Often written off as nondescript, the UK’s untouristic smaller municipalities are in fact anything but. One town derided as ‘the home of average’ turns out to boast historic industrial monuments and ravishing Victorian hotels; another famed for the size of its car parks is home to a wonderful marina and Alan Bennett’s fave chippy. Fed up with the haughty airs of Britain’s bigger cities, our local writers pay tribute to the cream of the country’s industrial, ‘new-town’ and small urban destinations.
A place where pints of various ales can be easily bought
‘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 over a dozen 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. 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.
Stay a mile north of the town centre at the Upper Neatham Mill Farm Guest House, a four-star converted barn surrounded by woodland in Holybourne.
By Emma Sleight
Officially Britain’s chalkiest wolds
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 has been known to come here for fish and chips in the shadow of Flamborough Head’s chalk cliffs, and until recently David Hockney was 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. You shouldn’t.
Stay at Rags, a lovely hotel right on the harbour.
By Michael Hodges
Where Kent’s 19th-century heyday is most strongly hinted at
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.
By Kevin Younger
Coventry, West Midlands
Very nearly recovered now from World War II
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 Coventry in Coombe Abbey, a twelfth-century former Cistercian Abbey set in 500 acres of parkland and featuring individually designed antique-filled suites; eat at the Saxon Mill, which offers simple, reasonably priced food, stone walls and exposed beams.
By David Whitehouse
It’s wheely good!
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 – 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.
By Euan Ferguson
Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire
Welcome to the real unnamed city from Bladerunner
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 Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
Stay at the decadent Crathorne Hall Hotel, perched right on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors in nearby Crathorne. Eat at Eliano’s Italian Brasserie, a hidden gem offering a taste of rustic Italy with homemade pasta and stone-baked pizzas.
By Kevin Murphy
Newport, South Wales
Approximately to Cardiff as Brighton is to London!
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. 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.
By Ben Isaacs
St Helens, Merseyside
Pride of the A58
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 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, a restaurant run by students serving haute cuisine at low prices.
Stay at the only good hotel in town, which is actually outside it – the Thistle, 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.
By Chris Moss
Where roundabouts mean roundabouts
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, a four-star Victorian guest house in the heart of town. 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
Inspired to seek out other imaginative holiday spots in the UK? Head to our guide to great British breaks