Simon Calder's Best Of Britain

Landscapes to cherish, cities to celebrate, wildernesses to walk. Forget foreign travel – 2007 is the year to rediscover the joys of the great British holiday. Let Simon Calder be your guide to our national treasures
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The Independent Online

Summer 2007, and the British wanderer faces a quandary. Never have there been so many options for leaving the country, nor has it ever been cheaper in real terms. Yet as the half-million travellers who will exit the UK this weekend through one of the London airports will experience, never has the business of boarding a plane been so stressful and undignified.

Holidays are classed as "leisure", so it is perverse to begin what is supposed to be a relaxing trip in one of Britain's busiest airports: among other indignities and ordeals you will be assumed to be an international terrorist until you can prove otherwise.

Years of poor planning and under-investment in airports this week came to a head, with opprobrium poured upon Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick, and the baggage-handling (in-) capability of British Airways, which loses an average of 10 pieces of luggage on every Jumbo. It's enough to make you want to leave the country....

Happily, we happen to reside in one of the most diverse, beautiful and intriguing nations on the planet - or, rather, four countries.

Summer 2007 is surely the time to rediscover the joys of British holidays.

Forty years ago, the Hampshire resort of Southsea had no fewer then 28,000 deckchairs. As our appetite for foreign holidays increased, this number declined to 2,000. By the start of the current summer season, the stripy beach furniture was beginning to look like an endangered species in Southsea, with only 50 available. But when I visited the resort this week, the seafront was crowded, the sun was warm enough to melt ice-cream in minutes and the local deckchair company was reporting excellent business.

A recent tourism minister talked of some seaside resorts in England " rotting from the ground up". But along the shores, vision and investment are stopping the rot; inland, meanwhile, you can find wildernesses to be walked, cities to be celebrated and landscapes to cherish. Perhaps the grief at Britain's clogged and chaotic airports is part of a cunning plan to keep us at home: given the strength of sterling, the British are among the few nationalities still able to afford a holiday in the UK. So consider this distinguished dozen of the best of British holiday experiences.

Best airport

The optimum terminal, this summer at least, is one that is a tourist attraction in its own right yet which you can easily reach without flying. The Beehive at Gatwick, a perfect squat, white cylinder that served as prototype for all modern airports, is now marooned amid car parks and office blocks in the northern reaches of Crawley. Further north on the A23, the terminal building for Croydon Aerodrome has been miraculously preserved. Prestwick has a glorious setting on the Ayrshire coast, plus the glory of once being visited by Elvis Presley. Clear winner, though, is Barra in the Outer Hebrides (above) – the airport without a runway, where schedules are determined by tides and each day the beach becomes subject to aviation security law.

Best castle

Kenilworth in Warwickshire (above) hosts a ruined English castle straight from central casting, best appreciated at a misty dawn or dusk when its gaunt skeleton is silhouetted over the watermeadow. Windsor shows Britain at its regal best, while Edinburgh claims the perfect location perched on the peak of an extinct volcano. For the top forlorn fortification, though, head north-east to Slains Castle, south of Aberdeen. This once-mighty pile, four centuries old, is slowly disintegrating on the exposed edge of a precipice. Bram Stoker was a guest here, and the doomy setting inspired him to write Dracula.

Best island

Crikey, where to start? From the Scillies to the Farne islands, from Wight to Walney (off Barrow-in-Furness), England has an impressive scattering of offshore fragments. West Wales has the unidentical twins of Bardsey to the north and Skomer to the south, while Scotland's archipelago (pictured) trounces the Caribbean for almost everything save sunshine and salsa. Winner in this category, though, is Rathlin Island off County Antrim. Rathlin is a model of simplicity. Imagine a bold letter L turned upside-down, and you already have a map of the island. Within the angle is Church Bay, which protects the modest harbour. If you are seeking the island's capital, look no further: this motley collection of buildings is the central metropolis for the 100 or so islanders. Three roads straggle out from here, bearing you past abandoned cottages to rocky shores where seals play and spirits soar.

Best wildlife location

The north Norfolk coast has the biggest skies in the kingdom, often filled with squadrons of migratory birds. Mull offers whale-watching with a gratifyingly high prospect of success. Sherwood Forest provides a flavour of the great outdoors within the confines of the East Midlands. But my favourite wildlife location is Romney Marsh, where Kent melts into Sussex and land, sea and sky are at their most harmonious.

Hop aboard the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway – the smallest public railway in the world – to the end of the line: Dungeness (pictured). Try to ignore the giant nuclear power station that, I swear, hums gently around the clock, and focus on the fragility of the shifting shingle where many seabirds make their first, bedraggled landfall.

Best bus ride

The number 555 is lucky for some: the passengers on the top deck of this trans-Cumbrian bus, if not the motorists behind it. It shuttles along the spine of the Lake District between Keswick and Kendal, via Ambleside and Grasmere.

Fort William to Inverness is a journey that could convert me to commuting, at least if I lived at one end of the Great Glen and worked at the other. The Scottish Citylink coach whisks you beside Loch Ness, with some monstrous views.

Exeter to Lyme Regis takes you from one of England's prettiest counties into another, via a meandering route through rural tranquillity.

Top choice for the top deck is London's 168. This double-decker begins at the Elephant and Castle, then sails on to give a magnificent view from Waterloo Bridge (left). It reaches a triumphant terminus on the edge of Hampstead Heath.

Best bike ride

Cyclists need no performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals to sprint north from Ashford; this stretch of the Tour de France route that passed through Kent last month is initially challenging, with a steep, twisting climb, but the joyful thought that you are leaving Ashford behind should provide sufficient pedal-power. The main reward of this etape is a delicious downhill drift along a Roman road that provides spectacular views and guides you to the cathedral at Canterbury. Or explore Oxford on two wheels: the cyclist's inclination to believe they own the road gets closest to reality in this lovely city where the car has been progressively marginalised.

For the greatest of days, though, wait for a strong westerly breeze and take your bike on the train to Langwathby in Cumbria's Eden Valley. Starting from here, you can traverse 32 miles along the Pennine Cycleway (right). When first you see the awesome wall of the Pennines approach, you may decide to go for a cup of tea instead. But go with the wind, and wind your way along the dainty red-edged track threading north-west to Hartside Top – peaking at 1,903 feet. When you cross the pass, you may feel you have wandered from a tranquil English vale into a foreign country. "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", as Alston Moor is designated, is not quite the right term. "Area of Raw Desolation" would be more accurate. Cross the wilderness to Alston, the highest market town in England, then let gravity lead you on a long, graceful glide down to Haltwhistle.

Best beach

Pity the poor French. As a survey in The Independent revealed, they have only a fraction of the mainland coast that the British enjoy: two inches per citizen, compared with almost a foot for each UK resident. Italy, Portugal and Morocco are similarly impoverished. Even Spain looks crowded on the Costa with barely five inches per Spaniard.

The best beach depends, of course, on exactly what you seek from the strand of sand. For surfers, Fistral Beach in Newquay is north Cornwall's surfers' paradise, where the breakers roll in unimpeded from the Atlantic to collide with the dramatic coastline (above). Tenby in South Wales scores highly in the sunlounger stakes for family holidays, while Scarborough provides the optimum infrastructure for a Yorkshire seaside holiday with the bonus of a dramatic setting. But for the most inspirational cusp of land and sea, head back to the Western Isles and make the long haul to the beach at Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris.

The Outer Hebrides represent Britain – no, the planet – at its most elemental, the earth stripped of all embellishment to clash with the angry ocean. This conflict is resolved exquisitely at Luskentyre, where sand, sea and sky converge to perfection. My first visit, five years ago, brought tears to my eyes – and it wasn't just the stiff March breeze: " Tenacious grasses bind together a backdrop of dunes," I noted. " Below them, ice-white sand has been sculpted into unworldly shapes by the wind. When a blade of sunlight slices through the cloud, the dazzle of the beach turns the Atlantic to deep blue ink." Ooh er: better get back to Southsea before memory overwhelms me. And getting there (to Harris, not Southsea), via the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Skye or Ullapool, provides the ideal overture to the final glory of Britain.

Best mountain range

Altitudinally challenged we may be by global – or merely French – standards, but the uplands that inspired Romantic poets and replenished the souls of the Industrial Revolutionaries are nothing short of magnificent. The raw serrations of the Grampians seem to go on forever; the Lake District should really be the Mountain District, because England's highest peaks comprise the main attractions; and the mountains of Mourne are suitably brooding and, yes, mournful. But the optimum combination of accessibility and drama gives North Wales the top-of-the-range range: Snowdonia (pictured).

At Idwal you can wander in about 15 minutes from the youth hostel (a cottage built for a slate-mine manager) beside the A5 to a lakeside landscape surrounded by a scrum of muscular mountains that could be transplanted from the Andes.

Best city sanctuary

You can carbon-date the revival of the British city, touristically speaking, to 1990, when Glasgow served as European Capital of Culture. Suddenly the craft of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the splendour of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the sometimes brutal industrial heritage of Clydeside were cause for celebration. Glasgow's miles better than it was 17 years ago, with the UK's strongest concentration of municipal museums and some outstanding places to eat and to stay. Yet Scotland's largest city is trumped by one of England's youngest: Brighton (above).

The louche Sussex resort happens to possess Europe's most pleasurable palace, in the form of the Royal Pavilion – an architectural compendium ranging from imitation Islam via ersatz Egyptian to counterfeit Chinese. Brighton hosts Britain's most successful and engaging "alternative" community: North Laine, bursting with colour, energy and open-toed sandals. The city is also, so a survey found, one of the least spiritual places in Britain; one in 40 of locals quizzed gave their religion as "Jedi" . Strangely, Brighton still has 50 religious buildings – the oldest of which is St Nicholas, mother church of the city and the only part of the original medieval village still standing. St Nicholas, patron saint of fishermen, sailors, Russia and pawnbrokers, provides serenity in the sexiest of cities.

Best tourist attraction

As someone whose entire life is spent on holiday while pretending to work, I have a considerable appetite for tourist attractions – together with a broad definition of places that qualify. On the eastern shore of Windermere, for example, a former Lakeland retreat for a Manchester brewing family has been resurrected for the public as Britain's most outstanding example of a house in the Arts and Crafts style; a few million pounds of lottery money has saved Blackwell for the nation.

Innovation and enthusiasm have transformed descentral Cornwall, into the celebration of nature that is the Eden Project – a textbook example of meeting tourists' constant need for new stimuli while reviving the countryside.

The UK's top attraction, though, is open 24 hours a day and has yet to start charging admission: the open-air gallery in west Belfast. Wander (safely and comfortably) down the Shankhill Road (below) and back along the Falls Road and try to make sense of the Troubles through the dark, passionate and sometimes shocking murals from both sides of the religious divide. When conflict passes into tourist attraction, the world is a better place.

Best rail journey

By European standards, our trains may be awkwardly slow and the rail network embarrassingly creaky, but aesthetically our railways can trump most continental lines. The Settle-Carlisle Railway – known as the " long drag" – carves through 72 miles of spectacular scenery from North Yorkshire into Cumbria. The line north from Glasgow to Fort William and onwards to Mallaig takes you through the wilderness of the West Highlands. On the coast of Northern Ireland, Belfast to Londonderry scores respectably on the global scale of great little rail journeys. But my favourite for prolonged pleasure is the Cambrian Coast Line (pictured), describing a perfect arc from Dovey Junction – a lonely intersection, accessible only by train – around to Pwllheli, with the windows screening a coastal travelogue of picturesque villages, crumbling castles and mountains hovering over the horizon.

Best village

Possibly the most controversial choice, not least because the contenders are all English. Chipping Campden is the cream of the Cotswolds, its weary, golden stones enriching the lilting landscapes (or, this soaking summer, lakes) of Gloucestershire. In West Yorkshire, Heptonstall preserves a medieval air. Nearby Saltaire is the model "model village", with the added bonus of a shrine to local hero David Hockney in the shape of Salt's Mill, which has been transformed into a startling gallery for the 21st century.

Hampshire has the winner: Buckler's Hard (above). This lovely village once helped Britannia rule the waves: much of the fleet that won the Battle of Trafalgar was built here, constructed from thousands of felled New Forest oaks. Two rows of cottages tumble down to the waterside, on either side of a broad green occupied by a colony of mallards. More controversy: this is the only village in England, as far as I know, for which you have to pay for admission.

Best beach

Pity the poor French. As a survey in The Independent revealed, they have only a fraction of the mainland coast that the British enjoy: two inches per citizen, compared with almost a foot for each UK resident. Italy, Portugal and Morocco are similarly impoverished. Even Spain looks crowded on the Costa with barely five inches per Spaniard.

The best beach depends, of course, on exactly what you seek from the strand of sand. For surfers, Fistral Beach in Newquay is north Cornwall's surfers' paradise, where the breakers roll in unimpeded from the Atlantic to collide with the dramatic coastline (above). Tenby in South Wales scores highly in the sunlounger stakes for family holidays, while Scarborough provides the optimum infrastructure for a Yorkshire seaside holiday with the bonus of a dramatic setting. But for the most inspirational cusp of land and sea, head back to the Western Isles and make the long haul to the beach at Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris.

The Outer Hebrides represent Britain – no, the planet – at its most elemental, the earth stripped of all embellishment to clash with the angry ocean. This conflict is resolved exquisitely at Luskentyre, where sand, sea and sky converge to perfection. My first visit, five years ago, brought tears to my eyes – and it wasn't just the stiff March breeze: " Tenacious grasses bind together a backdrop of dunes," I noted. " Below them, ice-white sand has been sculpted into unworldly shapes by the wind. When a blade of sunlight slices through the cloud, the dazzle of the beach turns the Atlantic to deep blue ink." Ooh er: better get back to Southsea before memory overwhelms me. And getting there (to Harris, not Southsea), via the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Skye or Ullapool, provides the ideal overture to the final glory of Britain.

Best bike ride

Cyclists need no performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals to sprint north from Ashford; this stretch of the Tour de France route that passed through Kent last month is initially challenging, with a steep, twisting climb, but the joyful thought that you are leaving Ashford behind should provide sufficient pedal-power. The main reward of this etape is a delicious downhill drift along a Roman road that provides spectacular views and guides you to the cathedral at Canterbury. Or explore Oxford on two wheels: the cyclist's inclination to believe they own the road gets closest to reality in this lovely city where the car has been progressively marginalised.

For the greatest of days, though, wait for a strong westerly breeze and take your bike on the train to Langwathby in Cumbria's Eden Valley. Starting from here, you can traverse 32 miles along the Pennine Cycleway (right). When first you see the awesome wall of the Pennines approach, you may decide to go for a cup of tea instead. But go with the wind, and wind your way along the dainty red-edged track threading north-west to Hartside Top – peaking at 1,903 feet. When you cross the pass, you may feel you have wandered from a tranquil English vale into a foreign country. "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", as Alston Moor is designated, is not quite the right term. "Area of Raw Desolation" would be more accurate. Cross the wilderness to Alston, the highest market town in England, then let gravity lead you on a long, graceful glide down to Haltwhistle.

Best mountain range

Altitudinally challenged we may be by global – or merely French – standards, but the uplands that inspired Romantic poets and replenished the souls of the Industrial Revolutionaries are nothing short of magnificent. The raw serrations of the Grampians seem to go on forever; the Lake District should really be the Mountain District, because England's highest peaks comprise the main attractions; and Northern Ireland's Mourne Mountains are suitably brooding and, yes, mournful. But the optimum combination of accessibility and drama gives North Wales the top-of-the-range range: Snowdonia.

At Idwal you can wander in about 15 minutes from the youth hostel (a cottage built for a slate-mine manager) beside the A5 to a lakeside landscape surrounded by a scrum of muscular mountains that could have been transplanted from the Andes.

My Holiday Hotspot

Toby Jones - Actor

Little Haven in Pembrokeshire. I remember spending all day in the freezing cold water and dad barbecuing mackerel on the beach. There are some fantastic beaches and the Swan Inn has great views of the harbour.

Paul Kaye - Actor and comedian

I love Galloway on the west coast of Scotland. It's unspoilt, magnificent and makes you want to run naked through its very essence. There are palm trees and lovely people in abundance.

Michael Wood - Historian

We had great holidays when our kids were little on the west Dorset and east Devon coast. As a historian, I love the countryside behind the coast which is ancient and has magical cliffs.

Kate Humble - TV Presenter

I love Mull, where I first went to film white-tailed eagles for Springwatch. It's an amazing place, full of iconic Scottish wildlife like golden eagles and basking sharks, which I swam with when I was there.

Bruce Oldfield - Fashion designer

I've stayed a few times at the Tresanton hotel in St Mawes in Cornwall. It's an idyllic spot with a beautiful cobbled street. I also like Teignmouth – it reminds me of the 1930s posters for the railways.

Griff Rhys Jones - Broadcaster

My favourite place is Pembrokeshire. I like the slightly wild coastline around St Davids where the cliffs are overpowering granite monsters.

Feeding the hungry traveller

The diversity of cuisines in the UK has long been a great British strength. So enthusiastically have we taken to foreign food that Lonely Planet designates chicken Madras as the definitive British dish. But the hungry traveller is finding that indigenous cuisine is back on the menu.

One small example: when the west London youth hostel re-opened earlier this year, orange juice was no longer on the menu, on the grounds that oranges are not (yet) widely grown here in the UK. Instead, guests are offered organic apple juice from just down the road in Kent.

Cumbria has transformed from a largely good-food-free zone to a foodie's heaven, thanks to places like Lucy's in a Plate in the middle of Ambleside. Lucy Nicholson opened a warm, bright delicatessen here in 1989, and it has since blossomed to become a showcase for local produce. Nearby, Alex Brodie is helping tourists keep their "beer miles" to a minimum: his Hawkshead Brewery pumps out Ulverston Pale and Lakeland Gold, and invites visits to the Brew House in Staveley every Saturday.

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