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  • 08 February 2018

    48 hours in... London!

    London at Dusk (c)MattCoppin/GreatBritishEscapes

    One of the world’s most well-known and fascinating cities, you could spend weeks in London and still only scratch the surface, but if you follow our tips, you can still get a really good feel for the city if your time is limited.

    In just 48 hours you can visit several of the well-known highlights, but make sure to take some time off from box-ticking to wander through the busy, cosmopolitan streets, to soak up the atmosphere and get a feel for the character of this fascinating city.

    Central London is surprisingly compact and it is easy to get between many of the famous sights without having to take public transport, and exploring on foot will help you stumble upon many of London’s ‘hidden gems’.

    Hit the ground running

    Drop your bags at your hotel and get straight out for an early hit of culture! London is well-known for its wide selection of World Class museums and galleries (most of which are free), so squeeze one in on your first afternoon.

    There are many options but it is hard to beat the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Its huge entrance atrium is immediately impressive and the collection includes the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Sculptures and the Oxus Treasures. Popular exhibitions are also regularly hosted, but may need booking in advance.

    Evening relaxation

    From here you can make the short walk to lively Soho for the evening (making a quick detour to Oxford Street if you fancy some shopping!). The criss-cross of streets south of Oxford Street that makes up the area of Soho is chock full of restaurants, bars and cafes and is the perfect place for some people watching.

    Try to grab a window seat at one of the many bar-restaurants along Old Compton Street for a prime view of Soho life over your pre-dinner drink. The eating options are endless with hundreds of restaurants from the casual cheap-eat to world famous fine dining – one of our favourites is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi, where middle-eastern flavours take centre stage and, if you are feeling sociable, you can take a seat at the communal dining table downstairs (booking essential). It also gives you the chance to pop in for a pre or post dinner pint at The Lyric, a fantastically characterful Victorian pub that offers a wide selection of craft beers.

    Along the South Bank

    Millennium Bridge, London

    Get an early start to make the most of your full day and, after a hearty breakfast to set you up, head for Westminster, where you can see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and call into Westminster Abbey.

    Once you are finished with the political heart of London, head across Westminster Bridge to the south side of the river, admiring the view back on the Palace of Westminster and the London skyline as you do.

    Head east and, if you would like to get a bird’s eye view of the city, make the London Eye your first stop (buying fast-track tickets in advance saves precious time). Otherwise, continue along the river, enjoying the lively footpath that is always filled with performers, food stalls and art exhibitions.

    Pass the Royal Festival Hall, British Film Institute and National Theatre, which all have options for some refreshment as well as changing exhibitions and a regular farmers’ market, and admire the impressive buildings that line the north side of the river, before reaching the pedestrian Millennium Bridge. On the south side of the bridge, call into the Tate Modern to see the latest exhibition in the vast Turbine Hall, and consider crossing the bridge to visit famous St Paul’s Cathedral.

    Back on the south side, continue on to London Bridge, where the narrowing pathways give a real sense of what this part of London was like in medieval times, and stop at Borough Market, a huge food market, for lunch or to pick up some produce. Pass HMS Belfast, now permanently moored on the Thames and a museum open to the public, to reach Tower Bridge.

    Tower of London (c)MattCoppin/GreatBritishEscapes

    Crossing back to the north side, your last stop is the fascinating Tower of London, a building with one of the most fascinating histories of any in the world. Royal palace, fortress, prison and place of execution, the Tower has witnessed many of the most significant events in English history. It remains home to the Crown Jewels as well as the famous ‘Beefeaters’, who conduct tours of the tower. Advance purchase of tickets can save time queuing.

    If you don't fancy the walk, you can take the River Bus down the Thames from the London Eye Pier to London Bridge or all the way to the Tower of London, getting a good view of the other sights as you pass by!

    Show time!

    For many, a trip to London isn’t complete without seeing a West End show, so grab an early dinner at one of the many restaurants in the theatre district that offers early bird theatre menus and spend your evening singing along to your favourite tunes.

    The most popular shows can sell out months in advance, so booking in advance is sensible if you have something specific you would like to see, but there are always last minute tickets available for some shows, so don’t panic if you haven’t booked ahead.

    If you prefer serious theatre, head for the Old Vic instead (advance booking essential), where you can have pre-theatre dinner and post-theatre drinks at one of the many bars and restaurants that line The Cut.

    Final morning

    Have a slightly more leisurely start to the day, after a big day yesterday, before enjoying a stroll through the Royal Parks of Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’ Park (hire a rowing boat in Hyde Park if time allows!) to reach Buckingham Palace, the famous Royal residence in time to watch the changing of the guard at 11am. You can nearly always get a spot where you can see what’s happening but if you want to be right at the railings, you would need to arrive early! Note that the changing of the guard usually takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, but do check for your dates.

    If you have time for some last minute shopping, stroll up to Selfridges, one of London’s most famous department stores, (where you could grab a quick lunch at the café in the food hall) and along Jermyn Street, where some of the shops seem unchanged in centuries, before heading back to your hotel to collect your bags!

    If you would like any help planning a trip to London or around Britain, please do get in touch.

  • 13 November 2017

    The Homes of Literary Greats

    Britain’s literary heritage spans hundreds of years and many of Britain’s great works are known and loved the world over. Visiting the homes of and places associated with these literary greats is a highlight of many trips so here we look at a couple of the most popular houses associated with these renowned authors.

    William Wordsworth - Dove Cottage

    Dove Cottage, Grasmere (c) VisitEngland/CumbriaTourism/Dave WillisDove Cottage Grasmere (c) VisitEngland/CumbriaTourism/Dave Willis On the edge of bustling Grasmere, what was once an inn, the 'Dove and Olive Bough', became the home for William and his sister Dorothy in late 1799. They lived there for the next eight years. In 1802 William married Mary Hutchinson and three of their five children were then born here as well.

    As with Hill Top, a visit to Dove Cottage transports you back in time with plenty of the family’s own belongings throughout the house, with little having changed in the house since the Wordsworths lived there. The impressive Wordsworth Museum is next door to Dove Cottage and they have on show the most extensive collection of the Wordsworths’ letters, journals and poems in the world.

    Entirely unconnected to Wordsworth, it wouldn’t be a proper trip to Grasmere without sampling the delights of Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread. This delicious Gingerbread was invented in 1854 by Victorian creator cook Sarah Nelson who mixed and baked her spicy-sweet chewy concoction inside her Church Cottage home – now The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop – and sold it to villagers and visitors from a table top on a tree stump outside her front door! Step inside the shop and it doesn’t feel like much has changed!

    Turning back to Wordsworth, he was born in the Northern Lake District, in Cockermouth, and his childhood home is also open to visitors, presented as it would have been when they lived here with their parents, three brothers and servants in the 1770s.

    Beatrix Potter - Hill Top

    The home of one of the world's best-selling and best-loved children's authors, Beatrix Potter's 17th-century farmhouse, Hill Top, set in the picture perfect Lakeland village of Near Sawrey, is a key stop for any literary fan visiting the Lake District. Purchased by Beatrix Potter in 1905 with proceeds from her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, she used Hill Top and the surrounding countryside as inspiration for many of her subsequent books.

    Both the garden and house have been maintained exactly as she left them, so provide a fascinating insight into the author’s life. Sketches of her famous characters are still strewn across her desk and every room contains a reference to a picture in a 'tale'.

    Hill Top is a small house and the National Trust operate a timed-ticket system (to avoid the house getting too busy!) so there may sometimes be a small wait to get inside the cottage, although you can always enjoy the gardens in the meantime!

    Also in the Lake District, for fans of Peter Rabbit, visit the Lingholm Estate on the banks of Derwent Water, which has a strong connection with Beatrix Potter who spent many holidays on the Estate and credited the Lingholm Kitchen Garden as her original inspiration for Mr McGregor’s Garden in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

    Agatha Christie - Greenway

    Use the beautiful Devon town of Dartmouth – which has a lovely setting on the edge of the River Dart - as a base while visiting Agatha Christie’s glamorous rural retreat. Agatha Christie called Greenway 'the loveliest place in the world' and it became a treasured holiday home for her and her family.

    With views over the Dart, you can see why Agatha loved it as her escape to the countyside. The Christie family filled each room with items dear to them, brought to Greenway from Ashfield, Agatha's childhood home, and from their travels, much of which remains in the house today. The house had a distinctive 1950s styling, when Agatha and her family would spend summers and Christmases here with friends and family.

    A visit to Greenway isn't complete without seeing the Boathouse, scene of the crime in 'Dead Man’s Folly', and the battery complete with cannon.

    There are many different ways to get to Greenway, including ferry and steam train from Dartmouth (both of which really add to the experience!). If you'd like to arrive by car you must pre-book your parking space online or by telephone. Timed tickets may be issued at visitor reception at busy times, just to ease congestion in the house.

    Jane Austen - Chawton

    Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life in this charming Hampshire cottage from 1809 until 1817 (and it is proudlyChawton Hampshire (c) VisitEngland/Hampshire said that Chawton is the only house where Jane lived and wrote that is open to the public!).

    2017 marks 200 years after her death, and the museum is currently exhibiting, “Jane Austen in 41 Objects”, which is a celebration of her life. Jane was only 41 years old when she died, and the exhibition tells the story of her life and legacy with reference to 41 different objects in the Jane Austen’s House Museum collection.

    On 16 December, all are welcome to visit Chawton free of charge as part of their annual open day which marks Jane Austen’s birthday. Mince pies will be served and there will be free Christmas craft activities inspired by the Austen family!

    The Regency town of Bath is also a fantastic stop for any Austen fans, as she lived in Bath in the early 1800s and it is the setting for a number of her novels. The excellent Jane Austen Centre houses an exhibition telling the story of Jane’s experience in the city and the effect it had on her and her writing.

    William Shakespeare – Stratford-upon-Avon

    No list of literary sites around the UK would be complete without a mention of The Bard! Whist Stratford-upon-Avon itself doesn’t always have the charm of the other stops listed here and gets fairly crowded, Shakespeare’s Birthplace, ‘Anne Hathaway’s Cottage’ (his wife’s childhood home) and the homes of other members of Shakespeare’s family make an absorbing day out.

    Shakespeare's House, Stratford (c) VisitEngland/Shakespeare's Birth Trust/Amy Murrell Shakespeare’s birthplace is particularly atmospheric – wander around the house he was born and grew up in with his parents and siblings. He also spent the first five years of his marriage living here with his wife Anne Hathaway. During your visit, you are likely he hear tales of Shakespeare’s family life, enjoy live theatre on demand and get up close to rare artefacts from the Shakespeare Trust’s world class collections.

    If you would like any help in planning your trip around the literary highlights of the country or would like us to create a tailor-made itinerary for your England self-drive trip, please get in touch.

  • Whether as a means of getting from A to B or just as a fun day out, a rail journey is a relaxing way to travel and Britain is home to some of the most scenic in the world.

    Although much of our rail network was famously closed down by Dr Beeching in the 1960s, the tireless work of many volunteers and campaigners means that lots of fantastic stretches remain or are being reopened, either as part of the main network or as independent tourist attractions.

    Wherever you go, you won't be far from a wonderfully scenic journey and here are some of our favourites that can easily be fitted into many trips around Britain.

    1. The Jacobite Express – Fort William to Mallaig

    Jacobite Express ©VisitBritain/VisitScotlandA popular day trip from Fort William, the journey on the Jacobite Express steam train from Fort William to Mallaig is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in Britain, if not the world.

    Made more famous by the Harry Potter films, in which the ‘Hogwarts Express’ is seen travelling across the stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct, the journey is through dramatic Highlands scenery, passing towering mountains, sparkling lochs and small villages, before arriving at Mallaig, the small fishing port that is the jumping off point for the Isle of Skye. If you are returning to Fort William, enjoy a stroll around the town and some fresh local seafood before re-boarding the train!

    Booking in advance is almost always necessary and can be done online at the link below.

    2. The Settle-Carlisle Railway

    Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlilse RailwayThe journey from Settle in North Yorkshire to Carlisle in Cumbria has long been a favourite with fans of rail travel. The journey crosses the rugged, open scenery of the western Yorkshire Dales and the remote Eden Valley as well as taking in some of the country’s most impressive railway engineering. This includes the striking Ribblehead Viaduct, 400 metres long and made up of 24 arches. The Victorian viaduct was built by a huge workforce in dangerous conditions between 1870 and 1864 and was recently the focus of an ITV drama, Jericho.

    Trains run several times a day and you can start in Leeds as well as getting on at Settle, and travel as far north as you like, before returning to your starting point. Many of the stops make great starts for walks in the gorgeous countryside before taking the train back.

    For the most part, these are normal electric trains, as this route is part of the main rail network, but the ‘Fellsman’ steam train is starting to run along this line again in summer 2017, after a break due to track damage in 2016. Dates are limited and should be booked as far in advance as possible.

    3. North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway – Pickering to Whitby

    North Yorkshire Moors RailwayRunning for 24 miles across the remote, open scenery of the North York Moors from the charming market town of Pickering to the lively fishing port of Whitby, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a great, nostalgic day out.

    All trains are pulled by a heritage steam locomotive and stop at pretty villages in the moors – one great option is to get off at the village of Grosmont and walk the easy four miles back to Goathland (made famous in the 80s and 90s as the setting of gentle police drama, Heartbeat!), before re-boarding the train.

    4. The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways – Caernarfon to Blaenau Ffestiniog

    Ffestiniog Railway - steam train crossing the Welsh countrysideRunning for a combined total of nearly 40 miles, the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland railway covers a beautiful mixture of coastline, countryside and mountain scenery, as well as starting or ending at one of Britain’s most impressive castles.

    The route starts in Caernarfon, where the castle can be visited and runs past the foot of Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, and along the coast to Porthmadog. Here you connect to the Ffestiniog Railway, the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway, which heads through the Snowdonia National Park to the former slate quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

    The route climbs over 700 feet from sea level into the mountains, through pastures and forests, and past lakes and waterfalls.

    5. The South Devon Railway - Buckfastleigh to Totnes

    At just seven and a half miles long, a trip on the South Devon Railway isn’t going to take all day. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in beauty, as it travels along the valley of the gorgeous River Dart. Trains are a mixture of steam engines and heritage diesel engines. You can even become a driver for the day, although this needs booking well in advance!

    There are several other beautiful heritage railways in this area, including the Dartmouth Steam Railway, which makes the short journey between the popular town and Agatha Christie’s summer house at Greenway, and the West Somerset Railway, the longest heritage railway in England, at 20 miles, covering some lovely coastline and countryside, and offering at a stop in the historic village of Dunster, with its medieval architecture and impressive castle.

    This is just a small selection of the many scenic railway journeys available across Britain. If you would like to arrange a self-drive tour around Britain that takes in some fantastic railway journeys, do get in touch.

  • Grays Court Hotel with York Minster in the backgroundOur recent trip to try out the gorgeous Grays Court Hotel in York was long overdue.

    Driving through the city walls, along a narrow lane and under the arch into Grays Court’s cobbled courtyard, it is immediately apparent that this hotel has a location that is hard to beat. Iconic York Minster can be seen peering over the rooftops, only a few metres away.

    This is the heart of historic York and Grays Court itself more than holds its own when it comes to character and history. On arrival, we were warmly welcomed and given a quick tour of the hotel and a potted version of the building's fascinating past (a full history is provided in the in-room information and is well worth a read). Parts of this ‘country house in the city’ date back to Norman times (giving rise to the claim that it may be the longest continuously occupied house in Britain), and previous owners and visitors include a variety of royalty and high society across the centuries.

    The current owners have beautifully restored the building to offer just eleven charming bedrooms, varying in size but all with lovely décor and character features, great bathrooms for unwinding after a day in the city, and views over the garden and city walls or the cobbled courtyard and Minster.

    We were staying in ‘Willoughby’; a large room with four poster bed and fantastic views over the garden and City Walls. After settling in, we made our way to the impressive, panelled ‘long gallery’ for tea and scones to start our stay. The gallery has a stately home feel but combines this with a relaxed comfort, making it a unique place to unwind.

    York Minster

    Our stay was a chilly winter’s day, but in the sun the gorgeous garden is an equally wonderful place to relax. Beautifully landscaped, it backs directly onto York’s City Walls and has the only remaining private access to the walls, so you can head straight out for a stroll!

    Although it's tempting just to settle into the hotel, with fascinating York on your doorstep, it is worth dragging yourself away. For us, this involved simply wandering around the historic lanes and alleyways, soaking up the atmosphere (which is one of the nicest ways to get to know the city) but, for the first time visitor, sight-seeing highlights include the stunning Minster, a walk around the substantially intact city walls, a visit to Clifford's Tower, the small remains of what was once York’s castle, where a new visitors centre is opening in 2017, or one of York’s excellent museums, including the fun Jorvik Viking Centre and the popular National Railway Museum.

    Back at the hotel, it’s time for a pre-dinner drink in the long gallery (where the bar turns into on ‘honesty bar’ once the staff go home, so you can enjoy a glass of something at any time of day!), before heading out for dinner.

    The Long Gallery at Grays Court Hotel in York

    York has a wide range of eating options from fine dining to casual bistros and traditional pubs (we headed to ‘the Star Inn the City’, recently opened by well regarded Yorkshire chef Andrew Pern, and well worth a try). However, if you'd rather settle into the hotel, the intimate restaurant offers upmarket meals with a focus on local produce and inventive dishes.

    After a good night’s sleep – you’d never know you were in the centre of a busy city – all that’s left is to enjoy a hearty breakfast, with options including a classic full English, kippers or pancakes with maple syrup, either in the pretty breakfast room or out in the garden.

    Fully satisfied and our stay at an end, we reluctantly checked out, sure we will be back at Grays Court soon – there are few hotels in the country that manage to combine the service, comfort, character and location offered at Grays Court!

    If you are interested in including Grays Court in your trip to Britain, or would just like us to help to plan your trip, please do get in touch.

  • Moorland lane in North York MoorsFor visitors from overseas, the North York Moors National Park is less well known than its westerly neighbours; the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. But that relative anonymity means you can enjoy beautiful and varied scenery, fantastic walking country, fascinating historic sites and gorgeous coastline, while avoiding many of the summer crowds (although there are some exceptions!).

    If time allows, it is easy to spend several days exploring the area or, if time is short, the southern sections of the park are only a quick hop from the popular city of York so, whatever your time frame, here are some of our favourite spots to aim for.

    Favourite historic site: Rievaulx Abbey

    Ruins of medieval abbeys are scattered across northern England and southern Scotland – the result of Henry VIII’s reformation of the church and the destruction of many monasteries and abbeys.

    Rievaulx Abbey, tucked into a sheltered valley on the western edge of the North York Moors, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and atmospheric to visit. Now looked after by English Heritage, you can park at the abbey itself or take the lovely walk from the nearby market town of Helmsley (see below).

    Rievaulx Abbey, North York MoorsWhile in the area, you can also visit the ruins of nearby Byland Abbey - less complete than Rievaulx, it maintains some stunning early gothic architecture which inspired the famous Rose Window at York Minster – and Rievaulx Terrace, landscaped gardens created in the mid-eighteenth century as a place of leisure for Thomas Duncombe II, the owner of the nearby Duncombe Estate. The terrace offers gentle walking, interesting Palladian style follies and fantastic views down onto the abbey.

    Favourite Town: Helmsley

    Close to Rievaulx Abbey, so easily visited on the same outing, the charming market town of Helmsley is always a popular stop. The cobbled market square is surrounded by charming stone cottages, now filled with interesting shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants.

    The crumbling ruins of Helmsley’s Norman Castle still watch over the town, which you can visit and take an audio tour to find out more about the history of the caste and area. Also visit Helmsley’s Walled Gardens, with its great mixture of flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs and a charming position tucked just under the castle walls.

    If you have time to get over to the coast (a lovely drive across open moorland), the seaside town of Whitby is a must visit. Certainly not ‘off-the-beaten-track’ (it can be hectic in summer!), Whitby, with its blend of traditional seaside resort, hill-top abbey ruins, historic lanes and reputedly the best fish and chips in the country, deserves its popularity.

    Favourite Walk: Hutton-le-Hole and Lastingham

    Lastingham village in the North York MoorsHutton-le-Hole is the quintessential moors village, nestled on the edge of open moorland, with a stream running through the village green where sheep graze surrounded by chocolate box cottages.

    It is a popular spot and home to the interesting Ryedale Folk Museum, several craft shops, cafes and a pub!

    This easy 4 mile walk takes in country lanes, moorland paths, quiet fields, lovely views and the charming village of Lastingham. Smaller and quieter than Hutton-le-Hole, the highlights of Lastingham are St Mary’s church, with its eleventh century crypt, and the friendly Blacksmiths Arms, a great stop for lunch, a pint of local ale or an ice cream!

    See the link below for walk directions.

    Favourite Activity: North Yorkshire Moors Railway

    Chugging its way between the market town of Pickering, on the park’s southern edge, and ever popular Whitby, the North York Moors railway is a great day out for a bit of nostalgia and always popular with young and old.

    (c) North Yorkshire Moors RailwayHop on one of the regular steam trains and journey through the open moorland scenery, considering hopping off at one of the pretty villages, including Grosmont, well-known as the setting for the 90s hit TV show, Heartbeat, or making it all the way to the bustling seaside town of Whitby for some fish and chips!

    Favourite Pub: The Durham Ox

    Just outside the National Park, in an area known as the Howardian Hills, the Durham Ox is the focal point of the lovely hillside village of Crayke, with its eclectic collection of architecture making a charming scene and the hillside location offering great views across the surrounding countryside.

    The pub is a fantastic combination of traditional features and modern service. Lots of local ales are on offer, as well as a strong wine list, and food focuses on local produce and is a cut well above the average pub fayre.

    The Durham Ox is also a good place to base yourself to explore the area – its mini ‘cottages’ at the back of the pub are a relaxing spot to spend a few days.

    Favourite Restaurant: The Black Swan

    The Black Swan at OldsteadIn an unassuming position in the tiny village of Oldstead, right on the south-western edge of the park, the Black Swan initially looks like a simple (albeit very inviting) village inn. But step inside and you are treated to one of the country’s best restaurants, already awarded a Michelin Star and going from strength to strength.

    The restaurant is run by the Banks family, who own the farm next door, and the stunning cooking is led by Tommy, one of the sons of the family who, as a self-taught chef, has really created something special at the Black Swan.

    There is a big focus on local produce, and they grow many of the vegetables used in the restaurant in the kitchen garden just outside. This isn’t food for those that like it plain and simple, but for a real treat, the fantastic tasting menu is hard to beat. Booking in advance is essential.

    If you would like some help planning your trip to the North York Moors or anywhere else in Britain, just get in touch.

  • About my Blog

    On this blog, I am going to share some of my favourite things about Britain – taking beautiful country walks, trying out classic british pubs, exploring castles, palaces and stately homes, getting involved in some uniquely British experiences and events and much more. I hope that this blog will whet your appetite for a trip of a lifetime in Britain.

    Helen Coppin
    Founder, Great British Escapes

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