Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.


 

 

 

Crossing the North Sea by boat and car . . . or so it seemed

In the summer of 1998, when Steph and I were back in the UK on our annual home leave (I was working in the Philippines at the time), we had a week’s holiday in Northumberland. We spent almost the whole week within the boundaries of the county, the fifth largest in England, crossing into southern Scotland for just one night. It was the first time we had visited the county. But it wouldn’t be the last, not by a long chalk.

Our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at Durham University (under 20 miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2000, and after graduation in 2003, remained in the northeast, marrying Andi in 2010 and now raising two boys, Elvis and Felix. So, we’ve been traveling up to Newcastle at least a couple of times a year, and taking more opportunities to explore the fabulous Northumbrian countryside.

Northumberland has so much to offer, from moorlands to coast. There are so many Roman ruins to explore like Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall as well as magnificent castles like Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh. The coast has some of the best beaches in the whole of the country, but not so good for bathing, at least in my opinion. Why? Because the North Sea is too damned cold!

On two days we headed to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.


The Farne Islands
The Farnes (owned by the National Trust) are an archipelago of some 15-20 islands (depending on the tides) up to 4 miles off the northern coast of Northumberland, just south of the border with Scotland. They are one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, with significant colonies of puffins, terns, guillemots, and kittiwakes, among others. After a short (maybe 30 minutes) boat ride from Seahouses, we arrived at Inner Farne, the only island with access. It was a smooth crossing to Inner Farne in bright sunshine, but by the time of our arrival there, it had clouded over.

Puffins on the cliff edge, with guillemots on the far right.

As we approached Inner Farne, it was hard not to wonder at the sheer number of seabirds flying to and from the islands, as well as the rising cacophony of calls from the different species.

After landing, and as we made our way on the short walk to St Cuthbert’s Chapel, and afterwards as we explored other open paths, we were dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns that were nesting in the grass on all sides. And I can assure you that a passing peck from the tern’s dagger-like beak hurts! In fact, the National Trust encourages all visitors to bring suitable headgear for protection.

This was my first up-close experience of large colonies of seabirds. And what a feast for the eyes as you can see from the images above.

Besides the various bird (and grey seal) colonies, Inner Farne also has a long history of human occupation dating back to the late seventh century AD, becoming first the solitary home of St Aidan, and then St Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral). Apart from National Trust reserve wardens stationed on the islands during the seabird summer breeding season, the islands are now uninhabited.

But they do have a particular claim to fame for the brave exploits of Grace Darling, daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper on another of the islands who, with her father, saved nine persons on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire that was wrecked in a tremendous storm on the Farnes in 1838. She was only 22. She died of tuberculosis in 1842, a national heroine.

Grace Darling (1815-1842) and the SS Forfarshire that foundered on the Farne Islands in 1838.


Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory
A little further up the coast is Holy Island, the site of Lindisfarne Priory (owned by English Heritage).

Access to the island is across a one mile tidal causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide, so careful planning is required to safely cross on to the island, and avoid being stranded before the tide covers the causeway. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed, but we had no issues, and had plenty of time on the island itself before returning to the mainland. We did see a couple of cars that hadn’t made it in time, caught in a rising tide and abandoned by their owners.

We did not visit the castle on Holy Island. That is owned by the National Trust. I’m not sure if it was open to the public back in the day.

Monks first settled on Holy Island in AD 635, but after a violent Viking raid in AD 793 they fled from the island. The ruins that comprise Lindisfarne Priory date from the 12th century. The most spectacular is the Rainbow Arch.

I must have taken more photos, but these are the few that I’ve been able to lay my hands on.

We’ve only scratched the surface of Holy Island. Once we have moved north, then we hope to have many opportunities of exploring this magical place again, including the castle next time.


 

 

 

 

Warkworth Castle: a 12th century fortress above the River Coquet in Northumberland

Warkworth Castle, built in the 12th century, stands on a narrow neck of land in a loop of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to where the river flows into the North Sea at Amble.

View from the Keep along the River Coquet towards Amble and the North Sea.

The view north overlooking part of Warkworth.

Steph and I were visiting family in Newcastle in April 2018, and on a bright sunny day, enjoyed an excursion to Warkworth beach with our younger daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix (then 6 and 4, respectively).

Phil and Andi went straight home after the walk and a picnic, but we decided to take the boys to Warkworth Castle close-by, which is owned by English Heritage. And we were in luck.

On the day of our visit (21 April) English Heritage was celebrating St George’s Day (actually 23 April) with displays of ‘armed combat between knights in shining armour’, and many other attractions.

Visitors enjoying combat between ‘knights in shining armour’.

Felix and Elvis (with Grandma behind) enjoying the armed combat.

View from the Keep towards the Gatehouse. The Lion Tower is on the right.

Carvings on the face of the Lion Tower.

The castle came into the Percy family (later the Dukes of Northumberland) in the mid-fourteenth century. It saw action in the Wars of the Roses in the late fifteenth century, and parts of the castle were demolished (or ‘slighted’) then. It suffered further damage in the late sixteenth century.

Today, many of the internal structures have disappeared, but the outer curtain wall stands more or less intact. The Keep can be explored. The Lion Tower (on the right in the image immediately above) has some impressive stone carvings above the archway.

It’s an excellent destination for adventurous grandchildren who have some excess energy to burn off. From their reaction at being allowed to explore the different buildings it was clear that Elvis and Felix enjoyed their visit – just as much as Grandma and Grandad.

The image of Warkworth Tower on its mound that’s covered in daffodils has become iconic, and often use in tourism brochures and the like for Northumberland. Here’s my take.


 

Dunstanburgh Castle: a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland

Dominating the horizon on the coast of Northumberland, and overlooking the cold North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle was built during the fourteenth century reign of infamous King Edward II by the king’s cousin, Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle along the coastal path from Craster.

The castle can only be reached on foot, about 1.5 miles north from Craster. The castle is owned by the National Trust, but the site is operated by English Heritage.

View of the great gatehouse over the southern mere.

Overlooking cliffs on one side, the castle had excellent natural defences, and occupied the site of an Iron Age fort.

Thomas of Lancaster was executed in 1322, and it passed eventually passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It changed hands between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses, and suffered damage from which it never fully recovered. By the sixteenth century it was in an advanced state of decay.

Today, just a few of the towers are standing, particularly the entrance Great Gate with its twin towers. Also the curtain wall that surrounds the castle connecting with the cliffs.

It’s possible to climb some of the towers from which there are magnificent views over the surrounding Northumberland countryside.

Steph and I have visited the castle on a couple of occasions, the last being in May 2012. Parking in Craster, we enjoyed the coastal walk on a fine, bright but blustery day. The kittiwakes were nesting on the cliffs below the castle, and we spotted a weasel darting along a stone wall just above the tide line.

Then it was back to Craster for a pub lunch, and purchasing some of the renowned Craster kippers (smoked North Sea herrings).

 

 

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.

A local sandstone, rather soft and crumbly, was used and couldn’t have withstood a prolonged siege. Interspersed in the walls, now revealed by deep holes but still in situ elsewhere, are blocks of hard limestone that were perhaps used for ornamentation as well as giving the walls additional strength. The castle was slighted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

Heading south to Wisbech, our aim was Peckover House and Garden, occupied from the 1770s until the late 1940s by the Peckover family of Quakers and bankers.

Peckover House is a detached Georgian mansion, among a terrace of elegant houses on North Brink, the north bank of the tidal River Nene, and facing a counterpart terrace on South Brink, where social reformer Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was born in 1838.

Standing in front of Peckover House, it’s hard to believe that there is a two acre garden behind. Among the features there is a cats’ graveyard of many of the feline friends that have called Peckover home.

Inside the house, I was reminded (though on a much smaller scale) of Florence Court in Northern Ireland that we visited in 2017. The hall and stairs are a delicate duck-egg blue, and there and in many of the rooms there is exquisite plasterwork. Above the doorways downstairs are fine broken pediments.

The most celebrated of the family was Alexander (born in 1830) who traveled extensively and built an impressive collection of books and paintings. He was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and was elevated to a peerage in 1907.

He bought one of his books, a 12th century psalter, in about 1920 for £200 or so. Now on loan from Burnley library and displayed in Alexander’s library, the book has been insured for £1,200,000!

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

Our final stop, on the way home on the third day, was Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642 three months after his father, also named Isaac, had passed away.

This is the second home of a famous scientist we have visited in the past couple of months, the first being Down House in Kent, home of Charles Darwin. Woolsthorpe has become a pilgrimage destination for many renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are shown in some of the exhibits.

Woolsthorpe is not a large property, comprising a limestone house and outbuildings. It has the most wonderful tiled roof.

It came into the Newton family as part of the dowry of Isaac Sr.’s marriage to Hannah Ayscough. Keeping sheep for wool production was the principal occupation of the family.

Isaac Newton won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge but had to escape back to Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 and 1666. He thrived and the 18 months he spent at Woolsthorpe were among his most productive.

Open to the public on the upper floor, Newton’s study-bedroom displays his work on light that he conducted there.


And from the window is a view over the orchard and the famous Flower of Kent apple tree that inspired his views on gravitation.

On the ground floor, in the parlour are two portraits of Newton, one of him in later life without his characteristic wig, and, high above the fireplace, his death mask.

Also there are early copies (in Latin and English) of his principal scientific work, the Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687.

There’s a full album of photos here.

And, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969, there was a display of NASA exhibits and how Newton’s work all those centuries ago provided the mathematical basis for planning a journey into space. The National Trust has also opened an excellent interactive science display based on Newton’s work that would keep any child occupied for hours. I’m publishing this post on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s blast off from Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral once again.

All in all, we enjoyed three excellent days visiting five properties. Despite the weather forecast before we set out, we only had a few minutes rain (when we arrived at Bolingbroke Castle). At each of the four National Trust properties the volunteer staff were so friendly and helpful, full of details that they were so willing to share. If you ever get a chance, do take a couple of days to visit these eastern England jewels.

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* The Lincolnshire Wolds are a range of hills, comprised of chalk, limestone, and sandstone. The Fens are drained marshlands and a very important agricultural region.

1066 and all that . . .

It’s the morning of 14 October 1066.

On Senlac Hill (or Senlac Ridge), about six miles north of the coast in Sussex (map), a Saxon shield wall prepares to engage the Norman-French invaders under Duke William of Normandy.  The Saxons, under King Harold Godwinson, have just arrived after marching south from Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire where, just three weeks earlier, they had defeated another invading force under King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his ally, Harold’s brother Tostig.

Exhausted and possibly out-numbered, this is a make or break stand for Harold’s Saxons. But, if they stand their ground, they are better positioned than the Normans who must cross a shallow valley then climb Senlac Hill to engage the Saxons.

This is the view from just below Senlac Hill looking south to where the Normans were mustered on the ridge in the distance. They had to cross this shallow valley to engage the Saxons.

For most of the day the battle (of Hastings as it has come to be known) ebbs and flows with neither side gaining an advantage. Until, late in the day, the Normans appear defeated and in retreat. The Saxons break rank and chase the fleeing Normans. But it’s all a feint. The Norman cavalry in small groups of five or six riders turn on the pursuing Saxons, and cut them down. Harold is killed (by an arrow through his eye, so the story goes), and William is victorious.

And so begin several centuries of foreign rule of England, first under the Normans and then under the durable Plantagenets who reign until the death of Richard III (the last Plantagenet king) in 1485 on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.

Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Duke William (now crowned King William I, the ‘Conqueror’) founded Battle Abbey, a Benedictine institution, although he died before it was completed.

The abbey endured until 1538 when, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, under Henry VIII, the abbey was closed, the church demolished, and the lands sold off.

Today, Battle Abbey and the battlefield are owned by English Heritage, and there are many quite well-preserved ruins to explore. From the magnificent gatehouse there is an excellent view not only over the ruins and battlefield but also over the small town of Battle that grew up around the abbey.

The gatehouse (above) and the view over Battle (below)

Among the best preserved buildings is the Dormitory, and beneath it, the Common Room.

At the east end of where the Church once stood, the Crypt is now exposed revealing several chapels.

After the Dissolution, the Abbey passed through several families.

The independent Battle Abbey School now occupies part of the site of the former abbey.

For more photos of Battle Abbey and the battlefield, please take a look at this album.


Dover Castle sits high on the cliffs overlooking the town and modern port. The site has been fortified since at least the second century AD, when the Romans (who invaded in AD43) built a lighthouse (or pharos) there. But there is evidence of much earlier occupation back to Iron Age times.

From near Langdon Hole on the White Cliffs of Dover, looking west, this is the keep of Dover Castle on the right, and the Saxon church on the left.

The pharos still stands proudly beside a Saxon Church of St Mary in Castro (built around AD1000), and was once used as the bell tower.

A century after the Conquest, Henry II (great grandson of William the Conqueror) launched a major building program at Dover Castle. The keep was erected and much of what we see today began to take shape between 1179 and 1188.

Dover Castle has remained an important link in the chain of defences on England’s southern coast. During Tudor times, it was an important castle for Henry VIII. In the 18th century further garrisons were built to house soldiers sent there to face the threat of invasion from France. And it played an important role during the Napoleonic Wars that ended with Napoleon’s defeat and exile to St Helena in 1815.

The castle also played its part during the Second World War. There are antiaircraft guns mounted on the battlements. And deep under the castle there is a series of tunnels used during the war. These are quite separate from the extensive medieval tunnels on the north side of the castle, which we had the opportunity to explore.

We must have spent four hours or more exploring Dover Castle. It’s an excellent destination for anyone interested in England’s post-Norman history. And also a mecca for families with children. English Heritage makes great efforts to bring history alive.

More photos can be found in this album.

I mentioned that Dover Castle stands high above the town. Here are two short videos of the drive up to and down from the castle. They give a good impression of just how strategic its location is.

Just a couple of miles to the east are the White Cliffs of Dover. We walked only as far as Langdon Hole, but still managed a good view of the Cliffs and, once the haze had lifted, a view across the English Channel (La Manche) to the cliffs on the coast of northern France. Just twenty or so miles. It clear why Dover Castle was so important for the defence of the realm.

The White Cliffs of Dover are a National Trust property.


Near Lamberhurst in Kent stand the ruins of a Premonstratensian monastery, Bayham Old Abbey, that Steph and I took in late one afternoon on our way back to the holiday cottage near Robertsbridge (just 13 miles south).

Bayham Old Abbey was founded around 1207 and, like the abbey at Battle, survived until the mid-16th century.

The ruins, some of the best preserved in southern England, stand proudly alongside the River Teise. We enjoyed them by ourselves in the late afternoon sun.

Check out more photos here.


Once the Normans and their successors had their feet under the ‘English table’, so to speak, Saxon lands were confiscated and given to Norman families. Throughout southeast England, and more widely over the country, many of the estates we see today came from the spoils of conquest 1000 years ago.

During our exploration of National Trust and English Heritage properties in East Sussex and Kent, we took in three moated castles built in the 14th century.

Bodiam Castle was built around 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a knight formerly in the service of King Edward III (third great grandson of Henry II). It was occupied for almost three hundred years, until it was slighted (partially dismantled) during the Civil War of the 1640s.

Ask any child to draw a castle, and something resembling Bodiam is what they are likely to produce.

With towers at each corner, and imposing gatehouses, Bodiam Castle is surrounded by a deep moat full of large fish, probably carp. Unlike many castles, Bodiam does not have a central keep. The living apartments were built on the inside of the castle walls.

Owned by the National Trust, much of the castle is open to explore, and visitors can climb a couple of the towers, and enjoy the views over the moat and the central courtyard.

I have posted more photos and plans of the castle in this album.

There is a link between Bodiam Castle and the Second World War, and I now regret not taking a photo.

Alongside the path leading to the castle from the ticket office, there is a pillbox (a type of concrete blockhouse) that was constructed some time after September 1939 to help protect Bodiam bridge over the River Rother against a potential German invasion, although I’m not sure how this could have been successful in the face of a serious onslaught.


The moated manor house at Scotney Castle was built around 1380. It stands some distance from a large country house that was built between 1835 and 1843, known as Scotney ‘New Castle’.

You can just see the round tower of the ‘Old Castle’ in the valley below the terrace of the New Castle (L) and the ‘New Castle’ from the causeway on to the island of the ‘Old Castle’ (R).

The ‘Old Castle’ has not been occupied for a long time, and part of the castle has been completely demolished. Although begun in the late 14th century, the buildings date from different periods in the 16th and 17th centuries as well.

See the full set of photos here, including many photos of the interior of the ‘New’ castle. It’s a National Trust property.


Just east of Sevenoaks in Kent, Ightham Mote is one of the most delightful moated manor houses I have ever visited¹. It must be one of the most complete still standing. Over the centuries it has been owned by several families, each generation adding to its architecture (click on the image at right for a larger version), although the Selby family who purchased Ightham in 1591 resided there for almost 300 years.

But perhaps one of its most interesting periods dates from just over 60 years ago, when an American, Charles Henry Robinson (from Portland, Maine), purchased Ightham and lived there for some years. It passed to the National Trust when he died in 1985.

During our recent visit, we watched a short video about the conservation restoration of one of the wings of the house that the Trust commenced in 1989, and was finally completed 15 years and £10 million later. But how it was worth it!

Inside the house, the Great Hall, the New Chapel (with its ceiling panels painted to celebrate the marriage, in 1509, of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon), and the Drawing Room (with its exuberant fireplace and raised ceiling to accommodate it), decorated with 18th century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, are of particular interest.

A visit to Ightham Mote is a stroll through 600 years of history, and the architectural and design interests of several families. What I particularly like about properties such as this are the small details that catch my eye, in the woodwork, the furniture, the wallpaper. The chapel ceiling immediately connects you with early Tudor times, for example, yet in other parts of the house, it’s clear that this was a home until just 35 years ago. Ightham Mote has a remarkable lineage.

Check out the full set of Ightham Mote photos and floor plans here.


¹ Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire (also a National Trust property) has to be the other. We visited there in 2013.