Alternative summer holiday breaks

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Why get deep-vein thrombosis in long haul when a holiday in Blighty has so much to offer? Whether you fancy flinging yourself down a hill in a perspex ball, betting on a sheep race or hiding in a nuclear bunker, here are some of the quirkiest breaks available on our great island

  • Alternative summer holiday breaks

    West Cliff, Whitby © Mike Pinches

  • Visit an island without cars

    Sark Island, Channel IslandsOK, so there are vehicles on Sark. But don’t try hitching a lift on the couple of tractors that slowly trundle around this minuscule outpost of the Channel Islands. A bicycle is by far the easiest way to get around the three square miles of this idyllic island. Narrow unpaved lanes wind around an environment that appears to have come straight out of a chapter of ‘Cider with Rosie’. Cows and sheep graze in fields free of fences and gates, small tables with eggs for sale outside farmhouses rely on honesty jars, the darkness at night is truly startling for a Londoner – you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Make time for a trip to La Salonnerie (01481 832061/www.lasablonnerie.com) where the owner, Elizabeth Perree, serves up exquisite alfresco meals of freshly caught lobster, sloe gins, Pimm’s and home-made chocolates. If you’re lucky she’ll even take you for a walk around her farm and the remains of the old silver mines,You can reach Guernsey by flying from Gatwick and Stanstead. For details of the connecting ferry from Guernsey to Sark visit www.sark.info.

    Find the secret beer pump at Britain’s most eccentric hotel

    Thirsk, North YorkshireThe sturdy and unassuming Georgian exterior of the ‘Crab Manor’ near Thirsk in North Yorkshire gives no indication as to what madness lies within. This is possibly the world’s first ‘greatest hits’ of luxury accommodation. Each of the 12 rooms is modelled on an internationally famous hotel. So take your pick from the ‘Raffles Singapore’ room with built-in sauna and hot tub, the Bora Bora suite with its Polynesian ceiling drapes and even the Manhattan chic of the ‘Waldorf Astoria’ room. Prices depend on which part of the world you intend to go to but they all include the slightly more prosaic but utterly robust Yorkshire breakfast. The eccentricities don’t stop there, though – be sure to look for the hotel’s secret beer pump. If you can find it, you can help yourself to ale throughout your stay. Want a clue? OK, when you’re in the main hallway be sure to make a close examination of the walls. That’s all the hints you’re getting. The nearest station is Thirsk which can be reached by train from London King’s Cross, change at York. Visit www.crabandlobster.co.uk for details.

    Discover the Shropshire home of the first modern Olympic games

    Much Wenlock, ShropshireThose who think that the first modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896 are sadly mistaken. Victorian philanthropist William Penny Brookes worked as a GP and magistrate in the medieval village of Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Perturbed at the amount of petty criminals he was having to sentence, he campaigned tirelessly for the resurrection of the Olympic Games of ancient Greece to ‘promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement’. In 1850 he organised the very first ‘Olympian Games’ in the village, which, while including the obvious sports of football and cricket, also featured events like a wheelbarrow race and the memorable ‘Old Woman’s Race for a Pound of Tea’. The games continue to be held every July. If you can’t make the actual Olympic weekend then there is an Olympian Trail you can go on which takes you around all the spots in the town which tell the full story of Brookes and his little-documented revival of the Olympics.The nearest station is Telford Central (seven miles away) which can be reached by train from London Euston, change at Birmingham New Street. Go to www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk for details of the next games. The village’s seventeenth-century coaching house The Gaskell Arms (www.gaskellarms.co.uk) offers doubles from £85.

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    Sheep racing in Shropshire

    Catch a sheep steeplechase

    Hoo Farm, ShropshireHoo Farm, Shropshire, is the best place to see the sheep-racing mini-craze taking place on the larger farms of the UK. The woolly racers run and jump at remarkable speed over a number of hurdles including the notorious Fleeces Brook. Farmer Edward Dorrell started racing them as an entertaining alternative to having them slaughtered and there are events held through the summer.
    The nearest station is Telford Central (seven miles away) which can be reached from London Euston, change at Birmingham (www.hoofarm.com).

    Be flushed with excitement on York’s Historic Toilet Tour

    YorkThe York Historic Toilet Tour takes in Roman, eighteenth-century and Victorian conveniences in a three-hour bog bonanza where you’ll discover a worrying amount about the Roman habit of using sponges soaked in vinegar and placed on sticks to wipe their bottoms. Other delights include a ‘gaderobe’ used by Henry VIII , and the Coppergate Turd, a fossilised Viking poo.
    York can be reached by train from London King’s Cross. Visit www.yorkwalk.co.uk for more details.

    Relive the Cold War

    ChesterWander through the enormous blast doors in this quiet bit of Cheshire countryside and you’re inside a warren of corridors, dormitories and antiquated equipment that make up one of Britain’s biggest Cold War bunkers. This time-warp comes complete with radio studio, decontamination facilities, telephone exchange and, impressively, a 400-kiloton nuclear weapon. Walking around the 35,000-square-feet of what would, in the event of armageddon, have been a regional government HQ, is a sobering experience, illustrating how recently we feared for total obliteration at the hands of the Soviets.
    Chester can be reached by train from London Euston. Visit www.hackgreen.co.uk for details.

    Sample Britain’s best pie

    Lochinver Larder, InvernessYou have to show a deep commitment to the pie if you want to visit the home of the best specimens in Britain but pastry partisans will be in pie paradise in the Lochinver Larder. The shop, and tiny adjoining café, are located on the far north coast of the western Highlands with staggering views of the nearby Suliven mountain, a sheer-sided 2,500-foot-high slab of rock. The pies aren’t cheap (around £3.75) but come in a variety of gourmet flavours including haggis, neaps and tatties, wild boar with port, or smoked haddock. If it weren’t for the large pic of a pie-munching Michael Winner this would be total gluttony nirvana.The nearest station is Inverness (98 miles away!) which can be reached from London Euston. Alternatively, fly to Inverness from Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton then hire a car. Order a pie without the trek by going to www.piesbypost.co.uk.

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    Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (image © Olivia Rutherford)

    Find Europe’s finest art – in Glasgow

    It’s impossible to overestimate how much the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has given Glaswegian life over the last century. The elaborate red sandstone edifice opened in 1901, and came to house one of Europe’s most important civic art collections spanning Scottish colourists (Fergusson, Peploe), Dutch masters (Rembrandt), Italian renaissance painters (Boticelli), the impressionists (Monet, Degas) and more. On the Museum side, it’s also got a superb armoury and a ruddy great Spitfire hanging from the ceiling. While you’re in town, it’s also well worth checking out the Burrell Collection in Pollok Country Park, and the Gallery of Modern Art (see www.glasgowmuseums.com for details of both). Glasgow can be reached by train from London Euston or King’s Cross. Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Argyle St (0141 287 2699/www.glasgowmuseums.com). Open Mon-Thur, Sat 10am-5pm ; Fri, Sun 11am-5pm . Adm free.

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    The Scilly Isles (© Simon Coppock)

    Catch a game of football in the world’s smallest league

    Scilly IslesEvery game is a must-win derby on the Scilly Isles. With a league consisting of just two teams, local pride is at stake and tensions run (reasonably) high before every single match. The Garrison Gunners and the Woolpack Wanderers meet 13 times a year in the league and twice in the cup. There are no home and away fixtures as such; they share the island’s one decent pitch. One of the Gunners’ players is 65 years old which may go some way to explaining why the Wanderers recently won 7-1. Still, there’s at least a dozen chances for the Gunners to get revenge before the season’s out. Occasionally there are ‘internationals’, when a team from Truro over on the mainland hop across to take on the combined Scilly XI. Fixtures take place on most Saturdays until the end of May. Travel to the Scilly Isles from Penzance by ferry or helicopter. Penzance can be reached by train from London Paddington. For accommodation options go to www.simplyscilly.co.uk.

    Feel all symmetrical in Dunsop Bridge

    Dunsop Bridge is at the absolute dead centre of Great Britain. It has a rival in the village of Haltwhistle a few miles away which crows about it in every shop window, but a recent BBC test with GPS made this quiet village in Lancashire Britain’s official bullseye. Though you’d never know it. The only monument is a plaque by the UK’s 100,000th public payphone – opened by Ranulph Fiennes. It’s a lovely village, though, with access all around to the Forest of Bowland and some great walks including the one that the legendary Pendle witches were taken on in 1612 for trials at nearby Lancaster Castle. It’s also got the royal stamp of approval – the Queen has visited twice, once in the ’80s and more recently in the summer of 2006. As far as we can tell, she declined to use the famous payphone. The nearest station to Dunsop Bridge is Clitheroe (seven miles) which can be reached by train from London Euston, change at Manchester or Preston. Stay in the nearby village of Whitewell at a coaching inn dating back to the 1300s (www.innatwhitewell.com), with double rooms starting at £96 per night.

    Break Britain’s most deadly by-law

    ChesterAn archaic by-law states that you are within your rights to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow after midnight if they are found within the Roman walls of Chester. Bring your own bow and arrow and be warned that the law was altered in 1975 so that if you do happen to strike your target, you’ll have no defence whatsoever against the charge of murder. Chester can be reached by train from London Euston. Chester’s Roman Walls are free to all visitors to walk around. For information on guided tours go to www.visitchester.com

    See Mad Jack’s pyramid

    Brightling, East SussexJack Fuller was your classic Victorian eccentric who these days would almost certainly be a dotcom bankrupt investing in space tourism. With oodles more money than sense he spent most of his life building a huge pyramid in Brightling, East Sussex where, village lore has it, his 22-stone body is entombed along with a bottle of port and a roast chicken. The nearest station is Hastings (ten miles) which can be reached by train from London Victoria. The only accommodation option in the village itself is self-catering at the Great Worge Farm Barn (01580 720770).

    Duck down to visit Britain’s smallest house

    Conwy, WalesAt only 10' by 6', this cottage on the quayside of the north Wales town of Conwy was, inevitably, last lived in by a 6'3" fisherman called Robert Jones who paid a shilling a week. It’ll only cost you 50p now to take a glance at this most unusual red-brick dwelling which is also reputed to be haunted by some clearly un-claustrophobic ghosts.Conwy can be reached from London Euston, change at Llandudno Junction. For info visit www.conwy.com For local accomodation, see www.snowdoniaholidays.co.uk

    Run for your life from flaming tar barrels

    Ottery St Mary, DevonIt’s believed by some that in centuries past the menfolk of Devon village Ottery St Mary ran around the lanes with burning tar barrels in order to dispel a plague. Nobody knows how accurate the story is but regardless, every year local men from every pub charge down the streets carrying enormous tar barrels which shoot up six-foot-high flames. Ottery St Mary can be reached by train from London Paddington, change at Exeter. The night of the burning tar barrels normally takes place in November. For full details go to www.otterytourism.org.uk which also gives details of accommodation options in the village.

    Be lead to the world’s biggest pencil

    Keswick, CumberlandThe Cumberland Pencil Museum is, to be blunt, possibly not the biggest draw in the ancient market town of Keswick. But if the rains prevent you walking in the fells of the Lake District then there is always the option of checking out the world’s largest coloured pencil at a whopping 25 feet in length. It weighs nearly 500kg.The nearest station is Penrith (18 miles), which can be reached by train from London Euston. Find out more at www.pencilmuseum.co.uk Open daily 9:30 to 5pm. Adm £3 adult, £1.50 children.

    Gurn in Cumbria

    This peculiar event takes place every September in Cumbria at the equally offbeat Egremont Crab Fair. Competitors have to pull grotesque expressions with their head stuck through a horse collar or ‘braffin’. The fair itself has been taking place since 1267 and if the gurning gets too much for you, we strongly recommend the other main event where local folk attempt to shimmy up a 30-foot pole greased with lard in order to collect a leg of lamb at the top. Honestly, we’re not making this up.The nearest station to Egremont is Nethertown (three miles) which can be reached by train from London Euston, change at Carlisle. The Egremont Crab Fair takes place in September (www.egremontcrabfair.org.uk). For accommodation options see www.golakes.co.uk

    Go to an old-school music festival

    Wadebridge, CornwallAlthough this year’s Cornish Folk Festival has been cancelled, its replacement, the Wadebridge Folk Weekend, promises to continue its 35-year tradition, and showcase the best in both contemporary and traditional folk music and dance. It's happening in the town of Wadebridge, inland from Padstow, over the August bank holiday weekend. If the crowds get too much for you, hire a bike and explore the disused railway track that takes you from Padstow to the Camel Valley. The nearest station is Bodmin Parkway (six miles) which can be reached from London Paddington. Visit www.folkweekend.co.uk, & www.padstowcyclehire.com for more details.

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    Zorbing

    Zorbing in Dorset


    Basically this involves being strapped inside an three-metre inflatable sphere and pushed 200m down a Dorset hill. The latest twist is ‘hydro-Zorbing’, where a bucket of water is chucked into the sphere with you. The nearest mainline is Dorchester (two miles) which can be reached by train from London Waterloo. Zorb South UK, Pine Lodge Farm, Bockhampton, Dorset (07092 121270/ www.zorbsouth.co.uk) From £30.

    Ice climbing in Lochaber

    The world’s biggest indoor ice walls can be found in Lochaber. Beginners are welcome for instruction on the techniques and kit that you’ll need to scale a sheer – and slippery – surface. The nearest mainline station is Fort William (20 miles) which can be reached by train from London Euston. The Ice Factor, Leven Rd, Kinlochleven, Lochaber (01855 831100/ www.ice-factor.co.uk) From £45.

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    Wakeboarding

    Wakeboarding in Wales

    The much cooler cousin of water-skiing, this involves being dragged on a board behind a boat. The OFFAXIS Shop in Wales offer lessons for beginners, including hire of the board, wetsuit, and all-important life jacket. Or watch the pros hit those massive sliders and catch some big air at Wakestock festival (July 20-21, www.wakestock.co.uk). The nearest station is Pwllheli (12 miles) which can be reached by train from London Euston, change at Birmingham and Machynlleth. OFFAXIS Academy, Glanafon Garage, Abersoch, Gwynedd (01758 713 407/www.offaxis.co.uk) From £30.

    Extreme paintball

    Paintball itself is old hat, but the version pratised at Southfields Farm in Leicestershire involves heavy weapons, full-scale tanks, and D-Day style landing craft. Leicester can be reached by train from London St Pancras. Chaos Paintball, Southfields Farm, Husbands Bosworth, Leicester (07711 629989/ www.chaospaintball.co.uk) Prices vary.

    Bugging

    This activity originated in New Zealand. A River Bug is a tough, inflatable chair that you use to ride down a river. Apparently, after a few lessons you’ll be able to bump over rapids, catch eddies, surf waves, and pirouette in the water. It’s all perfectly safe, but we’d certainly expect a few bruises. Pitlochry can be reached by train from London King’s Cross. Nae Limits, Ballinluig Nr Pitlochry, Perthshire (www.naelimits.co.uk/ 08450 178177) £55 for half a day.

    Aerobatic flying

    Fulfil your ‘Top Gun’ fantasies (and we’re not talking about the volley-ball scene). At locations all over the country, you can get behind the wheel of a CAP10 or Pitts Special plane and make yourself sick with a series of loops, rolls and stall turns. £199 for a 25-minute flight through www.redletterdays.co.uk.

    Whitewater kayaking in Wales

    Those who are confident paddling on flat water can take it to the next level and learn to tackle tougher and splashier routes up in North Wales. National Whitewater Centre, Frongoch, Bala Gwynedd (01678 521083/www.ukrafting.co.uk) £105 for two-day course. The nearest station is Chester (35 miles) which can be reached by train from London Euston.

    Accelerated free fall

    Forget tandem jumps: it might be more expensive but learning to parachute solo is an addictive experience. An Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) Level 1 course will get you to the stage where you’re jumping out yourself in just two days. Attleborough can be reached by train from London Liverpool St, change at Norwich. UK Parachuting, Old Buckenham Airfield, Attleborough (01953 861030/www.ukparachuting.co.uk) From £270 for a two-day course.

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    Challenge racing

    Challenge racing

    At the Run What Ya Brung (RWYA) events at Santa Pod raceway in Northamptonshire you can take any car you like along and race it over the quarter-mile drag strip – be it in a souped up Subaru or your mum’s Ford Fiesta (though best ask her first). Wellingborough can be reached by tain from London St Pancras. Santa Pod Raceway, Airfield Rd, Wellingborough (01234 782828/www.rwyb.co.uk) £30 for admission and sign on.

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    Blakeney seals

    Seal spot at Blakeney Point

    Bean’s Boats and Temple’s Seal Trips run trips from Morston Quay on the north Norfolk coast to this seal and seabird haven. The colony is made up of 500 common and grey seals, so you’re guaranteed to see them, basking on the sandbanks.The nearest station is Sheringham (ten miles) which can be reached by train from London Liverpool St, change at Norwich. Bean’s Boats (01263 740505/www.beansboattrips.co.uk); Temples Seal Trips (01263 740 791/www.sealtrips.co.uk).

    Watch pilot gig racing

    Scilly IslesA pilot gig is 32 feet of rowing boat, crewed by six oarsmen and a cox. The racing of these craft is the main sport on the Isles of Scilly, with competitions taking place on Wednesday (women) and Friday (men) evenings in summer, from Samson island to the quay at Hugh Town on St Mary’s. Travel to the Scilly Isles from Penzance by ferry or helicopter. Penzance can be reached by train from London Paddington. See www.simplyscilly.co.uk

    Buy Burford antiques

    Burford High Street is a treasure trove of antiques shops. Here you’ll find English and continental furniture at Jonathan Fryson (Nos 50-52; 01993 823 204) and David Pickup (No 115; 01993 822 555). Antiques at the George (No 104; 01993 823 319) offers two floors of glass-cased goodies for browsing, and don’t miss Bygones (No 29; 01993 823 588), a tiny shop where retro kitchenware is arrayed alongside more antiquarian pieces. For ambitious home makeovers, visit the Cotswold Reclamation Company in nearby Little Rissington (01451 820292/ www.cotswoldreclamation.com). The nearest station is Oxford (18 miles) which can be reached by train from London Paddington. For more info visit www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org

    Go retro caravanning

    Isle of WightSited on a working farm, Vintage Vacations offers the chance to stay in a vintage Airstream caravan. These design classics boast authentic, lovingly restored fixtures, beefed up with mod cons such as CD players, toasters and air con.Travel to the Isle of Wight from Portsmouth by ferry. Portsmouth can be reached by train from London Waterloo. Four-berth trailer from £160 for a weekend (07802 758 113/www.vintagevacations.co.uk).

    Fly kites in Brighton

    A day trip to this eccentric city on the coast is a must at some point over summer. On July 7-8 the Kite Festival takes off in Stanmer Park. Pros will demonstrate the entire spectrum of kite flying – from the basic triangle on a rope up to huge inflatables – and there’s also a workshop for kids, where they can make their own for free. Brighton can be reached by train from London Victoria or London Bridge. See www.brightonkitefestival.co.uk

    Get leeched in Leeds

    The Thackray Museum showcases the worst excesses of ‘treatment’ from the Victorian ages where leeches and scalpels were seemingly wielded with impunity by the medical establishment. Particularly check out the ‘Pain, Pus and Blood’ section. Hideously fascinating. Leeds can be reached by train from London King’s Cross. Museum open daily 10am to 5pm (www.thackraymuseum.org) Adm £5.50.

    Run on a prison treadmill

    Beaumaris Victorian PrisonComing complete with gibbet still attached to the wall, Beaumaris Victorian Prison (dating back to 1829) offers the chance to experience the iniquity and horror of nineteenth-century prison life. As well as the treadmill you can experience the complete pitch darkness of the Punishment Cell and handle the chains and fetters used to lead condemned men to their death.The nearest station is Bangor (seven miles) which can be reached from London Euston. Phone 01248 810921 for more details. Adm £3.50.

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    Southport's unique Lawnmower Mus

    Be mown away

    Southport Lawnmower MuseumThe collection belonging to husband-and-wife team Brian and Sue Radam at the Southport Lawnmower Museum contains more than 150 vintage and ‘celebrity-owned’ grass cutters including machines once in the possession of Prince Charles, Brian May, Nicholas Parsons and Hilda Ogden from ‘Coronation Street’. There are early prototypes (including horse-drawn models and specialist graveyard cutters) as well as cutting edge technology (the world’s first solar-powered robot mower, and one that you can boil an egg in). Southport can be reached by train from London Euston, change at Liverpool. Museum open Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm (www.lawnmowerworld.co.uk) Adm £2 .

    Stay in a roundhouse

    Winterton-on-Sea, NorfolkThe Hermanus is a small, family-run hamlet of unique holiday homes in the ancient fishing village of Winterton-on-Sea (just north of Great Yarmouth). Accommodation comes in the form of thatched Norfolk roundhouses, all with sea views. As well as the village you’ve also got a beautiful landscape of dunes, and one of the first wind farms ever to be built in the UK. The nearest station is Great Yarmouth (eight miles) which can be reached from London Liverpool St, change at Norwich. Visit
    www.hermanusholidays.com for more info.

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