In the pursuit of the perfect UK getaway it’s easy to get too hot or too cold. That is, so close to the flame of natural beauty or historic intrigue that you are caught in a flurry of moth-like tourists. Or so far from anything worth visiting that you find yourself bored to death in a listless corner of the country.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Across the land there are areas where you are within close proximity to cinematic natural beauty or historic big-hitting sites, but far enough removed from it all that you can enjoy a sanctuary of peace and quiet at the end of the day. Geographic Goldilocks Zones, if you will, where the balance of bustle and peace is just right and your money will go much further.
Here we take a look at five of the busiest regions of the UK – the Cotswolds, the Lake District, Skye, London and Cornwall – and identify the best place to base yourself for a perfectly balanced holiday.
Visits: 38 million visitors per year
Goldilocks Zone: Wootton-by-Woodstock
Drive to the centre: 39-minute drive to Bourton-on-the Water
If you were to bottle the quintessence of Britain and sprinkle it from a helicopter, what would grow in the fertile land below is the Cotswolds. This is a verdant hillscape of sleepy villages and thatched honey-stone cottages, with country houses, Roman ruins and old coaching inns showcasing the country at its very best. But the secret is very much out, and today the Cotswolds attracts millions of international tourists, particularly (in pre-pandemic times) from China and the far East. But if you head to the fringes you can find sleepy splendour, a cobblestone’s throw from the action.
On a recent bank holiday weekend I landed upon the Goldilocks Zone of Wootton-by-Woodstock, a village on the cusp of the Cotswolds Area of Natural Beauty. The village, which featured in the Domesday Book, has a population of just shy of 600 and local life centres around the community shop full of organic delights, an attractive Gothic parish church and a pub with a potted history (see below). A perfect jumping-off point, for visitors in the know.
Just three miles south of the village is the architectural masterpiece of Blenheim Palace (01993 810530; blenheimpalace.com) and a further 10 miles south is Oxford. Bicester Village is a 20-minute drive to the east, and the market town of Chipping Norton is a 15-minute drive northwest, meaning you are perfectly located for a long weekend’s worth of outings. Or stay put, and eat yourself silly.
Built in 1637, Killingworth Castle was once a popular pit-stop for travellers on the old Worcester to London Roman road. Later, it was the haunt of local lad Winston Churchill, who used to test his cars on drives to the pub from Blenheim Palace with his friend (and founder of Morris Motors) William Morris. Today, the coaching inn is one of the most decorated foodie pubs in the country, having accrued two AA Rosettes and a Michelin recommendation in its 10 years under new ownership, and these days the pub owners even brew their own beers under the label Yubberton. In the stable block next to the pub you will find stylish en-suite accommodation, with handmade wooden beds and roll-top baths (01993 811401; thekillingworthcastle.com; rooms from £145).
Visits: 15.8 million visitors per year
Goldilocks Zone: Eden Valley
Drive to the centre: 38-minute drive from Eden Valley to Ullswater
The Lake District is England’s topographical showstopper, with the widest lakes and the highest peaks in the country. No wonder, then, that the national park teems with visitors in the summer months. But if you locate yourself on the peripheries of the Lake District you can find peace and quiet, leaving yourself the option to dip into the action as and when you wish.
Behold, the Eden Valley, a corner of Cumbria that has somehow slipped under the radar. Driving into the Lakes from here takes around half an hour, but the valley is a destination worth exploring in itself. Here you will find the Settle to Carlisle railway, surely the most handsome in the land; the picturesque market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland; and the sandstone mansion of Acorn Bank, a National Trust site.
While the Eden Valley is most commonly considered as a place to base oneself for day trips into the Lakes, look east and you are also very close here to the North Pennines AONB; the altitudinous market town of Alston is a 25-minute drive away.
New to 2021, Silva is perhaps one of the most ambitious treehouses ever constructed in the UK. The three-bedroom multi-storey contraption on Maughanby Farm is fitted with a slide which leads down to a games room and bar, and in a nearby copse is a fire-pit circled by wooden stumps. Here you are on the cusp of the Lakes, and from the large rectangular window you can see the faraway peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra. You can book your stay at Silva through Canopy & Stars (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk).
Visits per year: 650,000 visitors per year
Goldilocks Zone: Glenelg
Drive to the centre: 10-minute ferry plus 25-minute drive from Glenelg to Broadford
Jutting out of the North Atlantic like a dragon’s backbone, Skye is a land of high peaks, winding single-track roads and pastel-washed harbour villages. It is also incredibly popular, with pre-pandemic reports of “overtourism” on the island as it exceeded capacity for the summer season. But if you turn left before crossing the Skye Bridge you will find yourself in a remote village with the best views of Skye, a lovely local boozer, and a secret way to enter the island without crossing the oft-congested Skye Bridge.
Pleasingly palindromic Glenelg is reached via what feels like a road-to-nowhere, which climbs and loops up the breathtaking Mam Ratagan Pass to a height of 1,100 feet (335m) before descending to sea level. Here you will find a white-washed village fringing Glenelg Bay, with the lovely Way Out West Cafe, a village shop and a quality local pub (see below). It is also from Glenelg that you can catch the idiosyncratic Skye Ferry, which transport foot passengers and up to six cars to Skye, a short hop away (01599 522700; skyeferry.co.uk; very much weather dependent).
For something entirely unique, continue south down the single-track road out of Glenelg for around 20 minutes to the far end of the road where you will land on a hamlet, Corran, and Sheena’s Tea Hut (01599 522336). This is surely the most remote coffee house in the country, where you can source homemade cakes and a fresh pot of tea.
The Glenelg Inn (01599 522273; glenelg-inn.com) is a fine traditional Highland pub, with low beams, roaring fireplaces and brilliant local Scottish cuisine served up in the restaurant which could, if you blinked for long and hard enough, be a cabin in the wilds of the Yukon. The views over the Sound of Sleat towards the Isle of Skye morph as the light changes throughout the day. Try an organic beer brewed by Dun Brewery, which also has its own bar/cow shed called the Dun Inn, just up the road (01599 522 273; dunbrewing.co.uk).
Visits per year: 21 million visitors per year
Goldilocks Zone: Richmond
Train to the centre: 20-minute train to London Waterloo
Wherever you stay in London, it’s going to cost you. So if you are contemplating a night in London to catch a play, an exhibition or a concert, you could do far worse than positioning yourself in the Goldilocks Zone of Richmond.
The vista from Richmond Hill looking down the Thames is the only protected view in Britain, witnessing it today transports you to Turner’s famous 1819 oil painting, described by the Examiner newspaper at the time as “a pictorial display of the magnificence of England.” The Roebuck, on the hill, is a fine spot to watch the sunset across Petersham meadows and the thickly wooded river below.
Consider booking a night or two at the Bingham Riverhouse, a boutique hotel right on the Thames, with a lawn that extends down to the towpath. After beginning its life as two Georgian townhouses in the mid-18th century, this has been lovingly restored into a comfortable, high-end accommodation offering, with dog-eared Penguin Classics and an open kitchen making it feel like a family friend’s home (020 8940 0902; binghamriverhouse.com).
Visits per year: 40 million
Goldilocks Zone: The Rame Peninsula
Drive to the centre: 1 hour to Fowey
Nowhere in Cornwall is untouched by tourists, but there is one corner on the far south-easterly edge of the county right up on the border with Devon that isn’t oversaturated with holidaymakers, even in the peak summer season.
While many families pack up the car and zoom towards Penzance, some will take a left just after Plymouth to the peace and quiet of the Rame Peninsula. The pubs and villages are considerably low-key around here, and so are the beaches. Head to Whitsand Bay, which stretches for three miles, or Portwrinkle beach with its dinky rock pools, or the tiny sliver of beach at Kingsand.
From here, you can reach Fowey or St Austell in around an hour, or Padstow in 1 hour 15 minutes. From March to October, a passenger ferry leaves Plymouth’s Barbican across the Plymouth Sound to Cremyll, taking just eight minutes.
The 17th-century Westcroft Guesthouse in Kingsand is a fusion of mid-century modern and country house-chic styling. “You'll be surrounded by carefully curated art and stunning views in an area of outstanding beauty,” our expert, Natalie Millar-Partridge, says (01752 823216; westcroftguesthouse.co.uk).