England: seat of the royals, replete with cream teas and pastures green? Not quite. When you venture beyond England’s noble heritage and classic sights, there’s a motley crew of eccentric, unexpected and even raunchy attractions - if you know where to look. Choosing a mere ten is a challenge, but here are some delightful eyebrow-raisers of the sceptered isle.
1. Angel of the North
Is it a bird, is it an angel, is it an eyesore? This steel sculpture by celebrated Brit artist Antony Gormley has been inspiring drivers to mutter, ‘what the…?’ since its completion in 1998. Its majestic 54-metre wingspan is an edifying landmark for northeast England - although many see lewd potential in a male nude with arms outstretched, dubbing it the ‘Gateshead Flasher’. Take a peep at the Angel from the A167 road exit towards Gateshead South (www.gateshead.gov.uk).
The craggy silhouette of Whitby Abbey, perched precariously above this seaside town, inspired Bram Stoker, the tortured soul behind Dracula. And today, it calls to Brits with dark tastes in music to descend in flocks for Whitby Goth Weekend. If timing your visit for the festival, book accommodation well in advance - your reward will be sharing fish n’ chips with amiable alternative rockers wearing frills, furbelows and enough black eyeliner to blot out the sun. Sink your fangs into more info on www.whitbygothweekend.co.uk.
3. The Blowing Stone
Amid the green fields of Oxfordshire near the small town of Wantage lies an unassuming rock with a big history. According to legend, King Alfred blew through a hole in this very boulder to summon a Saxon army against the Vikings with a trumpeting call. Re-enact this historic moment yourself, but don’t be surprised if you get little more than a low fart: the myths say that anyone who succeeds in sounding a pure note is sure to ascend the throne. Console yourself with some other local sights, like the graceful outline of the Uffington White Horse, carved into the rolling hillsides, and a few drinks in local boozers the White Horse pub or The Plough in Eastbury. Learn more here.
4. A philosopher’s mummy
Jeremy Bentham, one of England’s greatest thinkers, so loved the University College London that he wanted to hang around long after his death. While his voting rights were revoked post mortem, his preserved body remains proudly on display. For a walking tour to see the stuffed icon (the original head now sadly replaced with a wax model), check UCL's website.
5. Cerne Abbas Giant and Long Man of Wilmington
These two enormous figures are carved into the chalk bedrock of the English hills. The Giant, just north of Dorset village Cerne Abbas, has a phallus that can be seen for miles (snap your NSFW photos from a viewing point off the A352 road). Not to be outdone by this priapic monument, some cheeky residents of Wilmington in East Sussex, home of another gargantuan carving, drew some crown jewels on their own chalk figure - amusement (and offence) spread like wildfire. See the (now castrated) Long Man of Wilmington on a short drive northwest from Eastbourne. There’s a short walk (sign-posted) to the best viewing areas.
6. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Quaint, eccentric and bursting with intellectual treasures, the Pitt Rivers Museum captures the spirit of England’s most famous university city. Make a beeline for the shrunken heads, but take the time to dawdle amid anthropological treasures like porcupine-quill shirts and Japanese masks. Get started on www.prm.ox.ac.uk.
7. Brighton’s West Pier
Sad emblem of dereliction, or alternative icon for England’s sauciest seaside town? Locals of Brighton are divided on the ghostly wreck of the West Pier. A rusted metal skeleton of a coastal pavilion, the brooding beauty of the West Pier attracts as many camera flashes as its functioning neighbour, the Brighton Pier. Stay in town for the quirky cafe culture, bracing sea air and raucous nightlife.
8. Wookey Hole
Where can you combine cackling witches with England’s tastiest cheese? If you squint a bit, one of the rock formations in these dramatic southwestern caves vaguely resembles an ossified witch. From this gnarly stone a tourist mecca was born in the heart of an impressive system of subterranean caverns. A real-life witch (in tasteful black lipstick) leads children’s tours into the caves, but superstition-free visitors can simply admire the awe-inspiring stalactites. Toast your visit with cheese from the nearby Cheddar Gorge.
The eyebrow-raising name of this town inspires a small stream of visitors to detour from the fossil riches of Dorset’s Jurassic coast. Some just want to pose by the chortle-inducing road sign, others have been moved to steal it. Shittertonians even clubbed together for a thoroughly immovable stone road sign to scupper the thieves.
10. Cross Bones graveyard
Excavations confirmed this site in London as a medieval prostitute graveyard, but the area has gathered pace as a focal point for remembering London’s ‘outcast dead’. Ribbons, candles and curious offerings are strewn around the site. Time your visit for the monthly candlelit vigil or annual Halloween procession. Learn the history on www.crossbones.org.uk.
But there are so many more oddities: Cambridge’s insect clock, the chalk Kiwi, the Museum of Celebrity Leftovers…Let us know your favourite eccentric English sight.
Anita Isalska is an editor and writer based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.
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