Heart of England and South Wales
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner as we continue exploring the best of Europe. This time, it's the Heart of England and South Wales.
After a run-in with an eccentric lord and some hard apple cider, we'll tour medieval Wells and its unique cathedral. Then we'll go from Neolithic at Stonehenge to New Age in Glastonbury to one of Europe's largest castles in South Wales.
Like the Continent, Great Britain is a delight to explore. We're starting in the Cotswolds, two hours west of London. From there we circle south to Wells, Glastonbury, Stonehenge and into South Wales.
We're starting in the Cotswolds. It's important to get out of your car — and we're doing that on horseback.
The Cotswolds are the traditional heart of England — famous for quaint villages — like Stanton. Travel writers tend to over use the word quaint. I save quaint for the Cotswolds. The wool from Cotswold sheep provided centuries of boom time. But with the rise of cotton in the 19th century, the local economy collapsed. People moved to the big cities and time stood still in towns like Stanton.
The Village Church of St. Michael is a fun puzzle for any history buff. A church dedicated to St. Michael probably sits upon a sacred pagan site.
St. Michael — the archangel who fought the devil — guards the door. Pre-Christian symbols decorate the columns — perhaps leftovers from those pagan days. You can barely see a few of the frescoes that used to cover the church. The list of rectors goes way back — without a break — to 1269.
This church was built with wool money. In fact, generations of sheepdog leashes wore these grooves. I guess a shepherd's dog accompanied him everywhere.
This part of England still has its old wealth. Lord Neidpath, whose family tree charts relatives back to 1202, occasionally opens his home, full of faded grandeur, to visitors.
Lord: This is the great hall, the biggest room in the house.
Rick: Now, how old is this house?
Lord: This house is probably about 1590, but there has been something here since the 1800s.
Rick: Do you still have gatherings in this room.
Lord: We have quite a lot, yes.
Rick: So what is this big table?
Lord: This is a very traditional English game called shuffle board or shovel board.
Rick: Can we try a couple? ...What's this funny looking chair here?
Lord: This funny looking chair here is a Chippendale exercise chair. So it's springy, and it's the first sprung furniture, and all modern or fairly modern sprung sofas are descended from it. And the theory is, sit on it like that, and put your arms up on these rails here and then you bounce up and down for about half an hour every morning. The eighteenth century version of jogging. Shakes up your liver.
Rick: So this is the manor house here?
Lord: That's right. It's been altered since. That was demolished and something else was put there.
Rick: So this is basically 250 years ago, and some of your family members could be in this painting.
Lord: I presume that Great-great great-uncle Robert Frazier, and his wife Anna-Maria.
Rick: What is a Lord?
Lord: A peer, I'd have to say someone who is entitled to sit in Parliament.
Rick: Are you a lord?
Lord: Well, I'm not actually a peer, but I am the son of a peer.
Rick: Son of a peer.
Lord: This is a rather beautiful bit of furniture, called a William and Mary Seaweed Marketry Cabinet. Made about 1690. Very fine, beautiful fret work, it's a good fret work as anyone ever did. And in the drawers of it I keep, among other things family hair. This is a little packet, "Papa's hair, my sister gave it me March 11, 1771." Well Papa is the man in that painting right over there. And that's his hair here. It says "Papa's hair cut June the 5th, Thursday, 1755," and that's as fresh as it was cut yesterday.
While Lord Neidpath surrounds himself with family history in the village manor house, we're bunking with the commoners down the road back in Stanton Village.
England's small towns are best enjoyed in Bed & Breakfasts. In my Britain guidebook, I recommend the Vine, where Jill Gabb mixes her passion for riding with her B&B business.
Jill: Here is Louie racing. My husband, four and a half stone, and the sidesaddle wall. Now Rick, the four poster.
Rick: I bet the tourists love the four posters.
Jill: This is the oldest part of the house.
Rick: Is this original?
Jill: Yes, 400 years.
Rick: What's it made of?
Tourist: Every morning we have a fried English breakfast. After 14 of them, you don't want to see another.
A B&B comes with a hearty fry — that's the traditional English cooked breakfast.
Jill: Good Morning, Rick.
Rick: Hello Jill, is it hot? My goodness that's hot. Let's put that down.
It's not only a hearty way to start another busy day of sightseeing, but a chance to share information with other travelers.
Rick: Oh, this is good. It's not light, but it's good.
We're heading south to Somerset. And this is cider country. In the pubs, apart from bitters, ales, and lagers, you'll find a notorious hard cider — called scrumpy.
A pint of apple cider in a pub comes with more memories if you tour a scrumpy farm first. Local farms welcome the public with free tasting. Land's End Cider Farm, three miles north of Glastonbury, is run by Mr. Wilkins.
Wilkins: Hello sir.
Rick: Are you Mr. Wilkins? I'm Rick Steves.
Wilkins: Would you like a sample of the cider?
Rick: I would love to learn about cider here.
Mr. Wilkins shows us the scrumpy process from start to finish... and for him every tour has only one proper ending... a cool refreshing sample.
Wilkins: There you are then Rick, all the best.
Rick: Here's to scrumpy. Hey, that's good. I've seen cider all over England in pubs. Is Apple Cider Apple Cider?
Wilkins: Well, this is what you call the real scrumpy cider, the proper farmhouse cider. A lot of the pub cider is filtered and gassed and chemicals and that's not the real thing.
Rick: Is it as strong as beer?
Wilkins: Yes, it's stronger than beer it about double the strength of the ordinary straight bitter.
Rick: So it could be a little dangerous?
Wilkins: Well, yes. It's a little potent if your not used to it, make your legs go funny.
Rick: I heard a lot of pubs don't serve scrumpy.
Wilkins: No, some pubs don't. They just don't want to know it, they say it causes trouble, but there's no trouble at all. If they drink enough cider, you'll lay down to go to sleep, They won't want to go to fight.
We popped in a village pub for a second opinion on the wonders of scrumpy.
Rick: You know, I'd love a scrumpy, do you have scrumpy here?
Bartender: We certainly have.
Rick: Why don't many pubs actually serve this farmhouse cider?
Customer: Makes people fight.
Rick: Is that right, changes the clientele?
Customer: It makes them very angry. If you're going to be that way, inclined, if you're going to be violent it'll make you that way.
Rick: This brings out the violence in a person inclined to violence.
Customer: No question about that.
Rick: I'm a lover, not a fighter.
Customer: There you go, too much of that and you won't be.
The wonderfully preserved city of Wells is in the heart of scrumpy country. Technically, a place needs to be the seat of a bishop — it needs to have a cathedral — in order to be called a city. And little Wells is England's smallest city — with one of its most interesting cathedrals and medieval centers. And the bishop's palace shares its front yard with the local croquet club.
Vicar's Close is lined with perfectly pickled 14th-century houses. Locals say it's the oldest complete medieval street in Europe. Built to house the cathedral choir and staff, it still does. This overpass connects it with the Wells cathedral.
England's first completely Gothic church dates from about 1200.
Canon Melvyn Mathews introduced us to the cathedral.
Canon Melvyn: This is the west front of Wells cathedral. It contains the greatest collection of medieval sculptures anywhere in Europe. And all of this was painted, full of gold, green, blue, and yellows, all sorts of colors. What this was, was a sort of welcome into the cathedral. These are all the people saying: "hi, welcome, come in." At the top you have the nine orders of angles, the 12 apostles, with St. Andrew our patron, and Christ on top with his hands welcome, saying "come in, we're glad you're here."
Inside, you'll be warmly greeted...
Greeter: Hello sir, welcome to Wells Cathedral....
... given a map of its highlights and reminded how expensive it is to maintain the cathedral.
Looking down the nave, you're immediately struck by the unique "scissors" arch. This hourglass-shaped double arch was added in about 1340 — to bolster the sagging church. Nearly 700 years later... it's still working.
Let's see... it says don't miss the second oldest working clock in the world — from 1392.
The clock does its much-loved joust on the quarter-hour. Back then, jousting was the favored sport of kings
This bishop designed his own tomb to remind us that even power like his is transient. The same bishop wanted his jester buried in the cathedral. It wasn't allowed — but look who's carved into the bishop's tomb's canopy — peering at the altar... and forever getting the last laugh.
To get the most of my visit I make a point to hit the 5 o'clock evensong — to experience the church filled with music and worship.
Long before Gothic cathedrals, stone circles were sacred spots. Stonehenge is a headache for train travelers; you need to catch a bus from nearby Salisbury. But by car it's literally a rest stop along the main highway two hours west of London.
Stonehenge, the most famous of Britain's many stone circles, is an easy must-see. Most believe these circles — which are as old as the pharaohs — functioned as celestial calendars. Five thousand years ago locals could tell when to plant and when to party according to where the sun rose and set. It still works that way today. Archaeologists figure some of these stones came from Wales — 240 miles away — probably rafted then rolled on logs by Bronze Age people.
But exactly what's it all mean? Nobody knows for sure... imagine looking at the ruins of a medieval church and from that alone trying to understand Christianity.
While Stonehenge is roped off and viewable only from a distance, England is dotted with less famous and more accessible stone circles. My favorite: Avebury.
The Avebury stone circle, just 40 miles away, is as old as Stonehenge and 16 times as big. And, best of all, this megalithic playground welcomes kids, sheep, and anyone interested in a more hands-on experience.
In England's misty past, legend and history mix it up. Glastonbury was a holy site in the Bronze Age. It's also considered the birthplace of Christianity in England and the burial site of King Arthur.
Centuries before Christ, Glastonbury was marked by its hill or Tor. This 500-foot tall hill has an undeniable geological charisma. It's capped by the ruins of a church dedicated to St. Michael. Remember, since St. Michael was the Christian antidote to paganism, it's a good bet this church sits upon a pre-Christian holy site.
For centuries travelers and pilgrims have come here, not on a quest for fine Somerset views, but for the Holy Grail.
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of Christ, actually came to Glastonbury. He could have sat right here. He was a tin trader and even in biblical times Britain was known as a rare place where tin could be mined.
Joseph packed some unusual luggage. According to legend, in 37 AD, he carried a vessel — or grail — containing the blood of Jesus. With that holy grail, he brought Christianity to England. The Church accepts the symbolism of Joseph's visit. But it doesn't accept the popular legend of the Holy Grail that grew as the story of Joseph was told and retold.
The Chalice is the symbol, the Chalice is the vessel in which the Holy Grail was found.
Many think the Grail lies at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of the Glastonbury Tor.
In the eighteenth century, a series of healings happened in one if the pools here in the Chalice Well, and thousands of people visited here at that time. Today, of course healings are still taking place, but in a more subtle way. Now we are looking for healing of the body and soul, more often than physical ailments. When we look in the well here, we see our own reflection and the legends surrounds the Chalice are asking for us to look within, there we will find the truth.
Whether you believe the water is red from Jesus' blood or just rust, it is a fact that England's first church was built here in Glastonbury.
Fertilize the scant ruins of that first church with the grave of King Arthur and the mystique of the Holy Grail. Mix in the hard work of a busy monastery. And Glastonbury Abbey became one of England's most powerful.
But to Henry VIII, abbeys like this were just political obstacles. In 1539 he destroyed the Abbey.
For emphasis, he hung the abbot, displayed his head on the abbey gates and sent his quartered body — preserved in tar — on four different national tours... at the same time.
Without its wealthy abbey, the town sank into a depression. But Glastonbury rebounded. An 18th-century tourism campaign — with thousands claiming that water from the Chalice Well healed them — put Glastonbury back on the map.
Rick: So you live in Glastonbury?
Shopkeeper: Yeah I've lived here for about five and a half years.
Rick: So what's the hottest item in your shop?
Shopkeeper: It's hard to say really.
Rick: Could you sell me a belly button ring?
Shopkeeper: Have you got your bellybutton pierced?
Rick: Yeah, no. Let's try it. This is the basic ring.
Shopkeeper: That is the basic surgical steel ring.
Rick: What would that cost me.
Shopkeeper: You're looking at paying 6.99 for a ring like that.
Rick: That's not bad at all.
Shopkeeper: It's the first type of ring you have put in. That's about the usual size of ring you'd have put in.
Rick: Do you have a pierced bellybutton?
Shopkeeper: I do indeed.
Rick: Oh, that's nice.
Shopkeeper: Did it myself.
Today Glastonbury is a new age mecca for tie-dyed pilgrims.
We're nipping into the southeast corner of Wales. It's smooth motorway all the way. To save an hour, I'm cooking and our crew's having a rolling lunch. Farm fresh cheddar cheese on a bap — that's bun in English. Mustard from a handy-for-travelers' tube. Apples, tomatoes and carrots.... We stocked an entire pantry here — to feed our three-person crew for less than the cost of a single restaurant dinner.
This bridge connects England with South Wales. The Severn River is the border. Welcome to Wales — or Croeso I Cymru!
We've left Angle-land and are in the proud land of Wales. In the 5th and 6th centuries, Anglos and Saxons invaded Britain from Europe.
They took the best land and pushed the Celtic residents to the harsher fringes — where they developed their own identity as the Cornish, Scottish, Irish and Welsh. Today, while living together side by side in the British Isles, these groups maintain their distinct cultures.
Wales is spiked with formidable English-built castles — reminders that the feisty Welsh were not easily subdued. Caerphilly Castle is one of Europe's largest. With its wall-within-a-wall design, drawbridges and moat, it was considered state-of-the-art in 13th-century castle defenses.
In spite of England, Welsh culture survived. For a peek into the past, visit the Museum of Welsh Life just outside the capital city Cardiff. With over 30 reconstructed old buildings from all corners of Wales, it offers traditional culture on a lazy-susan for the busy traveler.
The Rhyd-y-Car rowhouse displays six miners' cottages preserved as they might have looked in six different generations. In 1805 — humble, candlelit, they cooked at a communal oven down the lane and ate with wooden spoons and bowls; 1895 — oil lamps, proud china and a fireplace designed for cooking in the age of Queen Victoria; and 1955 — electric lights, stiletto heels, a chrome tea pot, and TV.
This woolen mill goes back to 1760. A water wheel powers its 19th-century machinery. The loom still produces traditional Welsh blankets.
Nearby, the wistful ruins of Tintern abbey lie in a peaceful Wye River valley. Once the richest in Wales, it was founded in 1131 on a site chosen by Norman monks for its tranquility. In its 12th century heyday a pilgrim wrote, "In a wilderness there's a dignified abbey in the midst of smiling plenty."
It was a Cistercian abbey until 1536 when, like the Glastonbury Abbey, Henry VIII destroyed it. Tintern Abbey inspired centuries of monks to prayer, Wordsworth to poetry, and — today — even rushed tourists to a thoughtful moment.
Wordsworth may have sat right here in the 1700s when he wrote "I felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts." Thoughtful travel can bring out the poet in all of us. I hope you've enjoyed our tour through the heart of England and south Wales. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.