Great Buildings of England

Great Buildings of England

As the Englishman started taking tours around a Europe energized by the Renaissance, a new vocation was born in the 17th century – that of the architect. Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren were probably the first architects in the country. We explore some of their creations and ask how a Romanesque church became a cathedral, and how a castle became the Englishman’s home.

All the locations featured in this guide are open to the public but do check their websites for up to date opening times, prices etc.  You don’t want to arrive and find the door locked!

Lindisfarne Priory


Before visiting you must check the tide timetable to see safe crossing times for the Holy Island causeway and the latest opening times for the castle.  It is not possible to get to the island at high tide.

This 16th-century romantic castle has spectacular views, it’s location having been a major draw for all it’s previous owners.  Originally a fort the idyllic position of the castle has inspired its many owners right up to the rich Edwardian bachelor who used it as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of London.

The architect Edwin Lutyens renovated it in the Arts and Crafts style of the day in turn hiding and enhancing the characteristics of the original fort.  It overlooks the delightful walled garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the imposing Lime Kilns.

For more information, visit

Holy Island and Causeway


Holy Island is still often known by its more ancient name of Lindisfarne. It is only accessible from the mainland at low tide by means of a causeway, which can be reached from the village of Beal. To the south of the more modern road-surface causeway, a series of stakes mark the old route across to the island called the `Pilgrims Way‘ which was used in ancient times by visitors to the great Christian centre of Lindisfarne.  Again this could be crossed only at low tide, a situation perfectly described by Sir Walter Scott;

For with the flow and ebb,its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shood o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.

Lindisfarne’s Norman Priory stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Aidan in A.D 635, on land granted by Oswald, King and Saint of Northumbria. Aidan is believed to have chosen the island site because of its isolation and proximity to the Northumbrian capital at Bamburgh.  Aidan the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, a Scots-Celtic monk from the isle of Iona, travelled widely throughout Northumbria and with the help of King Oswald as interpreter, began the conversion of the pagan Northumbrians to Christianity. The conversion of the Northumbrians to Christianity by Aidan and Oswald, cannot have been an easy task.

The Northumbrians were the descendants of a heathen race of people who were in many ways no more civilised than the Scandinavian Vikings, who invaded Britain centuries later. St Aidan’s death in 651 A.D, is said to have been related in a vision to a young shepherd boy called Cuthbert who lived in the hills somewhere near the River Tweed. The vision convinced Cuthbert that he should take up the life of a monk and at the age of sixteen, he entered the Northumbrian monastery of Melrose in Tweeddale (now in the southern borders of Scotland).

In 654 Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne, where his reputed gift of healing and legendary ability to work miracles, achieved far reaching fame for the island. Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham in 684 A.D but exchanged the see for Lindisfarne, to become the fifth successor to Bishop Aidan.When Cuthbert died in 687 A.D, he was buried in accordance with his wishes on the island of Lindisfarne, but eleven years after his death, his body was found to be in an in-corrupt state by the astonished monks of the island. The monks were now convinced that Cuthbert was a saint and pilgrims continued to flock to Lindisfarne in numbers as great as during Cuthbert’s lifetime.

In 793 A.D Lindisfarne was to witness the first Viking raid on the coast of Britain, which was recorded with much drama by an informative book of the period called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;

793. In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter.

The Anglo-Saxon chroniclers were largely responsible for giving the Vikings the `bad press’ they still have today. The chroniclers fail to mention that the Anglo-Saxons had invaded Britain in much the same way, two and a half centuries earlier.Nevertheless Viking raids on Lindisfarne’s wealthy coastal monastery did continue throughout the following century and in 875 A.D the monks of Lindisfarne fled their Holy Island with the body of Cuthbert, remembering the dying wishes of their saint;

….if necessity compels you to chose between one of two evils, I would much rather you take my bones from their tomb and carry them away with you to whatever place of rest God may decree, rather than consent to iniquity and put your necks under the yokes of schismatics.”

For many years the monks wandered the north of England, with the coffin of St Cuthbert, until they eventually settled at Durham in 995 A.D where St Cuthbert’s body lies to this day.

Little is known of the island’s history or people in the centuries following the Norman Conquest. There is, however one account which gives us an amusing insight into the attitudes of the island people in later centuries. The account is an observation by Captain Robin Rugg, the seventeenth century governor of Holy Island;

The common people there do pray for ships which they see in danger. They all sit down upon their knees and hold up their hands and say very devotedly, `Lord send her to us, God send her to us.’ You seeing them upon their knees, and their hands joined, do think that they are praying for your safety; but their minds are far from that. They pray, not to God to save you, or send you to port, but to send you to them by shipwreck, that they may get the spoil of her. And to show that this is their meaning if the ship come well to port, they get up in anger crying `the Devil stick her, she is away from us.

Not exactly what we would expect from a `Holy’ Island, it seems that the islanders had inherited the rough ways of the border folk, so typical of Northumberland in those days gone by.

Today the only feature of Holy island, that suggests any involvement with the violent border history of Northumberland, is Lindisfarne Castle. First built in 1550, it sits romantically on the highest point of the island, a stone hill called Beblowe. The Castle has never witnessed any major battle or Border siege although it was occupied by some Northumbrian Jacobites at the time of the 1715 Rising. Lindisfarne Castle was converted into a private residence by the well known British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903. A small but superbly rugged looking building, it has been a National Trust property since 1944.

The film The Darkest Day brings this bloody and fascinating era alive

How to get there:

Opening Times:


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Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral Cloisters by Lawrence OP - Flickr Commons

Durham Cathedral is one of the great architectural experiences of Europe.

The cathedral was begun in 1093 and completed within forty years.  Renowned as a masterpiece of Norman architecture it retains nearly all its original craftsmanship preserving the original design’s unity and integrity.

Home of a Benedictine community the Cathedral was specifically built as a shrine to St Cuthbert and a place of worship for the many pilgrims who came to honour him.

The nave, quire and transepts are Norman, the Galilee Chapel late 12th century Norman and the Chapel of the Nine Alters 13th century Gothic style.

The Cloister was begun with the main cathedral but most of the work was in fact added in the 15th century.

The Cathedral Close, or College, is home to the clergy and others connected to the life of the Cathedral and the Chorister School is where the choir boys are educated.  Around the Green most of the buildings date back to the Middle Ages.

Hundreds of years of monastic life at the Cathedral came to a close during the Reformation in 1540 but life prior to this can be found in The Rites of Durham which can be seen in the Cathedral.   The Reformation was a very traumatic time at the Cathedral when years of medieval worship and monastic life was forcefully replaced by the new Book of Common Prayer.

The sixteenth century was a time of terrible destruction of religious furnishings and the Civil War of the 17th century even worse.  In 1650 Cromwell closed the Cathedral and jailed 3,000 Scottish prisoners there.

In 1660 the bishop John Cosin started the refurbishment of the church and the intricately carved woodwork of the quire is a wonderful example of this.

Again, in the late 18th century, the Cathedral was attacked.  This time by 2 or 3 inches of stone being chiselled off most of the exterior and the Norman Chapter House being totally demolished.  The destruction of the Galilee Chapel was luckily abandoned and the Chapter House rebuilt to its original design in 1895.

Much of the stained glass was added in the 19th century and in the 20th and 21st centuries very sensitive conservation has taken place as well as there being some contemporary additions.

Durham Cathedral was used in the first two Harry potter films for both interior and exterior views of Hogwarts. The chapter house was used for the scenes in McGonagall’s classroom.

The cathedral is open every day, all year from 07.45 to 18.00 Monday to Saturday; and 5.30pm on Sunday.    Entry is free but you are asked to donate generously so free entry can continue.

For further information see the website

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey by Andrew Rickman - Flickr Creative commons

This magnificent 12th century ruined Abbey is one of the best preserved and biggest of England’s Cistercian monasteries.  Within the stunning surrounding landscape you will also find a Jacobean Manor House, Medieval Deer Park, Victorian church and Cistercian mill. 

Founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks,  the abbey operated for over 400 years, until 1539, when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Archbishop Thurston of York gave the monks the land which was , “..inhospitable valley thickset with thorns lying between the slopes of mountains among rocks jutting out both sides of the River Skell. Fit rather to the lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings”.

Although life was a struggle the monks persevered and soon came to receive gifts and land from rich families hoping to save their souls.

The more illiterate monks worked the land and cared for the sheep as well as mining lead, breeding horses and quarrying stone.  But by the 14th century bad harvests, animal disease, the invasion of the north by the Scottish armies and the Black Death caused a decline and sheep were replaced by cattle and more and more masses were said for the wealthy.

Over the next 100 years the wealth of the Abbey grew together with its influence and power but in 1539 Henry VIII closed all the monesteries in fear of their influence and wealth.

Not a lot happened to the Abbey for the next 200 years until in the mid 18th century it was bought by the Aislabie family for £4, 000. John Aislabie had a chequered career but spent his last years designing and developing the gardens.

After various owners the whole estate was taken over by local councils until it was bought by the National Trust in 1983 and became a World Heritage Site.

The Omen III: The Final Conflict was filmed here as was The Secret Garden and The History Boys

How to get there:

Opening Times:


Ely Cathedral


The Saxon Queen Etheldreda was the foundress and abbess of Ely.  The daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, she was born in Suffolk.  As a young girl she married Tondberht but the marriage was not consummated.   When she died she retired to the Isle of Ely which had been her dowry.  For political reasons, in 660 she was married to Egfrith who was only 15 and some years younger than her.  He was a young Northumbrian king who agreed she could remain a virgin but after 12 years of celibacy asked for the marriage to be consummated.  The Bishop of Northumbria advised Etheldreda against this and, though Egfrith offered many bribes, she eventually left him and became a nun.  She founded the monastery at Ely in 673.

Elizabeth the Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl were filmed here.

Visitors information:
Chapter House, The College, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 4DL
01353 667735



Once home to the powerful Percy family who now reside in Alnwick Castle, Warkworth was and remains one of the largest and most impressive fortresses in North East England. It was once home to ‘Harry Hotspur’, hero of many Border ballads and the bane of Scots raiders.

Visitors information:
Castle Terrace, Warkworth, Northumberland – NE65 0UJ

Kentwell Hall


This house has been a much loved family home for over 500 years.  The public are welcomed to see many of the rooms and see how little some of it has changed.   It is a constant work to save it from the ravages of time and the current family who brought it in 1969 are very keen to re-create its gardens and keep the farm run on traditional lines.

For 500 years Kentwell has been home for a succession of families. Some as owners, others as tenants. Each has left their mark.

The impact of all these families on the Hall can be seen by visitors. Yet despite these different occupiers the House has remained essentially the same for 500 years. Outbuildings may have come and gone but the Hall (give or take the occasional improvement) and its Moats (albeit later enlarged) are essentially those created by the Cloptons in the early 16th C.

There is a maze, a yew castle, a camera obscura and an ice house but the best thing to catch is one of their Tudor Days,   These are by far the best authentic Tudor experience you will find in England. Tudor times are re-created throughout the house and over 200 re-enactors of all ages go about life as it was lived in the 16th century.  Kentwell also puts on Dickensian Days, opera and theatre and many other events.  See their website for more information.

Visitors information:
Long Melford, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 9BA
Tel: 01787 310207

Burghley House


One of the biggest and grandest houses of the first Elizabethan age, Burghley was built and designed by William Cecil between 1555 and 1587.  It has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors, more than 80 smaller rooms and numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas.  

The vast lead roof of three quarters of an acre took nearly ten years to restore  in the late 1980’s.  

Visitor facilities include the Orangery restaurant, gift shop, gardens and beautiful walks around the historic parkland laid out by Capability Brown and still occupied by a herd of fallow deer.

The Da Vinci Code, Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth: the Golden Age were all filmed at Burghley.

Visitor information:
Burghley Park, Stamford, Lincolnshire PE9 3JY
Tel: 01780 752451

Castle Howard


The Howard family have lived in this magnificent 18th century house for over 300 years.  Situated in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty it has 1,000 acres of stunning landscape.

Ambition, public service, liberal politics and artistic endeavours are the bedrock of the Howards.  Today the preservation of the house as a national treasure for the public and the family is their fundamental challenge.

Begun in 1699 the building took over a hundred years to build.  Three Earls and many architects and craftsmen added their time and dedication to its construction.

The third Earl of Carlisle asked his friend the playwright John Vanbrugh to design the house.  Vanbrugh, not an architect,  in turn asked Nicholas Hawksmoor to help him in the practical side of design and construction.  The design evolved between 1699 and 1702.

The Earl’s new home took shape in under 10 years and soon became the talk of fashionable society.  By 1725 the exterior was structured and the interiors richly furnished at a cost of 30 percent of his annual income.  It was not, however, complete with no west wing, as Carlisle diverted his energy to the surrounding lands which he carefully designed.

The house was still unfinished when the Earl died in 1738.  His son in law, Sir Thomas Robinson, then added the conservative Palladian wing, very different from Vanbrugh’s original flamboyant baroque design.

The exterior was now left very unbalanced and of course attracted very mixed reviews.

Brideshead Revisited was filmed at Castle Howard

Visitor information:
Yorkshire YO60 7DA
Tel: 01653 648333

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