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Monday, November 27, 2006

Introduction to Great Britain

Planning a trip to Great Britain can present you with a bewildering array of choices. We've scoured the country in search of the best places and experiences, and in this section we'll share our very personal and opinionated choices. We hope they'll give you some ideas and get you started.

The Best of Legendary Britain

Stonehenge (near Salisbury, Wiltshire): The most celebrated prehistoric monument in all of Europe, Stonehenge is some 5,000 years old. Despite the "definitive" books written on the subject, its original purpose remains a mystery. Was it an astronomical observatory for a sun-worshipping cult? The romantic theory that Stonehenge was "constructed by the druids" is nonsense, because it was completed before the druids reached Britain in the 3rd century B.C., but the legend still persists.

Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset): One of the great abbeys of England and once a center of culture and learning, Glastonbury quickly fell into ruins following the dissolution of the monasteries. One story about the abbey says that Jesus came here as a child with Joseph of Arimathea. According to another legend, King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, which was the site of the fabled Avalon. Today, the abbey's large ruins are open to the public.

Tintagel (Cornwall): On the windswept Cornish coast, the castle of Tintagel is said to have been the birthplace of King Arthur. The castle was actually built much later than the Arthurian legend, around 1150. But who wants to stand in the way of a good story? No one in Cornwall, that's for sure. Tintagel merrily touts the King Arthur legend -- in town, you can order an Excaliburger!

The Loch Ness Monster: Scotland's most famous inhabitant and one of the country's greatest tourist attractions may not even exist! File that under "believe it or not." On any given day, you'll find visitors standing along the banks of Loch Ness waiting for Nessie to appear. Real or imagined, she's virtually the mascot of Scotland.

The Best Castles, Palaces & Historic Homes

Woburn Abbey: A Cistercian abbey for 4 centuries and the seat of the dukes of Bedford, Woburn Abbey has been visited by everybody from Queen Victoria to Marilyn Monroe. You'll see Queen Victoria's bedroom and the Canaletto room, with its 21 perspectives of Venice. The grounds, even more popular than the house, include the Wild Animal Kingdom, the best zoological collection in England after the London Zoo.

Windsor Castle: The largest inhabited stronghold in the world and England's largest castle, Windsor Castle has been a royal abode since William the Conqueror constructed a motte and bailey on the site 4 years after conquering England. Severely damaged by fire in 1992, the castle has been mainly restored. Its major attraction is the great Perpendicular Chapel of St. George's, begun by Edward IV.

Blenheim Palace (Woodstock): England's answer to Versailles, this extravagant baroque palace was the home of the 11th duke of Marlborough as well as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Sir John Vanbrugh, of Castle Howard fame, designed the structure. Sarah, the duchess of Marlborough, wanted "a clean sweet house and garden be it ever so small." That she didn't get -- the structure measures 255m (850 ft.) from end to end. Capability Brown designed the gardens.

Knole (Kent): Begun in 1456 by the archbishop of Canterbury, Knole is celebrated for its 365 rooms (one for each day of the year), its 52 staircases (for each week of the year), and its 7 courts (for each day of the week). Knole, one of England's largest private houses and set in a 1,000-acre deer park, is a splendid example of Tudor architecture.

Penshurst Place (Kent): One of England's most outstanding country homes, this mansion was the former residence of Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86). In its day, the house attracted literati, including Ben Jonson. The original 1346 hall has seen the subsequent addition of Tudor, Jacobean, and neo-Gothic wings.

Hever Castle & Gardens (Kent): This was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1903, American multimillionaire William Waldorf Astor, bought the castle, restored it, and landscaped the grounds. From the outside, it still looks like it did in Tudor times, with a moat and drawbridge protecting the castle.

Beaulieu Abbey-Palace House (Beaulieu, in New Forest): The home of the first Lord Montagu, Palace House blends monastic Gothic architecture from the Middle Ages with Victorian trappings. Yet many visitors consider the property's National Motor Museum, with a collection of more than 250 antique automobiles, more fascinating than the house.

Harewood House & Bird Garden (West Yorkshire): Edwin Lascelles began constructing this house in 1759, and his "pile" has been called an essay in Palladian architecture. The grand design involved some of the major talents of the day, including Robert Adam, Thomas Chippendale, and Capability Brown, who developed the grounds. A 4 1/2-acre bird garden features exotic species from all over the world.

Castle Howard (North Yorkshire): This was Sir John Vanbrugh's grand masterpiece and also the first building he ever designed. Many will recognize it as the principal location for Brideshead Revisited. A gilt-and-painted dome tops the striking entrance, and the park around Castle Howard is one of the most grandiose in Europe.

Edinburgh Castle: Few other buildings symbolize the grandeur of an independent Scotland as clearly as this one. Begun around A.D. 1000 on a hilltop high above the rest of Edinburgh, it witnessed some of the bloodiest and most treacherous events in Scottish history, including its doomed 1573 defense by Scottish patriot Grange in the name of Mary Queen of Scots.

Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh): Throughout the clan battles for independence from England, this palace served as a pawn between opposing forces being demolished and rebuilt at the whim of whomever held power at the time. In its changing fortunes, it has housed a strange assortment of monarchs involved in traumatic events: Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, James VII (before his ascendancy to the throne), and French King Charles X (on his forced abdication after an 1830 revolution). The building's present form dates from the late 1600s, when it was rebuilt in a dignified neo-Palladian style. Today, Holyroodhouse is one of Queen Elizabeth II's official residences.

Culzean Castle (6.5km/4 miles west of Maybole): Designed for comfort and prestige, this castle was built in the late 1700s by Scotland's most celebrated architect, Robert Adam, as a replacement for a dark, dank, fortified tower that had stood for longer than anyone could remember. It was donated to the National Trust for Scotland just after World War II. A suite was granted to Dwight D. Eisenhower for his lifetime use, in gratitude for his role in staving off a foreign invasion of Britain.

Stirling Castle (Stirling): Stirling is a triumph of Renaissance ornamentation, a startling contrast to the severe bulk of many other Scottish castles. Despite its beauty, after its completion in 1540 the castle was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the British Isles, thanks partly to its position on a rocky crag.

Scone Palace (2 miles from Perth): As early as A.D. 900, Scottish kings were crowned here, on a lump of granite so permeated with ancient magic the English hauled it off to Westminster Abbey in the 13th century, where it remained until 1995. The building you see today was rebuilt in 1802 from ruins that incorporate a 1580 structure and stones laid during the dim early days of Scottish and Pictish union.

Glamis Castle (Dundee): This castle's core was built for defense against rival clans during the 1400s, but over the centuries it evolved into a luxurious dwelling. The ghost of Lady Glamis, whom James V had burnt as a witch when she resisted his annexation of her castle, is said to haunt the property. It figured into the ambitions of Macbeth, thane of Glamis, as well.

Caernarfon Castle (North Wales): This is as close as Wales comes to having a royal palace. It even impressed Dr. Samuel Johnson on a visit. It was here that the investiture of Charles as prince of Wales took place in 1969. Construction started in 1283 and proceeded rapidly, as 11 great towers and massive curtain walls were built to protect the castle's interior.

The Best Cathedrals

Westminster Abbey (London): One of the world's greatest Anglo-French Gothic buildings has witnessed a parade of English history -- from the crowning of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066 to the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. With few exceptions, the kings and queens of England have all been crowned here, and many are buried here as well.

Canterbury Cathedral: The object of countless pilgrimages, as described in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this cathedral replaced one that was destroyed by fire in 1067. A new cathedral, dedicated in 1130, was also destroyed by fire in 1174, when the present structure was built. Thomas à Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered here, and his shrine was an important site for pilgrims until the Reformation.

Winchester Cathedral: Construction of the cathedral that dominates this ancient city and capital of old Wessex began in 1079. In time, Winchester Cathedral became England's longest medieval cathedral, noted for its 12-bay nave. Many famous people are buried here, including Jane Austen.

Salisbury Cathedral: The most stylistically unified of the cathedrals in England, this edifice was built between 1220 and 1265. The landmark spire -- its most striking feature -- was completed in 1325. Salisbury Cathedral epitomizes the Early English style of architecture.

York Minster: The largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps is also among the grandest, with incredible stained-glass windows. In fact, these windows combine to create the largest single surviving collection of medieval stained glass in England. Its unusual octagonal Chapter House has a late-15th-century choir screen by William Hyndeley.

Melrose Abbey (The Borders): If it weren't for the abbey's location in the frequently devastated Borders, this would be one of the world's most spectacular ecclesiastical complexes. Founded in the 1100s, Melrose acquired vast wealth and was the target of its covetous enemies; it was burned and rebuilt several times before the Protestant takeover of Scotland. Today, this is one of the world's most beautiful ruins, a site immortalized by Robert Burns, who advised people to visit it only by moonlight.

Cathedral of St. Kentigern (Glasgow): In the 7th century, St. Mungo built a wooden structure here, intending it as his headquarters and eventual tomb. It burned down but was rebuilt in the 1300s. St. Kentigern is mainland Scotland's only complete medieval cathedral, with a form based extensively on the pointed arch. In the 1600s, the Calvinists stripped it of anything hinting at papist idolatry, although a remarkable set of sculptures atop its stone nave screen, said to be unique in Scotland, still represent the seven deadly sins.

Dunfermline Abbey (Fife): During the 1100s, in its role as Scotland's Westminster Abbey, Dunfermline became one of Europe's wealthiest churches. Three kings of Scotland were born here, and 22 members of the Scottish royal family were buried here. In the early 1800s, its ruined premises were partially restored to what you see today. Several years later, a different kind of benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, was born within the cathedral's shadow.

Llandaff Cathedral (Llandaff, Wales): Begun under the Normans but added to the Middle Ages, this cathedral outside Cardiff makes a dramatic impression. From the 13th century, its west front is one of the best works of medieval art in Wales. That didn't prevent Cromwell's armies from using the edifice as a beer hall.

The Best Gardens

Royal Botanic (Kew) Gardens (near London): A delight in any season. Everything from delicate exotics to common flowers and shrubs bloom in profusion in this 300-acre garden. It's all part of a vast lab dedicated to identifying plants from all parts of the globe and growing some for commercial purposes. An easy trip from London, Kew Gardens possesses the largest herbarium on earth. Fabled landscape architect Capability Brown helped lay out some of the grounds.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden (Kent): A notorious literary couple, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, created this garden in sunny Kent. Its flamboyant parentage, unusual landscaping (the grounds were laid between the surviving parts of an Elizabethan mansion), and location just 21 miles (34km) northeast of Cranbrook make it the most intriguing garden on London's doorstep. Overrun by tourists in summer, it's lovely in autumn, when the colors are at their dramatic best.

Stourhead (near Shaftesbury): Outside of the Greater London area, this is the most famous garden in England. The birthplace of English landscape gardening, Stourhead is still the best-executed example of the taste for natural landscaping that swept England in the 1700s. The grounds have been compared to the painting of an old master such as Constable, but in 3-D. It's home to a wealth of flowering shrubs, trees, and beds upon beds of multihued blooms. Grottoes, bridges, and temples add to the allure.

Hidcote Manor Garden (near Chipping Campden, in the Cotswolds): Just outside one of the Cotswolds' most charming towns lies this stunning garden, laid out around a stone-built manor house. It's the largest garden in the Cotswolds, and one of the most intriguing in all of Britain. The garden originally bloomed under Major Lawrence Johnstone, an American horticulturist who created it in 1907. He traveled the world and brought back specimens to plant here.

Royal Botanic Garden (Edinburgh): Scotland's greatest garden lies only a mile from the center of Edinburgh, set on 70 acres of Eden. The rhododendrons, the world's greatest collection, are the major attraction, but winding paths lead through a series of lush landscapes. The main role of the garden is actually research into plant life.

The Best Literary Spots

Samuel Johnson's House (London; tel. 020/7373-3745): The backwater at No. 17 Gough Square, situated on the north side of Fleet Street, was Johnson's home from 1749 to 1758. Here he worked on his Rambler essays and his Dictionary, and here his beloved wife, "Tetty," died in 1752.

Jane Austen Country: The author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility wrote of rural delights and a civilized society -- set mainly in her beloved Hampshire. In 1809, she moved with her mother to Chawton, 50 miles south of Bath, where she lived until 1817. Her house is now a museum. Her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are associated with the city of Bath, which she visited frequently in her youth and where she lived from 1801 to 1806. In her final year, she moved to 8 College St. in Winchester, and is buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Stratford-upon-Avon: Although the Bard remains a mysterious figure, the folks who live in touristy Stratford gleefully peddle his literary legacy. There is Shakespeare's Birthplace, where the son of a glover was born on April 23, 1564. He died in Stratford on the same day, 52 years later. Anne Hathaway's cottage, in the hamlet of Shottery, is also popular; Shakespeare married Hathaway when he was only 18 years old.

Grasmere (The Lake District): William Wordsworth lived here with his sister, Dorothy, who commented on the "domestic slip of mountain" behind their home, Dove Cottage. The cottage itself is now part of the Wordsworth Museum, displaying manuscripts and memorabilia. The poet also lived for a time at nearby Rydal Mount, just north of Ambleside (one of his descendants still owns the property), where you can see gardens landscaped by the poet himself. Throughout the region, you'll find the landscapes that inspired this giant of English romanticism, including the shores of Ullswater, where Wordsworth saw his famous "host of golden daffodils."

Haworth (West Yorkshire): England's second major literary pilgrimage site is the home of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Here the famous Bronte sisters lived and spun their web of romance. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, Charlotte, Jane Eyre and Villette, and even Anne wrote two novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, although neither matches up to her sisters' work.

Abbotsford House (Melrose; tel. 01896/752043): In the Scottish Borders, this was the home that Sir Walter Scott, author of some of Britain's most memorable historical novels, built and lived in from 1812 until this death. In the Scottish baronial style, the mansion is filled with artifacts and mementos including his death mask.

Dylan Thomas Boathouse (Laugharne, Wales; tel. 01994/427420): Ten miles east of Tenby in Wales, Swansea-born Dylan Thomas lived and worked. Later, of course, he was to be acclaimed as one of the great poets of the 20th century, but this "untidy wretch of a man" turned out his masterpieces in a modest little shack here. It's one of the most evocative literary shrines in Britain.

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