England! That green and pleasant land. An inspiration to poets and painters, writers and filmmakers, from Cornwall's rugged cliffs and golden beaches to the gentle rolling hills and honey-stone dwellings of the Cotswolds, and then again the granite fells and glassy meres of the Lake District.
And then there are the cities. Brash and energetic London is where the action is, while elegance and refinement can be readily found a two-hour train ride away in Bath – city of Georgian grandeur, Jane Austen and invigorating hot springs.
It would be an insurmountable task to catalogue all that this little country has to offer, but here, we present the essentials – the 10 starting points that everybody really ought to visit in order to see England at its very best.
Visitors flock to Yorkshire because there is no place on earth like God’s Own County. The sheer beauty of the landscape, sometimes as unexpected as a dilapidated mill chimney stabbing up through a leaden sky, has inspired generations of painters: from John Atkinson Grimshaw’s moonscapes to the Victorian artists of the Staithes Group to David Hockney’s Yorkshire Wolds. It boasts three national parks, a wild and rugged coastline, and wonderful Victorian architecture, not least the preserved terraced streets and mills of the World Heritage Site of Saltaire.
Not only that, but its food and drink reputation now matches that of any other destination in Britain, with more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else bar London. The only downside for visitors is the secret is out. Some 40 million visitors now travel here every year for heritage-related tourism alone. Good job its grand old cities and sweeping moors and Dales are large enough to soak them all up.
The glorious, honey-coloured towns and villages of the Cotswolds look as if they have strayed into the 21st century from another era. The area is characterised by gentle dynamism, with lively galleries, vibrant festivals and a liberal endowment of intriguing museums. Covering nearly 800 square miles across five counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire), this region of 'wolds', or rolling hills, is the biggest of the 38 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales.
Every season here has intrinsic appeal. Crowd-free winters are ideal for bracing walks, fire-side pub sessions – and lower hotel prices. Come in spring to see lambs and wild daffodils. Visit in summer (inevitably with many others) for magical light, particularly in the long evenings. Or make an autumn excursion for a quieter atmosphere and wonderful leaf colour, especially at the two great arboreta, Westonbirt and Batsford.
Craggy coves and cream teas, surf breaks and strolls, picnics and pints in pub gardens – holidays in Devon are wholesome, simple and scenic. A visit here mixes two of life’s loveliest pleasures: good food and the great outdoors. Most people are drawn to the magnificent beaches on the south and north coasts, but inland Devon has its appeal, too: Dartmoor and Exmoor are vast granite plateaux offering solitude and big skies, while the gentler, Friesian-filled pastures of mid-Devon hide clusters of thatched villages, meandering rivers and thickly wooded cleaves.
A visit here mixes two of life’s loveliest pleasures: good food and the great outdoors. Devon folk make the most of the rich larder of food on their doorstep. Lamb, venison, pheasant, pork and seafood are staples, and the county’s farmers’ markets are full of artisan producers selling delicious cider, apple juice, cheese and ice cream.
Visit the Lake District for Britain’s greenest countryside and grandest views. Covering a total area of just over 885 square miles, the Lake District National Park has been protected since 1951, and its picturesque patchwork of lakes, valleys, woodlands and fells make it one of the best places in Britain to get out and experience the great outdoors, whether it’s on a leisurely bike ride down country lanes or a day-long hike across the hills. And while the weather is notoriously unpredictable, showers and racing clouds only emphasise the grandeur of the magnificent views.
The Lake District also has numerous artistic and literary connections, most famously William Wordsworth, who was born in Cockermouth in 1770 and drew much of his poetic inspiration from the surrounding landscape. And while the weather is notoriously unpredictable (locals will tell you it’s not unusual to experience all four seasons in a single day), showers and racing clouds only emphasise the grandeur of the magnificent scenery.
Norfolk's undulating countryside and sleepy, flint-built villages are perfect for gentle cycling, walking or touring by car. Stately homes, ruined castles, medieval churches and half-timbered wool towns with fascinating museums make for enjoyable days out. Although East Anglia gets less rain than many other holiday destinations in the UK, northerly and easterly winds over the North Sea can keep temperatures low. But even on cold, bright days in winter, the beach car parks can be busy with dog-walkers and hikers.
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The county offers a wide variety of places to visit, including grand country houses, steam railways, gardens, nature reserves and, of course, the Broads, one of England’s 10 designated National Parks, which become packed with visitors during summer. Small towns such as Burnham Market and Holt, with their local food and craft shops are good for a morning or afternoon of gentle pottering.
The beaches fringing the curved Norfolk and Suffolk coastline are the chief draw for visitors to the region. Even on the busiest summer’s day, there is always space for games, kite flying or a quiet family picnic in the dunes. It’s also a wild landscape of dense pine forest, open heathland and great expanses of salt marsh. Bird life is astonishingly rich, and coastal wild flowers include yellow-horned poppies and purple-flowering sea pea, while the unique wetlands of the Broads is home to more than 400 rare species, including butterflies, dragonflies, moths and snails.
Wherever you are though, you’re never far from a cosy, pamment-floored pub serving local ales, or an excellent delicatessen selling the region’s specialities – pungent cheeses, smoked fish or honey. Pretty coastal towns such as Southwold and Aldeburgh are both pretty places to spend a day at leisure.
There can be few more cosmopolitan cities on earth. People pour in from across the world to visit, work or live within London's ever-changing environs. Londoners are used to hoardings marking the progress of colossal infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and the revitalisation of King’s Cross-St Pancras, and new skyscrapers, even entire new areas, such as the Embassy Quarter and Battersea Power Station south of the river, are transforming the skyline, bringing a certain energy to this thriving metropolis.
A constantly changing landscape of restaurants, bars and theatres buzz continuously, and the range of events on offer – from sport to food pop-ups, from music festivals to theatre – is unbeatable. But some things are constant. Spaces such as the British Museum, the Royal National Theatre and both Tate galleries are reliable sources of enlightening entertainment, and it's near impossible to walk the city centre without stumbling across some historic curiosity or other.
Cornwall is defined by its magnificent coastline, with 300 miles of dunes and cliffs, medieval harbours and oak-forested creeks – all accessible on foot. Such an unspoilt coastline inspires Enid Blyton-style adventures: take a picnic and the dog through fields fringed in wildflowers to a remote beach; clamber down stepping-stone cliffs to rock pools that are works of marine art; swim with seals and harmless basking sharks.
Surfing is a big draw for all ages – bodyboarding too – and lessons are available on most north-coast beaches. Cornwall is also known for its artistic heritage. Painters, sculptors and potters of international renown come for the big skies, the rugged beauty of the boulder-strewn moorland, and the intense light that turns the sea cerulean blue even in mid-winter.
Bath ticks pretty much all the boxes for a perfect short break. With sweeping, honey-stone Georgian crescents and terraces spread over a green and hilly bowl, it’s a strong contender for England’s most beautiful small city.It has a fascinating and easily accessible history, from the Roman Baths to the life and times of one-time resident Jane Austen. Its state-of-the-art Thermae Bath Spa complex, which opened in 2006, allows visitors the pleasing continuity of wallowing in the hot, mineral-rich spring-waters in much the same way the Romans did 2,000 years ago.
Interesting, digestible galleries and museums – including the recently revamped Holburne and One Royal Crescent – are many and varied, while shopping is also a major draw. Bath has done better at retaining a wide selection of independent shops than most city centres, and the neo-Georgian SouthGate, completed in 2010, is about as pleasant as a modern open-air shopping centre can be.
You need never get bored in this lovably eccentric city. There’s always something unexpected to enjoy in Brighton – be it a sea-facing yoga class, watching a skateboarding Jack Russell, or browsing through a surprisingly good beachfront hippy market. The secret is to roam freely and keep your eyes peeled. Sure, Brighton has acquired a certain London sophistication in recent years, but sheeny glamour never wins out here.
Head to the boho North Laine district, and you find offbeat designers and dingy flea markets happily melding with sleek restaurants and bars. Throw in gentrified Regency squares, oddball museums, and a clutch of well upholstered parks with traditional cafés attached – and you have a city that truly caters for all tastes.