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Car-free east of England: a Christmas castle, winter walks and fairytale villages

The eight milkmaids have had a knees-up in the Elizabeth Salon – at least it looks that way – leaving a pastel-coloured tower of pails, cows, and three-legged stools under the ornate painted ceiling. Next door, seven sculptural swans are swimming through an elaborate silver centrepiece above a grand banqueting table, while six lifesize geese have laid Fabergé-style eggs in sparkling bullrush-fringed nests.

Charlotte Lloyd Webber, who decorates Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, and Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, has created a splendidly theatrical 12 Days of Christmas here at Belvoir (pronounced “beaver”) Castle. The display features more than 100 trees and thousands of baubles; the five gold rings take the form of a big kinetic sculpture, twirling above Belvoir’s remarkable art collection (from £10/£19 for children/adults, belvoircastle.com).

Even without its seasonal bling, Belvoir is dripping in gold and brocade. There are peacock motifs everywhere: on carpets, carvings and gilded stuccowork. Part of the owners’ family crest, peacocks pop up again in the Aviary Tearoom, where the festive tea is a multilayered showstopper that includes gold and purple macarons and smoked cheddar sandwiches with homemade spiced pear chutney (£70 for two, plus entrance, belvoircastle.com).

I’m here for car-free seasonal cheer, bracing walks, medieval churches and fireside pints

As the Norman-French name suggests, the jewel in Belvoir’s crown is the wide view from its windows. On a clear day, you can make out the towers of Lincoln Cathedral on the horizon. South Kesteven is the corner of Lincolnshire that includes nearby Grantham and Stamford with its honey-stone walls. It is tailor-made for a winter break, with towns and villages that can feel like a Christmas set from an imaginary Disney version of England. Grantham also has fast, frequent trains, so I’m here for car-free seasonal cheer, bracing walks, medieval churches and fireside pints.

This morning’s train raced from Peterborough to Grantham in 20 minutes. Getting from the station to Belvoir without a car is trickier. I booked a demand-responsive minibus through Callconnect, which links bus-less villages in Lincolnshire. The service is rolling out an app, but I had to phone the busy helpline to find a slot. Once booked, the journey is trackable and fares are capped, as on regular buses, at £2.

The Church of St James in the fog at Woolsthorpe in the Vale of Belvoir
The Church of St James at Woolsthorpe in the Vale of Belvoir. Photograph: Neil Squires/Alamy

I could have used this service to get back from Belvoir, but golden winter sunshine tempts me to hike the couple of miles to Woolsthorpe by Belvoir and catch bus 9 instead. The walk is idyllic, offering fairytale views across sheep-sprinkled Capability Brown parkland to the hilltop castle. After enjoying a ginger beer in the Chequers Inn, I wait at the stop and notice the bus ominously disappearing from the tracking map on the website bustimes.org. In the end I hitch a lift with a passing van.

Back in Grantham, there is just time to admire towering St Wulfram church with its dramatic blue-and-gold interior before catching my train. At Peterborough Cathedral, with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, light artists Luxmuralis are installing a seasonal son-et-lumière (£8/£6.50 adults/kids, peterborough-cathedral.org.uk).

This corner of Lincolnshire is tailor-made for a winter break, with towns and villages that can feel like a Christmas set from an imaginary Disney version of England

Bus 201 from Peterborough to Stamford stops in Barnack, where the village church has a Romanesque sculpture and Saxon tower, and the recently renovated Millstone pub has a log fire and gourmet menu. A couple of minutes’ walk from here, you’ll find Hills and Holes nature reserve, 20 hectares (50 acres) of hummocky, biodiverse land that was a medieval quarry. Creamy limestone, known as Barnack rag, was dug up here and used to build Cambridge colleges, as well as Ely and Peterborough cathedrals; blocks of stone were dragged to the river to be transported by barge. Now the grassy hollows are home to rare plants, including orchids and purple pasqueflowers that bloom around Easter. In November, there are autumn gentians among the cropped grass, harebells nodding in the wind, and cascading burnished leaves on tall silver birches.

I’m staying in Stamford’s William Cecil hotel. It’s named after Elizabeth I’s treasurer, who built Burghley House nearby. The hotel has two dozen luxurious rooms off a labyrinth of corridors and a grand wooden staircase (doubles from about £120 B&B, thewilliamcecil.co.uk). Burghley Park is on the doorstep, and new walking trails are being developed. Next morning, I wander past ancient trees and elegant neoclassical bridges. Another Capability Brown creation, the serpentine lake and artfully naturalised deer park surround an impressive Elizabethan mansion (deer park is free, burghley.co.uk).

This year, for the first time, Burghley is opening the gardens on winter weekends. They are bright with berried shrubs, heavy-headed dahlias and lipstick-pink cyclamen under coppery oaks. The Garden of Surprises is an ideal centrepiece for a cheering stroll; playful water features bubble among yellow kingcups and spin delicate metal leaves. There’s also a mirror maze, misty grotto and interactive obelisks that represent the elements (gardens £7.50/£9 for children/adults, burghley.co.uk).

Medieval Stamford was one of England’s richest towns, and its streets are lined with fine old limestone buildings. Escaping heavy industry and wartime bombing, Stamford has preserved its coaching inns and Georgian houses.

Winter sunshine after a stormy night draws me out into the countryside again. Callconnect offers transport to the lovely village of Easton on the Hill, but my last day, I choose to head there on the six-mile Four Counties walk from Stamford, passing through Lincolnshire, Rutland, Northants and Cambridgeshire.

View down Barn Hill, Stamford with golden-stone buildings.
The view down Barn Hill, Stamford. Photograph: Travelpix Ltd/Getty Images

The paths are muddy and the A1 sometimes noisy, but there are views of Stamford’s steeple-studded skyline. Redwings startle from yellow hedge maples, and riverbanks are thick with sculptural seedheads: teasels, burdock and cow parsley. I walk through Stamford’s Waterfurlong gardens, a utopian area of allotments. The traditional orchard is home to 55 species of apple tree including such rarities as Barnack Beauty, Lady’s Delight and Nelson’s Codlin. Notices near the entrance advertise Secret Garden yoga, medicinal foraging and strawberry-plant swapping.

Up a spiral stone staircase in Easton’s little 15th-century Priest’s House (free, nationaltrust.org.uk), I find a museum of village life. Among the items on display are a neolithic tool and a millennium candle. There is a striped gleaning bag, a pig-bristle-scraper, a slater’s pick, a pair of wooden skates. In All Saints church, round the corner, I discover that the Edwardian rector Percy Hooson once skated from Cambridge to Ely and back (30-odd miles) in an afternoon.

Later, on the train from Stamford to Cambridge, I have glimpses of the River Cam, which last froze over in 1997. In one field, between March and Manea, a flock of more than 50 swans has congregated in a flat field of stalks. Soon after, there’s a view of Ely Cathedral above the boats in the marina, opposite misty water meadows full of cows.

Transport was provided by Cross Country (advance singles Cambridge to Stamford from £10.50, crosscountrytrains.co.uk) and LNER (advance singles Grantham to Peterborough from £7.60, lner.co.uk). Accommodation was provided by William Cecil, Stamford (doubles from about £120 B&B, thewilliamcecil.co.uk) and Vale House Belvoir (doubles from £95 room only, belvoirestateholidays.com).