Experience

The road less travelled: three alternative UK holidays

From gothic Grasmere to simply splendid South Leigh, here’s what we’ll be booking (if we get the chance)

25.11.2020

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The year 2020 has given us many things, but an abundance of adventurous holidays isn’t not one. The pandemic has put paid to tonnes of trips this year, with quarantines, air corridors and lockdowns all unwelcome new additions to our travel vocabulary. Though a holiday before the end of the year might look as unlikely a prospect as a Christmas party right now, we can dare to dream, can’t we? If government restrictions do adjust to allow for a last-minute festive staycation, relax in the knowledge that we’ve done all the hard work for you and picked out the best locations for an off-the-cuff break. 

1. GRASMERE

You might think you’re going to the Lake District for, well, the lakes, but you’ll stay (not perhaps at the same dress size, admittedly) for the Grasmere gingerbread: locally made, spicy-sweet and crumbly, it’s about six times better than anything you’ll have had before. In Grasmere that’s a pretty common theme – everything is just more. The landscapes are bigger, the weather is wilder and the people are, without a doubt, the friendliest you’ll meet for miles around.

Make the most of it by holing up at The Forest Side, a pile so Gothic, you’ll feel like the hero of a particularly atmospheric Victorian novel. Pitched right in the middle of the Lake District National Park, fluffy Herdwick sheep graze in the grounds and the views – miles of shimmering water and rolling hills – are nothing short of mind-boggling. A whopping 43 acres of woodland surround the hotel, and you could happily spend a whole week here roaming the fellside, spotting roe deer and red squirrels. The many walks you’ll go on will be amply rewarded by Paul Leonard, the hotel’s chef, widely recognised as one of the best in the area: think spruced-up Cumbrian countryside fare, like parsnip tart with pig’s head croquettes.

Wander the quiet lanes to pick up some of the aforementioned gingerbread, plus cosy jumpers from Herdy on College Street, fondly named after the local sheep who supply the wool. No visit to Grasmere should end without a quick dip into the village’s literary pedigree. Romantic poet William Wordsworth lived here for 14 years with his sitter, Dorothy; drop by their old house, Dove Cottage, for a guided tour. Somewhat less cerebral but no less celebrated would be a trip to Hawkshead Brewery, a short drive away, to taste-test small-bath IPAs and deep red ales. Buy a crate to take home, but don’t bother taking much – we strongly predict you’ll be back before too long.

the forest side, from £319 per night 

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2. SOUTH LEIGH

Yes, yes, the Cotswolds are beautiful, but they’re also rather overcrowded these days, thanks to tourists’ many rave reviews of the chocolate box-perfect towns, toffee-toned cottages and winding rivers. Though it almost breaks our hearts to do so, may we let you in on a little secret? The tiny Oxfordshire town of South Leigh, set just outside the Cotswolds border, is every bit as gorgeous, but far less populated. You won’t find much more here than the little church and the quaint village hall – except, of course for the Artist Residence Oxfordshire.

Once bestowed by the lord and lady of Eynsham Hall to their Butler (pretty nice present, we think you’ll agree), from the outset, this 16th century inn is everything you’d expect of a small, country hotel, right down to its neatly thatched roof. Inside, however, it’s a different story: packed with art, the hotel more than lives up to its name, boasting neon signs by Andy Doig and pieces by the Connor Brothers happily rubbing shoulders with cosy, understated pub furniture and original inglenook fireplaces. If your idea of hell is a stuffy, super-smart hotel, welcome to nirvana: slightly shambolic and ever-so-chic. We recommend bagging a spot at ARO’s ‘Clubhouse’ on your first night – an unofficial gathering spot for the village, serving everything from coffee to cocktails, it’ll kick your trip off nicely.

While undeniably picturesque, there isn’t too much to do in South Leigh itself, beyond excellent local walks. Oxford, however, is just a half hour’s drive away – keep your eyes skyward to best appreciate those dreaming spires, and don’t leave without stopping for a pint at favoured haunt, The King’s Arms. If you fancy venturing out on a tour of Cotswolds villages, be sure to include Bourton on the Water and Kingham on your list. The latter is home to Daylesford’s flagship farm shop – load up on armfuls of homemade shortbread and fresh wedges of brie before heading home.

THE ARTIST RESIDENCE OXFORD, from £145 per night

3. GULLANE

Perched on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian, the little Scottish town of Gullane occupies a seriously enviable position: not many places can boast a blustery coastline looking straight out to the North Sea and access to one of the UK’s loveliest cities in the same breath. Just a half hour’s drive from Edinburgh, Gullane’s roots go way back to the ninth century; since then, notable architects have left their mark, with buildings by Sir Edward Lutyens and Sir Robert Lorimer dotting the streets.

Book yourself in to The Bonnie Badger, a tiny, ivy-covered inn with bags of style. The first foray into hotels by much applauded chef and restauranteur couple, the aptly named Tom and Michaela Kitchin, it’s a finely tuned blend of classic, rustic design and top-notch mod-cons (think custom-designed wallpaper by Mairi Helena and underfloor heating – ideal for warding off the North Sea chill). Given the hotel’s owners, you’d expect the food to be off the scale; thankfully, you’d be right: humble, traditional dishes like haggis, neeps and tatties and steak pie are elevated to star status. The hotel’s Broc Bar is a favourite with the locals, who come to play pool and make their way through the indescribably good whisky list, accompanied by copious quantities of Tom’s ears – that’s crisp, salted pigs’ ears, the best bar snack in town.

If you’re feeling brave (and have a wetsuit handy) take a dip in the Firth of Forth – you can arrange for a thermos of hot chocolate to by your bed for when you get back – or set out along the John Muir Way, the mammoth coastal walk that stretches horizontally across Scotland, from Helensburgh to Dunbar. Feeling extra adventurous? Hop on a boat out to the imposing Bass Rock to spy on the residents: a colony of more than 150,000 northern gannets. Not so much? Nearby North Berwick, with its kaleidoscopic collection of independent shops, makes for a more sedate afternoon – especially when finished off with a wee dram or two.

THE BONNIE BADGER, FROM £175 PER NIGHT 

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