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My best castles of Britain and Ireland

October 31, 2017

I’ve been visiting castles for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Wales, there were plenty on my doorstep or to visit on holidays. Wales must have one of the highest concentrations of castles in Europe. I’ve visited all of them and over the years I’ve also visited most of the major castles across the British Isles.

Visiting castles deepens your understanding of how a disparate series of kingdoms and lordships gradually merged together to form a nation state that would be a European and eventually world power. They are also a great way to view our coast and countryside and for a vantage point over towns and cities.

The child in me still loves skipping down a spiral staircase, walking along battlements, sitting on top of a tower and peering through arrowslits. What follows is a personal list of what I think are the best castles to visit across Britain and Ireland. What are yours?

1 Best overall experience

As much as it pains me to say so, my choice of best castle for the overall visitor experience goes to an England one, Dover. The castle does have everything, across the ages. It has a dramatic cliff top setting, giving views across the Channel. It has buildings from Roman times to the nuclear age. A visit gives an insight into our island’s history as it succumbed or saw off invasions from 2000 years ago to the 1940s. Anyone who has enjoyed this year’s cinematic depiction of Dunkirk should visit Dover to see the recreated rooms where Operation Dynamo was planned in 1940. You need to spend at least half a day taking in the Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, Norman keep and 19th and 20th century military buildings. English Heritage have done a superb job of recreating a medieval interior inside the keep. The rooms are furnished and decorated with wall paintings and tapestries as they may have looked during the reign of Henry II. I wish EH, Cadw and the other custodians of our built heritage would do this more often. There is a place for the picturesque ruin but some of the more complete sites could be brought to life, rather than being a series of empty rooms with just pigeons and weeds being the only life on show.

Runners up are Warwick and Mont Orgueil. Warwick is a complete example of a great medieval fortress, with plenty of towers and wall walks. The halls have suits of armour, swords and shields and the rooms are not only furnished from different periods but as the castle is now owned by Madame Tussauds, there are mannequins in costume to bring the castle to life. Mont Orgueil overlooks the town of Gorey, on the east coast of Jersey. The castle is pleasing enough, with plenty of dark passageways and stairwells. But the Jersey Heritage Trust have installed a series of modern sculptures and artworks across the site, giving plenty of photo opportunities. There’s a an amazing hologram of the Queen, called Equanimity, marking 800 years of links to the crown via the Duchy of Normandy.

2 Best castle and town combination

The easy winner here is Conwy in North Wales. The huge fortress is dramatic enough, one of Edward I’s castles built to overawe the Welsh. Edward also constructed new towns, colonial plantations with English residents. To protect them from the Welsh the new towns were walled. Conwy is far and away the best preserved medieval town in Britain. You can walk almost the entire circuit of the walls, with views over the town, coast, railway and of course the castle itself. Within the walls is Plas Mawr, one of Britain’s best preserved Tudor town houses. The castle itself stands to its original height but is largely roofless and could do with some Dover like reinterpretation. The whole ensemble is a World Heritage Site, up there with the Colosseum and the Pyramids!

Runners up are Lincoln and Rochester. At Lincoln the castle and cathedral square off against each other, on a plateau above the town. Inside the castle there are displays on Magna Carta (Lincoln has one of the original copies) and Victorian prisons, the function that preserved many county town castles. Rochester is another splendid castle and cathedral combination. The castle has one of the best Norman “square” keeps. Honourable mentions should go to Richmond (Yorkshire) and Totnes, where a visit to the castle tops off a wander round an interesting town.

3 Best coastal site

Many of my childhood holidays were to Butlins at Pwllheli. Day trips from there introduced me to the great castles of Gwynedd. The nearest is Cricieth. Originally a castle of the Welsh princes, it was strengthened by Edward I after the conquest. It’s a small site but sits on top of a tump overlooking the town and the coast. On a clear day you can see across to Harlech, one of the best concentric castles, with a double circuit of walls. You can catch a train between the two towns.

While Cricieth is in easy reach of road and rail, you have to walk over a mile from the car park to Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The gatehouse and other towers stand to about half their original height but enough is left to give an impression of how it once looked. A visit to Dunstanburgh is more about the setting than the site. Orford in Suffolk has an unusually shaped keep, cylindrical at the core but with squared off projections. The view from the top is across Orford Ness, a nature reserve with some puzzling concrete screen structures. During the Second World War they picked up the sound of approaching German planes. My favourite seaside clifftop ruined castle is Scarborough and in Northern Ireland the castle at Dunluce backs right onto the cliff edge, looking as though it could fall in to the sea at any moment.

4 Royal connections

The obvious winner is Windsor. The whole site, including the spectacular St George’s Chapel, is the largest British castle and the one with the longest continued habitation. As a castle I don’t find it that pleasing. There is a keep on top of a motte but like everything else at Windsor it has been much embellished. The interior is utterly dull but the tiring walk to the top gives a good view over the whole site. The poor guide has a hard job telling everyone to avert their gaze (and their smart phone cameras) from the view over to the Queen’s private apartments. The real point of a visit to Windsor is to see the world class collection of art in the state apartments.

Medieval monarchs and their courts travelled all over their kingdom so their heirs were often conceived and born outside London. Edward I’s heir was born at his new spectacular fortress town of Caernarfon. In 1301 Edward junior was proclaimed as the first English Prince of Wales. Caernarfon, like nearby Conwy, is one of Europe’s best preserved castles and town walls. Unlike Conwy, for some reason that I’ve never understood, you aren’t allowed to walk the circuit of walls. But the castle is of a unique design, modelled it is though on the Roman walls at Constantinople.

To some extent we Welsh got our revenge in 1485 when Henry Tudor invaded from France and took the crown from Richard III at Bosworth. Henry’s paternal line was Welsh and he was born at Pembroke Castle. The castle is well preserved, with the country’s best example of a Norman round keep. After climbing through several storeys of the collapsed interior I felt slightly uneasy sitting on top of the stone dome that caps the tower.
The best castles for the royal rulers of independent Wales and Scotland are the remote and largely ruined Dolwyddelan in Snowdonia and Stirling, much more interesting than Edinburgh!

5 Best mock, modern and folly

Medieval castles were built by the king and his magnates. From the 15th century the wealthy preferred to vacate their draughty castles for manor houses and no new castles (excluding artillery forts and barracks called castles) were built. Until that is the 19th and 20th centuries when the rich rediscovered an interest in castles and other medieval ruins. They sponsored artists and poets to paint and write about the castles on their estates. The really rich went one step further and commissioned architects to build them new baronial piles, complete with the amenities of the age such as bathrooms (in contrast to medieval garderobes, toilet shafts down the outside walls with your bodily functions plopping into the moat) and electricity.
My favourite has to be what I regard as my “home” castle, Castell Coch, on the north side of Cardiff. The outside is South Wales’s fairy tale image of a castle, complete with conical roofs. It has been a familiar site all my life, on trips from Abercynon to Cardiff, poking above the trees and seen from both the road and railway line. While the outside is a passable attempt at a medieval castle, the interiors are a riot of the imagination. The banqueting hall, drawing room and bedrooms are a mock gothic extravaganza, the creation of architect William Burgess and his patron, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Bute was the wealthiest man in the country, based on his land holdings in the south Wales coalfield and the port of Cardiff. Fortunately for us, he was a keen medievalist and splurged a considerable proportion of his wealth on building or restoring castles. The walls and ceilings of Castell Coch (“Red Castle”) are decorated with pictures of animals and mythical creatures, including scenes from Aesop’s Fables. The structure was completed in 1879 so when I first visited as a child it was less than a century old. I never tire of visiting, both on my own and with successive friends (and quite a few poor parliamentary staff) from Bristol. I must have been at least 40 times and it’s a must for anyone touring South Wales or living just over the border.

The wealth from coal and port dues built Castell Coch and it was slate that built North Wales’s mock Norman Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor. The immensely wealthy Pennant family (who also had slaves on West Indies plantations) commissioned Thomas Hopper to build a Norman keep with attached mansion in 1820. The keep looks much like Rochester would have appeared. But the interior is a Victorian mansion, complete with a bed made of slate. Wealth from the ‘Home and Colonial’ stores enabled Julius Drewe to commission Edwin Lutyens to build for him a modern castle on the edge of Dartmoor. Castle Drogo is an amazing place, with the facades part castle and part 1920s municipal building. The interior rooms are of the inter war years, connected by soaring stone passageways and stairwells. Building had started just before the First World War. The Drewe’s eldest son Adrian was killed at Ypres in 1917 and a room at the castle has a moving display dedicated to his memory.

I have not yet visited Eilean Donan Castle, on an island guarding sea lochs opposite the Isle of Skye. But it must be among the most familiar of castle images, on the cover of many of my books about castles. Like Castell Coch, it is a recreation on the site of an actual medieval castle. Completed in 1932 it has featured in the Bond film Goldeneye and its image adorns many a Scottish shortbread tin.

American money also took an interest in Britain’s built heritage. Panelling was stripped from walls, joining artworks to be shipped across the Atlantic. Fortunately newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane in the Orson Welles film) wanted an authentic site, instructing his agent to find him a castle in England. But it was St Donat’s on the Glamorgan coast that he bought by telegram for £130,000 in 1925. Over the next five years Hearst’s agents bought up parts of medieval buildings from all over the country and, to the outrage of conservationists at the time, knocked about both them and the fabric of St Donat’s to create a fortress (with 32 modern ensuite rooms) where Hearst could entertain the rich and famous of the 1930s when he was in Europe. Visitors included Lloyd George, Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Cardiff born song writer Ivor Novello and the future President Kennedy. It’s now home to the Atlantic College but can be visited.

6 Capital Castles

It’s hard not to give first place to the Tower of London. The Norman keep, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror, the first castle to overawe the defeated English. The exterior is little changed today. The surrounding buildings are of limited interest but it’s the famous associations that make the site a must visit. It’s the home of the Crown Jewels, guarded by the Yeoman of the Guard (or Beefeaters) in their red Tudor uniforms. Several kings and queens, rivals and traitors have been imprisoned within the walls, arriving by Thames barge at Traitor’s Gate.

Among the other castles in our island capitals, the next most interesting is Cardiff. Like Dover, Cardiff has something from every period. The square site in the city centre is founded on the walls of a Roman fort. Within the walls in one corner the Normans erected an earth motte and put on top the best shell keep in the country. William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert, Duke of Normandy, was kept a prisoner at the castle by his younger brother Henry I. By Tudor times a mansion had been constructed alongside the curtain walls of the castle. In the 19th century the Marquess of Bute remodelled the interiors and built a clock tower. This was his first collaboration with Burgess, before he turned his attention to Castell Coch. No expense was spared, allowing Burgess’s imagination to run riot with wood carvings, wall murals and gilded details. In the twentieth century the Marquess’s son rebuilt to their full height the Roman walls, with a reconstructed gatehouse onto Bute Park.

Scotland’s capital castle is special mainly for its setting on top of crag. The famous silhouette from below is largely a Victorian barracks. But if you’re in Edinburgh, how could you not visit? I’ve done so three times, despite not liking it very much! Very little is left of medieval Dublin Castle, with most of the walls and towers being demolished in the early 18th century to make way for new buildings forming the core of the government of Ireland by the English Lord Lieutenant. The castle became a hated symbol of English rule. The state apartments, with their Georgian interiors, are worth a visit.

Our smaller self-governing islands have some interesting castles. Castletown used to be the capital of the Isle of Man and Castle Rushen is one of my favourites anywhere in the British and Irish Isles. It was originally the seat of the Norse kings of Man until over lordship passed briefly to the Scots and then the English crown. The castle is almost perfectly preserved and is great fun to wander around. Jersey’s capital of St Helier is guarded by Elizabeth Castle, more of an offshore fort than a castle. It’s possible to walk across to the castle at low tide but it’s much more fun to arrive at high tide on a boat, on one of my visits by Second World War DUKW “duck” wheeled boat. I’ve not been to Guernsey but Castle Cornet is definitely high on my list of significant castles to visit.

7 Continuously occupied

Many castles have been continuously occupied either by successive noble families or by the state. But lots of them have been adapted and rebuilt so much that they no longer resemble much of a classic castle appearance. But there are several exceptions. The first castle I visited outside Wales was Berkeley. It was a coach trip combined with Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre. I’ve never returned to see the birds but have been back to the castle many times. Berkeley, through various genealogical twists and turns is still in the hands of the eponymous family who built it in Norman times. The shell keep was “slighted” after the civil war and fortunately the gap in the defences was enough for Cromwell to allow the rest of the castle to remain. If only the same had been true of Raglan, the greatest of losses to Cromwell’s desire to deny any future rebels a secure base. The interiors are modest compared to most occupied castles and many of the features, like St Donat’s, are a hotch potch of architectural salvage from all over England, Wales and France in the early 20th century refurbishment. Berkeley has given its name to a multi-cusped arch (best seen at St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol) and a US university, spelt correctly but pronounced burke as opposed to clerk. The family provided generations of Gloucestershire MPs, including Freddie Berkeley, Bristol’s longest serving MP from 1835 to 1870. The castle is probably most famous for being the scene of the murder of Edward II in 1327, though the red hot poker story is unproven.

Alnwick in Northumberland has been the home of the Percy family for 700 years. They were the leading noble family of the north of England and Alnwick is a sort of Windsor for the north. It looks much more like a castle than Windsor from the outside but like Windsor has interiors housing a spectacular art collection. The present Duchess of Northumberland has overseen the creation of some spectacular gardens. Horticulture is one of the main reasons to visit Powis Castle, in Montgomeryshire. Four grand terraces hang from the castle, leading you down to the Severn valley. The castle has been the home of the Herbert and Clive families since 1587 and is still occupied by them today though the castle is in the care of the National Trust. The building exterior is very clearly a castle, slighted in the best possible way by the walls being punctured by large windows.

8 Remoteness

Most castles dominate major towns and centres of governance, guard the coast or strategic river crossings. But some are far away from any major settlement, sitting in lonely isolation on top of hill or at the head of a valley. I have visited several castles like this and had them all to myself, or to me and my travelling companions. This is occasionally an eerie experience. A long drive along a deserted road leads you to Hermitage, in the Scottish Borders. An ugly, high walled single structure fort, I was visiting in the early evening as the light faded on a dull day. It felt like the perfect place for a murder and the castle indeed has a grisly history. Brough castle in Cumbria is built on a Roman site, on the road to Carlisle. The site is quite ruined but is a pleasing way to end a day in the Lake District. Carreg Cennen sits on top of a crag in Carmarthenshire and can be seen from miles around. It’s a huge site and one has to wonder at the labours involved in carting the stone to the top of the hill. You approach the castle from the farm below, passing sheep giving you a disapproving look. The views across many other hillside sheep farms are spectacular. At the far side of the stone courtyard the curtain wall hugs the edge of a cliff, with a hair raising drop as you peer through a window to admire the view, buffeted by the wind.

9 Spectacular

Second only to Windsor in size, Caerphilly Castle in Glamorgan is Britain’s most spectacular medieval secular monument. It is Britain’s first concentric castle, set in a huge man-made lake rather than surrounded by a moat. It’s all the more extraordinary as it was built not by a king but by a Marcher Lord, Gilbert de Clare. Constructed from 1267 onwards, it predates the great castles of Edward I and was built for defensive purposes, rather than subjugation. It was designed to safeguard the lowlands of Glamorgan (and the route to Ireland) from the independent Welsh kingdoms further north and west. This purpose was soon redundant but the castle had an eventful history under the Wales conqueror’s hapless son. The castle had passed to the Despenser family and in the 1320s Hugh le Despenser the younger was the latest of Edward II’s male favourites. It was to Caerphilly that Edward fled with much of the royal treasury in 1326, chased by his vengeful wife queen Isabella. Despenser was eventually captured and was hung, drawn and quartered at Hereford. Edward was captured near Llantrisant castle and in the following year met his grisly death at Berkeley. Caerphilly became a forgotten ruin, its walls plundered for stone and its lake drained and silted. As with Castell Coch nearby, the marquesses of Bute saw an opportunity for restoration. It was the 4th marquess in the 1920s who actually funded the rebuilding, employing many local men during some hard years for the local coal industry. The great hall was re-roofed, with the beams resting on the walls above the original corbels with carved heads thought to represent Edward and Hugh. The lakes were restored by the state in the 1950s. Cadw continues to enhance the site, with replica medieval siege engines occasionally firing projectiles, safely into the lake. Taking a leaf out of Mont Orgueil they’ve also recently installed sculptures of medieval figures into several of the rooms. I’m not so keen on the dragon that greets you as you leave the ticket office to enter the outer ward but I’m sure children love it.

Caerphilly may have been part inspired by the lake setting of Kenilworth Castle, one of the great fortresses of the Midlands. But Kenilworth has had no Bute like benefactor and you have to combine your imagination with English Heritage reconstruction drawings to see the castle as it may have looked in its heyday. Kenilworth had a longer active life than Caerphilly, with its lake staging a water pageant to entertain Elizabeth. The 19 day pageant laid on by Robert Dudley did not impress the queen sufficiently to succumb to Dudley’s charms. She remained a virgin and he was bankrupted.

Another of England’s great fortresses was fortunate enough to be saved and restored by a wealthy family. Bamburgh stands on a rocky promontory on the Northumberland coast and can be seen for miles around. The exterior looks like a perfectly preserved Norman castle, with curtain walls surrounding a square keep. In the 1890s the Armstrong family used their wealth appropriately sourced from armaments to restore the walls and construct interiors, stuffed with suits of armour as well as family furniture. The family continue their occupation today. The walk along the beach gives one of the best views of any British castle.

10 Finally – castles pleasing for a variety of reasons

There is nothing trim about Trim Castle in county Meath. It is the largest and most impressive in Ireland and has a full height square keep at its centre. Another Irish favourite is Cahir, a sensitively restored small castle in co Tipperary.  Restormel in Cornwall has one of the best shell keeps atop a motte. Conisbrough in south Yorkshire has a full height round keep buttressed by six three-sided towers. Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire is roofless but otherwise intact and wandering around this unusual D shaped castle is a delight. Caerlaverock in Dumfrieshire is a moated triangle. Chepstow must be mentioned as Britain’s longest surviving castle built from the outset in stone. Perched on a cliff above the Welsh side of the river Wye, the castle could be supplied by boat when under siege. When the Severn Bridge tolls are scrapped in 2018 it will surely see a surge in visitors from Bristol and the rest of England. As former politician it’s possible that my kissing of the stone at Blarney Castle improved my speeches! Finally, though it pains me to exclude so many castles, there is Bodium, a square castle looking like every child’s toy fort, rising straight from a moat.

I hope the above inspires you to visit a nearby castle or to seek one out on your next holiday.


Our weak Prime Minister and her disloyal cabinet

September 30, 2017

Theresa May was a strong Home Secretary but is a very weak Prime Minister. Having presided for six years over a department that has wrecked many careers she looked likely to be a safe pair of hands at Number Ten. She inherited a working (if not comfortable) Commons majority from David Cameron. She faced a Labour leader who lacked the confidence of most of his MPs. This position of parliamentary strength should have enabled her to lead the country through Brexit, the most difficult period since 1945. She threw away both advantages by calling an unnecessary early election. She has lost much of her authority and appears to be sinking. Her cabinet colleagues freelance rather than act together. “Strong and Stable” now looks like an entry in a book of political jokes.

Political mischief is a feature of the party conference season. Throw together a few thousand political activists, a few hundred journalists and add in copious quantities of alcohol and severe sleep deprivation and you get a combustible mix. Malicious gossip, rows and scandals abound. MPs, front benchers (and wannabes for both) have careers to advance, rivals to be undermined or maybe just books to promote. Unhelpful newspaper headlines and social media trends are guaranteed.

A strong party leader can ignore all this froth percolating beneath them. No doubt there were plenty of shenanigans at Bournemouth (I wasn’t there to witness) and Brighton. But the Liberal Democrats were united in welcoming their new leader. They are “strong and Cable” against Brexit. The Labour conference looked like a gathering of a left wing cult, called together to adore Saint Jeremy, who can do no wrong. He may have cost us the Remain majority in the referendum, been just as keen on triggering Article 50 as the Tories and muddle headed in his support of the human rights suppressing and economy wrecking socialist government of Venezuela. But his Momentum cadres stifled any dissenting voices.

Theresa May is unlikely to get a rapturous reception from the Tory faithful gathering in Manchester. Among them will be plenty of ex MPs, defeated candidates and others whose careers and hopes were dashed by her early election. Bad enough but she will be facing thousands of disgruntled activists without the support of her cabinet. Boris Johnson may have been humiliated in the aborted leadership election that saw May elevated without a vote. But Old Etonians aren’t known for abandoning the path to their place at the top. Johnson smells the decay around May and is positioning himself as the Brexit true believer.

The Foreign Secretary is the country’s chief diplomat. Tact is required, providing reassurance to our closest allies. On domestic policy, rather like the chief whip, the Foreign Secretary usually stays mum. Boris Johnson has breached both protocols. He’s cast doubt on the government’s Brexit negotiating stance and has freelanced all over fiscal policy. In order to bolster his own ambitions he’s undermined the national interest. Powerless to sack him, the authority of the Prime Minister is deflated.

Successful governments of the last century have had strong Prime Ministers, from Lloyd George through to Thatcher and Blair. Some have led strong cabinets, such as Attlee or Wilson. Theresa May is a weak Prime Minister presiding over a disunited cabinet. When leading members should be united on Brexit they instead appear to be united only in the intention to promote their self-interest. After just a year a Prime Minister, Theresa May’s authority has evaporated. John Major’s government creaked at the seams over Europe. But Major won an election as was liked and by his colleagues. I can’t recall any former ministerial colleagues describing him as a “dead man walking” or anything similar.

I’ve heard many people say that history will be kind to the Coalition. After just two years, even among the people who disagreed with the policies of that government, it’s clear that the government presided over by Cameron and Clegg was well led. Well led but also bringing back collective cabinet government after 13 years of president Blair and his sulky successor.

Theresa May’s government is rudderless, jettisoning key manifesto pledges and failing to agree a Brexit destination. Collective responsibility has broken down on the biggest national issue. Each member of the Brexit triumvirate appointed by May is pursuing their own agenda. David Davies is not making progress in Brussels, perhaps because of a lack of direction from May. Liam Fox is behaving as if it’s all over already, globetrotting to talk free trade but with no power to act. Always more comfortable with American neo-cons, even he must now be starting to worry about Trump’s “America First.” The slapping of US tariffs on British made Bombardier aircraft shows us what life will be like more often when we are outside the world’s most powerful trade bloc. Johnson is just playing his usual games of self-advancement.

Whatever your view about the pros and cons of Brexit, this is a time when the country needs strong leadership and united government. Instead we have a weak Prime Minister, with a minority government at the mercy of the homophobic, climate change denying, Europhobic DUP. May is in power for as long as her fractious cabinet fail to find a credible alternative. She avoids the total collapse of her Brexit policy partly because the largest opposition party is on virtually the same ground.

The Brexit clock is ticking ever more loudly. Not a single major decision has been negotiated. Mrs May can’t be sure she that will still be there at the end of the timetable. Tories gathering in Manchester will I’m sure be glad to be in power. But they must surely wonder where on earth we are heading as a country and whether the leader they will dutifully grant a standing ovation will still be there for next year’s conference season.

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?

Liberal Democrats 111 MPs so far but where next?

July 31, 2017

The Liberal Democrats started the 2017 general election campaign with high hopes of winning back many of the seats lost in 2015. Surely 2015 was rock bottom and there would be some new faces? Some people even thought that there might be new MPs in some Remain voting seats that had not previously elected a Lib Dem.

In the end there were just four new faces. Three were in seats lost in 2015, one regained a seat lost in 2010. They were cancelled out by four losses of seats that had been held in 2015, which turned out not to be rock bottom after all. The headline grabbing defeat was in Sheffield Hallam, where Labour succeeded in ousting Nick Clegg. The expected backlash against Brexit didn’t even save the man who appeared to have been rehabilitated as the most articulate speaker for disappointed Remainers. Nick was a fellow member of the “555 Club” of MPs first elected on 5th May 2005. That club came within 777 votes of having no remaining members as even party leader Tim Farron almost lost his seat. The narrow defeat of Mark Williams in Ceredigion leaves the party with no MPs in Wales for the first time in its history. But Scotland was a better story with three seats regained in constituencies where the party was the obvious alternative to the SNP. One of them was Jo Swinson, topping up the 555 Club.

Jo was one of four MPs regaining the seats they had lost in 2015, including the now party leader Vince Cable. Several other former MPs attempting a comeback were defeated by even bigger margins than in 2015, myself included. In any seat where Labour was even just a modest contender, they swept past the Lib Dems. They won seats never held by them before, Portsmouth South joining Sheffield Hallam. They won vote shares of over 60% in many of the “urban intelligentsia” seats won by the Lib Dems in 2005.

On the basis of the 2017 results the party has few decent prospects in any city or Labour facing seat. There are few obvious targets in Conservative seats. But that assumes that the gains in a 2022 general election (if the Tory-DUP deal lasts that long…) depend on past results. The 2015 and 2017 general elections show that extraordinary gains and losses are possible. So far the Lib Dems have experienced only the losses but that could change. By the next election Brexit will have happened (or gone belly up, hopefully) and nobody can predict sensibly how politics will look beyond that event.

The Liberal Democrats will need to stick to their anti-Brexit guns and also find some new eye catching policies. The party will also need some new campaign tactics. A strong ground game and a well known candidate was not enough in 2015 or 2017. People say they like good constituency MPs but now cast their votes more in line with the national picture.

In 2013 I wrote a blog ( ) to mark the Liberal Democrats’ 25th anniversary as a new party. At that time it had elected 106 MPs, in 84 constituencies. The strong ground game and popular incumbent was already failing as a model for success. I’ve now updated the list for the gains and (mainly) losses of the last four years. I hope people find it interesting and will think about where the party will venture to find the next generation of new faces.

Here’s the full One Hundred and Eleven individuals elected as Liberal Democrats, in date order from our first victory:

David Bellotti – Eastbourne by election. Defeated GE 1992.


Mike Carr – Ribble Valley by election. Defeated GE 1992.
Nicol Stephen – Kincardine and Deeside by election. Defeated GE 1992.

1992 General Election

Russell Johnson – Inverness. First elected 1964. Retired GE 1997 and constituency lost.
David Steel – Tweedale, Ettrick & Lauderdale. First elected 1965 by election. Retired GE 1997.
Robert MacLennan – Caithness and Sutherland. First elected 1966 for Labour, then 1983 SDP. Retired GE 2001.
Alan Beith – Berwick Upon Tweed. First elected 1973. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
David Alton – Liverpool Mossley Hill. First elected 1979 by election. Retired GE 1997 & constituency abolished.
Simon Hughes – Southwark and Bermondsey. First elected 1983 by election. Defeated 2015.
Paddy Ashdown – Yeovil. First elected 1983. Retired GE 2001
Alex Carlile – Montgomery. First elected 1983. Retired GE 1997.
Charles Kennedy – Ross, Cromarty and Skye. First elected for SDP 1983. Defeated 2015.
Archie Kirkwood – Roxburgh and Berwickshire. First elected 1983. Retired GE 2005.
Malcolm Bruce – Gordon First elected 1983. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Jim Wallace – Orkney & Shetland – First elected 1983. Retired 2001.
Matthew Taylor – Truro & St Austell (1987 by election – retired GE 2010)
Menzies Campbell – Fife North East. First elected 1987. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Ray Michie – Argyll & Bute First elected 1987. Retired 2001.
Don Foster – Bath. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Nick Harvey – North Devon. Defeated 2015.
Nigel Jones – Cheltenham. Retired 2005
Liz Lynne – Rochdale. Defeated 1997
Paul Tyler – North Cornwall. Retired 2005 (Also Liberal MP for Bodmin Feb – Oct 1974)


David Rendel – Newbury by election. Defeated 2005
Diana Maddock – Christchurch by election. Defeated 1997

David Chidgey – Eastleigh by election. Retired 2005

Chris Davies – Littleborough & Saddleworth by election. Defeated GE 1997

General Election 1997:

Mike Hancock – Portsmouth South (previously SDP 1984 – 1987) Defeated (as Independent) 2015.
Richard Livsey – Brecon and Radnor (previously Lib 1985 by election – defeated 1992) Retired 2001.
Ronnie Fearn – Southport (previously Lib 1987 – defeated 1992) Retired 2001.
Andrew George – St Ives. Defeated 2015.
Colin Breed – Cornwall South East. Retired 2010 and constituency lost.
John Burnett – Devon West & Torridge. Retired 2005 and constituency lost.
Adrian Sanders – Torbay. Defeated 2015.
Jackie Ballard – Taunton. Defeated 2001.
David Heath – Somerton & Frome. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Brian Cotter – Weston Super Mare. Defeated 2005.
Steve Webb – Northavon. Defeated 2015.
Dr Peter Brand – Isle of Wight. Defeated 2001.
Mark Oaten – Winchester. Retired 2010 and constituency lost.
Norman Baker – Lewes. Defeated 2015.
Vince Cable – Twickenham. Defeated 2015. Regained seat in 2017
Dr Jenny Tonge – Richmond Park. Retired 2005
Edward Davey – Kingston & Surbiton. Defeated 2015. Regained seat in 2017
Tom Brake – Carshalton & Wallington
Paul Burstow – Sutton & Cheam. Defeated 2015.
Bob Russell – Colchester. Defeated 2015.
Dr Evan Harris – Oxford West & Abingdon. Defeated 2010
Paul Keetch – Hereford. Retired 2010 and constituency lost.
Andrew Stunell – Hazel Grove. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Phil Willis – Harrogate & Knaresborough. Retired 2010 and constituency lost
Richard Allen – Sheffield Hallam. Retired 2005
Donald Gorrie – Edinburgh West. Retired 2001
Sir Robert Smith – West Aberdeenshire. Defeated 2015.
Lembit Opik – Montgomery. Defeated 2010
Michael Moore – Tweedale, Ettrick & Lauderdale (Roxburgh and Berwickshire since 2005) Defeated 2015.


Sandra Gidley – Romsey by election. Defeated GE 2010

2001 General Election

Richard Younger-Ross – Teignbridge. Defeated (at Newton Abbot) 2010
Annette Brooke – Mid Dorset and North Poole. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Sue Doughty – Guildford. Defeated 2005
Norman Lamb – North Norfolk
Matthew Green – Ludlow. Defeated 2005
Patsy Calton – Cheadle. Died 2005
Paul Holmes – Chesterfield. Defeated 2010
David Laws – Yeovil. Defeated 2015.
Dr John Pugh – Southport. Retired 2017 and constituency lost.
Roger Williams – Brecon & Radnor. Defeated 2015.
Alistair Carmichael – Orkney & Shetland
John Thurso – Caithness & Sutherland. Defeated 2015.
Alan Reid – Argyll & Bute. Defeated 2015.
John Barrett – Edinburgh West. Retired 2010


Sarah Teather – Brent East by election. Seat abolished GE 2010. Elected Brent Central. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.


Parmjit Singh Gill – Leicester South by election. Defeated GE 2005.

2005 General Election

Lorely Burt – Solihull. Defeated 2015.
Tim Farron – Westmoreland & Lonsdale
Julia Goldsworthy – Falmouth & Camborne. Defeated (at Camborne and Redruth) 2010
Jeremy Browne – Taunton. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Stephen Williams – Bristol West. Defeated, 2015.
Lynne Featherstone – Hornsey & Wood Green. Defeated 2015.
John Hemming – Birmingham Yardley. Defeated 2015.
David Howarth – Cambridge. Retired 2010
Greg Mulholland – Leeds North West. Defeated 2017.
John Leech – Manchester Withington. Defeated 2015.
Paul Rowen – Rochdale. Defeated 2010
Jenny Willott – Cardiff Central. Defeated 2015.
Jo Swinson – East Dumbartonshire. Defeated 2015. Regained seat in 2017
Danny Alexander – Inverness, Badenoch & Strathspey. Defeated 2015.
Mark Williams – Ceredigion. Defeated 2017.
Dan Rogerson – Cornwall North. Defeated 2015.
Martin Horwood – Cheltenham. Defeated 2015.
Chris Huhne – Eastleigh. Resigned 2013. Seat held in by election.
Susan Kramer – Richmond Park. Defeated 2010.
Nick Clegg – Sheffield Hallam. Defeated 2017.

Mark Hunter – Cheadle by election. Defeated 2015.


Willie Rennie – Dunfermline & West Fife by election. Defeated GE 2010

2010 General Election

Stephen Gilbert – St Austell & Newquay. Defeated 2015.
Duncan Hames – Chippenham. Defeated 2015.
Tessa Munt – Wells. Defeated 2015.
Stephen Lloyd – Eastbourne. Defeated 2015. Regained seat in 2017
Simon Wright – Norwich South. Defeated 2015.
David Ward – Bradford East. Defeated 2015.
Gordon Birtwhistle – Burnley. Defeated 2015.
Ian Swales – Redcar. Retired 2015 and constituency lost.
Julian Huppert – Cambridge. Defeated 2015.
Mike Crockart – Edinburgh West. Defeated 2015.


Mike Thornton – Eastleigh by election. Defeated GE 2015.

2015 General Election

No new MPs

Sarah Olney – Richmond Park by election. Defeated GE 2017.

2017 General Election

Wera Hobhouse – Bath
Layla Moran – Oxford West and Abingdon
Christine Jardine – Edinburgh West
Jamie Stone – Caithness and Sutherland

Bristol West needs a Liberal voice

June 6, 2017

I am standing for a third term as Bristol West’s MP. Theresa May called this snap general election for reasons of cynical party advantage. She thought Jeremy Corbyn would crash Labour straight into the electoral iceberg and that she would be Prime Minister of a Tory government with a commanding Commons majority. She might also have thought that she would act before the Liberal Democrat recovery strengthens. We shall find out in the early hours of Friday whether this calculation was right.

Yet she said the reason for calling the election is Brexit. She said it was to give her a strong hand in the negotiations that will start later this month. I think Brexit may well have been a strong factor in the calling of the election but not in the way suggested by May. For some time now people have been saying to me that I should stop fighting Brexit because “it is done” or “it’s been decided.” At the moment even many people who voted Remain think nothing can be done. Brexit is a becalmed debate.

This will surely change once the negotiations advance and people realise just how many rights and advantages are slipping away from us. By the end of this year the public are likely to be more concerned and the mood will be angry. Even many Leave voters will realise that a hard Brexit will damage their livelihoods and shrink their opportunities. Mrs May’s government would be in deep trouble. The Liberal Democrat clarity on the need for a negotiated soft Brexit and the deal to be put to a final public vote would have far more appeal than now.
In the meantime Bristol West needs an MP who will stand up, consistently, for the 80% of people who voted Remain in this seat. The country needs an opposition party that will stand up to the government, rather than stand aside and wave Brexit through by 2019. So I hope the voters of Bristol West give me the chance to serve them for a third time in Parliament. I hope also to be part of a large united Liberal Democrat Parliamentary force, challenging the government in the difficult years ahead.

As Bristol West’s MP I would also stand up for the NHS, schools and other public services. They need extra money and the Liberal Democrats are clear about how we would find the money. We all need the NHS and social care sometime in our lives so it is right that all income tax payers should pay a little more, according to their means. A rise of 1p in the pound on all three tax rates would raise an extra £6billion a year for the NHS and care. We would raise company tax by 1% to reverse school budget cuts and protect budgets in real terms over the next five years. I would also vote against divisive Tory education plans for a reintroduction of grammar schools and secondary moderns.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has looked at the plans of the three main parties. It concluded that only the Liberal Democrat plans were credible, with their tax plans funding their spending commitments. The Labour pretence that everything can be found from the super-rich and large companies was found to be incredible. The IFS didn’t look at the Green Party. But their top policy of a four day working week, with everyone given £75 a week basic income (whether in work or not) would crash the economy. There would be little left for their huge tax rises to bite.

Bristol West is in the enviable position of being able to choose what sort of opposition MP it wants to represent its interests. Someone who can represent its progressive, internationalist and liberal values. In the last twenty years the seat has been evenly divided between Labour MPs and a Liberal Democrat MP, me. I am Bristol West’s most authentic liberal and progressive voice. Our city needs an experienced representative at this critical time in our history. I offer a clear vision of an outward looking Britain, trading and cooperating with our closest neighbours. A Britain that invests in the future through education and protects us all when we are sick or need care.

Please vote for me so that I can be Bristol’s liberal voice again.

Engaged and inclusive leadership – how I would act as West of England Mayor

May 1, 2017

I judge other politicians on whether they are pluralists or tribalists. Pluralists recognise that there are good people in all parties and in groups that operate outside party politics. Tribalists go beyond blinkered loyalty to their party, believing those not of their political colour to be the enemy, to be opposed at all costs. I am a pluralist. In my time as an Avon county councillor, Bristol city councillor, Member of Parliament and government minister I enjoyed the company of those from other parties and worked across party lines to get things done.

The office of regional mayor will require some skilled diplomacy and emotional intelligence to make a success of devolution. At the outset it will require the trust and confidence of the leaders of the three councils that make up the Mayoral Combined Authority. I would also want to make full use of the abilities of our 9 MPs to influence government and national agencies. I also see the 200 councillors and hundreds of parish and town councillors as community advocates whose knowledge about the needs of their residents will be invaluable in setting strategic priorities. I will also work alongside the Local Enterprise Partnership to hear the voice of local business leaders and entrepreneurs. Bringing together all of our local opinion formers will be of great importance to me, operating as a regional internal diplomat.

The regional mayor will also be the face of the region to Westminster and the rest of the world. I will be a strong voice for our region, to win business investment and further devolution of power.

A good leader should not fear robust scrutiny. The statutory requirement for scrutiny of the regional mayor is rather modest, requiring only a scrutiny committee drawn from the three councils. I want this committee to reflect the political balance of the three councils. I will go further than the statutory requirement and offer myself for regular question time sessions with all councillors. On a rotating geographical basis I will answer oral and written questions from councillors at full plenary sessions, where councillors from any of the three councils can attend. This will need amendments to the standing orders of the councils but I hope they will accept my offer in good faith. I will also open myself up to regular scrutiny by the local media and in public meetings.

I will be a mayor for both our cities, bringing Bath and Bristol closer together so we can be a world beating brand. I will also be a champion for all the towns and villages of north east Somerset and south Gloucestershire, protecting and advancing their interests when making spending and investment decisions. I will work on behalf of the whole region, together, with one voice.

My plan to protect the West of England from a damaging Brexit

April 30, 2017

I am a passionate internationalist. I have been a strong advocate of Britain’s positive membership of the European Union for the whole time that I’ve been involved in politics. When the Conservative government made the mistake of calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote. I worked not just with my Liberal Democrat colleagues but was also a founder of the Bristol and South Gloucestershire branch of the cross party Stronger In campaign. I was pleased that the West of England voted clearly for Remain (56.3%) but disappointed that the rest of the country didn’t follow our lead. Since the referendum I have not given up the fight. I was one of the founders of the cross party Bristol for Europe group and have spoken at several public demonstrations of support for the EU.

As regional mayor I would stand up for the rights of the EU nationals who live in the West of England. Over 30,000 people work in some of our key industries, such as aerospace, or in the NHS and other public services. Our four universities have EU nationals among their academic staff and there are thousands of EU students at both undergraduate and post grad level. Many research programmes are dependent on this international mix of brain power. I will urge the government to guarantee their right to remain in Britain, irrespective of the Article 50 negotiations.

I will put together an evidence base for the impact of Brexit on the regional economy. Working with employers, the NHS, universities and the public sector I will present the findings to the Prime Minister.
We have two hard years ahead of us while the government negotiates with the EU. I will continue to strengthen and deepen cultural and economic links with our existing EU partners. Our relationships with our closest neighbours will still be the most important, whatever the outcome of the Article 50 discussions.

I will also lead regional trade delegations to our emerging trade partners in the rest of the world. There is an untapped resource here among our own population, many of whom have family links to south Asian countries. I will work with UKTI to maximise exports of locally owned BAME businesses to emerging markets.

Finally, this election is a straight political choice between me and the Conservative candidate who backs Theresa May’s plan for an extreme version of Brexit. I remain opposed to Britain leaving the EU and do not accept that Brexit is now inevitable. Even many of those who voted Leave did not expect Britain to be catapulted out of the single market and the customs union. Leaving either or both will be deeply damaging to the region’s economy. I support the Liberal Democrat demand for the public to be given a final chance to accept or reject the outcome of the government’s negotiations.