The Tower of London isn’t just about beheadings, imprisonment and murder, although it’s seen more than its fair share of blood and gore since it was built in 1066. As a royal palace, it has held a zoo of wild animals and been the home of the Royal Mint, as well as keeping the Crown Jewels safe (and not so safe). Tales of the Tower’s many ghosts and legends will leave you wide-eyed with disbelief!
Viewing London from up high
You won’t know where to look when you’re on board the London Eye, located on the city’s vibrant South Bank. The views across London are spectacular – on a clear day you can see up to 40 kilometres in all directions. See England’s capital laid beneath you from your capsule on the wheel’s rotation; marvel at the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and a wealth of the capital’s iconic sights. Even before boarding you’ll encounter the city through the multi-sensory special effects on the London Eye 4D Experience, free with your ticket.
Day 1: London
Get your bearings across England’s heritage- and culture-filled capital from the London Eye, located on the city’s vibrant South Bank. You’ll experience breathtaking 360 degree views of London from up high; look one way to see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, another and you’ll see St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard. Being up this high means it’s a great way to get an overall picture of the city. Treat yourself to a private capsule and spectacular views.
There are few rituals more loaded with British history, pageantry and ceremony than Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. From April to July, the 45-minute tradition happens daily as one regiment takes over the guarding of the Queen from another. It’s quite a sight, as troops wearing bright red uniforms and tall bearskin hats and bearing regimental flags march from Wellington Barracks to Buckingham Palace, accompanied by a military band.
Tea leaves have been traded from the Twinings shop at 216 Strand for over 300 years. It’s one of the oldest shops in London, still standing on its original 1706 site. Stock up on the hundreds of teas on offer, sample whatever takes your fancy at the Tea Bar, or join a 2-hour tea-tasting masterclass and learn the intricacies of tea making – and drinking – from the experts. There’s an exhibition on Twinings’ heritage too.
Day 2: Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds
It’s about 1 hour 50 minutes west by car or public transport from London to Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. This early-18th-century Baroque palace – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was Churchill’s birthplace, and the parkland was designed by renowned landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. There’s plenty to admire, but if you’re here in June, go when Blenheim Palace Flower Show is on (June) and see stunning show gardens, gardening experts, and celebs such as Sir Ian McKellen too.
World Heritage Site and home to one of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s spectacular landscaped gardens, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire features 2,000 acres of parkland and is the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of Palace. The principal residence of the dukes of Marlborough Blenheim Palace is over 300 years old. This beautiful site has also been used as a backdrop to many films.
You can sleep in a manor house that houses 500 years of history at the award-winning, luxury Ellenborough Park Hotel, on the edges of Cheltenham Spa in the Cotswolds. Built from honey-coloured Cotswold stone, the five-star hotel has old oak beams, stone fireplaces, stained glass windows and echoes of the scandalous tales that delighted English society when the 1st Earl of Ellenborough brought his young new wife home here in 1824.
Don’t be fooled by the French chef, cuisine and name of the exclusive Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons restaurant in the Cotswolds; there are few dining experiences more quintessentially British than this one. Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin-starred restaurant (and accompanying hotel) is in a magnificent country house built from honeyed Cotswold stone and surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens. Take your gourmet experience up a step in the renowned on-site cookery school.
Day 3: Stratford-upon-Avon
One of England’s most famous playwrights, William Shakespeare, lived and worked in Stratford-upon-Avon, a 30-minute drive from the Cotswolds, as well as the country’s capital city, London. Known for his substantial contribution to literature, history and culture the Bard is an iconic literary figurehead and is celebrated globally for his work. Start your own literary journey in Stratford-upon-Avon (a two hour-journey by train or car from London) and follow in the footsteps of the Bard on the free, self-guided walk ‘Shakespeare’s Steps’ which runs down the historic spine of the town and explores prominent locations relating to the beloved playwright.
Go behind the scenes at the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) on a guided tour exploring the public and private areas of the theatre. To discover the origins of the RSC and its theatres in Stratford, choose the ‘Behind the Scenes Tours’, where you will explore a production in depth and learn about the theatre making process. Alternatively, visitors can explore the beginnings of theatre on the ‘Front of House Tours’, from 1879 up to modern day. Hear behind-the-scenes secrets, learn how costumes are made, and witness how effects are achieved.
The opening of this major new heritage attraction in April 2016 provides the missing chapter in the story of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. Dating from 1418, King Edward VI School is where a young William Shakespeare was educated and inspired to become a playwright. One of only a dozen surviving examples of a late medieval provincial Guildhall, this significant historical building has undergone major restoration and conservation work. With soundscapes, films, interactive displays, a Tudor lesson, and a heritage classroom, this engaging visitor attraction is on track to educate and inspire a new generation.
Famous as the former home of the Bard, Shakespeare lived at New Place for the final 19 years of his life and excitingly wrote 26 of his best-loved plays there. Sadly in 1759 New Place was demolished by its then owner, Reverend Francis Gastrell out of annoyance from visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts. To commemorate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust created a new heritage landmark on the site of Shakespeare’s former home. The now open, and re-imagined New Place echoes the footprint of the original Shakespeare family home, whilst commissioned artworks and displays throughout the site evoke a sense of Shakespeare’s family life as well as the major works that were written here.
Day 4: London
Though Shakespeare lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for the latter years of his life, London is where some of his best works were performed, and arguably where his career flourished. Follow closely in the Bard’s footsteps from his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon to London on the four night tour: ‘Discover Shakespeare’s Way’, retracing his journey to The Globe Theatre in London. Catch historic haunts that are off the beaten track, experience England as Shakespeare would have travelling through the English countryside to the capital, and learn about the stunning locations which inspired Shakespeare himself. Specific dates apply, check website for details.
There is nowhere better to get a sense of what watching Shakespeare’s plays would have been like at the time he wrote them, than at the Globe on London’s South Bank. It was on a site nearby (the original Globe burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII) that the playwright’s friend and fellow actor Richard Burbage – who played many of the major Shakespearean characters, including Othello, Hamlet, Lear, and Richard III – performed. Today the rebuilt Globe Theatre is a mecca for Shakespeare fans for its atmospheric and authentic open-air experience (as in Shakespeare’s time, if it rains, theatre-goers get wet!). Plays are performed from mid-April to mid-October and there are also tours and exhibitions on offer.
The Rose Playhouse, billed as Bankside’s first Tudor theatre (two thirds of the original foundations have been excavated and protected), will host performances of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing in 2016. Stop by and get a sense of the original theatre that was once graced by the Tudor crowds.
40 years prior to Sir Ian McKellan, Laurence Olivier took the lead role in Richard III, as well as directing and producing the film. Unlike the 1995 version, this one did use the Tower of London for key scenes, though Olivier acknowledged in The New York Times that geographical accuracy may not have been the film’s strongest point, saying: “Americans who know London may be surprised to find Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London to be practically adjacent. I hope they'll agree with me that if they weren't like that, they should have been.” You can visit both the Tower and Westminster Abbey on a visit to the capital, walking in the footsteps of the real life kings and queens whose lives revolved around both places of power.