As a native of Lancashire, I always return to my hometown of Preston to visit my family at Christmas, and one bright Sunday morning I visited the nearby village of Ribchester, probably best known as an old Roman fort. I often visited this place as a child, as there was (and still is) an excellent children’s playground there. We would also inevitably visit the ruins of the Roman bath house, which were not fenced off and to a small child presented an exciting labyrinth of tumbled stones and low walls to clamber over. In Roman times, Ribchester was called Bremetenacum Veteranorum – a possible translation of this is “the hilltop settlement of the veterans.” Some ruins of the fort, including the bath house and granaries, can still be seen today, and many buildings in the village are built with reused Roman stones and columns.
It’s impossible to miss Duart Castle. It stands proudly on a spur of land reaching out into the Sound of Mull, and it’s a familiar sight to people who travel through those waters. The powerful MacLean clan have controlled Duart Castle for much of its history, using the castle’s prominent location as a symbol of the clan’s power and prestige. In common with other Scottish castles, Duart has a fascinating, turbulent and sometimes bloody history, from medieval clan wars to the Jacobite uprisings of the 18th Century. Today, the Chief of Clan MacLean welcomes visitors from all over the world to his family seat, so that they can learn about the history of the castle and the clan that made it their home.
In a pretty churchyard in Woodplumpton, a village not far from Preston in Lancashire, is a mysterious old grave with many dark tales attached to it. A large boulder – terribly out of place among smart Victorian and Edwardian headstones – is said to cover the grave of a witch.
Not far from the famous Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park is a field that was once a large cemetery. Today, all that remains are a few modest mounds that mark where the burials took place, and it’s unlikely that most people who walk past them, or sit on them, have any idea what they are. This is perhaps not surprising, as this old burial ground is over 1,000 years old.
Oak trees loom large in English history. From the sacred oak groves of pre-Roman Britons and the oak wands used by Druids to the oak tree that sheltered the future King Charles II as he escaped from the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the countless oaks used to construct England’s proud navies and merchant ships, this tree – perhaps more than any other – is seen as the national tree of England. Many individual oaks up and down the country are revered and protected for their age, their size and shape or the stories attached to them. The oak we’re looking at today is famous not just for its huge size and distinctive shape, but also for its link to that most famous of English legends, Robin Hood.
Among the smart suburban homes of Twickenham is a very strange house. Gleaming white walls, battlements, Gothic pinnacles and a round tower stand out against more restrained neighbours. Strawberry Hill House, home of the eccentric man of letters Horace Walpole during the second half of the 18th Century, is arguably the birthplace not only of the Gothic revival, but also of the Gothic novel. I visited Strawberry Hill on a very gloomy Saturday afternoon, which didn’t really do the house’s bright white walls justice, but the house had only reopened a few weeks earlier after an extensive restoration and despite the grey weather the house was clean and jewel-bright – and quite possibly one of the oddest homes I’ve ever visited.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I walked past this church and its burial ground before finally stopping to explore it. All Saints, Fulham, is situated close to the River Thames, and is the twin to the more famous church on the other side of Putney Bridge – St Mary the Virgin, Putney. St Mary’s was the home of the Putney Debates, a series of discussions amongst members of the Parliamentarian New Model Army, in 1647. But All Saints also has an interesting history, and has a churchyard full of fascinating graves – including the tombs of many of the Bishops of London.