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10 quirky places that tell the story of England

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 5 days ago By Bettany Hughes

Caister Camp was established in 1906 as a socialist holiday camp © Provided by Getty Caister Camp was established in 1906 as a socialist holiday camp People love to travel. Increasingly, evidence tells us that historic populations were zigzagging across continents the whole time, so it is brilliantly appropriate that Historic England’s campaign Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places, has a travel and tourism category that I’m honoured to have been asked to judge. Physiologically we’re nomads, so charting where and how we’ve elected to travel through time is a fascinating experience.

So how to choose from the gorgeous, fecund, fabulously eclectic longlist? With difficulty! Among my top 10 is a remnant from the dawn of the railway age in Darlington, an inn in Nottingham said to have been favoured by crusading knights, and a pier in Somerset once hailed by John Betjeman as the most beautiful in England. As a passionate advocate of the ancient world, I couldn’t resist two locations that relate to the Romans: The Fosse Way, one of Britain’s longest and most important Roman roads, and the Roman Baths in Bath. As a child, whenever we went on a family car journey, we would try to spot Roman roads, those straight, proud structures that carve their way through the landscape. Sometimes when we drive today we are still following these ancient routes; amazing to think of the Romano-British pilgrims who journeyed to Bath along lost Roman roads to the sanctuary of the goddess Sulis Minerva. 

What’s more, archaeological remains close to the roads often share remarkable truths of the deep history of our nation. Recently in Leicester, archaeologists excavated a Roman cemetery where several of the skeletons seem to be of African ancestry. One of our great strengths is that we’re such a beautifully mixed-up, mongrel nation.

The fact that we love to explore beyond borders and boundaries says something very hopeful to me about humanity. We’re driven to connect, to reach out, to exchange goods and trade ideas. That’s what these 10 places represent for me: they embody big ideas but they’re also beautiful in and of themselves; forged through the wit, will and wisdom of the men and women of the past. 

Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places aims to find the places that best tell England’s story. We’ve been asking the public to nominate the places they think should be on the list and through 10 different categories, each judged by an expert, from Mary Beard to Robert Winston, all 100 places will be chosen and explored through a new podcast series. Here are my top 10 nominations. 

1. The Fosse Way

Until the Roman invasion of Britain around 43AD, roads were little more than unpaved tracks. With their customary efficiency, the Romans quickly built and maintained a network of paved and gravel roads which equated to around 15,000km (9,320 miles) in length, linking key military and administrative locations. The Fosse Way was one of the most important and one of the longest, running from Exeter to Lincoln. The A46 follows the old road almost exactly from Leicester to Lincoln and some of the route survives as road or path south of Leicester and through the Cotswolds.

Chesterton Windmill, near the Fosse Way © Provided by Getty Chesterton Windmill, near the Fosse Way 2. Dreamland Margate

One of Britain’s earliest surviving amusement parks and home of the country’s oldest operating rollercoaster, the wooden, Grade II listed Scenic Railway, which first began entertaining seaside crowds in the 1920s with its mile-long loops and curves. The site of Dreamland (as it was renamed in 1920) dates back to the British railway boom and the early 1870s when, in its original form, the “Hall by the Sea” was operated by a circus tycoon, the self-proclaimed “Lord” George Sanger. 

From Dec 1 to Jan 3 Dreamland will become a Frosted Fairground, with an ice rink and grotto ( dreamland.co.uk ).

Dreamland Margate © Provided by Getty Dreamland Margate 3. Skerne Bridge, Darlington

Spanning the River Skerne in the centre of Darlington and close to the Head of Steam Railway Museum (01325 405060), this is the oldest railway bridge in the world in continuous use. In 1825, when the Stockton & Darlington Railway opened, George Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1 passed over the bridge and began the railway age that was to change Britain and the world. Darlington was the epicentre of everything coming together – the engineering, the finance (which helped create the banking industry), the visionaries, the public support. For a time, the bridge was on the back of the £5 note. The railways changed England forever, linking distant towns and bringing the population closer together.

4. Clevedon Pier, Somerset

Opened in 1869, during the great age of pier building, Clevedon Pier was built to receive paddle-steamer passengers from Devon and Wales. A spectacular vestige of a once thriving Victorian seaside resort, it is now the country’s only surviving Grade I listed pier. Described by Sir John Betjeman as “the most beautiful pier in England”, and constructed with rails from one of Brunel’s railways, it was also the setting for the video of One Direction’s single You & I ( clevedonpier.co.uk ).  

Clevedon Pier was built to receive paddle-steamer passengers from Devon and Wales © Provided by Getty Clevedon Pier was built to receive paddle-steamer passengers from Devon and Wales 5. Site of the medieval Scrooby Manor House, Nottinghamshire

This was the home of William Brewster, one of the Pilgrim Fathers who journeyed on the Mayflower to New England. Brewster was a leading member of a group of Separatists who, in 1606, broke away from the established church to live a simpler life. Scrooby Manor House became a meeting place for the new congregation and in 1620 a group of Separatists, led by Brewster, travelled to Southampton to sail to the New World. The influence of the small, idealistic colony they established on landing in Provincetown can still be felt in the beliefs of America today and has had a lasting impact on the world. The remains of the original manor have been incorporated into a farmhouse (not open to the public), which can be seen from nearby Station Road, to the south of the site. You can also visit Scrooby’s St Wilfrid’s Church, where Brewster worshipped before his break with the Church ( scrooby.net/page/history ).

Grand Hotel, Scarborough © Provided by Getty Grand Hotel, Scarborough 6. Grand Hotel, Scarborough

When it was completed in 1867, this Grade II*-listed building was one of the largest hotels in the world, as well as one of the first giant purpose-built hotels in Europe. The Victorian building is designed around the theme of time: four towers to represent the seasons, 12 floors for the months of the year, 52 chimneys symbolise the weeks, and originally there were 365 bedrooms, one for each day of the year, though following renovation this was reduced to 280. The hotel itself is in the shape of a “V” in honour of Queen Victoria. Drop by and admire the period architecture.

7. Caister Camp, Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk

Although Butlins, Pontins and Warner became the big players in the world of British holiday camps, they were not the first of their kind. It was Caister Camp, close to the old Roman fort, that pioneered the chalet accommodation that changed the face of British holidays in the 20th century. Caister’s camp was established on the Norfolk coast by John Fletcher Dodd, a teetotal grocer, in 1906, 30 years before Billy Butlin founded his Skegness camp. A founding member of the Independent Labour Party, Dodd initially ran Caister as a socialist holiday camp, drawing influential party supporters such as George Bernard Shaw – and all guests were expected to help with the chores. There is still a holiday park on the site, now run by Haven, where chalet accommodation (rather more comfortable than in theearly days) is supplemented with caravans and smart deck houses ( haven.com/parks/norfolk/caister-on-sea ).

8. Helvellyn, Cumbria

To many people, Helvellyn is the most enigmatic and evocative of the Lake District fells. At around 3,117ft high (the third-highest peak in England), it is a real natural wonder and one of the earliest mountains to be regularly climbed for pleasure. Its commanding position between Ullswater to the east and Thirlmere to the west has attracted hikers since walking became a popular pastime in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some of the routes up Helvellyn are challenging and not recommended for novices. For a range of interesting walks in the region, see walklakes.co.uk. 

9. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn, Nottingham

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem claims to be the oldest inn in England, with its establishment stated as 1189. The word “trip” formerly meant stopping point on a journey, suggesting the inn may have been originally used by travellers, pilgrims and crusaders on the epic journey to Jerusalem. It is built beside and into the sandstone rock upon which Nottingham Castle stands and among the curiosities inside are a wooden chair, which is said to increase the sitting woman’s chances of becoming pregnant, and a model galleon in a glass case, which is said to be cursed so that anyone who has dusted it has met a mysterious death ( triptojerusalem.com ).

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem © Provided by Getty Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem 10. Pump Rooms and Roman Baths, Bath

Bath’s thermal springs have made this site a centre of human activity and a destination for travellers for thousands of years. The first shrine here was built by the Celts and dedicated to the goddess Sulis. When the Romans arrived, the temple complex was developed and the name evolved into Aquae Sulis (the waters of Sulis). The great Roman buildings fell into disrepair after the Romans withdrew, but thankfully they were rediscovered in the late 19th century and are now one of the most popular (and fascinating) visitor sites in Britain. Bath’s fortunes as a spa town were revived in the Georgian era when the neoclassical Pump Rooms were built around the springs and fashionable society visited to bathe in the hot springs and drink the supposedly curative and foul-tasting spa water ( visitbath.co.uk ).  

To learn more about Historic England’s campaign A History of England in 100 Places, see historicengland.org.uk/100places Bettany Hughes’s new TV series, Eight Days That Made Rome, is currently on Channel 5 at 9pm on Fridays.

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