Beyond the ‘Stoke-cation’: Five other maligned British towns that deserve more tourists

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halifax england underrated city breaks - Getty
halifax england underrated city breaks - Getty

When you start planning your holidays, the West Midlands is probably not a region that immediately springs to mind. But could this be able to change?

According to new research by Airbnb, Stoke-on-Trent is the top trending “quirky” destination among UK users, pipping the likes of Scarborough, Cardiff and Paignton to the prize.

The website claims they are impressed by the town’s “selection of barn conversions”, and with four-bed rural properties costing as little as £130 a night in midsummer, they’ll make people think twice about paying inflated rates for poky B&B rooms in rip-off honeypots like South Devon and Pembrokeshire.

But perhaps British holidaymakers are waking up to the fact that Stoke is, actually, a fascinating town that offers open-minded visitors everything from factory tours, beautiful gardens, arts and crafts workshops, dollops of potteries history, and a 60-acre forest where Barbary macaque monkeys roam freely. There are four local museums, one of which displays part of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures ever found. Holidaying with kids? Alton Towers and Jodrell Bank are up the road. Cannock Chase, the Shropshire Hills AONB and Peak District are only a short hop, too.

trentham gardens stoke on trent - Getty
trentham gardens stoke on trent - Getty

Your friends will probably think your holiday choice eccentric. You can assure them it is polycentric. Stoke is a city conjured up in 1910 from six small townships. Confusingly, local author Arnold Bennett – a literary superstar in the early 20th century – referred to it as the “Five Towns”, because it sounded more euphonious. Why go to one obvious town when you can see half a dozen original ones?

Once you begin to go down the road less travelled, the UK is packed with options for a long weekend break. Hundreds of towns are bypassed and overlooked every summer, while the unthinking hordes heave, queue and stew in the same overhyped seaside resorts, twee villages and festival-thronged city centres. Here are five of our off-radar favourites...

Five more underdogs for a brilliant weekend break

Halifax

The 253ft Wainhouse Tower looms above the approach roads to Halifax. Dye-works magnate John Edward Wainhouse had it built partly to show his uppity neighbour Sir Henry Booth that the gentry, ensconced on their country estates, should look up at the achievements of mill owners. Some call it the ‘Tower of Spite” or “the tallest folly in the world”, but it’s a fitting symbol of a town that played such a prominent role in the Industrial Revolution.

On arrival, there’s the even more impressive Grade I-listed Piece Hall, opened in 1779 to provide handloom weavers with an august setting from which to sell their wares. As handsome any palace on the Grand Canal, it would be a teeming overtourism hotspot if it were in London; here, you might have the expansive piazza all to yourself.

halifax moors - Getty
halifax moors - Getty

Calderdale Industrial Museum gives the background to the region’s rich history of labour, steam-power, transport and textile, while Eureka! The National Children’s Museum is the ultimate rainy-day option for families. Just a mile away by car is Shibden Hall with its beautiful gardens. All around are the misty moors and verdant vales of the West Riding, with the Pennine Way nearby at Hebden Bridge.

Preston

The most underrated town (sorry, city!) in England? It might well be, for Preston, even if it doesn’t look immediately enticing, can boast several seminal firsts. It’s widely regarded as the birthplace of the temperance movement, thanks to local man Joseph Livesey, who committed to abstention after one whiskey too many in the 1830s. To toast his memory, wander down to the Plau on Friargate – the former Plough Inn, originally associated with the gin craze, later with teetotallers, and now a Grade II-listed beauty of a bar serving great food, beers, spirits – and fizzy pop.

St Walburge’s Church is a short stroll from the centre but you won’t struggle to find it, as it’s topped by an awe-inspiring needle of a spire – the tallest of any parish church in England. At weekends there are guided heritage tours, taking in the Gothic Revival exterior, hammerbeam roof and ornate stained-glass windows. Some tours include a climb up the spire.

Preston Bus Station - Getty
Preston Bus Station - Getty

Preston North End was a founder member of the Football League, winning the inaugural championship and FA Cup; match day at Deepdale is a superb family day out, and the stadium boasts a memorial to the pioneering Dick, Kerr Ladies FC team, much in the news after the Lionesses’ triumph at the Euros. It’s a short drive to the bird-filled Brockholes nature reserve, Guild Wheel cycling trail and Blackpool beach. Or take the bus – and see Britain’s most striking Modernist bus station on the way.

Milton Keynes

The once fabled New Town is now old enough to be taken seriously as heritage. To grasp how the future looked to Sixties and Seventies architects and town planners, take a hike around Milton Keynes’ epoch-defining Mies van der Rohe-influenced Centre MK shopping mall, Central Library and former bus station – all listed buildings – plus the MK art gallery, with bucolic detours by way of the towpath of the Grand Union Canal and Campbell Park, dotted with public artworks and one of Europe’s finest contemporary parks.

milton keynes - Getty
milton keynes - Getty

MK has become famous for its grid-system and roundabouts, but one of the features of the New Town project, which had its roots in the earlier “Garden Cities”, was to encourage residents to get around on foot; amenities are so well connected here that the Ramblers shortlisted the town for its 2019 Best Walking Neighbourhoods award. If you’re holidaying with children, choose between an action-packed afternoon at Xscape (where there’s indoor skydiving, climbing walls, skiing, trampolines and a gaming café) or the ultimate nerd zones of Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing.

Merthyr Tydfil

Merthyr once powered the Welsh economy. Coal mining and ironworks scarred and shaped the landscape and the people. The first steam locomotive, by Richard Trevithick, was built here. The Glamorganshire Canal and then the Taff Vale and Heads of the Valleys railways connected the town – the largest and fastest growing in Wales in the Victorian age – with the city and docks of Cardiff. To get a sense of all this drama and convulsion, do one of the themed, self-guided town centre trails at welovemerthyr.net.

Pontsticill Reservoir, Merthyr Tydfil, - Getty
Pontsticill Reservoir, Merthyr Tydfil, - Getty

The Big Pit National Coal Museum – which offers underground tours – is just 16 miles away. To see the brass that all this muck could generate, spend a lordly day at Cyfarthfa Castle, commissioned by Ironmaster William Crawshay in 1824. Bikepark Wales, the UK’s first purpose-built mountain-biking space, is in Gethin Woods at the southern end of town. Ride on the Brecon Mountain Railway from Pant, two miles north of Merthyr, to Torpantau – there to plunge yourself into the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Birkenhead

The best view of Liverpool? From Birkenhead, obviously, from where you can survey the Three Graces, two mighty cathedrals and the panorama of the Victorian port, without bumping into any statues of the Fab Four or selfie-snapping Beatlemaniacs – before turning your back on the clichés to explore a more original side of the Mersey. The East Wirral coastal trail is a wondrous walk for fans of maritime history. Nearby are Birkenhead Priory – the oldest building on Merseyside – and the Georgian architecture of Hamilton Square, second only to Trafalgar Square for the number of Grade I-listed buildings in one location.

An autumnal scene featuring the old boat house in Birkenhead Park - Getty
An autumnal scene featuring the old boat house in Birkenhead Park - Getty

Birkenhead Park, opened in 1847, was the first park to be established from the public purse. It was laid out by Joseph Paxton, best known for Chatsworth House, and its sprawl of native and exotic trees, ponds, rock gardens, footpaths and bridges and “probably the oldest brick-built cricket pavilion in the world” was a template for future city parks. American landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited in 1850, took inspiration from Birkenhead when designing Central Park in New York. The Lady Lever Art Gallery and Port Sunlight model village are on the doorstep.

Would you go on a weekend break in one of these more eccentric options? Please let us know in the comments below

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