Britain is blessed with many Roman and Medieval splendours. From the quaint towns of Canterbury and Tewkesbury, to the gothic wonders of Aberdeen, the island has so much to offer those in search of historical and cultural enlightenment.
The settlement first rose to prominence in Roman times, when it became the headquarters of ‘Britannia Inferior’ (the northern part of Roman Britain). During the Viking period Jorvik, as it was known to its Norse rulers, was an independent state, and for much of the Middle Ages, it was the unofficial capital of northern England. With two thousand years of history behind it, the city is unsurprisingly a cornucopia of tourist attractions.
The most prominent of these is York Minister, which despite suffering severe fire damage to the South Transept in 1984, is the match of any English church. York Dungeon, York Castle, and the Museum of Yorkshire also compliment the many traditional buildings. If all the history gets too much, then why not lose yourself in the tangle of ancient alleyways known as the ‘Shambles’? As a junction city, York has excellent rail links with other major British cities, and is home to the National Railway Museum.
Religion dominates Canterbury. The Cathedral, where knights under the orders of Henry II murdered the Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1171, is the spiritual home of Anglicanism. The ecclesiastical decisions made here affect over seventy million worshippers worldwide. Aside from the churches, Canterbury also hosts a castle and museum. Or you can take a punt on the River Stour and see the historical sites from a novel perspective. Five miles to the north are the seaside resorts of Whitstable and Herne Bay which offer a contrasting family-orientated experience.
One of the most beautiful capital cities in Europe, Edinburgh’s history is inextricably linked to that of Scotland. A stroll along the Royal Mile allows the visitor to soak up the historical atmosphere as you pass by countless old edifices. Amongst the many attractions on offer are the famous castle that guards the city, Holyrood Palace (which dates back to the twelfth century), and the Museum of Scotland. In contrast, there is also the post-modern Scottish Parliament. The building cost £500,000,000 (ten times the original estimate), and though overpriced, is undoubtedly a challenging design. To really appreciate the outlay of Edinburgh, climb up Arthur’s Seat, a hill on the edge of the city, and gaze upon a living history book.
Though not as famous as Edinburgh, Aberdeen is a city full of architectural delights. The buildings are hewn from granite giving the place an inimitable atmosphere. In the grey light of an overcast day, Aberdeen has an eerie Gothic ambience. When the sun actually does shine, the city is transformed into a grandiose spectacle. There really is no place on Earth like Aberdeen. The New Town (most of which was constructed in the eighteenth century) contrasts with the bustling port that is at the heart of Britain’s North Sea oil industry. The Granite City, as it is known, is a fascinating and unforgettable destination.
The county town of Cheshire offers an interesting counterbalance to neighbouring Liverpool. The compact city centre still has a medieval feel to it, and the Eastgate Clock is a particular favourite amongst the locals. Chester is so close to the border of Wales that the home ground of Chester City Football Club straddles the Anglo-Welsh frontier. The city also claims the oldest zoo in the United Kingdom. As well as basking in history, Chester also has the high-tech asset of the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, a scientific attraction based around the Lovell Space Telescope. For those who wish to escape to the country for a day or two, the nearby Wirral Valley has many charming villages and is one of most affluent areas in England.
With a history that spans three millennia, Bath is a must-see for lovers of classical culture. The remains of the Roman Baths, from which the town gets its name, have been named a World Heritage Site. The Romans, who occupied most of Britain between the first and fifth centuries, constructed a series of baths and a temple around the islands’ only thermal spring. Many of the original stone pavements are still in use today. As well as the Roman ruins, Bath also boasts the Royal Crescent and the Circus, two fine examples of Regency thoroughfares. One of the residents who lived in Bath during this era was the renowned writer Jane Austin. The author ofPride and Prejudice has a centre dedicated to her life and works. In a different vain, Bath is also home to the Fashion Museum and the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, the latter being dedicated to the star-gazer who discovered Uranus.
At the end of the Medieval Period, Norwich was the second biggest city in England, and its historical significance is reflected in the city’s centuries-old architecture, such as the resplendent cathedral. The 900 year-old Norwich Castle is an attraction in its own right, but also contains a museum and art gallery. For the green-fingered, the Victorian Plantation Gardens are a must-see. The surrounding Norfolk Broads, an area of fenlands, presents the sightseer with a unique landscape, and is popular with bird-spotters. Since East Anglia is the flattest region of Britain, it is also an excellent place to explore by bike.
Not far from the Welsh border, the cathedral city of Hereford offers lovers of antiquity a medieval wonder, namely the celebrated Mappa Mundi. This thirteenth century map of the World gives an insight into the minds of scholars from the Middle Ages. The mapmakers have portrayed Earth as three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) with Jerusalem at the centre. It is the finest example of medieval cartography in existence, and is itself housed in the impressive Hereford Cathedral.
9. Caernarfon (spelled Caernarvon in English)
Though an important town for the Princes of Gwynedd, Caernarfon is indelibly associated with Edward I, the English king who completed the conquest of Wales.The castle was built by Edward at a cost of £25,000, an astronomical sum in those days. In 1969 the Queen’s eldest son, Charles, was invested as Prince of Wales in the grounds of the castle. There is even a British Army tank named after the town. The majestic city walls are well worth a visit, but aside from the historical points of interest, the area is steeped in Welsh culture, and has the largest percentage of Welsh speakers in the country. Nature-lovers will also appreciate the nearby Snowdonia National Park, home to Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.
Situated on the confluence of the Avon and Britain’s longest river, the Severn, Tewkesbury retains much of its medieval character. The town was the site of a pivotal battle in 1471 during the War of the Roses. The bloody encounter saw Edward IV triumph over his Lancastrian opponents. This small Gloucestershire town is replete with buildings from the Middle Ages. Church Street in particular has several fine examples of Late Medieval wattle-and-daub houses, and is overlooked by the magnificent Tewkesbury Abbey. When Henry VIII enacted his ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ locals were alarmed at losing their beautiful abbey, consequently the townsfolk decided to buy the abbey from the King, to save it from demolition.
The ten places listed are just the tip of the iceberg. Travelling historians might also consider Nottingham, Exeter, St. David’s, Worcester, Tamworth, Linlithgow, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Kirkwall, and Hexham as possible destinations.