Traveler’s Bookshelf: Hidden Treasures of England

I’ve been to 25 countries and I’ve never seen any place with so many overlooked treasures as England. Maybe that’s why I keep making excuses to work here. A wonderful new book by Michael McNay, Hidden Treasures of England, reveals some of England’s lesser-known artistic and historical highlights.

McNay spends much of his time exploring churches in search of rare stonework and fine Medieval stained glass, and he’s had some fun along the way. When he visited Eyam to see a ninth-century cross outside the famous plague church, he relates, “I asked Mrs Furness, the duty parishioner on the church bookstall, how Eyam should be pronounced: Eeyam? Iyam? ‘Eem,’ she said severely, ‘as in redeem.'”

In Durham Cathedral he lavishes praise on the elegant tomb of St. Cuthbert, with its unique Anglo-Saxon wood carvings, and the stunning pectoral cross of the saint himself, now in the cathedral treasury. The omission of the somber and imposing tomb of the Venerable Bede, also in Durham Cathedral, is a bit strange, but highlights the fact that for every jewel McNay shows us, England has several more hidden away.

It’s not all churches. We get the “mildly erotic” tapestries of Newby Hall, Yorkshire, an impressive promenade at Bridlington, Yorkshire, seaside from the days before the easyJet generation, even an old milestone at Brampton, Cambridgeshire, with carved hands pointing the way to London and other towns. Such milestones used to be a common sight in the English countryside but were buried during World War Two to confuse the Nazis in case they invaded. McNay knows just when to throw in an interesting anecdote.

McNay also has an eye for overlooked elements of famous places. The section on Trafalgar Square skips Nelson’s Column in favor of the monument to King Charles I, the first bronze equestrian statue made in England. You can often see it in photos of the square, but it’s rarely the focus of attention.

The book is richly illustrated with color photographs and while its 550 hardcover pages will make you think twice about putting it in your suitcase, it makes an engaging read for armchair travelers and a useful guide for those planning their next trip. Hidden Treasures of England is published by Random House and distributed in England by Guardian Books.