Cruising the British Isles reveals a host of storied sites to explore.
By Terri Colby
About 90 miles outside of London, slowing traffic on the A303 is the first sign that you are arriving at your destination. All of the drivers pause. And how could they not? Outside your window, just a bit in the distance, is the 5,000-year-old Stonehenge, one of the most famous historic sites in the world.
It was jaw dropping to see the iconic prehistoric stone circle from our 21st-century tour bus. The setup for visitors to Stonehenge is efficient, and while you can no longer walk up and touch the stones, you are close enough to feel the power of the place and see the nearby burial mounds that also mark it as special for ancient peoples. Stonehenge is a great first or last stop to bookend a cruise out of nearby Southampton where we set sail aboard Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess to explore historic sites in the British Isles.
Long at the center of Western history, the British Isles are home to many historic sites including castles, monasteries, and monuments; and markers of conflict from 18th-century battlefields to World War II bunkers to sites of modern sectarian violence and revolution.
England and the Channel Islands
You’ll likely be flying in and out of London, so a visit to the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, or Westminster Abbey is also easily accomplished. We chose the Tower. Built by William the Conqueror in 1078 on the banks of the Thames, it’s a symbol of power where Beefeaters in their blue and scarlet attire give tours daily. Don’t miss a look at the Crown Jewels.
Our first cruise stop out of Southampton was at the Channel Islands, and we found abundant history on a little island you’ve probably never heard of. The island of Sark is within sight of the French coast, but it’s a British dependency, governed by a unique political system, parts of which dates to Queen Elizabeth I. Until a few years ago it was Europe’s last feudal domain. Along with the rest of the Channel Islands it was the only British territory occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Nearby Guernsey Island is more well known. There, you can see remains of some of the German bunkers, but Sark is very much a world apart. At Sark’s snug harbor, tractors hauled us in open trailers up a steep road to the town. And that was the last we saw of motor vehicles of any sort. No cars, no trucks, not even a motor scooter.
We hired bicycles to explore this pastoral plateau little more than two miles square, set high above the vivid blue, churning seas of the English Channel. Other than dodging the occasional clip-clopping horse-drawn cart full of tourists, we had the island’s smooth gravel lanes to ourselves, cooled by a sea breeze and watched indifferently by cows and horses grazing in green pasture overlooking the sea.
Little more than a five-minute ride brought us to the imposing grey granite seigneurie, home of the feudal rulers around whom much of Sark’s history revolves. The term derives from the French word for lord. The seigneur’s status as feudal ruler of his tenants wasn’t abolished until 2008.
Perhaps the island’s greatest modern challenge came with the German occupation from 1940-45, when the incumbent ruler, Dame Sibyl Hathaway, refused to evacuate. Much of that history is laid out in a small exhibit adjacent to the seigneurie.
Don’t miss the estate’s spacious walled garden, in glorious full bloom in mid-June. We stopped nearby at a small café for a pot of tea and slice of cake, and pondered our regrets at the thought of leaving.
Next stop was Ireland, which has ancient history galore, along with some compelling, more modern….