Tacky, classy, pebbly, sandy, rainy, sunny. The allure of a jolly holiday in England is hard to explain in simple terms.
Because yes, you are right. England may not have the climate of the Med. Fine, you won’t be decoding exotic dishes on finely laminated menus. But for a small country (the same size as Alabama), England really does have a lot going for it. Tens of thousands of miles of coast, no less, a long history that reads like a George R. R Martin novel, 19 Unesco World Heritage Sites and a palette that is maturing by the minute.
The secret’s very much out, of course. England attracts tens of millions of visitors from around the world each year, and nobody enjoys a holiday in England quite like the English. So today, on St George’s Day we are posing the question: what is it that makes an English holiday so special?
We have asked three people who have enjoyed more than their fair share of English holidays – Nigel Farage, Mica Paris and Gyles Brandreth – who each share their cherished memories of holidays on home soil. Leave a comment at the bottom of the article to share your own opinions on what makes England such a wonderful holiday destination.
‘I’ll be up at five, head out to sea, have a few pints at the pub, then an early night’
I’ve always had a love for the English seaside. My earliest family holiday memories are of trips spent down at Camber Sands. The weather was never a factor, we just carried on. If it was a rotten day, we would find a rock, knock the windbreak into the sand, put on a pac-a-mac and pretend we were having a brilliant time. Only in England.
From a very young age, perhaps six years old, my obsession on these holidays was to go and catch fish. I would go out to collect shellfish, or worms for bait, and that began what has become a lifelong love affair with the seaside of this country, whether that’s on shore, out at sea or on boats.
It’s not just the seaside that makes England such a unique holiday destination, of course. Spain might have the sun, Italy has the cuisine, but can anyone compete with our English beers? Absolutely not. We are the only country in the world whose beer is a live yeast product. I’ve just been to Orlando, which has a huge range of American craft beers, but it is nothing like what we have. For anyone over 18, beer simply has to be a central part of any holiday in England.
And where better to enjoy a good beer, than at the pub? I have visited many over the years, but my favourite has to be The Lamb in Leadenhall Market, in London. That is a proper pub. People don’t sit down, they stand up, they drink, they talk, they laugh, they joke. The food is a beef roll if you’re lucky. The beauty of entering The Lamb, or actually any pub in England, is having conversations with people, whether you know them or not.
That’s another thing that makes an English holiday so special. Wherever you go, there is a level of courtesy, a level of engagement. On a good English holiday, whether in the Lake District or in the Peaks, there is a feeling of polite calm. Not so much in our cities, but certainly out in market town rural England.
And I have a formula for hunting that rural bliss: dodge those motorways. Dorset and East Sussex are two very unique counties, and the reason they are so magnificent is that neither has a mile of motorway. If you want to drive from Weymouth to Lyme Regis on a nice summer’s day, you won’t average 30 miles per hour. But because of their lack of motorways, and the absence of major distribution centres, you find a pattern of settlements that haven’t changed very much over the centuries. This may be a slightly romanticised vision of rural England, but it’s one that I am not ashamed of.
So I suppose it is a combination of the above that makes up my idea of a dream English holiday. I like to wake up at 5am, make a packed lunch, get down to the harbour, charter a boat, go out to sea, then head to the pub. The only snag is that my family don’t always share the same idea of what makes a perfect holiday. They’re normal people, you see, so they would rather have a lie in and a brunch. Each to their own.
This spring and summer I plan to spend a good amount of time in Mevagissey in Cornwall, where I will go in search of the magnificent blue-finned tuna which have been missing from English waters for decades, but have now returned. After a day at sea, I will head to the Fountain, a 15th-century pub which is probably one of the finest in the country, and I’ll have a natter with Billy who has been the landlord there since 1981. There will probably be some Cornish singing going on, and I’ll have a few pints, then I’ll head back for an early night. Perfection.
As told to Greg Dickinson
'I was obsessed with Brideshead Revisited growing up, so I love anywhere with classic British architecture'
I was born in Islington and brought up in Brockley, South London. When we were growing up, my dad would take us to Bayswater every weekend to see the pictures strewn outside Hyde Park. Back then, going to Bayswater was like going to New York, because you just didn’t go to places like that back then. We’d go to Park Lane and then my dad would take us on a boat ride along the Thames. When I was a kid, you stayed in South London, so I was very fortunate that my dad would take us to exotic restaurants, like those in Chinatown, where I learnt to eat with chopsticks by the time I was seven.
I’d go to Brighton with my grandparents, which was always really fun, but the big life-changing excursion was when we went to Blackpool with the church. I was nine and I’d never been on such a long trip in my life. The whole journey we were asking, “Are we there yet?”.
We went to funfairs and the Pleasure Beach and had the best time. When I was on tour with Fame: The Musical, we performed at The Opera House in Blackpool and my daughter joined me. We went on all the rides, including Icon, a rollercoaster, one of those which goes upside down and jerks you all over the place. I literally couldn’t feel my body afterwards. I haven’t changed though – I still love a fun fair.
My grandma said have your kids at the same time as you’re building your singing career, otherwise you’ll never have them. Thank god I listened to her as I’m now the mother of two amazing daughters, but I’ve had to juggle being a single-mum with my work.
When you’re constantly multi-tasking, you need your own time, and so throughout my 34-year career, I would get into my car and drive out of London, always to the same two places: the Royal Crescent in Bath or to Bovey Castle in Devon. I’m a spa queen and they both have fantastic spas.
I love driving to Devon along the A3; it’s such a scenic journey, going past Bristol and the North Wessex Downs. There’s something really peaceful about driving a nice car listening to Latina jazz or orchestral music, like John Barry, to accompany the images of the English countryside.
Bovey Castle is very grandiose and it reminds me of the house featured in the 1980s television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I was obsessed with that show when I was growing up, and I remember thinking I wanted to marry Jeremy Irons. I love that classic British architecture and I want that kind of vibe when I’m looking for an ideal place to escape to.
It was almost like they were inspired by the angels when they were designing those old buildings. I see music in buildings too and these places feel very powerful to me.
I’m a workaholic so when I need a break, I have to tear myself away and go off on my own for a long weekend. More often than not, I’ll go down to Bovey – they’ve got these really opulent rooms with four-poster beds. I’ll go for a walk in the beautiful grounds and over the rambling hills. I’m a water baby and I need to see some water with the greenery and there’s a moat there too.
I’m drawn to places that have a special energy, like Devon and Wiltshire. I often go to Bishopstrow Hotel, which also has that old classic regency style. It’s very close to Stonehenge and I feel really good when I’m there.
England really excels when it comes to music venues, too. My favourite places to perform are Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Ronnie Scott’s – where I’ve been gigging since I was 18 – and the Jazz Cafe. The Jam House in Birmingham is really beautiful as well.
Belgravia is really important to me because my youngest daughter went to school there. I’d always get there early to pick her up and they’ve got some fantastic little restaurants. It still really feels like London there, where some of the streets are still cobbled and the shops are quirky and unique.
I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be on St George’s Day than at the Priory Hotel in Bath. I’m a creature of habit, so of course it’s got a lovely spa, but it’s also really intimate.
As told to Shelley Rubenstein
Mica Paris was awarded an MBE in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to music, entertainment and charity. She plays Cornbury Festival 8-10 July at Great Tew Park, Oxfordshire with Bryan Adams, James Blunt, Jools Holland, The Waterboys and Ronan Keating (cornburyfestival.com)
‘The London of my childhood still had horse-drawn vehicles on the street. There were rag and bone men.’
My father was born in 1910 and he grew up going on summer holidays to Broadstairs, which is where his parents and their parents went on holiday too. So in some ways the England of my childhood, visiting Broadstairs in the 1950s, was the England of my great grandparents: a very Victorian childhood.
Broadstairs is not just the perfect place for a bucket-and-spade seaside holiday, thanks to its sandy beach. Charles Dickens used to go on holiday to Broadstairs, around the time my great grandparents would have gone there, and today there are so many sights associated with Dickens that there is even a building with a plaque outside saying: “Charles Dickens did not stay here”.
While my earliest holidays were in Broadstairs, my childhood itself was spent in London. From the age of seven I used to travel to school alone on the underground. I loved the underground, and as a child I visited every single stop on the map. I remember going round and round the Circle Line all day doing my homework – every time I got to Paddington I would get out and have a cup of tea. From a very young age I would also explore the city on my tricycle. It was assumed London was much safer at the time, and remember this was a long time ago – there were still horse-drawn vehicles on the street, there were rag-and-bone men.
My parents were very keen on Shakespeare and they took me to see Shakespeare plays, principally at the open-air theatre in Regent’s Park, but also at the Old Vic on Waterloo Road. In the early 1960s I saw my first Romeo and Juliet with a very young Judi Dench playing Juliet. It was a school matinee and her parents were there, in the audience. Her opening line was: “Where are my mother and my father, nurse?” and in the third row a voice came back: “Here we are darling, in Row C.” It was Judi’s father.
No surprises, then, that I have developed a passion for England’s great theatres, of which there are many. I am now doing a tour of England with my show, Break A Leg!, visiting the finest theatres across the land, from the Harrogate Theatre, which has seen performances from greats like Sarah Bernhardt and Charlie Chaplin, to a theatre in Bury St Edmunds where Rod Hull and Emu once performed.
One of the stops on my tour I am most excited about is Southport, in Lancashire. It is as beautiful as the French Riviera up there, it genuinely is. Napoleon III was restored as the ruler of France in the 1870s, but when he was in exile he lived in Southport, where he fell in love. When he went back to France he said to Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who designed Paris, “I want the streets of Paris to have wide, beautiful boulevards. Go to Southport in Lancashire for inspiration.” So he did, and he went back and he designed Paris to look just like it. They say Edinburgh is the Venice of the north, but Paris is the Southport of the south.
I do enjoy travelling the country by train, and I still make the occasional trip down to Broadstairs, but I love my home towns too: in Chester (where I was a Member of Parliament for five years) I have a house right on the Dee, and in London I live on the Thames.
When I first moved to Barnes in south west London, about forty years ago, I discovered at the back of my house were some old reservoirs owned by Thames Water that were surplus to requirements. So, along with some others, we formed the Barn Elms Protection Association because we didn’t want it to be turned into a supermarket or a car park. I went to see the man, Sir Peter Scott, who founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, and I asked if he wanted to build a site in London. He sent some people to my house and right there, in my kitchen, they began to do the drawings for what is now the London Wetland Centre at Barn Elms.
We have no idea how amazing our country is. For me, every day of the year is St George’s Day.
As told to Greg Dickinson