A journey of discovery

Soaking up viticulture with the Spanish Thyme Traveller

Soaking up viticulture with the Spanish Thyme Traveller.

Brenda Watkinson explores some of the cultural and heritage tours available to groups looking to delve a little deeper into the history of the UK, mainland Europe and further afield. 

Over the past decade, there has been an increasing awareness and interest in the cultural and heritage of our world, creating a growing demand for special interest tours and holidays. Led by experienced guides, usually experts in a specific field, these tours provide an extra dimension for those groups interested in history, architecture, music, art, nature and more.



There are now 27 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom; 19 designated properties in England, four in Scotland, three in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. UNESCO preserves these places of special cultural significance and ensures they are protected. In London, UNESCO sites include the Tower of London, Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret’s Church, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Maritime Greenwich while, around the rest of the UK, others include the Edinburgh Old and New Towns, Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Castle and Cathedral, the Ironbridge Gorge and Stonehenge.

Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, where groups can learn about the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

Centrally located in Shropshire, the Ironbridge Gorge was one of the first UK sites to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986. Within the site, there are 10 museums that collectively tell the story of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. For 2013, a number of new private talks and tours are being introduced covering a range of topics. To discover the story of industry in Coalbrookdale and how a humble, cast-iron cooking pot kick started the Industrial Revolution, ‘The Pot that Changed the World’ includes a talk from the museum’s Senior Curator, tea and coffee and a tour of Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Meanwhile, at Coalport China Museum, ‘Coalport Around the World’ includes a talk from the museum’s ceramics specialist, tea and coffee, and admission to Coalport China Museum. A trip to Ironbridge is not complete without adding a visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town, a recreation of an East Shropshire mining town around 1900. For more ceramic-themed ideas in Europe, see ‘The continental ceramics’ below.

In South Wales, Blaenavon was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The perfect place to begin a visit is at the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre. It features exhibitions, film and multi-media displays that give visitors an insight into the significance of Blaenavon’s industrial landscape and introduces you to the many attractions of the area. These include Blaenavon Ironworks, built in 1789 and acknowledged as one of the best-preserved ironworks of its period in the world, and the Big Pit: National Coal Museum where groups can experience tours with real miners and venture 300 feet below ground. Blaenavon Heritage Town is the best preserved early iron town in Wales, with many important buildings of its heyday and a number of attractive shops including the Blaenafon Cheddar Company, makers of local cheeses, one of which is matured down the Big Pit. The recently opened Rhymney Brewery Visitor Centre, meanwhile, offers the chance to learn how real ale is crafted with a self-guided tour of the brewery. Train rides taking in views of the spectacular mountain top landscape can be experienced at the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway, and a series of walks around the landscape can be enjoyed. The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal passes through the site too, offering cruises on canal boats or walks along the towpath. The Tourist Information Centre, located in the Heritage Centre, can offer a range of guides and support services to help plan a group visit.

There are a number of English Heritage properties in the UK that are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites and offer pre-booked guided tours revealing little known facts, quirky behind-the-scenes stories and even historical scandal and speculation.

In the north of England, Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was built in the years AD 122 to 130 as a Roman frontier by order of the Emperor Hadrian. It was 73 miles long and ran from Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west. In Northumberland, set high on a dramatic escarpment of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site, Housesteads Roman Fort gives an insight into how life was for the 800 Roman soldiers based there. For groups, the guided tour ‘The Hidden History of Housesteads Roman Fort’ takes visitors back in time to 209 AD to imagine what life would have been like on this hilltop fortress for a Roman soldier. Vistors also learn how the soldiers lived in the communal barracks, how they were paid and even learn how to use a Roman loo!

English Heritage also looks after one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The organisation has just released a computer-generated image of the new facilities there, due to open later this year. It shows the new visitor centre, which will include exhibition galleries, a 114-cover café with both outdoor and indoor seating, and retail space. There will be a dedicated coach park with space for 30 vehicles and a drop-off bay in front of a coach reception building, where pre-printed tickets will be available for collection. At the visitor centre, group members will be able to board a transit service for the two-kilometre journey to the Stone Circle. During the construction phase, visits to Stonehenge will be unaffected although coaches will be re-routed from the spring with extra time needing to be allowed for this. Stone Circle out of hours access visits can be pre-booked and are a good way for groups to gain indepth knowledge on the attraction and get the best from a visit.

The National Trust offers a range of special interest tours too. In North Yorkshire, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 800 years of history. For groups of 15 or more, special interest tours available here cover subjects such as medieval history, architecture, monasteries, wildlife, wild flowers and veteran trees. Another tour which might appeal to your group is ‘White Monks and Wealthy Monasteries’ which reveals some fascinating facts about the ‘white’ monks who lived there and created one of the largest and wealthiest Cistercian monasteries of the Middle Ages.

New for 2013, in the south of England in Dorset, a special interest tour of the Trust’s Corfe Castle entitled ‘Lady Bankes – her story’ looks into the life of ‘Brave Dame Mary’ who coped with the death of her parents and husband, the care of 14 children and homelessness. As a Royalist, she defended the castle from a three-year siege during the English Civil War.

The World of Glass in St Helens, which features an entrance cone that is a replica of a traditional English Glasshouse.

In Lancashire, visitors to the World of Glass in St Helens can learn about the magic of glass and how it’s made as well as the rich cultural and social heritage of St Helens and its remarkable glass-making history. The town of St Helens became home to a thriving glass and chemical industry thanks largely to the abundance of winnable coal reserves, the quality of local sand, the near availability of Cheshire salt and the transport revolution – firstly the Sankey Canal and then the railways from 1830 onwards. By the late 18th century, glass making was booming. The British Cast Plate Glass Manufacturers opened in 1773 and William Pilkington founded his glassworks in the town in 1826. The World of Glass is located on an historic site, which incorporates a Grade II*-listed Victorian glassmaking furnace built by William Pilkington as well as housing the famous Pilkington Glass Collection and the St Helens Council Social and Industrial History Collection, while its spectacular entrance cone is a replica of a traditional English Glasshouse first built in 1615 and is constructed using traditional building materials and methods. As a tour destination, the World of Glass features a film show, a live glass-blowing exhibition in the Hot Glass Studio, a mirror maze and local history treasures. Allow time to visit the Artisan Shop selling glassware and gifts and also the Level One Art Gallery, which highlights the work of local artists. For groups of 13 or more, a number of inclusive packages are available including one with a guided tour, lunch in the Kaleidoscope café and tea or coffee on arrival.



For groups interested in spending a little longer and perhaps travelling further afield to explore the history and culture of another land, there are a number of specialist operators offering such tours.

The Rila Monastery in Bulgaria can be visited with Brightwater Holidays.

New for 2013, Brightwater Holidays of Fife is offering an eight-day tour entitled ‘Bulgarian Archaeology’. For decades after the Second World War, Bulgaria lay firmly behind the Iron Curtain and had little contact with the outside world, but in classical times it prospered through trade with the Near East and was richly endowed with fine cities and monuments. The tour includes a wide range of well-preserved archaeological sites, five of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the Rila Monastery, set high in the mountains, Boyana Church with its outstanding frescoes, the Horseman rock relief at Madara, the historic town of Nessebar, beautifully preserved with over 80 churches, and the Kazanluk Tomb, just one of a series of remarkable tombs to be found in the ‘Valley of the Thracian Kings’. The tour is led by archaeologist Clive Warsop of Edinburgh University and also accompanied by a local English speaking guide. Brightwater Holidays operates a no minimum number policy for groups and can tailor-make the package to meet each individual group’s needs.

The Gaziantep Mosaic Museum in Turkey is a highlight on a Jon Baines tour.

Another company travelling to many interesting and often unusual destinations, Jon Baines Tours of London explores facets of a country rarely experienced by other visitors. As well as scheduled tours, Jon Baines can also adapt an existing tour to fit a certain brief or create an entirely bespoke tour. Launched in 2012, ‘Ancient Anatolia – The Origins of Belief’ is a 13-day study tour travelling from Istanbul to Anatolia in Turkey, an area rich in ancient history and culture that also lays claim to being the cradle of belief. As well as visits to Istanbul and Diyarbakir with its ancient black city walls, the tour includes the Gobekli Tepe Temple in Northern Mesapotamia, which is more than 11,600 years old and considered the oldest place of worship ever discovered. The tour leader, Lavinia Byrne, a religious commentator and former nun, gives a series of specialist talks during the tour. Other Jon Baines tours include ‘Burma – The Road to Mandalay’, the ‘Frankincense Trail in Oman and Jordan’ and the ‘Trail of the Tea Horse – Yunnan and Tibet’.

A group enjoy the architecture of the Amalfi Coast in Italy with Peter Sommer Travels.

Also offering enlightening expert-led tours, Peter Sommer Travels of Monmouth specialises in inspirational trips of a lifetime. The company was established in 1996 by archaeologist Peter Sommer and offers a range of escorted history tours, archaeological adventures, walking holidays and food tours in Turkey, Greece and Italy. New for 2013, the 11-day ‘Alexander the Great Tour Part One’ archaeological tour retraces the footsteps of Alexander the Great across Asia Minor, the first leg of his extraordinary 22,000 mile journey from Greece to India and back to Babylon. The tour is escorted by Peter Sommer, who in 1994 walked 2,000 miles across Anatolia, from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, retracing Alexander the Great’s march in Turkey. Other tours include a ‘Gastronomic Tour of Sicily’ and ‘Exploring Crete: Archaeology, Nature and Food’ as well as many gullet (a type of sailing boat) cruising holidays.

Also new for 2013, small tour company the Spanish Thyme Traveller based in Valencia is launching a four-day tour entitled ‘The Mudejar Tour’. Famous for its Mudejar architecture, the tour visits Teruel, a wild and mountainous area with some of the most beautiful villages and scenery in Spain. The capital of the province of the same name, Teruel is a historical city packed with beautiful buildings. Another highlight of the tour is Albarracin (currently proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and its fascinating cave paintings. The Spanish Thyme Traveller is run by husband and wife team Patrick Weller and Julia Espin, who have lived and worked in the area for the last 20 years. Their passion is Spain and its lifestyle. They have travelled extensively throughout Spain, discovering hidden villages, regional food and all types of wine. This tour is ideal for people who want to learn about the region while they experience the culture, the people and the food, with tastings included. Groups can tailor-make tours on a date to suit.

Expert-led archaeological holidays and cultural tours to a range of destinations all over the world are provided by Andante Travels of Salisbury. Now in its 27th year, it is an established and well-respected archaeological tour operator founded and run by archaeologists. The company offers a wide range of tailor-made itineraries exploring many parts of the ancient world including Jordan, Egypt, prehistoric Morocco and Epirus and Macedonia. As well as holidays, Study Days are also offered throughout the UK. These are led by expert guides and focus on historic sites such as Roman villas in Sussex and rock art in Northumbria.

Specialising in cultural and heritage tourism, Ambient Tours of Nottinghamshire offers specific tour packages in the UK, Portugal and Malta as well as providing a personalised and tailor-made service to fully meet your group’s requirements. New for 2013, Ambient Tours has launched four themed UK tour packages entitled ‘On the Trail of the Tudors’. The Tudor period was one of the most influential in England’s long and turbulent history and each tour includes visits to places where key historical events took place during Tudor times such as Hampton Court Palace, Sudeley Castle, Ludlow Castle, Hardwick Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and Sherborne Castle. Options are ‘Tudor Monarchs’, ‘Influential Tudors’, ‘Poets & Playwrights’ and ‘Adventurers and Explorers’, all seven days in length.



For groups travelling to mainland Europe, there are a number of other heritage experiences worth exploring.

The atmospheric landscape of the Mackintosh Trail in southern France.

In 2012, a new Mackintosh Trail was launched in the Pyrenees Orientales in southern France. The famous Scottish architect, disillusioned with his work, moved to Port-Vendes on the Mediterranean coast in 1923 and spent his time painting watercolours until 1927, when he was diagnosed with cancer. More than 30 reproductions of Mackintosh’s landscape paintings have been placed on the route at the spots where they were created, from the Tech and Tet Valleys to the Cote Rocheuse and the mountain plateaus of the Cerdagne, providing a focus for discovering the stunning scenery of this area of France. The story of Mackintosh’s discovery of the local culture and heritage is told in three episodes at three interpretation centres at Palalda, Port Vendres and Villefranche de Confluent. The latter centre is the largest and it is housed in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Fort Liberia. There are two principal routes to follow, which include the main sites; Perpignan to Mont-Louis (80 kilometres) and Port Vendres to Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste (67 kilometres). It is hoped the initiative as a whole, which was inspired by the Scottish film producer Robin Crichton and the Association Charles Rennie Mackintosh in France, will attract about 50,000 visitors a year.

Also in France, groups keen to delve further into the Impressionists famous artistic movement should head across the Channel during 2013. The Paris Ile-de-France and Normandy Tourist Boards are promoting the region as ‘Destination Impressionism’ and will be offering themed tours and a host of exhibitions and festivals to celebrate the paintings of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Degas, Corot, Millet and Sisley. These Impressionist painters captured light in their paintings and revolutionised the art during the 19th century, many of them leaving their studios in Paris and heading into the countryside to Barbizon, the Foret de Fontainebleau and Honfleur. The second Festival of Normandy will take place from 27th April until 29th September and will include five large exhibitions and 300 cultural events. These include a major exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum in Rouen (27th April to 29th September), ‘Reflected colour, Impressionism and the water’s surface’, which will bring together a hundred paintings by Pissarro, Monet, Van Gogh, Manet, Renoir and Sisley, focusing on the theme of reflection on water.

Also in Paris, and exclusively for groups of 20 or more, the Montmartre Tourist Board is offering ‘Montmartre, an Impressionist Walk’, which includes places dear to Renoir as well as Pissarro, Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh and others.

Always popular with Monet enthusiasts is a visit to Giverny, home of the painter. Here, ‘In the Steps of Monet’ walking tours can be booked through the local tourist board to complement visits to Monet’s House and Gardens and the Musee des Impressionismes. A guided tour, ‘In the Footsteps of Van Gogh’, is also offered in Auvers-sur-Oise while ‘In Sisley’s Footsteps’ is available in Moret-sur-Loing.

Meanwhile, in both France and Belgium, a new cross-border initiative, Itinerarie de la Culture Industrielle (ICI), between Nord-Pas de Calais and Wallonia delves into the industrial heritage of the mining basin that stretches from Lens in France to Charleroi in Belgium and includes the towns of Douai, Valenciennes, Mons and La Louviere. It incorporates numerous projects including the restoration of industrial buildings and the creation of landscaped areas. A 300-page exploration book has been produced by ICI, incorporating five main themed routes and three bicycle routes along with 160 sites of interest, which include many UNESCO World Heritage sites. There are many additional options to choose from including a one-hour drive around Charleroi, which incorporates the open-air museum Ecomusee de la Batellerie.



Watching artistry in action at The Royal Delft Experience in Holland.

Trail Discovering the secrets of ceramic manufacture, and understanding how the raw ingredients of clay and water are transformed into beautiful objects, is intriguing. In Europe, there’s a wide choice of makers to visit from famous international brands such as Villeroy and Boch to relatively unknown studio potters, but every one has a distinct story to tell.

Delft in Holland is the place to learn about the ceramic technique of faience. Thirty-two potters were based in the town in the 17th century; today there are only a handful of producers but they include Royal Delft, which dates back to 1653. Still producing hand-painted wares in the traditional way, visitors to the company tour the factory and museum, and there’s also a showroom and shop. Such is the popularity of Delft that a new attraction, The Royal Delft Experience, combining an insight into production with a small museum, has just opened in Amsterdam.

The European race to make porcelain was won, meanwhile, by German manufacturer Meissen in 1708. Visitors to Meissen can learn about the history of porcelain, the company and its famous artists as well as see production processes in the workshop tour. Other on-site facilities include a cafe, restaurant and shop.

Nearby, Dresden has its own porcelain manufacturer and there’s a renowned ceramic collection in the town’s Zwinger Palace. The German ceramic trail extends throughout the Saxony region to Bürgel, near Jena, where blue and white ceramics are made, to Rudolstadt in Thuringia and to towns further afield.

As the knowledge of how to make porcelain spread in the 18th century, factories were founded in other European countries. Amongst the famous names that remain open to visitors today are Herend in Hungary, whilst France boasts Sèvres. In Sèvres, a Parisian suburb that’s been christened ‘citè de la céramique’, visitors can explore both the factory (which moved to its current position on the banks of the Seine from Vincennes in 1756), and the historic and contemporary exhibitions in the National Ceramics Museum.

Ceramic factories founded more recently welcome visitors too – in the mid 20th century, the Lladró brothers began to make figurines, a humble venture that quickly turned into a worldwide success. In 1969, the City of Porcelain in Valencia, Spain, became Lladró’s headquarters and factory base, and now more than 15,000 enthusiasts flock there every year to see how Lladró is designed and made.

Two Top Tips: 

Pre-booking essential

Special tours and English speaking guides usually available