A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, Wales.
Chepstow Castle is unique and historically important as it tells the story of castle-building in Britain from beginning to end, roughly 1066 to 1666. The medieval Welsh name for Chepstow was Striguil. Its construction was begun in 1067, just a year after the Noman conquest, by William FitzOsbern, who had been created Earl of Hereford by William the Conqueror. FitzOsbern had been given the task of subduing the Welsh borderlands.
It is strategically positioned above the banks of the river Wye, guarding a main crossing point between England and Wales. Indeed, it became a key launching point for Norman expeditions into Wales. This also shows how quickly the Normans had subdued England and were now moving on. The river also allowed defenders to supply the castle during a battle. The key position meant the castle had an unusual construction,with a long terrace wall on the riverside, as opposed to concentric walls. From scratch, it was built out of stone – not as wooden ramparts first, as most Norman castles were. As such, it is the first and oldest surviving stone castle in Britain. Such was Chepstow’s strength, that it was never attacked during the whole medieval period.
In the 1190s, Chepstow Castle was passed by marriage to William Marshal, Earl of Striguil, who rebuilt the east wall including two round towers. Marshal’s sons added a twin-towered gatehouse, enlarged the defences and improved accommodation. Between 1270-1300, Marshal’s son-in-law Roger Bigod built the ‘Port’ or town wall, with domestic apartments, and a tower with a private chapel. Unusually, when raised, the portcullis closing off the wall-walk below came up right in front of the altar. The castle twice fell to Parliamentary cannon during the 17th century Civil War. Afterwards the southern face was reinforced against further cannon fire and remodelled with musket loops. After its second capture by Cromwell’s forces, it became a prison.
The highlight, apart from the amazing view across the river, is the Great Hall which is original. The arch above the main doorway to the hall is made from brick from the Roman ruins at Caerwent. Chepstow Castle is just perfect for kids to explore.
Follow the scenic A466 Wye Valley road from Chepstow to Tintern and you will soon come across one of the most spectacular ruins in the country set on the riverside. Tintern Abey was founded in 1131 by the Norman lord Walter de Clare. It was the first of 14 foundations in Wales for the Cistercian order, also known as the Whitefriars or Poor Clares. The extant building works cover a 400-year period up to 1536. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was surrendered to King Henry VIII and allowed to fall into ruins.
Tintern’s air of melancholic decay inspired the Romantic movement, including poetry such as William Wordsworth’s: ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s: ‘Tears, Idle Tears’. It also featured in several paintings by Turner.
From a different era, it was the setting for the Iron Maiden video ‘Can I Play with Madness’. In 1901, the Abbey was bought by the Crown from the Duke of Beaufort. In 1984, the preservation group Cadw took over the site. A good light lunch is an option just a little further along the A466 at Tintern Old Station (NP16 7NX).
The A466 along the Wye Valley is about as scenic a route that it is possible to find in the whole of the UK.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)