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James Shillinglaw | March 02, 2015 12:52 PM ET
Britain: A Tale of Two Attractions
Britain is nothing if not a study in contrasts. And it has a wide variety of historical attractions that really illustrate this fact to visitors. I learned this once again first hand during a trip last week to cover ExploreGB, VisitBritain's annual trade event where British travel suppliers meet travel buyers from around the world. ExploreGB also offers fam trips to participants so they can explore the destination more thoroughly.
Now I've been to Britain many times, but I ended up selecting a press trip (actually two of them) that encompassed two major attractions that were at distinctly opposite ends of the destination's social spectrum.
My first trip was a visit to Blenheim Palace, the grand Great House in England that continues to be home to the duke of Marlborough, but is perhaps best known for its connection to Sir Winston Churchill, the famed former prime minister and hero of Britain. Then, on a second trip to Wales, I experienced the Big Pit National Coal Museum for the first time. This is still classified as a working coal mine, though no coal is actually mined anymore.
Blenheim dates from the early 1700s, when Queen Ann donated the land and helped construct a palace for Sir John Churchill, who had been the victorious general in a great battle in Blenheim, Germany, during the War of Spanish Succession. John Churchill was the first Duke of Marlborough, and the house that he constructed is one of the most opulent in Britain.
PHOTO: Blenheim Palace is one of the most opulent Great Houses in Britain. (All photos by James Shillinglaw)
The property was redecorated and refurbished by successive dukes down to Winston Churchill's days. Winston, however, was not in the line of succession to be one of the dukes though he was born at Blenheim (his grandfather was one of the dukes) and ended up proposing to his wife in the gardens overlooking the lake.
The massive house has lavish public rooms that were decorated to entertain royalty. Its gardens, originally designed by Henry Wise and then revised again by the famed "Capability" Brown, are some of the extensive and beautiful in Britain. Indeed, our guide, who reminded me a bit of British actress Margaret Rutherford, gave us an enthusiastic tour of the rolling hills, lakes, ponds, fountains and playful sculptures throughout the grounds.
That's the opulent history of Britain—dukes, duchesses, kings, queens, castles and Great Houses. But there is another side to the country that is equally interesting—the common people and how they existed during the industrial revolution.
Just a few hours north of Blenheim, in Blaenafon, Wales, I visited the Big Pit National Coal Museum, which at one time was the largest working coal mine in Wales until it was shut down in 1979. The mine has its origins almost as far back as Blenheim, but the conditions experienced by the mineworkers in the 1800s and 1900s were in stark contrast to the lifestyle of Blenheim's residents.
PHOTO: Bit Pit National Coal Museum takes you on a journey into the old mine.
You prepare for your mine visit by putting on a hard hat with light and attaching a belt with breathing apparatus. The Big Pit is still classified as a working mine by Wales authorities, so you can't take down anything that might ignite any subterranean gases, even a cell phone or battery. You then take a lift down 300 feet deep into the mine. If you're claustrophobic, as a few in our group were, it can be a somewhat frightening experience.
Our guide, a former miner himself, also gave us an enthusiastic tour regaling us with a history of the mine and its harsh conditions. Back in the 1800s, children as young as five worked the mines, closing and opening doors to different sections so the coal could be taken out the surface by horses pulling the coal wagons on rails. Those children would work 16 hour days sometimes in total darkness while fighting off the rats that inhabited the mines.
The miners themselves had to deal with the danger of explosions, asphyxiation, rock slides and more. Indeed, in one incident in at the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, Wales in 1913, 439 men and boys were killed.
It didn't get much better in the 20th century; though regulations were enacted in efforts to protect the miners, it remained a very dangerous job. Nevertheless, the miners we met are still upset when the mine was closed in early 1980s by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a time when most of the mines in Britain were shuttered. In fact, one former miner told me there was still 300 years of good Welsh coal to be mined today in the Big Pit, so resentment at that political decision continues to this day.
Moving from Blenheim to the Big Pit just made me more fascinated by Britain's vast history. The two major attractions offer such a contrast of what society was like in Britain, from the palatial to the subterranean. From Blenheim to the Big Pit is a journey that encompasses far more than just the geographical distance between them. And it’s what makes a trip to Britain all the more worthwhile.
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