Whatever your faith – or lack of it – Britain’s cathedrals are guaranteed to impress with their soaring architecture and rich history.
And there’s always plenty to enjoy in the cities that have grown up around them, from museums and heritage sites to restaurants and retail. Five of my favourite ecclesiastical gems are close to a Pride of Britain Hotel, the perfect base for a city visit, whatever the weather.
St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire
My local cathedral city is something of a hidden gem, barely 20 minutes by train from London-St Pancras and yet largely overlooked by overseas visitors. Whatever period of history inspires you, you’ll find it here. Enjoy an overview at the Georgian town hall and courthouse, imaginatively transformed into St Albans Museum + Gallery, before heading out on foot to discover the rare medieval clock tower, half-timbered Tudor facades and, towering over the town, the Norman cathedral that boasts the longest nave in England.
Take one of the regular free guided tours for the inside story on this former abbey church which is home to the shrine of England’s first Christian martyr. Then stroll beside the river Ver and waterfowl lake in nearby Verulamium Park, site of Roman Verulamium and home to a Roman Museum, Hypocaust mosaic, and remnants of city wall. Relax in one of the city’s historic hostelries, and maybe play a round at Verulam Golf Club, once frequented by Samuel Ryder, founder of the Ryder Cup.
STAY AT: Sopwell House Hotel, St Albans
York Minster, Yorkshire
A Minster was the name given to an important church in Anglo-Saxon times, the word cathedral being introduced later by the Normans. York’s ecclesiastical centrepiece has enjoyed royal connections since the seventh century and a new exhibition – Majesty: Monarchy and York Minster – traces the influence of the monarchy during this Platinum Jubilee year (until 1 Jan 2023). Beyond the walls of this majestic building, York offers more than enough to fill a short break. The National Railway Museum, York Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens, and the JORVIK Viking Centre.
Take a 45-minute sightseeing cruise on the River Ouse, walk the city walls, and discover some of the city’s many hidden gems on a themed guided tour. Shoppers are spoilt for choice but one of the most atmospheric retail areas is Shambles Market, home to more than 70 stalls selling everything from gifts and crafts to fresh produce and flowers. And when it’s time for a breather…My favourite bolthole is Betty’s Café Tea Rooms, founded in 1919 and world famous for its scrumptious sweet treats.
STAY AT: Middlethorpe Hall & Spa
St David’s Cathedral, Wales
Walk inside the bijou cathedral in Britain’s smallest city and I guarantee you’ll do a double take. Nothing is straight here. The arcades lean out and the floor slopes up with some four metre difference between the east and west ends, largely due to an earthquake in the 13th century. Nestled in a hollow, this glorious building stands next to the extensive ruins of the former Bishop’s Palace.
With barely 2,000 permanent residents, St David’s is little more than a village but what this tiny cathedral city lacks in size, it more than makes up for in local scenery. Walk sections of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, take a birdwatching cruise, or just relax on a quiet sandy beach. Explore nearby heritage sites like Pembroke Castle; walk beneath the colourful seafront villas in Tenby; and browse the antique shops and independent retailers of pretty Narberth.
STAY AT: Grove of Narberth, Molleston
Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
In the late summer of 1819, Romantic Poet John Keats was inspired by a stay in Winchester to write his famous Ode to Autumn, but this is a city that delights at any time of year, not just during the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. The cathedral was already 725 years old when Keats enjoyed a daily walk through Cathedral Close and the water meadows beside the river Itchen. Two years earlier, it had become the last resting place of writer Jane Austen.
Follow the Keats Trail to discover places associated with the writer. Once the seat of Alfred, King of Wessex, modern Winchester rewards the walker with an eclectic mix of period architecture and heritages sites such as picturesque Inner Close and St Swithun’s Gate. Browse the small independent shops of pretty College Street; explore City Mill, beautifully restored by the National Trust; and visit the 13th century Great Hall, once part of Winchester Castle. Love a Christmas market? Winchester has one of Britain’s best.
Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
Few cathedrals stand out in quite the same way as Ely which dominates England’s second smallest city from miles around. Perched on a low hill in the flat lands of the Fens, Ely is close to both Newmarket and Cambridge, but also has a rich visitor offering of its own. Known as ‘The Ship of the Fens’, Ely Cathedral is one of England’s largest cathedrals and boasts a unique Octagon tower, as well as the only national museum dedicated to stained glass.
The city’s most famous resident was Oliver Cromwell and his former house – now home to the Tourist Information Centre – has been recreated to show 17th century domestic life. Browse the Craft and Collectables Market that takes place every Saturday, and don’t even try to resist temptation at Waterside Antiques, largest antiques centre in East Anglia with more than 65 dealers. Take a cruise along the Great Ouse on the Liberty Belle; visit the newly refurbished Ely Museum; and take a self-guided walk along the Eel Trail to discover the city’s key sites.
STAY AT; Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa, Newmarket
Article written by Gillian Thornton