I think sometimes that I should take a group of students to England for my History 105: History of England class. There are such opportunities. One can teach for a community college consortium that offers a short semester in London, or work with an education abroad tour company. Trouble is, these create the curriculum and/or activities, and put you in a classroom. And all you do is teach. That has never been my way.
So in the spirit of one day teaching my class in England, here is a possible syllabus. I center it on London because there are classrooms there and easy transport to elsewhere. But no classroom would be necessary, nor particularly desirable. So this is a syllabus not only for a college course, but for anyone traveling there who wants to do a history tour! I list tube stops and rail stations, but it’s better to learn the bus from wherever you are – fewer stairs, cheaper fares (get an Oyster card), and you get to see so much more. Leave each day after 9 am, and avoid all transport between 4 and 7 (eat an early supper).
None of this relies on a car. You shouldn’t drive there unless you’re British. Really. Unless you’ve memorized this. For Americans, BritRail passes can be purchased in the US only, before you leave only.
Begin at the Museum of London.
It isn’t overwhelming, but this museum effectively walks you through the entire history of England, beginning with geological time and going to the present. It’s beautifully designed, basically a syllabus in itself. Take notes in the order of chronology, then carry those with you through the rest.
Field trip to Avebury and its barrows and museum
Why not Stonehenge? First of all, it’s a zoo, with too many tourists, and a long walk, and then you can’t even touch the stones unless you’re on a special tour. Avebury you can walk around and touch the stones (and pose with one, as I am doing), plus see barrows, plus learn about everything. For free.
|Paddington Station to Swindon, then Stagecoach Bus 49 (a little over 2 hours)|
Anglo-Saxon and Viking England
Contains objects from the Sutton Hoo excavation, including the ship. And even though it isn’t exactly British history, while there be sure to go to the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, which are from the 7th century BC and are truly amazing.
Field trip to York – Yorkshire Museum
Not a huge tourist attraction, but a small and wonderful collection of everything you need to appreciate the era, including some fabulous swords.
And, if you must: Jorvik Viking Center Museum
While in York, jump eras and enjoy the medieval Shambles (don’t miss Margaret Clitherow’s chapel) and an entire Victorian re-creation at the York Castle Museum. Oh, yeah, there’s a cathedral there too…
|Kings Cross (2 hours)|
The Mithraeum, The City
Mike Bloomberg’s contribution to the history of London, by moving an ancient Roman temple to Mithras where it can be seen the the basement of the Bloomberg building. Overly dramatic lighting and sound helps one imagine the temple as it would have been, but the ruins alone are very cool. But, as noted before, you’ll need to teach about the rites of Mithras.
|District or Circle line – Cannon Street|
Field trip to Roman Baths in Bath
Bath is really more of an 18th century place, but the Roman Baths are so complete they’re a must-see. To jump eras and go all 18th century, tour the town.
|Paddington to Bath Spa (1.5 hours)|
Field trip to Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex
If Roman mosaic floors are more your thing, this is the place. It was excavated in 1960 by Barry Cunliffe shortly after its discovery by a water engineer (this is the same Sir Barry who was so kind in helping get his textbook for my students). There is also a museum on site.
|London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)|
Tower of London
Crowded with tourists, the Norman feature here is the White Tower. Skip the Crown Jewels and crawl around the tower any way you can. It is pricey, at £23/adult, but you can also see the Bloody Tower and the Royal Mint exhibit. The courtyard itself is of interest as it surrounds the tower and makes it easier to see how a castle worked, with central fortification and outbuildings. Also nearby is Tower Bridge, but that’s Victorian (and a damn good piece of engineering).
Field trip to Hastings
The ruins of Hastings Castle are a 10-minute walk from the rail station.
|Charing Cross (but also stops at Waterloo and London Bridge stations) (1 hour, 45 minutes)|
Overnight field trip to Durham
Norman castle, Norman cathedral (voted best Evensong by…me!) – the place drips with Norman stuff. Plus England’s third university. If it’s summer (till mid-September), stay at UniversityRooms in the castle if you book far enough ahead.
|Kings Cross (3 hours)|
Field trip – Canterbury Cathedral
Assign The Canterbury Tales (or at least that of the Wife of Bath and one of the churchmen) then go here. Visit the site where Thomas Becket was killed and compare it to assassinations today.
|from St Pancras (about an hour)|
Although finished in the 16th century, it was begun in the Middle Ages, and Chaucer is buried here. If you don’t mind missing Poet’s Corner, the best way to enjoy it is for services, since there are no crowds.
|London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)|
I couldn’t care less about The DaVinci Code, but it’s because of that book that it’s so hard to get in and see Temple Church, which is really quite lovely inside. It’s now £5 to visit, and I don’t blame them a bit, but as with all recalcitrant churches, I suggest learning a bit about Anglican traditions and going to a service (and donating accordingly, of course).
|Temple or Blackfriars – it’s a little tricky to get to so see their advice|
While it might be tempting to go the Old Globe, it’s a new building and the performances I’ve seen have not been sterling. If you’re really into the Tudors, I’d stick to the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace instead.
Hampton Court Palace
The kitchens are fantastic! It costs more (about £20 per adult) but worth it.
|District to Richmond, then bus R68 (a little over an hour)|
Field trip to Portsmouth
Home to the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship raised in 1982. A little pricey at £17, but cheaper online in advance and how often do you get to see a 500-year-old ship?
|Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (about 1.5 hours)|
English Civil War
Built by Inigo Jones (1622) and featuring a ceiling painted by Rubens (enjoy looking at it from comfy bean bag seats), this is the last surviving piece of Palace of Whitehall. Charles I was executed just outside the first floor window, where they built a scaffold so everyone would have a good view. It’s mostly one giant room, so see it on the way to or from other sights on Whitehall.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The original having burned down in the Great Fire (see the model at the Museum of London), Christopher Wren rebuilt nearly on the full footprint, 1675-1708.
Right next to the tube station, it’s impressive and if you want to wait in the queue you can go to the top. Also built by Christopher Wren. See my discussion of the Great Fire and its commemoration in my previous post.
There’s the Old Royal Naval College if you can’t get enough of Christopher Wren, but the reason to go is the Prime Meridien, where time starts, and the Royal Observatory, financed by Charles II and at first housing John Flamsteed, royal astronomer and creator of a fabulous star atlas.
|London Bridge to Greenwich (also by DLR over-ground train) about 25 minutes|
Portsmouth againCaptian James Cook, Captain Bligh – so many names are associated with Portsmouth. Nelson’s flagship The Victory is there, which is why I put this in the 18th century, but so are
St Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square
Not just for visiting the architecture, but instead of services go for the fantastic music (classical in the evenings, and jazz) and the Crypt Cafe underneath, which has good food and you eat right on top of the tombstones. Neo-classical architecture.
Strawberry Hill, Twickenham
Horace Walpole’s neo-Gothic Georgian monstrosity. He set a trend in Gothic Revival. Not necessarily a good trend, but a trend.
|Waterloo to Strawberry Hill|
|District to Richmond, then bus R68|
Built earlier, but reformulated by Robert Adam in the 1760s. The most complete Adam there is.
|A bit tricky, but I’d take the tube to Bow Street and change to the light rail to the Langdon Park DLR station.|
London Science Museum: Energy Hall
And even beyond Energy Hall, there are fantastic exhibits about the history of agriculture and much more. Worth finding! Jump to the later industrial era at the Victoria and Albert Museum next door (be sure to eat in the Morris Room at the cafe), then walk up Brompton Road to Harrods (although the current building is actually Edwardian).
Old Operating Museum and Herb Garret, discussed elsewhere on this blog, it’s a long hike up a small windy staircase but the payoff is the only operating theatre from this era, where they now give lectures on the history of medicine, plus a garrett full of herbal remedies and old medical instruments. (For jumping eras, the Shard, Southwark Cathedral, and Borough Market are all nearby)
— or — Grant Museum of Zoology, a Victorian museum still used by the University of London. Lots of squishy dead animals in jars — very cool.
Don’t go on a Saturday if you want to eat or shop — it’s in The City so not much is there on the weekends except the buildings. And yes, yes, it was in Harry Potter.
Walk along the river. The Houses of Parliament are Victorian neo-gothic, and there are statues from the Victorian era, and representing Victorian people, along the way, especially in Victoria Embankment Gardens. If you prefer the southern route (no traffic! pedestrians only!), try Queen’s Walk.
Red House, Bexleyheath
Not quite a field trip, but a little out of the way south of London. Home of William Morris, completed in 1860, with lovely designs and secret paintings on the walls.
|Charing Cross, Victoria, Cannon Street to Bexleyheath, then 15 minute walk|
Field trip to Oxford for the Natural History Museum/Pitt Rivers Museum
Covered elsewhere on this blog, you can’t get more Victorian than these.
Fin de Siecle, First World War, Between the Wars
Imperial War Museum
Also good for the Blitz.
|Elephant and Castle, then walk|
Every memorial cross in every town
Most towns have a memorial cross to the fallen of the First World War. In London, there’s the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the memorial to war animals in Park Lane. Every cathedral and many churches have memorials. Poppies are still visible on memorials and still for sale as pins, and not just because of the centenary.
Part of the University of London, it was begun in 1932 and is hugely Art Deco. During the world wars it was used by the Ministry of Information, inspiring both Graham Greene and George Orwell to use it as fearful ministries in their books. It’s used a lot in movies. The area of Bloomsbury which is next to it was the home of the Bloomsbury Set (writers including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, plus artists like Vanessa Bell).
World War II
Cabinet War Rooms
Technically part of the Imperial War Museum, the war rooms are expensive at £19/adult and can be crowded. They were opened in 1984, which is “new”, so many people haven’t seen them yet (including me).
Also part of the Imperial War Museum, it’s right there on the Thames, and it’s enormous. The ship saw action in World War II, but more in Korea and as an Arctic exploration ship. You can climb up and down the stairs and visit re-created areas (the galley and sick bay are especially good) with mannikins so real they’re kind of spooky. A visit is easily combined with Old Operating Theatre and other Southwark attractions to jump eras.
Field trip to Dover – for the intrepid only!
If you can go here without singing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover“, you haven’t seen enough old movies. You can visit the tunnels but you have to get a ticket and then walk a long way to get to the tunnels.
|Victoria Station (about 2 hours) to Dover Priory, then it’s a couple of miles so Bus 60, then a long (American) walk — worth a taxi, and they’ll call one for you from the visitor centre when you’re done|
Dennis Severs’ house
Part installation art, part history, partly bizarre, created by an American. You need to book in advance and it’s not really marked on the outside. Only a few people may go in at a time. The three floors are supposed to represent a Flemish family’s house from the 17th to 20th centuries, but by the time you get done you’re celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II. Must be experienced to be understood.
|Liverpool Street, then walk|
The company is a bit older than the architecturally controversial building, which opened in 1977, so it was new when I first went there, and I felt very welcome. Like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, it’s a public theatre. There has always been a sense that it belongs to the people, that its purpose is to provide a creative space for the city and its populace. Ticket prices are good and performances excellent.
Carnaby Street may not be what it was, but Camden is as close as you can get to the spirit of 1960s London.
Late 20th-21st century
There is no better venue for modern art. Open till 10 pm Friday and Saturday. Take the lift to the Restaurant and pretend you’re looking for something, just to see the view.
|London Bridge or Southwark, then walk|
Right out back of the Tate Modern is the pedestrian bridge. Apparently it had a swaying problem at first, but it was corrected. From the bridge, which crosses the Thames to near St Paul’s, you can see many of the newer landmarks of London.
So that’s Lisa’s Magical History Tour. Enjoy!
6 thoughts to “Lisa’s Magical History Tour: a syllabus for London and beyond”
Thanks for this–a huge help for me in deciding where to go next (that would be Bath. Whoo-hoo!)
It astonishes me that most people would rather see fake stuff (eg, people dressing up as Vikings so you can take $30 selfies with them) than real stuff (actual two-thousand-year-old walls.)But hey: fewer punters can only be a good thing.
To plagiarise Daphne de Maurier: I dreamed I went to Avebury again…
I was thinking of you as I created it, and it was to you I said what I noted about not needing a classroom. Have fun in Bath!
What a trip this would be!If there was an assignment linked to the trip to trace the key influences from these historical chapters that shape Britishness in the 21st century, it would be a real challenge. What fills you with confidence and/or trepidation, based on the historical evidence that you have witnessed during the trip that 21st century Britain can cope with the challenges of immigration and Brexit for example? Answers might bring out strengths of values, fair play, sang-froid, bravery, compromise, adaptability, innovation, mixture of genes, royalty etc or something completely different.How about running an educational trip for adults?
Oh, yes, I hadn’t even thought of the assignments as we went along. While I tend to allow for individual topic exploration, your question could be an overall question for the group. All those qualities will make it possible for Britain to survive whatever Brexit brings, and I would add a sense of independent destiny which has always defined its relationship with the continent (since the Conqueror, at least). I’d love to run a trip for adults!
For computer nerds I cannot recommend enough the National Museum of Computing http://www.tnmoc.org/ It’s a bit over shadowed by the adjacent Bletchley park house but is oh so more interesting.
I totally agree on the value of the British Railway pass, I went all over the country in 2013 and depsite the stuff people there said about rail service, I found it was very reliable.
Absolutely! I did not put either there or Bletchley Park, partly because Bletchley is hard to get to and not terribly interesting unless you like Benedict Cumberbatch posters and large estates. But I did indeed go to the National Museum of Computing. It is, as you say, strictly for computer enthusiasts!
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