Tag Archives: Early History


The Amphitheatre at the Guildhall



As I explained in my introduction to the City of London, it was the Romans who first laid the foundation stones for the metropolis that we call London today.

After the failed attempts by Julius Caesar to conquer Britain in 55 and 54 BC, Emperor Claudius brought a larger army and made a successful invasion in 43 AD. He landed on the Kent coast near Richborough and headed towards the River Thames, where, after another successful battle, he was able to cross the river somewhere near Westminster.

It wouldn’t have taken him long to realise the strategic location of a place just downstream at where the river narrowed. Not only could the river be bridged, but it was also navigable up to this point, and so near to where London Bridge stands today, he set up camp on the north side of the river.

The location was also suitable for expanding a road system that could spread out across the country, and it wasn’t long before Londinium became an important trading post, both by road and by river. As the town grew though, so did the opposition to the conquerors and a revolt led by Boudicca left Londinium practically in ruins. However, there were very few casualties and the town was soon re-built.

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I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Stonehenge is one of those places that sits high on many people’s list of life’s big disappointments, but with the right mental attitude and a bit of forward planning it can still be somewhere that you’ll be glad to say you’ve seen.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site lies about nine miles north of Salisbury and can be reached by the useful ‘Stonehenge Tour Bus’ which does a circuit between the city, Old Sarum, and Stonehenge.


The first obvious detraction from this iconic site is its proximity to the main A303 trunk road which has been constantly debated about ever since I can remember.

Not so long ago the A360 road to Devizes and the inadequate visitor centre were also bones of contention, but were both rectified by the closure of the road and the re-positioning of a new modern visitor centre 1½ miles away.

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Salisbury Cathedral Pt 3 – The Highlights

Bishop de Bridport's Tomb

Salisbury Cathedral Pt 3 - The Highlights


In Salisbury Cathedral Pt 2 I described the different parts of the church, and so for this final part I’m going to explain what there is to see inside – or at least some of the highlights.

Throughout the church there’s a good collection of tombs for anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing. The first person to be buried here was William Longespee Earl of Salisbury, illegitimate son of King Henry II, and half-brother of King John. He died in 1226 and next to his wooden tomb is a plaque stating that he was present at the laying of the foundation stones of the Cathedral in 1220.

The tomb of Bishop Giles de Bridport, who was at the consecration of the Cathedral in 1258 is considered to be one of the finest 13th cent tombs in Britain, but probably the most majestic is the Hertford tomb. The Earl of Hertford (1539-1621) was the nephew of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, and lying above him is the effigy of his wife Lady Catherine Grey, the sister of Lady Jane Grey who was Queen of England for 9 days in 1553.

I should also mention that former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who lived at Arundells in The Close opposite the Cathedral was buried here in 2005 in a much simpler grave.

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Salisbury Cathedral Pt 2 – The New Cathedral

The Nave

Salisbury Cathedral Pt 2 - The New Cathedral


Having explained how the new Cathedral came about in Salisbury Cathedral Pt 1, I’d like to talk a bit more about the building itself.

To start with I don’t suppose any building that’s been around for almost 800 years would have been untouched in any way, and of course Salisbury Cathedral is no exception, but the good news is that this remarkable church is still essentially the same as when it was built.

There have been a few hiccups along the way mind you including the removal of many of the stained-glass windows during the Reformation, and even some damage during the Civil War, but as was often the case, well-meaning restorers probably did the most amount of damage.

According to the official Salisbury Cathedral guidebook, the late 18th century saw James Wyatt clear the churchyard, demolish the Bell Tower, lime-wash the vaulting, cover medieval paintings, and remove even more medieval glass.

It wasn’t all bad news though. If you take a look at the West Front, you’ll find that there are 79 statues adorning the façade, and 72 of them have been added since the 19th century. George Gilbert Scott was responsible for most of them during his period of restoration between 1860 and 1876, and I reckon the West Front looks fantastic.

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Salisbury Cathedral Pt 1 – New for Old

Salisbury Cathedral Pt 1 - New for Old


My favourite travel writer, Bill Bryson, said in his book ‘Notes from a Small Island’, that “There is no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England and the Close around it the most beautiful space”, and who am I to argue with Bill Bryson? It’s only his opinion of course, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would agree with him.

If you’ve been to Old Sarum, you would have seen the Iron Age Hillfort where William the Conqueror built a castle, and successive Bishops built the first Salisbury Cathedral, but conditions were less than ideal for the clergy who lived here. It was windswept and cramped, and they didn’t get on too well with their neighbours in the castle either, and so early in the 13th century they decided to relocate down to the valley below.

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Old Sarum

Remains of Old Sarum Castle

Old Sarum


Old Sarum probably wont be the first place visitors will come to see on their first visit to Salisbury, but it should be the first place to know about, because without Old Sarum there would be no Salisbury.

On a hilltop overlooking the valley where present day Salisbury lies are the remains of Sarum, or Old Sarum as it is now called.

This previous Iron Age hill fort, just a couple of miles north of the city centre, passed through the hands of the Romans, Saxons, and Vikings, before finally falling to William the Conqueror.

William built a Motte and Bailey castle inside the existing fort, probably around 1069-70, and the importance of the site was strengthened even more by the construction of a cathedral which was consecrated on 5th April 1092.

As was often the case during medieval times, the powers that be and the clergy didn’t always meet eye to eye and the decision was made to relocate the cathedral down to the valley below where it still stands.


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Wandering Around Inside the Old City Walls

St. Nicholas Street

Wandering Around Inside the Old City Walls

If the title of this post gives anyone the impression that wandering around Old Bristol is similar to wandering around York or Chester then I apologise straight away. For a start, apart from one notable exception, there are no parts of the old city wall left, and don’t expect to come here and tick off a list of medieval buildings either.

That said, just because the city’s core isn’t set in aspic, it doesn’t mean to say that centuries of history hasn’t left anything of interest behind.

My previous post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, explained how the Anglo-Saxon settlement became a Norman town and trading port. The diversion of the River Frome in the 13th century helped the port expand, and for the town to do the same it meant tearing down the city walls.

The other major event to change Bristol’s layout was the Second World War when air raids did enormous damage. As far as the Old City was concerned, virtually everything in the south-eastern quarter was destroyed. Apart from the remains of two churches – St. Mary-le-Port and St. Stephens – nothing else survived.

The western side though escaped the worst of the Blitz and it’s mainly this part of the Old City that I’m going to take you around in this virtual tour.

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From Brycgstowe to Bristol

Bristol Bridge

From Brycgstowe to Bristol

Brycgstowe, Brigstow, Bricgstoc – It doesn’t matter how it was spelt, to the Saxons it meant the same thing – ‘Place by the bridge’.

The tendency for Bristolians to add the letter ‘L’ onto the end of words is no doubt the reason for today’s spelling, but why did they build a bridge here?

The answer is not just because it was the lowest convenient crossing point of the River Avon, but also because it was an ideal trading location.

Situated six miles upstream from the mouth of the river where it meets the Severn meant that it had both good protection and good access.

The River Severn has the second (or third) highest tidal range in the world, and you don’t have to witness the Severn Bore to see how fast the river can ebb and flow. This tidal range also affects the Avon, and for ships sailing up and down the river this was good news – or at least it was back then (see my post on the Floating Harbour for how things changed).

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St. Ia and Pendinas

The Island from Porthmeor Beach

St. Ia and Pendinas

It never ceases to amaze me how saints of old had powers that would put David Blaine and Uri Geller to shame, and St Ia is yet another one.

St. Ia was a 5th century Irish princess who, after being converted to Christianity, decided that it was her duty to join a missionary party that was planning to cross the Celtic Sea in order to convert the good people of Cerniw.

The story goes that the boat left without her, but undeterred, she set about making her own arrangements – so what did she do? she sailed over on a leaf of course! Now, I have to admit I am partaking in a glass of fruit cider while I’m writing this, but I can assure you that the story is true, it must be, I’ve read the same story from several different sources just to confirm that I haven’t been hallucinating.

Call me an old cynic if you like, but I don’t believe a word of it. Having said that, it seems pretty likely that the Irish princess did make it across to the shores of Cornwall one way or another, and it also seems likely that she landed at Pendinas, or ‘The Island’ as it’s called today.

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Lydford is a small village of around 500 people situated right on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park between Tavistock and Okehampton.

It may be small, but it’s a place worth seeking out if you find yourself in this part of the world. It has an interesting history and some lovely scenery nearby, and I’ve never understood why so few people come here.

Along with Barnstaple, Exeter and Halwell in South Devon, Lydford was one of the four principle Devon burghs that Alfred the Great created to defend his kingdom of Wessex against the Danes, and it was from this period that the town became an important coin minting centre.

Silver was the metal of preference for coins at the time and Lydford was fortunate in having a rich supply of the stuff nearby. The mines provided the silver and the ‘Moneyers’ made the coins. These silver coins were known as ‘Lydford Pennies’ and an estimated one and a half million of them were produced: A few of these have found their way into the Castle Inn, but if you happen to come from Scandinavia I wouldn’t mention the fact because most of these coins were whisked away by the Vikings during a late 10th century raid, and you have a far better chance of seeing some in Stockholm than you do in England.

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Old Paignton

Kirkham House

Old Paignton

Paignton may have only really come to life when the railway arrived in 1859, but it’s actually much older than people think. There was a settlement here during Anglo-Saxon times and was even referred to as Peintone in the Domesday Book.

In those days, the area just inland from the beach was backed by sand dunes and marshland, which meant that the settlement grew up on dry land at the foot of the hills behind, but also with a separate fishing harbour under the protection of Roundham Head.

The origins of Old Paignton village are located around Palace Avenue, Church St, and Winner St, the names of which give a clue as to what was here.

Around 1050, Peintona became an episcopal manor under Bishop Leofric of Exeter, but back then it would have taken the best part of a day to get here from Exeter, and so when Bishop Osbern succeeded Leofric, he decided to build a palace to help him administer this large manor.

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Kents Cavern and the English Riviera Geopark

Erosion of soft Red Sandstone in action at Babbacombe

Kents Cavern and the English Riviera Geopark

People who come to Torbay don’t think of it as somewhere with much history, and it’s true in some respects, but search a bit deeper and you’ll find that the area’s history goes back a long way – about 400 million years in fact – give or take a few million.

Explaining the planet’s history is really best left to the experts, but as one of the geological time periods is named after the county of Devon, I think it’s worth knowing how this occurred and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things.

To put it into some sort of perspective, geologists tell us that the earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, with the oldest rocks in Britain being about 3,000 million years old (and found in North-Western Scotland).

From this we can see that Devon’s beginnings don’t go back quite as far back as they might first appear, so why was the Devonian Period so named?

We only need to go back to the 1830s to find the answer. Up until that point, scientists from the early 18th century onwards were trying to map and categorize different geological time periods, and Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, two eminent members of the Geographical Society in London, had identified two separate eras which they called the Silurian and Carboniferous Periods.

This neat classification was thrown into some disarray when a colleague, Henry De la Beche, who was categorizing rocks himself in Devon, suggested there was also likely to be an intermediate period: The disagreement between the two parties led to the debate becoming known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’.

Paradoxically, it was Murchison who made the discoveries to prove that De la Beche was right all along. This intermediate era was determined to be between 359 and 419 million years ago, and was subsequently called the Devonian Period. (See the chart below).

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The Barbican

Plymouth Gin

The Barbican


The area around Sutton Harbour is known locally as The Barbican and is a magnet for both visitors and locals alike.

This is the oldest, and most atmospheric, part of the city and, as you’ve probably already guessed, its name comes from the fortified entrance that once protected the castle on Lambhay Hill.

Both have long since disappeared, but the area is still the historical core of old Plymouth where many maritime adventures started from and returned to, including the Mayflower.

The area was the haunt of Drake, Hawkins, and Raleigh and the layout of the streets hasn’t changed that much since. It’s apparently got the largest concentration of cobbled streets in England and over a hundred listed buildings.

The houses were originally built for wealthy merchants (I prefer to call them privateers), but as time moved on they became slums. The Elizabethan House in New St which is open to the public, housed over fifty people at one time, although a house further up the street housed sixty, and they’re not large houses by any stretch of the imagination.

Eventually of course many of these buildings had to be demolished, and I’d like to be able to tell you that they were replaced with something better, but I’m afraid I can’t.

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The Mayflower Connection

The Mayflower Steps

The Mayflower Connection

Many ships carrying settlers and explorers have left Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour over the years, but The Pilgrim Fathers’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620 resonates with the city more than any other.

There’s a Mayflower St, Mayflower College and a Mayflower Centre. Plymouth Argyle, the local football club, has a Mayflower Stand and call themselves The Pilgrims, with Pilgrim Pete as their mascot. So what makes the Pilgrim Fathers and The Mayflower so special to Plymouth?

The story begins when a band of English nonconformists, who rejected the laws of the Church of England, decided to seek religious freedom elsewhere. The first part of their journey took them to Leiden in The Netherlands, but finding it difficult to settle there, they left Delfthavn (Rotterdam) on a boat called ‘The Speedwell’ for America. The Speedwell joined up with more English passengers in Southampton who were on board ‘The Mayflower’.

The Speedwell sprang a leak and both ships put in at Dartmouth to ensure they were ship-shape before attempting to cross the Atlantic. They didn’t get far before The Speedwell sprang another leak, and both ships turned back to Plymouth. It was just The Mayflower therefore that sailed out across the ocean looking for a new life.

Their intentions were to aim for North Virginia but were blown off course and eventually landed at Cape Cod (Massachusetts). They named their new settlement Plymouth, and although only half of them had survived by the time the first winter was over, the rest remained, and today Plymouth is regarded as the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States.
The survivors held a thanksgiving feast the following year which is commemorated by Americans every 4th Thursday in November.

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Plymouth’s Origins and Layout

The Tamar Bridges

Plymouth's Origins and Layout


To understand Plymouth better it’s worth knowing something about its geography and background.

The city as we know it today is situated between the mouths of two rivers – The Tamar and The Plym, which meet up in Plymouth Sound, a bay protected from the elements of the English Channel by a Breakwater.

The city of Plymouth is actually made up of four separate towns – Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devonport and Plympton.

In medieval times Plymouth was just a small farming and fishing settlement, Stonehouse was of no significance, and Devonport didn’t even exist. Plympton, on the other hand, was one of the four influential stannary towns of Devon involved in the production of tin (the others being Tavistock, Ashburton, and Chagford). Continue reading

The City Wall and Northern Quarter

Northernhay Gardens

The City Wall and Northern Quarter

About 70% of Exeter’s city wall is still standing and although many changes to the wall have taken place over the years, it still encircles the city in much the same way as when the Romans built it to protect their fortress after they arrived in AD 55.

When they left in 410, the Saxons gained control and were forced to repair the wall in order to see off the regular Viking raids. However, when the Normans arrived, not only did they reinforce the wall, they also built a castle which had the job of repelling sieges and rebellions right up until the Civil War.

What’s left of the wall today is a mixture of stone and building styles from the Roman period onwards. None of the city gates have survived but the Visitor Information office in Dix’s Field provides a City Wall Trail leaflet that describes what’s left in more detail. Bear in mind though that the 2-mile-long walk isn’t as complete or as walkable as say somewhere like Chester.

If walking the whole of the City Wall Trail isn’t for you then I can recommend following the section from the city centre down to the Quayside. It basically follows the same route as Southernhay and can be picked up near to the Princesshay shopping centre or from the bottom of Cathedral Close.

This part of the wall is the most pleasurable to walk and there’s also something worth reaching at the end of it.

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Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

There’s a danger of boring people to death when describing museums, so forgive me if I don’t include everything that this museum has to offer.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) was built in the Gothic style in the 1860s. It’s a handsome building, and with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a multi-million pound re-development took place between 1999 and 2011.

The new-look museum was such a success that the Art Fund named it Museum of the Year in 2012.

It might have cost millions to bring up to date but it’s still free to go in, and so there’s no real reason not to pay it a visit. There are two entrances but the main one is in Queen St at the front of the building.

Briefly, the layout of the museum is spread over two levels, with the Ground Floor concentrating on local interest, whilst the upper First Floor includes items from other cultures and specimens from the natural world. There is more to it than that of course, but that’s the gist of it.

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