Hear the captivating stories behind some of London’s most intriguing sights – from Stonehenge, Highgate Cemetery, and the Belvoir Castle to Houses of Parliament, Changing the Guard, and Buckingham Palace. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on an England Vacation.
Stonehenge: Built in several stages starting around 3,000 BC, Stonehenge remains one of humankind’s biggest mysteries. While science is still trying to determine the purpose behind this famous prehistoric monument, it is generally assumed to be some sort of astronomical observatory that reflects the changing trajectory of the sun through the sky and the seasons.
London's Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery: Highgate is an absolute must for anyone interested in London’s history. Over 166,000 people are buried in its 37 spooky acres of mossy graves and ancient headstones that have been the setting for many horror movies over the years. Some of Highgate’s most famous permanent residents include writers George Eliot (Mary Anne Cross) and Karl Marx, and scientist Michael Faraday. There are also stories about a vampire who is said to have stalked the grounds of the cemetery.
Tower of London
Tower of London: Since its founding in the 11th century, the Tower of London has served many roles: impregnable fortress, royal residence, armory, treasury, home of the famed Crown Jewels, and a prison for those who offended the monarchy. To this day it is guarded by the "Beefeaters," a name that likely originates from when Tower guards were paid part of their salary with chunks of beef, a practice that continued until the 1800s.
Belvoir Castle: The Belvoir Castle has a strong history in the United Kingdom and dates back to Norman times (1066-1247). After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror gave a grant of land in Leicestershire to his standard bearer, Robert de Todeni. Todeni, in 1085, used the grant to build a castle atop a hill and called it Belvoir – “beautiful view.” The English, who couldn’t latch onto the building’s French pronunciation, called it Beaver Castle and do so to this day – a truth that would surely horrify Todeni.
Another fact that might surprise Todeni is the “15-minutes of fame” Belvoir Castle has experienced in Hollywood. Helicopters buzzing around the castle in 2005 probably had locals wondering what was happening on this historic hill, but staff were sworn to secrecy until May 17, 2006 – the day The Da Vinci Code movie was released worldwide. The movie shoot at this infamous castle involved a week of exterior filming and a lot of hustle and bustle … all for a brief shot of the landmark in the movie. Producers chose Belvoir Castle because it fit the description of Castel Gandolfo in the best-selling book.
A modern star even before this blockbuster movie, Belvoir Castle has also been featured in popular TV programs and other films including Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Haunting, as well as a Jim Henson production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Soon, the castle will be seen in another secret film project or two.
The Duke of Rutland resides in the famous Belvoir Castle (his royal ancestors have inhabited the castle since 1509) with his wife and five children and feels he’s a trustee to pass the estate on to succeeding generations.
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament: The Houses of Parliament, more widely known as Westminster Palace, is the preeminent symbol of London with its famous clock tower and “Big Ben” bell. Originally erected a thousand years ago, its primary function was as a royal residence. Today, Westminster Palace serves several roles, including acting as the location where the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and House of Commons meet to conduct business. Business, in this building, has taken place under the best and worst circumstances imaginable. For instance, in World War I, as Members of Parliament were meeting, the first zeppelin raid on London took place. The Members interrupted their discussion to run outside to watch the raid. Upon returning inside, in true understated English-style, the hall was greeted by the never-to-be-uttered-again words, “As I was saying, Mr. Speaker, when our debate was interrupted by the zeppelin raid …”
Changing the Guard
Changing the Guard: Dates to Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509) and was designed to show military discipline as well as ceremony. The tall bearskin hats were introduced in the 18th century to make the soldiers look taller and thus more frightening, and they were adopted for ceremonial use in 1832.
The ceremony we know today started in the late 1800s and involves real soldiers who fulfill all military duties, guarding the Queen being just part of their service. A mix of traditional and popular music has always been part of the ceremony, but not always loved by all. Supposedly in 1920 when the band played a piece from an operetta popular at the time, George V sent a footman with a note to the musical director saying he didn’t know what that last song was that they played, but it was never to be played again! This may be more lore than truth, because the King took ceremony seriously and may not have interrupted the proceedings for such a message, but such tales reveal how cherished the ceremony has been through the decades, and still is today.
Buckingham Palace: Amid the splendor of modern cities it’s hard to imagine what places looked like before they became what we know today. In a previous incarnation, the ground where Buckingham Palace now stands was a mulberry garden cultivated by King James I as food for silkworms. The silk industry he hoped to nurture never materialized, and eventually a roadhouse was built there, followed in due course by the Blake House, Goring House and Arlington House.
Originally known as the Buckingham House, built as a townhouse by the Duke of Buckingham in 1709, the estate was acquired by King George III in 1762. After a great deal of growth and expansion transforming a “House” into a “Palace,” the Buckingham estate was first embraced by Queen Victoria, who moved in three weeks after her accession to the throne in 1837, marking the first sovereign to take up residence there. Buckingham Palace has served as the royal residence ever since.