In the Footsteps of Greatness: Why England is On Our List for 2019
England is the kind of place where any given coffee run (ahem, tea run) could take you past a palace, cathedral or war room of enormous global import. But even by those standards, being here will feel extra-epic throughout 2019. In this year of big anniversaries, which range from Queen Victoria’s would-be 200th birthday to the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road and the Beatles’ last performance, commemorative ops abound.
Read on to find the character (or characters) who intrigue you most, then plan to celebrate like it’s 1969, 1819 or some other pivotal moment in time.
But first, a quick note: While you could still travel to England by ocean liner for peak Victorian vibes, you'll have a decidedly 2019 advantage over travelers of yore (whichever of these trips you choose). This year will see more direct flights than ever from the U.S. to the UK, with new options from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Charleston, S.C., among others.
So hop on board—and across the pond—quite possibly for less than flying across the U.S. Bonus: An uncommonly strong dollar will help you save once you get there.
If you want to follow in Queen Victoria's footsteps...
Not for nothing has PBS dedicated its golden time slot (the one formerly occupied by Downton Abbey) to Queen Victoria. Born 200 years ago (May 24th will mark the official bicentennial birthday), she led the British Empire to its greatest size and power. And as the second-longest reigning monarch in English history—surpassed only recently by Queen Elizabeth II—she left an amazing and wide-ranging legacy: The Victorian Age saw everything from the creation of London’s Underground to the invention of tennis (followed by the first Wimbledon matches in 1877).
In honor of her birthday, fuel up on chocolate sponge cake. The recipe created for her majesty is still the royals’ birthday treat of choice—and you'll find a lovely take at Fortnum & Mason, whose luxury food baskets Victoria used to send as gifts. Then head to Kensington Palace, the queen's birthplace and childhood home—and current official residence of her great-great-great grandchildren, princes William and Harry, and their families. (If you want to catch a glimpse of the newest member, you're probably in the wrong place: Harry, Meghan and Baby Sussex will be holed up in a secluded cottage on the grounds of Windsor Castle, where the pair was married.)
But back to Kensington: An onsite exhibition called Victoria: A Royal Childhood opens on the Queen’s birthdate (May 24). Among other amazing items you'll find in her old stomping grounds, where—according to the curators—"she escaped isolation and family feuding into a fantasy world of story writing, doll making and drawing"—is a never-before-displayed scrapbook created by her governess. A separate Kensington exhibition called Victoria: Woman and Crown will examine how carefully she crafted her image.
Don't miss a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose foundation stone was laid by Victoria herself. The must-see? Her sapphire and diamond coronet—a gift from her beloved husband Prince Albert—which will begin its run on permanent display here this year. Then move on to Buckingham Palace, where the annual Summer Opening of the State Rooms will have a queen’s birthday theme (Victoria was the first monarch to reside here).
Then—if you're among the legions of Victoria fans (or even if you have yet to see the show)—head to the stunning and storied filming locations of Yorkshire. The sumptuous interiors of 250-year-old Harewood House serve as a proxy Buckingham Palace (false walls were erected to conceal modern pipes, among other dead giveaways). The place even has a personal connection to the Queen herself: she visited as a teenager in 1835 and dined in the elegant gallery. The baroque Castle Howard in North Yorkshire serves as Kensington Palace's onscreen stand-in, with scenes filmed in the Castle Howard Bedroom, the Museum Room, and the Long Gallery. The real-life queen also stayed in the 145-room home (where she actually got lost) in August 1850. To explore the 1,000-acre grounds, book through Real Yorkshire Tours. Beyond the castle walls—and the countless stories they contain—you'll see why the surrounding Howardian Hills were deemed an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Yes, that's an actual government designation, and no exaggeration in this lush forested countryside.
While you're in the neighborhood (or even en route to or from London), make your way to Manchester, where Victoria was the first monarch to visit in 150 years. In Peel Park, one of the earliest ever statues of her (unveiled by Prince Albert himself) commemorates her visit, when some 80,000 children sang and cheered. Fun fact: The Manchester Royal Exchange—once the center of the city’s cotton industry—is so named because Victoria was received there, and you'll still find the large sculpted royal coat of arms that was added to the exterior for the occasion.
If you want to follow in the Beatles' footsteps...
This year is an important one in Beatledom, with twin 50th anniversaries. The Fab Four recorded their last album together—the iconic Abbey Road—and gave their final concert (an impromptu winter rooftop gig at their Apple Corps headquarters) in 1969. Fun fact: The group was so unprepared for the frigid rooftop conditions that both John and Ringo wound up performing in their wives' outerwear (Yoko's fur and Maureen’s red raincoat) atop 3 Savile Row. The site of the Beatles’ last stand is now, to the disappointment of fans, an Abercrombie kids' store, but there is some good memorabilia there (beyond the Beatles tees the chain sells everywhere). Check out the glass cases for photos and a McCartney-signed guitar. Then move on to Abbey Road, where you can wave to a webcam from "the world’s most famous crossing," then post the resulting footage to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for a flood of social media love. Just ahead of the crossing is the studio, labeled Abbey House, where the Fab Four recorded 90 percent of their songs, not least, "Here Comes the Sun" and "Come Together"—both on the Abbey Road album.
No Fab Four trip is complete without a trip to the group’s birthplace of Liverpool, where you can stroll not only Penny Lane but Strawberry Field—the latter opening to the public for the first time as of this summer. (Your entrance fee, which covers everything from a new John Lennon-themed exhibition to a roam around the iconic grounds, supports young locals with learning disabilities.) For a more extensive sojourn, try the two-hour Magical Mystery Tour offered by the Cavern, which gets you free admission to the club where the Beatles played 292 times. Or set out on your own: John and Paul’s childhood homes, at 20 Forthlin Road and Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, respectively, are now run by the National Trust and open for guided tours. Not far from Mendips is St. Peter's Church, where Paul first met John, whose band, The Quarrymen, was the entertainment at a church garden fete. On Hope Street, stop in for a pint at the ornate and beloved Philharmonic Dining Rooms, affectionately known (at least by John) as “the Phil." Fun fact: The striking tile-and-marble men’s bathroom is designated “Grade I-listed” for its architectural significance, and yes, the pub will escort the ladies in to take a look.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liverpool is a UNESCO City of Music—so designated for not only the Beatles connection, but for "the sheer breadth of a diverse scope of festivals: Liverpool International Music Festival, Liverpool Sound City, Africa Oye and Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia are all flagship events." Interestingly, the city is also UNESCO World Heritage-designated for its maritime and mercantile history—and the global music scene you'll find today is largely attributed to the centuries' worth of trade happening through the historic ports.
For extra Beatles credit, hit Chester, one of the England Originals Cities (founded as a Roman fort almost 2000 years ago)—so close to Liverpool that John got there in time for a gig at The Riverpark Ballroom right after he married his first wife, Cynthia. Growing up, John and his half-sister Julia would head to Chester to shop, so—to throw way back in that spirit—hit the Chester Rows, iconic galleried walkways, with buildings that date to the 13th century. Then walk the banks of the River Dee, where there was a 1960s-era cottage named Nowhere, said to be the inspiration for “Nowhere Man.”
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Keats...
Calling all Romantics: In the grand tradition of John Keats (who walked daily in his hometown of Winchester and went on a storied, extended trek through the Lake District, among other places ) and William Wordsworth (who “wandered lonely as a cloud” in the Lake District as well), go take a hike! And though you hardly need an occasion to embark on one of the most famous of Romantic traditions, you have one anyway: the 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which led to the protection of so many drop-dead gorgeous options here.
The first one to be protected, the challenging 260-mile Pennine Way, is one of England’s Great Walking Trails, known for wild moorland, peaty bogs, glaciated chasms and fields of wildflowers. For a less strenuous but equally stunning option, pack yourself some cheese and fresh country bread (Wordsworth’s favorite) and take on some of the 84-mile, UNESCO World Heritage-designated Hadrian’s Wall Path. Created almost 1900 years ago on the orders of the eponymous emperor at the northern edge of the Roman province of Britannia, this onetime defensive barrier now takes you past homey pubs, fabulous museums—and yes, Roman ruins.
The Vale of Grasmere was another Wordsworth favorite ( “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found,” in his words)—and it’s an easy six-mile walk from Rydal (where the poet lived for most of his life) to Grasmere. For a longer trek, take the five-hour train to Taunton, then head to Somerset, where in 1798 Wordsworth visited his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge and fell in love with the local scenery. See why on the four-mile Coleridge Nature Walk, then reward yourself with the “poet’s lunch” of cheese and a scone at Coleridge Cottage’s cozy tea room, still warmed by a wood-burning stove.
If you want to follow in Churchill's footsteps...
During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt spent more than two years debating how to liberate Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. The risky mission—planned with more than 125 million maps—began on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when some 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces made the largest coordinated amphibian landing in history.
You'll find many ways to commemorate the 75th anniversary in England, but start with the retelling of the D-Day story at the staggering Churchill War Rooms (one of a series of Imperial War Museums to mark the occasion this year). Then set out along England's Great West Way to Blenheim Palace, the 18th century country estate that was Churchill’s birthplace and his ancestral home. One of England’s largest houses, the palace now houses an exhibition with diary extracts and other previously unseen Churchill memorabilia, plus a new memorial garden.
Continue along the Great West Way to the University of Bristol, where Churchill, who didn’t have a university degree, was the longest-standing Chancellor (1929 to 1965), a post he managed to hold while leading his country during World War II. Clifton College, a prep school in the Bristol suburbs, was home to the U.S. Army under General Omar Bradley at the time of the Landings, and Bradley supervised much of the planning for Operation Overlord, as D-Day was code-named, in the school’s Council Room. While the school isn’t open to visitors, on July 4 and D-Day, the flagpole outside will display a rare artifact: a 48-star American flag, a gift from General Eisenhower in 1953.
You can continue to explore D-Day history—among other U.S. Connections—if you head a few hours south to Cornwall, the embarkation point for the Normandy landings. Mount Edgcumbe House and Country Park commemorate the U.S. troops who were stationed here, and the UNESCO World Heritage-designated mining sites commemorate the profession of the thousands of locals who emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries.
On a lighter note (literally, you'll find lighters), head to Churchill's favorite cigar purveyor before you head home from London: James J. Fox on St. James Street. Even if you don't want to pick up a Romeo y Julieta (his famously preferred brand) just pop in to check out the Churchill memorabilia.