Sites that shaped Britain's future
Porthcurno’s beach is where Britain’s telegraph line to India first entered the sea in 1860. (Shannon Nace/LPI)
Ten remarkable places across the UK where you can relive the dramatic events that took place there long ago.
1. Vindolanda Roman Fort, Northumberland
Where the Romans divided Britain
When, in the 120s AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian had his great wall built to separate the untamed north of Britain from the occupied south, he had the foresight to construct it over some of our loveliest hills. This makes the wall a perfect day out destination. Perhaps the best place to get a handle on what life was like on the Roman wall is Vindolanda, the legionary fort that’s set a little wall proper.
What you see today
You can explore the foundations of the fort buildings, climb up to the ramparts of a reconstructed section of the wall and visit a museum. Archaeologists here have uncovered more than 1,000 wooden tablets, preserved in waterlogged soil, which the soldiers used for writing notes – everything from birthday invitations to accounting documents. It’s a direct link to the everyday concerns of the people here almost 2,000 years ago. This discovery has revolutionised our understanding of what life was like in Roman Britain.
2. Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland
Where the Viking age began
In the little museum, alongside the remains of Lindisfarne Priory, is a scary stone. It’s a ninth-century grave marker, one of several dug up here by archaeologists. The frightening aspect is the carving of a band of seven furious looking warriors, weapons raised in what appears to be a wild assault. The flattened perspective gives the impression that these attackers are one-eyed fiends. It is thought that these figures might be Vikings, and that would tally with the Lindisfarne story, because the records state that in 793AD, the priory was subject to a bloodthirsty assault by the northern raiders. It was their first major attack here and it heralded the start of the Viking Age, with several centuries of violence, raids and invasions to follow.
What you see today
Lindisfarne’s Anglo-Saxon church was abandoned not long after the arrival of the Vikings, but a few centuries later, a new priory was established here. And it’s the ruins of that which you can see now, in a lovely, calm corner of Holy Island. If you make a trip over here, via the tidal causeway, you’re rewarded with a beautiful ruin to mooch about in, enlivened by the slender Rainbow Arch that has somehow survived the years. You’ll also witness a tremendous view over a quiet bay and across to the Tudor Lindisfarne Castle in the distance. Happily, it’s the barking grey seals rather than the marauding Vikings that are likely to disturb you today.
3. Runnymede, Berkshire
Where the foundations of democracy were laid
It was in these pleasant Thameside meadows that, in 1215, King John put his seal to Magna Carta, a document that has a continuing resonance far beyond its original intention. This medieval great charter laid out ideas on human rights that have since provided the bedrock for civil liberties across the world. That wasn’t John’s aim at the time – he was just trying to wriggle out of a dispute with his barons – but the ideas stuck, so this peaceful wildlife haven has an importance that belies its bucolic charms.
What you see today
There’s something terribly English about Runnymede. Perhaps it’s the 1930s tea rooms and the National Trust car park; possibly it’s the sight of the Thames flowing slowly past, or maybe it’s the combination of oak woodland, buttercup meadow, creeks and ponds. Or perhaps it’s because of its link to Magna Carta, and all that implies for liberty and democracy, which is so ingrained that it can’t help but exude Englishness.
4. Cartmel Priory, Cumbria
Where you can see the lost world of the English monasteries