Are you someone who loves to mix history with fresh air, and maybe even a little hiking? You’ve come to the right place.
Some of the best heritage sites across the UK are outdoors. Ruins of culturally significant buildings of yesteryear, castles that housed the gentry of their time, or random rocks arranged mysteriously?
That’s what we’re talking about!
The islands of Britain and Ireland have an incredibly well-preserved history that goes back hundreds and thousands of years. And, lucky for us, a lot of monuments of the past are still available for us to see now. So, get your rain jacket on – it is the UK after all – and take a look at some of the most extraordinary open-air heritage sites on our home islands.!
Open Air Heritage in Scotland
Found across the Central Belt of Scotland, the Antonine Wall – also known as Vallum Antonini – was a fortification built in 142 CE that marked the northernmost border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Its purpose was to replace the older Hadrian’s Wall located further South, but pressure from the Caledonians (the people who lived in what is now Scotland), meant that this wall was built, occupied, and abandoned all within 20 years!
It was mainly built of turf and wood on stone foundations, so the ruins are less evident than that of Hadrian’s Wall. However, there are still ditches and hillsides which show the prominence of the once-great wall, so definitely worth a visit.
Made up of four sites, this World Heritage Site includes Northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village. Found on the mainland of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, the sites are:
- Maeshowe – from the outside it looks like a small hill, but when you look closer it’s actually a passage grave with a chambered cairn. Incredibly, the central chamber is illuminated during the Winter Solstice.
- Standing Stones of Stenness – megaliths that were once a henge.
- Ring of Bordgar – a stone circle estimated to have taken 80,000 man-hours to create!
- Skara Brae – eight houses that preserve neolithic life and are one of Scotland’s best preserved examples of prehistory in situ.
This is Britain’s first-ever open-air museum that lets you experience time travel and see what life was like in the Highlands from the 1700s all the way through to the 1950s. With a total of 32 buildings on the site to explore, you can get a real insight into just how ancient Highlanders lived. There are even sites that are thought to have been workplaces and schools.
Located in Newtonmore, a trip here is not one to be missed!
Open Air Heritage in Northern Ireland
Ever wanted to walk upon a causeway built by a giant? You’ll never guess what you’ll find in County Antrim. According to legend, a very famous giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill built a pathway all the way across the North Channel to Scotland to meet and fight a Scottish giant named Benandonner. There are various ways in which the story ends, but all share one thing – the causeway was destroyed in the aftermath, leaving only that found in Northern Ireland.
Looking for a more scientific explanation for this natural phenomenon? The 40,000 interlocking hexagonal columns are the result of a volcanic fissure eruption in which the lava solidified slowly. Whichever version of events you’d like to believe, one thing is for sure – the area is stunning and the columns are incredible.
If giants aren’t your thing, how do you fancy visiting the home of an ancient goddess? Emain Macha was the goddess of war and fertility, and Navan Fort (Navan being an anglicisation of An Eamhain) was one of the great royal sites in pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. In fact, it’s one of the most important archeological sites in the whole of Ireland.
Experience life 2000 years ago at this fascinating site, and learn all about the Iron Age of Ireland, while exploring a ceremonial site built for an ancient goddess!
Located in County Tyrone, these stone circles – all seven of them – were an occupied site from the Bronze Age. The circles are made up of 10 rows of stones and 12 cairns and give an amazing insight into life around 2900 BC.
Beaghmore is an anglicisation of the original Bheitheach Mhór which means ‘big place of birch trees’, and considering the woodlands that occupied the site before the archeology was discovered, you can see why.
One of the more exciting things to see here is the chisel marks found in the stones which resemble the oldest known Celtic writing, called Ogham, which was used for magic and divination. Want to learn more? Head on over.
Open Air Heritage in Wales
Looking for an enchanting spot in the middle of Wales that’s famous for its spiritual importance and has stood proud within the Cumbrian Mountains for thousands of years? Look no further than the Ystrad Fflur, which, translated to English is the Valley of Flowers, or in Latin the Strata Florida. Built in 1164, this is a former Cistercian monastery, and the remains are stunning. There are heritage walks a-plenty that will take you around the land and teach you all about the people that once called this place home.
Welsh for ‘bridge that connects’ the Pontcysyllte is a stunning example of aqueduct engineering.
It was completed in 1805 and has since received UNESCO World Heritage status, with the organisation calling it ‘a masterpiece of creative genius’. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will. It was built to assist with agriculture and trade deals between various surrounding cities, as well as with the two countries of Wales and England as a whole.
The ironworks of this Southern Welsh town along with the wider industrial landscape that surrounds it has been marked as a World Heritage Site due to its incredible importance and success in turning the tides within the ironworks world. It was here that the industrial revolution found its feet and dates back to 1789.
A visit here will show how the people who made that happen used to live, how they worked, and the places they went to school. It’s a window into the past of Wales’ crucial part in the industrial revolution. The town has been preserved and the ironworks have been made into a museum for maximum opportunity to mark this area as the world-first in the development of iron ores for work worldwide.
Open Air Heritage in England
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Stonehenge is famous across the world. The mystery surrounding these carefully placed rocks has gripped visitors and historians internationally since they were first discovered. Everything from where the stones came from, how they transported them, and what they mean have been debated, but what we do know is this: they are prehistoric.
Stonehenge consists of two circles (one within the other) of very large stones that seems to be aligned towards the sunrise on the Summer Solstice. Want to know more? The English Heritage site is full of information and exhibitions to teach you everything we currently know about this incredible monument.
Are you looking for history and entertainment all in one? In that case, the Minack Theatre might be the one for you. This open-air theatre was built in 1930 in the back garden of the home of Rowena Cade whose property she built on a rocky cliff face right by the sea. Wanting to help out her local theatre group, she allowed them to perform The Tempest on her land as she thought the backdrop of the sea would be perfect. After that, she spent years perfecting the theatre and it is still open for business today! It’s a stunning location and not to be missed.
Ever wanted to walk the entire width of the country and learn about Roman-Caledonian relations at the same time? Just take a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Built by the Romans as a defensive fortification against the Celts, large parts of this stone wall can still be seen today. It was built 1900 years ago and is an impressive 73 miles long with many of the forts and towers still remaining to this day. The views are amazing and the history is fascinating as it stands as the largest Roman archeological feature in Britain.
Go Forth and Visit the History of the UK!
The UK is well-known to be a hub of history and legend, but sometimes you have to see it to believe it. These heritage sites each give amazing insight into the countries as they were in the years past, while also offering incredible views and outdoor adventures.
Let us know where you go and which ones you loved most!
About the author
Having worked across the heritage and tourism sector for over 10 years, Monty Beaumont is an expert when it comes to discovering new places to visit and great days out for the whole family.
He has previously worked for the National Trust as a General Manager in Cornwall, coordinated the complex operations of running a castle in Devon and the mastered the intricacies of providing exceptional hospitality and service at some of the finest historic houses in the UK.
As part of his vision and drive for Monty’s Guide, Monty travels across the country to find new places to visit and explore, and sharing his finding on montysguide.com, which is used by 1,000s of people each week to find their next great day out.
His experience and knowledge of the historic and cultural sector gives him a unique insight into the elements that make tourism and learning so important in our quest to understanding more about our heritage.