Advice from a Local
This article has been bubbling away in my mind for a few years now, pretty much since I moved to the USA seven years ago. I noticed very early on that my daily conversations where somewhat formulaic. I’d be in a line for food or talking with a friend and I’d hear, often from somewhere behind me, something like this:
“Oh my God are you British?!” a line that upon my first arrival made me feel like a movie star.
“Yeah, I just moved here.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to England” This line always struck me on two fronts, firstly it was clear most Americans didn’t know the difference between England and Britain. Second, why was it that everyone wanted to ‘hop across the pond’ on vacation yet no-one ever seemed to actually do it?
“Are you from London?” would be the final direction of the chat and it’s this line that would grind on me.
Why the assumption? If I met an american (which I seldom did growing up, perhaps only two outside the US in my life now I think about it), I wouldn’t assume they were from New York, undoubtedly America’s London equivalent. Of course London is an amazing city, huge and full of rich history, perhaps that was it. Or was it simply that American’s didn’t know of any other place in Britland?
Conversations like this were so frequent that the question of whether or not the United Kingdom was made solely of one large industrial city in the minds of American travelers became lodged in my brain. I became concerned then, as I remain now, that those curious enough to obtain passports would rush for London and never even realize that many of the best places are elsewhere.
So if you’re planning a trip to England, be sure to read this, and even more so be sure to escape London once you land. The following is not meant as a list of all the best places, but if I were heading over for a couple of weeks, this is where I would go.
Let’s be logical and begin in the south. Cornwall is the closest thing to a summer vacation spot that England offers. More than a beachy area of south coast, it’s full of history and cultural independence. Cornwall is so far west and cut off from the rest of the nation that it has its own language (Cornish) and many of its own unique traditions and foods. The county is home to the country’s best beaches and warmest weather, making it a pleasant experience regardless of itinerary.
The area’s historic industries have been farming and mining, indeed the area’s copper miners were so uniquely skilled they were sourced all over the world, significantly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the american civil war era (see our article ‘How the UP Won the Civil War’).
These days the county thrives from a booming tourism trade, with people coming to see the coastal cliffs, lush moors and deserted beaches. It has also become a technological pioneer, housing the UK’s Eden Project.
Highlights include Tintagel’s Castle, no doubt one of a few you’ll bump into on a British visit, but this one is rumored to be the birthplace of King Arthur. On the shore is an outcropping where legend has it wizards would stand and wield spells.
Without a doubt, one of Cornwall’s most iconic images is of St Michael’s Mound, a beautiful abbey covered island. Catch the ferry (adult/child £2/1) from nearby Marazion and enjoy touring around this national treasure, once home to a Benedictine monastery. Kynance Cove is a coastal beauty, owned by the National Trust, an organization which serves to protect British landscapes and buildings much like the USA’s National Parks Service, it will halt you in your tracks. A beautiful inlet, covered with sandy beach and surrounded by red and green serpentine rocks, you can sun bathe or wander the area to your heart’s content.
I would say you would want a nice three to four days in Cornwall, probably as either the first or final section of your trip.
Well now that we’ve established the rural beauty of Britain, lets add in a sprinkle of quaint villages, roaming farm animals along main streets and the hiking trails connecting it all together, welcome to one of England’s newest National Parks.
The New Forest is a lovely extended area of heathland and forest. Stare in amazement as ponies walk past you on main streets and make use of the extensive hiking and biking trails to move from village to village. With B&B’s everywhere you can find relatively cheap and comfy accommodation all over the place. If you want to stay in converted mansion hotels, no problem, or if you’re a camper, there are a number of sites around the park to set up your tent. My advice would be to spend a couple of days exploring the villages and quaint country pubs.
You can forget London (and you probably will do) once you’ve seen York. If you’ve watched TV and observed quaint depictions of England, full of cobbled streets, thatched roofs, castles and tweed, welcome to your fantasy. Nowhere does medieval like the city of York. Its beauty is matched only by its historical punch and the two combined will prevent you from leaving for days. York is a tourist oriented city, proud to show visitors its gothic roots. The boundary of the city is as clear as you’ll ever see, signaled by a continuous 13th century wall that makes you feel like you’re crossing into another time, in many ways you are. Inside is an intricate maze of cobbled medieval streets, that wind around to the centre piece at it’s heart; York Minster Cathedral.
The cathedral may be one of the best examples of gothic cathedrals in the world, its immense size (one of the largest in northern Europe), perfect preservation and situation are hard to take in. The building’s origin dates back to the 6th century, though it was rebuilt, expanded and altered over the next thousand years, becoming more like its present form. It boasts the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world, and may well be the most impressive building you visit in England.
The Shambles are just awesome! In 1862 there were 26 butcher shops on this street, now it’s lined with souvenir stores, coffee lounges and cafe’s, but the 15th century buildings are no less impressive, hanging above your head and leaning so much it seems they may collapse. This is one of the most picturesque streets in England, and a tourist hotspot.
Of course the iconic Betty’s tea room attracts plenty of visitors, there are often queues running around the building waiting for a test of their famous afternoon teas or fat rascals. Make sure you head there before your belly starts rumbling! The
Jorvik Viking Centre is a great stop to make, transporting you into 9th-century Jorvik (the Viking name for York). It manages what many museums try to achieve and fail, to immerse you in a recreated place and time, in this case the ancient settlement discovered here in the 1970’s. The fine details are all here, right down to the smell. There is even a time traveling monorail which will take you on a tour through 9th century Jorvik while you sit back and relax.
If you need a little nature, head to the Museum Gardens, not only will you enjoy the peaceful beauty of the flora arranged along the great city walls, you can see a couple of historic 12th century buildings on the way around.
York might have you wanting to stay longer than planned, but pull yourself away and head north west.
The Dales and Lake District
Now we have of course written a full article on the Yorkshire Dales, so click here for that more detailed account, but let’s just say that if you’re heading up north, you’re about to have your preconceptions of England blown away. Despite popular belief not everyone in England talks like the Queen and waltzes down Oxford Street sipping tea and Yorkshire is the perfect example of this. Up here you’ll find the salt of the earth, though you may not understand what they are saying.
The Dales and Lake District National Parks are some of the most beautiful places in England, end of story. The rolling fields, stone walls, huge lakes and roaming animals make you feel like Emily Bronte wrote your vacation itinerary.
A visit here will take two or three days and should include stops at Skipton, Makham Cove and Hawes.
Skipton serves as the Yorkshire Dales largest town, it has a wonderful castle to explore and day walks from the town are beautiful. About half an hour south of Skipton is the town of Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters and one of the biggest draws for literary minded people visiting the region. The three sisters wrote a selection of novels which still today stand out as some of the most adored and acclaimed novels ever written. Wuthering Heights might be the best depiction of the moors ever to be penned, it certainly captures the feel and mood of the countryside. The town is full of tea rooms and souvenir shops, but it’s the Bronte museum which draws the crowds.
The town of Hawes has a list of must do’s. The Dales Countryside Museum, a nice little showcase of the areas social and geological history is a nice way to get acquainted with the landscape, entry is just £4 and is money well spent.
Another highlight (especially for any Wallace and Gromit fans) is the Wensleydale Creamery, which is devoted to the production of the animated TV characters favorite crumbly white cheese. The creamery is both informative and delicious (tasters are plentiful and the shop at the end is mouthwatering).
The final thing to see here is Halaber Force, the highest unbroken (above ground) waterfall in Britain. It’s an awfully small waterfall when compared to its bigger international cousins, but in this quaint village, it stands tall and proud.
The Lake District is by far the most popular National Park in Britain with over 15 million visitors every year. Its natural draws include the vast lakes, beautiful landscapes, endless opportunity for water sports and hiking, but above all, its heavy literary past. Authors such as William Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome and, of course, Beatrix Potter have written there greatest works through the inspiration of this stunning part of the country.
Be sure to drop into William Wordsworth’s house, built in the 1740’s and restored based on the accounts from his writings. It’s a wonderful journey into the past and a poignant insight into 18th century life. Keswick Museum is a quirky place as museums go, find out about anything from the area’s ancient archeology to mummified 700 year old cats.
Like the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District’s biggest draw is its mountains, lakes and outdoor opportunities, if you enjoy hiking, getting wet, or you’re a photographer looking for some epic landscape shots, here is a perfect place to start. A great example of the park’s beautiful natural assets is Lake Windermere. This 5.7 square mile lake, 200m deep in places is dazzling and also pretty interesting too. Due to a quirky business deal the lake doesn’t belong to the National Park service or any private owners, but to the people of Windermere. It also contains a sprinkling of islands, the largest is Belle Isle, a nicely sized 16 hectares with an 18th-century Italianate mansion to boot. The smallest, Maiden Holme, is essentially a cute patch of soil and a lonely tree.
Every small town in the park has an array of B&B’s, hotels and campsites so once again, it’s up to you where you stay, but there are a few days worth of exploring to be done around these parts.
Alright, that should be enough to get you started, now come back and tell me you weren’t glad you got out of London!