Britain’s 7 most amazing ruins

From crag-top castles to crumbling houses, Britain's lost ruins are revealed in a pioneering new book

In Wild Ruins, the first ever guidebook to Britain’s ruins, writer Dave Hamilton details how to visit and gain access to more than 250 hidden historical spots. Featuring a vast number of images and 28 maps, the book reveals the whereabouts of long-forgotten castles, mills, cottages, quays, airfields, Victorian forts and intriguing derelicts.

Here, writing for History Extra, Hamilton shares seven of his favourite ruins, and explains their historical significance.

If history is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill allegedly said, then what of the losers; how is their tale told? Our nation’s ruins offer this alternative history. Ruins tell the story of a constantly shifting balance of power. They tell us how even mighty armies and steadfast institutions can topple in the shifting sands of time. Ruins tell us of the forces, often way beyond our control, that continue to shape our lives to this day. The history of the ruin is, after all, the history written by the losing side.

 

1) Skara Brae – Mainland, Orkney

One February night in 1850, a storm raged its way through Scotland and up to the Orkney Islands. It was so ferocious that many were killed, and in Mainland Orkney a large layer of sand and turf was ripped from the coastline.

The next morning, locals found a number of roofless circular dwellings where once stood a large irregular dune. This was to be one of the most significant finds of the period. At first it was thought to be a Pictish settlement dating back to the Iron Age, around 500 BC. Much later, radiocarbon dating proved this estimate to be out by at least 2,000 years. Although estimates vary, it is thought the settlement was inhabited somewhere between 3,200 and 2,200 BC. 

Being under the cover of sand for so long has meant that the village at Skara Brae is perhaps the best-preserved collection of Neolithic buildings in Europe. Built-in stone furniture still survives, and such is the level of detail it is easy to make out where inhabitants had their beds, where they lit their fires, and where they stored their food.
Skara Brae, situated 19 miles north-west of the port of Kirkwall, Orkney, is today managed by Historic Scotland.

Skara Brae (Photo by Derreck Prescott)
 

2) St Helen’s Oratory and Cape Cornwall Tin Mine, Cornwall

Until the Ordnance Survey mapped the area, Cape Cornwall was thought to be the most westerly point in Britain. Situated four miles from Land’s End, just off the South West Coast Path, it is a beautiful and wild place, where on a sunny day the blueness of the sky is surpassed only by the vast expanse of Cornish sea.

As the only cape in England, it marks the meeting place of the swirling tides of both the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. The Cape is also a place where different tides of history meet. The ruined St Helen’s Oratory is an exquisite little ruin with grass and ferns growing from its crumbling walls, thought to date back to Romano-British times.

Much later, Cape Cornwall was home to a thriving tin mine big enough to need a large engine-house. Nearly all signs of the mine have vanished, and now all that remains is a single chimneystack at the end of a bracing walk at the peak of the Cape.

Cape Cornwall is today owned by the National Trust.

St Helen’s Oratory (Photo by Dave Hamilton)
 

3) Old Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

One of the most striking yet often overlooked ruins in the country is that of 14th-century Old Wardour Castle. Serving as a testament to its splendour, Capability Brown used it as a landscape feature when he designed the gardens of the New Wardour House toward the end of the 18th century. But in 1643, the castle was put to the test as a stronghold when 1,300 parliamentary troops laid siege.

With her husband away, 61-year-old Lady Blanche Arundell was left to defend the castle with just 25 retained staff, including cooks and gardeners. Despite being massively outnumbered, the valiant Lady Arundell held out for five days before she eventually surrendered. The castle didn’t stay in the hands of the invading force for long: the following year Lady Arundell’s son, Henry Arundell, 3rd Baron Arundell of Wardour, returned to win back the family castle. During the siege, however, he blew up a substantial part of the castle and it was damaged beyond repair.

Old Wardour Castle (Photo by Dave Hamilton)

 

4) Bromholm Priory, Norfolk

Much lesser-known than the East Anglian ruins of Thetford and Dunwich Priory, Bromholm Priory is still a magnificent ruin in its own right, standing abandoned among fields of corn not far from the Norfolk coast. Founded in 1113, this Cluniac priory was built as a subordinate house of Castle Acre.

During the following century it became one of the most religiously significant buildings in Norfolk, if not the country, largely due to the dubious claim that is contained part of the ‘true’ cross. The priory quickly became a pilgrimage route and is immortalised in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale. Sadly, it has remained a ruin since the dissolution of the monasteries.

During the Second World War, the building briefly came back to life as a defensive structure rather than a building of worship. Somewhat unceremoniously, the basement of the building was modified to house a concrete pillbox in case of an enemy invasion. Thankfully, the pillbox is barely visible and it is possible (although perhaps not advisable!) to crawl into this underground chamber from a gap at ground level.

Bromholm Priory (Photo by Steve Cabellero) 
 

5) Ardvreck Castle, Scottish Highlands

Jutting out into Loch Assynt, and surrounded by the Quinag peaks and the Inchnadamph forest, Ardvreck Castle is among the most breathtaking ruins in Scotland.

Ardvreck is a clan castle, built by the MacLeods of Assynt in the late 16th century. The story goes that a famous betrayal took place here: in 1650, the Royalist James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, was tricked into its dungeon and later sent to Edinburgh to be executed. If you believe in such things, his ghost is said to haunt the castle to this day. 

A short drive – or a challenging but reasonable walk – from the ruins is the famous Bone Cave of Inchnadamph. Here the bones of reindeers, brown bears, arctic foxes, lynxes and polar bears were found, dating back over the past 45,000 years.

Ardvreck Castle (Photo by Dave Hamilton)

 

6) Anglesey Barracks, North Wales

Despite its name, Anglesey Barracks are not on the Isle of Anglesey, and it has never been linked to the military or housed any military personnel. Instead, these twin rows of abandoned houses were home to quarrymen working at the nearby Dinorwic Quarry. The workers would have left their homes on Anglesey to lodge in the cottages, which consisted of just a bedroom and living room. These were far from luxurious dwellings, with no running water or electricity, and each cottage would have had to house four men within their cramped four walls.

Dramatically perched on a Welsh hillside, the houses overlook the romantic ruin of Dolbardarn Castle and the large expanse of water, Llyn Peris.

Anglesey Barracks (Photo by Dave Hamilton)

 

7) Abbot's Cliff Sound Mirrors, Kent

During the First World War and interwar period, and before the invention of radar, a rather unusual detection device was devised to warn of incoming enemy planes, the ruins of which remain with us today.

Sets of large, concrete parabolic discs known as ‘sound mirrors’ were installed on the English coast, mainly in Kent and the North of England, and staffed by personnel with stethoscopes who would quite literally listen to what was flying in.

As planes became faster, however, these sound mirrors became obsolete, since once a plane was detected it was already over the head of the listener. Standing above the white cliffs between Dover and Folkestone, the Abbot’s Cliff Sound Mirror is one of the most accessible examples of this eccentric and short-lived British technology. 

Abbot's Cliff Sound Mirrors (Photo by Sam Velghe)

Wild Ruins: The Explorer's Guide to Britain's Lost Castles, Follies, Relics and Remains by Dave Hamilton (WildThingsPublishing.com, £16.99) is available now. To find out more, click here

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