England

Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey, Two of North England’s Finest Medieval Ruins

A view of Fountains Abbey.

A view of Fountains Abbey.

Northwest of the great city of York, England are the medieval abbey ruins of Fountains and Rievaulx. These were Cistercian monasteries, a religious order of the Catholic Church that traces its foundation to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (France) in the 1100’s. Bernard was a strong charismatic leader and was directly involved in the founding of these abbeys in England.

Fountains and Rievaulx are north/northwest of York, England.

Fountains and Rievaulx are north/northwest of York, England.

In order to withdraw themselves from the world, the Cistercian order looked for rural, secluded places to establish themselves and even today these ruins are in remote, quiet valleys with small rivers running nearby. The Order emphasized manual labor and self-sufficiency, which often required enlisting local lay personnel to help with all the work of running a monastery and producing crops and the herds of animals. I love walking through these ruins and wondering what life would have been like a thousand years ago at one of these monasteries.

Fountains

Fountains Abbey was the oldest and richest of the medieval Cistercian monasteries in England, started in about 1132. Its name is taken from six springs that were located here along with the River Skell, all of which provided the monastery with plenty of water.

A beautiful old stone bridge over the River Skell at Fountains.

A beautiful old stone bridge over the River Skell at Fountains.

The Cistercian monks were very industrious and the wealth of the abbey was due to great herds of sheep— the wool was sold to traders in Italy and Flanders (Belgium). This is a large abbey with lots of ruins to explore. Fountains is just 31 miles from York.

A view of the transcept of the church at Fountains.

A view of the transcept of the church at Fountains.

The main nave of Fountains church.

The main nave of Fountains church.

The lay person refectory (dining/dormitory area) and storage area at Fountains. Nearly intact from medieval times.

The lay person refectory (dining/dormitory area) and storage area at Fountains. Nearly intact from medieval times.

Rievaulx

Rievaulx Abbey was also founded in about 1132. It is located 81 miles from York and sits near the River Rye in a very secluded spot. At its peak, it had 140 monks and 150 laypersons but by 1380 there were only 15 monks living here, due to a number of problems affecting the abbey.

A view of the main church at Rievaulx.

A view of the main church at Rievaulx.

A view through the nave of Rievaulx Abbey.

A view through the nave of Rievaulx Abbey.

It closed (or better stated, was destroyed) in 1538 as part of King Henry the VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Today it is a beautiful ruin. The main walls of the church’s nave and exterior walls of the refectory are well preserved.

One more view of Rievaulx Abbey.

One more view of Rievaulx Abbey.

A view of Rievaulx Abbey (and monk's refectory to the left).

A view of Rievaulx Abbey (and monk’s refectory to the left).

Windsor Castle – England’s Largest Castle

A statue of Queen Victoria outside Windsor Castle.

A statue of Queen Victoria outside Windsor Castle.

If you only have time to visit one castle in England, it should be Windsor, located just 25 miles west of London and only 8 miles from Heathrow Airport. It’s easy to get a bus to Windsor from the airport. Windsor is the largest inhabited castle in the world and the largest castle in England, with 1,000 rooms to keep track of (and clean).

Tourists gathering for a Changing of the Guard ceremony at Windsor Castle.

Tourists gathering for a Changing of the Guard ceremony at Windsor Castle.

William the Conqueror started a castle on these grounds in 1070, and the castle has been a home of England’s royalty ever since.

The Keep at Windsor Castle. Its rooftop is open during the summer (I was there in February).

The Keep at Windsor Castle. Its rooftop is open during the summer (I was there in February).

St. George’s Chapel is the highlight of a visit, and even though it suffered major damage from a huge fire in 1992, it looks great today. The restoration was painstaking, the replacement wooden beams were carved and fitted using medieval tools and methods.

The exterior of St. George's Chapel.

The exterior of St. George’s Chapel.

Albert Memorial Chapel in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Albert Memorial Chapel in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

In this chapel lie the tombs of many of England’s royalty. One of my favorite sights was seeing the huge sword of Edward III (from about 1348). It has to be about 6 feet long – I can’t imagine using it in battle!  Edward III was born at Windsor Castle and began the military campaigns in France that started the Hundred Years War.

A stairwell in Windsor Castle.

A stairwell in Windsor Castle.

Windsor is a “working” castle, and since it is the part-time residence of Queen Elizabeth II, security is tight and pictures inside the castle are almost impossible. It’s also worth strolling through the town, which is quite picturesque, sitting next to the Thames River.

The "Crooked House" of Windsor.

The “Crooked House” of Windsor.

A view of the Thames River in Windsor.

A view of the Thames River in Windsor.

Penshurst Place – An English Fortified Manor Home

A view of Penshurst Place from the gardens. The Baron’s Court (Great Hall) is on the right.

A beautiful example of a medieval (and then Tudor) fortified manor house is Penshurst Place, located in the picturesque village of Penshurst, about 85 miles south of London’s Heathrow airport.

Location of Penshurst Place, in southern England. (forgive misspelling of “Penshurst” on map)

I visited this estate as part of a day trip from London that took me to Pevensey, Herstmonceux Castle, Battle (Hastings) and finally Penshurst.

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A view of Herstmonceux Castle (dates from 1441), part of the Queen’s University, Ontario Canada.

Penshurst Place and Gardens

This historic mansion is not on the typical tourist “radar” but for a taste of life in aristocratic England in the 14thcentury, take the time to visit this beautiful castle-home.

Interior view of Penshurst Place–note the detailed wood work on the walls and ceiling.

A bedroom in Penshurst Place–note the wood work on the walls and beautiful bed.

I was very impressed how beautiful this estate is—the stone work, interior decorations and landscaping—even in February I could tell how much care went into the well-manicured landscape. Some people come to tour only the gardens.

Another view of Penshurst Place.

The outstanding feature of Penshurst Place is the Baron’s Court (also known as the Great Hall) with its original chestnut wood beams from 1341.This room (and the entire estate) is now used on occasion for weddings, conferences and other events (pictures aren’t really allowed in the Baron’s Court, but I got a quick one of the ceiling!).

A snapshot of the 14th century ceiling of the Baron’s Hall.

Sir John de Pulteney built the Manor house on 4,000 acres he purchased in 1338. In 1382 the defensive features were added—making it almost a castle—including eight large towers and crenellated walls. King Henry VIII owned this home for a period of time, and today a descendant of the Sidney family, who received the home as a gift from Henry, is the custodian.

A view of the village of Penshurst.

Old timbered houses in the village of Penshurst.

Penshurst Place is part of the English Heritage system, meaning purchasing an English Heritage membership allows entry to this site and many others for one fee. The single entry fee as of February 2012 was £9.80 for the house and gardens. Visit penhurstplace.com for more information.

Pevensey Castle-The Beginning of the End for Saxon England

Entrance to Pevensey Castle.

Pevensey Castle is near the English Channel on the south coast of England, about 12 miles from Hastings and about 90 miles from London’s Heathrow airport. Pevensey was the landing spot for Duke William of Normandy, on 28 September 1066. William earned the title ‘William the Conqueror’ in the famous Battle of Hastings just 17 days later. The Saxon king, Harold, was in northern England at the time of the landing, and raced with his army south to meet William. His army fought valiantly and at one point appeared to have carried the day, but in the end Harold was killed and the course of English history changed forever. The famous battle took place near Battle Abbey (see my post on Battle for more information), which is actually north of Hastings and about 11 miles from Pevensey.

A view of the exterior and moat of Pevensey Castle.

Interior grounds of Pevensey Castle.

Roman Walls (1,700 years old) still guard the entrance to Pevensey Castle.

Pevensey has been a strategic location since Roman times, when a fort called Anderita was built here in 290 AD—parts of the original Roman walls remain. It was a defensive post against early Saxon raids. The castle was built inside the original Roman walls in the 12thcentury. Pevensey was also further fortified in 1588 in case of invasion by the Spanish Armada. In 1940 ‘pill boxes’ (gun emplacements) were added to the castle to defend against a possible German invasion. These are still visible.

Pill box is visible in top center of picture–narrow slit for WWII guns. Medieval projectiles stacked below.

While Pevensey Castle is very ruined, it is interesting to visit the site since it has such strong historical connections. It is part of the English Heritage system, and individual tickets are £4.90. It is a favorite area for walkers from Pevensey village.

St. Nicolas Church in the village of Pevensey. 13th century.

Pevensey Castle is close to several other interesting sights in this part of southern England, including Battle, Herstmonceux Castle and Penhurst Place Manor House. I visited all these sights in a day trip after arriving at Heathrow airport from the U.S. early on a Sunday morning.

References: Signs posted on castle grounds.

Locations of sights near Pevensey Castle, England.

Battle, England—Where the Course of History Changed Forever

About 60 miles southwest of London is the town of Battle, the site of the famous “Battle of Hastings” that changed the course of history for England (and the western world). The battle takes its name from the coastal town of Hastings which is less than 10 miles away. It was here that William the Conqueror from Normandy (France) defeated Saxon King Harold on October 14, 1066. This monumental event began the long and bloody intertwined royal history between England and France. The battle raged all day, and King Harold’s army fought valiantly (after no rest from a long journey from the north of the country), but by the end of the day King Harold was dead and his army vanquished.

The battlefield of 1066 - The English were in the same location as where the picture was taken and the French were in the distance on the opposite hillside.

There was no town here in William’s day.  The famous Benedictine Abbey of Battle was built (begun in 1070) on the spot where Harold fell, as a penance by the Normans for the great loss of life that took place here and throughout William’s conquest of England.

One of the quaint buildings in the town of Battle

Town of Battle

The abbots of Battle were powerful, and the abbey played a role against invasions from France and other countries over the centuries, until it was surrendered by the monks during the “Dissolution of the Monasteries” under King Henry VIII in 1538.

The Great Gatehouse, built in 1338, provided security for the Abbey

Abbey dormitory building (13th century)--its lower intact rooms are interesting

Although the original abbey church no longer stands (the foundation and outline can still be seen), other monastery buildings remain, as well as the spot marking King Harold’s death and the original battlefield, which thankfully has been preserved for almost 1,000 years.

The spot where King Harold died; it reads: "The traditional site of the high altar of Battle Abbey founded to commemorate the victory of Duke William on 14 October, 1066. The high altar was placed to mark the spot where King Harold died."

The Novices Room - where new monks would learn the Rule of St. Benedict. This room sits underneath the main floor of the dormitory.

The Common Room or Warming House, where the monks would work or participate in some recreation in the winter.

The easiest way to get to Battle is by car. Southwest England has many great historical sites and towns, and Battle is one of them. Battle Abbey (and Battlefield) is under the administration of English Heritage.  In February 2012, the entrance fee was £7.30/person.  Included with the entrance fee is an audio guide tour and several trail routes of varying length that describe the historic battle and abbey.

Battle is about 60 miles southwest of London

Southwestern England Part 5: Pendennis and Dartmouth Castles

Homes along the River Dart, Dartmouth England

On the southern coast of England, there are two sights close to the historical town of Plymouth that are worth visiting for their natural scenery and the historical interest, Pendennis Castle (west of Plymouth in Cornwall) and Dartmouth Castle (east of Plymouth in Devon).

Pendennis Castle

Pendennis Castle, located near the town of Falmouth, sits at the entrance to Falmouth Harbor (the Fal River Estuary), a strategic location and a great natural harbor. It is a large fort, with circular walls which made it harder to hit and damage during an attack by cannon.  During the time of King Henry the 8th(mid 1500’s) there were constant worries about the southern coast of England being invaded by France and Spain, since England was now Protestant and France and Spain were still loyal to the Pope.  Henry built a number of fortifications along the coast. While they are called castles, they really were forts rather than residences, built to defend likely invasion landing sites.

Pendennis Castle

View of the town of Falmouth from Pendennis Castle

The view of Falmouth Harbor from Pendennis Castle

The setting at the point where the castle is located is lovely, and we had great weather during our visit, making us just want to lie on the green grass, soak up the sun and enjoy the views of the boats passing by. It also saw action in WW I and WWII.  There is a guardhouse at the entrance to the castle grounds with some interesting exhibits.  Across the estuary is St. Mawes Castle, a sister castle to Pendennis, and is more original, since it was not altered or used in later years.  There is a ferry service between Falmouth and St. Mawes, saving a long drive around the estuary. Unfortunately our schedule did not allow us time to go to St. Mawes. Both Pendennis and St. Mawes are part of the English Heritage System, and your fee is covered with a membership card, a worthwhile purchase if you are visiting several English Heritage sites.

Dartmouth Castle

Dartmouth Castle is located in Dartmouth, at the mouth of the River Dart, in Devon. This is one of my favorite locations in Devon.  The setting of the castle along the steep banks of the narrow river entrance, with the beautiful homes of Dartmouth just in the distance is serene. Dartmouth Castle was built in the 15thcentury by Edward IV, and was used in later times as a southern coast defensive position.  There were great chains which were strung across the river entrance to stop enemy ships, which were raised and lowered with windlasses in the castle. This castle is not part of English Heritage, and requires a separate entrance fee. The town of Dartmouth is also charming, with half-timbered homes and a quaint inner harbor area.

My favorite image of the River Dart and Dartmouth Castle

Dartmouth Castle on the right, and the fortification across the Dart River used to hoist a chain across the river entrance

Dartmouth Castle along the River Dart

The tide is out in the inner harbor of Dartmouth

Locations of Pendennis and Dartmouth Castles from Plymouth, England. The most practical way to visit these locations is by car.

Southwestern England Part 4 – Tintagel Castle

The Cornwall coast at Tintagel

Located on the western coast of Cornwall, the town of Tintagel and the castle ruins are way off the main highway and yet this is one of the most visited spots in Britain. The setting is magnificent and enchanting—right on the coast, with a waterfall, sea cave, and ancient ruins—is a magical place for the legend of King Arthur, the Knights of the Roundtable, Guinevere and Merlin the magician.  The castle ruins date from the 13th century; although there are ruins from an earlier castle, constructed by Reginald, son of King Henry I in 1145. The main castle was built in 1233, by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall and Knight of the Holy Roman Empire. The connection of King Arthur to Tintagel is based on the writings of 12thcentury Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Cornwall and Tintagel also figure into the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, a Romeo and Juliet-type story intertwined with the time of King Arthur, and about the warring kings of Ireland and England.

The beach and waterfall at Tintagel

Looking east from Tintagel Island ruins (near center) to the mainland castle ruins (far center). Town of Tintagel in distance (upper left).

It’s about a 10-15 minute walk down to the castle setting and shoreline from the town. There is a boardwalk along the cliffs to the castle ruins on both the mainland and island (essentially part of the shoreline). The island is accessible via steep stairs cut into the rock. Unfortunately the castle is very ruined, with just a few walls remaining. On the bluff above the castle, there are some additional ruins and good coastline views. Directly across from the island outcrop, on the mainland are a few other castle ruins, also reached by a set of steep stairs. The castle buildings on both sides used to be connected by a narrow rock way which eroded centuries ago. Directly below the castle on the island is “Merlin’s Cave” accessible at low tide.

Merlin's Cave

Tintagel Castle entrance

Other castle ruins

Tintagel is one of the many sites in England that is part of the English Heritage governing board of historical properties. A ticket to the site costs £5.50.  A yearly pass to all 400 sites that are part of English Heritage costs £46 per person, a good deal if you are visiting several historic sites.  Check out the English Heritage website.

Location of Tintagel at the southwest tip of England

If you have an interest in King Arthur, castles or very enchanting locations, go to Tintagel.

Reference:  The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain by Charles Phillips, Metro Books, New York, New York, 2009

Southwestern England Part 3 – St. Michael’s Mount

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St, Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall, England.

St. Michael the Archangel in Christianity is the patron saint of high places. There are at least three major places in Europe that are holy sites associated with St. Michael: Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France; Skellig Michael off the southwest coast of Ireland; and St. Michael’s Mount near Penzance (Cornwall) England. Interestingly, all are islands, even though Mont St. Michel and St. Michael’s Mount were at one time part of the mainland. They are all monasteries and have an isolated feel about them, even with the visitors.

St. Michael's Mount_England_Map

Location of St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, England.

I have visited Mont St. Michel in France, and viewed Skellig Michael from a distance, longingly wishing I could visit (it was too early in the year and the sea was too rough).

St. Michael's Beach

The beach at Marizion – St. Michael’s Mount in distance.

St. Michael’s Mount in England is impressive too and is located in a beautiful bay near the town of Penzance, which has a nice sandy beach—one of the warmest spots on the English coast—and the first place spring arrives in England.

We visited in August, the weather was in the 70’s F and the beach was pretty busy with English folks on holiday. Penzance is steeped in history- including raids of Barbary pirates and so is St. Michael’s Mount. It was a Benedictine monastery and founded in the 11th century. It had a close connection in medieval times with Mont St. Michel in France, as a subordinate sister monastery. The mount has been privately owned by the St. Aubyn family since the 1600’s but visitors have access through the UK National Trust, which manages many historical sites throughout the country (buy an annual pass if you are visiting several historical sites).

Visiting St. Michael’s Mount

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With the tide in, a boat is needed to reach St. Michael’s Mount.

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The Church at St. Michael’s Mount.

St. Michael's Chapel

Interior of St. Michael’s Chapel.

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View of courtyard, St. Michael’s Mount.

Depending on the time of visit, one can either walk out to the Mount, or take a boat (which does not operate in winter). We did both. The tide was in when we left in the morning (see picture above) and so we took a boat ride out to the harbor on the island. By the time we were ready to leave, the tide had gone out and we were able to walk back on the cobblestone path along the seabed (picture below). There is plenty of parking in Marazion, the small town opposite the Mount.

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The pathway to St. Micahel’s Mount with the tide out.

St. Michael's Mount Castle

A castle room – St. Michael’s Mount.

St. Michael's Mount Castle 1

Another castle room – with the look of Wedgewood.

Once on the island, the ticket office is next to the harbor. There are several different tickets available: Castle only, Garden only and Castle and Garden. We chose the Castle only, but had a nice view of the Garden from the south side of the Castle walls. After purchasing our tickets we made the hike up the hill to the site. St. Michael’s Mount is about 250 feet in elevation and it’s a steep stone path to the top. Pictures of the interior are tightly controlled, but I was able to get a few. The main sights are the Castle and Chapel, in addition to the Gardens. Morning is a great time to visit for pictures of the island and the surrounding countryside. There is a gift shop and restaurant on the Mount near the harbor.

For more information, visit The National Trust.

Southwestern England Part 2: Plymouth, England – The Historical Gateway to the World

Location of Plymouth, England

During our 2009 road tour of southwestern England, we visited the town of Plymouth, in Devonshire. Although Plymouth does not have a lot of “must see” sights, it has a permanent place in history as the launch point of several historic voyages, including the sailing in 1620 of the Mayflower, with its 102 pilgrim passengers on their way to the new world in search of religious freedom. Their journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, England to Cape Cod (Massachusetts) took 67 days (they arrived December 21, 1620). The journey started in Holland, and was 133 days in total. Once they arrived in Cape Cod, it was another 10 weeks before all passengers were able to go ashore.

Forty-five of the 102 Mayflower passengers died during the first winter, not necessarily from New  England’s bad weather, but more from the difficulties of the journey and the poor living conditions aboard the ship.

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Mayflower Passenger List (arrows point to my relatives).

I have a special connection to the Mayflower, being a descendant of two of the passengers: Issac Allerton and Richard Warren (through my mother’s lineage).  As we wandered the old part of Plymouth (called the Barbican), it was a thrill for me to come upon a lovely garden that contained a plaque of the names of the Mayflower passengers. It was a special feeling seeing my ancestors listed on that plaque.

The Barbican is an interesting area and contains a number of historic
buildings, which survived in spite of the heavy bombing damage inflicted on the city in World War II.

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The Barbican, Plymouth, England.

Because of its great natural harbor, Plymouth has been jump-off spot for many other explorers in addition to the Mayflower voyage. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake left from here on his round-the-world voyage.  In 1768 James Cook departed Plymouth on the first of 3 voyages to the Pacific and the southern hemisphere including his epic voyage to Australia. In 1831 Charles Darwin left Plymouth for the Galapagos Islands.

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Naval Historical Monuments.

From the Barbican, we walked up to a beautiful park, containing monuments to England’s many Naval heroes and battles, including Lord Nelson’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1805. The park overlooks the bay just to the west of the Plymouth Harbor—a great setting in which to linger on a pleasant summer day.

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Plymouth’s beautiful bay.

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Mayflower Depature Point, Plymouth, England.

In the harbor, there is a monument indicating the place from which the Mayflower sailed.  In the pavement the date “1620” is etched in the stone.   As I considered that long voyage across an unknown ocean, it made me happy to think that we can now cross that same distance in a matter of a few hours rather than months aboard a crowded, creaky ship with poor living conditions and miserable food.

For more information on Plymouth click here.

The Birthplace of Winston Churchill – Blenheim Palace

If you have seen the recent movie “Gulliver’s Travels “(2010) with Jack Black, you may recognize that the palace of the King of Liliput is actually Blenheim palace, just north of Oxford, England (it’s not on the shore of a tiny island as depicted in the film!). Although Jack Black creatively extinguishes a raging fire in the palace, I am happy to report that it is in good shape in real life.

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The grand entrance to Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim palace was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill (1874), the legendary prime minister of the UK from 1940-1945 and again 1951-55. I read Roy Jenkins’ 1,000 page history of Winston Churchill several years ago.  If you enjoy history, I suggest this book.  He was an extraordinary historical figure—prolific writer, painter, statesman, and political leader during a very dark period of world history.  As I read about this life, I was amazed how much he accomplished — he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.  There is a good exhibit on Winston’s life in the palace.

Blenheim Palace

A view of Blenheim Palace from the gardens.

Blenheim palace was built in the early 1700’s, and has been the home of the Dukes of Marlborough (the Churchill family) for 300 years. One of the remarkable rooms in the palace is the library, which is 180 ft. long, and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The palace is set on a beautiful country estate, with large manicured gardens.

The palace is open to the public, and contains a number of attractions including the butterfly house, a maze, and cafeteria.

If you are in the vicinity of Oxford (a great city also), be sure to stop by Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim Palace Map

Blenheim Palace is north of Oxford, about 2 hours by car from London.