Travel

UK staycations: The little-known gems that are perfect for a brilliant break, from Somerset to Wales


The South West, the Cotswolds and many staycation hotspots became fully booked this summer, with hardly a B&B room left unoccupied. 

Our writers dived off the UK’s tourist trail to visit places that might, at first, not sound much to boast about, but turned out to be nothing short of a revelation… 

WELSH WONDER WHERE KATE AND WILLS BEGAN MARRIED LIFE

Sheer beauty: South Stack lighthouse on Holy Island in Anglesey. It rises upwards towards whizzing seabirds while dolphins swim nearby

Sheer beauty: South Stack lighthouse on Holy Island in Anglesey. It rises upwards towards whizzing seabirds while dolphins swim nearby 

On my third day in Cae shepherd’s hut, I set an alarm so I could part the little floral curtains in time for dawn. Fat as a juicy orange, the sunrise bathed the copses and cottages, meadows and hedgerows, as I watched the light show from my pull-down bed (angleseyshepherdshuts.org).

Never have I sprung awake so early on holiday, keen not to miss a moment. This far-flung corner of Wales was booked only as a tag-on to my mountain-conquering trip in Snowdonia, which lies an hour to the east. 

Almost literally in its cinematic neighbour’s shadow, gently undulating Anglesey was only in my psyche as the place our straitlaced young royals, William and Kate, settled down to start their married life.

When you depart the mainland across the Britannia Bridge, it doesn’t take long for the distinctive culture of Wales’s largest island, where the mother tongue still holds strong, to seep into your soul.

Anglesey was the place where William and Kate settled down to start their married life. They are pictured here on a visit to Newborough Beach on Anglesey in May 2019

Anglesey was the place where William and Kate settled down to start their married life. They are pictured here on a visit to Newborough Beach on Anglesey in May 2019

With 125 miles of coastline, I’d pull up at the prettiest coves. Protected beneath heath-topped cliffs, these horseshoes of sand slope into shallow water, perfect for a brisk dip.

Another bridge leads to Holy Island, where the South Stack lighthouse thrusts up towards whizzing seabirds while dolphins swim nearby.

The sea guarantees you a good meal, too. I warmed the cockles each night with Anglesey crab penne at the glass-fronted Catch 22 (catch22brasserie.co.uk). Comfort food is a big, steaming bowl of pasta after a day on the coast. Bonus points for sporting sandy shoes and salty hair. Siobhan Warwicker

GET A TASTE FOR CULTURE IN SUMPTUOUS SOMERSET

The little village of Bruton in Somerset, which has earned a burgeoning reputation as a gastro hub

The little village of Bruton in Somerset, which has earned a burgeoning reputation as a gastro hub

It was the free entry that did it.

Being a fan of neither galleries nor gardens, I wouldn’t ordinarily have visited the Somerset outpost of gallery empire Hauser & Wirth, set in landscaped grounds just outside the little village of Bruton (hauserwirth.com).

I’d been lured instead by Bruton’s burgeoning reputation as a gastro hub, and very fine the food was too, with everything from hallowed pizza in At The Chapel to gourmet dining at Osip, opened recently by Michelin-starred chef Merlin Labron-Johnson.

I’m fond of my food. But art? Not so much. Still, it was free, and I was interested to see the place that really helped put Bruton on the map when it opened in 2014.

So I walked to the gallery, stoically ignoring a rather lovely cheese shop en route.

The Hauser & Wirth gallery in Bruton is set in landscaped gardens designed by architect Piet Oudolf

The Hauser & Wirth gallery in Bruton is set in landscaped gardens designed by architect Piet Oudolf 

What was going to be a dash turned into a dawdle as my attention was caught by the novel 100 Architects exhibit, by the artist Not Vital, featuring granite towers created from slabs, their dimensions varying according to the architects’ dates of birth. 

His Scarch exhibition, showing the interplay of sculpture and architecture, continued outside, where I was enthralled by a tall, reflective steel tower.

By the time I reached the gardens, I was won over. Yet these too were hugely appealing. Designed by landscape architect Piet Oudolf, they incorporate a beautiful flower meadow. 

What looks like a huge pebble plopped down at the end is in fact the Radic Pavilion, put out to pasture having been moved from its original position in London’s Hyde Park. Could it get better? Yes, indeed – it turns out there’s a pretty good restaurant on site. Jane Knight

Looking towards the altar in 800-year-old Sherborne Abbey

Looking towards the altar in 800-year-old Sherborne Abbey

THERE’S MORE TO DORSET THAN THE JURASSIC COAST  

From Durdle Door’s limestone arch to the remote cove that is Chapman’s Pool, when the sun shines on the Jurassic Coast there is nowhere better for sheer beauty. 

Until recently, I would not have seen the point of visiting Dorset and not staying by the coast. But, just like author Thomas Hardy, I’ve fallen for Sherborne’s charms.

With its honey-stone buildings, thatched cottages and winding lanes, it is a good 50-minute drive inland. But don’t let that put you off.

The town’s centrepiece is the 800-year-old abbey, resplendent with its golden Gothic arches and stained glass windows. Renowned for its rich choral heritage and bell ringers, it stands at the bottom of Cheap Street, a bustling lane full of independent stores. 

For funky homeware and fashion labels, such as Skull Cashmere and Bella Freud, lifestyle boutique The Circus is a treasure trove of unusual buys.

And at indy bookstore Winstone’s, you can easily lose hours browsing the 9,000 titles. D’Urberville Living, is another gem, with its stylishly curated antique and vintage finds.

After mooching around the stores, head to traditional country inn The Rose & Crown, for a local ale. While the rooms at Sherborne Castle – a 16th Century Tudor mansion – are closed until the end of the year, its gardens are well worth a visit to soak up Capability Brown’s majestic landscapes.

Take a hamper from The Pear Tree deli, a specialist in locally sourced artisan produce such as Dorset Blue Vinny cheese and Purbeck’s Dorset Blush cider.

Sherbourne, pictured, is known for its honey-stone buildings, thatched cottages and winding lanes

Sherbourne, pictured, is known for its honey-stone buildings, thatched cottages and winding lanes

Finally, for the ultimate bed for the night, Eastbury Hotel has recently opened a refurbished 17th Century cottage – complete with inglenook fireplace, wooden beams and walled garden (theeastburyhotel.co.uk). 

Book in for dinner at the hotel’s Seasons restaurant, where chef Matthew Street’s tasting menu has been inspired by Dorset ingredients such as crab, monkfish and mackerel.

It’s the perfect taste of the sea, without getting your feet wet. Angelina Villa Clarke

RAISE A GLASS OR TWO IN KENT’S WINE COUNTRY  

The charming high street in Tenterden, a small town that lies in the heart of Kent's wine country

The charming high street in Tenterden, a small town that lies in the heart of Kent’s wine country 

There are few greater pleasures in life than strolling along a bustling high street, browsing in little boutiques, dipping into antique shops and pausing for tea and a slice of cake or a cheeky glass of rosé in a pub garden.

The small Kent town of Tenterden delivers all of these in a pleasingly old-fashioned way.

It has a wide, tree-lined main street flanked by a roll call of 600 years of architecture, from the 14th Century Wealden Hall House, now the charming Lemon Tree Restaurant, to the 18th Century Town Hall and Georgian mansions, dating back to when the town was a bustling port on the River Rother, its riches built on the wool trade.

Until this summer, I’d never have considered Kent for a staycation, but an overflowing West Country made us look closer to home. Tenterden lies at the heart of Kent’s wine country, so is perfect for afternoon jaunts to nearby vineyards. A downloadable Wine Trail map also includes local breweries and cider orchards (visitashfordandtenterden.co.uk).

Vita Sackville-West’s glorious gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. The rolling hills of High Weald are nearby

Vita Sackville-West’s glorious gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. The rolling hills of High Weald are nearby

Its proximity to the rolling hills of High Weald offers miles of spectacular walks, and Vita Sackville-West’s glorious gardens at Sissinghurst are just 20 minutes by car.

But it’s the high street that’s the real joy, dotted with independently-owned stores, pubs and non-chain restaurants.

We eat a wonderful Italian dinner at Montalbano, slap-up breakfasts at Amy’s Pantry and settle in to the garden at the Woolpack Hotel for lazy, post-walk pints.

Tenterden is big enough to give you choices, but small enough to be charming. It is the quintessential English town. Annabelle Thorpe

THE GLORY OF LONDON’S NATIONAL TREASURE

The National Gallery, where visitors can gaze at Renaissance masterpieces as well as glorious landscapes

The National Gallery, where visitors can gaze at Renaissance masterpieces as well as glorious landscapes

I live in London, and there’s a bus that goes right from my flat to Trafalgar Square. I could have dropped into The National Gallery hundreds of times, and yet I didn’t. Since it reopened after lockdown, however, I’ve been twice and will be going again and again.

The crowds I always assumed would be overwhelming the Van Goghs aren’t there, and I love the series of routes on offer.

Following arrows on the floor takes me to Renaissance masterpieces, glorious landscapes or interiors, and I’m not overwhelmed by it. Instead, it feels as if I’m entering a portal (nationalgallery.org.uk).

Normally I arrange to see friends by going for a meal, but going to a gallery with them turns out to be so much nicer. We talk of life while walking under vast ceilings and next to priceless art.

As an added bonus, people-watching is so much more fun than at a restaurant, and there’s no bill to divide, either.

If you deviate off your path, a guard will gently remind you.

But it isn’t about crowd control, the gift shop or the cafe, it’s all about the art, and that feels like a complete privilege. Sarah Turner

SPECTACULAR RUINS THAT EVOKE A BYGONE ERA  

Lavish history: The remains of the fire-ravaged stately home Witley Court, located in Worcestershire

Lavish history: The remains of the fire-ravaged stately home Witley Court, located in Worcestershire 

Growing up near Highclere Castle (the setting for ITV’s hit drama Downton Abbey) made me a stately home snob.

Nothing came close until I stumbled across Witley Court and Gardens during a post-lockdown, wet weekend in Worcestershire.

Transformed from a medieval manor house into a sprawling mansion in the 18th Century, it had several owners, and each made their mark.

But when a fire broke out in the servants’ quarters in 1937, owner Herbert Smith could not afford repairs, and sold up to scrap dealers who stripped it bare.

Today, the sense of ‘what might have been’ seeps from every inch of this English Heritage property, thanks to carefully positioned photos depicting its glory years (english-heritage.org.uk).

How its ornate exterior and fountain-filled grounds survived the elements, wars and passing of time, I’ll never know, but I’m glad they did. Tamara Hinson

TEN OUT OF TEN FOR A TOWN ON THE SEVERN

Time to reflect: The English Bridge over the serene River Severn in Shrewsbury in the often-idyllic county of Shropshire

Time to reflect: The English Bridge over the serene River Severn in Shrewsbury in the often-idyllic county of Shropshire 

Shrewsbury caught me unawares. I knew it was ancient – Darwin’s birthplace and located in often-idyllic Shropshire – but not enchanting.

Yet so it proved, repeatedly. From the station I ascended past red-brick churches and enjoyed the medieval names of busy shopping streets: Dogpole, Wyle Cop, Mardol.

Shrewsbury’s compact centre straddles a steep hill, the River Severn hooking around its base rather like a moat. Aptly, then, there’s a castle, built in the 11th Century to see off Welsh raiders. Nearby Shrewsbury Abbey dates from the same era.

With only a morning to spare, though, I eschewed sightseeing in favour of aimless wandering. After a stroll around the flowery park, The Quarry, came some caffeinated rejuvenation at Ginger & Co, off the market square.

As my takeaway flat white was being concocted, I engaged its youthful barista in a contentious pronunciation debate: Shrowsbury or Shroosbury?

‘No one’s sure,’ she admitted. ‘But more people say “Shroosbury” – especially older folk.’

Only a little clearer, I hurried off to catch my train home – all the while determining to return very soon. Richard Mellor

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