Britain's 'other' best towns

Britain’s humbler burgs have a lot to offer, as their local champions can attest

Britain's 'other' best towns The Falkirk Wheel - © iStockphoto.com/Bridget McGill
By Time Out writers

A few years ago, toffs’ rag The Idler sponsored a hate campaign against all the towns its writers didn’t live in. These included Yeovil, Warrington, Lancaster and even major cities like Leeds – for which the website entry runs ‘City of random shouting and violence’.

But here at Time Out we have a soft spot for Britain’s smaller towns. While there are some crap people, there aren’t really any crap towns; it just depends how you go about ‘doing’ them. We don’t want to take anything away from the tourist traps (except our cash and our weekends) but it’s time we all explored the UK’s smaller places. There are hundreds we could have selected for this first foray, but here are Time Out’s faves to get you going – as seen from a local’s perspective.

Alton

‘Hampshire’s friendliest market town,’ says the Enjoy England tourism website – probably due to its being wedged between squaddie towns Aldershot and Bordon. The smell of rotting cornflakes is from the local Coors brewery and the town boasts 16 pubs in a relatively small area, most serving real ales.

Catch a film at Alton’s stubbornly independent Palace cinema: the tiny establishment provides ’80s decor and abominable acoustics complete with old-fashioned snacks (www.palacecinema.co.uk). Visit nearby Chawton, home of Jane Austen, before heading across the road to the Greyfriar, a 400-year-old coach house which serves seasonal food sourced from local farmers (www.thegreyfriar.co.uk).

Stay a mile north of the town centre at the Upper Neatham Mill Farm Guest House (www.upperneatham.co.uk), a four-star converted barn surrounded by woodland in Holybourne.

By Emma Sleight

Bridlington

Once home to the largest Lada car park in Western Europe, Bridlington now has a world-class marina only a few feet from a medieval old town jammed with convivial hostelries. Alan Bennett comes here for fish and chips in the shadow of Flamborough Head’s chalk cliffs and David Hockney is in residence. Hockney’s recent paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds publicised the area’s understated beauty but missed out the award-winning Wold Top Brewery (www.woldtopbrewery.co.uk). You shouldn’t.

Stay at Rags (www.ragshotel.co.uk), a lovely hotel right on the harbour.

By Michael Hodges

Chatham

Brimming with history, from Pepys and Dickens to press gangs and flying boats, Chatham used to be a vital cog in the British imperial machine. The Naval Dockyard, closed in 1984, is a first-class heritage site, full of old buildings and historic vessels. HMS Victory was built here, but is kept at Portsmouth – which is sad. But that’s actually why you would come here – for melancholy emptiness, maritime ghosts and a Kent far away from the Garden of England clichés.

Stay at Ship & Trades Hotel (www.shipandtradeschatham.co.uk), and eat Keralan at Coco Diner (www.cocodiner.co.uk).

By Kevin Younger

Coventry

The Luftwaffe came to Coventry. Not because its industry, its aircraft and aero-engine plants, its high concentration of armaments and munitions factories gave Britain its lethal, mechanical and ultimately victorious backbone. Not because Hitler rightfully regarded its medieval heart to be the finest in Europe or to seek devastating revenge for the RAF’s levelling of glorious Munich. They didn’t come for the unique speed with which Coventry embraced multi-culturalism and made from it wonderful art… ska hadn’t even been invented yet. No, the Nazis came because they heard it was great. And they were right.

Stay just outside of Coventry in Coombe Abbey (www.coombeabbey.com), a twelfth-century former Cistercian Abbey set in 500 acres of parkland and featuring individually designed antique-filled suites; eat at the Saxon Mill (www.saxonmill.co.uk), which offers simple, reasonably priced food, stone walls and exposed beams.

By David Whitehouse

Falkirk

Most visitors to Scotland head for the shortbread-box Highlands ignoring the former industrial heartland of the Central Belt. A folly: the town of Falkirk is well placed, with a long and visible history. There’s a well-preserved section of the Roman Antonine Wall, and the Falkirk Wheel is an engineering marvel that connects two canals by lift.

Stay at Airth Castle Hotel (www.airthcastlehotel.com) – an impressive fourteenth-century castle once owned by Robert the Bruce’s family. The Champany Inn is famous for its Aberdeen Angus and has one of the best wine cellars in Scotland (www.champany.com).

By Euan Ferguson

Middlesbrough

Crucible of the industrial revolution, the ‘infant Hercules’ of Middlesbrough has been forged anew. Those resistant to the coruscating vision of Teesside’s smokestacks by night (which inspired smoggie Ridley Scott to film ‘Blade Runner’) and the rakish beauty of the Transporter and Newport bridges (built by the same local firm who made the altogether more vulgar Sydney Harbour Bridge) can enjoy strolling around the recently restored Albert Park or ogling the striking new Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

Stay at the decadent Crathorne Hall Hotel (www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/hotels/crathorne-hall), perched right on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors in nearby Crathorne. Eat at Eliano’s Italian Brasserie (www.elianosbrasserie.co.uk), a hidden gem offering a taste of rustic Italy with homemade pasta and stone-baked pizzas.

By Kevin Murphy

Newport

Having been born and raised in Cardiff, I’ve always seen Newport as a friendly younger brother – and, fittingly, a thriving live-music scene and a self-deprecating sense of humour await visitors to this resurgent city. What’s more, Newport boasts an attractive castle, a famous (ish) bridge and is the birthplace of Hollywood star Michael Sheen.

An atmospheric meal can be had at the award-winning Junction 28, based in an old station house near the city centre (www.junction28.com). The local takeaway speciality is arf-and-arf: Indian curry with rice and chips. I bet Sheen can’t get that in LA.

Stay at the spectacular five-star Celtic Manor (home of golf’s 2010 Ryder Cup, so make sure Tiger Woods doesn’t see your girlfriend), just a few miles from Newport, where the spa is as impressive as the views of the Severn (www.celtic-manor.com).

By Ben Isaacs

St Helens

Compared to glamorous Wigan – famous for pies, Orwell’s book, Northern Soul nostalgia – poor St Helens has to fight to get onto the tourism map. The glass museum (www.worldofglass.com) celebrates the town’s Pilkington associations, while a statue of a miner and a monument called The Dream remind visitors that Maggie gave the town a nightmare in the ’80s. St Helens is great for trad pubs and shopping; as well as some superb local piccalilli, the best food is at Colours (www.sthelens.ac.uk/colours), a restaurant run by students serving haute cuisine at low prices.

Stay at the only good hotel in town, which is actually is outside it – the Thistle (www.thistle.com/haydock), close to Haydock so you can catch some racing before heading home. But time your trip with a rugby league match to see some of the best sporting action in the world (www.saintsrlfc.com).

By Chris Moss

Swindon

Derided as the home of average, Swindon frequently generates eclectic headlines: the council granting everyone free internet access, a bizarre twinning arrangement with Disney and Morrissey collapsing on stage. Not a place for the sensitive soul, then, but worth scratching beneath the surface.

Brunel’s 1840 Great Western Railway Works means Swindon boasts significant industrial history despite being oft misrepresented as a new town.

Stay at the Lodge (www.thelodgeswindon.co.uk), a four-star Victorian guest house in the heart of town, and for a multicultural culinary experience go to the World Café on Havelock Square, where the chefs knock up anything from Mexican wraps to Thai crab cakes.

By Paul Torpey

Time Out guidebooks

To plan your UK breaks, pick up a copy of ‘Time Out Britain’, available from www.timeout.com/shop for £11.80 (RRP £14.99).

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