Heart of England and South Wales
After touring the manor house of a country lord in the Cotswolds and sampling hard cider near Wells, we go back in time to prehistoric Stonehenge, and the crowd-free stone circle in nearby Avebury. Then we visit King Arthur country at Glastonbury, and visit an evocative ruined abbey in South Wales.
Stanway House (Lord Neidpath's Home)
More of a humble crossroads community than a true village, sleepy Stanway is worth a visit mostly for its manor house, which offers an intriguing insight into the English aristocracy today. If you're in the area when it's open, it's well worth visiting. The Earl of Wemyss (formerly titled as Lord Neidpath) opens his melancholy home and grounds to visitors just two days a week in the summer. Walking through his house offers a unique glimpse into the lifestyles of England's eccentric and fading nobility.
The Vine has five rooms in a characteristic old Cotswolds house near the center of Stanton. It's owned by no-nonsense Jill, whose daughter, Sarah Jane, welcomes you to their large, lovingly worn family home. While it now suffers from absentee management, the Vine is convenient if you want to ride all day. Jill also runs the Cotswolds Riding Centre.
Mr. Wilkins' Land's End Cider Farm is a great back-door travel experience.
Locals claim this church has the largest collection of medieval statuary north of the Alps. It certainly has one of the widest and most elaborate facades I've seen, and unique figure-eight ("scissors arch") that supports in the nave.
As old as the pyramids, and older than the Acropolis and the Colosseum, this iconic stone circle amazed medieval Europeans, who figured it was built by a race of giants. And it still impresses visitors today. As one of Europe's most famous sights, Stonehenge does a valiant job of retaining an air of mystery and majesty (partly because cordons, which keep hordes of tourists from trampling all over it, foster the illusion that it stands alone in a field). Although some people are underwhelmed by Stonehenge, most of its almost one million annual visitors find that it's worth the trip.
The stone circle at Avebury is bigger (16 times the size), less touristy, and for many, more interesting than Stonehenge. You're free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds, and curious patterns from the past, as well as the village of Avebury, which grew up in the middle of this fascinating 1,400-foot-wide Neolithic circle.
During the 18th century, pilgrims flocked to Glastonbury for the well's healing powers. Have a drink or take some of the precious water home--they sell empty bottles to fill.
The massive and evocative ruins of the first Christian sanctuary in the British Isles stand mysteriously alive in a lush 36-acre park. Because it comes with a small museum, a dramatic history, and enthusiastic guides dressed in period costume, this is one of the most engaging to visit of England's many ruined abbeys.
The impressive but gutted old castle, spread over 30 acres, is the second largest in Britain after Windsor. English Earl Gilbert de Clare erected this squat behemoth to try to establish a stronghold in Wales. With two concentric walls, it was considered to be a brilliant arrangement of defensive walls and moats. Surrounded by lakes, gently rolling hills, and the town of Caerphilly, it's is the most visit-worthy I've seen in South Wales.
St. Fagans National History Museum (a.k.a. Museum of Welsh Life)
The best look anywhere at traditional Welsh folk life, St. Fagans (rhymes with “Bilbo Baggins”) is a 100-acre park with more than 40 carefully reconstructed and fully furnished old houses from all corners of this little country, as well as a “castle” (actually a Tudor-era manor house) that offers a glimpse of how the other half lived. Workshops feature busy craftsmen eager to demonstrate their skills, and each house comes equipped with a local expert warming up beside a toasty fire, happy to tell you anything you want to know about life in this old cottage. Ask questions.
This verse-worthy ruined-castle-of-an-abbey merits a five-mile detour off the motorway. With all the evocative ruined abbeys dotting the British landscape, why all the fuss about this one? Because few are as big, as remarkably intact, and as picturesquely situated. Most of the external walls of the 250-foot-long, 150-foot-wide church still stand, along with the exquisite window tracery and outlines of the sacristy, chapter house, and dining hall. The daylight that floods through the roofless ruins highlights the Gothic decorated arches — in those days a bold departure from Cistercian simplicity. The best visit is to simply stroll the cavernous interior and let your imagination roam, like the generations of Romantics before you.
In summer, the abbey is flooded with tourists, so visit early or late to miss the biggest crowds. Then take an easy 15-minute walk up to St. Mary’s Church (on the hill above town) for a view of the abbey, River Wye, and England just beyond.
See the Travel Details above 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.
Rick: Let's go!
After a run-in with an eccentric lord and some hard apple cider…
Mr. Wilkins: Good brew. Very good brew.
…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. From there we circle south to Wells, Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and into South Wales.
We're starting in the Cotswolds. It's always important to get out of the 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 [Stanway House], full of faded grandeur, to visitors.
Lord Neidpath: This is the great hall, our biggest room in the house.
Rick: Now, how old is this house?
Lord Neidpath: This house is probably about 1590, but there has been something here since 800.
Rick: Do you still have gatherings in this room?
Lord Neidpath: We have quite a lot, yes.
Rick: So what is this big table?
Lord Neidpath: This is a very traditional English game called "shuffle board" or "shovel board."
Rick: Can we try a couple of these?
Lord Neidpath: Good shot.
Rick: What's this funny-looking chair here?
Lord Neidpath: This funny-looking chair here is a Chippendale exercising chair. So it's springy, and it's the first "sprung" furniture, and all modern or fairly modern sprung sofas all descend from it. And the theory is, you sit on it like that, and then you put your arms up on these rails here, and then you bounce up and down for about half an hour, um, every morning. And it's the 18th-century equivalent of jogging. It sort of shakes up your liver.
Rick: What is a lord?
Lord Neidpath: What is a lord? It's a peer. I'd have to say, somebody who is entitled to sit in Parliament.
Rick: Are you a lord?
Lord Neidpath: Well, I'm not actually a peer, but I am the son of a peer.
Rick: Son of a peer. OK.
Lord Neidpath: This is a rather beautiful bit of furniture, called a William and Mary seaweed marquetry cabinet. Done about 1690. Very fine, beautiful fretwork; it's a good fretwork as anybody 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 there. And that's his hair here. It says here, "Papa's hair cut June 5, Thursday, 1755," and you can see that's as fresh as if 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 ago. And me sidesaddle there, out hunting. Now Rick: four poster.
Rick: I bet the tourists love the four posters.
Jill: Oh they do; they certainly do. This is the oldest part of the house.
Rick: Is this original?
Jill: Yes, 400 years.
Rick: What's it made out of?
Guest: Every morning we had 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: Hi 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. I mean, it's not…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.
Mr. Wilkins: Hello sir.
Rick: Are you Mr. Wilkins?
Mr. Wilkins: I am, sir.
Rick: I'm Rick Steves.
Mr. Wilkins: Pleased to meet you. Would you like a sample of the cider, at all?
Rick: I would love just to learn about cider here. Can you show me your farm?
Mr. Wilkins: Yeah!
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.
Mr. Wilkins: There you are then, Rick, all the best.
Rick: Here's to scrumpy — cheers! Thank you. Hey, that's good. I've seen cider all over England in pubs. Is apple cider apple cider?
Mr. Wilkins: Well, this is what you call the real scrumpy cider, the proper farmhouse cider. A lot of the pub cider is sort of filtered and gassed and chemicals, and that's not the real thing.
Rick: Is it as strong as beer?
Mr. Wilkins: Yes, it's stronger than the beer — it's about double the strength of ordinary straight bitter, like.
Rick: So it could be a little dangerous?
Mr. Wilkins: Well, yes. It's a little potent if you're not used to it — make your legs go funny if you don't look out.
Rick: I heard a lot of pubs don't serve scrumpy.
Mr. Wilkins: No, some pubs don't. They just don't want to know it, now, I think.
Rick: Why not?
Mr. Wilkins: Well, they say it causes trouble, but there's no trouble at all. If anybody drank enough cider, they'd lie down and go to sleep. They won't want 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: Yup. Yeah, yeah, it makes them very angry, or it can do. 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: Yup. 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 claim 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 Matthews introduced us to the cathedral.
Canon Melvyn: Here we are. This is the west front of Wells cathedral. It contains the greatest collection of medieval statuary anywhere in Europe. And all of this was painted, full of gold, green, blue, yellows, all sorts of colors. And what it really is, is a sort of welcome into the cathedral. These are all the people saying: "Hi, welcome, come in." At the top there you've got the nine orders of angels, and then the 12 apostles, with St. Andrew, our patron, and then Christ himself at the top with the hand of welcome, saying "Come in; we're glad you're here."
Inside, you'll be warmly greeted...
Greeter: Good afternoon, welcome to Wells Cathedral...
Rick: Thank you very much.
...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 have to connect by bus from nearby Salisbury. But by car it's a handy rest stop off the highway a couple 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 — over 200 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.
Stonehenge is roped off and viewable only from a distance, but England is dotted with less famous but 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 back 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, who was an uncle of Christ, actually came to Glastonbury. He could have sat right here. Joseph was a tin trader, and even back 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 A.D. 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.
Keeper: The Chalice is the symbol, the Chalice is the vessel within which the Holy Grail is found.
Many think the Grail lies at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of the Glastonbury Tor.
Keeper: In the 18th century, a series of healings happened in one if the pools here in Chalice Well, and thousands of people visited here at that time. Today, of course, the healings are still taking place of course, but in a more subtle way. Now we are often looking for healing of the mind, body, and soul, rather than just physical ailments.
But Michael Orchard, keeper of the well, defines "Holy Grail" differently.
Keeper: When we look within the well, here, when we look within it we see our own reflection. And the legend, the legends surrounding the chalice are really for us to look within. That's where we will find the truth. So in that sense it is symbolic of the quest.
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, they 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 these days?
Shopkeeper: It's hard to say, really.
Rick: Think you could sell me a bellybutton ring?
Shopkeeper: Have you got your bellybutton pierced?
Rick: Yeah…no. Let's try it. Show me how.
Rick: This is the basic ring…?
Shopkeeper: Yeah this 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: Oh £6.99; that's not bad at all.
Shopkeeper: It's the first type of ring you usually have put in. That's about the usual size of ring you'd wear in the belly button.
Rick: You got a pierced bellybutton?
Shopkeeper: I have indeed.
Rick: Let's see. Oh look at that — that's very nice.
Shopkeeper: I did it myself.
Today Glastonbury is a New Age mecca for tie-dyed pilgrims.
Now we're nipping into southeast Wales. It's smooth motorway all the way. To save an hour, we're having a rolling lunch. We've got our baps — that's English for "bun," we've got local cheeses, a travel-friendly tube of original English mustard, and we've outfitted a whole pantry here for less than the cost of a restaurant dinner. Simon, you want English, blue, or cheddar?
This bridge connects England with South Wales. The Severn River is the border. Welcome to Wales — or Croeso i Gymru!
We've just left Angle-land and we're in the proud land of Wales. In the fifth and sixth centuries, Angles 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, 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 the 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 thought." 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'.
Rick: It's stronger than beer, isn't it?
Customer: Yeah. That'll give you a hard time if you sit down and you think, yeah, you'll get up and walk away…it goes to the legs first.
Rick: It's such a sad song. What's going on?
Lord Neidpath: It's Chopin's Funeral March.
Rick: Of all the songs why do you play that one?
Lord Neidpath: It's easiest.
Rick: Attracts a rowdy crowd then?
Mr. Wilkins: Yeah, but some of these youngsters, I mean, looking for trouble — if they drink Coke they get in a fight. If they drink enough of the cider they lie down and go to sleep!