Looking back over the last 12 months, I was struck my how many great breaks I’ve enjoyed in the UK. I’ve not had the chance to get abroad much this year so short holiday trips close to home have been a treat.
From the wilds of Dorset and the craggy coasts of Cornwall to the gentle hills of Shropshire, there are many wonderful places to visit across England, whatever the weather.
Here are a dozen of my favourite English trips from the last year in my review of 2016. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy discovering these fabulous places too.
1. Dorset – ‘Thomas Hardy Country’
Dorset is quintessentially ‘Hardy Country’ with dozens of locations which the author used as a backdrop for his stories, from ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ to ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’.
His Wessex tales feature Dorset’s historic towns including Dorchester, Weymouth and Lyme Regis which are great for day trips whilst atmospheric places like Lulworth Cove and the Frome valley evoke the spirit of Hardy’s wilder landscapes.
Ancient sites including Maiden Castle and Cerne Abbas also make regular appearances in Hardy’s novels, although often they’re given different names.
Maiden Castle is not-to-be-missed. It’s the largest hill fort in England and its spectacular site makes a fantastic backdrop to one of Hardy’s lesser known stories, ‘A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork’. What a weird and wonderful title for a book.
Hardy’s fictional name for Dorset was “Wessex” which comes from an amalgam of the ancient kingdom of central, southern and western England.
The atmospheric Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Return of the Native’ is thought to be Black Heath, which isn’t far from Hardy’s birthplace in Higher Bockhampton.
Thomas Hardy’s Birthplace is an idyllic thatched cottage stuffed with intriguing objects from the author’s early family life. I half-expected the man himself to emerge from the potting shed. It’s as pretty as a postcard and looks like it has changed little since Hardy’s day.
If you’re a Hardy super fan, make a literary pilgrimage to his house at Max Gate where the author wrote three of his most famous novels. Hardy, who was a trained architect, designed the house himself and it has a strong Victorian feel. Don’t miss the pet cemetery, the last resting place of Hardy’s furry friends.
Don’t forget to pick up the Hardy Trail map from the local tourist office to discover the real locations behind fictional places in his novels.
2. Chesil Beach – Rocky Route
Chesil Beach is a place I feel that I know intimately, having read about for 30 years. I studied its geography and geology at school and heard about its strange landscape in glossy travel magazines.
It popped up in Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Well-Beloved’ whilst Ian McEwan used it as a location for his book ‘On Chesil Beach’ which covers eight hours in the lives of a newly married couple on their honeymoon.
This was my first visit and the reality is slightly different from what I’d imagined. This is a very pebbly beach and it’s not easy to sit or sunbathe.
Chesil Beach is 18 miles long and for much of its length is separated from the mainland by an area of saline water called the Fleet Lagoon.
During stormy weather, three million tonnes of pebbles can be removed from the beach onto the seabed – and then they get replaced on the front of the beach. It’s quite an amazing phenomenon.
Walking along the beach is slow going as you attempt to trudge through the pebbles, but hardy walkers will want to plough on through this tricky section of the South West Coastal Path, arguably Britain’s best long distance walking route.
Sitting on Chesil Beach is a bum-numbing experience because of its large pebbles. This highly impressive landmark is best viewed from a higher vantage point where you can appreciate the sheer size and skinniness of the beach.
3. Cornwall – ‘Land of Poldark’
Poldark – the British TV series based on Winston Graham’s historic novels – has reignited our passion for Cornwall’s rugged landscapes.
Many of the scenes from Poldark were shot along the heritage coast around Botallack and Levant, once the heart of the tin mining industry.
This old industrial area had been transformed into a giant outdoor museum known as the Cornish Mining World Heritage site.
Cornwall was once the ‘Silicon Valley’ of its age. Tin mining reached its peak in the 19th Century when Cornwall was one of the biggest tin mining areas in the world.
There were around 2,000 tin mines and 50,000 workers. Miners worked in a subterranean world, coping with dirt, extreme heat and near darkness.
Today you can enjoy the stunning scenery – and – who knows, you may even stumble upon Aidan Turner and the film crew shooting the next series of Poldark.
Discover more on Tammy Tour Guide’s blog about Botallack
4. Tyneham – The Land that Time Forgot
Tyneham is hidden in a beautiful valley in Dorset where time has stood still for over 60 years. Locked in a time warp, nobody has lived at Tyneham since 1943.
The village became trapped in time during World War Two when villagers were told by the British government they had to move out to make way for D-Day preparations. All 102 houses and cottages in the village were evacuated.
The villagers were never to return to their homes. The government broke its promise and never gave Tyneham back to the people who had lived there.
It’s hard not to shed a tear as you walk around Tyneham’s deserted, eerie streets. Today, you can take a tour around the village. Heritage displays tell the story of the families and the individual ruined houses.
One of Tyneham’s hidden secrets is its coastline and the stunningly beautiful Worbarrow Bay. Take a 15 minute walk from the village down to the beach where the landscape is as unspoiled as it was in 1943.
5. Corfe Castle – Picturesque Village
Corfe Castle must be a contender for the title of ‘prettiest village’ in the UK with its picture-postcard buildings, ruined castle and heritage railway.
The village is built from the local grey Purbeck limestone and comprises two main streets, East Street and West Street, separated by an area of common land called “the Halves”.
Around the main village square, there is a cluster of shops, a post office, church and public houses. Drop in for a pint of beer at one of the many historic pubs – there’s the 16th Century Bankes Arms, The Greyhound (an old coaching inn) and The Castle Inn with its flagstone floors, roaring fires and exposed beams.
The ruins of Corfe Castle dominate the village. The royal palace and fortress is dramatically perched on a hilly promontory which once guarded the Purbeck Hills.
The first castle was built of wood but was later rebuilt in stone during the 11th Century by William the Conqueror. It must have looked scarily impregnable.
Tales of treason, torture and treachery abound. In 979 King Edward was reputedly murdered by his step-mother at the castle so her son Ethelred the Unready could become King of England.
King John kept his crown jewels at Corfe Castle whilst King Edward II was imprisoned within its imposing walls.
The palace was reduced to ruins during the Civil War but its surviving walls and towers ooze history. Look out for the ‘murder holes’ and arrow loops in the castle walls.
Walk to the top of the castle and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views across the surrounding countryside. The Purbeck peninsula is an area of outstanding natural beauty dotted with pretty villages and stunning scenery.
Look out for the Swanage steam heritage railway with trains puffing out plume of smokes across the horizon. Steam trains run every day between April and October and at weekends during the rest of the year.
It takes just 22 minutes to travel from Corfe Castle to Swanage on the coast. The railway station is decked out 1950s style and boasts a museum and great views of the castle.
6. Broadway – Jewel of the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds is renowned for its picture-perfect villages but Broadway in Worcestershire is its famous ‘jewel in the crown’.
With its village green, wisteria-covered houses and tree-lined streets, you could be forgiven for thinking that the modern world had by-passed this sleepy place.
The village’s leafy, broad main thoroughfare – lined with a mix of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian buildings – is one of the longest high streets in England.
There’s an Arts and Crafts feel to Broadway so it’s no surprise that the great Victorian artist William Morris was attracted to the village.
This is a place to stroll around, browse the craft shops and spend time in the rustic high street pub or a local coffee bar.
To get the best views of the beautiful surrounding countryside, take a hike up Broadway Tower, a 65 foot ‘folly’ on top of a hill overlooking the village.
Nearby Snowshill is another stunner of a picture-perfect village with its traditional stone-built cottages.
It is also home to one of the weirdest stately homes in England – Snowshill Manor. Once inside this rustic pile, you’ll discover a manor house packed with extraordinary and eclectic treasures collected by its eccentric owner, Charles Wade.
Wade had a passion for collecting beautiful and interesting objects. He didn’t want to create a museum – his vision was a house containing a series of rooms full of beautifully crafted objects which would be visually attractive and pleasing to the senses.
Every room at Snowshill is jam-packed with hundreds of strange objects, from old clocks and scary Samurai armour to mechanical toys and bicycles.
There are collections of musical instruments, model ships, dolls and spinning wheels. The list is endless. There’s even a cobbler’s shop, complete with work bench and shoes.
Discover more on Tammy Tour Guide’s blog post about Snowshill
7. London – Art and Design Newcomers
London has been blessed with not one but three great new art attractions this year – the Tate Modern Switch House, the Design Museum in Kensington, and the Newport Street Gallery.
The biggest new kid of the block is the Tate Modern’s colossus of a building – the ziggurat-like Switch House which boasts a contemporary collection with a twist.
Don’t expect to find modern painters like Picasso and Matisse. This is a place for art installations, video screenings and alternative contemporary art.
The wonderful Newport Street Gallery is home to Brit Pack ‘bad boy’ Damien Hirst’s eclectic collection of contemporary art. It’s cool hang-out with changing shows from the best of the best artists. Gavin Turk is the latest under the spotlight.
Last but by no means least is the Design Museum which has upped roots from the South Bank to the heady heights of Kensington High Street.
If you’re a fan of modern design, there’s much to admire in the magnificent new gallery spaces, from classic designer chairs of the 1920s-1960s and Anglepoise lamps (a very British invention) to furniture designs by the Milan-based Memphis group.
But the spectacular museum architecture is the real star of the show.
8. Sycamore Gap – Hadrian’s Wall
Steel Rigg is one of my top spots for a country walk along Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.
The ‘Sycamore Gap’ along its route is one of the most photographed trees in the UK. Most people remember it from its fleeting appearance in the Hollywood film – Robin Hood Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner – in 1991.
Dramatically situated in a sunken dip alongside the Roman Wall, it is perfectly shaped and stands out a mile in the surrounding landscape. It was voted England’s ‘Best Tree’ in 2016.
Not only is it a perfect specimen of tree, Sycamore Gap is a lovely spot from which to contemplate the world or start a walk around England’s finest ancient monument.
Enjoy a picnic under its spreading arches or simply wonder at its striking silhouette. It’s also a great photo opportunity as the light changes from day to night at sunset.
9. The New Forest – Hampshire
Hampshire is a beautiful county with the New Forest lying at its heart. This year saw my first visit to this popular destination – and I wasn’t disappointed by this wild landscape, despite its popularity with day trippers. Just watch out for the traffic jams, be patient and don’t let your temper boil over!
This is a place where ponies, cattle, donkeys and deer roam freely. I’m a horse lover so imagine my joy at getting close to the famous New Forest Ponies which graze on the grassland.
The New Forest National Park is made up of a mosaic of ancient and ornamental woodland, heather-covered heaths, rivers and valley mires, coastal mudflats and salt marshes.
Lowland heath once covered much of southern England, but the New Forest National Park is now the largest area that remains.
The New Forest takes its name from the Latin ‘nova foresta’, which translates as ‘new hunting ground’. In Norman times the word ‘forest’ didn’t mean a woodland, but a special legal system with its own courts to protect the venison (deer)) and vert (the green undergrowth they fed on).
‘Commoners’ shaped the New Forest landscape over hundreds of years – with ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep grazing on the open forest.
It’s a very special place as a result of this land management. No surprise then that it’s a great place for wildlife too.
There are pretty, historic villages dotted around the New Forest. My favourite is Buckler’s Hard whose evocative name conjures up images of piracy and sailors.
This pristine village looks like it hardly emerged from the 18th Century when it was a busy hub of shipbuilding. Today it’s sailing heaven.
My partner Tony is obsessed with boats so this was a great place for him to mooch around. There are loads of yachts and there are river cruises, if you fancy a trip upstream.
You can also climb aboard the Gipsy Moth yacht in which Sir Francis Chichester completed his solo round the world voyage.
With a picturesque location on the banks of the Beaulieu River, Buckler’s Hard is a peaceful haven – and is basically an open air museum. There’s a charge to go in but it’s more than worth the admission price.
The excellent Maritime Museum tells the fascinating story of this shipbuilding village, focusing on the vessels built here including those for Nelson’s Navy.
There’s also a Shipwright’s Cottage which you can look inside – once the home of craftsman, Thomas Burlace and his family. On a wet and wild day you can take cover in the atmospheric Yachtsman’s Bar in the village pub – The Master Builder’s House – next door.
10. Lizard Point – Walk on the Wild Side
The Lizard in Cornwall is Britain’s most southerly point. It’s a fabulous place for wildlife, from marine life and birds to rare and unusual plants. On my recent trip, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon whizzing above my head whilst two basking sharks fed in a bay close to the clifftop path.
One of its most famous residents is the Chough, a bird which is one of the crow family. Easily recognised by its bright red beak and feet, this rare bird is only found in a small number of coastal locations in Britain.
Listen out for its distinctive ‘ca-caw’ calling sound as you walk along the cliffs near the southerly tip of the peninsula near Housel Bay.
Walk further along the South West Coastal Path past Housel Bay and you’ll be rewarded by sensational panoramic views. For a surprising detour, why not drop into the Marconi Wireless Hut where the telecommunications pioneer conducted his early experiments.
Watch a 30 degree film of Lizard Point and the Marconi Wireless Hut on YouTube
11. Tintagel Castle – Drama and history
Tintagel is Cornwall’s most iconic castle, perched precariously on high cliffs overlooking one of Britain’s most dramatic coastlines.
This beautiful but exposed retreat is bashed and thrashed by waves and weather, so wrap up warm whatever the time of year.
A head for heights helps because the pathway to the castle runs perilously along the top of the cliffs and zigzags across a watery inlet.
Legends about the castle flourish.
It’s a place inextricably linked with the legend of King Arthur – he was first connected to Tintagel in the 12th Century when Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed it was the place where Arthur was born.
Nobody knows whether this is true or not but the myth endures and the legendary Arthurian tales give Tintagel a special ambience. A bit like an ancient ‘Game of Thrones’.
Climb the 148 steps on to the island and you’ll enter the Great Hall built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Walk beyond this Inner Ward area to discover the ruined stone walls of the Dark Age settlement.
The scenery is truly stunning so why not soak up the natural beauty of this dramatic headland. There are circular paths which take in a series of amazing views along the rocky coast. Or you can sit in a quiet spot and admire the incomparable views.
12. Shropshire Hills
Shropshire is a hidden jewel in England’s tourist crown, a highly picturesque county stuffed with rolling landscapes, historic towns, and ancient monuments.
This is one of England’s quieter counties, but I was surprised to discover a wealth of things to do and places to visit.
Shrewsbury is a great base from which to discover the area’s attractions. The town itself is well worth a look with its half-timbered buildings, walks along the River Severn and Charles Darwin trail. The king of evolution was born in the town.
Shropshire has a large number of traditional market towns including Ludlow, Shrewsbury, and Oswestry, but it’s also worth exploring smaller villages such as pretty Much Wenlock, Clun and Church Stretton. Expect good local food and grub from Shropshire farmers.
Don’t miss Shropshire’s best-known dish, Fidget Pie which is made from a combination of ham, apples, onions, cider and cheese.
The Shropshire landscape is geologically unique and makes for great walking country and wildlife watching.
The Wrekin – a rounded hill and local landmark which is popular with walkers. Check out the story of its famous giant and discover the history of the Iron Age fort on its summit.
Carding Mill Valley and Long Mynd – this heather covered area has fabulous views over the Shropshire Hills. Don’t forget your walking boots.
Stiperstones – frost-shattered quartzite boulders, some in circles, others in stripes, make this wild heathland a popular walking route.
Oswestry Hills – discover a story of vanished oceans and fossilised sea creatures in this pristine grassland. A great place for butterflies too.
Clun Forest – magnificent wooded ‘dingles’, open moorland and river valleys characterise this quiet area of south Shropshire.
Ancient sites are a feature of the Shropshire landscape. The king of them all is Offa’s Dyke, a mysterious structure which is thought to be over 1,250 years old. The Dyke runs from Prestatyn in north Wales through the centre of Shropshire down to Chepstow in the south.
It’s thought that the Dyke was built by the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia around 757-796 AD, possibly as defensive structure – or as a show of strength and power.
One of the best places to see the monument is the hilly landscape north of Knighton where you’ll discover a well-preserved chunk of the grassy mounds. I’d strongly advise checking out the Offa’s Dyke Path route map and planning ahead.
Offa’s Dyke criss-crosses the English-Welsh border for 177 miles so you need to identify the section nearest to you. A trip requires a bit of detective work – and my map reading wasn’t perfect. I managed to veer off the route, and narrowly avoided being chased by a lively herd of young bulls!
For a change of scene, why not immerse yourself in modern history. Shropshire was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and I’d strongly recommend a visit to Ironbridge, centre of early industry in England.
Not only is the town itself a pleasant place to stop off with its cafes and gift shops, its striking iron bridge across the gorge is one of the wonders of the industrial age.
There’s a wealth of heritage attractions and trails – and the good news is that all of them work as days out for the whole family or independent travellers who are looking for something a bit different.
Nearby Blists Hill Town is one of the best open air museums in Britain with its Victorian streets, period buildings, industrial workshops, olde worlde shops, a foundry and blast furnace.
I feared this might be a twee heritage experience, but it’s as authentic as the excellent fish and chips on sale at the fried fish dealers. There is much to admire, from the mining railway to the Victorian fairground – not to mention the boat shed where I lost my partner Tony for over an hour.
OK, there are costumed figures to act out life at the turn of the century, but engaging with folk from yesteryear is surprisingly fun at this museum. Even the pub sing along with the local policeman and his dog was an uplifting and hilarious experience. Honest!