What do Stirling Castle and a boathouse in Cornwall have in common? They were both named in a list of five must-visit places in Britain by archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver – who revealed his choices in the latest History Extra podcast.
Oliver, an archaeologist who is perhaps best known for presenting a number of BBC series including Coast, joined the History Extra team to discuss some of the highlights of his new book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. As its title suggests, the book charts the history of the British Isles through 100 key locations, from windswept headlands to magnificent cathedrals.
Explaining his decision to write the book, Oliver said that he had “been aware for a long time” that he had received a “kind of bespoke tour of Britain” on account of his television work. “I kept thinking that I really ought to be keeping a note of this, because I was getting a history of the British isles that no one else had access to,” he explained.
While choosing 100 locations for his book was no doubt a challenge, we asked Oliver to narrow his selection down to five must-visit places. Listen to Oliver narrate his choices below, or read on to discover his top picks…
Watch: Neil Oliver on his top 5 places to visit in Britain
Stirling Castle, Scotland
“A bottleneck for Scottish and British history…”
Perched atop the crag of Castle Hill in the central Scottish city of Stirling, and surrounded by steep cliffs, Stirling Castle cuts an impressive silhouette.
It is one of the largest and most famous castles in Scotland, with its most well-known former residents including Mary, Queen of Scots and King James VI and I.
The castle played a key role in some of Scotland’s most significant historical events, with both the battle of Stirling Bridge and the battle of Bannockburn taking place within sight of its walls.
It is the site of a number of infamous deeds, such as the murder of the earl of Douglas by James II – and it comes in at number one in Oliver’s list of five places to visit in Britain.
The castle, which attracts around 460,000 visitors per year, was named Scotland’s best visitor attraction in 2016.
It is, suggests Oliver, a must-see for anyone with an interest in how Scottish and English history intersect.
“Stirling Castle is in many ways like a bottleneck – so much of Scottish and British history passes through it and goes off to its eventual destination,” he says.
“Apart from anything else, James VI of Scotland – who became James I of England on the death of Elizabeth – was educated at Stirling Castle.”
Glen Lyon, Scotland
“The loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland…”
Stretching for 32 miles (51km), Glen Lyon is the longest enclosed glen in Scotland.
Sir Walter Scott – the Scottish novelist, playwright and poet – described it as the “loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland”, and it’s easy to see why: the beauty spot has an abundance of wildlife, breath-taking scenery and views of towering Munros (mountains with a height over 3,000 feet).
“For people who are interested in the landscape of Scotland, or of Britain, Glen Lyon is a beauty,” says Oliver. “Within it there are various locations that tell moving stories about history.”
Glen Lyon is also home to the Fortingall Yew, an ancient tree located in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall.
“Most tree scientists are happy that it’s at least 3,000 years old,” says Oliver. “There is some speculation that it is the oldest living thing in Europe. Imagine – it may have been there when Britain was still attached to mainland Europe…”
Statue of General James Wolfe, London
“The best view of London…”
London has long held a powerful draw for tourists, with millions of people flocking to England’s capital each year to visit attractions including Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.
But for those seeking the “best view” of the city, Oliver has a very specific recommendation: “Go and stand beside the statue of [General James] Wolfe [at the Old Greenwich Royal Observatory]. It’s the best place to get a sense of the city being almost table-top size. You can stand and – without moving your head – you can take in London and consider the 2,000 years of significance that the place has had.”
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The Old Lifeboat Station at Penlee Point, Mousehole, Cornwall
“Although it’s just a stone building, it holds something that should be cherished…”
When writing his latest book, Oliver wanted to include places in Britain “where the spirit of the past seems to linger”. The village of Mousehole in Cornwall – home to Penlee Lifeboat Station – is one such a place, albeit one tinged with tragedy.
On 19 December 1981, the vessel Union Star got into trouble when its engine failed during hurricane conditions. As it was swept towards the southern coast of Cornwall, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was dispatched to rescue the people on board.
Although Solomon Browne managed to rescue four people, the boat ultimately lost radio contact. Both of the vessels were wrecked, and 16 people lost their lives. Among those lost were eight volunteer lifeboatmen of Penlee Lifeboat Station.
“It’s still the only time that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lost all men in one go,” says Oliver. “Hopefully it’s the very last time that will ever happen – it was an appalling tragedy.”
Out of all of the stories in his book, Oliver found the story of the Penlee lifeboat disaster “the most moving” of them all.
“There is something about the existence of the RNLI and the kind of people who volunteer for it that says something profound about the human spirit,” he says. “You can visit boathouse – it’s still there, and it’s been empty ever since. Although it’s just a stone building, it holds something that should be cherished.”
The Ness of Brodgar, Orkney
“The single best archaeological discovery in my lifetime…”
Oliver’s final recommendation is for people to visit the Ness of Brodgar, an archaeological site located on the archipelago of Orkney off the north-eastern coast of Scotland. It is, according to many archaeologists, one of the most important Neolithic digs in northern Europe, and comprises a complex of stone buildings that were occupied by people more than 5,000 years ago.
Excavations at the site began in 2003, revealing a large complex of “monumental” Neolithic buildings, “artwork”, pottery, bones and stone tools.
“I would say it’s the single best archaeological discovery in my lifetime,” says Oliver. “Its discovery and its ongoing excavation is having archaeologists around the world reconsider the Neolithic of Europe.”
Discoveries at the site include a baked clay figurine known as the ‘Brodgar Boy’ and an intricately decorated stone described as “potentially the finest example of Neolithic art found in the UK for several decades”.
For Oliver, the site is undoubtedly a place of wonder. “I like to indulge in the possibility that the Ness – as Stonehenge, as Avebury, as the tombs at Knowth – might have been famous,” he says.
“It may have drawn people from around the world, who might have visited it on pilgrimage. People south of the Alps might have said: ‘Before I die, I’m going to see whatever they called the Ness of Brodgar’.”
Listen to History Extra’s full interview with Neil Oliver on the podcast here.
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at History Extra.