5 Quintessentially English Weekend Breaks!
I’m normally one for travelling as far away as possible, but recently I’ve been considering the charms of locations a bit closer to home. For one reason and another I’ve been planning and booking a few weekends away in good old Blighty of late, and it’s been making me feel slightly guilty for overlooking my homeland. Most of the UK (and certainly England) is easily travelled over a long weekend, and is well worth the effort. For any visitors wanting to tick off a few England essentials – or indeed locals looking to reconnect with their inner-Anglo Saxon – here is a list of five excellent English weekend breaks that sum up the best of this green and pleasant land.
The spa town: Bath
Many of England’s spa towns are worth a look (and there are more of them than you’d imagine). Sites of natural hot springs renowned for restorative and health benefits, they were traditionally visited by the upper classes to ‘take the waters’ (i.e. laze around and relax) and have generally retained a sense of grandeur and some stunning architecture. Bath is surely the biggest and most beautiful of them all – gorgeous Georgian crescents and squares built from honey-coloured limestone have resulted in Bath being the only city in Britain to have been given World Heritage status, and its baths were built by the Romans, no less.
To feel thoroughly English, visit the famous Royal Crescent and enjoy afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent Hotel: the 30 houses making up the crescent are one of the country’s finest examples of Georgian architecture and look over lush parkland.
For further decadence, head for the Thermae Bath Spa. £35 will grant you access to the spa’s various steam rooms and pools bubbling with hot, mineral-rich water, and the spa’s rooftop pool is something else. It’s open day and night with gorgeous views over the city and towards the hills – allowing you to admire the beauty of Bath whilst having a good relaxing soak.
The chocolate-box villages: the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds – a region stretching through six counties – should be your go-to choice if you’re after some serious English country village vibes. As well as larger towns and cities (including Bath, and other lovely locations like Cheltenham and Gloucester) the Cotswolds features a glut of villages that are just too pretty for their own good. Any one village would do for a cosy weekend break, particularly out of season when the fires are roaring in the pubs, and the hoards of summer tourists haven’t yet descended. Broadway is particularly beautiful, and check out nearby boutique hotel with on-site spa Dormy House for some serious pampering after those long country walks. Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford, Chipping Norton and Stow-on-the-Wold are all good options too, and are all so close together you could easily meander through a few over a long weekend. Just remember to leave enough time for those snug pubs and coffee shops.
The university town: Cambridge
Either Cambridge or Oxford would tick this box, but for me Cambridge edges ahead. The city centre feels much more walkable than Oxford’s busy, traffic-logged streets and the wonderful university campus buildings somehow seem more accessible and prominent. Like any city, Cambridge offers a range of high-quality coffee shops, quirky restaurants and boutique shops, but I can easily while away an afternoon wandering between the grand old university halls and colleges.
To see a bit more of the city, why not do as the locals do and hop on a bike – with predominantly flat terrain, excellent cycle routes and centrally located bike hire available, it’s the perfect way to get around. For something a little less taxing, take one of Cambridge’s numerous punting tours. Gliding along the River Cam provides a unique view of the university’s buildings, and is an essential Cambridge experience. Just make sure you take a guided tour rather than hiring a punt of your own; it’s harder than it looks…
The countryside: Shropshire
There’s obviously more beautiful countryside in England than you can shake a muddy stick at, and many visitors (and residents) tend to flock to touristy spots like the Lake District, the Peaks or southern counties such as Devon or Cornwall. A little bit harder to get to – but well worth the visit however – is Shropshire. Tucked away along the sleepy Welsh borders, Shropshire is a large and mainly rural county with gorgeous countryside, thriving market towns and an enviable foodie scene. To get into the spirit of things, read a few verses of poet A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, in which he famously reminisces about the landscape’s “blue remembered hills”. And, to appreciate the excellent produce from the region, pick up some ‘Remembered Hills’ blue cheese from Ludlow Food Centre, which won Best Blue Cheese in Britain at the British Cheese awards. (I wasn’t lying about the foodie scene). Ludlow itself is a lovely little town with a smattering of Michelin-starred restaurants, a castle, and various picturesque cobbled streets and alleyways. Head north from here and you’ll pass through a few of those rolling blue hills, as well as pretty little Church Stretton (the only town in Shropshire’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and reach Shrewsbury.
Slightly larger than Ludlow, Shrewsbury has a bit more of a buzz about it (with lots of luxury as well as independent shops on its high street), but still retains its charm. Higgledy-piggeldy streets of Victorian villas and Georgian piles back on to a beautiful park which rolls down towards the river, and there are plenty of cultural events on throughout the year. The town is also the birthplace of Charles Darwin – follow the Darwin Town Trail for an excellent introduction to the area and some of its history.
The northern city: Leeds
Alongside bigger brother Manchester, and leafy little Sheffield, Leeds is one of England’s great northern cities – with traces of its industrial past still very present in architecture and infrastructure, it also features a bounty of museums, cultural venues, classy bars and chic shopping options. For an insight into Leeds’ past head for the Industrial Museum in Armley, or for a more international slice of history try the wonderful (and completely free) Royal Armouries museum. Buzzing Kirkgate Market in the city centre gives you a taste of how well Victorian melds with modern here, with noisy northern market traders jostling for space with street food stalls in a cavernous yet ornate market hall dating back to 1875.
The architecture of Kirkgate is mirrored in its contemporaries over the road – the beautiful Victorian arcades now housing big names like Harvey Nichols, Reiss, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood. For more quirky – and affordable – shopping, check out the independent shops and boutiques in Queens and Thornton’s Arcades across Briggate Street. The Corn Exchange (pictured above) combines the best of all of the above: interesting independents and alternative outlets housed in a fantastic Grade 1 listed structure dating back to 1864. It’s also perfectly placed for you to stumble down Call Lane in search of food and drink. Graze offers great breakfast and lunch options, and try Jake’s basement bar for some after-hours refreshment.
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