Winning tip: Pagan significance, Dorset
Knowlton church may be the only church within a pre-Christian earthworks circle in the UK. Not only is it spectacular – in a small-scale way – it is also accessible and usually quiet enough to enjoy either walking the circle or exploring the site around the derelict flint church which served the now-abandoned village of Knowlton. There are two large yew trees adorned with ribbons, which obviously have a spiritual significance, overlooking a field of sheep and a copse hiding another earth circle. Views are pleasant all round, and nearby Wimborne and Wimborne St Giles offer more options for a day out. My personal fave Dorset place to be.
True Shakespearian love, Hampshire
Titchfield Abbey, in Titchfield, Hampshire, is an English Heritage site that gets very little notice and no longer even charges admission. It was home to Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron for whom many of his most famous sonnets were written. It is thought some of Shakespeare’s plays were written and first performed there. It’s a beautiful ruin rich in history – and totally undervalued.
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‘Miracle’ well, Penzance, Cornwall
Up a steep hill from the town of Penzance, Cornwall, and out into the moors, there is a delightful little spot called the Madron Holy Well, where I discovered the ruined remains of a small chapel next to a stream. The branches of trees overhanging the stream were festooned with strips of cloth or “clouties” left by people hoping for a cure for an ailment. It is thought that pagan rituals were carried out at the chapel many centuries ago, which gives the holy well an enchanting yet haunting quality – the tree-lined footpath that leads up to the chapel also has an eerie feel to it. The holy well is free to enter, and though it can be hard to find, it is well worth it to get a sense of Cornwall’s pagan past!
Secret castle, Anglesey
It’s a steep, invigorating walk up a hill to Aberlleiniog Castle, a truly secret castle on the Isle of Anglesey, but you will be rewarded by free entry and an atmospheric welcome of ancient walls, towers and turrets, with sweeping views over the Menai Strait. Look back to England on a clear day, or to the wild Atlantic waves out to the west. Take a picnic and enjoy the area, surrounded by forests and woodland. The castle is maintained by local volunteers, and has a colourful history, dominated by Welsh princes, Viking invaders and plundering pirates. Its location, at the heart of an area of wild natural beauty, gives it an eerie, timeless vibe – imagination on, mobile off.
Secret neolithic wonder, Pembrokeshire
Hidden on a hill just below the stark Preseli mountains near Nevern in Wales is Pentre Ifan burial chamber: a mini Stonehenge where you can take your children right up to the stones and imagine being cavemen and druids. Position yourself to watch the sun line up with the stones and the surrounding peaks. Not a house to be seen and not a car to be heard – just a backdrop of wild countryside. Free entry – all you have to do is negotiate the tortuous lanes to get there.
Iron giant, Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire
I am a keen cyclist and love exploring the Nottingham and Derbyshire canals. On one trip, I came across an industrial relic which even local residents weren’t aware of. The Bennerley Viaduct is a disused railway bridge spanning the Erewash valley between Awsworth and Ilkeston, not far from Nottingham. It is an iron giant, with the rails nearly 19 metres above the Erewash River and the wrought-iron latticework spanning 442 metres. It’s free to view, if you make the short trip from the Erewash canal trail in Derbyshire. It even survived an airship bombing raid on 31 January 1916, when it was targeted as part of the Midlands railway line.
Military leavings, Spurn Point, East Yorkshire
At the mouth of the Humber estuary, the narrow peninsula of Spurn point has been a strategic part of the UK’s defences for more than 200 years, particularly during the first world war when a 500-strong garrison was stationed there. Highlights of its military past are the Spurn Point military railway, first world war artillery batteries and the sound mirror which was used as an early form of radar. Spurn is now looked after by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which has created a history trail around the peninsula. It’s also one of the most underrated places to birdwatch in the country and access is free. Other ruins include two 19th-century lighthouses and an abandoned lifeboat station.
Rich man’s whimsy, North Yorkshire
High above Pateley Bridge is Yorke’s Folly, two towering columns of stone with commanding views of the valley of Nidderdale. In summer, heather-clad Nought Moor behind it is a gorgeous haze of mauve and a fine foraging spot for bilberries. It was built in the late 18th or early 19th century by John Yorke, who indulged his wealth and whimsy by offering local men a loaf and a shilling a day for labour. The walk up here starts at a medieval chapel, passes fishponds created by the monks of Fountains Abbey, and continues along Guise Cliff, such a beautiful place of peace, far from the maddening crowds.
Turned to stone, eastern Cumbria
One the largest stone circles in England is Long Meg and her Daughters, situated in Cumbria not far from the town of Penrith. The circle, more than 100 metres across, has more than 60 stones plus Meg, a tall red stone that is decorated with ancient carvings. Legend has it a wizard turned Meg and her daughters to stone. Despite its impressive size, Long Meg is seldom busy as most tourists head to the Lake District. It’s a great place to visit on evenings when the sun throws elongated shadows across the grass. A small road passes through the circle and there is easy parking.
Watching out for Vikings, Angus
How many tides have ebbed and flowed under the crumbling watch of Red Castle, in Angus, Scotland? Still protecting these isles from Viking invasion, the 13th-century ruin shimmers over Lunan Bay at sunrise, its red sandstone coalescing with the pink hue of the beach below. Ponder the feuds which led to its ruin; tumult which in fact did not come from Scandinavia – nor England – but from within. Its wistful lessons on ephemeral power are contextualised by nature’s might with each undulation of the tide.