1,000 Places to See Before You Die – A Book Review From an England Perspective

I must admit to kicking off my reading of the newest edition of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz with a slightly negative attitude. “Chatsworth House, hmm? Blenheim is much better.” And then five or six pages later, there’s Blenheim – this author’s reading my mind! A bit later I’m thinking “Chester is fine and it’s got half-timber I suppose but Ludlow is so much nicer.” A few pages later, there’s Ludlow…

That soon endeared this book to me. So did the fact that Cambridge is the very first entry in the book. Not Harvard, not Yale, not Nalanda or Al-Aqsa or Bologna and particularly not Oxford. They got that right (what do you mean, I’m biased?). Though it’s a pity that the side-trip to Ely isn’t mentioned. The sight of Ely cathedral’s lantern soaring above the Fens is one of the greatest expressions of English landscape and architecture.

Author Patricia Schultz would be terrible in one of those interviews so beloved by the newspapers where celebs have to choose – “Britney or Madonna?” “Tea or coffee?” She had included in her book Exmoor and Dartmoor, Bath and Wells, Salisbury and Winchester, Leeds Castle and Sissinghurst Borcay hotels.

Any gaps? Well, I get a feeling that lowland England has been missed out. I would have to say that the great expanses of the South Downs and the chalk of the Ridgeway are among the greatest landscapes of the world, and they aren’t included – but the Cotswolds are. Nothing in East Anglia is mentioned, which is a pity since this region has some of the loveliest villages: Finchingfield, Kersey, Lavenham and Framlingham – though the latter pair are small towns really. And just once, I think she’s really missed a trick; Stonehenge is here, but not Avebury, an equally fascinating monument and without the nasty visitor centre and fences. No Durham cathedral! Now that is really a shame; again, similar to visiting Ely, seeing that first view of Durham’s great church and castle on top of their ridge above the Wear is one of the great English landscape experiences.

Regrettably, Britain’s industrial heritage does poorly as well; no canals, no Ironbridge Gorge museum, no Clifton Suspension Bridge. Finally, there is an omission that’s just plain wrong in my view: no mention of my favourite town in England – Norwich!

The hotel recommendations on the other hand are surprisingly good – where the book does make them (it doesn’t always); they’ve usually been picked with an eye to giving extra depth to the travel experience. For instance in Wells, the Swan Hotel, a former coaching inn, complements a visit to the cathedral and the Vicars’ Close with its traditional feel – you almost feel like you’re travelling back in time.

If you’re visiting Hadrian’s Wall, the Langley Castle Hotel is the recommendation – a slice of the Borders’ troubled history, built under Edward III to keep back marauding Scots and a truly spectacular piece of architecture. Meanwhile the Burgh Island Hotel off the Devon Coast, offers Jazz Age nostalgia – it’s a super Art Deco hotel and has entertained guests including Agatha Christie, Wallis Simpson, Edward VIII, and Noel Coward (though in the latter case it might be truer to say that Mr Coward entertained the hotel).

Overall, I think the book is an 8.5 out of 10. Not quite 100% up there but still informative enough to be a highly recommended travel book. Of course, that’s just for the coverage of England and London in particular – but I’ve had a look through the rest and this is a well-researched, sensible and enlightening book, which I didn’t necessarily expect judging by the title.

Our personal tastes are all different. I like fens, deserts, canyons, architecture and hiking. You might like tropical jungles, beaches, nightlife and snowboarding. So it’s inevitably difficult to come up with 1,000 places to suit everyone. In fact, this book does a pretty good job.

And reading it has been a pleasure; sitting by the fire, with the lamps on while it’s raining outside and letting my mind wander across the deserts of Rajasthan and the beaches of Barbados, or fabricating an artificial shiver while I read about the Sapporo Snow Festival.

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