Sites that shaped Britain's future
For a small village in the Lake District, Cartmel’s parish church is out of all proportion. It is far too big. Its tower rears full and fat over the small, but very pretty, cluster of houses that surround it. It’s as if you’ve stumbled upon a cathedral that has lost its way and somehow ended up in rural Cumbria. But this isn’t just any standard parish church: it was originally part of a monastic priory. The monks of Cartmel grew rich through gifts of land from those who wanted to curry divine favour. By rights, the priory ought to have been shut down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, when Henry VIII closed the monastic houses throughout the country, took their wealth for the crown, and sold off or knocked down their buildings.
What you see today
This is a rare example of an English medieval monastery that has survived the Dissolution virtually intact. Most monasteries were unable to resist being destroyed by King Henry, and that’s why today they are romantic ruins, roofless haunts of tourists. That this church did not suffer such a fate is entirely down to the villagers of Cartmel. They appealed against the priory’s destruction, citing its foundation charter, which said that part of the church had to be reserved for use by the locals. And they were successful.
5. Porthcurno, Cornwall
Where Britain’s empire was connected
Porthcurno has a great little beach. Its gently sloping sand funnels out from a verdant Cornish valley. It is only a couple of miles from Land’s End so has always been a bit out of the way. These factors entice holidaymakers today, but they also attracted the attentions of Scottish cotton magnate John Pender in the 1860s. He had seen the potential of the new technology of telegraphy, which simply put, used electricity to send words over wires. He decided to lay a telegraph cable from Britain to India, and this required an undersea line. Porthcurno’s location seemed ideal, and in time it became a hub of the telegraph network.
What you see today
You can see the remains of Pender’s cable station, plus some tunnels that were dug to keep telegraph operators safe from bombs in the Second World War, and have a nice walk on the beach, while you digest the story of the ‘Victorian Internet’.
6. Dolbadarn Castle Gwynedd
Where Welsh independence was asserted
Wales has not always been part of the United Kingdom. Before the conquest by England’s Edward I at the close of the 13th century, a number of local rulers held independent territories in north Wales. Llewellyn the Great was one such lord, who by the start of the 13th century had managed to bring so much of north Wales together under his control that he was calling himself Prince of Wales in charters. He was the first Welsh ruler to make a written treaty with an English king (John), and in that treaty of 1201, Llewellyn agreed to do homage to John, while in return the English king acknowledged all the territorial gains that Llewellyn had made. It was probably Llewellyn who had Dolbadarn Castle built.
What you see today
This gloriously positioned round tower, at the foot of Llanberis Pass, looking out over the twin lakes Padarn and Peris and up into the sharp crags of Snowdonia, was a statement of Llewellyn’s power. Though it’s a ruin now, in its day, it was the latest in castle design. It controlled the way into the mountains, and though any modern invading army would be able to easily circumvent it by taking the mountain railway from Llanberis up to the peak of Snowdon, Dolbadarn still stands testament to the days when England and Wales were far from united.
7. Fort George near Inverness
Where Highland rebellion was thwarted