Faced with rush hours, bus strikes, smelly streets, noisy intersections, high prices, cramped spaces and the creeping social isolation of the suburbs, even the most committed latte-toting urbanite will feel, from time to time, the need to escape the city. Call it a primal Romantic urge, but at such times nothing will bring relief and good cheer like a sojourn in a remote dale or among snow-capped peaks. We sympathise. Which is why we’ve prepared this handy guide to our six top country escapes, from the quintessential rolling landscapes of the South Cotswolds to the less familiar charms of the Forest of Bowland. So awaken your inner Coleridge and get down to the countryside.
Forest of Bowland
Even within northern England the Forest of Bowland is little known. Thousands drive by this officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty every day on the M6 motorway that marks its western edge, noticing, if anything, only its most distinctive landmark, the barrow-like Pendle Hill, as they zoom past to the Lake District to the north or the Yorkshire Dales to the east. With no famous mountains or romanticised lakes, nor any tourist attractions as such, Bowland is overshadowed by its more cherished neighbours. Yet visitors who are interested in more than ticking off sights and summits find rich pleasures here, all the more satisfying for their lack of tourist traffic.
The Forest of Bowland is not a forest: the name arises from Bowland’s medieval role as a royal hunting ground (the Queen is still said to be fond). It’s dominated by its wild uplands, grouse moor and huge hump-backed fells covered with heather. The rivers that rise in their boggy tops cut valleys, steep and tree-lined at first and then meandering into generous flood plains. The drystone walls of hill farms reach geometrically towards the summits. There are probably more sheep here than people.
To the south, the Forest is bisected by the pretty Ribble Valley, home of picturesque Clitheroe with its Norman keep. With an affluent population and the livestock, game and other produce of Bowland on its doorstep, the area has been a pioneer in local food sourcing and is home to a happily disproportionate number of excellent restaurants and pubs.
When to go
You’re here to enjoy the outdoors, so weather is part of the package. The fells have their own microclimate: it can be sunny here when raining in Clitheroe. Pubs and restaurants are reliably cosy in winter, with real fires.
A car is useful – and the area is convenient for the M6 and M65 – but not essential. Train travellers are best arriving at Clitheroe, to which there is a regular train service from Manchester via Blackburn and from where there are good local bus services. The B10 and B11 ply a circuit that takes in Whitewell and Slaidburn. You can also get the train to Preston, Lancaster or Blackburn to access the Forest of Bowland, but the connections aren’t as good.
Bowland Visitor Centre (01995 640 557). Open 10.30am-4.30pm daily.
Marlow, Henley & Cookham
‘Hooray for Henley’ goes up the cry. Surely one of the last places in England where boaters can still be worn with pride, Henley not only has the hat, but it still has the boats.
The middle reaches of the Thames to the west of London, for many centuries the most important thoroughfare in southern England, have long had royal associations. Henley is close to Windsor, where William the Conqueror established a castle, and Eton, where Henry IV founded a school, so it comes as no surprise that its regatta is a royal affair. ‘Sweet Thames, run softly’ could well be the motto of these three charming bridge towns, because for at least the last 150 years they’ve been dedicated to seriously affluent riverside leisure.
Cliveden House represents the apotheosis of that fashion, with its pleasure gardens overlooking the adorable old village of Cookham, immortalised in the paintings of Sir Stanley Spencer. And Marlow remains a handsome old riverside town with strong literary associations, one of the most splendid bridges above London, and a brace of interesting churches. These river banks also boast the finest dining outside the capital, with a clutch of Michelin-starred establishments, old and new, in the pretty village of Bray, and various others within easy reach around the countryside.
As well as the sense of bucolic affluence, the fine food and Thames-side walks, visitors also come to enjoy the nearby countryside. The chalky Chiltern hills, with their hanging beech woods, red kites and profusion of wildflowers, provide some of the most inspiring rambles within an hour of London.
When to go
April to October are undoubtedly the most rewarding months in this part of the country, so all the interesting houses are open, the beech woods are in full leaf or turning golden brown, and the riverside towns are at their jolliest. Henley’s Literary Festival (Sep-Oct) sees a further boost to numbers. Not surprisingly, though, these are also the region’s busiest months, meaning that places at those gourmet tables are even harder to book and the roads considerably more jammed up.
Getting there and around
Cookham Rise, Marlow and Henley all have train stations, as befits their top commuterland status, and are quickly and easily reached from London. Both the M4 and the M40, the latter usually marginally less congested, make beelines past the area, connected by the hectic A404, a kind of mini M25.
The Chilterns are really best explored on foot or bike, though a car is undeniably the most convenient way of getting around. The Thames Path follows the river bank through the region, which is also crossed by the Oxfordshire Way long-distance footpath, and north of Henley, the ancient track of the Ridgeway. Boats can be hired in Marlow’s Higginson Park and also in Henley, but not in Cookham.
Henley Visitor Information Centre (01491 578 034). Open Mon-Sat 9am-4pm.
Under ever-changing Derbyshire skies, the jutting crags and river-cut valleys of the Peak District are as dramatic as the literature they have inspired. Jane Austen had Elizabeth Bennet coquetting her way through its sunlit estates, while Mr Darcy proved as solemn and brooding as its low, blackening clouds. The endless moors, hidden villages and characteristic gritstone houses made a suitably rural Gothic setting for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
This was Britain’s first national park, created in 1951 after decades of campaigning by ramblers. The hills in the south, as gentle as a ruffled duvet, contrast with the saw-tooth summits of the northern Peak District. Autumn and winter, when the low sun shines its golden light across the frosty farmland, are perhaps the most spectacular seasons to walk the deserted footpaths. Enticing country pubs, many originally coaching inns dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, offer welcome respite from the crisp chill, providing well-kept local ales to be supped by the fireside.
During spring and summer, the Peak District bristles with festivals and events, celebrating anything from its wonderful food to its ancient heritage. Among the best-known of these are well dressings, where village wells are decorated with collages of flowers and locals follow a route between them. Today the ceremony is Christian, with hymn singing, but its roots are pagan.
When to go
Weather in the Peak District is notoriously variable at any time of year, but even during the bleaker moments, the snug country pubs provide a precious space to keep warm and meet the locals. When the sun shines the countryside is simply gorgeous. In late summer, the heather flowers on the moorland to stunning effect. Meteorological conditions can turn at any time, and the oft-repeated mantra for walkers and cyclists is ‘never predict the weather’.
Getting there and around
The area lies between the major urban areas of Manchester, Sheffield, Chesterfield and Derby. The first two cities are the most convenient for High Peak and the Hope Valley. Derby and Chesterfield are better for accessing the White Peak. The M1 is the best route from London. Trains regularly leave London to all the hub destinations. East Midlands Trains connect London and Sheffield.
A car is the best method for travelling across this area. However, public transport is certainly feasible if you’re flexible. Trains connect destinations (www.northernrail.org), and all attractions mentioned in this chapter are served by regular buses, including Chatsworth and Haddon Hall. Head to the Derbyshire County Council website for timetables. Bakewell is the main hub for travel to most destinations.
The official tourist website, full of information, is www.visitpeakdistrict.com. There is also information on topics such as well dressing at www.derbyshireuk.net. Bakewell Visitor Centre (01629 816 558). Summer: daily 9.30am-5pm; winter: daily 10.30am-4.30pm. Buxton Tourist Information Centre (01298 25 106). Daily 9am-5pm. Castleton Visitor Centre (01629 816 572). Opening hours vary – see website.
In the the towns, villages and hamlets concealing themselves in the folds of the Shropshire Hills it’s easy to recall an England pre-internet, pre-English, pre-everything.
Today visitors to Shropshire come searching for a glimpse of a lost golden age, the ancient topography sealed in the rolling syllables of semi-mythical place names. As you walk the ridge of the Long Mynd, seeing the devil take his chair on the Stiperstones as clouds descend, or hiking up Wenlock Edge, Caer Caradoc and the Wrekin, it’s impossible not to feel the deep pull of the past.
But this patchwork of fields, wood, hills and streams is definitive rural England too: sedate and spectacular at the same time. The silent landscape can seem ironic when you remember that this is border country, its many ruined castles giving testament to the raiders, marauders and armies that passed back and forth across the Marches of England and Wales for centuries. But wars end: the noise and the gore have long gone; the land remains the same.
When to go
Some attractions close during the winter, but the hills are wild and empty then. Of course, in Britain it’s a mistake to rely on the weather at any time of the year, particularly up on the hills.
Getting there and around
A train service, run by Arriva Trains Wales, stops at Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow. The Shropshire Hills shuttle bus runs at weekends in summer (01588 674 080), connecting Craven Arms, Clun and Bishop’s Castle to the Stiperstones, the Long Mynd and Church Stretton. The Shropshire Hills is wonderful cycling country: try Wheely Wonderful Cycling (Petchfield Farm, Elton, Ludlow, 01568 770 755) for bike hire or cycling holidays. Alternatively, explore on horseback (www.shropshireriding.co.uk).
Church Stretton Visitor Information Centre (01694 723 133). Summer: daily 9.30am-5pm; winter: daily 9.30am-12.30pm, 1-3pm. Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre (01952 433 424). Mon-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat-Sun 10am-5pm. Much Wenlock Visitor Information Centre (01952 727679). Tue-Sun 10.30am-1pm, 1.30-4pm.
It may be archetypal English countryside, but the Cotswolds isn’t just any English countryside. Just a couple of hours’ journey from London, the area has long been synonymous with wealth, sophistication and celebrity – as well as bucolic landscapes and quaint cottages. The good news is that while stars and second-homers may have ushered in a slice of metropolitan living, they haven’t killed off the Cotswolds’ distinct brand of rural charm.
The Cotswolds sit between four historic towns – Bath, Stratford on Avon, Oxford and Cheltenham – and it is in the southern tract that you’ll find the prettiest and most tranquil spots: an imagined England of empty and rolling landscapes that beg to be walked on (there are over 3,000 miles of public footpaths), villages made from the local honey-coloured stone, winding leafy lanes, medieval churches and imposing stately homes. It was the wool trade that enabled many of them to be built. Cotswold wool first gained its reputation for superior quality in Roman times, and the trade reached its peak in the Middle Ages, sowing the seed for the region’s long-term prosperity.
While it costs nothing to wander over hill and dale by foot or bike, if your pockets are deep, you’ll find plenty of pleasant ways to empty them. Nearly every village seems to have its own great pub serving well-kept real ale and posh food. Many also boast traditional tearooms, gift and antique shops, restaurants and places to stay, from chintzy B&Bs to designer hotels. The Cotswolds have also garnered a gastronomic reputation; there’s keen interest in locally produced, traditional and organic food here. Small producers have seen demand soar: orchard apple juice, locally smoked trout, organic vegetables and meat, and rural cheeses fill the farmers’ markets and delis, and feature on restaurant menus.
When to go
Spring is ideal for walking, especially when the wild flowers and hedgerows come into bloom. Autumn sees swathes of golden colour and gorgeous fresh local produce. Winter’s the time for roaring open fires and a pint of real ale in a country pub after a frosty tramp. Summer can get hectic, but all main sites are reliably open, and there are those inviting pub gardens to enjoy.
The southern Cotswolds are served by trains going into Oxford, Cheltenham, Kemble and Stroud. Various bus services run from these towns into the area. You can find timetables and more information at www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.
Burford Visitor Information Office (01993 823 558). Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 10am-4pm. Woodstock Tourist Information Centre (01993 813 276). Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9.30am-5pm.
Yorkshire is blessed with an unfair share of England’s best high ground – it has the North York Moors, the Wolds, the Hovingham Hills, the millstone belt of the Pennines – but the 680 square miles of the Yorkshire Dales National Park accounts for most people’s idea of Yorkshire’s defining landscape.
From the high peaks and moorland wildernesses to the rivers that tumble down ice age valleys then meander through gentle meadows and unspoiled villages, the beauty appears timeless. Even the dominant man-made features are centuries old – the 5,000 miles of drystone walls and the countless stone field barns.
The palette of limestone grey and pasture green is easy on the eye but there is infinite variety to be found in the detail, in rare wildlife like the red squirrel and black grouse, in the wild flower meadows and the ferns in the fissures or grikes of the limestone pavements, in surprise waterfalls and monstrous boulders.
Exploration is essential. You can horse-ride on Roman roads or mountain bike on medieval green lanes; you can paddle down England’s fastest flowing river, pothole its biggest cave system, or free-climb its toughest rock routes; you can ride over the monumental viaducts of the Settle-Carlisle Railway; you can even float over it all in a hot air balloon. But the sanest way to absorb the Dales is still at walking pace.
Even in the most popular villages a short climb will free the walker from the madding crowd. Keep climbing. The views get better and better, the sky gets bigger, and the world left behind becomes miniature.
When to go
Any time of year is a good time to visit the Dales as they are beautiful all-year-round. Summer is the busiest time to visit but also gives you the opportunity to attend a village agricultural show or one of the many arts festivals. June to mid-July is the prime time for viewing the wildflower hay meadows in flower. Grassington’s Dickensian Festival runs for three Saturdays before Christmas.
Public transport times and routes are limited in the Dales. Dales Bus puts on additional services in the summer. The wonderful Settle–Carlisle railway is well worth taking, just for the journey. Combine it with bikes, taxis and car. The most practical way to reach the Dales is by car via the Dales ‘gateways’: Ilkley to explore the southern dales, and Richmond for Swaledale and the northern dales. Useful websites are www.traveldales.org.uk and www.yorkshiretravel.net.
The best way to enjoy the Dales is to be out among the hills and dales either on foot, by bike or on horseback, using some of the 500 miles of bridleways and green lanes. There are numerous guides and maps available from the National Park information centres. Walks can also be downloaded from the National Park website www.yorkshiredales.org.uk. They also provide information for wheelchair users and less mobile visitors, including barrier-free trails and viewpoints.
There are five Yorkshire Dales National Park Information Centres: at Aysgarth Falls (01969 662 910), Grassington (01756 751 690), Hawes (01969 666 210), Malham (01729 833 200) and Reeth (01748 884 059). Opening times vary; for more information, see the Yorkshire Dales National Park website. The following organisations also have useful information on their websites: Welcome to Yorkshire, Out of Oblivion, The Dales Way.