England has a rich history with reminders of its past everywhere you look. Some of this history is quirky, intriguing, and a bit dark -- and sometimes downright weird! If you look carefully, you can find evidence of strange events and people from history in old buildings and monuments, though these aren’t always easy to find. Away from the big cities, in the small towns and even smaller villages, you’ll find memories of a past that will amaze and unsettle you, featuring everything from crime and punishment to religion and literature.
Here are just six examples of these unique historic sites you can visit in England.
1. Combe Gibbet, Inkpen, Berkshire
The Combe Gibbet stands high upon a hill above the village of Inkpen in Berkshire and is an important reminder of how brutal our justice system used to be. The gibbet post measures 25 feet tall and was made to suspend the hanged bodies of George Bromham and Dorothy Newman, who were accused of murdering Bromham’s wife and son. This gibbet post is actually a replica of the original; it’s been replaced some seven times since it was first erected in 1676. Newman is the only known woman ever to be gibbeted in Britain. Gibbeting was the practice of rehanging the bodies of criminals, usually murderers, in iron cages in a prominent place as a warning to others.
Down in the village is the Crown & Garter inn, whose barn was used to lay out the two bodies so that they could be measured for their irons. That barn is now a set of beautiful hotel rooms that you can spend a night or two in! The inn has been lovingly refurbished and has a typical English country garden for outside dining and drinks, and the food is incredible.
2. Top Withens, Haworth, West Yorkshire
On desolate moorland not far from Haworth, the home of the Bronte family, is the ruined farmhouse called Top Withens. This former farmhouse is reported to have been the inspiration for the home of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s famous novel. This makes it a must-see for Bronte fans, but also for anyone with a passing interest in British literature and history. A plaque on the wall of the ruin, placed there by the Bronte Society in 1964, gives you a little of the background of this historic place, but the real beauty is in the atmosphere. On the windy moor with nothing but barren land for miles around, it’s easy to see how such a story came to Emily Bronte’s mind.
The walk from Haworth and back is around 11 miles round trip. The route is well signposted and on fairly even ground, though you do need to be reasonably fit, since it’s somewhat of a hike in places.
Back in Haworth, I ate a hearty lunch at the Fleece Inn, where you can also book a room for the night.
3. Fish Inn, Buttermere, Lake District
In the remote valley at Lake Buttermere stands an 18th-century inn that was made famous by a local scandal. This was the Fish Inn, where Mary Robinson lived with her father, the landlord. When a charming and seemingly rich bachelor came to stay in 1802, he wooed young Mary, and the pair got married. The man said he was a colonel, and the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth wrote about the match, which seemed perfect. The Maid of Buttermere, as she was known, was said to be a great beauty, and the colonel was handsome and rich. Unfortunately, this man was actually a bigamist and a forger, and he abandoned Mary as soon as the truth was uncovered.
The Fish Inn has stood on this spot ever since, and you can still visit, eat a meal in the restaurant, have a drink at the bar, and stay overnight in one of the guest rooms. The inn recently sold and has since changed its name to the Buttermere Court Hotel, erasing a little of the memory of Mary. But this cautionary tale about the dangers of love remains the most shocking thing ever to have happened in little Buttermere!
4. Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire
In 1612, 12 women were tried as witches for the murder of 10 people in Pendle, Lancashire. The Pendle witch trial was Britain’s most famous, and these women, some rumored to have been witches for 50 years, all lived in the areas surrounding Pendle Hill.
Pendle Hill is a moody, brooding place, and the villages around it are few and far between. The walk up the hill is not too arduous, but it is steep in areas. There are signposts to show you the way, or you can take a guided tour of this and other witch-related spots in the area. If you’re not too adventurous, I’d recommend the guided tour. I went independently, and my partner and I almost got lost as the mist began to thicken and the rain started to fall -- pretty spooky!
The small village of Barley is a great base for a visit to the area. You can stay at The Pendle Inn for a traditional pub and some great ales. Rooms at the inn are in a separate annex and are let on a self-catering basis. These secluded and quiet rooms are set back from the pub itself and are comfortable and very reasonably priced. Or you could stay at the Barley Mow, a modern restaurant and bar with rooms in a historic building.
5. Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District
This lesser-known stone circle is said to have been constructed around 3,000 B.C. and sits in an unassuming field with the mountains of Helvellyn and High Seat behind it. Castlerigg is a fabulous find, and if you’re in the area around Keswick, it’s well worth seeking out. It’s a much smaller stone circle than Stonehenge, but it’s more accessible.
You can take a leisurely walk from Kewsick, or you can drive up to the field and park across the road. There’s no entry fee and no one to stop you from walking right up and touching the stones. It’s often very quiet, since it’s not a popular tourist attraction, but depending on when you visit, you might find a few people of various religions ambling around and appreciating the tranquility. On two separate occasions, I encountered a group of Catholic nuns and a handful of Buddhist monks. It’s a spiritual and peaceful place.
6. Boston Guildhall Museum, Boston, Lincolnshire
The Boston Guildhall Museum is a rare find -- an incredible historic building and museum in a modest, small town. The guild of merchants in this town was formed in 1260, and they made a fortune through the trade in wool. The building itself dates to 1390, when it was used as a banqueting hall for the merchants. At the height of its power, the little town of Boston in Lincolnshire was second only to London in terms of wealth, which seems incredible now.
The building was also used as a courthouse, and you can stand in the little courtroom where all the crimes of Boston were tried. These crimes ranged from theft and physical harm to women talking too much. A small spiral staircase in the middle of the room -- so narrow it looks like a ladder hatch -- leads down to the basement prison cells, where you can experience what it was like to be locked up here.
This is a fascinating hidden gem of a museum, complete with old creaking floors and lopsided walls. Entry is free, but admission times are limited, and the museum closes early on Saturdays.
What To Know Before You Go
Many of these places are quite remote and not well known, so be aware that amenities might be in short supply! You’ll always find an inn nearby, even in the smallest of villages, but shops aren’t always abundant. Make sure you’ve planned out your route and know where you’re going, since these little-known sites might not be signposted or marked in any way at all. Be sure to explore the surrounding villages and visit an inn or two -- the locals love to tell visitors all about these unique historic landmarks.