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Top 10: Britain’s Finest Old Towns

Bath

Andrew Eames picks out the cities and towns with the finest historic quarters

Bath
A place of Roman spas and Georgian crescents, the city sits cupped in hills in its own little world, a world redolent of ball gowns and gossiping aristocracy. The creamy-gold Bath stone and the uniformity of its Palladian-influenced terracing, rising in curving ripples up the hillsides, has made the city a particularly appealing location for filmmakers.

Edinburgh
This UNESCO-recognised city chiselled out of sandstone has two distinct characters: the alleyways and stairways of the medieval Old Town around the base of the castle, with tall, narrow 17th-century merchants’ houses; and the squares and crescents of the neoclassical New Town, which despite the name is a fine example of 18th-century urban planning.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Lincoln
Being one of the less-visited cathedral cities, away from industry and key transport routes, means that there’s little sign of the 21st century in Lincoln’s core. The 11th-century Cathedral stands within an immaculate Close surrounded by Georgian houses and was the location chosen for the Da Vinci Code. The streets beyond are the domain of boutique clothiers and chocolatiers.

York
A cathedral city still enclosed by walls built by the Romans is always going to be a compelling destination. The largely traffic-free centre — the Shambles — is basically medieval, with cobbled snickleways (lanes) running under the overhang of gabled buildings. There is, of course, the Ouse, a river lined with old warehouses, plus the largest Gothic minster (cathedral) in Northern Europe.

Cambridge

Cambridge

Cambridge
A powerful institution can be instrumental in preserving a destination, and Cambridge’s core is small enough to be within the control of its ancient university. Ornate college gateways and courtyards, many over 500 years old, lead from off its main artery, with King’s Chapel soaring over them all. Behind them runs the River Cam, thick with punts during the summer season.

Mevagissey
Several Cornish towns make a good case for being the typical hideaway pirate-fisherman lair, but Mevagissey has everything: the inner and outer harbours bobbing with brightly painted boats; the fishermen’s cottages, clustered together in eccentric narrow lanes alongside low-ceilinged pubs, with Victorian guesthouses climbing the hillsides. Tourism has arrived, and yet fishermen are still hard at work among the quayside ice cream parlours.

Lavenham
This Tudor town, once home to wealthy wool merchants, has a collection of around 340 listed buildings, most of them wonky half-timbered houses, some of which are now hotels and restaurants. There’s the 15th-century Wool Hall and a Guildhall dating from the 16th century, little changed since the visit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1578, with her retinue of 1,500 servants.

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis
Wedged into a cleft in swirling hills at the heart of the Jurassic Coast, Lyme is an eccentric maze of cottages that’s variously 16th-century smuggler’s port, Georgian spa, and 1950s bucket-and-spade resort. Boat builders still work on the seafront and Meryl Streep once stood out on the medieval Cobb, looking wistfully out to sea, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Lacock
Of all the bucolic, postcard-pretty Cotswold towns and villages, Lacock may well be the most familiar, thanks to appearances in costume dramas like Pride and Prejudice, Wolf Hall and Cranford. Its ancient Abbey dates from 1232, while the remainder of the village is unique in having architecture from every century onwards, with limewashed, half-timbered houses alongside typical Cotswold cottages of honey-coloured stone.

Abingdon

Abingdon

Abingdon
Abingdon-on-Thames claims to be the oldest town in Britain, having grown up around a Benedictine monastery, known as St Mary’s Abbey, which was founded in 695. Today, its historic centre is a mixture of architectural styles, with its main square dominated by the 17th-century town hall, now a museum, while Abingdon Bridge is from the 15th century.

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