British Isles

Which English Heritage sites are opening?

As these abbeys, castles and historic sites open, we take a look at some of our favourites.

Last week, English Heritage announced that, after almost three months of closure, six of their sites would open their doors around the country. They’ve since let us know that a further 39 castles, abbeys and historic sites will open their doors to the public from 4 July.

As with the National Trust properties that opened in early June, visitors will need to book tickets in advance and arrive during a designated time slot in order to manage numbers.

The full list of properties opening is available on their site, but we’ve chosen a few of our favourites to discover.

Brinkburn Priory

At the bottom of a wooded track, the Norman doorway to the church appears through a parting in the trees offering an enchanting first glimpse of this wondrous priory. Built in the 12th century, and once inhabited by Augustinian monks, Brinkburn stands today as one of the most intact priories of its age in England since restoration in the 19th century.

Brinkburn Priory Northumberland
© mattbuck, Wikimedia Commons

Its isolated location, completely hidden from view in a loop of the River Coquet, only adds to the sense of awe. This is particularly so late in the afternoon when sunlight pours through the stained-glass windows of the church – which feels more cathedral-like in its proportions – enhancing the colour and swirling patterns in the sandstone walls.

Castle Acre Priory

These impressive Norman ruins were founded just after the conquest in 1090, a highly atmospheric place to wander, especially late in the day with the sun low in the western sky. Founded by William de Warenne, son-in-law of William the Conqueror, the abbey was set up as a daughter priory of St Pancras at Lewes in Sussex, which in turn reported to the Cluniac Priory in Burgundy. The original priory was built within the walls of the castle but this proved too small and the monastery was soon moved to its current location.

Castle Acre Priory Norfolk
© Explore Norfolk

As is often the way with medieval religious orders, the priory went on to have a colourful and sometimes notorious life, with considerable friction between the Cluniac motherhouse and various English kings, notably the early Edwards, resulting in the priory being considered ‘alien’ and therefore heavily taxed.

Not all medieval monks led blameless lives: in 1351, some of those at the priory were accused of ‘living as vagabonds in secular habit’ and the king felt it necessary to send his Serjeant-at-Arms to make arrests. Castle Acre Priory eventually became naturalised in 1373 and subsequently lost its connection with its French motherhouse.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Viewed from the north, Dunstanburgh is a shattered ruin clinging to the edge of a cliff formed of Whin Sill rock. Through sun haze or sea fret, the medieval edifice rarely looks anything but rough and moody: it crumbling turrets and curtain walls are almost always seen in silhouette form.

Dunstanburgh Castle Northumberland
© David Steele, Shutterstock

But from the south, Dunstanburgh bares its formidable chest, appearing more brutish – and terrifically romantic. It doesn’t matter that most of the fortress has succumbed to the wind and sea and is now under the ownership of fulmars and kittiwakes.

Housesteads Roman Fort

Though Chesters, Birdoswald and Corbridge Roman forts are also opening, Housesteads is our favourite. It is the most complete Roman fort in Britain and the most visited of the four main garrison stations in Northumberland, owing in part to its dramatic position commanding the lip of an igneous cliff.

© givi585, Shutterstock

Built in the years following the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the fort sits snug to the stone barricade, teetering on the edge of the Roman Empire. As with other forts, Housesteads is typical in its arrangement of buildings with its centrally located headquarters, granaries, hospital and commanding officer’s residence.

The last consists of rooms arranged around a courtyard and has an excellent example of Roman under-floor heating technology. The floor, now mostly removed, was raised on rows of pillars under which hot air circulated.

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Pickering Castle

This is a classic Norman motte-and-bailey castle, with the motte, or mound, crowned by the remains of the keep (the King’s Tower).

Pickering Castle which english heritage sites are opening
© Mike Bagshaw

Particularly recommended is the walk on the path around the outside of the walls to detour into the quarries at the back where the limestone for the building was extracted; the North East Yorkshire Geology Trust have placed information boards explaining how these Jurassic rocks were formed under the sea.

Tintagel Castle

From the clifftop path from the village, the once-fortified island reveals itself in all its natural grandeur. It has been well established that a 5th- or 6th-century monastery and trading post stood here, and relics of Mediterranean oil and wine jars have been found.

Tintagel Cornwall which english heritage sites are opening
© David Hughes, Shutterstock

The Arthurian connection is largely due to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century manuscript, which makes Tintagel the place of Arthur’s conception, and a century later Prince Richard – the Earl of Cornwall responsible for building Launceston Castle’s stone walls – used the myth to reinforce his own magisterial status in Cornwall.

A good morning or afternoon is needed to do justice to the whole site, with its beaches, caves, vantage points and hundreds of steps.

Whitby Abbey

If ever a place could be described as having a chequered history, then this is it: founded by Saxons, destroyed by Vikings, rebuilt by Normans, dismantled by Tudors and bombarded by Germans.

Whitby Abbey which english heritage sites are opening
© Chris Kirk, Wikimedia Commons

After the Vikings razed the original structure, the Normans rebuilt, in local sandstone, the present Benedictine abbey. At the Dissolution much of the abbey stone was used to build the Manor next door which now houses the Abbey Visitor Centre.

In one last twist of fate, during World War I, a flotilla of German battleships bombarded the east coast of England. Scarborough and Hartlepool were also targeted but the abbey was particularly badly damaged during Whitby’s shelling. This won’t be the final chapter: when the abbey was built it stood half a mile from the sea but in the intervening 900 years that distance has been reduced to 200 yards by the erosional power of the North Sea. In a few more centuries, the stones of the abbey will be on the beach growing seaweed.

Wroxeter Roman City

The remains of the Roman City at Wroxeter may not be extensive, but with aid of the audio guide and well-written interpretive panels, it’s easy to envisage the glory days of Uriconium, when the vast open basilica was used for exercising, socialising and relaxing before the city’s Roman residents retreated to their bath house, kept humid with furnaces.

Wroexter Roman City Shropshire which english heritage sites are opening
© HARTLEPOOLMARINA2014, Wikimedia Commons

Over the years the site has yielded one of the most extensive collections of artefacts from Roman Britain. A solid silver mirror found in the 1920s now resides at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, alongside other treasures, and you’ll find excavated pottery, coins and jewellery in the museum at Wroxeter.