Actor, comedian and Archaeology evangelist Tony Robinson has done more to keep Britain’s love of history thriving than a whole gaggle of academics. From the razor sharp Blackadder to his 19-year stint on Time Team and all manner of historical comedies, dramas and documentaries in between, the broadcaster’s love of the subject is infectious. Now fronting Ancestry podcast series It’s About Time, Tony spoke to Explore History to share some of his favourite castles, museums and heritage days out.
1. Richmond Castle and RAF Fylindales
The last castle I visited was Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire. As a southerner, I think of Richmond as that rather respectable place by the river Thames, forgetting that actually, Richmond is the northern one and that the Normans built that castle when they were harrowing the north. Richmond is still very much a market town built around the castle.
But, the very next day, I went to RAF Fylindales, on the Yorkshire Moors, and realised that in so many respects, Fylindales is a castle. It’s built using the most dominating architecture you can possibly imagine, there are secrets inside it, it’s full of forces, it’s telling people both to be scared of it and also to recognise that it offers them protection. I don’t think I have seen a building which would help explain to children quite the relationship the Norman castles would have had with the surrounding landscape in Norman times, quite as much as Fylindales. The other thing about it is that – when we talk about nuclear deterrent, it tends to be a philosophical concept, doesn’t it? You can see part of the deterrent writ large in the landscape, in exactly the same way as the Normans were offering in the 12th century – don’t mess with us, we’re here. The architecture tells you that you can’t do anything about our presence here.
2. Corfe Castle
My favourite castle, as it’s the castle of my childhood, is Corfe Castle. All my holidays were on the south coast when I was little, and we always used to go to Corfe. I just used to march around the ramparts for hours on end holding a pretend sword over my shoulder, peering through the little slits, looking for invaders outside. I was completely swept away by its magic. I think if there is one place that has imbued in me a sense of the excitement of English history, it has to be Corfe Castle.
3. British Museum
I’m only about two miles from the British Museum and I’m always in and out of there, for work, to be honest, as much as for personal interest – although having said that, I’ve always had an incredibly strong relationship with the British Museum, in particular because, about eight or nine years ago, I made a series called Codex for Channel 4. It was a quiz series, set in the British Museum.
Of course, we couldn’t do it during the day because we’d be in the way of the visitors, so we would be awake all night, every night, for about five nights, in the British Museum. And while everyone else would be filming in the main concourse, I would be sneaking away with a torch and emergency lighting, and I had the absolute privilege of wandering through the Assyrian bits and the Ancient Egyptian bits, all on my own! It was terrifying, awe-inspiring and incredibly good fun all at the same time. Particularly as this was normally happening around 3.30 in the morning when I was slightly trippy from lack of sleep!
4. Sir John Soane’s Museum
There is an awful lot of small museums that I have an intense affection for. One that I have developed a particular affection for in recent years is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. I imagine almost the whole population who knows about it, thinks it’s Soames – but it’s not, it’s SOANES which came as a surprise to me. But the joy of it is that it is a museum created in his house. It’s always a fantasy that you would like to turn your house into a museum for yourself! Many of us are probably remarkably like Soane. It’s part of a Georgian terrace, and you go in through double doors. When you see a room in a museum, it’s usually something the size of a football pitch. But these are proper rooms, with some great paintings – they’ve got Canalletos, Turners, Hogarths – and you can be wandering around Holborn or Chancery Lane, and just go into it. It’s brilliant.
In particular, go and have a look at a Sarcophagus there, made of Alabaster. It’s the biggest damn thing you’ve ever seen in your life! It’s dedicated to the Pharaoh Seti, and it’s like the hugest cinema organ you’ve ever seen!
I am also ever so fond of the City of Bristol museum, because I used to take the kids there when they were little, and it was just like taking them to the football, taking them to the museum on a rainy day.
I’m going to be ludicrously jingoistic with my answer – it’s got to be the City of London. Everywhere you move, you’re confronted with another period of history, another great story, and another historical piece of architecture. I really think we undervalue the City of London, we just think of it as a repository for impossibly large amounts of capital rather than for impossibly large amounts of history. I’ve always wanted to make THE television series about the City of London, every time I go there, I grit my teeth that no-one will commission it!
There is an ancient Mycenaean town called Tiryns. It is the most fantastic ruin. To me, it’s as exciting as ancient Troy or ancient Mycenae. The architecture is known as Cyclopic, because it is so big that each piece of stone, used to build it, is absolutely massive. So big, in fact, that the ancient people of Greece thought only the Cyclops could have built it. It has never got the attention that it deserves, I think because it doesn’t feature too much in the Iliad, and the romantics of the 19th century rather dismissed it. But there’s still a lot of archaeological work being done there. It is a feast for the eye, and a lot of people who go on romantic trips to the Pelopponnese, should go to Tiryns.