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Exit via the gift shop

August 31, 2017

Aside from politics my main long term interests have been art, architecture and history. So since my electoral double whammy in May and June I’ve been on a tour of castles, houses and churches in Wales and England. My staycation has been a mix of therapy and displacement activity. Doing something that I’ve enjoyed since being a child has taken my mind off politics. It’s also postponed my search for a new future. The lack of paying work has necessitated cheap recreation. But I also believe that Britain is jammed with interesting things to see and even after 40 years plus of visits I’m nowhere near ticking everything off my list.

Since I was a child I have enjoyed visiting castles. Coming from Wales, that is hardly surprising. My home nation probably has the highest number of fortifications per head in Europe. Nationalists say they are symbols of English oppression. I think they show that the English (and their many mercenaries) found it hard to suppress Welsh freedom. They now offer visitors to Wales one of the greatest ensembles of medieval monuments in the world. Castell Coch and Caerphilly are the nearest to where I grew up and have visited both of them at least 30 times. I have also visited every other Welsh castle with substantial stone remains (there are many more earthworks) and have done most of the ones in the south and west of England. I’ve done many in Ireland but only a handful in Scotland and the north of England. But I’ve read about all of them and in another blog I’ll say which I think are the ones most worth visiting.

My first cathedral visit was not a Welsh one. It was a primary school trip to Cheddar Caves and Wells Cathedral when I was nine. I was probably the only one in class who was more impressed by the cathedral columns than the stalagmites and stalactites. Since then I’ve ticked off all 48 Anglican cathedrals in England and Wales. When I was Communities Minister in the Coalition inter-faith relations and community cohesion were among my responsibilities. So I was able to visit the remaining cathedrals that were not on the usual tourist circuit such as Blackburn and Wakefield. Indeed my last visit as a minister and my 48th cathedral was to Chelmsford in March 2015.

As well as castles and cathedrals I’ve visited over my lifetime hundreds of parish churches, some while indulging one of my other main hobbies, genealogy. Most of the country’s major art galleries and city museums have been visited too. One of the few things I miss about not having a base in London is the ability to visit some of the world’s greatest museums and temporary “blockbuster” art exhibitions.

Over the years I’ve done my day trips and staycations cheaply by being a member of all the major heritage organisations. I was an early member of Cadw, which gives me free access to all English, Scottish and Manx sites. My graduation present to myself (as well as my Economist subscription) was National Trust membership. Given that I’ve now been a member for 29 years I wish I’ been able to afford life membership at the time. A few years ago I joined the Historic Houses Association, giving free access to the stately homes and manor houses that are still in private ownership. These are actually my favourite properties, retaining their family character and escaping the often sterile hand of National Trust stewardship. I think it would be better if many of the council or local trust owned castles (such as Cardiff, Pembroke and Oystermouth) or houses (such as Bristol’s Red Lodge and Georgian House) joined one of the national schemes. Visitor numbers would surely increase and the guidebooks would improve.

All of these organisations get more than their membership fees out of me as I spend a fortune in gift shops. As a result my house is stuffed with guide books, exhibition catalogues and posters. And of course, most visits are rounded off with cake in the tea room while I flick through the guidebook!

What are your favourite places to visit in Britain? How could we improve our heritage tourism offer?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2017 10:01 pm

    Try Civil Engineering………….

  2. Roger Opie permalink
    September 12, 2017 1:20 pm

    As requested please send mail to Roger Opie and delete the above address

    Sent from my iPad


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