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.

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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.

Southwestern England Part 1: Nunney Castle, Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey

Southwest England

In August 2009, my wife, son, and I finally made it to Southwestern England—the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. We had wanted to visit this area for a long time. It is a beautiful area of England, but a little “out of the way” since there are no large cities in this region, and it “dead ends” literally at “Lands End.” This part of England is a little less visited by foreign tourists. It is popular summer destination for the British, however, and during August we found the area full of families and caravans (travel trailers) on vacation. In the U.S., most campers stay in State or National Parks. In England, it seems most of the caravan parks are privately owned, and most campers park in fields, or where possible, close to a beach area. As beaches in England go, the southwest has some of the best in England. Even if the temperatures are in the mid 70’s F, you will find locals out on the beach.

Be aware that many of the roads seem even narrower, more like Wales, with many cars pulling trailers that take up more than half the road, some spots are a very tight squeeze! Pull in your side mirrors to keep them from getting broken or scratched by the hedgerows and passing traffic.

The three sites below are all in close proximity, we were able to visit all 3 on the day of our arrival at Heathrow.

Nunney Castle

Nunney Castle is in the village of Nunney. It’s a smaller castle and is free of charge. It was constructed in the 1370’s for a veteran of the Hundred Years’ War with France. It has a moat around it, and 3 of the 4 outer walls and all four towers are intact. As with most castles in England, it fell victim to Cromwell’s parliamentary forces in the 1600’s, when castles were no match for gunpowder and cannons.

Another view of Nunney Castle

The castle is part of a park in the village, right next to a stream. It is considered a French design, and reminded us a little bit of Bonaguil Castle in France, with the round towers. Learn more here.

Wells Cathedral – West Facade

Wells Cathedral. Wells Cathedral (its construction is believed to have begun in the 12th century) is world-renowned for its exterior decorations on the West facade (see picture). There were originally 160 statues in niches on the western facade and towers of which 120 remain (another source says 127 of 176 remain–I did not count!).

Wells Market – Cathedral in background

The interior is known for its unusual and innovative inverted arches (making big “X’s” in the transept), to support the weight of the central tower, after the tower showed signs of weakening in the 14th century. Much of the stained glass is original from the 14th century also. Don’t miss the Chapter House and Lady Chapel with their incredible intricate ceiling vaulting. We also enjoyed wandering through the Saturday market in the town square of Wells, right next to the Cathedral.

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury town and abbey are steeped in legend going back to biblical times. This is one of the oldest inhabited sites in England. In the 1100’s, religious sites did everything they could to attract pilgrims, so the rumor spread that this was the burial spot of King Arthur and Guinevere, based on skeletons exhumed on the site. Glastonbury, a Benedictine abbey, was one of the richest monasteries in England and even today, the remaining ruins are beautiful. Unfortunately, much of the abbey’s stone was used by the local people for other buildings after King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500’s. The grounds are well-kept, and there are some other interesting buildings on the site, including a 14th century Abbot’s kitchen.

Glastonbury Abbey View

For a great view of the surrounding area, visit Glastonbury Tor (tower) too. It’s a 15th century tower on a hill overlooking the town. There is almost no parking on the road leading to the tower, so I waited by the car while my wife and son quickly climbed up the hill to the tower.

Less Traveled Northern England-Part 3 (of 3): Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, and Hadrian’s Wall


Sites visited in Northern England


Lindisfarne or Holy Island, is an ancient sacred Christian site, dating back to 635 AD. The Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript (early 700’s) was written here. I had first heard about this area from a friend in the UK, and I was glad I had the opportunity to visit.

Traveling to Lindisfarne


Lindisfarne Castle, on Holy Island.

The only way to visit this little town, abbey ruins, and castle easily, is at low tide, not unlike St. Michael’s Mount in southern England. It is connected to the mainland by a road, and it is an eerie feeling driving out on the wet paved road over the sandy seabed and seeing lots of tide pools, seaweed, and warning signs about the fast rising tides. If you don’t want to spend the night on the island of Lindisfarne, find out about the tides and plan your visit accordingly. Having no idea of the tide schedule, I lucked out and arrived with about 2 hours to spare before the tide came back in, and it was just enough time to visit the abbey ruins and castle. There is a large car park a short way from the little town center and a shuttle that provides transportation to/from the car park and castle, which is probably a 15-20 minute walk. I took the shuttle given the warnings from the driver about when I needed to leave.

Lindisfarne Castle Interior

Lindisfarne Castle interior.

The castle (16th century) is very small, and more of a grand bungalow on a rock mound. With the cold weather and the warm fires inside, I was almost transported back 400 years.

The abbey is in ruins and has a great view of Lindisfarne Castle and Bamburgh Castle. The monks at the abbey had some protection from Viking (and Scottish) raids due to nearby Bamburgh Castle. The area here is windswept and subject to storms and cold weather almost any time of year—even in October.

Lindisfarne Abbey

Lindisfarne Abbey (Lindisfarne Castle in lower right).

It gave me a sense of what it would have been like to have lived here 1200 years ago as a monk—working in a silent, cold room copying manuscripts in these frontier parts of England in ancient times.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle.

Bamburgh Castle

From Lindisfarne, one can see Bamburgh Castle (12th century) just south along the coast sitting on a volcanic outcropping. Once back on the mainland, it takes just a few minutes to drive to Bamburgh. It is a large castle, with a beautiful wood ceiling in the King’s Hall and various displays in the Keep. I think it’s one of the finest castles in England.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall.

From Bamburgh I headed south back towards Newcastle to spend the night. Newcastle is a great jump-off point to visit Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD. It is 73 miles long and formed the northern border of the Roman Empire at one point. I visited two spots along the Wall, Chester’s Fort and Housesteads Fort.

Chester's Fort on Hadrian's Wall 2

Chester’s Fort.

These sites are Roman camps along the wall that housed the legions. Both camps are worth visiting and have good interpretive signs. Even in October, I saw a number of hikers along the trail that follows the Wall.

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Housestead’s Fort latrine.

From Housesteads I drove through the Yorkshire Dales National Park towards Harrogate, which felt like traveling above the tree line in Colorado—a barren, windswept landscape-so different than most of England.


Less Traveled Northern England-Part 2: Durham and Alnwick

Northern England

Sites visited in Northern England.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral 2

Durham Cathedral.

The next morning I drove north to Durham, to visit its famous Cathedral (completed 1133). I had heard that Durham Cathedral was a great example of Norman architecture, built for both religious and defensive purposes.  The design of this Cathedral is a cross between Romanesque architecture and Gothic. It has a typical Gothic-like three isle nave, with a cross rib vaulted ceiling, but the pillars are much heavier (with interesting decorations), and the side isle arches are rounded— more like other Romanesque-era churches. Be sure to check out the arch stone work in the Galilee Chapel. The Cathedral overlooks the River Wear and I recommend going for a short walk along the river to get a good view of the Cathedral, and enjoying the peaceful river setting.

Durham Castle

Durham Castle.

Durham Castle is right next door, but since it is part of Durham University, and classes were in session, a tour was required and I did not take the time to wait for the tour.

Alnwick (“Ahn-ick”) Castle

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Alnwick Caslte.

Although I have not read the Harry Potter books, I had heard that this castle was used for scenes from the first movie (during the Quidditch game). What a classic castle. It is the second largest inhabited castle in England (dates from 1309, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland) and has been well maintained. It sits on a large green estate on the edge of Alnwick town, overlooking the River Aln and valley. The landscape surrounding Alnwick Castle is some of the prettiest I’ve seen in England.

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Alnwick Castle from River Aln.