/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on December 9, 2009 at 3:08 pm
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The best of medieval England

London isn’t the greatest place to explore the Middle Ages. There’s Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, and then… well, that’s about it. If you want to explore medieval England, you really need to head out of London.

Wells cathedral, Somerset

Wells cathedral, Somerset

So I thought for those who are considering a holiday in England, I’d put together a few thoughts on the prime medieval sights. I’m sure I’ve missed out some people’s favourites, but I’ve tried to find places where you’re not just looking at one nice medieval building – you’re actually able to see a whole medieval townscape, or a medieval castle in its landscape.

  • Norwich. Here you get a wonderful contrast; a Norman cathedral and castle dating from the eleventh century, together with fantastic half timbered houses and churches glittering with the local black flint dating from Norwich’s heyday as a trading centre in the 15th century. The grandeur of the early medieval period, and the delicacy and fantasy of the later work – which will be your favourite? Don’t miss Dragon Hall, a unique half-timbered building that a medieval merchant used as his trading hall and warehouse, or Elm Hill – fine half timbered houses on a delightful cobbled street.  (Trains from Liverpool Street take just under 2 hours.)
  • If you’ve always dreamed of a moated castle, then Kent contains three that will definitely appeal. Hever Castle, in Kent, was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home; though its oldest parts are earlier, most of the castle dates from Tudor times. Leeds Castle is actually built on two islands, making it the grandest of the three, and again there’s a connection with Henry VIII – he had the place renovated for Katherine of Aragon (his first wife, out of six). Both of these castles are now pretty thoroughly ‘touristified’; the third isn’t. And it’s not really a castle, it’s a fortified manor house - Ightham Mote, near Sevenoaks, which is a perfect stone and half timber manor dating from about 1320.  You’ll really need a car to visit these castles.
  • Wells is a long way from London and not all that easy to reach – head west to Bristol (from Paddington) and you’ll then need a bus to Wells. This is a tiny city – hardly a big village really, dominated by its splendid Gothic cathedral and the Bishop’s palace. If you want to feel what a medieval city was like, then Wells gives you your best chance; some things just haven’t changed. Water still runs down a channel at the side of the street, the medieval clock still keeps time in the cathedral- but alas, the swans in the moat of the palace don’t still ring a bell for their lunch; the last one retired, and now wild swans have nested there, but haven’t yet realised it’s one ring for hungry, two rings for very hungry. From Wells, it’s not a big hop to Glastonbury with its ancient abbey and hostelries, and Arthurian connections.
  • York and Durham are conveniently located on the same train line (from King’s Cross) and both have splendid medieval cathedrals. Durham, the cathedral built next to the castle on its prominent site above the river Wear, still looks just as it did when the Prince-Bishops were England’s front line of defence against the marauding Scots; stark, strong, impressive. York Minster is more elegant, with its superb stained glass, rose windows, and a wooden roof made to look as if it’s built of stone, and the Shambles with other alleyways give you a feeling of how crowded and busy the medieval city must have been. (Alas, not all of York has been so well preserved.)
  • Cambridge is a regular fixture on visitors’ itineraries, and anyone at all interested in medieval architecture should not miss King’s College Chapel, the single greatest work of the English Perpendicular style.(The fine stained glass and choir stalls are technically Renaissance, though. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn turn up here again, with their linked initials visible on the choir screen. Must have been embarrassing once he’d terminated that relationship… with extreme prejudice, so to speak.) But go a little further on the railway line and you’ll find Ely, a cathedral that thanks to a visionary sacristan has a unique crowning glory – a wooden lantern instead of a tower above the crossing. Many of the monastery buildings are still standing, and you can still see the cathedral for miles across the flat Fens. This tiny place (with 14,500 inhabitants just pipped at the post by Wells with 10,000 as our smallest city) used to be an island; in some ways it still is. (Cambridge trains from King’s Cross take about an hour.)
  • Lincoln has another Gothic cathedral – with the exception of Durham, perhaps England’s most spectacularly sited, atop a huge hilly ridge. But the real appeal of the city is the fine snaky slope of Steep Hill – which is exactly what is says – with half timbered houses, old bookshops, and two ‘Jews’ Houses’ dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries which are some of the oldest stone domestic buildings in England.
  • Finally, if you haven’t the time or the inclination for a jaunt around the whole of England, a great medieval palace near London is Hampton Court, built by Cardinal Wolsey – Henry VIII’s first and greatest minister – and taken over by Henry after the disgrace and death of the cardinal. Well worth a visit – give it a whole day and take the boat back along the Thames, the way Henry VIII would have reached Hampton Court from Westminster Palace.

Photo by IDS.Photos on flickr


  • heather says:

    Great tips! Can’t wait to go back to England.

  • Slava says:

    Ha! I just finished reading “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson, and now this post, and I kinda, really want to go on a train trip across the UK.

    Also: Why do people fake-HDR their photos?! It makes pretty skies look so unnatural, and dirty. Totally unnecessary!

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