Best of British: Victorian Britain

Anna Walker

Step back in time with these reminders of the Britain that once was…

Blists Hill Victorian Town

Shropshire

Visitors to this recreated Victorian town—complete with friendly townsfolk—could happily wave goodbye to their smartphones, cars and almost any modern convenience.

Enjoy the town’s three districts: the industrial area complete with iron works, the countryside with a squatter’s cottage and tin-roofed church and the high street, with several recreated shops including a bakery, chemist and post office.

Says director of marketing Paul Gossage, “Blists Hill Victorian Town is a step back in time for all your senses. Walk through the gates and enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread and carbolic soap, hear the sounds of steam engines, a horse and cart and the chatter of a busy Victorian Town.”

November and December are the perfect months to visit, as the town lays on its annual Christmas celebrations, including falling snow, Father Christmas in his grotto and traditional Victorian carol singers.

ironbridge.org.uk

 

The Workhouse

Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Experience life inside “the spike” without enduring the punishing conditions, with a tour of the best-preserved workhouse in Britain.

Built in 1824, residing in Southwell would have been a last resort for Victorian Britain’s very poorest. Life here was incredibly tough, with the 160 inmates spending their days pulling rope apart by hand or turning the mill, and the very architecture of the building was heavily inspired by prisons.

The connected workhouse gardens make a pretty end to any visit. In Victorian times they served as a place of labour for the inmates as well as their primary source of food, but today they’re a peaceful site and an abundant vegetable crop, with heritage varieties such as Kerrs pink potatoes, white icicle radishes and bull’s blood beetroots taking centre stage.

nationaltrust.org.uk/the-workhouse-southwell

 

Grand Hotel

Scarborough, North Yorkshire

We owe a great deal of our beloved British institutions to our Victorian forebears, including jaunts to the seaside. The tradition grew out of the expansion of the railways, which gave people greater access to our coastlines and boomed even further with the introduction of Bank Holidays in 1871.

The Grand Hotel in Scarborough was built in the peak of this domestic train tourism boom. In 1845 the town was linked to York by rail, a development that brought a flood of holidaymakers with it. When it opened, the Grand Hotel was one of the largest in Europe. It had a calendar theme, with 356 rooms, 52 chimneys and 12 floors.

Visitors can still book in at the hotel today and enjoy the same traditional seaside pastimes as their ancestors—watching Punch and Judy shows, eating ice creams (then known as hokey pokey) or riding along the promenade on donkeys.

britanniahotels.com/hotels/the-grand-hotel-scarborough

 

Tower Ballroom

Blackpool

Another immensely popular Victorian seaside town, Blackpool, received a surge in visitors following the erection of the Blackpool Tower towards the end of the Victorian era, in 1894. In 1899, the Tower Ballroom was opened, a revamped theatre designed to rival the nearby Empress Ballroom, which had dwarfed the tower’s original ballroom when it raised its curtain in 1896.

The spacious new ballroom was decorated in an intricate Baroque style with incredible lavish boxes, painted ceilings and chandeliers. The specially designed sprung dancefloor, which spanned 120 square feet, attracted dancers from all over the world, and the glamour of the venue meant even the most working-class locals could experience a night of luxury.

Today, the ballroom famously plays regular host to the final of Strictly Come Dancing and visitors still flock to dance in its grand interior or enjoy afternoon tea under the dreamy painted ceiling.

theblackpooltower.com

 

Osborne House

The Isle of Wight

During the 1840s, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were on the lookout for an escape from the pressures of court life—somewhere their young family could relax by the sea. When he heard of their search, then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel recommended Osborne House.

Prince Albert had an eye for architecture, and although he loved the location, he didn’t much care for the property. It was poorly equipped to meet the luxuries the royal family was accustomed to, and so in collaboration with architect Thomas Cubitt, he decided to knock it down, and build something more suitable in its place.

And so, the current Osborne House was born: a stunning, Italian Renaissance-inspired home with tall, square towers and beautiful terraces, gardens, pergolas and pools. Open to the public since 1951, highlights include the ornate, Indian-inspired Durbar room and Queen Victoria’s private beach.

English-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne/

 

The Charles Dickens Museum

London

Much of what we know of the everyday life of British Victorians stems from the detailed, character-driven writing of the realist master novelist, Charles Dickens. The Charles Dickens Museum in London—the author’s only surviving London house, in which he lived between 1837 to 1839—was the place where he wrote such literary masterpieces as Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers.

Visitors to the museum can gaze at the writing desk where Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations were penned and see the rooms in which his daughters were born.

Says director Cindy Sughrue, “Immerse yourself in the life of Charles Dickens and feel his presence in the rooms. Walk in Dickens’s footsteps and see the home he shared with his wife and young children. It was here that Dickens achieved his lasting celebrity and universal recognition as one of the greatest storytellers of all time.”

dickensmuseum.com

 

The Old Operating Theatre

London

For an altogether grizzlier glimpse into Victorian Britain, London’s Old Operating Theatre takes some beating. Housed in the rafters of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, it’s the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe.

In the theatre's heyday, surgeries were performed without anesthetic, equipment wasn’t washed before operations and bandages were routinely reused.

As well as taking in the intense atmosphere of the theatre, spend some time purveying the artefacts of medical days gone by. Endless curiosities line the museum walls, including the masks worn by plague doctors, cabinets of ointments and potions and all manner of skulls, specimens and scalpels.

Says head of marketing Monica Walker, “Our atmospheric museum offers visitors a unique insight into the history of medicine and surgery and it predates both anaesthetics and antiseptics."

oldoperatingtheatre.com