The jewel of the north, Inverness is known as the city that crowns the shores of Loch Ness, famed home to the mythically elusive monster Nessie. Despite this claim to fame, few visit the compact Scottish city, and even fewer appreciate it. The official gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the northern-ness of Inverness gives you the feeling of being at the ends of Earth’s civilisation (it’s the UK’s northernmost city). Small enough to visit in a day, Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. It is ranked 5th out of nearly 200 British cities for best quality of life as well as Scotland’s 1st (and the UK’s 2nd) happiest city; being collectively happy seems to be a northern thing as Denmark, Sweden and Norway also often rank at the top of world lists. As you wander the streets of Inverness, there’s certain familiar British-ness (e.g. Boots, Cafe Nero, WH Smiths and Tesco’s…) but at the same time, something resoundly Scottish. Start at the majestic Leakey’s Bookshop and follow the River Ness past the ancient churches and over bouncing bridges, past the modern castle on the hill as the rivers weaves and twines its way towards the long and narrow Loch Ness. Long before you arrive, you’ll stumble across a series of long and narrow islands – the Ness Isles – a 3 mile (5k) forested loop fringed by the quiet river – a place just perfect for a stroll or a jog in the fresh air of any season! Oh and by the way, Macbeth is from here! Or rather, his real life 11th century counterpart was. Practical info: Inverness Train/Bus Station is in the city centre. The airport is an easy 25 minute bus ride – get bus 11A from Marks & Spenser’s. There are Loch Ness half day boat tours for those wishing to see the lake and ruins of Urquhart Castle.
Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style. To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Twisted Tombs in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
One of the creepiest places in London, Highgate Cemetery is old and dark, overflowing with cracked, crooked tombstones grinning like jagged teeth and fanned with thick overgrown grass. Scattered amongst the stones are statues and stone caskets marking out the wealthier dead – even in death, social classes are made apparent. West Highgate (visit by guided tour only) is older, full of cracked tombstones hidden under heavy trees and dark bushes, while East Highgate (across the road) is newer, orderly, and home to the famous Karl Marx tomb (an enormous stone bust). In the overgrown Victorian West Cemetery, vicious vines grasp forgotten tombs, determined to pull their sepulchres underground, their owners’ names sanded away by centuries’ worth of wind. Highgate Cemetery was born in 1839 alongside seven other cemeteries, built to release the pressure of overcrowded intercity (and sometimes illegal) cemeteries. The dark Victorian path twists through overgrown rows of grey stones and wailing angels, leading to the obelisks of Egyptian Avenue (Victorian interest in Egypt had been piqued by Napoleon). Following that is the Circle of Lebanon, crowned with a massive ancient cedar tree older than the cemetery itself, circled by tombs seemingly revering it. Finally, the brave visitor will pass through dark, vaulted catacombs where warmth and light seem devoid. It is said that this creepy endroit inspired Bram Stoker while writing Dracula (particularly the scene at the graveyard with the undead new vampire Lucy Westenra). While this is not proven (experts suggest the mythical graveyard might’ve been St Mary’s Churchyard), there is certainly no denying the eeriness of this fiercely Victorian Gothic graveyard in north London. Get ready for goosebumps while wandering this dark and wild place where the din of London and the 21st century seem leagues away.
Though designed just before WWII, Bristol’s crescent-shaped City Hall wasn’t built until after the war’s end. Situated in a prominent place in Bristol, the secular City Hall faces the massive and gorgeous Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library and the College Green, the building is a classic example of the Neo-Georgian style except for one glaring oddity: both of the turreted ends to the building are topped with an unusual statue – a unicorn! (Not so very different than the Dragons of London!) If you look carefully, Bristol functions like an “I Spy” book (“I spy 12 unicorns…”) – they are everywhere! On St. John the Baptist Church, the SS Great Britain ship, on the Royal West of England Academy, at the entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, on the North Bristol Rugby Club tie and blazer, and until 2004 they were on the logo of the renowned University of Bristol. They are even part of the city’s coat of arms! Why, you may ask? To solve the mystery, we need to delve back in time to 16th century Bristol, when the city’s leaders chose to include two unicorns on the official seal which was then stamped on important city documents scattered across Bristol – therefore imprinting the unicorn forevermore into Bristol history. As for the mystery of the City Hall Unicorns, architect Vincent Harris actually secretly commissioned the two three-foot-high bronze unicorns without informing the council, put them up and hoped for the best! They’re still there, so we can assume that the council accepted their city hall’s impromptu mascot!
The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England
The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.
It’s washing day in this quintessential English thatched cottage lost in the English woodland. The air is steeped with the smell of soap and fresh laundry, hung outside to dry outside this cottage on this sunny English day, making you feel as though you’ve fallen into a fairy tale. This magnificent thatched cottage stands in a quiet meadow in the English countryside not far from the quaint but bustling town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Best known for being the birthplace of the great writer William Shakespeare (who did wonders for the English language, by the way; we still use words and phrases coined by him), Stratford-upon-Avon is crossed with medieval streets lined with Tudor houses and never-ending shops, spires of ancient churches and tolling church bells. Avoid the crowds by instead meandering through the brilliant English countryside where you’ll stumble across quiet pastures and thatched cottages. Thatch, once a common roofing material, is rare today, owing to the amount of maintenance required (you must replace it every few years), the overabundance of other roofing materials and the fact that it’s a significant fire hazard. Here though, you’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. There is something very magical about this cottage in this place – as if fairies or forest nymphs or singing maidens may tumble off the pages of a storybook and come to life here. In this place, wandering these quiet countryside lanes outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see where Shakespeare took his inspiration. Alone on the path by the cottage, you may even expect to meet one of Shakespeare’s colourful characters along the way.
‘By the wee birchen corries lie patches of green Where gardens and bare-headed bairnies have been, But the huts now are rickles of stone, nettle-grown, And the once human homes, e’en their names are unknown.’
-Anonymous Victorian poet upon looking over nearby Loch Rannoch
Multiple reasons could account for any of the dozens of abandoned settlements in Scotland’s Highlands. Forced evictions, changing economies, harsh living conditions, changes in animal behaviour or soil richness, new weather patterns, or the industrial revolution are but a few. Reasons for this particular settlement’s abandonment are unknown. The trail to Mt Schiehallion (the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’) which overlooks Loch Rannoch snakes its way up and past this little village – today little more than a picturesque ruin. Though most people amble by it with little more than a quick photo, it serves one to stop and give it a little respect – those little ruins were once someone’s house, and one day, your house may be little more than a pile of rocks. Though sad, such is the way of things. Even buildings have a circle of life.
Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands
Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating profound connection between you and the land itself.
Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland
There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.
Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)
A cold, dark evening in December in 1952, an old-fashioned double-decker bus #78 was following its route across the Tower Bridge towards Dulwich when the gateman in charge of raising and lowering the bridge failed to perceive the iconic red vehicle. He gave the all clear started to raise the bridge. The bus’ driver, one Albert Gunter, was forced to make one of those split-second, life-or-death decisions we all hope never to make – and hit the gas pedal. His bus shot forward, and the propulsion carried his double-decker bus Knightbus-style over the dark, empty expanse of the Thames far below his wheels, jumping a gap of 3 feet, onto the safety of the other side 6 feet below him, which had not yet began to rise. No one was seriously hurt, and the bus landed upright. His reward for his bravery? 10 quid from London Transport (and £35 from the City of London). Even converted to 2016 standards, that seems a little low, don’t you think!? An added bonus to the story was that one of the passengers was so scared to get back into a bus that she would only ride in Gunter’s bus, who she later asked to be her best man at her wedding! In any case, despite this incident and a few others (including an RAF man who flew a plane through below the upper walkway, and a man dressed as Spiderman who scaled a tower to dangle 100 feet in the air), the bridge remains one of London’s most beloved places, a erstwhile icon of London. Millions visit every year to photograph and traverse the famed overpass, and while there’s not much chance you’ll fly through the air like the 20 passengers on the night of Dec. 30th, the memory of your visit to the Tower Bridge will stay with you long afterwards.
How would you like to have a pair of dragons guarding the limits of your town? Well, that’s exactly what’s going on in the City of London (the very central part of the capital). London decided to mark the boundary of the City of London with several 6-7 foot tall dragon statues. Originally modeled on dragons perched atop the London Coal Exchange, this mighty beast is one of the two original statues from the Coal Exchange, relocated to Victoria Embankment in the mid 20th century. Dragons, like lions, have a long history of guarding things (places, families, riches, businesses, etc) from would-be invaders. As mystical beings (not to mention big and scary), dragons have the added bonus of absolute mysteriousness, to be designed according to the vision of the creator in whatever likeness suits him best. Covered in scales, of enormous stature, and able to walk, fly, and breathe fire, it’s not hard to imagine why someone would chose this beast as their guardian and alley. Whether real or not, keep your eyes open and you might see more dragons around you than you ever realised or suspected!
As mentioned before, Winchester was once the capital of England (or at least Wessex, established and ruled by the West Saxons). Though once a great fort and regal seat of power, the Winchester of today is very different. In fact, today’s Winchester is so quaint and charming that one forgets that it was once home to England’s early kings. One of the best things about all English cities is, well, the pubs. A pub, or public house, is a “house” that is licensed to sell alcohol to the general public. Pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns & inns, which organised the sale of ale to the public. Even after the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons continued to establish regulated alehouses, usually in private homes that quickly became the focal point of the community for spreading news, gossiping, or simply meeting up with other villagers, and are often found conjoined with hotels or inns. These gave way to official (by decree) public houses, which in turn led to today’s pub. Pubs are largely distinguished from other drinking establishments for their focus on ale as the primary beverage. Today, pubs are simply decorated, with a loud, lively atmosphere. There’s usually a match on, or else there’s a pub quiz. Service is at the bar, nearly all menus are predictable (often even called ‘pub food’) and the alcohol on tap is a variety of ales. Best of all, it is in many ways the heart and soul of England.
More Cool Places to Visit in England outside London
Before London was London, England (well, technically Wessex, an ancient kingdom in southern England) was ruled from Winchester. It’s hard to imagine that this cheery, quaint town in southern England was once a major seat of power – but then again, history loves to throw us curve balls (like the fact that Brits were once ruled by Vikings, Russia was still a feudal state until well in the 18th century, Italy wasn’t Italy until the 19th century, and there are still parts of Spain where Spanish is not the most widely spoken language, etc). Originally the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, it became known in 648 as Wintan-ceastre (‘Fort Venta’ in Old English). And by the way – about the Vikings, we owe them the present layout of Winchester; good ol’ Alfred the Great rebuilt Winchester during the 9th century in order to create a better defense against the Viking invaders. Today, Winchester is a quaint city full of lively pubs and historic streets, and makes a great point of entry to visit the even older and more mysterious New Forest.
Happy New Year everyone! Yes, this little guy is a wild pony, well-fed by the New Forest’s robust undergrowth. The New Forest, located in southern England near Winchester, the ancient capital of England, is what remains today of a once-majestic great wood. It was once the King’s Wood (or Kingswood), a forest set aside for the king’s enormous hunting parties, started sometime after 1066 by our old friend, William the Conqueror. The Forest continued to be inhabited by simple folk who could–and can–trace their lineage centuries back. Many of them kept ponies (for work), though they let them roam free, which is how the Forest came to be inhabited by these furry, hardy creatures. Despite world events, the New Forest has changed very little in the last 1000 years. Ancient trees still loom together, looking over muddy fields, quiet lakes and thatched roofs. One still sees the same names on doors, such as Furzey, an old local name. One still sees remnants of its Norman beginnings, such as the village of Beaulieu (though today pronounced “Byoow-lee” by locals). Old, dark spires rise up along modern roads built on top of ancient paths. But for the full effect of the New Forest, one must leave the car behind and trek into nature. One cannot fully appreciate the New Forest until one has mud on one’s shoes, rain in one’s coat, leaves in one’s hair, a pony in one’s sight. It is an old, magical place, this misnomer, the very old New Forest.
*If interested in the New Forest, check out Edward Rutherford’s intriguing and epic tale of the place, simply called “The Forest,” spanning nearly 1000 years of history of the Forest, told through tales about the inhabitants over the centuries.
A stone’s throw away from Aberdeen, the quaint seaside village of Stonehaven clings to the North Sea coastline. Aside from the usual charming nature of being in an adorable village along the rugged, Scottish coastline with waves lapping at your feet, Stonehaven is also home to some of the best fish and chips in the UK. Indeed, The Bay won awards in 2012 & 2013 for best takeaway fish and chips, and it is worth the short wait and the slightly high prices for the delicious battered fresh fish. Stonehaven is also the home of the “deep fried Mars Bar,” developed in 1995 by the Haven Chip Bar (now called The Carron). And despite immediately feeling the need to run a marathon afterwards in order to counterbalance the unhealthiness of the snack, the taste is pretty darn delicious! Not only is Stonehaven a good place to come to eat, it is also relaxing and beautiful, especially so after hiking up to the ridge just above the town, watching the light play off the golden-tinted stones and rooftops. While most come here in order to access the equally-beautiful Dunnottar Castle down the road, don’t miss out on the hidden gem that is Stonehaven itself.
England is a lovely place; Bath is even lovelier. Ancient Roman baths, Gothic abbeys, picturesque canals, charming cobblestones, green parks. Meandering forest trails take you through the grounds of Prior Park and its Palladian house built in the mid-1700s as a way of displaying the use of Bath limestone as a potential building material. The house, as well as this bridge nestled deep into the park’s hillsides, was built following the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose style briefly became popular in the UK during the mid 17th- through 18th-century before being cut short by the Civil War. Palladio valued lines, symmetry and perspective. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, he derived a style that adapted the symmetry of Roman temples and palaces to a more modern manor house. Today owned by the Prior Park College and the National Trust, Prior Park is one of Bath’s hidden gems and well worth the countryside stroll!
Unknown grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
Angels and demons haunt the hidden, overgrown paths of London’s infamous Highgate Cemetery. Originally one of the “Magnificent Seven,” Highgate was among seven ‘modern’ cemeteries built during the early eighteen hundreds in the London outskirts in order to alleviate overcrowding in Central London. Unlike many cemeteries kept perfectly manicured, Highgate is a wild, savage place. There is no doubt that it is also elegant–one has only to look at the grand Egyptian Avenue or the beautiful Circle of Lebanon to comprehend its splendor–but here, nature is given free reign and seems determined to take back its dead. Trees and bushes crowd the grounds, grasses and flowers cover every inch of the graves, roots grip the tombs, paths are narrow and hidden. In fact, graves are so close to each other that they are practically tripping over each other. It is both a beautiful and creepy place. One does not have to try hard to conjure images of ghosts and demons–in fact, the place is known as a possible inspiration for Bram Stoker in writing Dracula, and in the mid 1900s, it inspired the legend of the ‘Highgate Vampire.’ Though long debunked, one certainly gets goosebumps and perhaps starts to reconsider the possibility of the supernatural while wandering the forlorn paths of Highgate.
What trip to Oxford is complete without donning a straw hat, getting into a flat-bottomed boat and attempting to push yourself along by digging a long pole into the River Thames? It looks wonderfully picturesque and serene–but it is surprisingly harder than it looks. Oxford, as you probably know, is home to a collection of 30+ colleges forming Oxford University, one of the world’s most foremost institutions of higher learning. Amongst all that studying, those long nights in the library, hours spent in classes or listening to speeches by esteemed professors while wearing dress robes in a banquet hall (yes, this sounds a bit like Hogwarts but it’s all true!)–all of that takes extraordinary amounts of time and energy, so for a couple of centuries, students found that they could take the edge off by grabbing a few of their best friends, ditching their dress robes, and jumping into a punt. Sometimes when they were feeling especially daring, they held races and pushed each other into the water. While the ‘sport’ may pale in comparison to bungee jumping or windsurfing, you cannot deny that it is quintessentially English. And now, on your next trip to Oxford (or Cambridge for that matter) you can see what all the fuss is about too…just try not to fall in!
Crossing the Thames and walking past the Houses of Parliament for the first time, you feel a shiver run down your spine as you finally come face-to-face with the most famous clock in the world. As Big Ben in all its glory rises above you, its clock faces grin down over the magnificent city of London. Just a hair over 150 years old, Big Ben has become one of London‘s – and England‘s – most important icons. As you stare at this tower you’ve seen in countless films, photos and paintings, you may wonder why it’s called “Big Ben” when the official name is the “Elizabeth Tower” (named like so as it was erected to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II). Apparently, the nickname’s origin is somewhat up in the air and a bit of a debate between historians. Perhaps it is because of Sir Benjamin Bell (the principle installer of the great bell)…others argue that it may be in regard to the boxing champ, Benjamin Caunt (though I’m not sure I see the likeness!?), still others argue that it should refer only to the bell and not to the tower at all. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because as your eyes lock onto the golden sides of Big Ben’s strong tower, you still feel the shivers tingling up your spine as you stand in the shadow of so great a building. Just be mindful of that camera off to the side – London is the most surveilled city in the world, with one camera per every 11-14 people! Smile!
Ah, Kenilworth. This is one of England’s most dramatic ruins. In fact, historian Anthony Emery describes it as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages.” which one must admit is pretty impressive. It is also impressive for its resistance and survival during what is possibly the longest siege in English history : a six month siege during the English Civil War in 1266. Oh, and don’t forget the Earl of Leicester, who was so in love with Elizabeth I that he organised a massive, lavish and bank-busting hosting of the queen in order to impress her, going so far as spend thousands of pounds and renovating the castle and grounds, nearly bankrupting himself in the process. Good ol’ Queen Lizzie brought with her no less than thirty-one barons and four hundred staff for her royal visit to Kenilworth, lasting a grand total of nineteen days, one of the longest visits she ever made. The sad thing is…she was just using him for his castle and his parties. She never did marry the poor guy. Today, the ruins are open to the public, just try not to climb on the walls however tempting that may be! (There are signs everywhere, though to be fair, no one really enforcing them…!)