Winter breaks in the UK

Be invigorated and revived by wonderful wintry Britain

Winter breaks in the UK The craggy hills around Ambleside, Cumbria - © Kathryn Miller
By Kathryn Miller

Put your precious winter days off to good use and, instead of staring at the telly, get out and explore our misty and magical frost-coated landscape.

Cumbria

Conditions – Wet

‘The rain came heavily and fell in floods/But now the sun is rising calm and bright,’ wrote Wordsworth. Cumbria is officially the UK’s wettest place – a record 6,528mm of rain fell at Sprinkling Tarn between January and December in 1958 – but what would the Lake District be without water? Locals fear the impact of recent flooding on tourism could equal that following the 2000-2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak and are keen to stress that the Cockermouth floods were geographically isolated and the county is still open for business. It doesn’t rain all the time – though spend a day walking and you’ll never be far from the sound of water, be it a waterfall or trickling stream – just remember your waterproofs and a decent pair of boots.

Ambleside is one of the prettiest villages in the Lake District, with stone cottages, winding lanes and rushing rivers. Winter attracts fewer visitors, meaning more space on the hills and in the pubs. It’s straightforward to get to and explore without a car from London, though if you take local buses, plan in advance, as some services – particularly on Sundays – only
run sporadically.

Get your bearings on a classic walk: Loughrigg Terrace is an easy signposted ascent from the centre of Ambleside. If you’ve more time, try the three-hour circular route that encompasses a steep climb up Wansfell (stunning views of Lake Windermere and surrounding peaks) and a gentle descent via the sleepy village of Troutbeck. Or take the low-level ‘coffin route’ to the village of Grasmere and refuel in one of the numerous tearooms.

Where to eat and stay

The Waterwheel

015394 33286, www.waterwheelambleside.co.uk.
This small B&B on an ancient cobbled lane in the heart of Ambleside, is a homely base from which to explore Cumbria. Until the 1950s, this three-storey building was a seven-bed boarding house with one bathroom, run by a ‘foul-mouthed Irish matriarch’. It’s a different set-up now: each of the three classically decorated en-suite bedrooms has a Victorian-style iron bed, plush bedlinen and a TV; thoughtful touches include a decanter of port, bottled water, organic toiletries, books and magazines. The Cumberland breakfast is a hearty mix of sausages and thick-cut bacon from local butcher Freddie, with beans, tomatoes, mushrooms etc, and chunky toast spread with homemade strawberry jam. Doubles from £85 for two including breakfast.

Lucy’s on a Plate

015394 32288, www.lucysofambleside.co.uk.
This restaurant is a favourite with locals and visitors. Food is sourced locally where possible, many dishes are gluten-free and vegetarians are well catered for. The menu might include a starter of Cornish sea bass with shrimp risotto, a mouthwateringly tender Lakeland lamb rump marinated in rosemary and garlic or duck breast with juniper berry sauce. Save room for dessert: there’s a staggering 38 to choose from, including sticky ginger sponge and that home comfort staple bread and butter pud. Though the three rooms are usually filled with diners, Lucy’s, with its wooden tables and candles, has a cosy, intimate atmosphere. And if you’ve booked (recommended), you might find you have been name-checked in the menu’s welcome note. Three-course dinner for two, including wine, approximately £75.

Weather fact

Not wet enough? Mount Wai-ale-ale in Hawaii is one of the wettest places on Earth – its average annual rainfall is 11,430mm.

Cairngorms

Conditions – Cold

Brits associate snow with Christmas, but it rarely snows in the UK, in the south at least, on Christmas Day. London’s last snowy Yule was in 1976, though there was sleet (great!) on December 25 1999 – and in Lewes, an avalanche killed eight people on December 27 1836. But it’s different in Scotland: the Grampians see snow for some 100 days per year. The Cairngorms, to the north of these (hiking bores argue for hours over their single malts about whether they are two separate ranges), are special; it’s a mountainous region covering 3,800 square kilometres and it’s more than 600 metres above sea level; the plateau is even higher, at 1,200 metres. The region’s weather is the most extreme in the UK: in winter temperatures in the lower glens range from several degrees below freezing to around 5C, but on the high plateau, sub-Arctic conditions are common.

An excellent forecast is posted daily on www.mwis.org.uk for anyone planning a day on the hills. This Arctic tundra landscape is exposed and unforgiving, but it’s also beautiful and teeming with wildlife including reindeer, red squirrels and the timid mountain hare. Birds include ptarmigan (whose feathers turn white in winter to blend in with the snow), ospreys and golden eagles.

Aviemore is an established base for skiing, hiking and enjoying the icy cold, but don’t even think about heading to the high hills without a qualified guide.

Where to eat and stay

Corrour House

01479 810220, www.corrourhouse.co.uk.
This homely B&B two miles south-east of Aviemore, is a grand Victorian pile boasting super views. When you return from a day ski-touring or watching wildlife, relax by the fire with a warming malt. The eight en-suite rooms are snug and the freshly cooked breakfast is delicious. Rooms from £40 per person per night (closed from end of November, reopening December 29).

Glenmore Lodge

01479 861256, www.glenmorelodge.org.uk.
The lodge has cheapish B&B rooms and chalets and runs a range of outdoor courses including winter hillwalking and ski mountaineering. The resident experts will advise southern softies which Munros and Corbetts they should tackle.

Ord Ban

01479 810005, www.ordban.com.
For lunch, try the Ord Ban, which serves mains such as Scottish sea trout and braised Highland beef for around £15 per dish. Head into Aviemore – ten minutes’ walk – for dinner; there are some great pubs and restaurants.

Weather fact

Not cold enough? Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth: the lowest temperature recorded was -89.2C in 1983 at Vostok research station.

Gower

Conditions – Windy

The Gower Peninsula has something of a reputation as a little Llundon in Sarf Wales, but that shouldn’t put you off. Easy to get to – a train from Paddington to Swansea then a taxi or a four-hour drive – the 19-mile-long peninsula offers a total retreat from grey concrete and retail hell.

The coast here is blasted by west winds that ride in unobstructed from the Atlantic. John Powell, a Post Office worker who reported Gower weather to the Met Office for 35 years until his retirement in April 2009, recorded a wind speed of 90 knots (104 miles per hour) on January 4 1998 – he called it a ‘mini-hurricane’. To experience the full brunt of the front, head for the exposed clifftop at Worm’s Head, just beyond Rhossli. But there are some 70 bays and beaches to explore, with Mumbles the place for action and Oxshot the serene, sandy beach for quiet reflection. Hiking over the top, along commonland and farmland, is another sure way to get the wind in your face.

Where to eat and stay

Fairy Hill

01792 390139, www.fairyhill.net.
One of Britain’s finest restaurants with rooms, Fairy Hill, at the Swansea end of the Gower, is sublime in all its details. The house, built in the eighteenth century, is understated but rather grand and the bedrooms stately but sumptuous; 24 acres of parkland provide quiet spaces for reading or strolls. But the restaurant, cheffed by James Hamilton, is the main draw.

Andrew Hetherington, front-of-house, and his partner, Paul Davies, who have run the place since 1993, pride themselves on using local produce; the Gower Peninsula is a wonderful source of foodstuffs, from sea bass and cockles to samphire, salt marsh lamb and Welsh Black beef. From neighbouring Carmarthenshire comes delicious cheese. The wine list can compete with any in London. Dinner for two with drinks costs around £100. Doubles from £175 including breakfast.

Weather fact

Not windy enough? On May 3 1999 a tornado in Oklahoma had a wind speed of 318mph. The windiest place on Earth is said to be Port Martin in Antarctica, which gets wind speeds of more than 40mph (gale force) for a third of the year.

Brighton

Conditions – Dry

Brighton has hardly any rain (the annual average is 650mm) and is full of decent pubs. Plus, England’s south coast is the sunniest spot you’ll find in the UK – it receives an average 1,750 hours of sun compared to an average 1,550 hours in the rest of the south-east. True, these are the bleak days of winter, so there’s never going to be that much sun, but there are other reasons to come here in winter. Forget the notion of it as London-on-Sea: all the club kids are partying somewhere exotic and many shops and bars are closed for the season.

That leaves you free to wander unhindered along the deserted seafront, enjoying fish and chips or takeaway hot chocolate with only seagulls for company. It might sound desolate, but strolling along the peaceful promenade is romantic, and chances are the sun will shine and prove that it is ‘Bright’on indeed!

Where to eat and stay

Blanch House

01273 603504, www.blanchhouse.co.uk.
This is a hip hotel with 12 quirkily decorated rooms. It has everything for the style- and comfort-conscious: a 1970s-style cocktail lounge, Molton Brown toiletries, luxe feather duvets and pillows and flatscreen TVs. The on-site restaurant serves Modern British grub (think pork belly or salmon fillet) for around £15 per dish. Cocktails include the intriguingly monikered duck soup (£7), a rum-based drink with apricot jam and cardamom. Doubles from £100 including breakfast.

Weather fact

Not dry enough? St Osyth in Essex is officially the least rainy spot in the UK as it receives an average of 513mm of rain per year. The Atacama desert in Chile receives the least rain in the world: between 1964 and 2001, the average annual rainfall there was just 0.5mm.

Cornwall

Conditions – Mild

Cornwall might not be the balmiest place in the UK – that’s the Scilly Isles, where the average annual temperature is 11.5C – but it’s no icebox. Cornwall’s mild winter climate (temperatures rarely dip below zero) is due to the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico and keeps the sea and air temperatures milder than in other places on the same latitude. Without the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, temperatures would be an average 5C lower. Milder climes also mean flourishing flora, and Cornwall is home to several palm tree-filled exotic gardens, including the spectacular Lost Gardens of Heligan (www.heligan.com). Beaches are another attraction, and a stroll along the sand, gazing out at the steel-grey sea, gulping fresh Cornish air, will exhilarate even the most jaded festive soul.

The pretty fishing port of Fowey (three miles from Par railway station) on a hillside above the River Fowey is besieged with tourists in summer, but visitor numbers dwindle out of season. Daphne du Maurier lived the last days of her life in Fowey on the Strand; fans of the author can visit the Daphne du Maurier Literary Centre in the village. An easy local walk is to the tip of the estuary at Readymoney Cove, from where you can walk through woodland to St Catherine’s Castle, a fort built by King Henry VIII to defend the harbour, and from which you can enjoy lovely views over the village and beyond out to sea.

For real heat, pay a visit to the Eden Project (01726 811911, www.edenproject.com). In the tropical rainforest biome – the world’s largest conservatory – plants including mangroves, Fijian ferns, the miracle berry plant, Australian umbrella trees and the endangered bottle palm from Mauritius thrive in humid 30C-plus conditions. The cooler Mediterranean biome hosts olive and citrus trees and an array of flora from the world’s non-tropical climates, such as cacti common to the Californian desert.

Plan to spend at least four hours here. The food’s all top-notch too, especially the own-made Cornish pasties.

Where to eat and stay

Old Quay House

01726 833302, www.theoldquayhouse.com.
This boutiquey hotel overlooks the Fowey Estuary and has 11 plush, contemporary rooms. The on-site restaurant serves weekend lunch and daily dinner (£35 for three courses). There’s plenty of seafood – fresh fish, mussels, crab – on the menu plus Cornish steak and vegetarian options. Doubles from £140 including breakfast.

Weather fact

Not warm enough? In 1922, 57.7C was recorded at Al’Aziziyah in Libya.

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By Mike - May 10 2010

For accommodation in Cumbria, make sure you also have a look at KendalCottages.com. They've just opened a very luxurious apartment on the River Kent in Kendal, with fab views. It's open year round so makes for a cosy retreat in the winter in a town that doesn't have the same seasonal fluctuations that the central Lakes has.

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