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English History

England's History & Heritage

England is a country with a long and checkered past. Though most people immediately think of Colonialism, the Battle of 1066 and King Henry VIII, there is much more to England’s fascinating history. Most people will have heard of Stonehenge, but England was actually home to thriving Mesolithic and Neolithic Era communities from Yorkshire to Somerset. The 350-year-long Roman Britain is one of the most interesting periods on the island, influencing English culture, communities and people long after the Romans retreated.

From the Viking invasions to the Norman administration, through the amazing cathedral-building era of the Middle Ages and into the modern times of kings and queens through the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Age, the English landscape has been shaped by its long and storied past.

Anyone with an interest in history will be delighted with a visit to England. Follow in the footsteps of the Romans along the impressive ancient frontier of Hadrian’s Wall. Imagine life as a Viking at the miniature Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Wonder about the mysteries of the past at ancient Neolithic sites like Stonehenge, Avebury, or the strange stone circles of the Lake District. Plough through the moody moors of Yorkshire and rugged hills of the Peak District that inspired literary giants like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen and more. Learn about beloved myths like King Arthur and Robin Hood at the heart of England. Walk through the idyllic hills of the Cotswolds to marvel at the great country estates, bizarre folly castles and perfect gardens of more recent centuries. England is a history lover’s dream.

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Trips with Historical Elements

Hadrian’s Wall Path

Activity: Self Guided Walking

Duration: 8 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: The entire 80 miles of Hadrian’s Wall, including dozens of Roman forts – such as Wallsend, Vindolanda and Chesters, milecastles and turrets, and several historic villages.

Difficulty:

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The Cotswolds Way

Activity: Self Guided Walking

Duration: 9 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: Broadway Tower, Medieval Chipping Campden, Iron Age Beckbury camp, Hailes Abbey, Neolithic tombs Belas Knap & Nympsfield, Dyrham Park, UNESCO town of Bath

Difficulty:

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England Coast to Coast 

Activity: Wilderness Walking

Duration: 9 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: Historic villages like Muker & Ravenstonedale, Marrick Priory and Mount Grace Priory, Easby Abbey, Rosedale Ironstone Railway, Glaisdale and Beggar’s Bridge

Difficulty:

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northumberland history

Northumberland & the Lakes

Activity: Wilderness Walking

Duration: 7 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh Castle, Holy Island, Humbleton’s Hill Fort and Alnwick Castle.

Difficulty:

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The Lake District

Activity: Self Drive

Duration: 6 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: Beatrix Potter’s historic Hill Top house, William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Lingholm Estate, and Castlerigg stone circle.

Difficulty: 
At Your Own Pace

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Border Crossing

Activity: Road Cycling

Duration: 8 days

Comfort: Classic

Historical Sites: Holy Island of Lindisfarne – castle and priory, Warkworth Castle, Bamburgh Castle, picturesque villages.

Difficulty:

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Neolithic England

Everyone knows about Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge is the most famous megalithic monument, ancient England is a land often overlooked, with plenty of other sites stretching back to before the pyramids of Egypt.

But when was the Neolithic period, and Bronze and Iron Ages?

The Prehistoric period, encompassing Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze eras, started around 10,000 BC and ended about 500BC.

The Neolithic period is defined as the first time in history that humans began to farm. Around the world, people settled into small, stable communities in semi-nomadic fashion. Generally, this happened on uplands and plains and began to farm and keep livestock. With settlement came construction. People began constructing megalithic chambered tombs, cairns, barrows, hillforts, henges, and stone circles throughout England. Each varying in size, format and location – a practice carried on into the Bronze and Iron Ages. Archaeologists have also uncovered jewellery, weaponry and other metallurgy across England. The Lake District has one of the highest concentrations of Stone Circles in England.

The Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age peoples had interesting and complicated rituals based on little-understood belief systems, although we know they were interested in astronomy and seasons. Many monuments were aligned with summer and winter solstices, or form astrological calendars. Stonehenge is one of these, aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise (and the Winter Solstice sunset).

England is home to a good few monuments from this era, including the Avebury henge, for example, as well as examples such as the West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, Grime’s Grave, Wayland’s Smithy chambered barrow, Belas Knap barrow, Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria, … And then there’s Star Carr in North Yorkshire, which is even older, dating back to the Mesolithic era.

Silbury Hill

Within the same landscape as Stonehenge and Avebury, Silbury Hill is a manmade chalk hill or mound. At 39.3 metres high, Silbury Hill is one of the tallest man-made structures from prehistoric times (and the tallest in Europe) and is comparable in size to some of Egypt’s largest ancient pyramids at Giza. To this day, the hill is still cloaked in mystery, as no one is entirely sure what its original purpose was.

West Kennet Long Barrow

This chambered barrow is also located in a similar area as Silbury and Avebury. Constructed around 3700 BC, it is one of about 30 similar structures, regional variations of the barrow, today all part of the Cotswolds Severn group. The stones, which come from the Cotswolds, enclose a sub-rectangular chamber, and are covered with large stones and soil, and used to inter cremated remains – as well as a later hoard of Roman coins.

Wayland’s Smithy – Chamber Barrow

This partially reconstructed barrow is another in the Cotswold Severn group of neolithic barrow sites. Built around 3400 BC, the barrow is 185 feet long and 43 feet wide at the biggest point. Built over two phases, the barrow started out made of timber – perhaps as long ago as 3590 BC – and later rebuilt in stone, and it is this style used in Wayland’s Smithy barrow we see today.

Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria

There are approximately 1,300 stone circles in the UK, Ireland and Brittany, and is a style that lasted for thousands of years, from 3,300 to 900 BC (so, from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age). The most visited stone circle in Cumbria, Castlerigg is an early version of a stone circle, likely built around 3200 BC. Unlike Stonehenge, the 40 stones that are used are local glacial erratics, deposited during the last glacial period. The surrounding Lake District has one of the highest concentrations of stone circles in England.

Grime’s Grave

In another corner of England, there is a substantial Neolithic flint mining operation in Suffolk, used from 2600 to at least 2300 BC to source flint, a material used in axe and tool making. Little remains above ground, but just below the surface, there are 433 shafts of up to 14 m or 46 feet deep. Today, one of those shafts – about 9 metres down – is open to the public, the only such site to be open in the UK. To remove the necessary 2,000 tons of chalk per large shaft, 20 men would have had to work for 5 months before the fling seams could be mined.

Star Carr

Little remains of Star Carr. Star Carr is older than others on this list – it’s actually from the Mesolithic Age (Middle Stone Age). Star Carr is the most important Mesolithic site in the UK. Located in Yorkshires, it was founded about 9300 BC and abandoned in 8480 BC, surviving due to the site’s peat filling. Many artefacts were uncovered, largely made of bone and antler, as well as rarer artefacts from amber, shale and pyrite. Star Carr shows evidence of up to 18 buildings, and some mysterious wooden platforms. Artefacts can be viewed in the British Museum, Yorkshire Museum, Cambridge’s University Museum of Archaeology, and Scarborough Museum.

Roman Britain

It’s impossible to contemplate English history without contemplating Roman Britain. Britannia was a colony of the Roman Empire for about 300 years, and the Romans certainly left their mark, perhaps most famously at Hadrian’s Wall – although the Romans left other impacts on England.

The Roman Republic started in what is modern-day Italy in the 6th century BC, not expanding off the Italian peninsula until the 3rd century BC. It took some time for them to start expanding, but once it became an empire, each of the ruling emperors were expected to do two things. 1. Leave their mark on Rome (and try to outdo your predecessor), and 2. Expand the empire.

So the empire shot out in every direction – southern Europe, Gaul (modern France), the Balkans, Northern Africa, the Near East including Persia…and Britain. One of the many fascinating facets of Roman life was that anyone could (eventually) become a citizen. Some of the most common Roman artefacts are funerary inscriptions, complete with name, age and place of birth. These extensive records show us that even at Hadrian’s Wall, the empire’s frontier, there were people living there from as far away as Spain, Romania and North Africa.

Contrary to popular belief, the Romans started on good terms with the Celtic tribes living outside their walls. They traded with them all manner of objects, though later unrest was a factor in the Romans decision to leave Britannica.

One of the most important places in Roman Britain was York, known as Eboracum in Roman times. Founded by the Romans in 71 AD, it was the North’s major military base and therefore a significant city. In fact, two emperors died in Eboracum – Septimius Severus in 211 AD, and Constantius Chlorus in 306 AD, while his son Constantine the Great was appointed emperor in York following his father’s death.

The Romans stayed in England for about 360 years, from 43 BC to 410 AD. Though Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous, they built other great monuments too, such as Bath spa, using the natural thermal waters found in the area. Today the Roman bathhouse is a historical site but there is a modern bathhouse next door, still using the natural waters. (You can visit Bath Abbey next door – an amazing building in itself, climb the tower for great views of Roman and Georgian Bath.

Before the fall of the western Roman Empire, the Romans withdrew from Roman Britain. There was simply too much pressure from the Celtic tribes on this frontier region. The Roman Empire was weakened by too much expansion, regional revolts combined with the introduction of monotheism. The Romans left in 410 AD, and the following period is one of confusion, chaos and few records.

Anglo Saxon England

Anglo Saxon rule preceded Roman Britain, and their arrival at the helm kicked off medieval England. This came about as mass immigration of peoples from Germanic tribes who fended off the local tribes to settle in Britain, as well as modern-day Brittany (France) and Galica (Spain). Little is known about the exact nature of this ‘arrival’ of peoples, nor how many people actually migrated – possibly just an elite band of warriors fought their way to power.

The Britons settled on the western half of the county, with the eastern half broken up into the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia (Angles), Wessex and Essex (Saxons), and Kent (Jutes). The Anglo Saxons ruled from the end of the Roman Empire until 1066, after which then the Normans came and overthrew them. In 793 AD, the Vikings arrived to raid the English kingdoms, after which they returned consistently to make off with treasures, goods and people.

The Vikings Come to England

Lindisfarne Priory, the first place in England raided by the Vikings

The next big event on England’s calendar is the arrival of the Vikings. You’ve heard of the Vikings of course – a blanket term for raiders from Scandinavia. No, they didn’t wear horns, but they were fearsome warriors. At least, when they were warriors. The Vikings were actually mostly farmers with an impetus for exploration and a side hobby of raiding other lands for treasure. They were the ultimate adventurers and world travellers. Mostly thanks to their impressive boat-building skills and thirst for the unknown.

One of the early places they visited was England, landing at the now-famous Lindisfarne Priory. They formed a particular love for raiding monasteries – which had gold and were largely guarded by unarmed monks. In addition, the Vikings weren’t worried by the Christian threat of going to hell. Settling in York, or Jorvik as they termed it, they were experts at integration – whether that meant by building ports, marrying locals or even converting to Christianity. Even today, the Vikings form the basis of many European cultures, including Russia, Poland, the Baltics, Normandy (France), Ireland and of course England, and recent excavations of York have unearthed the Viking town itself as well as thousands of artefacts.

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The Battle of Hastings

The Viking Age more or less ended in 1066 with the infamous Battle of Hastings, as well as the lesser-remembered Battle of Stamford Bridge of the same year. The Battle of Hastings was when Norman William the Conqueror invaded England, wrenching the crown from the Anglo Saxon King Harold. When the previous king of England died without heirs, he left a power vacuum. Resulting in nobles and far-flung relatives all claiming tenuous ties to the throne.

The newly-crowned king’s forces were weakened following an attack by the Norwegians after their king claimed the inheritance of the throne. William, too, claimed his own inheritance, and after Harold won against the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, William saw his chance and attacked. This battle would become perhaps the most famous in western Europe. It was here that King Harold took an arrow to the eye and died, leaving William and his Normans to take the throne.

If things had gone awry, history could have been quite different – maybe we’d all be speaking Norse! In any case, our modern English is peppered with tokens from our Norman French ancestors. Usually pertaining to government and administration – more or less all our Latinate words that made learning Romance languages in schools a touch easier.

100 Years War with France

Remember the French origins of England we just talked about? Those roots stayed with the English ruling class for centuries and is part of the basis for the Hundreds Years’ War. The other part was – there’s no delicate way of putting it – misogyny. Women simply were not allowed on the throne. And when Charles IV of France died in 1337 with no (male) heirs, his closest (male) relative was King Edward III of England. The French being French wanted a Frenchman to wear their crown, and gave it to King Philip.

Shortly afterwards, the French asked for Gascony (Bordeaux region) back from the English king, which had been in his family for years. Edward said no. Of course, this didn’t go down well on either side. Cue decades of conflict, full of in-fighting, sieges, truces, land-grabbing, and battles – including the infamous Battle of Agincourt. This was an important and unexpected English victory, and a decimating blow for the French army where they lost most of the French nobility.

The great Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast. The core of the present castle dates to Norman times, and it has been built up since then.

The Early Middle Ages certainly left its mark on England – in stone. Following the Norman invasion and all the way through the medieval era, English kings and lords began building massive castles. Structures built to endure sieges, invasions and the weathering of time. Many of these castles lasted through the centuries, eventually being converted into countryside homes for the gentry.

In the beginning, these new stone fortresses were machines of might and war. The places to see the most fortifications were, of course, the borders. The English/Welsh border is one of the most castle-dense in Europe, with military wonders such as Caernarfon Castle. This was built by an English king to show off his might to the Welsh. Particularly when he engineered it so that his son was born in the half-finished castle, thereby providing the people with a “Welsh prince.” The south coast, as well as the north near Scotland, also saw an increase in castle-building.

The Black Death

The Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, is one of history’s most infamous and terrifying events and has been much talked about in recent times. Carried into Europe via infected fleas on the rats that stowed away on ships, the Black Death peaked in Europe between 1347 to 1351. It killed up to 200 million people in Eurasia, and decimated the population and economy.

Most estimates say that at least one-third of the population was killed, perhaps up to 60% of the population. It wasn’t until around 1500 that the European population regained pre-pandemic levels. Though this was a terrible travesty, the reduced population did lead to increased wealth and prosperity for those who survived.

Legends of England

While most history books like to focus on dates and wars and kings, sometimes it’s worth looking beyond that, at the myths and legends of the everyday man. In England, two legends, in particular, stand out. You know what we’re talking about – King Arthur and Robin Hood.

King Arthur

King Arthur is a timeless hero – usually associated with the early Middle Ages, but he could have been around even earlier. He may be real – or just a story – or a combination of both. The story is legendary – the peasant boy who is destined to become king. Demonstrating his right to rule by pulling what is likely the most famous sword in history, Excalibur, from a stone.

From there, the boy is crowned, and he becomes the epitome of the ideal and chivalrous king, with his Knights of the Round Table, his noble quests, his beautiful bride Guinevere. The story is first recorded in a pseudo-history, La Morte d’Arthur, though Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale has long since been proven just that – a story.

 

Robin Hood

The other historically significant myth to talk about is Robin Hood. This lordling-turned-thief is infamous for his mantra to “steal from the rich and give the poor.” He and his band of merry men live in Sherwood Forest, planning their light-hearted attacks on wealthy caravans in order to provide for those less fortunate. They are hunted by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who represents order, authority, and wealth disparity.

Both of these stories are important because of how they portray medieval English history – and provide two figures with whom the English could identify – a sort of national hero drawn from, and for, the lower classes – a glorification of what it means to be English.

Elizabethan England: William Shakespeare

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’

Probably the most important, famous and brilliant writer in the English language was, and still is, William Shakespeare. A playwright from the rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, he is credited with writing 39 plays from 1589 to 1613 (before his death in 1616). He parodied everyday life in his comedies and corrupt rule in his histories. His plays brought far-flung landscapes to life, from Hamlet’s Denmark to Caesar’s Rome to Romeo and Juliet’s Verona. Shakespeare and his Globe (and Rose) Theatres revolutionised English literature, theatre and culture, bringing culture to the general masses. Despite the centuries, Shakespeare’s works are still one of the most influential aspects of English culture.

Protestantism & Henry the VIII

In the first half of the 16th century, England had an infamous monarch that, due to his failed request for a divorce, decided to found his own religion. Following the vein proposed by the German Martin Luther and his 99 theses protesting (hence the origin of the name) what he called out as the failings of the catholic church, Henry the VIII took up this new religion with open arms simply because it allowed him to divorce his first (and subsequent) wives, starting with Catherine of Aragon.

However, in doing so, the English divorced themselves from the Vatican and the Catholic world. This era became known as the Reformation, an event that would define the Tudor legacy. Each monarch handled the Reformation differently. Edward was very strict, Mary tried to bring back Catholicism, and Elizabeth sorted a compromise.

The economy of the 1400s and early 1500s was still somewhat recovering from the Black Death, meaning there was an abundance of property available. Lordlings of all kinds were making a grab for new lands, enclosing once-open village lands, and expanding their fortunes. This didn’t last forever, but it did change the makeup of rural England.

Monasteries were disillusioned and replaced with new Anglican churches.

The Age of Discovery

This is possibly the most controversial time in English – and European – history. For centuries – millennia – the trade routes to the rich eastern countries had been overland. But that arrangement wasn’t great for the countries at the western edge of Europe. Everyone knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. An Italian chap called Christopher Columbus convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that he could find a sea route to India and if he headed out westwards. Most thought he was crazy – and perhaps he was, as he did indeed find land (the Caribbean) but spent the rest of his life insisting that it was India.

The discovery of this new land meant that any European power with access to a navy headed off to seek their fortune. Spain and Portugal headed southwest, England and France headed northwest. Later, the Portuguese Vasco di Gama headed south from Europe and explored the whole coast of Africa, finding not only new sea routes east, but also plenty of new lands, waiting to be plucked.

England, like most of Europe, saw this as a great opportunity. Further explorations were made, and a new colony was established in what is now Virginia and later all along the American seaboard. New trading routes were established, new towns and colonies founded, and new westward explorations were made. It really was a whole new world (that is, until the American Revolution happened and the new country was formed). The Age of Discovery welcomed in a new and modern era that was to set the wheels in motion for the modern country of England.

English Civil Wars

A series of wars in the 17th century took place, arguing not just who should rule, but also how the leader should rule. Followers of the Parliamentarian camp argued and warred with those in the Royalist camp. Grappling for power, arguing over the concept of religious freedom, and nationalist identity. The outcome was that the monarch, Charles, was executed (this was the first time this had ever happened), and instead, the ruthless Oliver Cromwell took over rule of “the British Isles” (meaning quelling rebellions in Ireland and Scotland) from 1653.

The Industrial Revolution

From the mid-1700s, England, like much of Europe, saw a great change. Later called the Industrial Revolution, this era marked the beginning of the use of machines. Steam-powered and water-powered engines, and machine and chemical manufacturing, largely propped up by burning coal. While this might not have been a great time to be part of the working class, the 1700s and 1800s was the first time that one could become a self-made man in England.

The industrial age resulted in a massive boom in population and improvement in transport and communications. In the 1700s Thomas Telford built canals and roads and George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel oversaw the railway revolution in the 1800s. These all improved the speed of getting people and goods around the country.

Burning coal was a dirty business and the working conditions in the factories were pretty abysmal, but the potential brought about by industrialisation was quickly propelling England into a new age.

One of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great Industrial Age suspension bridges.

Victorian England

Coinciding more or less with the long reign of Queen Victoria from 1850-1901, the Victorian era was certainly a fascinating time in English history. This was an era of enlightenment and entertainment. One of scientific advancement, general curiosity, and a furious expansion of British literature.

Published literature and texts increased dramatically during this time, by both male and female authors – some like Jane Austen and the Brontës are synonymous with the early 19th century, though it is Charles Dickens who encapsulated the Victorian Age. Of course, not everyone had it good – the working classes lived in cramped tenement homes and the living conditions were very poor – read nearly any Dickens novel for a window into this era.

The Victorians had a certain habit of “borrowing” artefacts from colonies all over the world to decorate their sitting rooms and impress their guests (it was not unheard of to spot Egyptian mummies, Polynesian masks or taxidermic exotic animals in upper class homes). Thus the Victorian collectors were born – often the basis for many of today’s small museums.

Victorian England attained a level of comfort and elegance allowing the English to spend more time to ask questions, reflect on life, wonder and theorise about how other people lived, invent new wonders, conduct science experiments, collate artefacts, and think outside the norm.

The glasshouses of Kew Gardens is one of the Victorian Era’s greatest structures.

This is the era of the great World Fairs, of the massive Crystal Palace, of beautiful glasshouses like Kew Gardens which housed rare plants from far-flung corners of the globe, unique architecture, and new inventions. This is the period when things like electricity, cameras, bicycles, film and cinemas, telephones, and even modern automobiles were invented. Upper and middle-class homes suddenly had electric lighting, telephone wires, gramophones, flushing toilets and running water. Life was a little bit easier, allowing the upper echelons Victorians more time to read, wonder, travel, write and debate.

20th Century

France against Germany and Austria (and now Italy), together making up the Axis powers. This time, it was even more gruelling – mud, trenches, the horrors of the camps in Germany, the horrors of occupation in France, the horrors of the London Blitz.

But on the positive side, this was the first time that women were collectively and systematically given power, control and authority – and they wholeheartedly proved that women can do the same as men. Even though when the men returned and demanded their jobs back, this realisation fuelled women’s rights movements.

The second half of the 20th century has seen the rise of the Age of Information and globalisation. England, like most other countries, had joined the world stage. Information could be shared and found instantaneously, and the world grew that bit smaller. The next big thing in English – and British – history is Brexit. But that’s a story for next time.

England's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

England has a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, encompassing ancient and modern history, the great outdoors as well as human ingenuity. Check out a couple of notable sites below.

The Lake District

This magnificent wild region of the Lake District has long been celebrated for its historic, pastoral and natural beauty and has inspired countless Romantic poets and writers.

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Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall and its accompanying milecastles, turrets and forts, is an impressive imprint of Roman Britain and life at the frontier of one of the greatest empires in history.

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City of Bath

The lovely Georgian city of Bath is both beautiful as well as historic. It is the gateway to the Cotswolds and home to a number of Roman ruins, particularly the fantastic bathhouse.

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Stonehenge & Avebury

Credit Stephen Spraggon

These sites, as well as the many associated Neolithic sites, are an amazing record of early civilisations in England. The Neolithic peoples settled down and began to farm, instigating a major building impetus like never before seen.

Fountains Abbey

This massive and beautiful building was part of a wave of cathedral building – the first era since Neolithic times in which left its mark in stone. Fountains is among the largest and best-preserved of England’s Cistercian monasteries.

Dorset and Devon Coast

Credit Ben Selway

This is one of England’s notable outdoor spaces. This coastline, sometimes called the Jurassic Coast, is both stunning and a significant record of life here on land and in the sea since 185 million years ago.

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