We look after over 400 historic places, and remarkably, 250 of those are free to visit. From remote stone circles to ruined abbeys, and Norman castles to Roman temples, you can explore thousands of years of history for absolutely nothing.
We’ve picked 7 top sites around the country and a selection of free places to visit afterwards for a history-packed day out that won’t break the bank.
So you’re going to Stonehenge…
Stonehenge, the world’s most famous stone circle, is a truly iconic landmark. You can also explore the Neolithic houses outside the visitor centre and see the reconstructed face of one of our ancestors, but when you’re finished some brilliant free sites are just a stone’s throw away.
- The Neolithic Woodhenge is just over three miles from Stonehenge. Built around 2300BC, we know that six concentric rings of timber pillars once stood here, but no one is quite sure why. The timber posts may have supported a building, or they may have been painted and carved like totem poles. Today the holes where the timber would have been are marked with concrete blocks, but you can still get a sense of the size and atmosphere of this mysterious place.
- Slightly further afield, kids will love exploring the ruins of Ludgershall Castle, which was once one of Henry III’s favourite castles – he visited at least 21 times. The remains of a medieval cross stand in the nearby town, which has shops and places to eat.
- Bratton Camp and White Horse is half an hour away from Stonehenge. It’s an Iron Age hillfort with a 17th century white horse. With great views over the Wiltshire countryside and plenty of space to run around, it’s a perfect place for a picnic or a spot of kite flying.
Planning a visit to Dover Castle?
Intriguing and important moments in English history from the Roman period right up to the Cold War have left their mark on Dover Castle. It’s a fascinating site to visit, and these free sites nearby will make excellent additions to your trip.
- During the Napoleonic Wars it was felt that the Dover’s defences needed updating, so the Western Heights were built on the other side of the harbour to the castle. This vast fortress can be seen from the outside at any time, but for a closer look, the Western Heights Preservation Society runs open days and tours of the site throughout the year.
- The foundations of the tiny Knights Templar Church are very close to the Western Heights – in fact, they were discovered during the construction of the fortress.
- The Knights Hospitaller had links to the hall of St John’s Commandery. It’s a 15 minute drive inland from Dover. You can see it from the outside at any time, but you’ll need to call ahead to get inside the hall to see its impressive timber beam ceiling.
When you’re near Wrest Park…
The beautiful gardens and woodlands at Wrest Park showcase three centuries of garden design influenced by French, Dutch, Italian and English styles. There are activity packs and audio trails for families as well as a play area by the cafe. Here’s what’s nearby:
- Wrest Park was home to the De Grey family, and for three centuries they chose to be buried in a mausoleum attached to a nearby parish church. Many of them are commemorated with remarkable life-like statues. It opens on the first Sunday afternoon of the month between April and September.
- Houghton House (a 15 minute drive from Wrest Park) was once an impressive hunting lodge but it fell into disuse and was gutted in the late 18th century. It enjoyed a second lease of life as the focal point of parkland designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. After you’ve explored the ruins of the house you can take in the wonderful views of the surrounding estate.
Heading to Housesteads?
Hadrian’s Wall stretches 73 miles from coast to coast, and as the biggest Roman fort in Britain, Housesteads is one of its highlights. It’s a great jumping off point for exploring other parts of the Wall on the Housesteads Roman Trail:
- Winshields Wall to the west is the highest point of Hadrian’s Wall, and although you can only access it on foot, the views from the top are well worth the walk – either from Housesteads or the car park in Once Brewed.
- Sewingshields Wall is another fine stretch of Wall with commanding views that can be reached on foot from Housesteads. There’s a milecastle in this section of wall and prehistoric earthworks in the surrounding countryside.
- Cawfields is a more easily accessible section of Wall. Set on a dramatic steep slope, it has turrets, a milecastle and a car park nearby.
- The remains of a Temple of Mithras is well worth visiting too, though it’s a little further away. Mithras was a god favoured by the military, and it was probably built by soldiers based at Carrawburgh fort in about 200 AD.
Delve deeper into the area around Bolsolver Castle
Designed with revelry in mind, Derbyshire’s Bolsover Castle offers visitors displays of Cavalier horsemanship, lavish interiors and Romantic ruins.
- A short hop across a valley from Bolsover Castle is the cottage-like Cundy House, which supplied water to the castle until the 1920s. By peeking through the door grille you can see the restored roof and the brick water tank, still collecting water to this day.
- Sutton Scarsdale Hall is a ten minute drive away from Bolsover. Today only the shell of this Georgian mansion remains. Due to a major conservation project you can’t get inside it at the moment, but the exterior is still impressive. The house has been roofless since 1919, when some of its interiors were dismantled and taken to America. You can still see three of them today, but you’ll need a transatlantic flight – they’re on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- A 30 minute drive into the Peak District will take you to Hob Hurst’s House, a square prehistoric burial mound surrounded by earthworks. You’ll need to walk uphill for a mile from the road to reach it. ‘Hob’ is a local word for a sprite or a goblin. Although we aren’t sure exactly why it or when it was built, we can probably rule out ‘goblin house’.
- The Peak District is also home to two other prehistoric sites, Nine Ladies Stone Circle and Arbor Low Stone Circle and Gib Hill Barrow.
Explore around Portchester Castle
Commanding fantastic views out towards the Solent, Porchester Castle has been an important part of the defences of the south coast since Roman times and became a royal residence in the medieval period.
- The remains of Titchfield Abbey are impressive. After the Suppression of the Monasteries it was converted into a grand country house but you can still see some of the medieval remains. Look out for the elaborate chimneys.
- Netley Abbey is the most complete surviving Cistercian abbey in southern England. John Constable once came to paint here, and it’s rumoured to have inspired Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s been a popular place to visit since at least the 1840s, when some visitors complained that the abbey’s atmosphere was being spoilt by ‘the popping of ginger beer’!
- Bishop’s Waltham Palace was once the grand home of the wealthy Bishops of Winchester. A three storey tower still stands, as do the palace’s high walls and some of the windows of its great hall.
Stay a little longer around Stokesay Castle
The land along the border between Wales and England is dotted with castles like Stokesay, built to assert the power of their owners and to protect them from Welsh raiders and invaders. After you’ve visited this unique fortified manor house, discover the free sites close to Stokesay Castle, including:
- Clun Castle was founded in the late 11th century, and its picturesque ruins stand on a rocky outcrop at the side of a river.
- Wigmore Castle dates to 1067. It was the main stronghold of the Mortimer family, who controlled large parts of central Wales. Roger Mortimer is famous for working with his lover, Queen Isabella, to dethrone and murder Edward II. He hosted Edward’s son, Edward III, at a lavish tournament at Wigmore in 1329, but was executed for treason in 1330.
- We’d also recommend a visit to the Bronze Age Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle. Set in dramatic moorland, it’s the subject of an intriguing legend about a magic cow.
p.s… Without your support, free sites won’t last
As a charity, English Heritage relies on your support. We couldn’t keep our free sites open and protected without the help from our members and visitors to paid-for sites.
Find out more about the work we do as a charity and the benefits of becoming a member here.[ssba]
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