Interest in archaeology holidays has increased massively in recent years. Television programmes like Time Team and Coast have helped drive bookings for breaks that uncover the secrets of the Bronze Age, Saxon or Roman times.
Keri Jones of the Great Destinations Radio Show spoke with two tour operators. Both archaeologists will guide you around the most historic sites in Britain and on the Continent.
Mary Baker is based in West Wales and operates Archaeo Tours. Mary was motivated to study for a degree in archaeology because she wanted people to appreciate the rich history and real-life stories on our doorstep.
“People go away to Disneyland Paris to stand in a plastic castle to learn about mediaeval knights. Why?” Mary asks. “You don’t have to make anything up with British history – it’s so fascinating.” She couldn’t understand why myths like the Arthurian legend were so popular when the facts are more interesting than the fiction. “We should be celebrating it,” she enthused.
Mary covers the historic sites you’d expect including Orkney and Hadrian’s Wall but she has just added Norfolk to her itinerary. “There’s so much to offer there from ancient graves to Saxon sites and medieval history,” she says. She also rates her home turf of Pembrokeshire highly for history and for the traditional aspects of a holiday – its scenery.
“There’s Carreg Samson, a wonderful burial chamber overlooking the sea.” She also enjoys trips to another coastal site at Strumble Head, especially on a sunny day when the sea is “wonderfully blue.”
Mary does include what she refers to as ‘the honeypot sites’ in her tours, if the clients want to visit them. I questioned why anyone travelling to Stonehenge needs a guide because the site is so well served with interpretation panels. Mary says she’ll try and find some less well-known locations nearby so the group can discuss and compare what they have seen.
Mary also thinks Scotland offers a wealth of places worth visiting. There’s been lots of publicity about archaeological finds in Orkney that have helped popularise that destination. “Orkney is great when you’ve got all that daylight in the middle of June. We like to visit places before the crowds. First thing in the morning we have the Ring of Brodgar to ourselves and we go back again in the evening and watch the sun setting over it for a different aspect.”
So what happens when a couple book a tour but one is excited by archaeology and one is less interested? “We’ll make it fun,” says Mary. “We can tie in wildlife or even whisky. There are plenty of distilleries, and boat trips can add to the fun. They don’t have to look at archaeology all day but I think if they did they would enjoy the experience,” she says.
Mary’s had a few requests for Cornwall too. I get lots of visitors from the States and Australia who want to know about the areas that their forefathers came from and how people used to live there. The TV show Poldark has driven interest in that South Western county. And so has the hit Martin Clunes show. “People have seen Doc Martin and want to go there,” she says. “I tie in a trip to the sites on Bodmin Moor.”
Mary is very passionate about the past and her excitement is infectious. I imagine you’d have fun on one of her breaks. “History is a living thing and people come with own stories. You can see their enthusiasm grow as they learn more,” she says. Mary takes time to get to know clients beforehand so she can create the itinerary around what interests them. Some guests are fascinated by Roman remains while others may be intrigued by Neolithic sites. “It’s up to the customer and I build the tour around them,” she says.
Some of Mary’s holidays last for a week or a fortnight. She says she finds hotels and often meets the guests at the railway station or an airport. And meals play an important role, too. “Sometimes I will find interesting sites to visit on the way to the accommodation and prepare a picnic which we can enjoy when we visit that site,” she says. “It’s important to eat nice food,” she says, before pausing. “It sounds like this is all about food,” she laughs.
Mary picks hotels where the discussion is an important part of the day. The evening meal allows the group to relax and plan what to do next. At this time Mary listens to her guests’ views and, if need be, tweaks their programme accordingly.
Mary has some great stories about her guests too. She’s clearly a people person. During our chat she tells me how she drove with two of her guests’ underwear drying inside her car after the woman were drenched during a trip to Offa’s Dyke. Mary has hosted generals, FBI agents and writers on her trips. “Authors are great fun,” she says. “Sometime we end up looking for places where characters would live or historical implements they could use in a murder in their books,” she says. Mary spent one evening on tour reading a guest’s script to fellow travellers, whilst drinking whisky in the hotel lobby, in order to check the authenticity of the book.
Archeo Tour is not a. During our discussion, Mary used the word “exciting” eleven times. I think one of her breaks couldn’t be further away from the dry and dusty experience you had from history lessons in school.
Mary’s company has a website at www.archaeotours.co.uk.
Simon Butler is based in the Birmingham area where he operates Hidden History Travel and Archaeology, offering some UK-based trips as well as further afield in Europe.
One of his holidays in Kent mixes mediaeval history with tales of shipwrecks and smuggling along the Channel coast. But many of Simon’s tours take guests to sites around the Mediterranean. “The region is very popular whether for food or lifestyle,” he says. ”And it’s also got fantastic archaeology.”
Simon’s ancient Greece tour has proven very popular. “It’s almost like an emotional connection with the place that was the foundation of Western civilization.” His company will guide your around the great European sites including Olympia, Delphi and the Acropolis in Athens. Italy is also on his list. “There are the classic destinations there. Pompeii is the most famous site in the world,” he says. “Its vivid and visual archaeology is on a huge scale with incredible preservation of the whole townscape after the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius, which buried it in 79 AD.”
So where would Simon recommend for somebody new to archaeology holidays – a place where they can get a good overview? “Malta” is his immediate response. “It has surprisingly good archaeology and history and its timeline goes back to some of the earliest temples in the world, which predates the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Malta gives very good insights into the prehistoric world and also has great history with the Knights of St John.” Valetta, the capital, is also a World Heritage Site because of its early baroque architecture. “Malta caters for wide interest from different periods so it’s a good introduction and is also a really nice place to hang out with a typical Mediterranean island feel to it,” says Simon.
I was curious to know how much free time there was to enjoy the destinations. “Well, we avoid shepherding people around like a mass tourist,” he tells me. “We try and get off the beaten track and time visits to avoid the busier periods. It spoils things if you feel rushed because people want to spend time absorbing the sites and enjoying the atmosphere. Just being there is important,” Simon explains.
Some days, Simon tells me it’s nice to head back to the hotel early “and enjoy a sundowner.” “We have designed tours to make sure there’s a balance of leisure and interest. It’s not exclusive or highly intensive. They are designed to bring out a general interest and create context,” he says.
I asked Simon whether his itineraries had been affected by instability in North Africa, Syria and now in Turkey. He told me that he’d been to Libya and to Syria before the recent conflict. The loss of access was a shame for people interested in archaeology as the countries had “fantastic sites.” Now, he told me, “Turkey has become worrying.” Some of the interesting early sites take you to close the Syrian border so that’s not advised. Although it’s thought that the Aegean coast sites like Ephesus are a lot safer, he’s not operating trips there this year. Simon says he’ll keep an open mind with Turkey and see what happens following the recent coup attempt, “because it is well worth it archaeologically.”
You can find more information about Simon’s tours on Hiddenhistory.co.uk.