Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pockets of England I

In spite of the pervasiveness of mass tourism, it still requires little effort to delve into pockets of England, Scotland and Wales that remain little-visited and little-known. Maybe it's because, until the recent "credit crunch", the British preferred to holiday abroad than set out in discovery of the cultural delights of their own island.

I'm in the middle of finishing an assignment that has taken me as far north as the Highlands of Scotland and as far south of the Scilly Isles. It's the south-east corner of England that has fascinated me the most, though. 

From the subterranean vestiges of Roman Canterbury to the Bacchic frescoes of Dover's Painted House, Kent is steeped in Roman history. Richborough was probably the site of Claudius' invasion of Britain in AD 43, whilst the coastal fort at Reculver stood sentinel over a chain of fortifications that once stretched from the Isle of Wight to the Wash.

Dover Castle, recently restored by English Heritage, is one of my favourite "discoveries", as it has allowed me to re-read the story of Henry II and his wicked treatment of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. Henry re-built Dover Castle at great expense to accommodate wealthy pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Becket, the very man (this "turbulent priest") he had murdered!

South Wales, seldom explored by the cultural travaller, boasts some of Britain's most rewarding Roman monuments and mediaeval remains. Caerleon, for example, is the best preserved legionary fortress in the western Roman empire. Founded in AD 75, ancient Isca - once the base of the Second Augustan Legion - bears substantial traces of its illustrious past: fortified defences, barracks, baths and a military amphitheatre extensively excavated by Mortimer Wheeler.

Then, in the far north, Northumbria is home to the twin Anglo-Saxon monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the United Kingdom's nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010.

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