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.
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.
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.
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.
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