The United Kingdom has a rich and diverse history that has witnessed the rise and fall of tribes, kingdoms, empires and nations. From stone-age cultures to the Ancient Romans, Norman conquerors to the achievements of the British Empire, the UK’s historic sites are as diverse as they are wondrous.
In fact, historical places make up some of the top attractions in the UK – and some of the most popular tourist sites – from Roman Bath and Edinburgh Castle. The countless examples of ancient sites, medieval castles and industrial revolution monuments ensure that no visit to the UK goes without its historical highlights.
Clearly there are far too many fascinating historical sites to mention, let alone refine to just ten, but here are some of the top contenders.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard contains three of the Britain’s most famous warships, namely the HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and Mary Rose. Also housing the Royal Navy Museum and still part of an active naval base, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offers visitors a great insight into the British navy, both its past and present.
Visitors can also explore the Royal Navy Museum, one of the Britain’s foremost maritime museums and the only one to focus on the navy’s ships and serving members.
First discovered in the 19th century, the Roman Baths are one of the best preserved ancient Roman sites in the UK and form a major tourist attraction. The baths offer an incredibly comprehensive insight into the lives of the ancient Romans in the town and around Britain. The site looks quite small from the outside, but it is actually vast and a visit can last several hours.
Amongst the other sites at the Roman Baths, there is a comprehensive museum dedicated to exploring the lives of the ancient Roman citizens of Bath and an ancient drain used as an overflow system. Around the Great Bath itself, visitors can explore the numerous saunas, swimming pools, heated baths and changing facilities at the site.
Caernarfon Castle is a stunning medieval stronghold in Wales built by Edward I and listed by UNESCO. Caernarfon has fared very well through the centuries, remaining exceptionally intact. It has also continued to play host to important events, including the investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. Today, the site offers exhibits and tours.
One of the most significant historic attractions in Britain, Ironbridge Gorge is an icon of the industrial revolution and a World Heritage site. Today, visitors can immerse themselves in this fascinating period of history. Not only can they see the bridge itself, but also a variety of other sites including homes, factories, mines, warehouses, foundries and the infrastructure of the 18th century Ironbridge Gorge.
There are ten Ironbridge Gorge museums, each telling a different aspect of the area’s story. From exploring the world of a Victorian town at Blists Hill and the Coalport China Museum to the Jackfield Tile Museum and the Tar tunnel, there’s lots to see.
Corfe Castle is the stunning ruin of a castle which has been everything from a royal residence to a military stronghold and even a prison. Today the site is one of the UK’s most picturesque historical places.
The current incarnation of Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in around 1066, although even before this, the site was of great historical importance, Indeed, it is said that King Edward the Martyr was murdered here in a plot to position Ethelred “the Unready” as monarch.
Corfe Castle would be expanded and altered over the coming centuries, especially in the 12th to 13th centuries under King John. Not only did this monarch further fortify the castle, he also used it as a prison and even a home. The demise of Corfe Castle and the cause of its current ruined state came with the English Civil War. Having survived one siege in 1643, it would fall to another only three years later, then being demolished by the Parliamentarians.
Today, Corfe Castle is open to the public under the remit of the National Trust.
A royal residence, vital stronghold and iconic structure, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world. With centuries of history to explore, it is a must-see for visitors looking to explore the United Kingdom’s fascinating past, and has something for history lovers of any era.
Known by its English name since the invasion of the Angles in 638 AD, the first mentions of Edinburgh Castle occurred in 600 AD during Roman Britain, when it was called “Din Eidyn” or “the fortress of Eidyn”.
It initially became a royal castle in the Middle Ages and has since been the site of many significant events in royal and military history. As a royal residence, Edinburgh Castle was the site of the birth of King James VI, also James I of England from 1603, to Mary Queen of Scots in 1566. However, Edinburgh Castle’s main role was a military fortification.
From as early as the 13th century, the castle was a focal point of the war between England and Scotland, swapping hands numerous times in the 13th and 14th centuries. By this time, much of the original castle had been destroyed, to be rebuilt under the order of David II, who later died here in 1371. However, the buildings of Edinburgh Castle were to suffer further destruction in battle and David’s Tower, which was built in honour of David II, was razed during the Lang Siege. The final siege at Edinburgh Castle would take place in 1745, carried out by the Jacobites.
Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can explore the castle’s history through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the oldest building in the city, the 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel.
Bletchley Park is a country estate 50 miles north of London. Originally the home of the Leon family in the late 19th century, Bletchley Park was then bought by a property developer, but in 1938 its role changed entirely from being a residential house to a vital British intelligence centre.
As Adolph Hitler’s campaign to invade Europe intensified, Bletchley Park was taken over by the government, who deemed it the perfect place to move the Government Code and Cypher School.
Bletchley Park, known by the codename Station X, became the site where the British managed to decipher the machinations of the Enigma, the highly effective code encryption machines used by the Nazis.
Today, visitors can explore the history of Bletchley Park’s role during the war. With a brand new visitor centre, an interactive multimedia guide and an immersive introduction, visitors can have a fun and informative journey.
Skara Brae is an incredibly well-preserved Neolithic village in the Orkney Isles off the coast of mainland Scotland.
Characterised by sturdy stone slab structures insulated and protected by the clay and household waste which holds them together, Skara Brae is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship.
Skara Brae was inhabited between 3,200 and 2,00 BC, although it was only discovered again in 1,850 AD after a storm battered the Bay of Skaill on which it sits and unearthed the village. Subsequent excavation uncovered a series of organised houses, each containing what can only be described as “fitted furniture” including a dresser, a central hearth, box beds and a tank which is believed to have be used to house fishing bait.
The inhabitants of Skara Brae built their community on a dichotomy of community life and family privacy, as portrayed by the combination of closely built, homogenous homes compared with the strong doors behind which they conducted their private lives. This sense of a structured community, coupled with the fact that no weapons have been found at the site, sets Skara Brae apart from other Neolithic communities and suggests that this farming community was both tight-knit and peaceful.
Visitors to Skara Brae can tour these original magnificent homes as well as a reconstructed version which really conveys the realities of Neolithic life. The nearby visitor centre holds many of the artifacts found at Skara Brae and offers an insight into the site’s history through touch screen presentations.
Avebury Ring in Wiltshire, England, is a stone monument which encircles the town of Avebury and is believed to have been constructed between 2,850 and 2,200 BC.
Now comprised of a bank and a ditch with a 1.3 kilometre circumference containing 180 stones making up an inner and outer circle, the Avebury Ring is not only fourteen times larger than Stonehenge, but was almost certainly completed before its famous counterpart.
Many of the stones which once formed part of the Avebury Ring were destroyed or buried during the Middle Ages, but the formation of the site is still visible from the remaining stones.
Visitors to Avebury Ring are free to walk up to the site itself at all times and view the monument’s stones. Together with Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and several other prehistoric sites, Avebury Ring is a UNESCO World Heritage site managed by the National Trust.
Hadrian’s Wall is a magnificent remnant of Roman Britain and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Built under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 130 AD, it took six legions to complete this once 73 mile wall – 80 miles by Roman measurements. At the time of its completion, Hadrian’s Wall would have been between 13-15 feet high, made of stone and turf and would have stretched east to west from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth.
The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was once thought to have been as a fortification to keep out the Scots, but today historians believe it was a way of monitoring movement between the north and south in an attempt to consolidate the Empire.
Large sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain intact in northern England and these are surrounded by various Roman monuments, forts and other ruins. There are several ways to visit all of these sections and sites, notably as part of the National Trail, which is a signposted walk, by bus, by bicycle and via tour groups. The 15 metre section pictured above is known as Planetrees and is quite central along the trail.
Other key sites along the Hadrian’s Wall trail include Corbridge Roman Town, Chesters Roman Fort, Arbeia Roman Fort, Birdoswald Roman Fort, Vindolanda, Segedunum Roman Fort and Housesteads Roman Fort.