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For many who head to the UK, it’s the amazing history of the islands that intrigues them. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the 12 best historic towns and cities from all corners of the country, including former Scottish capitals, picturesque sites known for their elegant Palladian architecture, and fortified medieval citadels that soar above the surrounding area.
UNESCO recognised ‘The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’ as a World Heritage Site in 1986. This part of North West Wales was fiercely independent in the late 13th century when the Plantagenet rulers of England were extending their power across the UK. Local rulers refused to support King Edward I, leading to a huge military campaign to subjugate the Welsh. The results were the huge castles and walls of Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and, most impressive of all, Caernarfon. The huge castle at Caernarfon dominates the town and was the ruling centre for much of North Wales. More recently, it was here where Prince Charles was named the Prince of Wales.
Armagh is invariably overlooked in surveys of great UK towns. Navan Fort, just outside Armagh, was once a royal centre in pagan Ireland. Indeed, it was in Armagh in the 5th century that Saint Patrick first established Christianity in Ireland, and, from the church and school he built, monks set out to evangelise and spread the gospel. Today, Armagh – with its two cathedrals – is the seat of both the Catholic and Protestant Primates of all Ireland. The cathedrals, both St Patrick’s, were largely built in the 19th century, though much of Armagh was developed by Archbishop Richard Robinson in the 18th century. He left many handsome Georgian buildings, including the public library, the courthouse and the prison, and established the Armagh Observatory in 1790.
Warwick is one of the most historic English cities. Home to one of the oldest universities in the UK, it was established as an Anglo-Saxon burh, or fortified town, in the 10th century to defend against the Danes. The Normans first built the castle on the banks of the Avon in 1068, while much of what stands today was developed in the 14th century. Historians regard it as the finest piece of defensive architecture in the UK. The medieval earls of Warwick were major power brokers whose support could make or break a bid for the throne. In the city, the medieval East and West gates still stand along with the magnificent Perpendicular Gothic Beauchamp Chapel. There’s plenty of excellent Baroque and Doric design on show, too.
The Cathedral and Castle at Durham, perched on a huge crag above the River Wear, is one of the greatest sites in Britain. The architecture historian, Nicholas Pevsner, called Durham ‘one of the great experiences of Europe’, comparable only with the sublime citadels of Avignon and Prague. In the year 995, the monks of Lindisfarne, carrying the relics of the 6th-century Saint Cuthbert to protect them from Viking incursions, settled at Durham and founded the city. In the Middle Ages, it was a major pilgrimage site, as the faithful came to the relics of Cuthbert and the tomb of the Venerable Bede. The cathedral is regarded as the finest Romanesque building in Europe – facing it is the Castle, formerly the home of the Prince Bishops who ruled the county with their own court system.
Portsmouth was once one of the best-defended places in the world. For centuries, it has been the home of the Royal Navy and a place almost wholly devoted to warfare and the defence of the realm. The Romans built the first fortifications here at Portchester, where huge walls still stand. Henry V first set up defences in the city, added to by Henry VII and Henry VIII. The Historic Dockyard was developed greatly in the 18th century and was once the largest industrial site in the world, with its huge ropery being one of the longest buildings in the UK. Circling Portsmouth to the north are huge fortresses known as the ‘Palmerston Forts’, built in 1859, and, even in the Solent, facing the dockyard, are the Spitbank and Horse Sand Gun Forts.
Dunfermline’s roots are believed by historians to stretch back to the Bronze Age, but its growth as a town began with the reign of Malcolm III and the foundation by his wife Saint Margaret of Dunfermline Abbey in the 11th century. From then until the 16th century, the town was the capital of Scotland and the centre of royal power. In the great Romanesque abbey lie the remains of many medieval kings of Scotland, including those of Robert the Bruce. Just next door are the ruins of the Palace, once a great centre of learning and culture in the Renaissance and the home of the great poet Robert Henryson.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bath is celebrated as a place of historical and cultural importance. In the Iron Age, it was where invalids came to take the waters of the spring of the goddess Sulis. During the Roman occupation, the city developed as Aquae Sulis, with many hordes of coins and tablets containing curses recovered from the springs that were thrown in by Romans, hoping the goddess would intercede for them. The baths still stand, close to the abbey church, largely a Victorian restoration by George Gilbert Scott. What Bath is most famous for, though, is its magnificent Georgian buildings. The Circus, the Royal Crescent and Lansdowne Crescent are superb examples of Palladian design, built for the gentry of the 18th century.
First founded nearly a 1,000 years ago and once the capital of Viking Britain, York or Yorvik as it was once known, is steeped in British history. First settled by members of the mysterious ninth legion, York was slowly built up around the huge Roman fortress that was later constructed, but it’s really the Viking influence that is most present in York today. Conquered in the 9th century and ruled by Viking kings after, the groundings for the county of Yorkshire were set. Championing that heritage is the Jorvik visitor centre, which offers guests a chance to experience life in the early eras of the city.
Situated deep in the border country between England and Wales, Ludlow has been a strategically important site for hundreds of years. Today, it is still one of the most unspoilt of England’s medieval towns, with hundreds of buildings listed as being of special architectural or historic interest. The medieval walled town stands on the top of a hill along with the 11th-century Ludlow Castle, rising above the surrounding countryside. The town played an important role in defending against the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr and the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. From the castle, much of Wales was administered and ruled by the Council of the Marches, until the Glorious Revolution in 1689.
Inhabited through the ages by Romans, Vikings and Norman invaders, it’s no mystery why Lincoln is featured on this list. With its name being based on its Gaelic roots, meaning ‘the pool’, the city was built and occupied by the Romans prior to their exodus. It’s the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066 that really put the city on the map. Arriving in the city, William ordered the construction of what would become Lincoln Castle and the imposing Lincoln Cathedral, which once held the title of the tallest building in the world. A special opportunity for today’s visitors is to see a surviving copy of the original Magna Carta, which was presented to the city and is still on display in Lincoln Castle.
Being the site of a tumultuous past between two nations in the United Kingdom, Edinburgh is home to a fascinating section of Scotland’s history. Built sometime in the Middle Ages, with the exact date unknown, as a small fort on castle rock, Edinburgh had humble beginnings. During the Scottish Wars of Independence, however, the city became the setting of several vicious battles, swapping ownership several times through the decades. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Edinburgh was made the capital of Scotland, with the Palace of Holyrood built around this time. Nowadays, however, the city is a beautiful place to visit, with plenty of old roads lined with cobbled stones – all overlooked by the ominous Edinburgh castle.
Perhaps the most beautiful of English cities, Oxford was once simply an Anglo-Saxon settlement where oxen could cross the Thames. The university was founded in the 12th century, a rival to the great schools of Paris. Many of the colleges were royal and ecclesiastical endowments – and that meant they had plenty of funds with which to build on a grand scale and to attract the finest architects. To walk around Oxford is to enjoy an anthology of European architectural styles. Particular sites to see include the Gothic twin towers of All Souls by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the domed Baroque Radcliffe Camera by James Gibbs, and the modern St. Catherine’s by Arne Jacobsen. Over the centuries, the university has educated princes, world leaders, Nobel Prize winners and many leading artists.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Grantham
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