See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, happy to be your travel partner as we explore my favorite corners of northern England. We're starting where the industrial revolution did, in the IronBridge Gorge. It's named after its bridge...the first iron bridge ever built.
We'll check out England's industrial roots in Iron Bridge Gorge, and then like those first factory workers we'll let our hair down in North England's playground, Blackpool. Then we'll travel to the Cumbrian Lake District where the poems of William Wordsworth still shiver in the trees and ripple on the ponds. We'll finish in Durham with its great Norman Cathedral. Since these sites can fill any kid with wonder, my wife Anne and I are traveling with our children – Andy and Jackie
We'll be exploring the northern half of England. After starting in Ironbridge gorge, we drive north and to the coast at Blackpool. Then it's on to Keswick and the Lake District, finishing in Durham near the Scottish border.
The Industrial Revolution was born along the Severn River. In its glory days, this area gave the world its first iron wheels, its first steam powered locomotive, and first castiron bridge. Today the museums here take you back into those heady days when Britain was racing into the modern age and pulling the rest of the West with her.
This first iron bridge was built in 1779, back when England was at war with her American colonies. The factories in this valley wanted to show off a wonderful new building material — a fortified iron.
But lacking experience with this iron, they erred on the side of sturdiness. The town is just a few red brick blocks gathered around the Iron Bridge. The smoke-belching bustle is long gone, but this sleepy river valley was the hot bed of innovation in the 19th century. It ushered in a new age.
With snow balling inventions in technology, Europe boomed, building more in the 19th century than in all previous centuries combined. In the space of a few decades the entire continent was laced together by iron train tracks. And it all started here with Abraham Darby's blast furnace.
In 1709 Abraham Darby created an iron-making process that kicked off the industrial age. He discovered that melting iron with coke — a byproduct of coal — transformed the iron into a strong, serviceable building material. Darby's smelting process took place right here in this first-ever blast furnace!
A mile or so north of the bridge is the Blists Hill Open Air Museum — 50 acres of Victorian factories and a recreated community from the 1890s.
By the mid-19th century, awesome new steam engines had become the pulse of the new economy. This steam driven winding machine steadily raised and lowered workers and their loads up and down the 600 foot deep shaft of the Blists Hill coal and iron mine.
Guide: "...she's doing it without clutch ..no fancy mechanism at all. She just picks up the load and drags it by brute force back up the shaft to the top."
The museum is kid-friendly, and working sights like this into our daily travel plans keeps the kids enthusiastic and better travel partners.
And to put a homespun spin on our experience, we're sleeping mostly in Bed and Breakfasts — or B&Bs. Chris and George Maddocks rent five rooms just a block from the iron bridge.
The Library House is classy, friendly and a fine value. And Chris's breakfast won the local "healthy heartbeat" award.England's notorious greasy breakfasts are gradually becoming healthier.
And this B&B, like more and more places in Britain, is now smoke free. When exploring the countryside with a family; we find life goes easier with our own wheels. Ironically, trains no longer serve the Iron Bridge Gorge. It just makes sense to do this part of our trip by car.
A dosey-doe through a series of roundabouts could be a puzzle if you haven't driven in Britain before. The trick is to merge without stopping but always yield to drivers already in the circle. And give yourself a free 360 degree exploratory loop to let your navigator figure out which exit is yours.
After a day of sight-seeing, many travelers enjoy relaxing in British pubs. The Maddocks at the B&B are taking care of the kids so Anne and I can enjoy a pub evening.
A local favorite here is the Coalbrookdale Inn. Pub means public house — it's the neighborhood gathering place — the opposite of a club — it welcomes everyone.
Local: "If you see one and fancy it, just ask for a sample and they'll give you a taste, in case you don't want to buy a pint."
And while pub grub has always been cheap, these days its delicious too. Ironbridge is just a start — tomorrow we move on.
In Britain, the shortest distance between any two points is usually the "motorway". England's motorways are less aggressive than the German autobahn and — unlike the French autoroute — completely toll free. We're heading for Blackpool.
Blackpool is Britain's fun puddle. While few foreigners come here, it's England's most visited attraction — the private domain of the local working class — it's a sticky mix of arcade souvenirs, amusement park, and neon night life.
You can spend the day just "muckin' about" this goofy gauntlet of fortune tellers, fish-and-chips joints, amusement piers, and candy stores.
Blackpool grew up with the industrial revolution. In the mid-1800s, entire mill towns took their two week break here. They came for the fresh air — much needed after a hard year in the mill — and to drink the sea water. Back then they thought sea water was healthy to drink.
These days, more Brits can afford the cheap flights to sunny Spain. Still, regardless of the weather, the blokes and birds of northern England flock to this resort to let their hair down and have a good time.
Blackpool's first stretch of seaside promenade opened in 1856. The first pier opened seven years later and welcomed only the wealthy. The piers were ideal for the Victorian English who wanted to go to sea but were afraid of getting seasick.
At the turn of the century, after the Eiffel Tower was built, an Englishman returned from a visit to Paris and decided Blackpool should have its own tower.
Blackpool's symbol is its 100-year old tower. And it's more than a symbol. It's a vertical fun park with seven floors of diversion including an aquarium, dinosaur land, and the bug zone.
The grand Tower Ballroom — with a busy Wurlitzer organ — keeps golden oldies dancing to golden oldies all day.
Back in the 1920s, an evening's programme consisted of three waltzes, three lancers, a foxtrot, a two step, and three novelty dances. Every summer the master of ceremonies would dream-up and introduce a new novelty dance. These were easy to learn and fun to do.
While most novelty dances were forgotten after that season, many a dance has been born here in Blackpool's Tower Ballroom.
If ballroom dancing isn't your cup of tea, don't worry about that, worry about this..! Blackpool's Pleasure Beach claims to have "the best selection of white knuckle rides in Europe".
The most talked about attraction is billed as "the world's highest and fastest" roller coaster — 235 feet high — that's about 20 stories up with a maximum speed of 85 miles per hour. And here's a ride Jackie will never forget...
Vintage trolley cars run up and down the waterfront, connecting all the sights.
Rick and Andy: This is the oldest trolley system in the whole world. They say it's the first electric transit system. Do you know how old it is? 1885. 1885!
The trolleys are convenient but it's more fun to grab a big stick of Blackpool rock — as they call their tooth-breaking candy — and stroll.
Rick: You know Anne, we could retire here.
Night life is a Blackpool forte. The city has nine playhouses making it England's second theater city. Musicals and variety shows are offered nightly.
We're seeing a burlesleque–in-drag show that even English grannies are raving about.
With a tip of the hat to British music hall tradition, catchy show tunes from Broadway delight the crowds.
Blackpool claims to entertain 17 million Brits on holiday each year, so clubs and theaters are busy. They book everything from comedy reviews to celebrity headliners, especially during the high season — May through September.
After a nonstop weekend of beaches, amusement parks and night life, we're ready for a change of pace.
If nothing else, a visit to Blackpool accentuates the wonders of England's pristine Lake District.
The Lake District, about 30 miles by 30 miles, is North England's lush, green, mountain playground. While not impressive in sheer height — England's tallest peak is only 3,200 feet — it has a certain walking stick charm.
For more than a century these lakes dotted with lakes have attracted nature lovers. Wealthy and humble alike... Whether hiking along a lonely windblown ridge, climbing over a rock fence to look into the eyes of a ragamuffin sheep, or stumbling upon this family-friendly Packhorse Bridge, the region gives even tenderfeet a chance to feel very outdoorsy.
The region's southern lakes are handier to London and more promoted, but we're focusing on the northern lakes — Ullswater, Buttermere and Derwentwater — every bit as scenic, nowhere near the crowds.
Dove Cottage was the home of Cumbria's most famous nature-loving son, the poet William Wordsworth. He spent his most productive years — 1799 to 1808 — at Dove Cottage. It was here that the poet dipped his pen into the cry of the birds and helped make nature a religion in 19th century England.
Wordsworth's devotion to "plain living and high thinking" is clear in his poetry: "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky. So it was when my life began, so is it now I am a man. So be it when I shall grow old, or let me die!"
Renew your poetic license in the land that inspired writers from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Beatrix Potter. In the Cumbrian Lake District, nature still rules and people keep a wide-eyed but low profile.
It's only five miles around little Buttermere — an easy stroll for Anne and the kids. For pure lake land beauty this is my favorite.
From Buttermere, a scenic road winds past boulders left by the last glacier of the ice age and leads over rugged Honnister Pass.
Now we're heading for the main town of the north, Keswick and the remote Newlands Valley where we'll find a farmhouse B&B.
Keswick was an important mining center through the Middle Ages. But slate, copper and lead gave way to tree-hugging tourists in the 19th century. Hikers wait out the bad weather in the old town center or stay cozy in their choice of Victorian B&Bs.
Since we have a car, we've decided to drive beyond Keswick and find a farmhouse B&B in the majestic Newlands Valley. If this valley had a lake, it would be packed with tourists. But it doesn't — so it's just you, the sheep and Mother Nature.
Newlands Valley is studded with 500 year old farms. In my Britain guidebook, I recommend several farmhouse B&Bs in the valley. Here at the Keskadale farm, shearing day — even in a downpour — is reason to rush home from school.
With the help of a dog stuck on fast forward, the sheep are corralled, sorted, and hauled in for haircuts. Keith learned sheep shearing from his father and is teaching his sons.
Red paint identifies their flock.With the depressed wool market, a fleece like this fetches less than a dollar.
Farmer's son: Dad's the fifth generation, so I'll be taking it on after him.
Parents: We met at a young farmer's dance in 1976. Long time ago. It's a long time ago now, isn't it? Yeah. But it all started from there.
It's a familiar story in this valley — a working farm combined with a bed-and-breakfast passes from generation to generation.
The Lake District is green for good reason. An optimistic weather report is "rain mixed with bright spells."
Birkrigg Farm is another ideal B & B. Mrs. Beaty rents six homey bedrooms and welcomed us with a pot of tea.
Understandably proud of her view of Cat Bell, she points out stick figures enjoying the best ridge walk around. Inspired, Anne and I hiked — to our favorite bench in the front yard. Perfect peace on a 220-acre working farm.
Locals have appreciated nature here since the days of Egypt's pharoahs. The Castlerigg Stone Circle, like a mini-Stonehenge drenched in Lake District beauty, is a celestial calendar.
Over 3,000 years ago these stones were laid out on a line between the two tallest peaks on the horizon. For maximum goosepimples — as they say in England — be here at sunset.
While Anne and the kids take another hike, we're visiting one of the architectural wonders of North England. Durham, a two hour drive from the Lakes, is famous for its cathedral.
A sharp bend in the Wear River protected medieval Durham — providing a moat on three sides. Today the river ties Durham into a tidy little bundle and seems to protect it only from the modern world. From this path, we can ponder the cathedral as medieval pilgrims did.
As in many towns in Europe, a tangle of streets around the cathedral has a medieval atmosphere.
Although the country's third oldest university is here, Durham feels blue collar because of its association with the mining industry. Today Tourism flourishes.
For nearly a thousand years pilgrims have come to Durham for this...the Durham Cathedral, standing like a mighty fortress.
We're here to see the magnificent architecture and to attend an Evensong service. This cathedral offers the best and purest look at Norman architecture in England. It was built around the year 1100 to house the much venerated bones of St. Cuthbert.
Over the centuries, many artists have honored Cuthbert in their work. This stained glass is from the 20th century ... and here we see Cuthbert in a rare 12th century fresco.
St. Cuthbert was a great missionary monk and leader of the early Christian church in northern England. Monks like Cuthbert were intellectual candles who kept scholarship alive through the Dark Ages.
Later, that knowledge led to a strong Church and made wonders like the Durham Cathedral possible.
The architecture is unusually harmonious because it's all one style. The cathedral was built in just 40 years, and survives essentially unaltered.
In the rest of Europe this kind of architecture would be called Romanesque. But in England it's called "Norman" — named after the Norman invaders who brought it here from France.
Round arches and zig-zag decorations are text book Norman.
Church vicar: "The cathedral was begun in 1093 and the Benedictine monks worshipped here for 450 years and members of the Church of England have been worshipping since then. Mass has been said here every day for 900 years."
We're attending Evensong. It's performed six nights a week. I arrived early for a seat in the choir, the cozy, central church-within-a-church. In this vast building, the choir was the intimate space where medieval monks worshipped seven times a day.
Durham Cathedral is a grand finale for our adventure. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through Northern England — from Iron Bridge Gorge to the seaside amusements of Blackpool and from the pristine Lake District to Durham's magnificent cathedral. We've seen a great deal from England's fascinating past while enjoying its friendly present.
Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.