Not long ago, a world wide Internet poll picked a list of Seven Wonders of the World for the 21st century. Only one of them, the Coliseum, was in Europe. That got me to wondering why some of the UK's most amazing treasures were not included. How did the nominees in the poll get selected? And who voted?
It all seemed pretty arbitrary to me. So in the spirit of being arbitrary myself, I've chosen my own selection of "wonders" for the United Kingdom. Some are man made, some have origins lost in the mists of time, some are accidents of nature and some are wonders because of the worlds and ideas they opened up. Probably, most importantly, these are wonder that anyone - no matter how old or young, fit or unfit, big vacation budget or small - can visit and enjoy.
Here then, and in no particular order, my choices for the Seven Wonders of the United Kingdom.
Windsor Castle - The World's Biggest House?
Perhaps there's a bigger house somewhere but Windsor Castle, the Queen's weekend home, is definitely the world's biggest occupied castle. William the Conqueror picked the site and it has been a royal residence and fortress ever since, more than 950 years.
During that time, it certainly has spread. The house now covers 13 acres. Besides being the biggest inhabited castle in the world, it's also one of the most familiar. Fly into London via Heathrow and, looking down from your plane, it will be one of the first recognizably British things you'll see.
Fans of equestrian events regularly enjoy the festive Royal Windsor Horse Show, open to the public in May. And most of the rest of us got an extensive look at the castle during the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018.
Of course, it's not the only castle in the UK. They're all over the place; visitors are spoiled for choice. Here are some others you might want to visit:
Stonehenge rises up on Salisbury Plain. Clearly a work of intelligence and purpose, Stonehenge is like a mysterious communication from the distant past - a genuine wonder. It salutes the sunrise on the summer solstice but nobody really knows what it was for and who built it. This massive icon of Britain, at least four thousand years old, draws people from around the world.
Plan a visit to include the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, when you can join an all night party. It is the only night of the year when visitors can camp around the monument and spend the night there. And if you've visited Stonehenge years ago, come now to see it as never before and to learn about the newest discoveries into it's myths and mysteries
Neolithic Heart of Orkney - Truly an Archaeological Wonder of the UK
The Neolithic Heart of Orkney is a remarkable collection of stone age sites and relics, evidence of a sophisticated community existing at the harsh frontier of the world more than 5,000 years ago. This group of ruins, gathered into a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes:
- Maeshowe - a complex chambered tomb
- The Ring of Brodgar - a circle of 60 megaliths
- The Standing Stones of Stenness - which amplify voices and set dowsing rods aquiver
- Skara Brae - a group of houses and a workshop at the edge of the sea.
- The Ness of Brodgar - recently excavated and possibly the biggest neolithic ritual site ever discovered in Europe. Its crowd-funded dig dates take place in July and August and, if you are around then, you can take a guided tour.
There are also dozens of unexcavated mounds all over the UNESCO protected area promising more revelations about early human history and the northern edge of Europe.
The Seven Sisters - The UK's Gleaming White Cliffs
The Seven Sisters are gleaming white cliffs, visible from miles at sea and terminating in a series of gently undulating chalk Downs. I've chosen them among my personal selection of the UK's Seven Wonders because they are so beautiful and so unmistakably British.
Some countries rise out of the sea from gently sloping beaches. Others have mountains that march right to the water's edge. But England meets the English Channel with abrupt ranges of white chalk cliffs. Nature seems to mirror at least a thousand years of prickly relations - as though England has been been snapped off Europe like a piece of rock candy.
The hills behind the cliffs may seem to roll softly - but don't be fooled. The Seven Sisters constitute one of the most challenging stretches hiking path on The South Downs Way
Compared to the more internationally famous White Cliffs of Dover, the Seven Sisters are more unspoilt. No buildings or developments mar this pristine landscape. But until protected, first by a country park and more recently by being part of the South Downs National Park, they were under pressure and at risk of development. Today, the main challenge the Seven Sisters face comes from the sea. The English Channel nibbles the coast between Seaford and Easbourne, taking 30 to 40 centimeters a year and carving new channels and sea caves. The beach below is one of the few places in Britain where you can find chalk littering the sand.
And by the way, the Seven Sisters and nearby Beachy Head are incredibly Instagrammable. Here's where to get the best views.
York Minster - It's Official, One of the Seven Wonders by Visitors' Vote
Don't take my word for it. Visitors to Britain just like you vote York Minster one of the Seven Wonders of Britain year after year.
More than 250 years in the building, it is one of the biggest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe. The stained glass window on the East Front is as big as a tennis court - the biggest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.
Of course, size isn't everything. York Minster is also very beautiful. Take another look at York Minster to see for yourself.
The British Museum - Wonderful Things
The British Museum in London is the world's largest museum of human history, culture and art. Its treasures include Egyptian mummies, objects from the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Ur, an Easter Island statue given to the museum by Queen Victoria, objects from the Sutton Hoo burial and (at least for now) the Elgin Marbles that once graced the Parthenon in Greece.
For my money the best object of all at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone - a decree of Ptolemy, one of the last pharaohs, carved in three languages on a polished black stone. The carving is in hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian script and Greek. It was the Greek inscription that was used to unlock the mystery of the other writing, including the hieroglyphics, and, therefore just about everything now known about ancient Egypt. A wonder indeed!
If this massive place seems just too overwhelming, why not simply concentrate on a few things like my selected Ten Treasures of the British Museum, - among them, the Lewis chessmen that featured in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and a collection of cat mummies from ancient Egypt.
The Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
It's hard to believe that The Giant's Causeway on the North coast of County Antrim is not man (or giant) made. The causeway looks like a roadway into the sea. It is made of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, some more than 12 meters high, produced by an ancient volcanic eruption. The tops of the columns form stepping stones, mostly hexagonal (six-sided) but also with four, five, seven and eight sides, leading from the foot of a cliff into the sea.
The Giant's Causeway was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987. Today it is owned and managed by the National Trust.
If you plan to visit, do keep in mind that reasonable mobility and fitness is required to walk on the causeway. There is, however, a new and accessible National Trust visitors' center. In 2013 it was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in architecture. The visitor center is one kilometer from the Causeway and not visible from the site.