Exploring Hidden Britain
By Richard Tippett
To explore any country 'off the beaten track' is a rewarding experience. In Britain, the country's highways and byways lead to unexpected gems such as a holiday home disguised as a pineapple, an Italianate village in the Welsh mountains and gardens dotted with classical temples. For travel with a difference, you can take a ride in a strange sea-tractor or a horse-drawn stagecoach!
But the 'hidden Britain' of which we talk is not just about off-beat attractions. It is about picturesque villages, medieval towns, beautiful landscapes, harbours, antique stores and tea-shops. Not forgetting that unique social institution, the pub. So how do you find the countryside that most tourists miss, the 'undiscovered' gems that make a holiday so satisfying?
Less than 80 miles north-east of London, for example, is Suffolk, one of England’s most attractive, yet little explored, counties. Its tranquil charm has inspired painters for centuries: including open landscapes, a coastline rich in character and picture-postcard towns and villages, many of which flourished during the medieval wool trade. These 'wool towns' include Lavenham with its crooked, timbered houses and market place of film-set perfection. The nearby village of Kersey is best known for a ford in its main street where the traffic stops to let ducks paddle across! Long Melford boasts an array of antique shops in equally antique buildings.
Suffolk's Heritage Coast winds through misty, mysterious inlets to towns such as Aldeburgh, home of composer Benjamin Britten and Southwold, whose colourful beach-huts are much sought after among the English: cosy, private places in which to drink tea and watch the sea.
For a complete contrast, the Highlands of Scotland offer supreme scenic grandeur. Despite its remoteness, it is surprisingly easy to reach and tour by train: it boasts some of Europe's great rail journeys. On the two occasions I have taken the train to this corner of Britain I have witnessed its different characters: on one occasion bathed in brilliant sunshine and, on another, mysterious and brooding in great clouds of mist.
Mallaig, a fishing port on the Atlantic coast, is a good overnight stopover before taking the ferry across to the Isle of Skye. It is also terminus for the rail journey to Fort William, highlights of which include the crossing of Glenfinnan Viaduct, with its views across the waters of Loch Shiel, and the grandeur of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.
Wales, the mountainous land to the west of England, welcomes less than five per cent of overseas visitors to Britain, which means many are missing out on its Celtic heritage, myths and legends, and castles. In its north-west corner you will find an exotic Italianate village, Portmeirion, nestling between mountains and the sea. The dream of an eccentric architect who 'collected' historic buildings from different parts of the country, the village includes holiday homes and two hotels.
Some of Wales' finest vistas lay just over its border with England in the southern part of the country: the beautiful Wye Valley. Within its wooded folds you'll find the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey, which inspired poet William Wordsworth and painter J.M. Turner. This, the best-preserved medieval abbey in Wales, plus Chepstow Castle and the fine walks high above the River Wye, are often missed by travellers hurtling along the M4 motorway nearby.
One of the joys of hidden Britain is finding unusual buildings in unexpected places. Stourhead in Wiltshire is one of several 18th century landscaped gardens decorated, as was the fashion, with imitation classical temples - including the Pantheon and Temple of Apollo. And where other than England could you find a fairy-tale style 'House in the Clouds' (Thorpeness, Suffolk); or a circular home (built so the Devil has no corners in which to hide - Exmouth, Devon)?
One of the strangest follies is to be seen in Scotland: a giant pineapple which looms over a garden in Dunmore near Stirling. More amusing still is that this historic edifice can be rented as a holiday home (www.landmarktrust.co.uk).
Part of the attraction of exploring Britain's backwaters is the opportunity to ride off-beat forms of transport. This ranges from canal narrow-boats (even in the heart of London), vintage motor-bikes and red-painted post buses, which also carry the mail, to a sea-tractor which crosses sand-flats to Burgh Island in Devon. Nostalgic steam train journeys can be enjoyed in most parts of the country, while in the eastern England town of Stamford, an 1830s stagecoach, pulled by four grey horses, has returned to the roads. Passengers dress in cloaks, top hats and bonnets to see the countryside in style.
There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from. Some of the more unusual we have already mentioned; others include bed and breakfast in private homes; historic inns dating from stagecoach days and country house hotels with fine restaurants and many amenities.