England, birthplace of Shakespeare and The Beatles, is a country in the British Isles bordering Scotland and Wales. The capital, London, on the River Thames, is home of Parliament, Big Ben and the 11th-century Tower of London. It’s also a multicultural, modern hub for the arts and business. Other large cities are Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and the university centres of Oxford and Cambridge.
Standing 135m high in a fairly flat city, the London Eye affords views 25 miles in every direction, weather permitting. Interactive tablets provide great information (in six languages) about landmarks as they appear in the skyline. Each rotation – or ‘flight’ – takes a gracefully slow 30 minutes. At peak times (July, August and school holidays) it can feel like you’ll spend more time in the queue than in the capsule; book premium fast-track tickets to jump the queue. Tickets are cheaper if purchased online, especially if you book in advance or combine the London Eye with other attractions. Feeling romantic? Hire a capsule for two (£380), with a bottle of champers. The London Eye has also been the focal point of the capital’s celebrated and dramatic midnight New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
The glittering centrepiece of London’s 2012 Olympic Games, this vast 227-hectare expanse includes the main Olympic venues as well as playgrounds, walking and cycling trails, gardens, and a diverse mix of wetland, woodland, meadow and other wildlife habitats as an environmentally fertile legacy for the future. The main focal point is London Stadium, with a Games capacity of 80,000, scaled back to 54,000 seats for its new role as the home ground for West Ham United FC. Other signature buildings include the London Aquatics Centre, Lee Valley VeloPark, ArcelorMittal Orbit and the Copper Box Arena, a 6000-seat indoor venue for sports and concerts. Then there’s the BeachEast, an artificial sandy beach on the River Lea, and Here East, a vast ‘digital campus’ covering an area equivalent to 16 football fields. For a different perspective on the park, or if you’re feeling lazy, take a tour through its waterways with Lee & Stort Boats.
The country’s largest museum and one of the oldest and finest in the world, this famous museum boasts vast Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, European and Middle Eastern galleries, among others. It is frequently London’s most-visited attraction, drawing 6.5 million visitors annually.
Don’t miss the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hiero-glyphics, discovered in 1799; the controversial Parthenon Sculptures, taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin (then the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire); and the large collection of Egyptian mummies.
Tower of London
The unmissable Tower of London (actually a castle of 22 towers) offers a window into a gruesome and compelling history. A former royal residence, treasury, mint, armoury and zoo, it’s perhaps now most remembered as the prison where two kings and three queens met their deaths. Come here to see the colourful Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters), the spectacular Crown Jewels, the soothsaying ravens and armour fit for a very large king.
In the 1070s, William the Conqueror started work on the White Tower to replace the stronghold he’d previously built here, in the southeast corner of the Roman walls, shortly after the Norman invasion. By 1285, two walls with towers and a moat were built around it and the defences have barely been altered since.
The most striking building is the central White Tower, with its solid Norman architecture and four turrets. On the entrance floor it houses a collection from the Royal Armouries, including Henry VIII’s commodious suit of armour. On the middle floor is St John’s Chapel, dating from 1080 and therefore the oldest place of Christian worship still standing in London.
To the north stands Waterloo Barracks, which now contains the spectacular Crown Jewels, including the platinum crown of the late Queen Mother, set with the 106-carat Koh-i-Nûr (Mountain of Light) diamond, and the Imperial State Crown, worn by the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament. Slow-moving travelators shunt wide-eyed visitors past the collection. On the other side of the White Tower is the Bloody Tower, where the 12-year-old Edward V and his little brother Richard were held ‘for their own safety’ and later murdered, perhaps by their uncle, the future Richard III. Sir Walter Raleigh did a 13-year stretch here too under James I, when he wrote his History of the World.
Museum of Science & Industry
Manchester’s rich industrial legacy is explored in this excellent museum set within the enormous grounds of the old Liverpool St Station, the oldest rail terminus in the world. The large collection of steam engines, locomotives and original factory machinery tell the story of the city from the sewers up, while a host of new technology (flight simulator, 4D cinema) look to the future. Take Metrolink to Deansgate-Castlefield or Metroshuttle No 2It’s an all-ages kind of museum, but the emphasis is on making sure the young ‘uns don’t get bored – they could easily spend a whole day poking about, testing an early electric-shock machine here and trying out a printing press there. You can get up close and personal with fighter jets and get to grips with all kinds of space-age technology. In the Revolution Manchester Gallery a unique barcode activates a series of games and challenges that you can follow up on at home. A unifying theme is that Manchester and Mancunians had a key role to play: this is the place to discover that Manchester was home to the world’s first stored-program computer (a giant contraption nicknamed ‘baby’) in 1948 and that the world’s first submarine was built to the designs of local curate Reverend George Garrett in 1880.
Whitworth Art Gallery
Manchester’s second most important art gallery has a wonderful collection of British watercolours. It also houses the best selection of historic textiles outside London, and has a number of galleries devoted to the work of artists from Dürer and Rembrandt to Lucien Freud and David Hockney. To reach here catch bus nos 15, 41, 42, 43, 140, 143 or 147 from Piccadilly Gardens. All this high art aside, you may find that the most interesting part of the gallery is the group of rooms dedicated to wallpaper – proof that bland pastels and horrible flowery patterns are not the final word in home decoration. There’s also a lovely cafe on the grounds
The BBC’s northern home is but one significant element of this vast, 81-hectare site. Besides hosting six departments of the national broadcaster (BBC Breakfast, Children’s, Sport, Radio 5 Live, Learning, and Future Media & Technology), it is also home to the set of the world’s longest-running soap opera, the perennially popular Coronation Street (which broadcasts on ITV). To get here take the Metrolink to MediaCityUK. There are no plans as yet to offer tours of the Corrie set, but you can visit the BBC’s impressive set-up and see the sets of some of TV’s most iconic programs on a guided 90-minute tour that also includes a chance for kids to ‘make’ a program in an interactive studio; see www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours. For refuelling, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants in the area.
With sweeping, honey-stone Georgian crescents and terraces spread over a green and hilly bowl, Bath is a strong contender for England’s most beautiful small city. It has a fascinating and easily accessible history, from the Roman Baths to the life and times of former resident Jane Austen. Interesting, digestible galleries and museums – including the revamped Holburne and One Royal Crescent – are many and varied, while shopping is also a major draw. Bath’s Achilles heel used to be used to be a surprising dearth of good, affordable places to eat, but that is no longer the case. The foodie transformation of a number of the city’s pubs has been the most significant improvement in years.
In typically ostentatious style, the Romans constructed a complex of bathhouses above Bath’s three natural hot springs, which emerge at a steady 46°C (115°F). Situated alongside a temple dedicated to the healing goddess Sulis-Minerva, the baths now form one of the best-preserved ancient Roman spas in the world, and are encircled by 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Bath’s premier attraction can get very busy. To dodge the worst of the crowds, avoid weekends, and July and August. The heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a lead-lined pool filled with steaming, geothermally heated water from the so-called ‘Sacred Spring’ to a depth of 1.6m. Though now open-air, the bath would originally have been covered by a 45m-high barrel-vaulted roof.
More bathing pools and changing rooms are situated to the east and west, with excavated sections revealing the hypocaust system that heated the bathing rooms. After luxuriating in the baths, Romans would have reinvigorated themselves with a dip in the circular cold-water pool, which now has life-sized films of bathers projected onto the walls.
Bath is famous for its glorious Georgian architecture, and it doesn’t get any grander than this semicircular terrace of majestic town houses overlooking the green sweep of Royal Victoria Park. Designed by John Wood the Younger (1728–82) and built between 1767 and 1775, the houses appear perfectly symmetrical from the outside, but the owners were allowed to tweak the interiors, so no two houses are quite the same. No 1 Royal Crescent offers you an intriguing insight into life inside. A walk east along Brock St from the Royal Crescent leads to The Circus, a ring of 33 houses divided into three semicircular terraces. Plaques on the houses commemorate famous residents such as Thomas Gainsborough, Clive of India and David Livingstone. The terrace was designed by John Wood the Elder, but he died in 1754, and the terrace was completed by his son in 1768.
To the south along Gravel Walk is the Georgian Garden, restored to resemble a typical 18th-century town-house garden.
Partly designed by the landscape architect Capability Brown, the grounds of this 18th-century estate on Bath’s southern fringe feature cascading lakes and a graceful Palladian bridge, one of only four such structures in the world (look out for the period graffiti, some of which dates back to the 1800s).
The park is a mile south of Bath’s centre. Bus 1 (every 45 minutes) stops nearby, as does Bath City Sightseeing’s ‘City Skyline’ tour.
The estate was established by the entrepreneur Ralph Allen, who made his fortune founding Britain’s first postal service, and who owned many of the local quarries from which the city’s amber-coloured Bath stone was mined. The house itself is now occupied by a private school, but there are several lovely pathways around the estate, including the Bath Skyline, a 6-mile circular trail offering truly inspirational views.
Houses of Parliament
Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament were built by Edward the Confessor and enlarged by William the Conqueror. Originally a royal residence before becoming the seat of government, it was nearly destroyed in 1605 after Guy Fawkes infamously tried to blow it up (to this day, the vaults are searched by Yeomen of the Guard, and Guy Fawkes Day – Nov 5, which is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires where effigies of the traitor are burned).
Built in neo-Gothic style to match nearby Westminster Abbey, the present Houses of Parliament were officially opened in 1852. When Parliament sits (mid October-July), visitors can take tours and attend debates in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons (only permanent UK residents can tour Big Ben). Afterwards, a stroll across lovely Westminster Bridge provides fine views of this famous skyline.
Westminster Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, is the most important Roman Catholic cathedral in Britain, rivaled in size only by the Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool. Built in 1895, this lovely red brick building in Byzantine style on a basilican plan is crowned by four domes and the 284 ft high St Edward’s Tower.
A church dedicated to St Peter is said to have stood on the site of Westminster Abbey from the early 7th century. Westminster Abbey, officially the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, was founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065 as his place of interment. And from his burial (1066) until that of George II (1760), most sovereigns were buried here. Since William the Conqueror’s crowning, every sovereign except Edward V and Edward VIII has been crowned here (it’s also been the scene of many royal weddings). A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, Westminster Abbey has the highest Gothic nave in England (102 ft).
The largest of all of Oxford’s colleges, with 650 students, and the one with the grandest quad, Christ Church is also most popular with visitors. Its magnificent buildings, illustrious history and latter-day fame as a location for the Harry Potter films bring tourists in droves. The college was founded in 1524 by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who suppressed the 9th-century monastery existing on the site to acquire the funds for his lavish building project.
Over the years, numerous luminaries have been educated at Christ Church, including Albert Einstein, philosopher John Locke, poet WH Auden, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll; who immortalised the then-dean’s daughter in his Alice in Wonderland tales), and no fewer than 13 British prime ministers. The main entrance is below the imposing 17th-century Tom Tower, the upper part of which was designed by former student Sir Christopher Wren. Great Tom, the 6-tonne tower bell, still chimes 101 times each evening at 9.05pm (Oxford is five minutes west of Greenwich) to sound the curfew imposed on the original 100 students, plus one added in 1663.
Visitors must head further south down St Aldate’s to the visitors’ entrance (where there may be queues). From here, you go up to the Great Hall, the college’s spectacular dining room, with its hammer-beam roof and imposing portraits of past scholars. It was replicated in film studios as the Hogwarts dining hall for the Harry Potter films. The hall often closes between noon and 2pm.
Oxford, a city in central southern England, revolves around its prestigious university, established in the 12th century. The architecture of its 38 colleges in the city’s medieval center led poet Matthew Arnold to nickname it the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’. University College and Magdalen College are off the High Street, which runs from Carfax Tower (with city views) to the Botanic Garden on the River Cherwell. For many first-time visitors, Oxford means the university. The atmospheric, golden-stone colleges, clustered around medieval streets, are irresistible, and most travellers will want to peek inside at least one. The charm of college-hopping in Oxford is that each has its own special character – only apparent once you’re inside – from the grandeur of Christ Church and Magdalen to the cosy intimacy of Corpus Christi.
Oxford’s Bodleian Library is one of the oldest public libraries in the world and quite possibly the most impressive one you’ll ever see. Visitors are welcome to wander around the central quad and the foyer exhibition space. For £1 you can visit the Divinity School, but the rest of the complex is only accessible on guided tours. Check timings online or at the information desk. Advance tickets are available for extended tours only; others must be purchased on the day.
The Bodleian has its roots in a 15th-century collection of books, and its present state is largely due to the efforts of Sir Thomas Bodley, a 16th-century fellow of Merton College. He founded the library in 1602 and, in 1610, came to the agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that it would receive a copy of every single book published in the UK – an agreement that still stands today. The library started off with 20 books; it currently holds more than 12 million items, contains 117 miles of shelving and has seating space for up to 2500 readers. A staggering 5000 books and articles arrive every Wednesday, all of which need to be catalogued and stored.
The oldest part of the library surrounds the Jacobean Gothic Old Schools Quadrangle, which dates from the early 17th century and sports some of Oxford’s odder architectural gems. On the eastern side of the quad is the Tower of Five Orders, an ornate building depicting the five classical orders of architecture. On the western side is the exquisite Divinity School, the university’s first teaching room. Completed in 1488, it is renowned as a masterpiece of 15th-century English Gothic architecture and has a superb fan-vaulted ceiling sporting the initials of its many benefactors. It featured as the Hogwarts hospital wing in the Harry Potter films.
Pitt Rivers Museum
Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was an anthropologist who collected more than 20,000 objects of scientific and cultural interest when he was posted around the British Empire. These are now housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum, a part of the University Museum crammed full of weird and wonderful knick-knacks from around the globe. Ethnic masks, items of clothing, musical instruments and jewellery are arranged by type rather than geographical area. The shrunken human heads, mummies and trophy scalps are spooky hits with children
Famous the world over for its university, Cambridge lays claim to having one of the highest concentrations of preserved historic buildings anywhere in England. Most of this architectural splendor is centered around Cambridge University’s 31 colleges, each rich in tradition. The first of these “schools” were established in the 12th century by immigrant scholars from Paris, and the first college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284.
Long before the university was founded, Cambridge was an important Norman fortification. Although its castle was short-lived (Castle Mound can still be seen near Shire Hall and affords great views over the city), the city remains to this day an important market town, and Market Hill, originally the center of Cambridge’s ancient wool trade, still serves as the location of the city’s busy marketplace.
Established in 1546 by Henry VIII, Trinity College was created by the merger of several older colleges, including Michaelhouse and King’s Hall. Beyond King Edward’s Gate (1418), parts of the old King’s Hall buildings are still identifiable. Trinity Great Court is the largest court in Cambridge and was laid out around 1600. A passage leads into Nevile’s Court (1614), with its chapel and statues of distinguished scholars. Wren’s library, with its old oak bookcases and fine lime woodcarvings, was added later.
Trinity has more distinguished former members than any other college: statesmen Austen Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, and Nehru; poets and writers such as George Herbert and Edward Fitzgerald; philosopher Bertrand Russell; and scientist Isaac Newton. Edward VII and George VI also attended Trinity. From New Court, or King’s Court, take the bridge over the Cam for its beautiful view of the Backs. A magnificent avenue of limes leads to the College Grounds.
King’s College and King’s College Chapel
Founded in 1441 by Henry VI and the earliest of the royal foundations, King’s College is worth visiting for the huge expanse of lawn extending down to the river and King’s Bridge, with its lovely views of the Backs, the various college grounds along the riverside. Distinguished alumni includes writer Horace Walpole, poet Rupert Brooke, and economist Lord Keynes.
A must-see here is King’s College Chapel, renowned for its 12-bay perpendicular-style interior, as well as its breathtaking fan vaulting by John Wastell (1515). Also worth checking out: the lovely tracery on the windows and walls; the spectacular 16th-century stained glass windows; the lavishly carved 16th-century wooden organ screen and choir stalls; and the altarpiece, Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi (1634). Hot Tip: If visiting during term time, be sure to attend Evensong to hear the world famous King’s College Choir in action.
Museums of Cambridge, Technology, and Science
One of the most popular museums in Cambridge, the Museum of Cambridge has displays and exhibits focusing on the everyday lives of the local people from the 18th to the 20th centuries. In the old White Horse Inn, the museum features an extensive collection of artifacts, including coinage, costumes, medals, toys, and medicine, along with numerous interesting artworks.
Also worth visiting, the Cambridge Museum of Technology focuses on the county’s industrial past. Housed in a Victorian pump house, the museum displays a working steam winch once used to haul ashes along a narrow gauge railway, plus a variety of other engines and a collection of antique printing equipment. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science is also worthy of a visit for its fascinating collections of old scientific artifacts, including instruments and prints dating back as far as the 17th century.