GULLIVER’S GUIDES is based in Oxford. The company was founded by Tony Gulliver in 2017. He is a direct descendant of the Banbury Gullivers, whose tombs in the local churchyard inspired Jonathan Swift to a name for his world-famous protagonist back in the early 18th century. So why not join a tour with Gulliver’s Guides, and embark on your own journey of discovery!
Tony Gulliver studied architecture before seeing the world, becoming a travel writer and ultimately Managing Editor of the classic “Insight Guides” series. He now applies his narrative skills to provide truly memorable tours. He is a qualified “Blue Badge” guide for the Heart of England.
Heart of England Specialist
Gulliver’s Guides specialises in the Heart of England, a vast oblong swathe of the country stretching from the M4 motorway in the South to the Potteries of Staffordshire in the north and Oxford in the east to the Welsh border in the west, roughly corresponding to the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia as it existed in the 10th century.
The region contains some of the most interesting and iconic sights in the country, including…
Oxford with its world-famous university and nearby Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage Site
Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace and burial place of William Shakespeare
The Cotswolds with their intimate valleys and quaint, honey-coloured villages
The cathedral cities of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford, each home to the “Three Choirs Festival”.
Birmingham, the country’s burgeoning second city
The Malvern Hills and surrounding “Elgar Country”
The Shropshire Hills, with the historic “Marches” towns of Ludlow and Shrewsbury.
The nearby cradle of the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge, another World Heritage Site.
The enchanting Wye Valley all the way from Tintern Abbey to Hay-on-Wye, the latter known for its bookshops and literary festival.
The Potteries of North Staffordshire, world-famous for their porcelain, with the rugged hills of the Peak District nearby.
We are keen to take you where you want to go, so we can combine any of the tours outlined below to create your own bespoke tour lasting from a few hours to anything up to a week or longer. Combine a trip to Oxford with seeing the Cotswolds; similarly Gloucester, the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley; Birmingham, Shrewsbury and Ironbridge. We can mould a tour to your specific interests, whether they be in music, literature, science, industrial heritage, arts and crafts, gardens, ancient churches and even gastronomy!
Whether you’re interested in learning about what went on in Roger Bacon’s 13th-century Oxford laboratory, the personalities behind the Industrial Revolution, or the landscapes that inspired Tolkien and Elgar…
This ancient seat of learning has been at the forefront of intellectual and scientific development ever since it was first established in the 12th century. Explore the lanes of the “City of Dreaming Spires” and perhaps visit one of the colleges to better appreciate how student life has been played out here ever since medieval times. With their beautiful quadrangles, surrounded by accommodation, dining hall, chapel and library, and always incorporating a lovely garden, the colleges are havens of tranquility at the very heart of the city.
Philosophers and Scientists
Learn more about some of the great Oxford philosophers and scientists who have helped forge British, if not world history. It was while Master of Balliol that John Wycliffe first formulated the ideas of the Protestant Reformation in around 1360. Three centuries later, at Christ Church, John Locke spearheaded the Enlightenment. Back in the 13th century, in his laboratory on a bridge over the Thames, Franciscan friar Roger Bacon had set about proving scientific theories and inventing the magnifying glass; 450 years after that, at Wadham College, Robert Hooke finally achieved the magnification required to identify living cells for the first time. Then, in the 20th century, an international team of scientists set about unlocking the powers of penicillin. The powers of thought and innovation continue to place Oxford at or near the very top of the university league table.
The city’s world-class academic pedigree is also reflected in its superb museums, notably the Ashmolean, University Museum (including the fabulously quirky Pitt-Rivers) and the Museum of the History of Science). And at the centre of it all is the world-famous Bodleian Library with its vast collection of books and documents. Literary heritage includes the works the ‘father of fantasy’ JRR Tolkien and his friend CS Lewis, not forgetting Lewis Carrol and his Alice in Wonderland, a story inspired by people, places and objects of Oxford. And then, of course, there was Inspector Morse, created by local author Colin Dexter.
Located just outside Oxford, this World Heritage Site was a gift from Queen Anne to the 1st Duke of Marlborough as thanks from a grateful nation for the duke’s military triumphs against the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession at the beginning of the 18th century. It has a magnificent interior and the grounds are the work of the great landscape architect Lancelot Capability Brown. Blenheim was also the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, and a special permanent exhibition celebrates his life and achievements.
With their rolling pastures and honey-coloured villages, the Cotswolds are the epitome of English countryside. In medieval times the region was the principal centre of the English wool trade, the wool much coveted by Flemish weavers among others. Today it is a rural idyll, the towns and villages often dominated by an imposing ‘wool church’ dating from those prosperous times. History is evident everywhere, from neolithic long barrows and stone circles to Iron Age hill forts; Roman villas to Norman churches; medieval manors to monuments commemorating the Civil War; and some magnificent stately homes.
The character of the Cotswolds is down to the underlying bedrock of oolitic limestone. This is the predominant building material, common not just to the houses but also the miles of drystone walls that are such a distinctive feature of the region.
Beneath the steep western edge of the escarpment lie villages such as Chipping Campden, Broadway and Stanway, as well as the spa town of Cheltenham – the latter famous for its Regency architecture and horse-racing festival featuring the famous Gold Cup. In the heart of the Cotswolds, most settlements are tucked discretely away in their own little valleys, one notable exception being Stow-on-the-Wold – “where the wind blows cold”. But it is along the streams and rivers draining into the River Thames that you’ll encounter such classic Cotswold villages as the Slaughters, Bibury and Bourton-on-the-Water.
Artisans and Gardeners
Leading practitioners of the Arts and Crafts movement were drawn to the Cotswolds by its rich craft tradition, its accessibility to London and Oxford and by the cultivated charm of the landscape. Kelmscott Manor near Lechlade was the summer home of William Morris, who is regarded as the founder of the movement. Then came the Guild of Handicraft established by CR Ashbee in Chipping Campden in 1902 and Gordon Russell and his furniture-making business in Broadway. The region is strewn with delightful gardens, often attached to a manor house or stately home. They include the enigmatic Hidcote Manor Gardens laid out in a series of “rooms”, and the typical cottage gardens of places like Snowshill Manor and Mill Dene. The Cotswolds make great walking country, particularly if you follow the Cotswolds Way along the escarpment.
Stratford-upon Avon is both birthplace (1564) and burial place (1616) of William Shakespeare; the place where grew up, went to school, met his wife Anne Hathaway and then returned to having achieved unparalleled fame and fortune as a playwright in London.
Shakespeare was the son of a prosperous local wool merchant and glover, but the end of the 16th century saw a downturn in the wool trade that perhaps prompted him to seek his fortune elsewhere.
See some of the houses associated with Shakespeare and his family including his Birthplace, Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and perhaps Mary Arden’s House in Wilmcote. Also, the Old Grammar School, where Shakespeare was educated, the Site of New Place, where he lived on his return to Stratford; and the Holy Trinity Church where he was baptised and buried. Finishing with a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, your immersion into the life of the Bard will be complete.
Castles and Manors
The town of Warwick is dominated by its mighty medieval castle, begun in Saxon times by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great. Its most powerful resident was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker), who played a key role in the Wars of the Roses of the 15th century. Adjacent is the elegant spa town of Leamington Spa, while to the north lies Kenilworth and its castle, long since ruined but still one of the finest fortresses in England, whose list of past occupants reads like a roll call of some of medieval England’s most colourful characters.
Apart from the Warwickshire villages with their typical timber-framed houses, there are some wonderful manor houses in the vicinity including the moated Baddesley Clinton Hall, famous for its priest hole used during the reign of Elizabeth I, and Packwood House with its lawn of yew trees. The Elizabethan Charlecote House is where Shakespeare was caught poaching deer as a boy; the grounds were later remodelled by star landscape architect, Lancelot Capability Brown.
Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross
The grounds of Compton Verney are another Capability Brown creation. Nearby is Edgehill, site of the first battles of Civil War, and then the town of Banbury, where a market cross can still be seen together with a statue of a “fine lady” on her horse. She has been associated with Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Godiva, and even Celia Fiennes of nearby Broughton Castle, another major attraction of the area.
The Bullring Shopping Centre showcases Birmingham as a place of commerce. It has been thus ever since medieval times when the site was dominated by cattle markets rather than department stores. But the city’s fortunes really took off in the 18th and 19th centuries when industrialist Matthew Boulton and inventors James Watt and William Murdoch effectively launched the Industrial Revolution here and Birmingham became the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’. Some still exist today, particularly in the Jewellery Quarter. Matthew Boulton’s original factory can still be seen in the suburb of Smethwick out in the Black Country; his home Soho House and the church where he, Watt and Murdoch are buried are located in nearby Handsworth.
Heavy Metal, Precious Metal
Heavy metal – local rock band Black Sabbath introduced that particular genre to the world, and whether it’s the gleaming New Street Station or the new Central Library, innovation is still what Birmingham all about, its motto “Forward” a fitting one for the UK’s second city. The NEC is the UK’s No 1 venue for shows, exhibitions, meetings and events. The cultural palette is second to none: ballet, symphony orchestra, theatre and the world-class Museum and Art Gallery, including the world’s biggest collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and a large portion of the Staffordshire Hoard, the most valuable Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever discovered.
Visit nearby Coventry and you’ll see a city that has been important ever since medieval times, evolving from ecclesiastical centre to industrial powerhouse through the trades of cloth-weaving, ribbon weaving, clockmaking, watchmaking, sewing machines, bicycles and cars. The ruins of the cathedral, bombed by the German Luftwaffe during the Coventry Blitz on the night of 14–15 November 1940, are a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The statue of Lady Godiva celebrates the naked heroin on horseback; Peeping Tom was the original voyeur.
Rising in the mountains of Mid Wales, at 229 miles the Severn is the longest river in the UK. Along the lower reaches towards the Severn Estuary are the cathedral cities of Gloucester and Worcester, as well as the town of Tewkesbury, famous for its abbey and also the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471), one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses. To the west of Worcester, the Malvern Hills are celebrated for their spring water, their views and as the home of composer Edward Elgar.
Gloucester dates back to Roman times when it developed from a frontier outpost. It later it became a major ecclesiastical centre, reflected in various ancient priories dotted around the city as well as the enormous Cathedral, whose architecture traces medieval stylistic developments, from the simple Norman right through to sophisticated Gothic Perpendicular style. Gloucester has numerous other jewels including the World of Beatrix Potter (thanks to the Tailor of Gloucester) and the New Inn, the most complete surviving example of a medieval galleried inn in Britain, where Shakespeare himself may well have performed during his early, acting days. The Docks provide a fascinating insight into the city’s trading heritage.
Worcester is celebrated for its Royal Worcester porcelain and its Worcestershire Sauce, as well as being the site of the final battle of the English Civil War (1651). The cathedral is the last resting place of King John, as well as Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s older brother. How different history would have been had Arthur consummated his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and not died so young! And had King John not signed the Magna Carta!
Just nine miles long, the Malverns rise dramatically from the Severn plain, the main ridge forming the boundary between Worcestershire and Herefordshire. The hills were an inspiration for England’s greatest classical composer, Edward Elgar, who was born in nearby Broadheath and composed many of his major works while living in the vicinity. After the development of the Malverns as a spa in the 19th century, Elgar and George Bernard Shaw brought Great Malvern into the 20th century with their music and theatre festivals held in the Winter Gardens.
The Malverns are also home to Morgan motorcars, which are made at Malvern Link at the base of the hills. Just west of the hills is the market town of Ledbury, renowned for its plethora of half-timbered structures, including the stilted Market House.
Still regarded as one of the most beautiful river landscapes in Britain, the Wye Valley is arguably the birthplace of the modern tourist industry. In 1745, John Egerton, who later became Bishop of Durham, started taking friends on boat trips down the valley from Ross-on-Wye. In 1782, the Reverend William Gilpin produced Observations on the River Wye, the first illustrated tour guide to be published in Britain. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of the day made the pilgrimage to the great sights – among them Coleridge, Thackeray, Wordsworth and Turner.
Natural and Man-made
There can be few more sublime views than those of meandering River Wye from Symonds Yat Rock, as it wends its way through the pastoral landscape of the Wye Gorge. But man-made sights are just as impressive. To the south, where the river marks the line of the Welsh border, are the evocative ruins of Tintern Abbey, originally founded by the Cistercians in the 12th century then plundered by the commissioners of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries; and the sturdy Goodrich Castle begun in Norman times and a classic example of medieval castle evolution.
Towns and Cities
Ross-on-Wye is famous for the activities of philanthropist John Kyrle, otherwise known as the ‘Man of Ross’, Hay-on-Wye for its Literary Festival, and Monmouth as the birthplace of Henry V and the home of motoring and aviation pioneer, Charles Rolls. All make attractive stopovers on a journey along the river, with the Welsh border and the Black Mountains never far away. The city of Hereford
is one of three cathedral cities that hosts the renowned Three Choirs Festival (the others being Worcester and Gloucester), and the impressive cathedral is also the repository for the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world dating from the 13th century.
Smaller churches also have their treasures, including nearby Kilpeck church with its astonishingly well preserved carvings, and St Mary’s Church at Kempley with its superb 12th-century frescoes. The Arts and Crafts church at nearby Brockhampton is a wonderful fusion of various elements, from its thatched roof to tapestries by Edward Burne-Jones.
Shropshire is a world away from the West Midlands conurbation. Abutting the Welsh border, it is the most rugged region of the Heart of England, with impressive hills and stunningly beautiful valleys. The ridges of the Long Mynd, Stiperstones and Wenlock Edge provide excellent walking country. But the local geology and topography also combined with human ingenuity to create one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, this region being a repository for iron ore, limestone, clay and charcoal, and with plenty of coal to hand and the power of the River Severn and its tributaries.
With its impressive castle towering above the River Teme, Ludlow was for centuries an important town in the Welsh Marches. Numerous medieval and Tudor-style half-timbered buildings and whole streets of fine Georgian facades add to its appeal, so much so that Sir John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’. The castle is where Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII lived with his wife Catharine of Aragon, until his untimely death at only 15 changed the course of English history.
From the north there’s Shrewsbury, situated on a loop in the Severn and accessed by the Welsh and English bridges. It contains an ancient abbey, a Norman castle and a vast number of historic, half-timbered buildings. It was also the birthplace of Clive of India and Charles Darwin.
Other places of interest include Bridgenorth on the River Severn, its upper and lower towns linked by a tram. Like so many others, its castle was demolished (slighted) during the English Civil War so that it could never be used again.
Much Wenlock is home to a ruined priory and birthplace of the modern Olympic movement thanks to physical fitness regimes introduced locally by William Penny Brookes.
There are impressive bridges, roads and canals by Thomas Telford, parks and gardens by Capability Brown, and even the ruins of a Roman town, Wroxeter. Once the terminus of the famous Watling Street, today home to a reconstructed villa which demonstrates just how advanced Roman civilisation was. But for many visitors the top attraction is surely the Ironbridge Gorge, where glaciation and erosion by the River Severn laid bare all the natural raw materials of what was to become the Industrial Revolution. The actual Iron Bridge over the Severn was the first such structure ever built, by a family that started out making pots and pans. Museums, historic sites and even a reconstructed town tell the story of industrial development at this World Heritage Site.
Staffordshire is a wonderfully varied county, ranging from dramatic scenery of the Peak District in the north to the rolling heathlands of Cannock Chase in the south. Linked to the River Trent is a dense network of canals and a whole series of towns and cities that enjoyed prosperity in Anglo-Saxon and medieval times before becoming key players in the industrial revolution – driven in these parts by the local coal and also the local clay.
Just north of Birmingham is the country’s smallest city of Lichfield, with its distinctive triple-spired cathedral. It was also the home of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles and founder of the Lunar Society, an elite group of Midlands scientists, philosophers and inventors whose ideas propelled the Industrial Revolution and included such luminaries as Matthew Boulton, James Watts and Josiah Wedgwood. Other notable Lichfeldians were the lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, actor and playwright David Garrick. It was in a field near Lichfield that the Staffordshire Hoard was unearthed, the most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever discovered.
Hills and Valleys
In the north, the western edge of the Peak District culminates in the spectacular crags known as the Roaches, which provide stunning views down towards the Rudyard Reservoir (after which Rudyard Kipling was named). These hills are home to Flash, the highest village in England, as well as the delightful Manifold Valley, neighbour of the more famous Dovedale. The streams were once fished by Izaak Walton, best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, a celebration of the art and spirit of fishing first published in 1653.
Nearby is the historic silk town of Leek. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, lived and worked here in the 1870s; his friend and colleague Edward Burne-Jones did the windows in St Edward’s Church; and the town was also the home of James Brindley, the country’s first great canal engineer. Nearby you might witness one of the country’s strangest natural phenomena, the famous double sunset behind Hen Cloud.
With more than 30 of their old bottle kilns still standing, the famous six towns of Stoke-on-Trent are synonymous with potteries both historic and modern and names such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton, Portmeirion and Bridgewater. Visit the various museums devoted to the potteries such as the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Middleport Pottery and the World of Wedgwood. Then round off the the journey with a visit to St Giles Catholic Church in nearby Cheadle, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture by Augustus Welby Pugin, progenitor of the Arts and Crafts movement.