighting the civil war in 1643. In 1645 he met Margaret, whom he nicknamed “Peg”, in Paris. William wore fashionable clothes “unless they were inconvenient for horse-riding and heroic actions”. According to Peg he was always neat and cleanly which made him “long in dressing”. Even in war his vanity had no limits. Those serving him complained that “he lay in bed until eleven o’clock and combed till twelve”.

Because of her biography we know he ate little, normally one meal a day. Although time was spent in managing his estate it was not his first love. He spent time instead in music, poetry, architecture and horses.

Peg was known to the world as “Mad Madge of Newcastle” and she may have been more eccentric than William. An author of philosophical books, rare for a woman at that time, plus her bizarre behavior contributed to her reputation. One contemporary wrote that “there are many more soberer people in Bedlam.” Although she spent a great deal of time writing in her closet she also loved to make outlandish public appearances. Her prolific writings were highly unusual for a woman in the 1600s. She was an ardent supporter for women’s rights in a time when there were none. She wrote of the inferior education and role allotted to women. She suffered the usual fate of women who did something in a “man’s” field which didn’t seem to bother William. Her writings provoked an uneasy fear that the “lesser” sex was overstepping her boundary and she was accused of “dangerous peculiarity”.

A spectacular fountain was an important part of the garden.

For all of their unconventional ways there was one event that would define William’s legacy. He was a key royalist leader in the English Civil War as Commander of the troops north of Trent. He is most famous for losing the north for the King in a crushing defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. He fled to the Continent to escape the Parliamentarian army. Bolsover Castle was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1645. With cannons trained on its walls its occupants surrendered without a fight.

Like many of the Royalist leaders, William was unable to return unless he apologized for his role in the Civil War which he refused to do. His brother stepped in, paid a hefty fine for William and gave the estate to William’s children to use the income. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarians and Lord Protector of England after the Civil War, and the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II invited William to come home but his reputation and position with the royal family was tarnished by his military failure. William died on Christmas Day 1676 at age 83 and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a tomb marked “The Loyall Duke”.

Ratings (Castle)

Category Rating: B+

Overall Rating: #5

Comments: The castle is worth visiting and its stables are unmatched in any castle I have visited to date. It is unusual as it is both an estate house and a castle. There is a great deal of unusual artwork and woodwork in the main house that has been restored and is visible today.

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The Church of the Crooked Spire

The crooked spire.

Its ponderous steeple, pillared in the sky
Rises with twist in pyramidal form,
And threatens danger to the timid eye
That climbs in wonder.

Samuel Bromley 1822

St. Mary and All Saints Church was finished around 1360. It is the largest church in Derbyshire. The spire leans 9 feet and 5 inches from its true center and leans at a 45 degree angle. There are several theories on why it leans but it wasn’t intentional. The Great Plague killed between a third and half of everyone in England. With the church built shortly after there was a shortage of artisans. Others have speculated that it is the amount of “green” timber used in its construction as it has to support 32 tons of lead roof.

It is near the center of town on a hill and easy to see to those driving by.

Folklore was that a black-smith “mis-shod” (wrong shoes) the devil who leapt over the spire in pain knocking it out of shape. Driving through Chesterfield it is a sight that is hard to miss.

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Tower of London

About

The Tower of London is one of the most popular tourist attractions in England with over 2,000,000 visitors a year.  It has been a castle, a royal palace, a prison, a mint, an armory, a safe-haven for the crown jewels and a government records office for important historical documents.  Some of the original buildings date back to William the Conqueror in 1070 and foundations have been found dating back to Roman times 2,000 years ago.

Location 

The Tower of London is on the northwest corner of the Thames River and the Tower Bridge.  It is accessible by bus and boat which both drop you off near to the entrance.  The nearest Tube, or Underground station, is about four blocks away but still a comfortable walk.

My Experience

It was 40 years between my two visits to the Tower of London.  I first saw the royal palace at 16 years old.  I recently came across a picture of me leaning over the wall with the Tower Bridge behind me.  In 1972 it was a cool old building in a far away country.  This time I was expectant, almost a little anxious when I entered the gate to the Tower of London.  So much of the history of western civilization occurred here, within these walls.  Some great stories happened here and many were not pleasant.  The walls of this palace record some of the saddest moments in England’s history.

Courtyard of the Tower of London

Inside the Tower of London

More than any site I have visited, the Tower of London is an all-day event.  Inside there are so many places to explore, events to watch and artifacts to see that to get the most out of this royal palace it would be best to plan a full-day.  The crowds are typically larger here than at other tourist locations except Buckingham Palace during the changing of the guard.

Memorial where two Queens were executed.

Location where two of Henry VIII’s wives were executed.

I stood on the grounds where Ann Boleyn was executed 475 years ago.  She was decapitated for being Henry VIII’s wife when the Catholic Church wouldn’t approve of his desire to divorce.  At the same place another Queen, Catherine Howard, was executed for the same reason some five years later as Henry VIII’s fifth wife.  Not only were these two innocent women put to death by Henry VIII, but by severing the relationship between the Vatican in Rome and the church in England, and making himself the Church of England’s supreme authority, he began hundreds of years of religious wars in the U.K.  This action alone resulted in the death and destruction of people and property up until the present time.

Part of the Queen’s guard which also serve as tour guides. They are very professional.

This is one of the towers that served as prisons. It is facing the Thames River.

There were as many as 10 people executed within the walls of the Tower of London and dozens on Tower Green or Tower Hill, a comfortable walking distance just outside the north wall where there is a plaque commemorating the spot today.  The executions inside the walls of the Tower of London were private, only for royalty and the most prestigious prisoners.   The executions on Tower Hill were public with sometimes thousands watching and cheering on the executioner.

During my visit at the royal palace there were staged historical events with actors dressed as medieval characters which the children seem to enjoy.  The White Tower at the center of the royal palace contained fascinating artifacts such as the armor of Henry VIII and James I, Oliver Cromwell’s sword, death masks of most of the Kings and Queens as well as cannons and rifles from when the Tower was used as an armory.  The crown jewels, both medieval and modern, are on display although no pictures can be taken by tourists for security purposes.

You can still see the words of the prisoners in the towers. Plaques have been placed to make it easier to read.

Prisoners were kept sometimes for years within the various towers.  It is possible to still read the musings and writings etched into the walls by famous people who were imprisoned.  It takes time for tourists to read, but I found it amazing to read last words or what was of importance to the prisoners.  Some of the calligraphy and drawings were complex while others wrote the names of their sweethearts, claimed their innocence or scratched a Bible verse onto the walls.

A structure doesn’t survive over 1,000 years without changes, but if you take the free tour, with the price of admission to the royal palace, your guide will show you how it changed and grew over the centuries.  They will also tell you old stories about famous people that happened within the walls throughout the centuries.

The Background and History

In 43 A.D. the Romans first conquered what is today England.  In 383 A.D. the Romans left Britain as their empire was collapsing and Roman rule ended.  The Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Germanic tribes, opportunistically invaded England from mainland Europe after the Romans left, around 450 A.D., and ruled. In 793 the Vikings first invaded Britain to challenge Anglo-Saxon rule.  300 years later the half Saxon, half Norman (Norman is French/Viking) born King Edward died without an heir.  He was called Edward the Confessor because he built Westminster Abbey.  Harold Godwinson was named king upon his death betraying an agreement Harold had reportedly made with William of Normandy who believed he had been promised the crown.  The Vikings attacked in the north trying to take advantage of the instability caused by the death of King Edward.  Harold took his army to the far reaches of north England and defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge securing, at that time, Saxon rule.  He discovered William had landed in the south and pushed his army at breakneck speed after defeating the Vikings.  Fighting against an exhausted army William of Normandy won and King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings.  Willam, Duke of Normandy, now became William the Conqueror, King of England.  Saxon rule in England was over.

Roman stones were found under the foundation of the Tower of London. This wall is almost 2,000 years old.

William knew he needed to consolidate power quickly so he ravaged the countryside on his way to London.  Officials from the city submitted to the conquering William in hopes of avoiding death and destruction.  William sent an advanced guard to London to “build a fortress and prepare for his triumphant entry into the city”.  After his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas day 1066, William withdrew from the city.  He knew his first task was control of the huge and “fickle” population of London.

The White Tower

Built by William the Conqueror in the 1070s. The English had never seen a building like it. It could be seen over London for miles.

The Normans built a great stone tower called the White Tower near the site of the old Roman fort.  The tower wasn’t like anything ever built in London and sent the city a message of things to come.  Norman masons and stones were brought in from William’s native Normandy for the building.  The labor to build the tower was provided by the English.  The tower dominated the skyline and could be seen for miles.

The Tower of London was never the favorite royal residence or the first line of defense during war.  The Tower’s primary function was as a fortress, a stronghold for the royalty and it would remain that way until the late 1800s.

The Medieval Tower of London

Richard the Lionhearted was the first medieval king to update and expand the Tower.  He left for the crusades shortly after becoming King in 1189.  In his absence the royal palace was doubled in size and reinforced as a stronghold by adding additional defenses.  In Richard’s absence his brother John laid siege to the Tower and forced Richard’s men out after their supplies ran out.  Upon his return in 1194, Richard regained control.  His brother John asked for forgiveness and was even named successor to the throne.  When King Richard died, John became King and was probably the first to have exotic animals, such as lions, kept at the Tower.  John died trying to keep his throne and left a kingdom in turmoil to his son Henry III.  Henry defeated the invading French and dealt with rebelling Barons during his reign.  He saw weaknesses in the Tower’s defenses and worked to improve them.  He was the first to build a moat around the Tower in 1238.

It was a vegetable garden during WWII. At one time the Thames River flowed through to act as a conduit for trash.

The Tower of London was considered a “concentric” castle with lines of defense within lines of defense. Each could see over and around the other.

King Edward I transformed the castle into the largest and strongest “concentric” castle, with one ring of defenses inside another.  The castle had first been used as a prison in 1100 but King Edward was the first to store historic papers and other valuables within its walls.  It also became a royal mint during this time.  His grandson King Edward III was a successful warrior, like his great-grandfather Henry III and unlike his father Edward II.  He captured the kings of Scotland and France and imprisoned both in the Tower.  During his reign 10,000 rebels plundered the capital during the Peasants Revolt and entered the Tower but did so unarmed.  In 1399 King Richard was imprisoned in the Tower after being forced to renounce his crown.

The Tower had a reputation for being a place of murder and execution.   Mad King Henry VI was imprisoned and eventually executed at the Tower.  King Edward IV became King upon Henry’s execution.  It was upon King Edward’s death that one of the saddest moments occurred in the history of the Tower.  His two sons Edward, aged 12 and Richard, aged 10, who were in line for the throne when their father died, went missing never to be heard from again. Their bones were found at the castle during renovation in 1674.  The story remains a mystery but there is little doubt murder was committed at the Tower.

On display in the White Tower in the Tower of London.

On display at the White Tower at the Tower of London

With King Henry VII, the Tudor family came to power in England.  Henry VIII continued the expansion of the Tower but it was the execution of two of his wives at the Tower for which he is remembered.   Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and become the Supreme ruler of the Church of England caused a large increase of catholic prisoners in the Tower and saw a rise in executions.  His son Edward VI continued the large number of executions until the short rule of Queen Mary I, who returned the country to Catholicism and persecuted protestant leaders.  The use of the Tower, as a prison and a place of execution, continued for another 100 years.

The Tower played a key role in the English civil war, fought between the royalists and the parliamentarians.  Charles I ended parliament which was a major cause of the civil war.  He lost the Tower in a blow from which the royalists did not recover.  With the execution of Charles I and with the monarchy abolished, all the gold and jewels were sold and the precious metal melted to provide funds for the good of the commonwealth.  After the restoration of the monarchy several years later the Tower’s use as a prison declined even as its use as storage for military supplies and equipment increased.

One of the oldest fireplaces in England built when the White Tower was first built in 1070s.

Under the guidance of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, the aging palace and castle was restored as an important place in English history.  Two world wars saw the Tower used once again as a prison and a place of execution.  Rudolph Hess, one of Hitler’s trusted generals, was briefly held as a prisoner in the Tower.  During WWII bombing damage was considerable and several buildings were destroyed.  During this time the dried moat was used for growing vegetables.

Ratings (Castle)

Category Rating: A+

Overall Rating: #3

Comments:  Tourists can learn so much about the history of England and the life of its royals by studying the Tower of London.  I wouldn’t go to London without taking at least a half day and visiting the Tower of London.   It is a “must see” historical site.

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Surprising Stonehenge

The rocks are huge

About

Stonehenge is a collection of enormous prehistoric stones prearranged in a semi-circle on the side of a hill in southwest England. That is all that is known for certain. Some believe it to be an ancient burial group, a druid temple, an astrological calendar, a location for pagan rituals, an ancient healing and pilgrimage site or even a memorial to the dead that is thousands of years old. Early medieval legends indicated that Merlin transported it from Mount Killaraus in Ireland as an appropriate place for Britain’s dead princes. Stonehenge remains one of the most important archaeological sites in the world with busloads of visitors coming daily to experience the ancient rocks.

Location

Stonehenge is near Amesbury, England. It is an hour and a half drive or 87 miles, west of London. Google “London bus to Stonehenge” and there are a variety of tour companies that offer services to Stonehenge and back.

My Experience

Outside of London, Stonehenge was the first major historical site I visited in England. I got up early one Saturday morning and decided to take my first adventure. From Manchester it is at least a 4 hour drive, but it was a nice, warm sunny day which can be rare in England.

I was so excited when I saw Stonehenge in the distance that I had to take a picture through my windshield.

Cool look down on Stonehenge from the top of the hill

I remember the childlike reaction when I saw Stonehenge in the distance. My heart started beating fast and immediately I started taking pictures out of my front windshield. The collection of stones weren’t new to me but they were more impressive than I imagined. My heart leaped at the awe-inspiring sight. The rocks weren’t on top of the hill as I remembered but on the side near the top of a hill. There is a small road that took me from the highway to the parking lot but the giant rocks were always in sight to my immediate left.

Over 1,000,000 visitors a year.

You can see most are listening to the tour guide through the headphones.

More than any other site I have visited I was impatient to get my car parked and enter the park. The parking lot was crowded with buses and cars. It was a bank holiday and obviously I wasn’t the only person visiting Stonehenge. People were everywhere and I remember feeling a little uneasy. When there are lots of crowds around I feel like everyone else knows what to do except me. Working through my anxiety I paid my entrance fee and picked up a headset that allowed me to take a walking tour. Crossing under the road through a tunnel that leads to Stonehenge I walked up the stairs and was face to face with these blue, enormous rocks. People were wandering around with their headsets on listening to the tour guide.

This was not a protected historical site prior to 1986 which really surprised me. There are pictures of druids and hippies in the 1960s climbing on the rocks or holding ceremonies. Today you can get close to the rocks but you can’t touch them. There is a fence that surrounds Stonehenge keeping the visitors a safe distance away.

As you can see even in the summer you may need a jacket.

They are so cool. You can’t help but wonder why they were built at this location and for what purpose(s).

It is hard to describe the feelings I got from standing near Stonehenge. People were sitting on bleachers, in the green grass or walking around looking at the rocks but I got the feeling that others felt the same way – quietly awe-inspired. Looking at the massive rocks left standing after more than 3,000 years without real knowledge of what they were used, for or how the rocks were moved there, was perplexing. The logistics of getting these enormous stones to stand up in a pattern seems impossible without today’s construction equipment. Even beyond the physical wonder of Stonehenge was the spiritual aspect. Were my feelings those of respect for those who built such a monument? Was I moved by the events that must have occurred at this location? Or was I just confused as to what was standing before me?

I liked it. It felt good to stand near it and imagine. Looking at the meandering road from the river believed to have been used to bring the rocks to this location it seemed impossible. It would have taken 5,000 people working full-time over 3 years to move these stones from southern Wales, where they were believed to have been quarried, to this location.

Over the hill in the center of the picture is the river. It is believed the blue stones were quarried in Wales, brought by river and then somehow drug up to this location.

Looking from the parking lot you can see the burial mounds nearby.

There are burial mounds that can be seen from Stonehenge within a half-mile of the hill with walking paths nearby. People can follow the path below Stonehenge towards the river where they believed the rocks were carried to this site. Most people take their time at the historical site. Even without the rock formation the view in each direction is beautiful.

There are no new housing additions on the horizon or new stores that have sprung up selling souvenirs. England has passed laws keeping residents from building new homes or commercial properties in the country. It is referred to as the “green belt”. Its purpose is to keep the countryside as beautiful and pristine as possible. Even if someone were to purchase a 300 year old house, approval by the local town council is required to make changes, modifications or improvements because of the desire to protect their historical sites and preserve England as it was.

The Background and History

Stonehenge wasn’t made at any one particular time. There is evidence that first construction began over 5,000 years ago. Neolithic Britons used man made tools, such as deer antlers, to dig a circular ditch and bank. It was believed to be surrounded by wooden posts. John Aubrey first discovered them in the 17th century.
Several hundred years’ later Stonehenge builders hoisted as many as 80 blue stones quarries in Wales which is over 200 miles. 43 of those stones stand today. They are believed to be in a semi-circle or horseshoe formation.
The third phase of construction was almost 2,000 years ago. Sandstone slabs were arranged in an outer ring or assembled in the center of Stonehenge. 50 of these stones are visible today. Carbon dating shows that construction continued until about 1,600 B.C. The question remains how a civilization without modern technology, including the wheel, was able to build this monument.

You can see the remains of the early ditch that was built that pre-dates the rocks.

Supposedly the sun strikes the small stone on the summer and winter equinox at sunrise/sunset.

Modern historians believe that several distinct tribes of people contributed to the building of Stonehenge, each undertaking a different phase of its construction. The facts around the building of this monument remain a mystery but even more mysterious are the reasons behind why it was built. Most modern historians believe Stonehenge was a burial site, but most scholars believe it served other functions as well. Some believe it was a ceremonial site, a site of religious pilgrimages, burial site for royalty or a memorial erected to honor their descendants. Since the 1960s there has been evidence it was an astrological calendar used by farmers while others believe it was a place of healing. Some of the bodies unearthed at the site showed signs of illness and injury and the blue stones were believed to have healing powers.

As you can see the area tilts a bit – it on the side of a hill.

Old, big stones

Since 1986 the site has been protected by UNESCO World Heritage Foundation, Stonehenge attracts more than 1,000,000 visitors a year.

Ratings (Monument)

Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #1

Comments: Along with Hadrian’s Wall, York and the Tower of London this is my favorite site in England. Take your walking shoes and enjoy the area in and around Stonehenge. It is a fascinating look at what our ancestors were capable of building without modern technology. It will surprise you.

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Hello London!

About

London is a vacation destination by itself. It is impossible to see all of the worthy sites in a single trip. Many visitors will see little else of England, which is unfortunate, but there is enough to do in London for a week. 150 years ago England’s empire was global and it was often said that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. At one time the empire ruled over one-fifth of the world’s population. Its impact on societies all over the world is incalculable. Today there are visitors from those countries who may want to come to England to find their ancestral roots or to search England for their societal roots. It is truly an international city.

London is the most visited city in the world. It is the financial capital of Europe and rivals only NYC as the greatest financial center in the world. London has been described as the world’s cultural capital with the largest city airport system measured by passenger traffic. It has the largest concentration of higher education in Europe with more than 43 universities calling London home. There are more than 300 languages spoken within its city boundaries. The London Underground is the oldest underground railway system in the world and the second largest to Shanghai.

With almost 13 million residents in metropolitan London, it is one of the busiest cities in the world. It can also be one of the most expensive. Traveling to London can be tricky so make sure that you check online reviews of hotels before making a reservation, even though a travel agency. Bring comfortable shoes and plan to walk a lot! Also, you should plan for congestion when preparing for your trip to London.

Location

London is located in southeast England with the Thames (pronounced “tims” in English) River running through it on the way to the ocean.

My Experience with the Tour Bus

London can be overwhelming and I would suggest taking one of the bus tours available to London visitors. They mostly use double decker buses with an open-air top. There is a guide with a microphone on the top deck pointing out key sights as you drive by. There are lots of anecdotal and historical information provided. Make sure you sit close to the tour guide as it can be difficult to hear when the bus is moving and you don’t want to miss his words. When it rains, as it did when I took the tour, the guide handed out clear-plastic raincoats or ponchos which were helpful. The bottom half of the bus is protected from the elements.

This picture was taken to give a good idea of the double decker tour buses.

This was taken from the London Bridge at the foot of Big Ben Bell Tower.

The bus tour was surprisingly worth the expense of an all-day pass. It stops frequently to allow passengers to sight see in a particular part of town or at a particular sight. You can hop back on the tour bus as it makes frequent stops. I don’t remember waiting more than 15 minutes for a bus to arrive. Most tour bus companies will provide you with a map which shows the bus routes along with key historical sites and can be easily used in planning your day. On the bus tour that I went on there were two routes – an east one through London and a west one through Westminster. An added benefit is the free boat ride on the Thames River that came with my tour bus ticket. I took the boat upriver from the Tower of London to Westminster where I docked at the base of Big Ben. It was included in my original price.

There are 3 major ways to travel around London: 1) underground subway, 2) bus or 3) taxi. By the end of your trip you will more than likely have used all of them. For example, traveling to Hampton Court Palace, which is on the far west
side of London, requires a trip by the underground (in this case it also travels above ground). Taking a cab or a bus might be expensive or time consuming because of traffic in certain instances.

At each stop on the tour bus line are employees who are willing to assist you and even sell you tickets to the major sights. I was skeptical at first about buying tickets from these vendors but, in fact, it turned out to be a good move. There may be two lines at the site – one to buy tickets and another to get into the actual site. Buying your ticket at the bus stop didn’t cost any more money and it saved me from having to stand in line to purchase a ticket. The tour bus workers were knowledgeable, helpful and glad to take my money.

This picture was taken from the tour bus.

Supposedly it makes over $45,000 an hour in revenue. It never stops so people have to walk quickly to get on.

Look for my post soon about transportation which will include advice on using the underground, hailing a taxi or using the bus lines. The Brits have made it easy once you get used to it, but it can take a person several days to understand how they are connected and the best way to get around. I actually find London an easy place to get around after learning how to do it “properly” as they say in England.

I have been to London on business and personal trips more than two dozen times. What surprised me most about the bus tour is how much more I learned from taking this trip. Driving by a residential area our guide pointed out a plaque showing the home of Benedict Arnold, the “American Patriot”. The English look upon Benedict Arnold a little different than Americans. The tour bus will take you by all the major sights and a lot of smaller locations that normally you wouldn’t see on a tourist trip: 1) famous music recording studios, 2) areas of historical events, 3) homes of famous people, 4) famous landmarks and 5) the major shopping areas.

Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower that rings every hour.

There are so many great places to shop in London!

I bought my tickets to the tour bus at the concierge desk of my hotel. They offered tickets, brochures and information on all major tourist sites. There was a tour bus stop right across the street. Interesting enough, one of the first things the guide said as I sat down on the upper deck was that Jimmy Hendrix, the guitar legend from the 1960s who sang “Purple Haze”, died in the hotel in which I was staying.

The History of London

Getting to know the history of London may help in understanding the historical sites you wish to visit. The first major settlement called London was founded by the Romans in 43 AD. After defeating King Harold in the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror came to London. He began building and improving a variety of sites including Westminster Abbey, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster as well as the Tower of London. During the 12th century the institutions of central government became too large for the royal court and increasingly moved to Westminster. Today there are markers that separate London from Westminster but, for the most part, tourists will consider the history of these two cities as one.

There are a multitude of great events in the history of London. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century it was largely abandoned. In the 6th century the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes that invaded Britain, created a settlement just west of the original Roman city of London. The Vikings repeatedly raided London in the 9th century. To provide better protection from attacks on the city, thousands moved further east behind the walls of the original Roman settlement. England was unified in the 10th century and London became the center of trade and politics with competition from Winchester, the former capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex just west of London on the Thames. The 11th century saw Westminster’s influence grow with King Edward the Confessor and with William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. By the 12th century Westminster became the true capital in governmental terms but London remained England’s largest city and commercial center. In 1100 the city of London was 18,000 but by 1300 it had grown to 100,000.

London lost almost a 1/3 of its population to the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The following Tudor period, 16th century, saw the rise of England as a maritime super-power both militarily and commercially. The second pandemic called the Great Plague killed 100,000 people or 1/5th of the London population. Within a year of the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London burned the city to the ground through a fire which started on Pudding Street. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s cathedral and most buildings within the old Roman walls. Westminster avoided the tragedy. Rebuilding the city took more than 10 years.

In the late 18th century George III acquired Buckingham House and it was enlarged over the next 75 years. This was the London of “Oliver Twist” when crime was rampant. In response, over 200 crimes were punishable by death with some women and children hanged for petty theft. During this time over 75% of children born in London died before age five.

Amazingly this is the only house not burned in the London fire. Imagine an entire city of houses like this and it was what London looked like in 1666.

Driving by on the tour bus was this exterior entrance to a former Knights Templer Church.

London was the world’s largest city from early in the 19th century to the early 20th century. This period in London history was defined by crowded and poor living conditions, disease, and the urbanization of the population after the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw Britain fighting two world wars. London suffered heavy loss of life and damage during German bombing raids from 1940-1941. Although 16 English cities were bombed, London was bombed 71 times, one time for 57 consecutive nights. Reports differ but deaths from the bombing of London resulted in 20,000-40,000 lives lost.

Planning A Trip To London

Greater London is a thriving metropolis and similar to New York City with regard to traffic, noise, sights, congestion, aggravation and fun. Plan ahead wherever you are going. When planning a sightseeing trip use maps and consider using the Underground first as it is the fastest and least expensive. Taxi drivers are knowledgeable, generally very nice and helpful but there is nothing they can do about the congestion on the roads either. The morning and afternoon rush hours are difficult times to travel regardless of your mode of transportation.
London is known for its great restaurants. Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern food is unmatched. For the less adventurous there is plenty of Italian and American food available. Plan your meals like you do your sightseeing or you will end up eating at a local pub, McDonalds or at your hotel. The concierge desk at any major London hotel can help you find the restaurant that best fits your desire.

This statue indicates the city limits of London and Westminster.

Coming up on the Tower Bridge from the top of my tour bus.

Although there will be another section coming out soon with greater details on hotels it is worth mentioning here that this is something that requires your attention while planning. Allow me to briefly tell you about my last two visits to London. My business partner called me all excited that he had booked us at the Four Seasons Hotel for £100 a night. With the conversion rate at that time it was $160 a night not including tax (20+%). London is one of the most expensive hotel markets in the world. We were making the trip on short notice, availability was limited and the cost much higher than normal so he thought it was a stroke of luck. When we arrived we found out it wasn’t THE Four Seasons Hotel but A Four Seasons hotel. We checked in and had to walk across the street to our rooms and three flights of stairs with our luggage. There was no AC and we happened to be there on one of the few hot London nights. With the windows open the traffic outside was noisy. The bathroom was not big enough for one person. The fan was broken and there was no internet or continental breakfast as promised. We also had to pay £35 just to park our car for the night. Our challenges were completely avoidable if my partner had looked at the internet for reviews of this hotel. Yahoo Travel, Hotels.com and other websites give people the opportunity to rate the hotel. PAY ATTENTION! If he had looked up this particular hotel he would have been forewarned, as we were not the first to make this mistake.
A few weeks later we had to make another trip on short notice. As usual most of the affordable hotels were booked but I found one that looked nice, got good reviews for what is a reasonable price for London. When we arrived to check in they immediately tried to upsell – internet was £15 a day, breakfast another £15, etc. My partner has never found an up-sell he didn’t like.  The hotel staff was friendly, the accommodations acceptable, even nice, but what I could never have determined by the internet reviews was that this hotel mainly catered to tourists from a specific country outside of Europe. Most visitors and staff did not speak English as their first language but at least our rooms were comfortable and clean.

Ratings (London)

Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #2

Comments: I have been to London several dozen times on business and pleasure. It is impossible to see all of the historical sites. You could plan a trip around just the museums, parks, theatre/shows, monuments, churches, buildings or palaces. Even though some of my favorite sightseeing locations are outside of London proper you will enjoy every visit to this wonderful, global city. Take a double decker tour bus the first couple of days you are there so that you can become informed, get your bearings and see some of the sights that you normally wouldn’t even know were there unless you took the tour.

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Skipton Castle

The far section of the castle is still lived in today.

About

Skipton Castle was designed to be a medieval fortress but now her imposing walls attract thousands of visitors a year.  Skipton Castle is one of the best preserved medieval castles since its modernization and has survived virtually unaltered for more than 300 years.  If you want to see what living in a castle was really like hundreds of years ago this is the place to visit.  Many castles across England are in ruins from previous wars or bad need of repair due to age.

Location

Skipton is west of Leeds in the Yorkshire Dales.  This is an area that is deeply under appreciated by tourists.  Northwest of Manchester, it is only a 1½ hour drive.

My Experience

Skipton was not on my original list of castles to explore but on a previous trip to Bolton Castle, also in the Yorkshire Dales, I was told it was worth seeing.  It was a worthwhile suggestion.

Most castles are in constant repair or are in disrepair.  Dukes and Duchess’, Lords and Ladies’ who in many cases still own the castles just do not have the massive resources it takes to update or maintain a 300-900 year old fortress.  Skipton Castle was restored after the English Civil War when Cromwell’s troops “slighted” the castles defenses – a term which means the walls and towers were left in ruins and the wooden floors and roofs were burned.  It was to ensure the castle would not be used as a fortress again.

Lots of people enjoying the late afternoon in the pub.

Great place to shop, visit and stay

What a pleasant surprise Skipton turned out to be – both the town and the castle.  I visited on a late Sunday afternoon and everyone in the town seemed to be out socializing.  The town was clean with lots of great old shops, nice restaurant/pubs and rooms to let.  There are some towns in England that beg you to stop, walk around and learn their history.  Skipton is one of those towns.

Looking out of one of the castle rooms.

Lady Ann Clifford planted this yew tree almost 300 years ago to commemorate the rebuilding of the castle.

The castle was the most complete castle I have seen to date.  Although the old kitchens, bedrooms, halls and watchtowers are no longer feasible to live in the castle appears much as it was 300 years ago.  For that alone it is a castle worth visiting.  The castle has a number of unique features like the courtyard in the center of the castle.

This small area is where the Lord and Lady ate. The area is offset from the remainder of the banquet hall. The closer you sat to the Lord and Lady the more important you were seen socially.

The scorch marks are still seen above the fireplace.

Because of the pristine condition a casual visitor can get a good visual representation of what everyday life was like in various areas of a medieval castle; the kitchen, the drawing rooms, the banquet halls, the bedrooms, the wine and beer cellars, the curing room and the watchtowers.  This alone was worth the visit.  There are tales and stories in all ruins but Skipton offers the experience of seeing firsthand what life was like in a medieval castle.

I learned that all workers in the kitchen were men who worked half naked due to the heat of the two fireplaces.  It would have been crowded, hot and smelly.  Water was scarce with only a single source within the castle.  Wood pipes carried the water into the castle but during times of siege inhabitants had to rely on rain water collected in a cistern under the “Conduit Courtyard” in the center of the castle.

This room was the center of activity for the castle. Dinner was served daily with guests.

The banqueting hall was the center gathering location of the medieval castle.  The Lord and Lady of the house dined each day with their guests usually just before noon.  The chamberlain, responsible for sitting arrangements, became a popular figure in the medieval household as social standing was indicated by the location a person sat relative to the high table and to others.

The unique towers offered great protection against potential attackers.

At one time a mote would have surrounded the castle. To enter a person would have had to cross a drawbridge.

The castle is well protected with 3 of the original drum towers standing today.  Watchtowers with narrow arrow slits allowed the defense a strong position in the event of an attack.  At one time a moat surrounded Skipton Castle and visitors, as well as enemies, had to cross a drawbridge to enter the castle.

During the medieval times water was a source of sickness.  Ground water was soiled with waste and contaminants from humans.  People realized they could drink ale or beer and stay healthy.  For some reason it took centuries for people to realize it was the heating process of the beer that killed the germs in the water.  It wasn’t unusual for children as well as adults to drink beer during this time but wine was saved for royalty.  Most castles had a brewery located in is lower areas near the kitchen.

This is the original chapel which became a stable and has since been restored. It was used only by the Cliffords and those who work on site.

The chapel, located outside the walls on the castle grounds, was built in the 12th century!  It is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and was reserved for use by the Lord and Lady of the castle, the castle residents, the garrison and a single local farmer.  The last two recorded uses were in 1635 and 1637 for a marriage and baptism.  It was later converted to a stable but recently restored.  There is another church just outside the castle grounds where the people of the community worshiped.

The Background and History

William of Normandy (Normans were of Viking heritage from what is now France) attacked and defeated King Harold of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Harold had promised not to seek the throne when King Edward the Confessor died.  William had claim to the throne as the illegitimate son of the Robert I, Duke of Normandy since Edward didn’t leave an heir.  However upon the King’s death Harold indeed accepted the crown.  Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and William of Normandy became William the Conqueror.

The Normans now controlled England and moved quickly to secure their power.  Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Robert De Romille, a Norman baron, built a wooden fort where Skipton Castle is today.  It didn’t hold up well against the raiding Scots from the north so a stone fortress was built.  King Edward I of England bought the castle for £100 (100 pounds today is $150 but in that a large sum of money) and granted it to the Clifford family in 1310.

The history of the castle is tied to the Clifford family as Robert Clifford became Lord Clifford of Skipton and Guardian of the Craven, the land north and west of the castle.  The elder Clifford was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn, in which the Scots soundly defeated the British, shortly after the castle was fortified in 1314.

There were several Cliffords of note during their ownership.  The 9th and 10th Lord Clifford of Skipton, John Skipton (1430-1461), was known as “Bloody Clifford” and “the butcher” because of his savagery in battle.  Shakespeare’s Henry VI, parts II and III, records how John slaughtered many Yorkists in the War of the Roses (between royal family in York and royal family in Lancaster).  John Skipton killed the Duke of York and his son in revenge for killing his father Thomas Clifford.  He then placed the Duke’s head over the gates of York.  He himself was killed at the Battle of Towton.

His son, Henry was sent to Cumberland by his mother where he tended sheep in hiding until he was restored as the 10th Lord by Henry VII.  From that time onward he was always known as “the Shepherd Lord”.  Some of the cannons in the castle today were brought back from the Battle of Flodden in which he helped to defeat the Scottish.  James IV, the Scottish king, was killed in the battle having the distinction of being the last British monarch to be killed in action.

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland and 13th Lord Skipton (1558-1608) squandered a fortune before he was 30 and then turned to privateering to regain his wealth.  He commanded the Elizabeth Bonaventure against the Spanish Armada.  He was responsible for sacking Puerto Rico in 1598.  However none of his adventures against the Spanish regained his wealth and he died in 1598 in debt.

During the British Civil War the castle would have interesting footnote.  Castle Skipton was the last Royalist bastion in the north against Oliver Cromwell.  After a three year siege a surrender was negotiated between Cromwell and the Royalists.  Lord Skipton was able to leave the castle in full regalia with his troops.  Cromwell “slighted” the castle to ensure it could not be used again as a fortress.  To commemorate the event Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) planted a Yew tree which stands today in the Conduit Courtyard and made the repairs to the castle that are evident today.

Ratings (Castle)

Category Rating: A

Overall Rating: #3

Comments:  The castle, the town and the Yorkshire Dale are worth the trip.  Take a day to explore the castle, shop in the town and enjo

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