Five of England’s less-visited counties for days out and short breaks

Tyne and Wear

For millions of readers around the world, the image of the country between the mouths of the rivers Tyne and Wear was woven by Catherine Cookson, the region’s most prolific and popular author. Cookson’s was a landscape of collieries, shipyards, rumbling coal trains, sooty-faced kids and the instantly nostalgic tones of pithead silver bands playing Haydn. While fragments of her world remain – mainly in the doughty cheerfulness of the locals – over the past four decades, as heavy industry has receded, a more distant past has emerged.

Twelve centuries before Dame Catherine began her career, the north-east’s first great literary figure, the Venerable Bede, was busy writing the histories that would help forge an English identity. Saint Bede (whose story is brought to life at the excellent Jarrow Hall Anglo-Saxon Village) divided his time between the twin monasteries of Saint Paul’s in Jarrow and Saint Peter’s in Monkwearmouth. Today, these Anglo-Saxon sites are connected by Bede’s Way, a 12-mile trail that winds through the countryside between the metropolitan sprawls of Jarrow and South Shields to the north, and Sunderland to the south. Flanked by wide, sandy beaches and jagged cliffs, this is an area of undulating pastures, deciduous woodlands, water vole-populated streams and villages with roots going back to the days of the Historia Ecclesiastica.

One of them, Cleadon, has a Victorian water tower more than 30 metres high that can be seen for miles around (a landmark so widely visible the Luftwaffe used it for navigation during the second world war). Whitburn, with its Miss Marple-ish green and duck pond, boasts an 18th-century windmill.

Lewis Carroll spent summers at Whitburn, staying with his cousin Margaret Wilcox. Whitburn beach sweeps south towards Seaburn, forming part of what locals call the Roker Riviera. It was while walking along its wide, pale sands that Carroll was inspired to write The Walrus and the Carpenter. The sea is still as wet and the beach as dry as it was in their day, but the perambulating oysters have been replaced by a whirling crew of capering dogs and yelping kids.

North from Whitburn, on Lizard Point, stands Souter Lighthouse. This was the first electric lighthouse in the world (it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year) and is also home to a cartoonishly gigantic foghorn. Below the lighthouse, waves thrash against savage rocks. Among the hundreds of ships that foundered here were two galleons from the Spanish Armada. The bell from one was hung in Whitburn church.

A path along the clifftop from Souter towards South Shields leads across the wind-bleached headlands of Whitburn coastal park. Here are breeding populations of purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and red-throated divers. Peregrine falcons and merlins nest in the crumbling limestone rock faces. Dolphins are often spotted, there are occasional sightings of pods of orcas and, though no walruses have yet been seen, a few years back a couple of Beluga whales paid a visit.

Beyond the coastal park stands the area’s most recognisable natural landmark, the rectangular seastack of Marsden Rock. At low tide you can walk out to it across the beach of Marsden Bay. The beach is reached by a vertiginous flight of stairs; it’s easier to take the lift down to the Marsden Grotto – a bar and restaurant opened in the early decades of the 19th century in a cave blasted from the cliff face by a Northumbrian lead miner and smuggler. Even if you don’t believe in the ghost stories attached to the grotto, wandering round the narrow, shadowy corridors is a weird experience – a reminder that this stretch of coast was also where Carroll invented the Jabberwock.

Where to stay The Sir William Fox hotel (doubles from £60) is the former residence of a local man who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1840s and served as its prime minister four times. A stately Georgian townhouse in Westoe’s pretty main street now offers comfortable, quiet rooms.

Where to eat Latimer’s Seafood is the north-east’s best under-the-radar restaurant, serving local fish and shellfish in this former garage in Whitburn for nearly 20 years. The naked (batter-less) deep-fried haddock is a thing of wonder.
Pub The Black Horse in West Boldon is splendidly eccentric, with the sort of warm, welcoming atmosphere that can be neither bought nor faked. Excellent food comes from a kitchen run by the former bass player of local punk band the Toy Dolls.
Harry Pearson

Merseyside: to the Southport coast by bike

Waves of nostalgia could make my knees wobble as I climb on to the old Bianchi. First family outings, first sight of the sea, first long bike ride with a mate, first girlfriend I lived with: all these things happened to me on the road to Southport.

Today I’m cycling across the rural hinterland that fans out around the Victorian seaside town. I start at the station in St Helens, where I (or my mum) did most of my shopping as a kid. The A570 winds north out of the town, with a proper cycle path with grassy barriers along the Rainford bypass that’s been there since long before road cycling was fashionable. I glance up at Billinge Lump as I exit St Helens: at 179 metres, it’s the highest point on the West Lancashire plain.

The main road goes all the way to Southport, but I prefer the B-roads via Burscough, which take me across the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The Old Packet House, on the canal side, is OK for a lager top and a meal. But I’ve packed a sandwich and prefer to take a wander along the towpath: there’s a six-mile there-and-back walk north along the Rufford branch of the waterway, taking in the National Trust’s Tudor Rufford Old Hall.

Back in the saddle, a little way out of Burscough, I come to Martin Mere, the marshy remnant of an 18-mile-wide lake drained in the 1690s and 1770s and now run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It’s a famous haven for birds: pink-footed geese and whooper swans migrate here in winter, and common spring sightings include redshanks and peewits. Yes, I know, we’ve veered into Lancashire, but almost all of Merseyside and a bit of Cheshire used to be inside the Red Rose County.

The area I’m pedalling across is known as the Mosses or Mosslands, though only 3% of the original lowland raised peat bogs remain. It’s a precious habitat for large heath butterfly, nightjar, bog bush-cricket and sundew, and projects are afoot to link up the extant patches. The area is completely flat, which makes cycling painless and glorious. I can look around, enjoy the open space and breathe easily. The land is quite green: frequent, sometimes heavy rain means there’s more livestock and dairy farming than arable.

I use back roads all the way to Banks, just north of Southport, with only a short ride on the A565 and a more pleasant cycle along a residential street named Ralph’s Wife’s Lane. I arrive at the coast close to RSPB-run Marshside, an area of coastal grassland and salt marshes, and another bird sanctuary. I ride sunnily on to Marine Drive (the western end of the Trans-Pennine NCN62) and turn south into Southport. Here the nostalgia waves increase, which is just as well as there are no real ones: the sea is, as usual, out of sight.

Southport is the natural stopover for a two-day trip. I’m not sticking around, though, but taking Sustrans Route 810 down to Liverpool. It’s 19½ miles and almost 60% of the route is traffic-free, through a mix of beaches and sand dunes, footballers’ mansions and a red squirrel reserve. Cycling is great, but some sections of the Sefton Coastal Path – which it joins – are for pedestrians only.

As I leave Formby beach behind, I enter what I think of as Merseyside, or Scouseland, proper. Born five miles outside Liverpool, I’m a “wool”, or “woollyback”, and you might think I’d naturally prefer fields and collieries. But I secretly envy Liverpudlians’ heritage, and as I ride into the grubby outskirts it’s not Antony Gormley’s statues at Crosby that excite me so much as what’s left of the docks and warehouses. Ports are such evocative places, and Liverpool was once defined by its outward, maritime face.

As I park at Lime Street station, I’ve seen the best of Merseyside. The county is usually presented as either grimly urban or industrial, and if the surrounding countryside is mentioned at all, it’s as if it has a Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship with the city. But the canal and roads, coast and conurbations link and intersect these milieus. The marshes kept the north-west a sort of badlands through the medieval era and beyond; now they are green spaces from which to take in broad horizons and big skies.

Where to stay The Bold Hotel off Southport’s Lord Street is great for a drink and has doubles from around £75.

Where to eat Fishcakes and line-caught haddock at award-winning Fylde Fish Bar in Marshside are perfect. Also branches at Birkdale and Burscough.
Pub The Camra-rated Liverpool Pigeon in Crosby showcases the north-west’s local ales.
The route is 41 miles in total (goo.gl/maps/VWc3aSHAatzGoWsi6).
Chris Moss

Bourne End, Buckinghamshire

A long time ago (well, October 2020), in a galaxy far, far away (OK, in Buckinghamshire), a field in the village of Bourne End was transformed into an alien planet. Acres of green grass were converted into crimson-red sand, and a facade of small terracotta buildings was built to form an otherworldly high street. Hollywood had discovered this place and earmarked it as a set for the latest Stars Wars film. Almost overnight, this usually sleepy village was filled with actors, film crews and special-effects teams.

But it’s not the first time that Bourne End has seen a dramatic transformation. Sitting on the Thames, between Marlow and Cookham, at the mouth of the River Wye (the name means end of the river), it has for many years been shaped by the flow of water. Mills used to line its banks; today, the current drives leisure seekers here – kayakers, wild swimmers and birdwatchers – often by happy accident rather than design.

This was how I discovered its charms, as I wandered the Thames Path during lockdown 1. It was a hot and humid afternoon, and so inviting were the many sandy spits of land edging the footpath that I waded in to cool my feet. Later, I returned with a paddleboard, admiring the riverside houses and watching common terns dive for food while I drifted by.

Soon Bourne End became a regular swimming spot for me, often just before sunset. I would do widths of the Thames while great crested grebes, mallards and swans watched me, red kites swirled overhead and the light dappled tangerine through the branches of weeping willows.

On the other (Berkshire) side of the river is a pub, The Bounty, which has no road access (it’s reached by a footbridge from Bourne End or, for a donation in their charity box, a boat ride over). I would often front crawl over for a swift beer and packet of crisps before heading home, dripping wet and smiling, feeling smug for finding such a special place.

A short walk from the pub’s beer garden is Winter Hill, a high terrace of grassland thought to have been colonised by stone age hunter-gatherers as long ago as 350,000BC. Since then, bronze age tumuli have been found, and remnants of Roman pottery dug from its lower flanks.

More recent human visitors have cleaved boot-beaten tracks into its chalk slopes, and this winter, when the whole area was under a blanket of snow and the river was too cold and fast flowing to swim in, I climbed to its top to watch the sun set over two counties.

Perhaps my favourite find is on the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames, west of the village, where probably the biggest transformation has taken place. Until 2001 this was a sprawling gravel pit, source of stone to build the nearby motorways. Now it’s unrecognisable, having been converted into the Spade Oak nature reserve, home to an abundance of birds. On my many walks around the former quarry – now a pretty lake – I’ve spied kingfishers, cormorants and herons. I’ve heard warblers call, watched swallows swoop for insects and lapwings wheel against the sky.

Despite all its natural riches, Bourne End has managed to escape any air of pretension sometimes felt in other riverside communities. On every visit I’ve struck up conversations with friendly locals in, on or alongside the water. That’s why, for me, it didn’t need the arrival of A-listers to confirm its star quality.

Where to stay The Riverside Boathouse is a self-contained studio sleeping four right on the riverbank, from £127 a night.

Where to eat Try The Spade Oak, a stone’s throw from the nature reserve, after a walking or birdwatching trip. It serves excellent pizza, Sunday roasts and vegan options.
Pub Take a punt over to The Bounty, a riverside hostelry reached only via boot, boat or swim (no vehicle access).
Phoebe Smith

Thaxted, Essex

You can’t miss Thaxted, nor should you. The stupendous spire of its parish church is like an arrow, visible from miles around, above the waves of undulating farmland. Thaxted is clearly more than a village and, unlikely as it now seems, it rivalled Sheffield as capital of the cutlery trade in the 14th and 15th centuries. Nobody has an explanation, but presumably the iron came from redundant weapons and the skilled workmen from somewhere else.

The Guild of Cutlers built themselves an intricate, oak-framed Guildhall, but the scale and beauty of the church (the Shell Guide rates it “best church in Essex”) points to sustained wealth, cutlery giving way to wool. Reached up a little pebbled track, the church is (informally at least) part of a picturesque group including two rows of single-storey cottages built as almshouses. One row, with fretwork bargeboards like a Swiss chalet, is now a single cottage; the other is three tiny houses. Behind them stands John Webb’s handsome windmill.

I first got to know Thaxted when visiting a friend and colleague who lived just below the church in a confusing old house whose every room seemed to be on a different level. James (Jim) Boutwood was a historic buildings architect, one of a team on Essex county council that investigated and mended a breathtaking set of monastic grain barns at Cressing Temple, near Witham.

Most summers we would meet and go church-crawling: south to Tilty, with its half-hidden clues to the 13th-century abbey that once stood there; to Stebbing, where the spectacular rood-screen is, improbably, of stone rather than painted and carved wood. Once, further east, we tracked down a memorial column standing, inexplicably, in a field at Colne Engaine. It was designed by John Soane, whose biography I was then writing.

Thaxted is home to a summer music festival, which was started by Gustav Holst in 1916. He, like HG Wells, was a tenant of generous, even profligate, Daisy, Countess of Warwick. The mistress of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, she ran through two fortunes, her own and then her husband’s, to become a free-spending radical, setting up the first state secondary school in Essex and offering a 30-year living to the Reverend Conrad Noel.

He signalled his politics by displaying the Red Flag alongside those of Saint George and Sinn Féin in Thaxted church and tolled the bells on Empire Day to mark the nation’s sacrifices to imperialism. For all that righteous anger, he also set up an annual Thaxted morris dancing event in 1911 that still continues (though not in Covid times).

If folk dancing isn’t for you, there are few better ways of passing a summer evening than settling down for a couple of hours in that great, generous church, light pouring in through the clear glass as some choral masterwork washes over you.

Daisy Warwick lived on at Easton Lodge, which was much reduced by a disastrous fire. She offered what was left of it to the new Labour party, and then the TUC, but both refused. The barn was converted to a theatre, and the church has a memorial to Ellen Terry, as well as the grandiose tombs of earlier generations of Daisy’s family. A charitable trust now runs the Gardens of Easton Lodge – known for snowdrops in early spring – and volunteers are reinstating Harold Peto’s Italianate water gardens, having rebuilt an Edwardian treehouse and brought the walled kitchen garden back into productive use. An ambitious annual country show in the village (cancelled last year) perpetuates yet another of Daisy’s initiatives.

There are well-marked footpaths everywhere. One from Thaxted to Tilty, for example, follows a stream, grandly named the upper Chelmer, which once powered the abbey’s watermill. A circular walk from Great Bardfield, a few miles east of Thaxted, to Finchingfield is also good, with pubs and food – the Bell and the Fox respectively – at both ends and even a tiny new independent bookshop, Between the Lines, in Great Bardfield.

The village became famous from the 1930s as an informal artistic colony centred on Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. Their work, and that of their circle, is shown in regular exhibitions at the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden. Coming for a weekend? Surely you’ll need a week.

Where to stay The Swan Hotel in Thaxted (doubles from £55 room-only) is a 20-room former coaching inn.
Where to eat At the Flitch of Bacon in Little Dunmow, eight miles south of Thaxted, you won’t necessarily find much bacon on the menu (to Jay Rayner’s disappointment – though he thought the food excellent). Awarded a Michelin star in 2019, it’s not a place for a quick bite: the two-course lunch is £27.50; the five-course tasting menu £65; and three-course Sunday lunch £45. The restaurant also has rooms.
Pub The Fox on the Green in Finchingfield is a 16th-century inn overlooking the duck pond, with a beer garden at the back.
Gillian Darley, author of Excellent Essex: In Praise of England’s Most Misunderstood County

Rutland

Real ale and gentle countryside probably spring to mind when you picture the smallest county in England. Peaceful landscapes are definitely one of the compelling charms of Rutland – there are no madding crowds here. The county’s centrepiece is Rutland Water, a horseshoe-shaped reservoir that is the second-largest expanse of water in England, built in the 1970s to store water for the growing population of the east Midlands.

Ringed by an 18-mile cycle track (23 miles if the central Hambleton spit is included), it has cafes, cycling shops and even a bug zoo scattered along its north and south shores. At the Rutland Water Fishing Lodge, guides can be hired for trout fishing, but more noteworthy is the “predator fishing” with a flotilla of little white boats hunting around the coves for zander and huge pike. Sailing, canoeing, paddleboarding, wild swimming and windsurfing are all also catered for, and for youngsters there’s an aquapark with an inflatable obstacle course.

Egleton nature reserve, which occupies the western end of Rutland Water, is a string of shallow lagoons with abundant birdlife – more than 20,000 birds have a regular home on the reservoir, and wigeon, gadwall, cormorant, great crested grebe, coot, lapwing, mallard and tufted duck are the most common waterfowl.

Above them on platforms nest ospreys; in 2001 they were the first to breed in England for 150 years. They now fly in every spring from Africa and raise their young on the plentiful fish in the reservoir. This is the UK’s number one location for osprey watching. Anglian Water charges for entry (£6/£3), so it’s worth making it a full day out to experience the whole reserve.

August brings Birdfair to Egleton (2021 dates TBA), with 25,000 nature lovers perusing hundreds of art, travel and wildlife charity stands. It’s one of the largest gatherings of the wild at heart on the planet: we meet old friends and observe the behaviour of Springwatch presenters in their natural environment.

Oakham and Uppingham, the county’s two market towns, are well supplied with watering holes. Oakham, just west of Rutland Water, has no fewer than 15 cafes, many clustered around the Butter Market Cross, a stone’s throw from the 800-year-old Oakham Castle, one of the nation’s best-preserved Norman buildings. Tradition has it that passing noblemen must leave a tribute of a horseshoe at the hall, and the walls are bedecked with giant ceremonial gilded examples, some more than 500 years old.

Oakham is also home to Rutland Bitter – a distinctive beer with its own little appellation contrôlée that is only brewed at the Grainstore Brewery, which also offers tours. Oakham ale is now brewed in Peterborough and Ruddles in Suffolk, but with the newer Baker’s Dozen Brewing Company in Ketton establishing its reputation, brewing is thriving here once again.

The much-loved horticulturist Geoff Hamilton lived at Barnsdale Gardens in Oakham, and his organic vision is maintained across 38 individually designed gardens, many featured on the Gardeners’ World TV series. Other attractions include the Rutland Falconry and Owl Centre at Exton – also home to three amur leopards. As the county motto goes: Multum in parvo – “a great deal in a small space”.

Where to stay Barnsdale Lodge Hotel (doubles from around £120 B&B) is next to Rutland Water and has unstintingly good reviews, particularly for its “borderline gourmet” food.
Where to eat The King’s Arms in Wing has a superb menu of country cooking specialities, succh as squirrel, cider and girolle pie.
Pub The White Horse in Empingham is a buzzing village pub with roaring hearths and well supplied with local beer. The new Italian owners offer a range of Italian classic dishes alongside more traditional fare.
Matt Shardlow, Guardian country diarist

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