10 tips to get the best out of your visit to a medieval site.

Abbey church, Rievaulx Abbey 5

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

I visit loads of medieval sites. Not only do I find them interesting in themselves, but they can also help me to set the scene when I’m writing my novels. I visited a small manor house in Dorset a couple of months ago and it’s become the house in which the heroine of my current work in progress learned how to manage a household. In another novel, a fortified manor house in the Midlands became the property my hero has to defend against a band of ruthless outlaws.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about visiting medieval sites and I thought I would share some of them with you.

1. Wear sturdy shoes

Most medieval buildings are ruins and the ground, stones and steps are uneven. Although climbing on walls is forbidden, you will probably have to walk over bits of wall in your tour of the site. You don’t want to turn your ankle in the middle of nowhere while you’re wandering around an abbey alone. Wear something that will provide a bit of support if you can. The paths are usually gravel and you will undoubtedly encounter grass, which might be wet.

2. Wrap up warm – even in summer

Castles tend to be on hills and abbeys are often in valleys. Since the sides of buildings will be missing and rooves are rare, you will be exposed to the elements during your visit. The weather in England can be changeable. It has rained almost every day this June and it’s mostly cold, but it’s very warm when the sun does make an appearance, so you need to have sunglasses and sunblock ready as well. I took the photograph below in mid-April wearing a thick woolly jumper, gloves and coat. If I’d had a hat with me. I’d have worn it as well. Three days earlier I was strolling around in bright sunshine without a coat.


Barnard Castle

3. Buy the guide book

Guide books are always useful. They usually have a map of the site and this will often use different colours to show when parts of the castle, abbey or house were built.  There is always something you didn’t know or couldn’t work out for yourself in the guide book, including the history of the site. They’re also helpful when it comes to labelling your photographs later.

4. Be prepared to walk and climb

Some medieval sites are quite large and you will walk quite a distance during your tour. If there’s a keep involved, you could be climbing several flights of stairs, some of them very narrow and uneven.  Supplies for Old Sherborne Castle used to be brought up these steps every day from boats, but I found them hard work.

Old Sherborne Castle

The Barbican, Old Sherborne Castle

At many castles you can walk around the outer perimeter and that might be a lengthy walk.

5. Look up.

Those in charge did most things on the first floor, which, in many buildings, hasn’t survived. You will still get some idea of how they lived if you remember to look up occasionally.

This view is labelled the Great Hall at Kenilworth Castle, but you’ll notice that the fireplace and the windows are halfway up the wall. What appear to be arches on the ground, are the remnants of vaults. The great hall was on top of them. Visitors and guests had to go upstairs to visit the largest space in the castle.


The Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Glances upwards will almost always be rewarded. This is the Tudor ceiling at Muchelney Church. It’s from a much later period than I’m usually interested in, but it’s beautiful. Sometimes there’s a clue that you should look up. You might just be able to see the mirror halfway down the church, placed there to enable people to view the ceiling without hurting their necks or risk of falling over.

Muchelney Church

The ceiling, Muchelney Church

6. Label your photographs the day you take them

I’m very bad at this and have too many photographs that make me pause and wonder why I thought their subject was interesting. Having the guidebook to hand when you do this will help. Something else I find useful is photographing the boards that are usually to be found scattered around the site telling you what you’re looking at.


7. Show the staff you’re interested

Talk to the staff who look after the site. No one knows as much about the site as they do or is as interested in it as they are, unless it’s their first week at the site, in which case they will probably avoid making eye contact. Unless they’re really busy, they’re happy to answer any questions you might have. Because I ask questions, I’ve been shown things of interest I might have missed, or been told stories that aren’t in the guide book. At one castle the site manager told me his theories about how many times a particular fireplace had been moved and at an abbey the manager told me what he knew about the Saxon history of his site.

8. Do your research

Earlier this year, I visited an abbey founded in the twelfth century to discover that most of the pre-fifteenth-century bits had been destroyed. It was interesting, but not as interesting for me as it would have been had there still been earlier remains. If you’re interested in a particular period, make sure that the site concerned has something to offer you. Many will have been ‘improved’ over the centuries. Most places have websites, but you’ll need to read them with care.

9. Look at the outsides of buildings as well as the insides.

I try to walk around as much of the outside of a building as I can. Sometimes this is unsafe, especially where there’s a river or a moat.


Aydon Castle

There was no hint of this rather wonderful chimney on the inside of the building.

10. Finish the trip with a visit to a good pub

This hardly needs to be said.

I hope these tips are useful and you can find time this summer to visit a medieval site.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Castle, Church, Medieval Buildings

43 responses to “10 tips to get the best out of your visit to a medieval site.

  1. Great tips April and we have used a few. Love the last one 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Really good advice April, especially about speaking with the staff. We have promised ourselves to visit more castles so I am sure we will follow no. 10 diligently!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Great idea and excellent advice, April – especially the last one, of course… and chatting to staff – those at English Heritage and Historic Scotland can be particularly good (I need to visit more Cadwy sites!) I’d add a further tip – if you’re interested in photos, have a look at what professionals have done before, either online or in guide books, and work out where the good shots can be taken from. Also, take several shots with different settings – Photoshop can’t do everything. I’m hopeless at labelling photos – I should make more of an effort really, particularly as I often don’t write up a visit on ABAB until some considerable time after I’ve visited.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good advice about the photos. I don’t use Photoshop. If it’s a dull and overcast day that’s how it will look on the photos.

      English Heritage staff are very enthusiastic about their properties. I haven’t been to a Cadw site yet. That’s probably another week’s holiday that I need to plan.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Most excellent advice April….and yes as BitaboutBritain says the last one rounds it all off nicely. I would like to visit a site with you one day…I think I’d learn a lot….you never know it might happen!PS That ceiling at Mulchelney is gorgeous!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Spot on! Especially #’s 1 & 10! And at #10, ask about the pub’s story.
    So much of local history may be learned by starting a conversation with the locals. Wonderful treasures for the memory!

    And this is to American visitors: We tend to be brash and off-putting to our English hosts. Be honestly appreciative for what is shared. Keep dissenting opinions for when you get home & share with friends and family. I assure you, the locals have heard plenty of American wisecracks & if I were them, I’d walk away without a look back, or give the American the boot.

    Don’t eat or chew gum in churches, or any place historical or special. You’ll be watched like a hawk & if gum is spit or wrapper tossed, a very irate local may accost you (happened in my college group – served them right!). Watch the locals & do what they do. Trashing the Rose Garden of Europe, even while trekking the broad moors, is sacrilege.

    We have a reputation for being lousy guests. It’s in bad need of repair, and it starts with US (U.S.). Read up on cultural mores, and never assume anything. Be polite — their way.

    For the practical list, I found that an over-the-shoulder bag (with a well-padded area where the strap crosses the neck) is perfect for guides, maps, camera, etc. Be sure it’s not cumbersome. Very nice for times you need your hands to help you get over some of the obstacles April discussed.


    Liked by 2 people

    • A large shoulder bag is a good idea, for all the reasons you give.

      To be honest, Americans generally have a good reputation here for being polite. Chewing gum in a church is a new one on me, though, but I suppose some people might be thoughtless enough to do it.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. All good tips, especially number 10. We don’t have anything from earlier that the 17th century here (and very little of that) but we have plenty of pubs, so…

    Liked by 5 people

    • Many pubs here are closing down, which is a shame. One reason is because it’s much cheaper to buy alcohol in the supermarkets.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, but what about human contact? I met a man in a pup on Wednesday. We spoke for about an hour. I’ll never see him again (we were both tourists) but it was a wonderful conversation.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Maybe establishments that have a history of over X number of years could get a tax break or some other perk. Kinda like the agritourism of many mainland European countries that help keep traditional farms afloat.

          If castle and manor owners can get breaks for opening to tourists, why not let pubs do the same for special public draws?

          Darts tournaments seemed such fun, but when I visited, they didn’t really encourage outsiders. Locals brought their own darts, and we were too many tourists for the few sets & boards the pub owned. (And some of our young adults drank too much; very sorry!) Are darts still played, and do pubs still tend to be reserved about who plays?

          Music is nice, but so many tourists prefer their music, not traditional pub songs, which is a “cryin’ shyme”, as I think pub songs are great fun!

          Oh I hope pubs stop disappearing!

          Liked by 4 people

          • People still play darts in pubs. A couple were playing behind me in the pub I visited after going round Richmond Castle. It’s not the kind of game that you can just turn up in a pub and have a go at. You have to know that you can throw a dart so that it will land on the board or on the mat between you and the board, otherwise you stand a good chance of injuring someone. It’s years since I’ve played darts. I started young and wasn’t bad as a teenager.

            Liked by 2 people

        • I think it depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. I enjoy going to pubs, but many of them have piped music at a volume that can’t be ignored, which means you have to raise your voice if you want to have a conversation, which means that the people around you have to raise their voices. Noise levels increase until I can’t hear the person I’m talking to. That’s an experience I can do without.

          Liked by 4 people

          • If a notepad or sign language is needed to communicate, I won’t enter the establishment. Excessive volume may be a reason pubs are suffering. American bars & restaurants are prone to this, and despite potential auditory damage, refuse to change. This deters people who might otherwise be very good customers.

            My sister lost much of her voice to cancer, and it has severely curtailed our desire to frequent these establishments. Many owners refuse to tone it down so she can be heard. I have tinnitus, which loud noise exacerbates.
            Most of these folks are young. They have no idea the trouble they may have down the road.

            I loved James Herriott’s description of an old Yorkshire pub, where the farm clientele spoke in low tones & the soft clicks of dominoes could be heard.
            Ancient oaken tables, settles & a simple coal stove were the decor’. At least it existed — once.

            Bless you all; the long & the short & the tall!

            Liked by 3 people

  7. I love to visit medieval sites but I find them very challenging as I suffer from M.E. and also have dodgy knees. Climbing up to those which are situated on hills and climbing the steps up to various parts of the building is very much a labour of love. Lol, painkillers are always required.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. All good advice, April. I’m afraid I’m very bad at sorting out my photos while I can still remember what’s what! My ideal visit would be a 2 day one. Creep around the first day getting the look and feel of the place, then go back the next to ask more questions and get the photos. And try another pub.

    Unfortunately I don’t usually have the time/money for that, unless I’m staying locally and entry is free. Like Loretta (above) I have dodgy knees, and my ability to negotiate uneven ground and narrow stairs is made worse by poor eyesight. Going up is easy enough – coming down can be hellish. “Creep” is the word.

    Earlier this month I crept around Haddon Hall (Bakewell), parts of which date back to medieval times and which escaped restoration and refurbishment in the 18th and 19th centuries. What a delight – despite the worn steps and lack of handrails.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m rubbish at labelling photos as well. I’m also not very good with narrow stairways. It’s not the climbing or the coming down, just that they’re narrow and I’m not.

      I almost went to Haddon Hall on my way up north in April, but decided to give it a miss, as there was so much else I wanted to see.

      I like the idea of a two day visit. I often realise that I’ve missed something when I sit down and read the guidebook properly.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Haddon Hall is well worth a visit, though the overall effect may be too Tudor for you.
        One thing I do find difficult is visualising what the place I’m visiting must have looked like in its heyday with bright wall-hangings, whitewash, wood panelling not yet darkened with age, etc. That’s where a second visit would come in handy, too.

        Liked by 2 people

        • One of the things that English Heritage does quite well is to have boards around the site with pictures of what some of the rooms would have looked like in use. You’re right, though, you have to use a lot of imagination.

          Liked by 2 people

  9. Great tips! I find it interesting that the second floor was more likely to survive than the first floor at some sites. I would have assumed the reverse!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think I’ve given you the wrong idea. I might write another post to explain what I meant more clearly. A list doesn’t really give you enough space.

      Liked by 3 people

    • British first floors are what Americans call the second. Perhaps where you’re from the concept is similar?

      Threw me every time I heard it on my visits. Some things become so ingrained that I have to stop & reorganize my head.

      “Loo” is a word all Americans should adopt. Short, to the point, and not as confusing as “bathroom”, which encompasses other functions. ☻

      Liked by 2 people

  10. lydiaschoch

    This is fabulous advice. Is there a charge for visiting the average medieval ruin? Canada has a much smaller array of old, abandoned historical buildings, but I believe it’s generally free to visit them here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s a fee for most sites. I haven’t worked out the basis on which some are free and some are not. I visisted two places this year that were free and found them more worthwhile than some of the paid for visits. I’m a member of English Heritage, though, so I pay £60 a year and can visit any of their sites without paying.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. All great tips. Definitely agree with look up and outside. I’m often amazed at the attention to detail of ceilings that you could easily miss!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Excellent advice April, can’t add anything, except if you go with children tape their gobs up.

    Liked by 2 people

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