Extraordinary place England, once you start to delve into its nooks and crannies and look back through the centuries. Christopher Winn has done just that to uncover the unlikely claims to fame that make the country special. Here is a selection

Extraordinary place England, once you start to delve into its nooks and crannies and look back through the centuries. Christopher Winn has done just that to uncover the unlikely claims to fame that make the country special. Here is a selection


First balloon flight over Britain

One September afternoon in 1784, the good people of Standon Green End, a well-mannered Hertfordshire village, were going about their business when an excitable voice hailed them from aloft with strange cries. Strong men quailed, women gathered up their children and ran. The sky darkened, there was the rustle of silk and then the great hydrogen balloon of Vincenzo Lunardi, Secretary to His Excellency the Neopolitan Ambassador to the Court of St James, landed among them. He had just completed the first balloon flight over Britain. After a pause to regain his composure, Lunardi clambered out of the basket with his dog and gave a flamboyant bow to the crowd of farmers.

Lunardi had taken off from the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company at Moorfields in London, 30 miles (48 km) away. With him were his dog, his cat and a pigeon. Also on board were a pair of oars, with which he intended to propel the balloon through the air by "rowing". Only the dog made it all the way with him. At North Mimms, about 10 miles (16 km) to the south-east, noticing that the cat was cold, he had descended and, while hovering just off the ground, handed the animal to a dumbstruck passing gentlewoman. Then, doffing his hat, he wafted back into the sky to continue on his way. There is a stone set in the ground at Standon Green End.


Britain's oldest sporting venue

Chester's racecourse, The Roodee, or 'Rood Island', lies on the site of the old Roman wharves and is Britain's oldest sporting venue. Horse races have been run here since 1540, making Chester Races The oldest sporting event in Britain still held at its original site.


Oldest church in England

Here, we are on the edge of the world. The land is flat, the wind races over the Essex fields and the marshes echo with haunting bird cries. A long stretch of Roman road leads east from the village, becomes a track and then a path. At the end of this path, where the sea meets the sky, is the oldest church in England. St Peter's Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea, was built to mark the spot where St Cedd landed in 654, on his mission from Lindisfarne to lighten the Dark Ages of the heathen East Angles.

Using bricks and stone from the ruined Roman fort of Othona, the Saxons created what was almost a cathedral, 50 ft (15.2m) long, 22 ft (6.7m) wide and 25 ft (7.6m) high. The people of Essex worshipped here for 600 years or more, but, so remote was this spot, that congregations soon dwindled and the chapel eventually passed out of knowledge, which is probably how it has survived. In 1920, a passing rambler noticed the noble proportions. He started to excavate and soon realised that he was looking at sacred ground. So St Peter's Chapel was restored as a place for peace and reflection. It is still a long way away from the rest of the world, but well worth the pilgrimage.

Leith Hill

Highest point in south- east England

Leith Hill, at 965ft (294m), is the highest point in South-East England. The top of Leith Hill Tower, originally known as Prospect House, is 1,029ft (314m) above sea level and, looking eastward, there is nothing higher between here and the Ural Mountains in Russia. The tower at Coldharbour, Surrey, was built in 1766 by Richard Hull of Leith Hill Place, who is buried underneath - head down so that he will be the right way up to meet his Maker when the world is turned upside down on Judgement Day.

Causey Arch

First railway bridge

There is something melancholy here. The Durham countryside is bleak, the towns industrial and grim. A grey road strikes north from Stanley. The car park is scruffy. A path leads to dark, dank woods and descends into the gloom. No birds sing, the walls of the canyon close in, the silence is oppressive. Nothing seems to happen here, time hangs heavy. But follow the mossy path along the rocky stream and then, suddenly, stark against the grey sky, there it is: a simple, perfect arch, completely beautiful, suspended above the river, the first railway bridge the world had ever seen. Built in 1726, Causey Arch was financed by a group of coal owners called the "Grand Allies" to carry a wagonway for transporting coal from Tanfield to the River Tyne.

At its peak, more than 900 wagons a day crossed this bridge, drawn by horses along two timber rail tracks. For 30 years, it was the longest single span In Britain, 105ft (32m) across and 80ft (24m) high above the Causey Burn. It was the most ambitious feat of engineering anyone had attempted since Roman times. Since no one had any experience of constructing anything like it, the builder, local mason Ralph Wood, relied on what he knew of Roman technology. His first attempt, in 1725, fell down, and he was so sure that this second effort would collapse too that he hurled himself off the bridge and plunged to his death in the gorge below.

The Isle of Sheppey

The birthplace of British Aviation

The Isle of Sheppey is the birthplace of British Aviation. In 1908, the three Shorts brothers, Horace, Eustace and Oswald, formed a partnership to build six Wright flyer aircraft, under licence from the Wright brothers. They already made balloons at premises in Battersea, but these were not big enough for aircraft, so, in 1909, they moved to Sheppey, Kent. The land here was perfect for flying, being flat, windy and close to London. It had been leased by a flying friend of theirs, Griffin Brewer at Shellness Beach, adjacent to 16th-century Mussel Manor, near Lhysdown, they built the world's first aircraft factory.

On May 2, 1909, John Brabazon, who housed his Voisin aircraft in one of Shorts's hangars, flew it 500 yards (457 m) at a height of 35 ft (10.7 m) over the Leysdown fields, thus completing the first flight in Britain and becoming the first Englishman to fly. He was awarded Pilot's Licence No. I. Two days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright came to visit the Shorts factory at Mussel Manor and were driven down from London by C S Rolls in the First Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The first aircraft made by Shorts, Shorts No. 1, was made for C S Rolls. Shorts No. 2 was made for Brabazon and it was in this aircraft, on October 30, 1909, that he flew the First Circular Mile In Britain, in fact nearly 2 miles (3km) at a height of 20ft (6m) circling over Mussel Manor.

In November 1909, the Shorts moved their factory to bigger premises at Eastchurch, just up the road. These buildings have since become Eastchurch Prison. Shorts Brothers went on to design and build seaplanes for the Royal Navy and, in 1912, at Sheerness, a Shorts 538 became the first plane in the world to take off from a warship. In 1915, a Shorts Admiralty Type 184 became the first aircraft in the world to sink an enemy ship at sea with a torpedo. Shorts also built the ill-fated R101 at their vast hangars in Cardington, Bedfordshire.

C S Rolls was killed in a flying accident in 1910. Brabazon gave up flying for a while after Rolls's death, but eventually he decided to take to the air again and was the first man to fly under Tower Bridge. He was given a peerage by Winston Churchill and became Lord Brabazon of Tara. He died in 1964.

Mussel Manor, now Muswell Manor, is still there, hidden behind a collection of holiday caravans, but well worth a visit. Inside is a fascinating photograph of the "Founding Fathers of Aviation". Sitting together in the front row are C S Rolls, Orville and Wilbur Wright and John Brabazon, while standing behind are all three Shorts brothers.


Britain's first seaside resort

Brighton became Britain's first seaside resort towards the end of the 18th century when Dr Richard Russell wrote about the health benefits of bathing in the sea at the tiny Sussex fishing village of Brighthelmstone.

One of the first people to register at "Dr Brighton", as it became known, was the Prince Regent , who rented a small farmhouse there in 1783. He enjoyed it so much that he bought the farmhouse and commissioned Henry Holland, and then John Nash, to convert it into the flamboyant Brighton Pavillion. Here he could indulge in more raffish pursuits. Hence Brighton's reputation as the home of the "dirty weekend". Brighton was also the first seaside resort to officially sanction a nudist beach.

The oldest hotel in Brighton is the Old Ship, which once belonged to Captain Nicholas Tettersell, owner of the coal brig on which the future Charles II escaped to France after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

To commemorate the event, the Old Ship organises an annual Royal Escape yacht race from Brighton to Fecamp in Normandy.

The Metropole Hotel was the finishing post for the Emancipation Run in 1896. This was the first London to Brighton Car Run, held to celebrate the abolition of the rule that required every mechanised road vehicle to be preceded by a man holding a red flag. The event still takes place on the first Sunday in November.

Britain's first licensed casino, the Metropole Casino, opened in the Clarence Room of the Metropole Hotel in 1962. It has now moved to Preston Street, where it still sports the original Metropole logo. On the sea wall below Marine Parade, to the east of the Palace Pier (above), is a plaque marking the site of the Chain Pier, the world's first seaside pleasure pier. Opened in 1823, it was constructed like a suspension bridge by Sir Samuel Brown, who had built the world's first suspension road bridge across the River Tweed in 1820. The pier acted as the terminus for the cross-channel service to Dieppe. It was destroyed by a storm in 1896, although the two entrance kiosks on the shore were saved and now flank the entrance to the Palace Pier.


Second-largest natural harbour in the world

Poole Harbour, Dorset, is the second-largest natural harbour in the world, after Sydney, Australia. From here, in 1708, two little ships, The Duke and The Duchess, captained by Woodes Rogers, set sail to find treasure and adventures in the South Seas. But better than that, they achieved immortality, for they found "Robinson Crusoe". Swept far south by a storm off Cape Horn, they put in for shelter at a small island called Juan Fernandez and were amazed, that night, to see a light blazing ashore. Captain Rogers sent out a boat, which returned with a scruffy, bearded man, who spoke English. He was Alexander Selkirk, a sailor whose story was retold as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.


Smallest public house in the world

After the Restoration, Charles II returned many times to Dorset to thank all those who had helped him during his escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. On one of these trips, he stopped in Godmanstone and asked at the blacksmith's forge for a glass of porter. The blacksmith replied that he was unable to oblige as he had no licence to sell alcohol. "From now on, you have a licence to sell beer and porter," said the King, and the Old Smith's Arms at Godmanstone was born. At 20ft (6m) by 10ft (3m), it is the smallest public house in the world.


The first Englishman to take us to the moon

On Hereford's far eastern border slumbers tiny Whitbourne village, dozing in a green hollow by a stream, with a moated house and a mossy stone church. The church should be a place of wonder for all devotees of Dr Who and Star Trek, for here lies the first Englishman to take us to the Moon. Brilliant, eccentric, far-seeing, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, was all these things. Some time around 1600 he wrote The Man in The Moon, the first science fiction story in English.

It tells the tale of a Spaniard, Domingo Gonsales, marooned on an island with his black companion (inspiration for Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday?), who is transported to the Moon by a flock of wild swans. On his voyage he is able to observe the truth of Copernicus's theory that the earth is not the centre of the universe but revolves around the sun. He also perceives that the earth possesses a secret property that pulls things towards it but gets weaker with distance and has no power in space. In other words, he describes gravity 70 years before Isaac Newton.

On the moon, he meets a race of super beings he calls Lunarians, who have no illness, no arguments, no poverty and no crime; they do, however, smoke. If the Lunarians perceive evil in one of their kind, they exile him to Earth. Gonsales, realising that he can never attain their state of perfection, returns himself to Earth. The Man in The Moon was not published until after Godwin had died in 1633, but quickly became hugely popular.


First package tour

Thomas Cook, the first tour operator, was born in this Derbyshire village in 1808. His birthplace at Quick Close is no longer there but, close by, are the Memorial Cottages which he built as accommodation for the poor and elderly of his home town.

Thomas Cook was a strict Baptist and prominent member of the local temperance society and, in 1841, he decided to arrange an excursion to a temperance meeting in Loughborough, taking advantage of the newly opened Midland railway line from Leicester. For one shilling (5p) his customers got their rail ticket and lunch on the train. This was the first package tour.

He progressed with tours to Liverpool and Scotland and, in 1850, he arranged for some 200,000 people to visit the Great Exhibition. His first foreign tour was to Antwerp in 1855, and included visits to Brussels, Waterloo, the Rhine, Cologne and Paris. In 1872, he offered a 212-day round-the-World trip for 200 guineas. Thomas Cook was the first person to offer a package deal to include all travel, hotel and food expenses so that the customer knew the exact cost of his trip. He was hugely pleased that he had managed to bring down costs so that the working man might be tempted to spend his money on educational travel instead of the demon drink. In 1865, he opened an office in London and, for the next 25 years, was pre-eminent in the holiday travel business, so much so that the phrase "Cook's Tour" became part of the language. Thomas Cook died in 1892, but his sons continued to run the business until 1928. It is now owned by a German tour operator and known as Thomas Cook AG.