What do we look for in an autumn break in Britain? Warmth and cosiness, log fires, comfortable beds and beautiful views, certainly. Menus based on seasonal, hopefully local, produce including hearty dishes such as hotpots and blackberry and apple pie. Long, lazy afternoon teas, with newspapers and books and maybe a board game by the fire. And if we find ourselves staying close to a sight famed for its glorious autumn colours – a park, garden, arboretum or forest – so much the better.
The older I get, the more I appreciate autumn. After the heat of summer (especially this past summer) and before the cold and dark of winter (especially this coming winter, with its alarming fuel costs) it is indeed a season, as Keats so eloquently put it, of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”, when thoughts turn to rest, relaxation and gentle but energising exercise. Now is the time for that calm stroll around a lovely lake, shopping tour of a charming town you didn’t know before, or day-long hike: there’s nothing more pleasurable than walking in this country’s astonishingly beautiful landscape and returning at the end of the day to good food and a warm bed.
There’s another reason why autumn makes such a great season for escape: it’s the best time to ring the changes, avoid the obvious and choose somewhere to base yourself that’s lesser known, less busy and less expensive. If summer is all about heading to the seaside and winter means festive luxury, autumn is a time for roaming far and wide, diving under the radar and seeking out sweet spots you may not have considered before. After all, the whole of leafy Britain is clothed in shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and brown.
There are some brilliant suggestions here: instead of Broadway in the Cotswolds, head for lovely Ludlow in Shropshire with a rhythm and a soul all its own. Instead of Brighton, discover hip and arty Hastings; in the Lake District, swap the crowds, pleasure-boat loudspeakers and expensive accommodation of Windermere for the still, raw beauty of Haweswater nature reserve and the gentle price of its lakeside hotel, whose tree-filled gardens are a sight to behold in autumn. Stay off the beaten track, save your pennies and discover autumn gold.
Even by Cotswold standards, honey-stoned Broadway has a quite breathtaking beauty that visitors have always been moved to capture, from the Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, William Morris) to today’s selfie-snapping tourists.
Good-looking Ludlow charms with its wonky wattle-and-daub buildings, yet its location in sleepy Shropshire, beside the Welsh border and blessedly far-flung from London, saves it from the overtourism that blights the Cotswolds. Still, its strong culinary scene pulls in dedicated gourmands and its square has hosted a farmers’ market since the 12th century, when it was just known as a “market”. Pick up artisan cheeses and venison pies for a picnic within the pleasingly ruined castle; if you’re feeling brave, work up an appetite with a wild swim in the River Teme.
It’s also blessed with some terrific (and affordable) places to stay, the fanciest of which is Old Downton Lodge – a rambling, half-timbered farmhouse on a 5,500-acre estate, with antique oak four-posters in the former stable rooms and a smart restaurant in the 13th-century barn serving adventurous and carefully crafted dishes.
A cute-and-it-knows-it Kentish fishing town that’s a contender for being oyster capital of the world, and the Londoner’s favourite weekend getaway for seafood feasts from the acceptably zhuzhed-up (read: expensive) market on the harbour.
Broadstairs makes much of its Dickens connections. Which is frankly baffling given everything it has going for it: seven golden-sand beaches, an elegant old town, and a stellar seafood offering that’s “as good as anywhere on the Kent coast”, according to inhabitant Peter Manners. Granted, he may be biased; he owns Belvidere Place, a six-room B&B in a Georgian house with deliciously dark interiors and well-chosen old furniture. Breakfast is served on mismatched crockery, tea in silver pots, and occasionally local chefs host supper clubs. Otherwise, Manners recommends heading to the Jetty for “posh fish and chips” or oysters and a glass of wine. “Autumn’s a great place to be here,” he says. “It smells nice, and the light’s great.”
Doubles from £190 (01843 579850; belvidereplace.co.uk).
Grasmere, Lake District
The Lake District village where William Wordsworth lived (with Coleridge, for a while) and died has become a tourist hotspot in the UK’s most-visited national park – 16 million people a year, if you’re wondering, a good few of them beating a path between his cottage and his grave.
Askham, Lake District
No famous poets lived in Askham. So relatively few tourists go there, but it is a pretty spot, out on the Lake District’s quiet northeastern fringe. It has a handsome old house in Askham Hall, now a cosseting hotel. Each room has its own distinct character, some four-posters in oak and bamboo among them (plus six cheaper rooms housed in Askham’s Queen’s Head pub). In the Michelin-starred restaurant, local chap and head chef Richard Swale transforms produce from the estate (deer from the woods, partridge from the moors, veg from the garden) and surrounding farms into delicate works of art.
Knock-out sandy beaches and a picturesque jumble of pastel-painted buildings stacked above a harbour: handsome Tenby is Wales’s favourite holiday resort.
Cardigan is, the locals will tell you, having a bit of a moment. It’s an enchanting place to visit – it’s got a castle, pastel-painted taverns, fisherman’s cottages, the green and gentle Teifi estuary and Cardigan Bay for nautical shenanigans, with deep, sandy bays stretching out either side of it (Penbryn and Mwnt, where dolphins play, are both glorious). But part of Cardigan’s appeal lies in its buoyant community that exists outside tourism, people who live and work and speak Welsh here, and drink in the pubs all year round.
The inventive team at nearby Fforest Farm has just opened its first hotel, The Albion, in a restored granary warehouse on the wharf, exquisitely kitted out in trademark homespun Scandi-Welsh style. There’s a cocktail bar, a lounge where breakfast is served, and the restaurant opens this autumn; until then, its pub and pizzeria is across the quay.
Doubles from £165 B&B (01239 623633; coldatnight.co.uk).
Charming fishing village-turned-gourmet seafood epicentre on Cornwall’s north coast, now largely owned by Rick Stein and other chefs célèbres.
Charming fishing village-turned-seafood epicentre on Cornwall’s south coast, not yet commandeered by celebrity chefs – so don’t hang about. The cooking stars of Porthleven are a new generation of locals, setting up boat-to-plate businesses on the quay and in Shipyard market, a former metalworks warehouse: there’s Dan Dan the Lobster Man, for example; and the Mussel Shoal can row you out to a floating pontoon for supper. Gourmet and arts festivals appeal to both visitors and residents.
The 19th-century Harbour Inn is an ace pub with rooms where you can expect fresh, coastal-cool rooms (set to get spiffed up several notches this winter with a refurb).
Doubles from £105 B&B (01326 573876; harbourinnporthleven.co.uk).
Lazing dreamily beside the Thames, little Bray is a big-hitting culinary hotspot clocking up seven Michelin stars and several top-dollar hotels, its riverbank houses known as “Millionaires’ Row”.
A mile upriver lies Maidenhead. “The town of showy hotels,” declared Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat, “…too snobby to be pleasant.” Three years later, a riverside mansion was built plum on the Thames in Maidenhead as a social club for Windsor Castle’s Grenadier Guards; it then became an art collector’s house-cum-museum; and six years ago it was transformed into the River Arts Club hotel. It still feels like a house to kick back at: board games in the library, cigar cellar, honesty bar, and a launch to putter guests to its Michelin-starred neighbours or, upstream, to Stanley Spencer’s beloved Cookham.
Rooms are a trip, with colour everywhere; French Rococo mirrors hang beside mid-century modern chairs, placed beside windows for prime views of the Thames, sliding greenly beneath weeping willows below. Given the neighbourhood – still snobby, perhaps, but extremely pleasant nevertheless – it’s excellent value, too.
Skye, Inner Hebrides
Ineffably romantic island whose majesty has seduced painters, writers and sightseers – among them Turner, Woolfe, Queen Victoria – for all eternity.
Mull, Inner Hebrides
What a difference a bridge makes! While everyone’s queueing to swim in the Fairy Pools and bag the Old Man of Storr on Skye, neighbouring Mull has fewer visitors (and consequently lower prices), thanks partly to the fact you have to take a ferry across. The extra effort is rewarded: rainbow-coloured Tobermory is as bonny as Portree; beaches are made of fine white sand; walkers love its variety (paths crisscrossing mountains, coast, heather-carpeted hills); wildlife fans come to spot whales, dolphins and White-tailed Eagles in abundance.
Glengorm Castle is a Baronial pile of turrets and spires and crow-stepped gables, overlooking the Sound of Mull. Within, find 19th-century carved staircase, mahogany-panelled walls, stone fireplaces; while some bedrooms and the self-catering cottages have had a 21st-century refresh (Orla Kiely and blonde wood; nothing too radical).
Brighton, East Sussex
All-inclusive seaside capital of the South Coast, its shingle beach, dance halls and elegant townhouse hotels bustling with holidaymakers since Georgian times, when the Prince of Wales came with his crew to swim in the sea, party and play cards – a heyday that’s never wound down.
Hastings, East Sussex
Like many of its neighbours, grittier Hastings is going through a revival, thanks to the influx of younger generations doing exciting things with food and art (adjoining St Leonards has been dubbed “Dalston-on-Sea”, but where hasn’t?). In Hastings Contemporary it has a major art museum, whose patron Quentin Blake said: “I am constantly distracted by Hastings in the most enjoyable way”. As well as the gallery’s changing exhibitions and the autumn Hastings Storytelling Festival (October 15-23), those distractions might include rootling for reclamation in the Old Town, and dancing on the minimalist pier with open-air stage.
Both towns are blessed with cool, affordable places to stay. Try the eight-bedroom Old Rectory – it’s completely wonderful and very Hastings, a mash-up of period details, contemporary styling and retro finds.
Burnham market, Norfolk
The latest cute-as-a-button bolthole to be dubbed ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’ (which is odd, not least because it’s not actually on the sea), this north Norfolk village is one of this year’s most desirable places to live, with Holkham a couple of miles away.
Further inland, outside the Norfolk Coast AONB, cute villages and market towns abound – without the Chelsea price tag. Try Reepham (pronounced “Reefum”). It’s a sleepy place, much given over to the past, with steam trains chuffing out of its toytown station, vintage shops and an antiques market for top-drawer rummaging. Its beating heart is the Georgian red-brick Dial House, a brilliantly whimsical hotel and restaurant.
Grand Tour-inspired rooms are tricked out in playful wallpapers and fabrics, and have antique furniture, record players and eccentric curios curated by owner Hannah Springham, who also runs a shop, Vintage Vegas. Her husband, chef-patron Andrew Jones, cooks – to great acclaim – whatever’s in season from the surrounding countryside.
Perhaps the most beautiful seaside town in the universe (and also the most expensive), Salcombe has always been the destination of choice for nautically inclined DFLs (“Down from London”), who order lobster and Whispering Angel in the waterside pubs while their children learn to sail in the Kingsbridge estuary.
It’s hardly down at heel – some might even call it chi-chi – but still Topsham, a little eastwards on the Exe, offers a similar seafaring dreaminess that’s less crowded and more accessible than Salcombe (both financially and geographically; it has a tiny train station). Topsham, too, is set on an estuary, whose calm waters swell gently with the tides – bliss for messing about in small boats, pottering down to Lympstone and the dunes of Dawlish Warren, waterside pubs aplenty – ye olde charm with sophisticated menus.
The Salutation Inn is a Georgian coaching house with six lovely rooms, owned and run by Tom and Amelia Williams-Hawkes. Chef-patron Tom is a protegee of Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing and Exeter boy Michael Caines (who has two restaurants nearby), so the food packs a punch, from breakfast to the artful tasting-menu suppers.
The world’s most handsome spa resort, a triumph of Georgian grandeur orchestrated in golden Cotswold stone, the ultimate setting for romance of Jane Austen-level proportions.
Buxton, Peak District
Buxton has been a spa town since Roman times. Mary Queen of Scots took the waters in the 16th century, and two centuries later the Fifth Duke of Devonshire had the idea of building a fashionable spa town to rival Bath, commissioning architect John Carr (later Lord Mayor of York) to build the ornate Palladian Crescent. Cradled by the mountains of the Peak District, Buxton is higher, wetter and more remote than Bath – so you can lose yourself in your own personal period drama without a coachload to spoil the scene. It’s also steeper – good for the soul, the skin and the thighs.
The Buxton Crescent Health Spa Hotel, part of Carr’s architectural masterpiece, has richly decorated interiors and a modern spa fed by the thermal springs.
The gentrified epicentre of Somerset’s arty-bohemian-chic enclave has it all: hand-thrown pottery boutiques, artisan bakeries, Michelin-starred restaurant, chi-chi hotels and a heavyweight contemporary art destination in Hauser & Wirth.
Goodness, hasn’t the hippie lifestyle got expensive? So away we go, 10 country miles down tree-tunnelled lanes, to Frome. Lovely, lively, new-age Frome, all healing crystals, yoga and folk music, its creamy-stone stores more about vintage clothes and vegan cafes than designer labels and nouvelle cuisine. Bed down in one of the eight simple, stylish rooms above French Bistro Lotte, about as fancy as it gets around here.
Windermere, Lake District
Windermere is the hub of the Lake District, possibly the most stunning place on earth in autumn, and England’s largest lake, plied by pleasure boats ever since the country’s first paddle steamer launched in 1845, and its shores dotted with luxury hotels.
Haweswater, Lake District
Up and over the high street from Windermere lies Haweswater – beneath which lies a lost underwater village, just visible when water levels drop during summer. Despite its proximity to both the M6 and the national park’s honeypots, this eastern edge of the Lake District feels wonderfully isolated.
Goodness knows what the Jazz Age-style Haweswater Hotel would cost if it sat on Windermere; but it doesn’t, which is lucky for us. More importantly, it’s a refuge from the crowds and the pleasure-boat loudspeakers. A place of raw, unfettered beauty.
Wales’s artsy rural town that’s grown into a literary giant, packed with book shops and galleries, home to artisan food-producers and free-thinkers.
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire
Out in the green reaches of West Yorkshire, Hebden Bridge feels totally unique. Comparisons can be drawn to Hay, certainly, for its literary credentials (Ted Hughes was born here, and the scene’s been growing ever since); but also Glastonbury, for its New Agers; and Brighton for its inclusivity (Hebden Bridge is the self-proclaimed “lesbian hub” of the north).
Diverse cultural happenings reflect the natives; this autumn, for example, catch the brand new Sylvia Plath Literary Festival (the author is buried in nearby Heptonstall), along with organic growing workshops, foraging walks, folk and psychedelic rock gigs, raves, comedy shows… Anyway, it’s an altogether splendid little place that casts a spell all its own.
Hebden Townhouse is the town’s most stylish – in a laid-back, homely way – place to stay, its rooms painted in the muted greens of the Yorkshire countryside, and decorated with interesting antiques and art.
Doubles from £125 B&B (01422 845272; hebdentownhouse.co.uk).
A mediaeval Suffolk wool town with higgledy-piggledy streets of timbered Tudor buildings, among them three luxury hotels and an award-winning restaurant, all so well preserved it’s like a film set – and indeed played backdrop for Harry Potter, Witchfinder General, and Lovejoy.
A philosopher’s stone’s throw over the border, the much-maligned county of Essex has mediaeval enclaves of its own, which tend to fly under the traveller’s radar. Dedham is utterly delightful, sitting on the Essex bank of the River Stour, the heart of Constable Country; he lived here, and the village and Dedham Vale (the county’s only AONB) feature in his paintings.
The Sun Inn is a reimagined coaching inn painted sunshine yellow, with a bar at the end of its garden, a seasonal menu serving refined pub classics, and seven lovely rooms upstairs. Take a boat down the Stour or hop on one of the hotel’s bikes to explore Dedham Vale’s bucolic lowlands – Constable’s Flatford Mill is a couple of miles away, Grayson’s Perry’s House for Essex and Beth Chatto’s Gardens a little further.
Doubles from £175 (01206 323351; thesuninndedham.com).
St Ives, Cornwall
That luminous tumble of pale buildings and its sensational coastline has always lured devotees – artists, surfers, chefs and holidaymakers – prepared to travel any distance for a fix of this spellbinding corner of the country.
Everyone goes to St Ives to look at art – Hepworth’s house, Bernard Leach’s pottery, Ben Nicholson’s paintings in the Tate St Ives – but the flip side of the Land’s End Peninsula also has a rich (and undersubscribed) arts scene, still going strong thanks to the revival of the Newlyn School of Art. And while St Ives throngs during summer and empties out in winter, grittier Penzance has a more independent spirit, driven by young creatives living there year-round.
Chapel House Penzance is top spot in town: an exquisitely restored Georgian townhouse and former arts club, with mid-century-modern furniture, lighting by local lad Tom Raffield, interiors by owner Susan Stuart and a constantly changing selection of works in the gallery-like spaces curated by the Newlyn School of Art.
Smart Suffolk Coast town beloved for its illustrious arts and (mainly classical) music festival and cultural events, home to Benjamin Britten, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and now Bill Nighy.
Aldeburgh may punch above its weight when it comes to opera performances, but for bucket-and-spade fun, head up the coast to Walberswick. It’s got sand dunes, jetties for crabbing, and its own high-profile incumbents (Steer, Mackintosh, Richard Curtis), while the diversions of Southwold are directly across the river.
Stay at The Anchor at Walberswick, an Edwardian inn with homely trad rooms, and child- and dog-friendly clapboard chalets in the garden.
Byronic romance unparallelled – brooding good looks in its turreted gothic townhouses, steep cobbled streets, its hilltop castle rising up out of the rock itself… Two million tourists a year can’t be wrong.
Glasgow has Gothic grandeur too, but it’s darker and edgier, more Batman than Byron. And its cobbled streets of independent galleries, bars and shops buzz with a gutsier energy, thanks to the population of young creatives drawn to its vibrant arts scenes and nightlife and lower cost of living.
Cathedral House is the best independent boutique hotel in the city, relaunched four years ago with a modern Italian restaurant downstairs and, upstairs, eight on-trend rooms painted all your favourite Farrow & Ball shades, some with views of the Cathedral.
Doubles from £120 (0141 552 3519; cathedralhouseglasgow.com).
Portmeirion is an architect’s fantasy: an Italianate village, built in the 1920s and painted all the flavours of a gelateria – a vision from the Cinque Terre transplanted onto a wooded slope of the Glaslyn estuary in north-west Wales. Nobody actually lives there, so staying in its hotels, once daytrippers have gone home, is like spending the night in a museum.
The town of Aberaeron also makes an enchanting escape from everyday life – a clutch of colourful buildings around a quaint harbour – only this one’s Welsh through and through. The electric-blue building on the quayside is the Harbourmaster hotel; 13 rooms echo the coastal location in the tongue-and-groove panelling, hull-like roll-top bathtubs, the blue-and-white palette, with headboards and cushions handmade from Welsh blankets. No room at the inn? Try brand new restaurants-with-rooms Y Seler, its dark, sexy interiors the yin to the Harbourmaster’s yang.
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Ancient spa town and Yorkshire’s poshest hangout, thanks first to its hot mineral springs and later to its legendary tearoom Bettys, which cause queues along Harrogate’s elegant Victorian streets.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Jump the queues for afternoon tea by going to Ilkley instead. It’s got its own branch of Bettys, and it too is a spa town, a lovely one on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, beside Ilkley Moor where, well wrapped up and warm-hatted, one might walk or ride ponies.
In an 1860 landmark building in the centre of town, The Crescent Inn has 14 contemporary classic rooms, a bistro and a pub with a roaring fire.