The Heart of England
The heartland of England has sights that put the "Great" in Britain — its venerable universities, its royal heritage, and reminders of its industrial might. At Oxford and Cambridge, we'll see where kings and prime ministers studied. At Blenheim Palace — Winston Churchill's birthplace — we'll connect with English aristocracy. At Ironbridge Gorge, we fire up memories of the Industrial Revolution. And all along the way, we'll be driving on the left and polishing our pub etiquette.
This stunning chapel, built from 1446 to 1515 by Henrys VI through VIII, is one of Cambridge's main sights. It's smart to visit early in the day, as it's often closed in the late afternoon and can have erratic hours during school events. When school's in session, you're welcome to enjoy an evensong service in this glorious space, with a famous choir made up of men and boys.
Oxford's Divinity School, constructed in 1427 for teaching theology, is worth a look for its impressive fan-vaulted ceiling. Duke Humfrey's Library, upstairs, is only accessible on an guided tour (which includes the Divinity School). Though the tour shows you only a small section of the library, it tells much about its history and the huge stockpile of books below ground.
Like the British Library in London, this wing of Oxford's Bodleian Library has one or two rooms filled with gorgeously lit and displayed precious books, manuscripts, and letters.
Here, in one of Europe's oldest museums, you'll find a concise and well-displayed exhibit filling three small floors with cases of scientific bric-a-brac — including a rare spherical astrolabe, equipment used in developing penicillin, and Lewis Carroll's photo-developing kit.
Oxford's most picturesque college welcomes visitors throughout the year, and offers guided tours in the middle of summer. Evensong services in its exquisite chapel take place most evenings during the school term.
Of Oxford's colleges, Christ Church is the largest and most prestigious (and, some think, most pretentious). It's also the most popular (and most expensive) for tourists to visit — partly thanks to its historic fame, but mostly as a location in the Harry Potter movies. Its grounds include a grand old dining hall, a giant quad, and an impressive chapel that doubles as a cathedral. Understandably, the dining hall — the prime attraction for Harry Potter fans — is closed to outsiders when students are actually eating there; check the website for opening hours and plan accordingly.
Too many palaces can send you into a furniture-wax coma, but as a sightseeing experience and in simple visual grandeur, this palace is among Europe's finest. Of the various sightseeing options in this huge place, the sumptuous state rooms (best enjoyed on a guided tour) and the Winston Churchill Exhibition are the most worthwhile. And the 2,000-acre gardens are as majestic to some as the palace itself.
The pleasant town of Warwick is home to England's finest medieval castle, which dominates the banks of the River Avon just upstream from Stratford. The castle is impressive in itself, but its lineup of theme park-type experiences makes it particularly entertaining, especially for kids. The castle-related attractions, while pricey, offer something for everyone, and on a sunny day the grounds are a treat to explore.
Ten museums clustered within a few miles focus on the Iron Bridge and all that it represents — but not all are worth your time. The Blists Hill Victorian Town (described below) is by far the best. The Museum of the Gorge attempts to give a historical overview, but the displays are humble — its most interesting feature is its short video, which helps give context to other area sights. The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron is interesting to metalheads. "Enginuity" is just for kids. The original Abraham Darby Furnace (free to view) is a shrine to 18th-century technology. And the Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalport China Museum, and Broseley Pipeworks delve into industries that picked up the slack when the iron industry shifted away from the Severn Valley in the 1850s.
This former "best pub in Britain," across the street from the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, is filled with locals enjoying excellent ales and simple pub grub — nothing fancy — and has a tradition of offering free samples from a lineup of featured beers.
This immersive open-air folk museum thrills kids and kids-at-heart. Here you can wander through 50 acres of commerce, industry, and chatty locals. It's particularly lively (with everything open and lots of docents — and engaged kids) on weekends and in summer; off-peak times can be sleepy. Compared to other open-air museums in Britain, it's refreshingly compact and manageable.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves. Back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're having a grand old time, navigating our way through the Heart of England! Thanks for joining us.
In this episode, we'll visit some of the sights that put the "great" in Britain: reminders of its industrial might, its royal heritage, venerable universities, and a grand palace with a pretty impressive backyard.
We'll visit the schools of kings and prime ministers, wind up a giant catapult, marvel at Gothic architecture, learn some pub etiquette, and drop in on Churchill's palatial birthplace. We'll learn to drive British, and then we'll fire up some memories at the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
In England, we start about 60 miles north of London in Cambridge, then visit Oxford with nearby Blenheim Palace before venturing north to Warwick and Ironbridge Gorge.
Cambridge is famous for its prestigious university, and it's the epitome of a university town, with stately colleges, and distinguished alumni ranging from Isaac Newton to Prince Charles. Proud locals love to say: DNA was first modeled just over there, the electron was discovered in that very lab, and the atom was first split just up there.
The university dominates — and owns — most of Cambridge, a historic town of about 120,000 people. It's compact and everything's within a pleasant walk. The town is built along the sleepy Cam River, which is lined with esteemed colleges. And fronting the colleges is the main street, with most of the commercial energy.
As you stroll notice how peaceful the town is. Lots of bikes weaving through lots of pedestrians.
Your sightseeing revolves around the school, its traditions, and its quirky spirit. For example, this clock was unveiled by the late Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. The grotesque grasshopper that relentlessly pulls time forward periodically winks at passersby. The message? Time is passing, so live every moment to the fullest.
England's greatest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have been rivals since the 1300s. We'll visit Oxford later. Each has the same basic heritage and design — no main campus; instead, the many colleges are scattered throughout the charming town center.
By catching one of the many guided town walks, you get an insider's look at an urban mix of what locals call "town and gown."
Guide: In medieval Europe, it was the church that was in charge of higher education. And here in Cambridge we have 31 colleges — all with the same design: You have a beautiful green court; set around the court are the buildings where the students eat, sleep, pray, and study.
Many colleges welcome the public to browse around. At their historic front gates, you'll find a porter's lodge. The porter delivers mail, monitors who comes and goes, and keeps people off the grass.
Colleges have centuries of heritage, and you feel that in their exquisite libraries. Here in Corpus Christi's Parker Library, that college's literary treasures are proudly on display, such as letters from Anne Boleyn (before husband Henry VIII lopped off her head), and a first edition of Newton's groundbreaking treatise, Principia Mathematica.
The exclusive putting-green quality of the courtyard lawns is a huge deal here — generally only senior professors can walk on the "courts," the centerpiece of each college campus.
One of the powerhouse colleges at Cambridge is King's College, which has a central courtyard to match its esteemed reputation.
The 500-year-old King's College Chapel, built by Henrys VI through VIII, is England's best surviving example of late Gothic architecture — with its emphasis on vertical lines, it's called "Perpendicular Gothic." This is the most impressive building in Cambridge, with the largest single span of vaulted roof anywhere — 2.,000 tons of glorious fan vaulting. Here, you can enjoy the most complete collection of original 16th-century, Renaissance stained glass in existence. With the help of this closed captioning — handy if you can read Latin — you can wander through the entire Bible. And the Adoration of the Magi, a masterpiece by Rubens, adorns the altar.
Trinity College, just next door, was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII. It's the richest and biggest in town. Cambridge has produced nearly a hundred Nobel Prize winners. And about a third of them were Trinity graduates.
The great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, who both studied and taught at Trinity, famously clapped his hands and timed the echo to calculate the speed of sound. Huh…1,120 feet per second…or…761 miles per hour — at this altitude.
The colleges that face the Cam River each have garden-like backyards that combine to make the riverbank feel like a lush and exclusive park.
A beloved Cambridge tradition is a romantic and graceful glide past these colleges in a traditional flat-bottomed punt. Skilled locals make the ride look effortless.
Guide: So, this is Trinity College, and this is the Wren Library.
You can hire a boat to enjoy a witty narration by a student as you're poled past fine college architecture.
Guide: Yeah, these are called the "Backs" — the backs of the river. There's eight colleges along the river. And, so this area is called the Backs because, quite simply, it's the back of those colleges. The only way you can see the backs of these colleges is along the river, so the best way to see the backs of all the colleges is by punting.
Or, for a little levity and probably more exercise than you really want, why not rent one yourself? The punts are tougher to maneuver than they look.
England's easy to explore by car, train, or bus. Rather than bother with the expense and the headache of a car in the big cities, we took the train from London to Cambridge, and now we're gonna catch the bus to Oxford.
This direct bus is easier, cheaper, and just as fast as the train. It costs about as much as a pub lunch and we get to enjoy the view along the way. In about three hours, we're there.
Oxford, founded in the 10th century, is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Its university was born back in the early Middle Ages. And ever since the first homework was assigned, the University of Oxford's graduates have helped to shape Western civilization. It brags that its teachers and alumni include a couple dozen prime ministers, over 50 Nobel Prize winners, and nearly a dozen saints.
Today it's a thriving town of 160,000 — part industry, part university, and part bedroom community for Londoners. It's a lively town filled with fun and energy during both the academic term — when you'll see students everywhere — or during summer break. We're here in July, when tourists outnumber the students.
Like in Cambridge, the river is filled with tourists…still working on their punting skills.
Oxford's main drag, High Street, is lined with both shops and colleges. Again, it's a mix that illustrates that town/gown division.
There's been a tension between the privileged university population and the hardscrabble regular people of Oxford for over 800 years. In fact, it was a town/gown spat back in 1209 that drove a group of professors and students out of Oxford, and to the more welcoming town of Cambridge — where they helped to found that rival university.
The historic heart of Oxford University is its Old Schools Quadrangle. In the courtyard of its main library, the quad is surrounded by the university's first set of purpose-built classrooms — each marked with the original curriculum: metaphysics, astronomy, music, moral philosophy, and so on.
Oxford, like Cambridge, is designed on the "collegiate system." While each of the many colleges nurtures its students in its own way, the university provides the curriculum. And while students live, and study, and are mentored in their respective colleges, it's here, in the university buildings, that they go to class, are tested, and enjoy the great ceremonial events that came with being a student at Oxford.
To imagine studying here in the 1400s, pop into the Divinity School to see the university's first formal classroom. Here, under this impressive fan-vaulted ceiling, the mission of higher education was particularly respected.
Upstairs is Duke Humfrey's Library. In those days, libraries were placed above classrooms for maximum sunlight and minimum moisture. It's a world of books dating back to the Middle Ages, stacked neatly under a painted wooden ceiling. Books were considered so precious that many were actually chained to the desk.
Of course, there are plenty of modern buildings, too. In a wing of the university's fabled Bodleian Library [the Weston Library], visitors are free to peruse its "Treasures" gallery, a literary treasure chest celebrating the genius of Oxford over the centuries. You'll see a Shakespeare First Folio (18 plays from 1623), an original score of Handel's Messiah — written in 1741, and a copy of the Magna Carta from 1217, when King John was forced to grant his nobility certain rights…opening the door to democracy. It seems this copy was nibbled on by a mouse — fancy meal.
Across the street is the Museum of the History of Science. It's filled with scientific equipment that the scholars of Oxford used to change our world. There's chemistry — the 18th-century boom in the study of oxygen and other gases. Medicine: After 1850 anesthetics and antiseptics made major surgery more survivable. Microscopes helped scholars observe until then unseen worlds. Science enjoyed the support of England's royalty. King George III had his own ornate microscope — made of silver in 1770. And Einstein's chalkboard still features his hand-scrawled equations from 1931. Obviously, according to the last four lines…the universe is expanding.
Like at Cambridge, you can visit many of Oxford's colleges. Magdalen College — where C. S. Lewis taught — is the prettiest. Established in 1458, its cloister is a monastic-feeling square ringed by the dining hall, chapel, and student dorms. The grounds are meticulously kept — as if to inspire Magdalen students to excellence.
Christ Church is Oxford's grandest college, with the most esteemed list of alumni.
It was founded by King Henry VIII back in the 16th century on the site of an old monastery. While it still has a close connection with the royal family, it's most popular these days because scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.
Harry Potter fans love the dining hall. The grand hall, with its splendid hammer-beam ceiling, is ringed with portraits of alumni gazing down, as if wondering "who's Harry Potter?"
Oxford or Cambridge? That's the question. I'd just see just one or the other to save time for something entirely different on your itinerary. Both are about an hour from London. Cambridge may be more charming, with its river and gardens. Oxford is more substantial, with more to see and do. One plus for Oxford: It's on the way to our next stop: Blenheim Palace.
Blenheim Palace is the Duke of Marlborough's home. England has plenty of noble palaces in its countryside. This is my vote for the finest. Given to the first Duke of Marlborough for a great military victory, Blenheim Palace is now home to his descendant — the 12th duke of Marlborough — and he welcomes the public, whose entrance fees help maintain his huge estate.
It's remarkable to think that two of the most important military victories in the entire history of Britain — while two centuries apart — were overseen by commanders from the same family: Churchill.
John Churchill (who was the first Duke of Marlborough) defeated Louis XIV and the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. And Winston Churchill, who was born in this palace, won the Battle of Britain and helped defeat Hitler in World War II.
In the aptly named Great Hall, you'll be dwarfed by the grandeur of the palace. A long hall leads through a series of richly decorated staterooms. These sumptuous rooms are lined with portraits of past dukes; this is number four and his family. Photos of the present duke's family are a reminder that the palace is still lived in. Several dukes were rocked in this ornate cradle (as babies). Winston Churchill was born in this room in 1874. His golden locks — first cut when he was five years old — hang above the bed. The dining room has hosted about 300 years of fancy banquets.
The Blenheim Tapestry shows the moment the French commander surrendered to that first Marlborough — quite dashing on his white horse. In the distance we see the latest artillery, the carnage of battle, and legions of soldiers.
The remarkable "long library" was, in the 18th century, one of the finest private libraries in Europe. It's overseen by Queen Anne, who honored the first duke by giving him this palace, which remains in his family to this day.
The palace's enchanting gardens are vast and feel natural. But the sublime lake and beautifully landscaped vistas were carefully planned. The majestic water terraces were designed to compete with Versailles…and they do. The tea garden is an ideal place from which to ponder it all. And the column of victory, capped by the first Duke of Marlborough, oversees everything.
For a quick getaway, we're heading north on the motorway. England's excellent motorways are beautifully engineered and toll free. In an hour we're at one of England's most entertaining castles.
Warwick Castle has been turned into a virtual theme park. It's a hit with families — and, from dungeon to lookout, the enterprising Earl of Warwick is wringing maximum tourist dollars out of his castle.
Along with all the entertainment, there are centuries of history. The man-made defensive mound is where the original Norman castle was built in 1068. Back then, a wooden stockade defined the courtyard in the way the stony walls do now.
You can climb the towers and ramble the ramparts. Today's castle is a 15th-century fortified shell, surrounding a 19th-century noble residence.
Inside, the cavernous Great Hall is decorated with 16th-century weaponry and dazzling armor. Imagine, five hundred years ago, the pageantry of a jousting tournament.
The elegant staterooms are brought to life by wax figures. We've dropped in on a royal weekend gala — and we're going to party like it's 1898: The Countess of Warwick — considered the most beautiful woman in Victorian England — greets her guests. The latest hits are played live (there's no other way). And big-name aristocrats have dropped in, including a young Winston Churchill.
The castle works to bring the Middle Ages back to life. Out at the moat, an archer shows off his mastery of the all-important longbow.
And, down by the river, families gather for a demonstration of a catapult-like weapon called a "trebuchet," built from 13th-century drawings. The crew powers the treadmill, which raises the six-ton counterweight. When triggered, this hurls a boulder 200 yards. Eight hundred years ago, if this machine rolled up to your castle…it was a very bad day.
Driving farther north, we head for our last stop. Leaving the motorway, we do-si-do our way through a series of roundabouts. Britain's roundabouts are fun, once you understand them. Try to merge without stopping…but always yield to drivers already in the circle.
And relax. If necessary, give yourself a free exploratory loop to be sure you've got the right exit.
Driving along the sleepy Severn River Valley, we come to Ironbridge Gorge, named after its iconic bridge — the first iron bridge ever built. With the original factories of the Industrial Age once lining the valley, this is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
In its glory days, the Severn River Valley gave the world its first iron wheels, steam-powered locomotive, and cast-iron bridge. The museums here take you back to those heady days, when Britain was racing into the modern age and taking the rest of the West with her.
This bridge was built in 1779 — while England was at war with her American colonies — to show off a wonderful new building material. Lacking experience with iron, they erred on the side of sturdiness.
Just up the valley, amid the ruins of a mighty industrial plant, is a memorial built around an invention that made iron in a revolutionary way.
The 19th century was an exciting time. With new materials and technology, Europe built more in the 19th century than in all previous centuries combined. Within a few decades, the entire continent was laced together by iron train tracks. And it all started here with Abraham Darby's blast furnace.
Little remains of Darby's first innovative furnace, which was built in 1709. But this made the mass production of iron possible, which eventually kicked off the modern industrial age.
The Severn River Valley is full of evocative industrial ruins. Take the time to walk through these sights imagining the way it might have been two centuries ago, and enjoy the scene as nature slowly reclaims the site of so much heavy industry.
The town of Ironbridge, just a few red brick blocks gathered around its bridge, was once a powerhouse. No longer engulfed in a smoke-belching bustle, today it's just a sleepy base from which to explore this area.
Our B&B fills an old mansion. And with advice from our hosts, we know just where to enjoy a good pub evening. The Coalbrookdale Inn is a classic neighborhood pub. "Pub" is short for "public house," and it's often where the community gathers. It's a place where you can feel entirely comfortable going in alone and striking up conversations.
Rick: So this is your "local" here?
Andy: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
Rick: How long have you been coming here?
Andy: 25… Since the early '90s.
Rick: Hey — so, Andy, if you come into the bar, and you sit at the table, you'll never get served?
Andy: No, you'll never get served all night. No, you have to go the bar and tell them exactly what you want.
Rick: Beers with a long handle and beers with a little short tab: What's the difference?
Andy: These are fairly traditional real ales, and the ones with the short handles over there are the commercial stuff, like, as in lagers and the ciders.
Rick: So with the long handle, they're physically pulling it up from a keg in the bottom.
Andy: Yeah. It's a mechanical pump. Yeah.
Rick: And if you ask for a "beer," you're normally going to get a pint, right?
Andy: Yes, yes.
Rick: Can you ask for a half pint?
Andy: Yes, you can ask for a half pint if you want.
Rick: What would you think if I asked for a half pint?
Andy: I'd think you was a lightweight.
Rick: I think you'd be right.
Of the many museums here in the valley, the Blists Hill Victorian Town, creatively humanizing the age, is my favorite. You'll wander through a 50-acre industrial site with a re-created town from the 1890s, staffed with characters in Victorian dress.
Pop in to whatever shop appeals. We're meeting the candlestick maker. Repeatedly dipping her candles into the wax, she reminded us, "There's no rest for the Victorian worker." Then she shows off her clever double-wick candle.
Guide: This is a Victorian double-wicked candle. The flame can jump from wick to wick, and it won't blow out so easily.
Around the corner, the printer is hard at work. Even with ingenious mechanization, mass production still required skilled labor.
As the engineer fires up a replica of the first steam-powered locomotive from 1802, we're reminded that Britain was the workshop of the world. And that the combination of steam power, iron wheels, and iron tracks helped propel the British Empire to world dominance.
Today, as industry evolves and this early technology is eclipsed by our digital and global age, museums like this help us appreciate the impact of the relentless march of progress.
I hope you've enjoyed our journey through the heart of England. Royal, intellectual, industrial, and more…it's a land of many dimensions. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.