UK hidden gems

Travel inspiration

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Our pick of the cities, coastlines, and other adventures you might not have considered this summer

Travel to and from the UK still remains — ironically — very much up in the air this summer, so whether you’re a visitor unsure of what to see to make the most of your trip, or a resident planning on seeing a bit more of the islands, here are our hidden gems.

Three cities

Norwich

Norwich is a fine cityNorwich is a fine city — Shutterstock

Due to its location, Norwich is somewhere you have to want to go, not really somewhere you’d be passing through, and as such might not necessarily be at the front of people’s minds when they think of a UK city break.

That, though, would be a mistake. Norwich is a fine city: its Lanes home to curious little shops and coffee bars, a cinema inside a 14th-century merchant’s house, bespoke tailors, jewelers and craftspeople. The city’s cathedral is one of the country’s largest, its spire stretching 315 feet (96 m) into the air, giving visitors to Norfolk a waypoint on the seemingly endless Broads for a thousand years.

 

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Norwich Castle, dating from the Norman period after William the Conqueror ordered its construction in 1067, is a huge, seemingly impenetrable cube squatting on one of the city’s few rises. Today it’s home to a museum and gallery, filled with archaeological finds from across the region including the Happisburgh hand axe which, at around 650,000 years old, is the oldest human-made object in Northern Europe. Seems people have been coming to this area for a very long time. You could be one of them.

Coventry

Coventry had to be rebuilt after World War IICoventry had to be rebuilt after World War II — Shutterstock

The UK’s City of Culture found its long-prepared-for celebrations postponed by the pandemic, but in 2021 Coventry heads into — if not full swing — then making the best of things.

Until as late as the 1920s, Coventry was described as “the best-preserved medieval city in England”. Alas, World War II changed that, with the city virtually wiped off the map. The city center today consists of often-derided pedestrian precincts, a sort of celebration of the joys of concrete and right angles; these are, nevertheless, some of the UK’s foremost examples of 1950s and 60s brutalism, with many of the buildings now holding listed status.

The nicely surprising thing about this is that you can still find pockets of beauty that hark back to Coventry’s time as one of England’s most important cities: the Golden Cross, one of England’s oldest pubs, Spon Street with its crooked timber houses, Cheylesmore Manor House, former residence of Henry VI. Its greatest glory remains its two cathedrals, the 14th-century original left as a shell after brutal nights of bombing and now a permanent memorial, and the vast, peaceful modern version, built adjacent and consecrated in 1962.

Coventry’s time as Britain’s car-producing heartland is wonderfully documented at the Museum of British Road Transport, while the aftermath of the collapse of the industry is part of what gave rise to 2 Tone records, the groundbreaking ska record label founded in the city and part of a temporary exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, part of the City of Culture program.

Lancaster

Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, LancasterAshton Memorial in Williamson Park, Lancaster — Shutterstock

A town of just over 50,000 people, Lancaster is an elegant, seemly sort of place featuring solid Georgian buildings, winding streets, and a severe-looking castle high on a hilltop. It’s also one of the most overlooked cities in the UK.

Just down the road from the bracing seaside at Morecambe, get your bearings by heading up to the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park before wandering all the way through the city center and exploring the castle (there are hour-long tours if that’s your sort of thing) and priory.

There’s a lot going on throughout the year, with a decent-sized student population meaning a lot of artistic and cultural events, live music, pub quizzes, exhibitions, festivals and the like. Sit and have a pint or a coffee by the side of the canal that slices the city in two, or try one of the many cuisines that have given the city a bit of a reputation as somewhere for foodies: Japanese, Mexican, French, a couple of vegan spots and a host of excellent pubs and gastropubs serving everything from Thai to tapas via classic pub grub.

Three coastlines

Northumberland

Even if you’re not brave enough to dip a toe into the North Sea, the beaches of northeast England are still stunningEven if you’re not brave enough to dip a toe into the North Sea, the beaches of northeast England are still stunning — Shutterstock

The endless beaches of northeast England are often all but deserted, even at the height of summer, and even if you’re not brave enough to dip a toe (or more!) into the North Sea, they’re still stunning.

Bamburgh Beach is overlooked by the castle of the same name, a spectacular Norman ruin which provides wonderful views and fun for kids of all ages to explore. Seahouses is a small village whose beach serves as a starting point for trips to the Farne Islands, home of religious hermits from the 7th to the 16th century, and now a great place for birdwatching. Beadnell Bay is popular with surfers, sailors, windsurfers and scuba divers.

Bamburgh Castle is a spectacular Roman ruin with wonderful viewsBamburgh Castle is a spectacular Roman ruin with wonderful views — Shutterstock

The one must-see attraction in the area, however, is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity since the 6th century, and now a series of stunning ruins: castle, priory, lighthouses. The island is accessible by both a causeway and a pilgrim’s path, both of which can only be used at low tide, so walk with caution!

Arisaig Morar and Mallaig

The beaches in this part of western Scotland could almost be Mediterranean: white sand and deep blue sea in quiet coves with incredible sunsets.

Beaches in Scotland look almost MediterraneanBeaches in Scotland look almost Mediterranean — Shutterstock

The tiny village of Morar lies at the western end of Loch Morar, with the River Morar connecting the loch to the sea. This stretch of coast is famous for the Silver Sands of Morar with amazing views out to the nearby islands of Muck, Eigg, and Rum. From the Silver Sands, you can head to the gorgeous Camusdarach Beach.

From there, you can walk up the coast about five miles to get to Mallaig, a small fishing town with ferry connections to those islands, as well as to the larger Skye, to the north. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll get some of the best beaches and scenery anywhere in the UK.

Glamorgan Heritage Coast

Stretching 14 miles from Aberthaw to Porthcawl in Wales, the Heritage Coast combines beautiful beaches with plunging cliffs, crashing waves and quiet bays.

The coastline of Wales beautiful beaches with plunging cliffs, crashing waves and quiet baysThe coastline of Wales beautiful beaches with plunging cliffs, crashing waves and quiet bays — Shutterstock

The coastline is dotted with delightful little towns, meaning you can always find somewhere to pop into for a cup of tea and a chat on your way. The actual, physical coastline is one of the most varied and dramatic in Britain, due to a seismic continental collision around 300 million years ago, pushing the limestone cliffs out of the ocean and into the jagged, soaring stacks of rock you can see today.

It’s also a great place to step back in time in a different way: it’s one of the best places in Wales to hunt for Jurassic fossils, so while you’re lying on the beach, dipping your fingers into a rock pool, or exploring a cave, keep your eye out for dinosaurs!

Three other adventures

Road trip!

Okay, it’s not exactly Route 66, but the North Coast 500 is a fabulous way to spend a few days. The route — starting and ending at Inverness Castle — is actually 516 miles, and it’s along some of the most spectacular roads in the UK. From heaths and wilderness to empty beaches, past ruined castles on craggy hilltops, to some of the most northerly points on the UK mainland, it’s an incredible way to see a lesser-explored part of Scotland.

Wild weekends

Rewilding — that is to say protecting and enabling natural processes so that nature can thrive — is becoming a big thing in the UK, and down in West Sussex, Wilderlands is a project that hosts events every weekend from mid-May to mid-September encouraging people to learn about natural conservation.

All the weekends feature bushcraft workshops (how to build a den or identify birds by their song, for example), wild crafts (wood carving and the like) and live music. Although some have a specific focus (yoga, or local folklore, say) most are family-friendly, and you can bring your own tent or rent one there.

Urban kayaking

 

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See London the way very few people do: from the water! While the Thames meanders through the middle of the great city, there’s a massive network of rivers and canals running through virtually every part of London.

A number of companies now run kayaking tours of these waterways, paddling through built-up areas, remnants of Victorian industry, and under cool, overhanging trees. There are even options to hit the Thames itself if you’re feeling brave, paddling under Tower Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament, and seeing everything London is famous for from a truly different angle. Just watch out for the swans!

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