You’ve done London, of course. You’ve taken a trip west to see the Neolithic stones of Stonehenge and the Roman spas of Bath. You’ve hung out with an academic crowd in Oxford or Cambridge, journeyed north to Viking York and ticked off the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. Now what? Here are seven of the best kept secret destinations in the UK. Hush, though! If you tell, they’ll all want to come.
Replace Bath with... Colchester
England’s oldest recorded town is also its oldest Roman city. With a history dating back almost 2000 years, it’s a wonder that more people don’t visit this north Essex town, an hour from London by train. Visit the Norman castle, built on Roman foundations, and the ruined St Botolph’s priory, founded about 1100AD. The excellent Hollytrees Museum, adjacent to leafy Castle Park, has interesting displays about the city and its past residents, including an extensive collection of antique clocks. When you’re ready to rest your legs, the town has plenty of cafés from which to choose, including the characterful Tymperleys, housed in a Tudor mansion.
Replace Loch Ness with... Loch Awe
Loch Ness might be more famous on account of its elusive monster, and Loch Lomond might receive more visitors thanks to its convenient location an hour outside Glasgow. But Loch Awe lives up to its name. This is one of western Scotland’s hidden gems and yet it’s the longest freshwater loch in the country and the third largest. On its shores you’ll find the ruined Kilchurn Castle, one of the most photogenic castles in the north of the UK.
Replace Stonehenge with... Avebury Stone Circle
Stonehenge has long been a victim of its own success, with visitors separated from the ancient standing stones by a low rope barrier unless they’ve managed to score a rare special access pass. Go to nearby Avebury instead and you can touch the stones. Built between 2850BC and 2200BC, the henge contains the largest stone circle in Britain which encloses two smaller stone circles.
Replace Brighton with... Margate
Forget Brighton, star of the East Sussex show. The neighboring Kent coast also has many classic British seaside resorts, but Margate’s a stand out. Though it lost its pier to the sea in the 1970s, it still has a thriving amusement park, Dreamland, whose restored wooden rollercoaster, the Scenic Railway, is the oldest in the UK. But there’s another reason to visit: Margate’s shell grotto. No one knows when it was built, but it was discovered in 1835 and has been operating as a visitor attraction ever since. Mosaics on the walls and ceiling utilise 4.6 million mussel, cockle, whelk, limpet, scallop and oyster shells.
Replace Snowdonia with... Brecon Beacons National Park
Snowdonia’s the most famous of the three national parks found in Wales and the spectacular bays and headlands of the Pembrokeshire Coast draw tourists from all over the country. The third, the Brecon Beacons National Park, is a dark sky reserve, free from the light pollution that blights much of the UK. Hike through ancient woodland to tumbling waterfalls. The mountain peak Pen y Fan towers over the landscape, and though it's much less visited than Mount Snowdon it's arguably as dramatic. Other highlights include Cwm Sere, Cwm Oergwm and Cwm Cynwyn, tranquil glaciated valleys affording breathtaking views to those who seek them out.
Replace York with... Lincoln
York Minster is astonishingly grand, the kind of jaw dropper that people fly thousands of miles just to say they’ve seen with their own eyes. Lincoln Cathedral, despite being one of Europe’s finest Gothic structures, is comparatively under-visited. Yet this magnificent building, consecrated in 1092, was once the tallest in the world. The central spire that made it so was added in 1311; it collapsed in 1549, but the cathedral remains a breathtaking sight to this day. Reach it by walking up the aptly named Steep Hill, a pictureseque cobbled street lined with shops and cafés.
Replace Cornwall with... Northumberland Coast AONB
The UK’s areas of outstanding beauty are scattered across its four nations. One of the best, with a stretch of shoreline to rival the craggy coast of Cornwall, is the Northumberland Coast AONB. Sweeping sandy beaches backed by grassy dunes frame vistas of isolated islands. Castles dot the landscape, with Bamburgh, Lindisfarne and Warkworth among the best preserved. Alnwick, used as a filming location for two of the Harry Potter movies and more besides, lies inland not far away. Just offshore, the Farne Islands delight summer birdwatchers who flock to the area in the hope of seeing puffins, guillemots, razorbills, terns, eider ducks and shags. Grey seals make their home there throughout the year with pups born in the autumn.