British surprises: The staycations our experts didn't expect to love

Telegraph Travel
·10-min read
Charming Rye – a chance discovery one summer's evening - getty
Charming Rye – a chance discovery one summer's evening - getty

During our summer of staycations, the Telegraph Travel team discovered plenty of surprises in England and Wales. More beautiful, fascinating or compelling than we'd ever suspected, these destinations are now firmly on our must-visit lists...

Cardigan Bay, Wales

"Booked on a whim, a last-minute weekend away – the west coast of Wales was never supposed to be fun. Quiet, yes; rural, absolutely... but fun? Surely not: I was resigned to a wet weekend on the edge of Cardigan Bay, bemoaning our long-cancelled trips to Asia and Dubai. 

When we arrived at Black Rock Sands, the rain was lashing down – the skies as dark as my mood. Even after the five-hour drive, it was tempting to stay in the car, but we swaddled ourselves in anoraks and stepped out into the mire. My socks were immediately sodden.

But as we trudged, the sky began to clear. Like a gigantic mirror, the departing tide reflected the brightening blue, while seagulls performed aerobatics high above the sand. I noticed the grass-tufty dunes, the crumbling turrets of Criccieth Castle, the distant crown of mountains. A deep breath of salty air. My sour mood disappeared, vanquished by sunbeams.

'As we trudged, the sky began to clear...' - Hazel Plush
'As we trudged, the sky began to clear...' - Hazel Plush

And it stayed sunny – all weekend. For harbourside coffee in Barmouth, a timewarp tour of Portmeirion, honey-flavoured ice cream on Tywyn beach, a springy yomp up the grassy slopes of Bird Rock. It wasn’t far flung, but it was a balm – and yes, more fun than I’d ever expected. So much so, I’m plotting a return this winter (‘firebreak’ lockdown permitting). 

Asia? Dubai? You'll have to go a long way to beat this wild, wonderful corner of Wales."

Hazel Plush

Essex

"Of all places, I never thought I'd find myself living in Essex. But then, I'd never been before. And here I am, having lived in Braintree for most of lockdown on the fringes of a tiny village called Bradwell, where every local I've met has been nothing short of charming, kind and welcoming.

Rachel, who has horses in the next field, affectionately calls me a 'townie' and has come to my aid several times over minor countryside-related disasters. Lesley, who lives down the road, helped find my escaped dog and passed no judgement as to how I lost him. I could go on.

As for local attractions, there are public bridleways through green farmland galore, a pretty and very hidden lake (Rectory Pool) and within striking distance, the chocolate box village of Finchingfield; where you'll find a lovely 14th-century church and several nice tea rooms, antique shops and pubs."

Annabel Fenwick Elliott

Gusbourne, Kent

"Before this summer, I would only very rarely order an English wine with dinner, and I don’t think I’d ever bought a bottle for a celebration like Christmas. I knew it was an industry on the up, and of the few I tried I was pleasantly surprised, but I was much more comfortable in the old world of full-bodied French reds and crisp Spanish whites.

That said, I had never set foot on a vineyard on home ground – but when I did, those few hours among the vines did more to change my perception than I could have thought. At the tail-end of the harvest, I made to explore the Gusbourne estate in Kent on a guided tour, learning about the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes grown there. 

A very English tipple - Gusbourne Estate
A very English tipple - Gusbourne Estate

The first vines were planted in 2004, with the debut 2006 vintage released in 2010, and many more since then. Sparkling wines are a speciality. As we made our way round, we learnt about key characteristics found in the different vintages and how they are shaped by the weather, position of the land and soil. 

Later in the tasting room, trying one after another it was easy to compare and learn exactly what I want from an English wine. It was an excellent ending to my trip to nearby Rye, but the lovely surprise was finding a new favourite drink. 

2014 Blanc de Blancs, see you soon."

Lizzie Frainier

The Fens

"The Fens – that great stretch of damp flatlands which fan out through north Cambridgeshire and spill across the Norfolk-Lincolnshire borders – is not the most obviously appealing landscape to drive through. Unless, of course, the huge skies are streaked with a red sunset, or a huge moon is rising over the dark grid of fields and dykes. 

Most people pass straight through – cursing the farm traffic and the lack of over-taking opportunities. So there is very little tourism here; no boutique hotels, few holiday cottages or gentrified second homes. Only the great tower and octagonal lantern of Ely cathedral – visible for miles above the low horizon – draws a significant number of visitors.

Sunset over The Fens - getty
Sunset over The Fens - getty

But, if you can be tempted, slow your pace and stop and explore the villages and the byways a little. For centuries, this was one of the most prosperous areas of England – fortunes were made from the rich chocolate-coloured soil, and ploughed into bricks, stone and mortar. The evidence remains in the great civic buildings of Kings Lynn, the mansions of Wisbech and some of our biggest and most beautiful medieval churches, standing out of all proportion to the depopulated villages they now serve. 

You’ll almost certainly be the only visitor when you stop to explore them. But they are all the more evocative for that."

Nick Trend

Silverdale, Lancashire

"As a native Lancastrian I’ll admit to being spoilt for choice. With the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Wales all within 90 minutes’ drive from my home, finding somewhere for a day’s hiking or a night away is never hard. I’ll also admit to being complacent, to returning to tried and tested locations, without a second thought for the underdog locations I’ve been missing, despite them being right under my nose.

One such place is Silverdale, a village on the North West coast above Morecambe Bay, where coast and countryside collide. A stone’s throw across the bay lies the Lake District National Park, the place I so often call a home-from-home, but as I strolled down the seemingly deserted beach at Silverdale, which is certified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the sun drenching my back and my hair wild with fresh sea air the crowds of honeypots like Bowness-on-Windermere seemed a million miles away.

'I’ve overlooked this place my entire life' - getty
'I’ve overlooked this place my entire life' - getty

Refreshingly a night’s camping at Gibraltar Farm, which sits in prime position on a headland above the beach, was possible without much prior notice and what’s more we didn’t hit an ounce of traffic, struggle to park or have to dodger the lens of a visiting tourist – the bane of many visits to Lakeland.

The walk across Morecambe Bay is a must for those looking to seriously stretch their legs (traditionally the eight miles starts at Arnside and ends on Kents Banks and it's recommended to go with a local guide with knowledge of the changeable tides). A more leisurely stroll to Jenny Brown’s Point (named after an old lady who lived on the shore in the 18th century) or up Arnside Knott is just as rewarding, with panoramic views of both Lancashire and Cumbria. 

I’ve overlooked this place my entire life, blinkered as I raced northbound to the familiar fells of the Lake District – Silverdale is a surprising gem that is, of no fault of its own, overshadowed by its world-famous neighbour."

Lucy Aspden

Camber Sands, East Sussex 

"I love a beach. But I would always pick a foreign beach over a British one – of course, because the waters are usually balmier – but also because my experience of British beaches has never, to me, reflected the Britain I know as a half-Filipino person. 

No-one on the beach in Britain usually looks like me. It’s a fact that’s been outlined by Natural England – their last survey into diversity in nature showed that 56 per cent of under-16s from BAME households visited a natural environment (a park, forest or beach) at least once a week, compared to 74 per cent from white households.

A sunny day on Camber Sands - getty
A sunny day on Camber Sands - getty

So I was pleasantly surprised when I took a day trip to Camber Sands (for the first time) this summer, with a group of friends (also all from black and ethnically diverse backgrounds), in the high heat of August. It was heaving – the sand was covered in the usual summer haul of towels, umbrellas, inflatables and ice boxes – but the make-up of the people on the beach was overwhelmingly of families and groups of black and ethnic minority groups. It was refreshing."

Jade Conroy

Northumberland

"As the summer crowds on England’s southern beaches made headlines in August, I escaped to the much-underrated northern beaches of Northumberland. I’d visited the county once before, back in 2016, so I knew that the county promised vast, empty beaches, more castles than you can count, and an abundance of fresh local produce. 

While I was unsurprised to find that I had the sands of England’s most northern county completely to myself, I was surprised by the small wonder that I found in its heartland, away from the rugged coast and famous Lindisfarne. 

A walk to Hindhope Linn in the spectacular Kielder Water and Forest Park proved to be a highlight of the trip. The smell of Scots pine and sound of tumbling falls captivated the senses by day, while by night, the skies of this Gold Tier Dark Sky Park (awarded by the International Dark Skies Association) were sprinkled with stars. The forest offered an unexpected and soothing balm to the soul after months of lockdown."

Penny Walker

The Cotswolds

"The Cotswolds is of course known for its idyllic, very English beauty, as well as its excessive numbers of tourists, both domestic and international. It also has a reputation for being very expensive – a side effect of being the first choice for Londoners looking for a countryside break. My expectations, before going, were firmly set. Only to be completely turned on their head.

To my shame, I've not travelled England that extensively. When choosing holidays, I've always ended up in further flung destinations – or at the very least across the border in Scotland or Ireland. But when the pandemic hit, I was forced to look closer at my own back garden, and ended up booking an Airbnb in the Cotswolds countryside this summer for myself and a small group of friends.

Our charming, expansive and very nicely finished Airbnb worked out at £67.50 each, and the countryside, outside the major tourist sights, was as silently peaceful as it was fantastically pretty. Long afternoon walks, cosy pubs and – forgive me – the easy two hour drive from London, mean I will be, to my surprise, counting myself among the ranks of city slickers who can't shut up about this patch of the country."

Emma Cooke

Which places have surprised you this summer? Please tell us in the comments below.