Category: Ten Reasons to Live in England


This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Getting a Peek into Medieval Life. By Way of Southampton.

When I lived in England, I got to go to a lot of really cool places. (You can see a bunch of them by clicking on the Ten Reasons to Live in England tab near the top of this page.) We were members of both English Heritage and the National Trust, the two organizations that operate 98% of interesting historical sites in England, and we took advantage of those memberships on an almost weekly basis. We visited huge places like Dover castle, famous ones like Stonehenge, and grand ones like Winchester cathedral. But perhaps my favorite site of all is neither huge nor famous nor grand. It’s this place:

The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton. It’s all of five rooms huge, and open maybe 20 days a year. Ironically, although I found it one of the most fascinating sites in the UK, I managed to never take a photo there, so this and my others are ripped off of the intarwebs.

You can visit lots of cool sites around England and be awed by how they look. But they don’t often give you a sense of what it was like to live there. What people did and how they spent their days and interacted with one another and all that. And yet, once your characters emerge from their old-school dungeon and stand blinking in the pallid sunlight of your grand campaign world, that’s really what our games are all about. We build fantasy worlds based on the medieval lifestyle.

But then we fill them with characters and places that are essentially just modern equivalents with a veneer of ye oldeness. I’ve already talked about how our inns and taverns tend to be based on modern bars. Need a sword or a wand of magic missile? No problemo; just hop on down to the sword or magic shop. OK, it doesn’t look like a Wal Mart, but it probably looks like the shops in your local strip mall, with a little extra thatch on the roof for color. Our characters order off the menu at the tavern, our buildings and towns are well lit at night.

But thatch and firelight are not the only differences between the then and the now. The people of earlier years were not like The Flintstones, living just like modern people but with everything made out of rock and animals. Medieval folk—and the Romans and Victorian folk and those living in the Iron Age and the times of the Celts and the Saxons—actually lived differently. They interacted differently with the world around them and the civilization they built. If you want your game to feel a bit more authentic than an episode of Gilligan’s Island, a little insight into how these folks lived their lives is really helpful.

What Is It?

The Southampton medieval merchant’s house is, well, a house that belonged to a merchant. A wine merchant, in this particular case, as you might gather from the signage. It was also a shop, because that’s how they rolled in those days: A merchant or tradesman worked out of his (or sometimes her) home, with a room in front for business and perhaps some storage space for extra stock if that stock tended to use up much space. Although it’s hard to see in the photo above, there’s a large window underneath that overhang; a big shutter closed the shop up after hours, but opened horizontally to create a counter onto the street during business hours. Behind that is a smallish room that served as the shop itself. The rest of the building is the house (expect the cellar, which was mainly used to store wine).

It dates to the late 1200s, and it’s pretty typical of city homes throughout Europe for a period of six or seven hundred years if not longer. It’s the original building, although it saw many uses over the centuries and had to be restored back to its current (medieval) condition.

Incidentally, the merchant’s house isn’t the only authentic peek into medieval life in England. The clues are all over the place, if you know where to look for them. The roads of virtually every town and city follow the same plan they did in the Middle Ages. Heck, take the A3 into London, and marvel not just at the twists and turns as you approach the city center, but also at how the road shifts from four lanes to two and then back to some ill-defined three-and-a-half lanes, and so on. That’s quality medieval urban planning, right there.

But another good place to visit is Dover castle. (There are a million great reasons to recommend Dover; this is just one of them.) When I first moved to the UK the keep was a big mostly-empty building like the majority of castles across the UK, but while we were there they completely redid the interior as it was in the era of Henry II (earlyish Middle Ages; the period of the Crusades and Robin Hood). It’s a bit more opulent than the merchant’s house, but the kitchen and chapel and other workaday areas are also done up in this manner.

What’s Cool About It?

The merchant’s house isn’t a dazzler of a site. It’s not big and it’s not grand and it doesn’t draw a huge crowd of tourists, and that probably explains why English Heritage only bother to open and staff it about 20 days out of the year. But it is fully restored and fully furnished, and, unlike the echoing, empty chambers of most castles—or the treasure-filled galleries of stately homes—it gives you a genuine sense of what daily life was like in an era that’s almost unimaginably different than our own.

For starters, the layout isn’t what you’d come up with if you sat down with your graph paper to lay this place out for your game. Like a castle, the principal space is a great hall—a big room that serves as living, dining, and lounge space. In this case, the hall sits in the middle of the building, a two-story space that extends to the open rafters above. A staircase leads to a gallery, which connects to the front chamber (above the shop) and the rear chamber (above the kitchen, which sits at the back of the ground floor).

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By "more modern," I mean they're only 600 years old, not 800.

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By “more modern,” I mean they’re only 500 years old, not 800.

Something You Didn’t Know

The thing that struck my most about the medieval merchant’s house is the utter lack of climate control. The windows don’t close; they’re open spaces barred with wooden slats for security. Where the rafters meet the walls there’s a six-inch gap between the top of the wall and the roof, all the way around the building. The place would have been drafty and cold whenever the weather outside was. I noticed the same thing in many of the castles I visited. The truth is, a medieval building was more like a permanent tent than a modern home. It kept the rain off your head and warded the worst of the wind, but that was about it.

(You know those big old-fashioned beds with curtains all around, like the curtains Scrooge shivered behind as he attempted to hide from Christmas ghosts? That wasn’t just the style at the time–it’s how people kept from freezing to death. A fire couldn’t be left blazing unattended while people slept–even if you could afford the firewood, that was just asking for a catastrophic fire that might take out the entire city (which happened every couple of decades as it was). So the medieval house was cold at night.)

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

The medieval house also didn’t have much in the way of security. And by much, I mean anything. Most houses had no locks. But that really didn’t matter, because the house was probably not left unattended very often. The business was in the house, families were large, and anyone in the middle class or higher probably had a servant or three. The unglazed windows were barred, and the doors could be bolted from the inside for security at night. Things of particular value were kept in a large, heavy chest in the kitchen, and that might have a lock. But most of the time security was provided by the simple fact that someone was always home.

This is where I'd keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

This is where I’d keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

Appreciate that the medieval world doesn’t just feature different buildings. (In fact, it doesn’t necessarily feature different buildings at all: Go back to that first picture from Canterbury—see the word “coffee” on the building to the right? That’s a Starbucks. Seriously.) So if you want to bring it to life–if you want it to feel real— it’s not enough to stock your world with timber framing and thatched roofs. It needs to feel like the different–even foreign–place it really is.

A stable isn’t a garage; it’s a place where animals are fed and cared for, where their medical needs are seen to, where they poop and have babies and where they sometimes die.

An inn isn’t a restaurant or a roadside motel. There’s no menu–you eat what they’re making that day and you sleep where they have room.

Even houses aren’t much like what we think of them.

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This picks up from yesterday’s post, in which I begin a look at Avebury and other prehistoric sites as the third of ten reasons why every gamer should spend some serious time in the UK.

Avebury rocks.

Avebury rocks. As in, these are rocks at Avebury. Not as in Avebury is a really rockin' town. Erm, village. It might be, I suppose, but if so they've hidden it well under a thick veneer of bucolicness. . . .

The Avebury complex of sites is cool, but it’s just the tip of the prehistoric iceberg. We’ve already mentioned Stonehenge, which is only 30 miles or so away. Go another 15 miles and you come to Old Sarum, an iron-age hill fort overlooking the town of Salisbury. The hill forts were, well, forts. On hills. The defenses were rings of ditches and mounds built around the hills’ summits, in an era about a thousand years before Christ. In the case of Old Sarum, the Normans decided it was a pretty cool defensive spot and built a castle on the hill, with the hill fort ditches creating a series of majorly impressive dry moats. It was big enough that the original Salisbury cathedral was built in the outer ring of earthworks, along with a small town—all of which was moved down to Salisbury’s present location a couple of hundred years later.

Yeah, you can see why the Evil Norman Overlords thought this might be a good starting point for a castle. Imagine charging up that slope in 80 pounds of armor.

Old Sarum

Tam explores the castle. It's pretty much just ruins. But COOL ruins!

The cathedral footers at Old Sarum

Here's where Salisbury's cathedral used to be—inside the outer walls of Old Sarum. Seems crazy to tear down a perfectly good cathedral after only 200 years, but then, how many buildings see 200 years of use in the US?

Or you could go in the other direction about 20 miles and hit the Uffington White Horse. This is a huge figure set in the side of a hill, made by cutting away the turf to expose the bare chalk underneath. (Heard of the white cliffs of Dover? Well, pretty much the entire south of England is chalk two feet under the grass, so any cliff, quarry, or even highway cut is brilliant white in color.) There are many such figures in the south of England, including some spectacular ones with mysterious origins. But Uffington’s white horse is the only one that dates, almost indisputably, from antiquity. There are pictures of it on iron-age coins.

The White Horse

Another photo stolen off the intarwebs. (I'm pretty sure I have some close-ups at ground level, with me standing by one of the horse's ears, but I can't find it.) Just off-picture to the right: Another hill fort.

What’s Cool about It?

Well, what isn’t cool about Avebury? It’s a giant circle of standing stones, for Pete’s sake. Did I mention there’s a village in it?

The Avebury ditch

And did I mention that Avebury henge is BIG? Way bigger than that upstart Stonehenge. Here are my kids playing on the slope of the ring ditch, just to give you a sense of scale.

I think what’s coolest about it to me, though, is the depth it gives to the history of the region. You can visit almost any spot in the UK and find buildings from the Victorian era lining streets that existed in the Middle Ages—that describes the town I worked in and almost every settlement in Great Britain other than Milton Keynes. (And Basingstoke. And Slough, the setting of the original, UK version of The Office. Towns that don’t feature this sort of historical character are viewed so contemptuously by Britons that one friend of mine always referred to his hometown as Basinggrad.) Anyway, these roads in turn might run past churches from the Saxon era, and there are probably Roman ruins somewhere in the vicinity. But the hill forts and the White Horse were mysterious artifacts even to the Roman-age Britons—and when they were built, Avebury and Stonehenge, along with their complexes of mounds and avenues, were already 2,000 years old or older. Think about that: When the iron-age Britons, a thousand years before the Romans, were building their hill forts, Stonehenge was as ancient to them as the time of Christ is to us. Or more so.

Something You Didn’t Know

5,000 years is a long time for a bunch of rocks to stand around, especially when they’re basically just planted in the dirt. And in truth, they mostly haven’t. Many of Avebury’s stones are missing, and those standing have largely been put back into standing position in the past hundred years or so. Weather has its effects, but so does mankind. Stonehenge is pocked with damage caused by souvenir-hunting Victorians—you could rent a hammer from the local village blacksmith to chip off a piece of the stone. In Avebury in the 1300s the locals decided to pull down the stones (presumably because of pagan associations), but stopped when a man was crushed in the process. His skeleton was found under the toppled stone by 20th-Century archeologists.

Avebury skeleton

This guy was found in 1938 under a buried Avebury stone. He had coins in his purse from around 1320. Guess that's devil's payback for tearing down the devil's stones! (I didn't take this picture.)

Speaking of skeletons, it appears that the barrows—at least the long barrows, like West Kennet—were some sort of ossuary, possibly for an important or royal dynasty. But though the galleries and chambers are so easy to see as dungeon-like constructs, tunnels and rooms begging to be opened and explored, it appears that they were not left in the state we now see them in. When the bones were placed within, the spaces were then infilled with earth. Every few years or decades the earth would be excavated and the bones removed, possibly for viewing or use in some sort of ceremony. Dozens of skeletons were unearthed by archaeologists at West Kennet, but they were jumbled and often incomplete. (Also interesting: The chambers only occupy one end of the long mound; most of it is just dirt.)

On a related topic, you know the classic image of the dolmen: The coarse stone slab held up by three or four legs, forming a table or altar (or maybe some sort of crude building)? Turns out you’re looking at the skeleton of a burial mound. The slab was basically the ceiling of a chamber (probably infilled, like West Kennet) within the mound. Over the millennia, the earth of the mound washed away, leaving just the heavy stonework at its center. (There are tons of burial mounds throughout southern England—heck, I’ve seen a survey map that marked a small one just off the corner of our property, though I could never find it—but I don’t think they’re the sort that have dolmens inside them. Saw a few up in Angelsey, though.)

Burial mound on Angelsey

A burial mound on Angelsey, north Wales. Imagine washing away all the dirt, and you'd be left with a pretty classic dolmen. Say "hi" to Zeppo! (That's the dog, not the sword-wielding boy.)

So What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

The word “dolmen” comes from the Breton (a form of Celtic) words for “stone table”; the equivalent word in German implies a table built by giants. So it’s not just modern eyes that draw the wrong conclusions from seeing these things.

Which brings me to how Avebury and Stonehenge and Old Sarum and Uffington have shaped my own gamer’s mind: In most fantasy settings, the elves of Varnar (or whatever) built their shining city ten thousand years ago and blah blah blah. We get our sense of historic grandeur by preceding our events with backstories that contain really large numbers of years. Or maybe we go with something like “it’s the Third Age of Blabityblook,” implying that there were a couple of Ages beforehand—but not really implying much else. It’s lazy history-building, and you know what: You get what you pay for.

But at Avebury, you’re peaking through layered curtains of ages, through mysterious times to times even more mysterious. And the presence of the village, which dates from the Middle Ages, and the modern sheep grazing on the embankments, reminds you to think not just about the lives of the people who built and lived around Avebury Henge, but about all the people who have lived around it since—what they thought of it, what they wondered, and how they made it part of their lives. Sometimes there’s a practical connection (the Normans building a castle on Old Sarum), sometimes a mystical one (the superstitious villagers of Avebury pulling down the stones), and sometimes there’s just a sense of wonder (the Victorian tourists trudging through brush and sheep pasture, hammers in hand, to view Stonehenge).

Regardless, these layers and interactions give a much more profound sense of depth and history than throwing a few more zeroes onto a fantasy world’s dates.

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West Kennet long barrow entrance

Bruce Cordell, yours truly, and my daughter's thumb, all hanging at the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow. (Cut her some slack; she was like 4 when she took this photo.)

This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Standing Stones, Mounds, Hill Forts, and Giant White Horses. By Way of Avebury.

We all know about Stonehenge. Just in case you don’t, here’s a picture:

Stonehenge

Yeah, it's pretty cool. But it sits at the junction of two busy country roads, and from a distance, at first blush, it looks like a cheap roadside-attraction-replica of itself. That deep pitted part that's been replaced with concrete? Blame the Victorians.

When we lived in England Stonehenge was less than an hour from our house. It was free for us to visit, since we were members of both of the preservation organizations which care for it. And every single person who visited wanted to see it, of course. So we went there a lot. A Lot.

But you wanna know a secret? Stonehenge is cool and all. And it’s big. And pretty amazing. And the countryside around it is dotted with burial mounds and other prehistoric coolness. But the UK is literally covered in this sort of stuff, and Stonehenge frankly isn’t the coolest bit. For my money, that would probably be Avebury.

What’s so cool about Avebury? Well, you get the big circle of rocks. As a bonus you get some pretty darn big earthworks and some smaller rock circles and some galleries and outliers. And unlike Stonehenge, you can walk among the rocks, going right up and touching them to your heart’s content. You have to dodge the sheep to do it; large parts of the henge do double-duty as sheep fields.

But that’s not Avebury’s only double-duty. It also contains a village. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it overlaps with a village; the village—also called Avebury—sits half-in, half-out of the circle. But still. It’s a typical picturesque rural English village. In a giant circle of standing stones.

Avebury from the air

I never flew over Avebury, so I stole this picture off the net. Look: sheep!

What Is It?

Avebury is a neolithic (as Dr. Jones would say, “from neo meaning new and lithic—I-T-H-I-C—meaning stone”) stone circle—the largest in Europe. (Actually, it’s three stone circles: There are two small ones within the main big one.) Unlike Stonehenge, the rocks in Avebury are not cut and dressed, and there are no overhead pieces—just upright sarsen stones, pretty jagged and uneven in shape. It doesn’t look like the Avebury circles had the same astronomical functions as Stonehenge, for although there are (I think) some significant basic alignments, you don’t get the precise lineups with key astronomical events like you do at Stonehenge.

Avebury at ground level.

The view from ground level. This place is really big—like 400 yards across or something. You gotta watch out for the sheep. Actually, the sheep stay outta your way—it's the sheep poop you gotta watch out for.

But you do get some bonus stuff. A mile or so away is Silbury Hill, a large, conical, manmade mound. There are burial mounds all over England, especially in the area around Avebury and Stonehenge, but most are like 30 feet across and maybe 15 feet high. Silbury Hill is ten times that size. It’s the size of a small Egyptian pyramid. There’s nothing else like it in Europe.

Silbury Hill

It's a mound of dirt. But reaaally big. But still just a mound of dirt. But pretty awe-inspiring when you think that the closest thing to tools they had back when this was made were sticks and fingernails. OK, that might not actually be true.

And just a short hike from Silbury Hill is West Kennet long barrow, a great example of a type of barrow mound formed in a long, cigar-like shape rather than the stereotypical circular mound. Unlike Silbury Hill, which seems to be nothing more than an enormous mound of earth, West Kennet has an underground gallery made of slabs of stone, with little chambers off to either side. (And speaking of Dr. Jones, the diagram on the chalk board behind him in that scene was almost certainly inspired by West Kennet.)

West Kennet inside

Inside West Kennet. It's not big at all, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in atmosphere. Three seconds after this photo was taken I stepped on the hand of some new-agey type who was meditating in the pitch blackness of that alcove behind me.

On top of West Kennet

West Kennet on top. It's basically a long pile of dirt; only a small portion at one end has chambers within.

Break time. This post is getting pretty long, so we’ll pick it up again tomorrow with some more on all this stuff, a few thoughts on what’s cool about it, and what it means to the gamer!

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

This picks up from yesterday’s post, in which I begin a look at the English pub (particularly the Selborne Arms) as the second of ten reasons why every gamer should spend some serious time in the UK.

What’s Cool About It?

Walk into the Selborne Arms. It doesn’t look anything like the American concept of a bar, an image built on that of the western saloon. The space is divided into three or four relatively small rooms; in many of the rooms a small bit of bar occupies a corner or back wall. The ceilings are low, with the old, hand-hewn beams exposed and blackened by smoke. There’s a fireplace in every room, and if the weather is chilly (this is England, so the answer is yes) there’s a fire burning.

Inside the Selborne Arms. The bar to the left is only ten or twelve feet long; it doesn't dominate the room. It does, however, connect through to other rooms—you can sort of see one through the opening behind the bar. Beard guy sits at the left end of this bar, just out of the picture.

English village pubs are largely patronized by regulars, but there’s a real regular here: An older gent sitting at one end of the one of the bars, beer in hand, with a long gray beard. He’s such a regular that there are pictures on the wall of the same scene, with the same guy sitting in the same seat with the same beer and same long gray beard. Old pictures.

I don’t know anything about this old guy—I never spoke to him or heard his name. But if I had to guess, I’d say he harkens from the days when Selborne was still a farming village rather than an upscale commuter settlement. Like most village pubs, the Selborne Arms serves folk of all stripes. It’s mostly upscale diners now, with a healthy dose of blue-collar drinkers, but the reverse would have been more common up until the last few decades.

Something You Didn’t Know

The Eagle and Child (sometimes called the Bird and Baby (or the Fowl and Fetus)) in Oxford, where Tolkien regularly met with Lewis and his other literary buddies. It was probably built as a residence or shop, but that's speculation on my part (based partially on its layout and partially on the historical documentation of its owners' occupations). Inside it's a warren of tiny little spaces.

Why are English pubs subdivided into small rooms? I would guess it’s because they weren’t usually purpose-built as pubs, but were kit-bashed from large houses. But my aforementioned Hen and Chicken was built specifically as a coach house (I think), and it’s the same way. Of course, the Brits are obsessed with tradition and comfort (witness the wallpaper and armchairs in Wallace & Gromit’s rocketship), so even in 1740 the Hen and Chicken’s proprietors could have preferred to follow the village pub model rather than put people off with a new sort of design.

Nowadays, most pubs are owned by national breweries. But until the last century, the Selborne Arms, like most village pubs, brewed its own ale and beer. In fact, the hops kiln is now the bathrooms.

There’s not much of a waitstaff at the typical English pub—it’s not like a restaurant, and is not criss-crossed by a flow of buxom broads in low-cut peasant blouses. You order food and beverages at the bar and tell them what table you’re at. You get your drinks right there, and someone from the kitchen brings your food when its ready. There may or may not be a printed menu—just as often, the food offerings are on a chalkboard and can vary day to day—and in the old days there probably wasn’t a menu at all. You ate what they happened to cook that day.

One last one: Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham. Claims to be England's oldest extant pub, founded in 1189 as a stopping place for pilgrams headed for the Holy Land. Built against the cliff, it's a conventional pub at the front . . .

. . . with a handful of rooms built into caves at the back! The time I visited, it was chock full, as most English pubs mostly are, with a regular, local crowd.

So What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

Well, if your game is really medieval, you’re only going to see inns, taverns, and pubs in towns and cities. And you may want to rethink their design; a set of small, interconnected rooms may be more realistic (and perhaps atmospheric) than a western saloon in medieval dress. In a rural village, your characters are gonna have to ask around for the public house, and then beg lodging there if they need it.

In a setting inspired by later times, coach house type establishments might be common along major roads. But again, ditch the saloon.

So there you go: The second reason every gamer should live in the UK. I wish I had a few more of my own photos to show, but you’ll have to settle for what I dredged up. More great reasons to live in the UK in future installments!

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

The Selborne Arms in the early 1900s.

This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: The English Pub, by Way of The Selborne Arms

The tavern is one of the great staples of fantasy gaming. It’s where the characters meet. Where they speak to that mysterious stranger. Where they cut purses and goose wenches. The tavern is the medieval equivalent to the modern bar or roadhouse.

Or is it? Americans don’t really have a good context for understanding the English pub—and, hence, the medieval tavern. (Here in the States, even those bars that style themselves on pubs really aren’t, because the pub simply fills a different social role in the UK.) So we tend to cast our fantasy inns and taverns on the models we have at hand: bars, restaurants, roadhouses, and roadside motels. But spending a little time in an actual English pub (or three) can give you a different perspective.

The Selborne Arms in—wait for it!—Selborne, Hampshire. I used to drive past it every day on my way to and from work.

I’ve chosen the Selborne Arms as my example, because I’ve spent some time in it and it’s pretty typical. I could just as easily have chosen the Spread Eagle or the White Horse or the Hen and Chicken or any of a zillion others—like the drinking of tea, pubs are every bit as ubiquitous in England as stereotyping would lead one to believe. My apologies on the photos: I’ve pulled most of them off the net; I didn’t photograph many pubs. And there aren’t many interior shots, because you’re no more likely to photograph the interior of a pub in England than the interior of an Applebee’s here in the US.

What Is It?

The Selborne Arms is a village pub (short for “public house”) in, well, Selborne. Hampshire. Every village in the UK has a pub. Every. Single. One. Selborne is a medium-sized village and actually has two. (The town where I worked—Alton—has a population of 19,000 and 26 pubs. An American town of that size with 26 bars would have to be a college town—and a raucous one at that—or a real den of iniquity. But that’s a typical ratio in the UK.)

The English pub is inextricably linked to the village, and to understand it you have to understand that fact. Cast your mind back to the middle ages: The village was a manor, basically a big farm owned by the lord and tended by a couple hundred farmhands—his peasants. It was not an urban site, and it didn’t have a strip mall or fast food joint or general store or really any commercial enterprise at all. What commerce existed—like maybe a blacksmith or mill—was there simply to support the agricultural activity, and was licensed by the lord. You couldn’t just decide to open a shop unless you cut an extortionate deal with the lord, and even then it’s unlikely there’d be enough business to keep you going.

But the peasants needed something to do in their few off hours, and one activity not traditionally overseen by the lord was the brewing of ale. Nobody had the means or permission to set up a real brewery, but anybody could brew a few pots of ale in the corner of their cottage. So if you did so, when your ale was ready you’d spread the word and everyone would know they could come over to your house, buy a bucket of your ale, and hang out for the evening. For the few days or a week or however long it took for your ale to be all drunken (dranken?) up, yours was the “public house.”

When you ran out and someone else’s batch was ready, that house would become the public house, and that’s where everyone would spend their evenings. And after that, some other house. And so on. So in the high middle ages a village pub wasn’t an actual business establishment—it was just the home that happened to see that use at the time.

Over time, of course, that all changed. The feudal system waned and commerce became more important. Operating a public house full-time became a viable commercial operation, so you began to see what we think of as the pub. But the social nature of the village pub didn’t change. It never became the equivalent of the American bar, and here’s why:

A peasant’s cottage isn’t like an American home. It doesn’t have a large formal living room that nobody ever uses, or a family room that can seat all your friends and then some. It’s small, cramped, and utilitarian. (That’s still somewhat true in the modern age: England is a small, crowded country, filled with small, crowded homes.) There just isn’t room to hang out with your friends. Like Shawn of the Dead, when you want to hang out, you head for the Winchester. The pub is, in effect, the entire village’s living room.

American bars have regulars. The English village pub has, well, the villagers.

The Hawkley Inn in Hawkely, Hampshire. Yes, Hawkley really is that rural (my wife got hit by a tractor at the far end of that hedge), though the horses might not be a daily fixture. Nor their piss. You know what other commercial enterprises Hawkley hosts? Nada. None. Zip. A church, a village hall, a cricket field, the Hawkley Inn, and a few dozen homes. And a phone booth. The prototypical rural English village!

There’s one more noteworthy step to the evolution: The coach house. In the later middle ages and beyond, as travel become more common and regular trade and coach routes were established, the coach house came into existence. (Or, perhaps, gained a resurgence—the practice goes back to the Romans, who called such establishments tabernea—now the modern word “tavern.”) These inns were built on the public house model, but were optimized for larger numbers of guests and reliably served food and provided lodging (which pubs might or might not do) as well as offering stables and fodder for animals (unlikely in a village pub).

The Hen and Chicken, along the busy A31 highway near Alton. The A31 follows an ancient route from London to Winchester, and the H&C was built as a coach house in the 1700s. It's now an upscale eatery, but with a local pub constituency as well.

Well, as in my last installment, this one’s getting a little long. Think I’ll take a break here. Tomorrow I’ll pick up again, with a few thoughts on what’s cool about the English pub, and maybe a few more tidbits you didn’t know!

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Last week’s article on castles, as the first of my Top Ten Reasons Every Gamer Should Live in England, draw a lot of attention. I could (and maybe someday will) write a whole book on the subject, but I don’t have the time right now. So instead, here are a few more notes. Many of these derive from the comments you (or someone like you) left on the earlier post; others are just more tidbits I figured I might share. Enjoy!

A set of machicolations, seen from below. These are not as common as you'd think, in part because they're fairly late in the arc of castle-building technology. This is at Bodiam.

Same machicolation, looking down from above. The effectiveness is obvious, but they require a pretty thin battlement and create a bit of vulnerability, so they were used sparingly.

A real dungeon, this one at Raglan castle (or is it Goodrich?). Not very big. No chains, no torture devices. Just cold, dark, misery, and pneumonia. That outta do the trick.

The barbican: A tiny castle that stands in front of the castle's gate. Very few of these survive, at least in the UK. This one's at Lewes (pronounced "Lewis"), where, ironically, it's in great shape but the castle itself is almost otherwise gone. Look: Machicolations over the gate entrance!

The Lewes barbican again, showing how it stands close to but outside the castle walls.

And again, this time showing the view between the barbican and the castle gate proper.

We've all heard of the concentric castle. Beaumaris on Anglesey is the perfect example. Here's the outer wall and moat. Lovely, eh?

And here's the outer ward, with the outer wall to our left and the inner to our right.

And, finally, the inner bailey. Beaumaris is huge, built to the ideal, and perfectly symmetrical—exactly the type of castle a gamer would design. It was so frickin' mighty that it was only built as tall as you see here; the towers were never finished. And what looks like ruins are actually unfinished inner buildings. It did the job even in this half-complete state.

Multi-layer wall walks at Caernarfon. In most castles, you just shoot from the tops of the walls. At Caernarfon, there are galleries built into the walls letting archers fire from several levels.

I've been talking about UK castles so far, but their design principles aren't universal. Here's the Moorish Silves castle in southern Portugal. I love the tower set out from the wall.

And here's the inside. Obviously there's some modern construction here, but the big open space is typical. Moorish castles seem to lack the central strong point (a motte, keep, or major gatehouse) that European castles are usually built around.

And on the subject of Moorish castles, here's the totally awesome one at Sintra in Portugal. Built on the top of a mountain strewn with giant boulders. Like Silves, it's just walls and towers, with no central building as part of the fortification.

Another view of Sintra. This is one spectacular castle!

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This picks up from yesterday’s post, in which I begin a look at British castles (particularly Conwy in northern Wales) as the first of ten reasons why every gamer should spend some serious time in the UK. 

Something You Didn’t Know

OK, so other than the coolness, what can the gamer learn with a visit to Conwy or many of Britain’s awesome castles?

Let me start with something you usually won’t see: What the castle looked like originally. We’re so used to weathered gray hunks of stone that that’s become our standard image. Anything prettier or neater would seem, well, unrealistic. Lacking in authenticity.

But they weren’t worn down and gray when they were built. Most castles were plastered and/or painted, for example. Even when they were surfaced in stone, it was usually smoother and better-fitted than it looks now. Those rounded edges and worn steps were once sharp. There weren’t weeds growing from the battlements. I wish I could share a photo from back then, but, of course, there ain’t none. So have a look at this:

A bit of plaster still on the wall at Goodrich castle. And look: there's some graffiti from the 1840s!

What you will learn, especially if you visit a lot of castles, is that despite their extreme versatility in terms of general design, there are a lot of commonalities. In the same way a modern house, no matter its style or layout, will have a certain assortment of rooms—bedrooms, kitchen, etc.—you see certain features in nearly every castle. A great hall, with a screen and a pantry and buttery adjacent. (“Buttery” means “the room where the drinks are kept,” ’cause they were in butts, or casks. Not “the room with all the butter.” Or “the room where people don’t wear pants.”) Garderobes. Kitchens. Storerooms. Surprisingly high ceilings (your typical 80-foot-tall keep is usually just three or four floors inside). Surprisingly few bedrooms, because almost nobody slept in their own room.

And while we’re at it, here are a couple more cool bits that give you a bit of insight into how castles were actually designed and used:

Inside a bit of hoarding that's been reconstructed at Caerphilly castle. Hoarding is a temporary wooden structure built over the top of the castle wall—so that stone to the right is the exterior of the castle. You enter the hoarding by stepping through the gaps in the crenellations. It wasn't actually all that common. Say hi to Liv!

The moat around Bodiam castle. To keep people from getting close to the walls, right? Actually, it's mostly to make the earth below it too soft and muddy to tunnel through. Keeps bad guys from collapsing the walls from beneath. (Though it's shot so you can't see the moat, in at least one exterior scene Bodiam is the fourth castle: the one that stayed after the first three burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp.)

Murder holes. Also Bodiam. But were they really for raining death down on attackers? Probably not: More likely, they were a primitive fire suppression system. Rain water down when attackers are trying to get through the inner gate by setting fire to it.

There are a thousand other bits I’d like to illustrate, but I’m running out of time and photographic evidence. Suffice it to say, Conwy castle alone is worth a visit from any gamer, but if you can spare some time in the UK there are dozens of other great examples. And once you’ve seen them, you’ll never design a fantasy castle the same way again!

So there you have it: The first reason why every gamer should live (I mean, spend some time) in England (erm, the UK). More great reasons in a future post or two!

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Conwy Castle in northern Wales

Let's start with a pic of a castle, shall we? Cause you just can't go wrong with castles.

This is a first in a series of articles in which I’m gonna talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. In fact, that picture above was taken in Wales, and to say it was England would really (and justifiably) piss off a lot of Welsh. Confused? See yesterday’s post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. And I’m going to skip over a lot of the most common tourist destinations in Britain. If I don’t cover your favorite spot, it’s not because it isn’t absolutely wonderful—I’m sure it is!—but because it’s not chock-a-block stuffed with relevancy to the gamer. Or, more likely, it’s slightly less chock-a-block relevant than the places I did choose to cover. Cause that’s the point of this series: Almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Castles

I picked castles for this one because, as the caption above says, you just can’t go wrong. Every gamer who’s picked up a funny-shaped die has spent time in an imaginary castle. So what’s the real thing like?

What is it?

We all know what a castle is. But to get more specific, my poster child for this excursion is Conwy castle in northern Wales—but the competition was stiff. Caernarfon? Beaumaris? Caerphilly? Dover? Bodiam? Chepstow? Warwick? You can hardly swing a cat in the UK without hitting a castle (that’s rough on British cats)—and a lot of them are Really Cool. (You might think any castle would be Really Cool, and you’d be right. But there are sooo many in the UK that you eventually become discriminatory.) By the way, if you’ve ever read David Macaulay’s excellent book Castle (and any world-building GM should have it on his or her shelf), the fictitious castle in question is closely based on Conwy—though the floorplan isn’t the same, all other aspects look more like Conwy than any of the other castles in the region.

See where that guy's standing? That's the front door. Have fun stormin' the castle!

What’s Cool About It?

Edward I built Conwy in the 1280s as part of a program of building that has made northern Wales the world’s undisputed mecca for castle visiting. He and his predecessors had been struggling with the Welsh princes for, well, ever, and Edward eventually decided that building a bunch of the world’s toughest and most outlandishly expensive castles—in hostile territory—would be cheaper and easier than the wars he’d waged so far in the effort. This is significant to the gamer for two reasons:

  • First, this was at the absolute peak of the castle’s technology, and most of these castles were built from the ground up instead of modified from older castles. These are the platonic ideal of the castle, built by people starting from scratch and using every trick in the book. Beaumaris, in particular, looks more like the castle a modern GM would create than anything on earth. You can practically see the graph paper grid on the ground.
  • Second, Edward was, for all intents and purposes, the evil overlord in this scenario. And that’s why I picked Conwy: It’s the most imposing and overlordish of the lot.

When I call northern Wales a mecca, I ain’t joking. The castles were built densely enough so that they could reinforce each other—within a day’s travel, or about 20 miles. In many cases, you can stand on a tower in one of them and see one or more of the others. Edward’s building program was so successful that two of the castles—Caernarfon and Beaumaris—were never completely finished. They were awesome enough to cow the rather fierce Welsh even in an incomplete state.

And that was no accident: These castles were built to impress as much as defend. Caernarfon’s angled (not round) towers and striped stonework was deliberately chosen to resemble the walls of Constantinople—because Constantinople those days was associated with the Romans, the only group who had previously subjugated the Welsh. (This fact implies that your 13th-Century Brit on the street had some idea of what Constantinople’s walls looked like, which in itself is an interesting factoid.)

Modeled specifically after Constantinople. Do you know what Constantinople looks like? Apparently the Welsh did.

In Conwy’s case, check these out:

 

Are those stone spiky bits sticking up there?

Why, yes. Yes, they are.

Conwy isn’t just huge and tall and dark and imposing. Although they’re now weathered down to near-invisibility, when it was built every single crenellation was topped with vicious-looking stone spikes. That’s right: Edward put spikes all over this castle just to make it look extra mean. You see that sort of thing in fantasy all the time, but it’s pretty darn rare in the real world. Most castles are like battleships: Imposing, but utilitarian. See what I mean about the evil overlord thing?

Whew! This has been a long post, and I’m barely getting started. I think I’m going to break it here, and come back with the rest tomorrow!

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

Tomorrow I’m going to post the first of some thoughts on what living in the UK can offer the gamer—and the terminology is likely to stir some confusion. So to prepare you for our little sojourn, I offer this entertaining and enlightening video (thanks @brindy!):

Enjoy, and start packing—we leave tomorrow!

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

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