There it is in the distance: a crumbling castle or skeletal church wall majestically perched on a seaside cliff or rising silently from the middle of a windswept moor. Get closer, and walk through the vaulted archways. Run your hands along the carved stones. That's what history feels like.
Visiting a scenic British ruin is one of those quintessential European experiences, a chance to reflect on natural and architectural beauty and to ponder the passage of time. Britain wears its old age well, and at its most scenic ruins, echoes of the past are always in the air. It's enough to inspire romantic verse. Just flip through your dusty poetry anthology and reread Wordsworth's "Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." You'll get the idea.
You can walk in the steps of King Arthur at Tintagel Castle, set high on the Cornwall coast. You can climb the remnants of the battlements of Scotland's Urquhart Castle and scan Loch Ness for mysterious ripples on the surface. At Linlithgow Palace near Edinburgh, you can wander through what's left of the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.
"Ruins are all beautiful or impressive — most are both — and they all have extraordinary stories to tell," says Jeremy Ashbee, Head Properties Curator of English Heritage, the organization responsible for the management of many scenic historical sites. And many of the stories are sad to tell, too.
After all, ruins are ruined because someone knocked them down. The stories of wars, power struggles, sieges, oppressions, and liberations are the story of Britain itself. In the case of ruined Catholic churches and abbeys, the agent of destruction was King Henry VIII, who, feeling threatened by the power of the Catholic Church, simply wiped it off the map. During the Suppression of the Monasteries in the late 1530s, hundreds of beautiful religious sites were sacked and dismantled. Today only their shells remain.
As for the castles, many found themselves on the wrong end of cannons during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s. More than three centuries later, the damage is still plain to see, with cannonball marks visible in many castle walls.
But despite the fact that so much has been lost, the history remains. Speaking of one of his favorite sites, Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, Ashbee says, "It’s very easy to imagine the life of the medieval monks in their church, dormitory, and chapter house (they had the use of a quite enormous communal latrine, set over a diverted stream), and inevitably it makes the onlooker feel a little somber to think of the way the monastery was suppressed, bringing a whole way of life to an end."
We asked Edwards, Ashbee, and Guy Salkeld, an archaeologist with Britain's National Trust Britain's National Trust, to recommend some of their favorite ruins. Bring your notebook, your watercolors, or your camera and settle in for some quiet contemplation. "The great thing about old ruins," says Edwards, "is that they are ever-patient models, and they don’t move.”