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  • 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.

  • Love or loathe the ‘amber nectar’, a spot of whisky tasting often features highly on any wish-list during a Scottish self-drive trip and the Scots themselves certainly consider their whisky to be the best in the world!
    There’s a huge variety of different whisky styles distilled around Scotland (just search online for a scotch whisky flavour map and you’ll see what we mean!) which all adds to the fun of the tasting and trying to get around a few different whisky producing areas.

    Lovely view and whisky can both be enjoyed on your Scotland self-drive itinerary!

    There’s the smooth floral whiskies of the north-east across to the much smokier, richer, malts from the Islands of the West Coast. The Scots are rightly proud of their most famous export and it’s worth brushing up on few basics before engaging with the locals about their favourite tipple. Even small pubs & restaurants can feature an astonishing array of whisky so, as well as trying to get to a distillery or two, there’s no reason not try a ‘wee dram’!

    Here’s a quick look at some of the most famous whisky producing areas around Scotland. Of course, if you have a particular favourite and would like to incorporate the distillery into your trip, let us know and we can make sure you can make a visit during your self-drive tour!

    Speyside

    The valley of Speyside in Scotland’s north-east boasts more distilleries than any other part of the country - all taking advantage of the wonderful clear water from the River Spey. Most of the distilleries offer tours and tastings but, if in doubt, stick to the well-signed 70 mile ‘malt whisky trail’, which takes in eight distilleries and can be completed by car or tour.

    Another option is to just head for your favourite distillery – a couple of popular options are Glenfiddich, which is the biggest of the Speyside distilleries offering free tours which are very well set up for visitors, and the much smaller, independent, Glenfarclas. Just outside the Speyside area, another one of our favourites (both for the smooth 15 year old malt and beautiful location in the foothills of the Grampian mountains!), Dalwhinnie run a fantastic tour which gives an insightful overview of the whole distilling process.

    The Isle of Islay

    The whisky distillery at LaphroaigFor many whisky connoisseurs, there’s no better place to be in the world than this small island off Scotland’s west coast. The most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) has beautiful, isolated beaches (Islay boasts 130 miles of coastline) and good walking trails, as well as being home to eight renowned whisky distilleries.

    Islay whisky is unmistakable for its very peaty and smoked taste. All of the island’s distilleries offer tours and provide an excellent opportunity to sample their produce. Most passenger traffic to and from Islay goes by ferry using the route from Kennacraig on the mainland to Port Ellen (although it is also possible to fly).

    Our suggestion, if time is limited, is to stick to the southern edge of the island down by Port Ellen and visit Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. If you’re feeling active, you can walk or cycle this route (3.5 miles each way), and bikes can be hired in Port Ellen.

    Visit Islay - and the Laphroaig Distillery - on your Scotland self-drive tour

    Laphroaig - the self-proclaimed most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies – offers a great all round visitor experience. For particular Laphroaig fans and members of the ‘Friends of Laphroaig Club’ (which can be joined for free online if you purchase a bottle) make sure to bring your membership number with you and you can visit your own little plot of land on the Laphroaig estate and plant your country’s flag to mark your visit!

    Lagavulin offers a more intimate experience and a cosy tasting lounge, while Ardbeg is the best option if you need some food to soak up some of the tastings – the Old Kiln Café offers plenty of Scottish classics on the menu and it has a great atmospheric setting in the former peat kiln of the distillery. All three have beautiful coastal settings.

    Skye

    Talisker Distillery can easily be visited on a self-drive tour around Scotland

    There are many reasons to make the trip over to Skye – the incredible scenery, especially the spectacular Cuillin Hills, being a particular draw. But the whisky produced here at the Talisker distillery -the only whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye- with its picture perfect setting on the shores of Loch Harport (complete with dramatic views of the Cuillins) is well worth making the trip for. It’s a rich smoky malt whisky which, in our view, is absolutely fantastic!

    The distillery has had a bit of a makeover recently but don’t let some of the modern branding put you off – the tour is informative and the new visitor centre is very well set up to guide you through the distilling process (and, of course, finishing with a dram!). The distillery is very popular and tours book up quickly so it is worth trying to book ahead if you’re tight on time (there’s a booking form on the Talisker website or you can call the visitor centre).

    As a general tip, if you go to Talisker and plan to visit some other whisky producers while in Scotland, it’s a good idea to join the ‘classic malts’ society at the end of your visit. It’s entirely free and will give you free entry into a number of other distilleries owned by the same group (including Dalwhinnie and Lagavulin).

    If you would like some help planning your whisky tasting tour around Scotland or would like us to create a tailor-made itinerary for your Scotland self-drive trip, please get in touch.

  • 28 September 2016

    Our Favourite Stately Homes

    Britain is famous for many things around the world – scones with clotted cream…red phone boxes…Big Ben…the Queen! But one of the things Britain is most well-known for has got to be our grand stately homes and gardens.

    See Blenheim Palace on a self drive UK tourWe are lucky in this country that so many fantastic properties have survived and the National Trust as well as many private estates do great work in protecting and showcasing Britain’s historic homes. Often the houses aren’t just a fantastic example of an architectural style or period extravagance, but also contain all manner of historic artefacts and tell a fascinating story of social history. They also invariably have incredibly impressive gardens to explore, as well as a cafe or two to stop for some tea and cake!

    There are many stately homes to visit throughout the country, varying from huge estates to more modest abodes with fascinating histories, but here are a couple of the most prestigious that you should consider making the effort to get to while in the country.

    Castle Howard

    Visit Castle Howard on a UK self drive tourSet in the rolling Howardian Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the edge of York, stunning Castle Howard is an eighteenth century stately home set in beautiful gardens and 1000 acres of grounds. The house itself is a masterpiece of well-known architect Sir John Vanburgh and is filled with fascinating collections of frescos, furniture and paintings. The extensive gardens and grounds offer everything from woodland walks and flower displays to lakes and fountains.

    Castle Howard is well-known as being the setting for Brideshead Revisited, the television version of the book by Evelyn Waugh first broadcast in the early 1980s. Castle Howard reprised its role as the Marchmain's family home in 2008 when it featured again in the more recent feature film. You can see how the filming impacted on the house as part of the current Brideshead Exhibition in the High Saloon rooms. Castle Howard also stood in for Kensington Palace in ITV’s current ‘Victoria’ series (and the real Queen Victoria stayed at Castle Howard in 1850).

    To get a good feel for the grounds, take a walk down past the famous Atlas Fountain for a lovely view back over the impressive façade of the house. Continue round the edge of gardens and lake to reach the Temple of the Four Winds at the eastern end of Temple Terrace, commanding stunning views across the hills. The temple was designed by Vanbrugh but remained unfinished at the time of his death and the interiors were finally decorated in 1738 by Vassalli. A good loop then takes you winding back though the woodland trails to the café on the edge of the lake (look out for the delicious estate sausage rolls!) before heading back up to the house.

    VView over Castle Howard taken on self drive UK tripisit before the end of October to see the castle’s glittering replica crown jewels, which are on display in celebration of the Queen at 90. The set, commissioned for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, includes the Sovereign’s Orb, the Coronation Ring and the Imperial State Crown as well as many of the smaller pieces. Working farmland makes up much of the Castle Howard Estate and you can try the local produce at the excellent farm shop at the entrance to the grounds.

    Getting there: Castle Howard is just 15 miles north east of York and easily accessible from the A64. Coming from the North off the A1, take the A61 to Thirsk then the A170 to Helmsley. Before Helmsley turn right onto the B1257 and follow the brown signs. From the South, take the A1M to Junction 44 and follow the A64 east to York. Continue past York and eventually you will pick up the brown signs for Castle Howard. For sat nav, use the postcode YO60 7DA. An adult ticket for the house and grounds costs £17.50.

    Blenheim Palace

    This UNESCO World heritage site is undoubtedly one of the country’s finest stately homes. The ‘Palace’ was built in the early 18th Century to honour the victories of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, in the War of the Spanish Succession. After decades of building works, this grand estate became the Churchills’ family home for centuries, and remains the only non-royal residence to be formally called a palace.

    Blenheim Place - explore the Cotswolds on a UK self-drive tripSir Winston Churchill was born here in 1874 (and there is a very interesting exhibition in the house about his life) and Blenheim Palace subsequently opened its doors to the public in 1950. You can now wander through many of the grand rooms of the palace, together with acres of formal gardens and about 2000 acres parkland to explore (which were beautifully landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the late 1760s).

    You can learn more about the Palace and its incredible collections by taking one of the regular guided tour of the State Rooms, or joining one of the palace’s new experiences, the 'Upstairs' and 'Downstairs' tours which explore private areas of the Palace otherwise closed to the public.

    As well as its more traditional history as a luxurious family home, the Palace was used as a convalescence hospital for wounded soldiers during WWI and, during World War II, it served as an evacuation spot for boys from Malvern College in Worcestershire. The palace was used as their school for a year, and it also served as a base of operations for the Home Guard and MI5.

    Whilst in the area, take the opportunity to visit Winston Churchill's grave at nearby Bladon or the traditional Cotswolds village of Woodstock, which sits just on the edge of the palace grounds. The pretty village is home to some good independent shops and cafes so make a good place to wander around either before or after a visit to Blenheim.

    Getting there: The Palace lies eight miles north-west of Oxford, on the A44 Evesham Road. The Palace is signposted from junction nine of the M40. For sat nav, use the postcode OX20 1PP. Adult tickets for the palace, park & gardens costs £24.90 and can be converted into an annual pass free of charge.

  • 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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