Historic city breaks in the UK

Tom Cramp


Most cities and major towns in the UK have their own unique character that often stems from centuries of fascinating history. These four, though, contain enough history to fill libraries - literally! From Roman baths to medieval architecture, and gruesome torture dungeons to dazzling feats of engineering, these locations are great holiday spots for history buffs to quench their thirst, whilst also experiencing a few of the finer things in life.

Soaking up the culture in Bath

This charming city in the south-western county of Somerset has been known as a hub of recreation for over 2,000 years. Bath is home to one of the UK’s few natural thermal springs, which was built on by the Romans in the 1st century after their invasion of Britain. The hot mineral water that seeped through the limestone was fed through lead pipes into lavish stone chambers and plunge pools designed for bathing and socialising. The Roman Baths are well preserved today and remain a popular tourist attraction in the city, due to open again in accordance with government advice.

Elsewhere in the city, visitors will find stunning Georgian architecture constructed in the 18th century, designed with the ambition to make Bath one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The neoclassical style of buildings such as the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms are in total harmony with the grandeur of Queen Square and Royal Crescent. The intricate medieval design of Bath Abbey is also worth a look - most of the city is an Instagrammer’s utopia.

Being a centre of leisure, there are more than a few wining and dining options scattered across the city. Classic flavours meet contemporary techniques at Michelin star-winning Olive Tree, while Clayton’s Kitchen blends elegance with simplicity to create their gorgeous Mediterranean and modern French-inspired menu. Visitors can also make a sophisticated stop at Green Park Brasserie for free live jazz or see a show at Theatre Royal Bath, another striking example of authentic Georgian architecture.

Medieval shopping in Chester

The walled city of Chester was originally founded as a Roman fort in 79 AD and was one of the main military outposts in Roman Britain. In 1070, Chester fell into the hands of William the Conqueror who ordered the building of Chester Castle, which remains a popular tourist attraction today and is due to re-open soon when the government deems it safe. The walls that surround Chester are the longest, oldest and most complete in the country, dating back 2,000 years. By the 18th century they were mostly used as graceful walkways rather than military ramparts, and strolling along the promenade today includes great views of the River Dee, the Shropshire Union Canal and other historic parts of the city.

It was during the Middle Ages that Chester started earning its reputation as a place to indulge in retail therapy. The unique Chester Rows are traditional half-timbered buildings offering two tiers of shops along Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and Bridge Street. Specialist food shops, art galleries, jewellery stores full of trinkets and souvenirs, plus many of the big high-street names can be found here in the 700-year-old shopping façade – the oldest in England. There are also many luxury boutique hotels dotted around town and beautifully furnished self-catering cottages a little outside the city walls, ensuring that you’re left wanting nothing during your stay in Chester.

Lancaster – the hanging town

When walking the streets of Lancaster, it’s hard to believe that a town this pretty could have such a gruesome past. Another settlement first built by the Romans in 1086, one of Lancaster’s most famous sites is the 11th-century castle in the city centre. It was initially constructed by the Normans to protect the town from the Scots but is best-known for the Pendle witch trials in 1612, which eventually led to ten of the twelve accused being hanged. Lancaster Castle’s Crown Court is the oldest courtroom in Britain and earnt the town its nickname of the ‘Hanging Town’ after sentencing 213 people to death by hanging between 1800 and 1865 – more than anywhere else in the country. All executions took place on the aptly named Gallows Hill on the moors outside the town’s southern gate.

The Lancaster District has an extensive network of cycle tracks that take riders past several historical highlights, making it a great way to get a comprehensive look at the town. Alternatively, take advantage of boat tours that operate on the beautiful canal that’s a haven for wildlife and also has a 27-mile-long towpath running alongside - ideal for quiet countryside walks.

A Canterbury Tale

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is principally home to Canterbury Cathedral - one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England. In 597 AD, St Augustine was sent by the Pope to re-establish Christianity in the south of England. He built a monastery, the ruins of which still remain, and founded the first cathedral in England on the same site that the current glorious building stands on today. Pilgrims have been making the journey to Canterbury for over 800 years following the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, as recorded in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, and today the city is one of the most historically rich places in England.

Elsewhere, the remains of Canterbury Castle are just a five-minute walk from Canterbury East station and can be seen from Dane John mound, a former Roman cemetery that provides excellent views of the city. Canterbury Heritage Museum can bring together all the pieces of history you’ve seen, then why not call it a day with dinner and drinks at The Fordwich Arms, a Michelin star-winning pub on the edge of town.

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