The UK is famous for its magnificent cathedrals, welcoming more than eleven million visitors a year. Together, these beautiful structures and the cities they call home offer a fascinating insight into our country’s religious history.
Cities and cathedrals are intrinsically linked. Historically, their association began in the 1540s, when Henry VIII created six cathedral towns and gave them all city status by letters patent. Today, however, despite popular belief, not all cities need to have a cathedral in order to become a city; it just so happens that most – even the smaller ones – were built around cathedrals.
As a result, the UK is peppered with a handful of unassuming cathedral cities, small in size but brimming with old-world charm. Perfect for summer city breaks and cosy winter escapes, here are just four of our favourite off-the-beaten track cathedral cities in the UK.
Whoever said ‘the bigger the better’ has clearly never been to Wells, a tiny medieval city in Somerset. It wouldn’t hold the title of England’s smallest city without its magnificent cathedral. Standing alongside the grand Bishop’s Palace – the official residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells since the twelfth century – the pair are a sight to behold. The cathedral’s iconic West Front is adorned with 300 intricate carvings, making it one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world.
Away from the cathedral, Wells’ charming cobbled streets, ancient market place and medieval buildings beckon. Visit on Wednesday or Saturday to peruse the farmers’ market’s local produce, before admiring the historical buildings and learning a thing or two at one of the nearby museums.
Kirkwall, Scottish Highlands
Although not technically a city, Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney, a group of remote islands off the coast of mainland Scotland. Holding the title of the UK’s most northerly cathedral, St Magnus Cathedral dominates the skyline of Kirkwall. Fondly known by locals as ‘Light in the North’, it was built in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred here. Brimming with Scandinavian charm, Kirkwall is famous for its Norse roots, having been one of the most important towns during the Viking age. Close to the cathedral, you’ll find Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace – widely regarded as some of Scotland’s finest examples of architecture. The Orkney Museum is also worth a visit; this treasure trove of exhibitions and artefacts paints a fascinating picture of the islands’ thousand-year history.
But of course, a visit to Kirkwall wouldn’t be complete without some time by the harbour front. Watch the local fishing fleet head out to sea as you wine and dine in one of the restaurants by the water.
Claiming to be the UK’s oldest city, Ripon is steeped in history and tradition. From the 9pm horn blower – a tradition that dates back 1,100 years – to the outstanding 672 AD cathedral, this is a historian’s paradise.
The cathedral is most famous for housing a sacred crypt, built-in 672 by Saint Wilfrid, which mind-blowingly predates England itself! Adding to this, the cathedral’s West Front has been hailed as one of the most impressive examples of Early Gothic architecture.
Cathedral aside, Ripon also boasts a bustling marketplace, a high street of eclectic shops and a fascinating Victorian Workhouse museum. Fountains Abbey is also worth jumping in the car for; just a ten-minute drive from the heart of Ripon, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is England’s best-preserved Cistercian monastery.
Another small city, dominated by its showstopping cathedral, Ely is a perfect day-trip’s distance away from Cambridge. Naturally, the cathedral is the city’s star attraction. With a history stretching back over 1,300 years, the current structure dates back to 1081, gaining its esteemed cathedral status in the early twelfth century. Since then, it’s seen various additions and restorations.
But the cathedral isn’t the only reason to visit. Discover the city’s medieval streets and Georgian houses, stopping for lunch in one of the pretty traditional tea rooms. Or brush up on your history at the UK’s only stained-glass museum.
Fancy a touch of nature? Take a leisurely walk down the waterside, stopping to watch the narrowboats drift past. If you plan a trip between March and September, you can even hop on a river cruise yourself. You’ll be treated to a fresh angle of the cathedral, not to mention a plethora of birdlife.