You are here

10 Of The UK's Oldest Towns

27th September 2015

The UK has heritage from top to toe, but nowhere more so than these towns, the oldest in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England.

Exact dates of incorporation are often unavailable, and it is nigh on impossible to establish a definitive list of the oldest continuously inhabited urban settlements.

This list showcases those about which factual research exists, and where dates of significant building projects exist, but there may well exist other towns that can lay claim to riper ages.

1. Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland

 Picture: Tourism Northern Ireland

“The ancient accounts of Carrickfergus present little but traditionary legends”, says a 1909 volume on the town’s history by Samuel McSkimin.

He quotes one source that says the area was inhabited by the Celts from northern Britain “near three centuries before the nativity of Christ”, but suggests that a town was only really established after the invasion of John deCourcy, the Anglo-Norman knight, in 1167.

The castle he built a few years later remains one of Ireland’s best preserved Norman keeps, and the 2001 census recorded a population of 27,000.

2. Selby, North Yorkshire

 Picture: VisitEngland

The founding charter of the town’s abbey dates from 1070, although prior to this a monk called Benedict from France had been led to the place we now know as Selby by instructions in a dream, according to A History of the County of York digitised in the British History Online archives.

William the Conqueror granted a small piece of land for the building of the abbey, and records show more than 80 charters, confirmations, and other royal deeds for Selby Abbey. According to the town council, by the 18th century Selby was prospering as a sea access route, with more than 360,000 tonnes of shipping using the river between the town and the sea each year.

The town was once an industrial coal-mining and ship-building centre, although nowadays heavy industry has declined.

3. Lowestoft, Suffolk

 Picture: AP

This easterly town’s name is of Viking origin, formed from the name Hlothver and the suffix –toft, meaning 'homestead'. The town is described in the Domesday Book, in 1086, as Lothu Wistoft, and was noted as a settlement of 20 families.

In the Great Plague of 1349, some 90 per cent of the population died, although the town recovered to rise to great prosperity in the later Middle Ages. The harbour opened in 1831, and today the town of some 60,000 people welcomes tourists, for its beach, museums, and maritime history.

4. Whitby, North Yorkshire

 Picture: VisitEngland

This beguiling town astride the river Esk in Yorkshire was known as Streanaeshalc, Streneshalc, Streoneshalch, Streoneshalh, Streunes-Alae in Lindissi in the 6th-9th centuries, becoming Witebi in the 12th century and Whitebi about 100 years later, according to British History Online records.

Although it was inhabited in Saxon times, it was when the Abbey was founded in 657, by Oswy, King of Northumberland, that the town as we know it today really took shape, although the abbey fell out of usage during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

More recent history has seen the town form the backdrop for Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula, and the town retains links with the supernatural: it is, for example, home to an annual “Goth Weekend”.

5. Ipswich, Suffolk

 Picture: Alamy

Suffolk’s county town, Ipswich’s name is derived from the Old English 'Gippeswic', and can be dated back to the early 600s. A feud took place in 2013 between members of its town council and Colchester, which claims to be Britain’s "oldest recorded town", when Ipswich said it was the "oldest Anglo Saxon town".

We know the Romans inhabited the area before this: their largest villa in the county was at Castle Hill in north-west Ipswich. The original settlement centred around the port, from where there was trade with towns and communities in what is modern-day Germany.

It was a contemporary of Sutton Hoo, which was used as a burial site in Anglo-Saxon England.


More historic experiences. The World’s 10 Oldest Ruins

Love nature? Natural Wonders Of The World Every Traveller Must See


6. Colchester, Essex

 Picture: Alamy

Six hand axes have been found that date Colchester back to the Palaeolithic period. The tourist board boasts that this is Britain’s "oldest recorded town", as Pliny the Elder mentioned it by its Roman name in AD 77.

When describing Anglesey, in Wales, he wrote that "it is about 200 miles from Camulodunum, a town in Britain". Indeed, Colchester was for a time the provincial Roman capital of Britain, and later, the Normans began building Colchester Castle within 10 years of conquering England.

7. Carmarthen, Wales

 Picture: Alamy

The county town of Carmarthenshire lays claim to be the oldest town in Wales, with a Roman fort dating from 75 AD. The town was a centre of industry and the South Wales Railway reached Carmarthen from Swansea in 1852.

8. Abingdon, Oxfordshire

 Picture: Alamy

The discovery of a stone hand axe at Abingdon dates the town to as far back as 4,000 BC, and the site was almost certainly occupied during the early to middle British Iron Age, from 800-100 BC, due to the presence of a defensive structure underneath the modern-day town centre.

9. Thatcham, Berkshire

 Picture: Alamy

For a long time Thatcham was widely held as the UK’s oldest town, with a history of continuous inhabitation stretching back to 7,700 BC, in the Mesolithic period, from when well-preserved remains have been found.

There is also evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements, and a Roman town in modern-day Thatcham. The town suffered great losses during the Black Death in the 14th century, but today the town has a population of about 25,000.

It is the epitome of a middle-class town in southern Britain, with allotments, a library, and various sports facilities.

10. Amesbury, Wiltshire

 Picture: Alamy

However, Thatcham has been superseded in its claim as the UK’s oldest town in continuous settlement. Researchers from the University of Buckingham last year made discoveries that allowed carbon dating to prove that this Wiltshire town is the UK’s oldest. It is two miles from Stonehenge, but predates it by some 5,000 years.


For the latest deals on travel, browse our great range of offers online, visit your local Escape Travel or call 1300 556 855.


This article was from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.