– by Kathryn Gerken
It was a sunny, yet crisp, day in February. We were new to England and wanted to explore some iconic sites. We decided to take a train from King’s Cross to Dover, which took less than two hours, to see the famous white cliffs and Dover Castle. Like many castles, Dover Castle is built on a hill. In fact, it is built on a cliff overlooking the English Channel to France. The ramparts were begun in 800 BC and the castle took shape over 900 years.
Dover Castle and a WWII connection to Dunkirk
We navigated through the streets of Dover and wound our way up the hill to the castle. At the entrance, the welcoming staff asked us if we were on holiday or if we might like to purchase an English Heritage Pass. We purchased the pass, knowing that we would at least be back to Dover with any out-of-town guests. Once we stepped through the walls of the castle, we were happy to be able to visit this piece of history anytime.
Not only is there a castle, with all the trimmings, but also the WWII military tunnels inside the cliff face that helped to evacuate the men from Dunkirk. It is a captivating display of tunnels, videos and voices from the past and well worth any time you might have to wait in line.
English Heritage sites re-opened for summer
This is just one of the many sites that are open to visitors around England. Sadly, all were closed during the COVID outbreak, but they have been slowly re-opening. On July 4th, a large portion of the sites were re-opened to visitors, but they are now requiring reservations to enter. With an English Heritage Pass, you are still able to enter for free, but there will be timed entry for all indoor sites.
For outdoor monuments, some — like Stonehenge — have entry requirements, where others do not. Please be sure to check the English Heritage website for the most up-to-date information and make your reservations in advance — even if you have a pass. This is due to the new COVID restriction on entry.
You don’t need to be able to travel to enjoy some of these places. There are a handful that are right in London.
Heritage sites to visit around London
Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington and his descendants, and Wellington Arch are just south of Hyde Park. The Apsley house, which was built in 1771, is home to paintings by Rubens as well as silver and porcelain. The Wellington Arch was originally designed to be a gate leading into Buckingham Palace, but it never came to fruition. In 1815, it was built just to celebrate Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon.
Closer to the Thames, you can visit the Jewel Tower. Built in 1365, this was part of the medieval Westminster Palace that was lost to fire in 1834. Its three-floor exhibit will walk you through the history of how the building was used. Close by is the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber. Built in 1250 by Royal Masons, it was used by the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abby for their daily meetings. The Pyx Chamber has a medieval tiled floor and a stone alter that survived the Reformation.
If you are near Hampstead Heath, take time to visit another English Heritage attraction: the Kenwood House Estate. Entry is free. The house was begun in 1616 by James the First's printer, John Bill, and has changed owners many times and been built to the grand 18th-century style mansion seen today. Home to many rooms of paintings and decor and surrounded by lovely gardens as well as the Heath, it is a nice getaway from central London. Their famous permanent and revolving art collections include works by Rembrandt. The house is currently closed, so please check the website for schedule opening times.
Day trips and weekend overnights around England
There are so many more sites around England and it's possible to take day trips or weekend overnights to see many of them. The English Heritage website is easy to use and very inexpensive to join. It is a great resource for those who want to learn more about the country that we are sojourning in.
I can’t wait to go back to Dover, but I am also looking forward to exploring more of England this summer on day trips and short getaways. Next stop, the Osbourne House and Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight!
Photos (top to bottom): Dover Castle, Apsley House, Wellington Arch, Jewel Tower
Having served as both Travel Group leader and Director of Activities for the AWC, longtime board member Kathryn Gerken is now Director of Club Meetings. She also runs her US-based travel agency, Gerken Getaways, remotely from London.