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, the West Midlands including Birmingham and the Black Country, Warwickshire & Staffordshire.
Warwickshire’s Kenilworth Castle is one of England’s finest, and considering its history, should really be more visited than it is. The castle was founded in the early 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, chief advisor to Henry I. The king appointed him sheriff of Warwickshire to counter-balance the power of the Earl of Warwick who owned the neighbouring Warwick Castle. It was made virtually impregnable in the early 1210s by ‘Bad’ King John who turned it into one of the England’s largest castles, with huge man-made water defences.
The castle hit the medieval headlines with a most dramatic siege. In 1244, John’s son Henry III granted Kenilworth to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who later rebelled against the king in the Second Barons’ War. Kenilworth was the centre of de Montfort’s operations. At one point, he held both the king’s brother Prince Richard and the king’s son Prince Edward hostage here. They were both released in early 1265.
Edward then took the castle himself, and used the captured banners to trick de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham. De Montfort was killed, and his son promised to officially hand over the castle to the king, but instead, the surviving rebels regrouped there the following spring.
In 1266, four royal forces, commanded by King Henry, Prince Edward, Prince Edmund and Roger de Mortimer, combined to besiege the 1,200-strong rebel garrison. It became the longest and most dramatic siege of an English castle in history. For 172 days from June 21 to December 14, the whole of England was governed directly from the royal camp around Kenilworth. Indeed, a parliament was held here.
The two sides were locked in a battle of wits. The royal forces employed siege engines, attack towers, germ warfare, and even mounted an amphibious night attack using barges, but all to little avail. Then, as the defenders got hungrier, Henry ordered an extraordinary feast to be held in plain sight of the walls. It cost £25,000. Despite this mental cruelty, the rebels remained inside the castle in defiance.
Pope Clement IV sent the ambitious Cardinal Ottobuono to England in 1265 to mediate between the two sides. Henry then paid the cardinal to stand on a hill near the castle and excommunicate those inside. However, a figure dressed in white ecclesiastical vestments appeared on the battlements and proceeded to ‘excommunicate’ the King, the Cardinal and the whole royal army! Both King and Cardinal were stumped. (It later transpired that the rebels’ ‘legate’ was the castle surgeon in fancy dress).
Eventually, Ottobuono brokered a deal: the Dictum of Kenilworth. Essentially, it put the castle back into royal hands, repudiated De Montfort’s constitution (the Provisions of Oxford), and re-established royal authority. In return, it allowed for the rebels to leave the castle unmolested, gave the ‘disinherited’ barons the opportunity to buy back their lands, and confirmed the barons’ statutes in the Magna Carta. The dictum later saw the implementation of the Statute of Marlborough, legal elements of which are still in force today, making them the oldest operating laws in the United Kingdom.
Afterwards, Henry granted Kenilworth to his second son Edmund. Ottobuono later became Pope Adrian V. In his Divine Comedy, Dante placed his greedy spirit in Purgatory.
But Kenilworth’s impact on English history didn’t end there. In 1327, King Edward II, branded traitor by his own wife, was forced to sign his abdication at Kenilworth. In 1400, Prince John of Gaunt turned it into a palace. In 1415, it was the scene of the French ‘tennis ball insult’ to Henry V that preceded the Battle of Agincourt. In the 1570s, resident Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, spent £10.5 million on it. In 1575, he entertained Queen Elizabeth I here for three weeks with a spectacular masque. Some have suggested the 11-y-o William Shakespeare attended the festivities and that it may have inspired his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly, the scenes were immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth.
Kenilworth’s ruined appearance today is the result of it being symbolically slighted (neutralised) by Parliamentary forces in the 1640s during the Civil War.
The game of football has long links to the county of Warwickshire. On Shrove Tuesday the villagers of Atherstone take part in the ancient Shrovetide Football game. It originated in the reign of King John as a contest between the men from Warwickshire and Leicestershire for a bag of gold. Today, the game is played with water-filled ball decorated with the local football team’s colours. It kicks off at 3pm and lasts two hours. The game of Rugby also originated in Warwickshire from a style of football played at Rugby school.
Nearby, the village of Dunchurch also stakes its historic claims. On November 5th 1605, the Gunpowder Plot conspirators met at the Old Red Lion Inn to await the news of Guy Fawkes’ success in blowing up the English Houses of Parliament. The Old Red Lion Inn still exists. It is now a private residence knows as Guy Fawkes House.
Also nearby is Coventry, an industrial city that was heavily bombed during World War Two. As such, much of its historic charm was lost. But there are still pockets of its former past to be found. Highlights include the ‘Coventry Doom’ at Holy Trinity Church (a painting of the Last Judgement, and one of the best ‘Doom’ survivals in the UK), St John’s Church (where prisoners of war were during the Civil War), St Mary’s Guildhall (a fine medieval building) and the Old Windmill pub. If you get a chance, try some Coventry God Cake, a local delicacy made from mincemeat.
Warwick itself will be covered with Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow, as both towns are often combined for a day out.
Warwickshire – history and charm in unity.
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 (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/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)