Eccentric Britain

Summer in Britain is more than picnics in the park, strawberries at Wimbledon, and drinking Pimms at a barbecue. One thing it does better than anyone else is good old-fashioned eccentricity! Adults dancing on hobby horses, faces stretched into hilarious contortions, and a festival of fools make Great Britain THE place to be this summer for tourists seeking adventure off the beaten path. From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s an unusual activity to satiate every traveller’s metaphorical palate.

 

The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss Festival

Padstow, Cornwall, 1st May

Head down to the Cornish port town of Padstow on May Day and you’ll find one of the most unusual British traditions where each year, thousands flock to watch two ‘Obby Osses’ (hobby horses) dancing to the beat of drums and accordions. 

 

Belfast Festival of Fools

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 4th – 8th May

Held over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, Belfast gets together to laugh itself silly as a whole host of offbeat and alternative comedy acts, circus performers and street theatre combines to make the silliest summer entertainment. A free festival, those coming to Belfast for the event can expect to get their walking shoes on and pound the historic streets, enjoying events like cabaret and comedy as they go.

 

Blackawton International Festival of Worm Charming

Blackawton, Devon, 27th May

Starting back in 1983, ‘Worm Master’ Nat Lowson and his team of worm-charming officials preside over the annual event each May, where people compete for the dubious accolade of who can charm the worms out of the ground the fastest.

 

Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill

Brockworth, Gloucestershire, 28th May

An event harking back to the 1800s, cheese-rolling is as bonkers as it sounds. Contestants chase after a speeding wheel of Double Gloucester cheese as big as a newborn baby, and the first to reach the cheese (which can go as fast as 70 miles an hour) is the victor.

 

The Highland Games

Various venues, Scotland, May – September

Quintessentially Scottish, the Highland Games have been an important annual event for centuries. Taking place across several cities, towns and islands across the country, they attract thousands of excited spectators from around the world. 

‘Expect the unexpected’ is an unofficial mantra, as sports such as Caber Toss and Tug ‘O’ War stand alongside best-dressed pet competitions and, of course, Highland dancing.

 

World Bog Snorkelling Championships

Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, 26th August

Over a weekend at the end of August, plucky snorkellers race against each other in the murky Waen Rhydd peat bog – they can wear wetsuits, snorkels and flippers but can’t use any recognisable swimming stroke.

Hundreds of participants compete each year in the event which Lonely Planet described as one of the Top 50 “Must Do” activities in 2014.

 

Egremont Crab Fair and World Gurning Championships

Egremont, West Cumbria, 14th – 15th September

Held every September in beautiful Cumbria, the historic Crab Fair has been running since 1267 to celebrate the season of crab apples of September.

Alongside street-racing and ‘The Cuddy’, aka horse racing, the fair plays host to the famous World Gurning Championships where folk compete for the title by contorting their faces through a horse collar. A truly strange tradition, it’s thought to have started as a way to “mock the village idiot”, but is now simply a fun competition to see who can pull the most grotesque or silliest face.

Liberal Brighton

It could be said that England’s south coast city is the liberal and creative soul of Britain: planning is well underway for the annual Gay Pride Festival that graces Brighton’s shores every August and once again, this year is packed with eco and arts events. So for something different, here are some alternative sights and events to consider.

 

Pride with Purpose

As the UK’s biggest LGBTQ event, Brighton and Hove Pride Festival brings together supporters in the LGBTQ community to fundraise, celebrate and party in the name of equality; 2018’s festivities will recognise the trailblazers and supporters who shaped Brighton’s Pride movement and championed equality. The weekend event features a parade, village party, and live music performances from international artists such as Britney Spears expected to perform.

Event dates: 3 to 5 August 2018

 

Celebrating Creativity

When you think ‘Fringe Festival’, it’s likely that Edinburgh springs to mind, but the Brighton version is an ideal option if you’re seeking early summer entertainment and can’t wait until August. As England’s largest arts festival, you can expect an eclectic mix of acts from comedy, art, food, literature, theatre and street performance.

Event dates: 4 May to 3 June 2018

 

Brighton's Bare Necessities

On 1 April 1980, Brighton made seaside history by opening the UK’s first naturist beach. Just one mile east of Brighton Pier, you can walk there or catch the Volks Electric Railway near the pier. Signs and large banks of pebbles indicate the start and end of the naturist sections of sand, officially known as Cliff Bathing Beach.

 

On the Arts Trail

It’s often overlooked that Brighton played an early role in the development of film-making, as the home and workplace of William Friese-Greene, the main pioneer of motion pictures and colour films. Today, Brighton is a magnet for producers who are drawn to the city’s mix of urban and natural settings. Book the Brighton on Film Tour which includes filming locations from Quadrophenia, Mona Lisa and Brighton Rock. Other interesting tours include street art walks and the ‘From Skanky to Swanky’ tour of the ever-changing North Laine neighbourhood.

 

For shopping, Lovethatstuff on the waterfront sells fair-trade items from over 30 global producers, while foodies should head for Brighton Chilli Shop. The UK’s first chilli shop, it sells the homegrown hot stuff, with sauces and products both from the UK and all over the world. Food for Friends is the city’s original vegetarian restaurant using the best, locally sourced produce, while others such as Foodilic are also committed to vegan and organic offerings.

 

Freewheeling It

The new smart bike-share scheme allows eco-conscious visitors and locals to explore Brighton with ease. Bikes are available for hire from just 3p per minute, with rentals in several central locations from Lewes Road towards the city’s two universities, with plans for more. To join the city’s cycling revolution, simply register, unlock a bike, discover Brighton on two wheels and simply return it to any BTN BikeShare Hub when you’re all explored out.

 

See also:

  • The Great Escape - Festival of new music showcasing around 450 emerging artists in over 30 Brighton venues.

Event dates: 17 - 19 May 2018.

  • Musical Bingo - Experience bingo with a creative twist at popular entertainment venue Komedia where numbers are swapped for tunes.

Event dates: Held every two months (next one Thu 19 April 2018).

  • The Lanes – In what was the fishing town of Brighthelmstone, Brighton’s cultural and creative quarter is a maze of streets packed with shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, the perfect place to soak up the city’s alternative vibe.

Britain’s canals: sailing along Britain’s waterways

Britain’s canals are not just mere waterways. Hand-carved 200 years ago, they’re now considered an astonishing feat of Victorian engineering.

 

Often referred to as The Cut due to the way they cut a path through the countryside and connect the country’s river systems, they quickly became a vital mode of transport during the industrial revolution for many trades. And it was the success of these commercial waterways during the 18th and early 19th centuries that helped Britain become a global superpower.

 

But after World War II, these traditional businesses began to decline and the waterways fell into disrepair. Until the 1960s that is, when community groups began to rescue and restore them.

 

Today, this winding network of waterways is open to the public, who can enjoy a whole range of quintessentially British activities from narrow-boating and canoeing, to fishing, biking or walking the towpaths.

 

Birmingham - the Venice of the Midlands

 

The Grand Union Canal links London to the heart of Peaky Blinders territory in Birmingham. Start in Paddington Basin in west London and travel through villages and industrial towns right up through the lush green countryside of Colne Valley Regional Park.

 

Cuts through the countryside

 

Visit Britain’s famous university city of Oxford and join in with another local tradition – the pub crawl. College Cruisers will take you via narrowboat along the Oxford Canal, past Cotswold villages and rolling farmland, before pulling up outside your pick of charming canalside pubs for a G&T and a hearty pub lunch.

 

Stop to admire the engineering marvel that is Denham Deep Lock in Buckinghamshire – with an 11-foot drop, it’s by far the deepest in the Grand Union Canal and the clever design allows boats to breach the different water levels by simply raising or lowering the craft.

 

Canals connect in London

 

Browse the stalls and shops of London’s legendary Camden Market before taking a trip down Regent’s Canal with The London Waterbus. This scenic cruise passes though leafy north London up to Little Venice, Paddington, and stops at London Zoo.

 

Where the Grand Union Canal meets Regents Canal, you’ll find the delightful oasis of Little Venice - it’s believed that poet and former resident Robert Browning named it. This tranquil stretch of water is lined with impressive Georgian and Victorian houses and is home to Browning’s Island, an islet that’s home to waterbirds, Egyptian Geese and a handful of ‘floating’ businesses including an art gallery and hotel.

 

If all that exploring makes you hungry, there are countless places to eat on and along the canals, including the floating Waterside Café and The Waterway restaurant with its large outdoor terrace. Step aboard the Feng Shang Princess, the floating Chinese restaurant near Primrose Hill, known for its celebrity clientele and canal views, or check out the Narrowboat Pub on Regent's Canal in Islington.

 

While London's waterways are full of surprises, one of the most delightful is the Puppet Theatre Barge. This floating marionette theatre first came to life 40 years ago, and is still captivating children from its 72-foot-long, flat-bottomed boot moored in Little Venice.

 

For a one-off experience, enjoy a cruise with HotTugUK. You'll need a swimsuit and a sense of fun for this one - these electric-powered, self-drive, floating hot tubs chug around the City Road Basin (five minutes from Angel and Old Street tube stations) and you’ll have 75 minutes of sailing time, basking in London views and water that’s heated to a rather pleasant 38 degrees. 

 

For more information on the history of UK's canals, pop along to one of the Open Day events run by the Canal River Trust.

Quirky London

You might be shocked in London, but you'll never be bored – the capital is a city of surprises. Here some of the weirdest and most wonderful sights to see.

 

Experience ancient London in the London Mithraeum, a Roman temple excavated after World War II, where over 600 Roman artefacts including the earliest writing tablets were discovered by archaeologists. Built along one of London’s lost rivers, the Walbrook, it was earmarked for a new location, but has been returned to its original site and is now open to the public in Bloomberg's European headquarters.

 

Alternatively, transport yourself back to wartime London with a visit to Churchill's War Rooms, the underground bunker from where Winston Churchill coordinated the Allied forces during World War II, eventually leading them to victory.

 

And if you thought museums were boring, think again. London has the Natural History Museum, home to 80 million specimens from a 9,000-year-old human skeleton to a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, while the Museum of London tells the entire story of this great city from 450,000 BC to the present day. And for a slice of the darker side of Victorian life, the Jack the Ripper Museum has recreated scenes in the heart of Whitechapel during the reign of the still-unidentified serial killer.

 

You'll find all manner of animal oddities at the Grant Museum of Zoology where some 68,000 specimens cover the whole Animal Kingdom from the skeleton of a quagga - a long-extinct species of zebra – to the bones of a dodo and a jar of preserved moles.

 

There’s living, breathing wildlife too. While lush wetlands may be the last thing you expect to see in the suburbs of northwest London, that's what you'll find at Woodberry Wetlands. Originally the Stoke Newington East Reservoir, the wetlands have been reclaimed by wildlife, including waterbirds, newts, bats and butterflies.

 

Over in Highgate, you’ll find the final resting place of Karl Marx and George Michael (his grave is closed to the public) at Highgate Cemetery. Built in Victorian times, it’s famous for its grand memorials and elaborate style - you can explore the newer East Cemetery independently or take a guided tour of the original (more architecturally impressive) West Cemetery.

 

For something truly peculiar, head to House of Dreams, a delightfully odd collection of items found by artist Stephen Wright; his personal memories and scavenged curios, from dolls' heads and bottle tops to false teeth and wigs are all displayed in his East Dulwich home. In God’s Own Junkyard in Walthamstow, you’ll find an eye-assaulting collection of neon art, created and curated by late designer Chris Bracey, from salvaged neon signs, old movie props and retro film sets. Open to the public as a homage to his life's work, it’s free to visit, and you can buy, rent or simply ogle the glittering kaleidoscope before you.

 

Eating out needn't be a staid affair in London. Grab a coffee at Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in trendy east London, and you might be joined by a furry tablemate – this is where you can relax with the three C's: coffee, cake and cats. If you prefer your food cold and crunchy, visit the Cereal Killer Café, where every meal is of the breakfast bowl variety from Coco Pops to Lucky Charms. And while we’d love to tell you about the Chambers of Flavour, we don’t have a clue.. What we DO know is you arrive at a secret location for an evening of gastro and theatrical treats…  So embrace the eccentric, and start exploring!

Britain’s best coffee houses – the new British brew

Brits may be stereotyped as avid tea drinkers, but it hasn’t stopped a growing coffee culture brewing across the nation.

With award-winning roasters and World Barista Champions, an emphasis on ethically sourced, independently roasted and perfectly brewed flavours, plus “third wave” coffee tastes from Aeropress to cold-drip methods, it’s clear there’s more to Britain’s caffeine fix beyond regular chain-café coffee.

 

Brighton: Small Batch Coffee Roasters

This family-run coffee house roasts its own Arabica coffee, sustainably sourced from local farmers in over 20 countries. Now a powerhouse in local coffee culture, Small Batch has eight locations, serving everything from the classics to their own unique blends and cold brews.

 

Bath: Colonna & Small’s

Co-owned by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, a three-time winner at the UK Barista Championships, this speciality coffee hub is all about flavour. The menu changes weekly for that reason, rotating seasonal coffees from across the world, sourced by expert roasters all over the UK.

 

Bristol: Full Court Press

This minimalist interior matches the slick menu which features two filter blends and two espresso blends that change weekly. The coffee comes from individual farms and co-ops all over the world, as well as some 30 roasters in Europe, enticing people to keep coming back.

 

London: Prufrock

Owned by World Barista Champion, Gwilym Davies and UK Barista Championship Head Judge, Jeremy Challender, this café scooped Time Out’s ‘Best Coffee In London’ accolade. Hand-brewed filter coffee is the star of the show in this two-floor wonderland where each week, three coffees are showcased on the brew-bar while you ask the baristas their secrets.

 

Birmingham: Quarter Horse Coffee

What makes this independent roaster so special is you can see the roasting process in action at its on-site roastery. Premium beans, sourced from all over the globe from entrepreneurial female producers in places such as Colombia and Guatemala, are roasted weekly for maximum freshness.

 

Leeds: Laynes Espresso

This espresso bar is not only is a sleek hangout where you can try dedicated brews (and some of the best sweet treats in the city from Porterhouse Cake Co) it’s also an educational space offering classes for hobby baristas through to professional qualifications.

 

Manchester: Pot Kettle Black

This inviting space in the Victorian-era Grade II-listed Barton Arcade was set up by two local Rugby League stars who wanted to serve artisan coffee in atmospheric surroundings, alongside a menu of healthier food choices including gluten-free and vegan options.

 

Sheffield: Steam Yard

Steam Yard’s owners wanted to keep the alternative, independent spirit of Sheffield’s Division Street alive and this café, with its cool concrete-wood-leather interior, still retains touches of its industrial past. Set in a Grade II-listed building, it serves coffee from London’s award-winning Square Mile Coffee Roasters, and is also known for its speciality coffee-doughnut combo, known as the “Steve McQueen”.

 

Newcastle: Flat Caps Coffee

For coffee brewed in three ways – Filter, Aeropress and the old-fashioned Syphon – head to this bohemian basement café. Owned by a UK Barista Champion finalist and former banker, Joe Meagher, the café sources its beans from roasting companies around the UK and Europe.

 

Edinburgh: Brew Lab
Brewed with meticulous detail and precise brewing techniques, you can try single-original filter and cold brew coffees alongside traditional espresso roasts at Brewlab where a weekly changing coffee menu and locally produced food add to the charm.

 

Cardiff: Quantum Coffee Roasters

Resembling a funky science lab, Quantum loves experimenting with its brewing methods, using V-60 and Chemex pour-overs, I-brick and cold brew towers to get the perfect brew from their in-house roasted blends.

 

Belfast: Established

One of the pioneers of Belfast’s growing coffee scene, the fine coffee blends and tempting brunch menu are a big draw at this cool, minimalist café in the Cathedral Quarter. There’s also a dedicated training room where visitors can learn how to brew better coffee at home.

Six of the best: wintery National Trust walks

The National Trust is a charity that looks after some of the most beautiful countryside in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It cares for more than 2,400 square kilometres of land and more than 500 historic houses, castles, parks and nature reserves. One of the joys of the British countryside is that you can enjoy it at any time of year. Don't let lower temperatures put you off - grab a warm coat and your National Trust touring pass, and head out on a fresh wintery walk at one of these scenic spots, which display a whole new beauty in frosty or snowy conditions.

 

Box Hill, Surrey, south-east England

Approximately 30km south-west of London is Box Hill, a summit of the Surrey’s North Downs. It takes its name from the ancient box woodland found on the steepest slopes overlooking the River Mole. There are lots of different walks to explore, from a gentle stroll over the top of the famous hill, to a long walk down and up again, taking a well-earnt stop at a pub along the way. If it’s a white winter with a decent layer of snow, Box Hill becomes a sledging playground, with kids and adults alike hurtling down its famous slopes, and lots of enthusiastic snow fights!

 

Bath Skyline, Somerset, south-west England   

Once you’ve explored the beautiful city of Bath, a short stroll from its centre is the six-mile Skyline trail, taking you up onto the hills overlooking Bath and beyond. The route boasts magnificent views and you'll wander through history, passing an Iron Age hill fort and 18th-century follies. The path continues through meadows, ancient woodlands and secluded valleys, which look even more beautiful covered in wintery frost or a dusting of snow.

 

Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire, east Midlands, England

Clumber Park is a beautiful expanse of parkland, heath and woods covering more than 3,800 acres. Although the house was demolished in 1938, there are many glimpses of its grand past to explore, including the Gothic-style chapel, often referred to as a 'Cathedral in miniature'. This gentle two-mile walking trail explores the park’s picturesque parkland, heathland, gardens and peaceful woodlands. The views of Clumber Lake – particularly from Clumber Bridge – are stunning.

 

Divis and the Black Mountain, County Antrim,  Northern Ireland   

This challenging three-mile Summit Trail takes you along the Tipperary Road through open heath, following a way marked trail to the highest peak in the Belfast Hills, Divis Mountain. Overlooking the city of Belfast below and with magnificent views of Lough Neagh, the Mourne Mountains and Strangford Lough, this is a fantastic vantage point from which to take in the magnificent scenery that Northern Ireland has to offer.

 

Dinefwr Park, Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales

Discover ancient oaks and wildlife during this scenic one-and-a-half mile route, which was designed by landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown when he visited Dinefwr in 1775. It takes you through Dinefwr deer park, which surrounds 12th-century Dinefwr Castle. Fallow deer roam the park and are often joined by a neighbouring second herd in winter. Keep a look out for majestic Newton House, and some of the park's 150 ancient trees that you'll pass; there are nearly 300 ancient trees at Dinefwr, half of them in the deer park.  

 

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire, northern England 

Discover the winter landscapes of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden with a five-mile trail that takes you through the deer park and elegant Georgian water garden. The route offers views of Ripon, the distant North York Moors and the impressive ruins of Fountains Abbey. This walk follows around the boundary of the estate, and after taking in the sights of the deer park, wander through the 18th-century water garden and past the magnificent Abbey.

Six of the best: luxury boutique hotels

When it comes to a sumptuous stay, there’s nothing quite like the intimacy of a luxury boutique hotel, where every detail has been considered for the comfort of guests. Check-in to one of the following for supreme comfort and impeccable service.

 

Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons Oxfordshire, south-east England

This boutique property has 32 rooms and deluxe suites and lies just eight miles outside of historic Oxford. The restaurant at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons received two Michelin stars in 1984, the first year of its opening, and has held them ever since. Enjoy private gardens and an open terrace, seating areas, marble bathrooms and even a garden water feature if staying in a garden one-bedroom suite: choose from L'Orangerie, Provence, Opium or Blanc de Blanc.

 

Combermere Abbey, Shropshire, north-west England

The luxury Combermere Abbey has recently opened the doors of its newly-restored, award-winning North Wing. Housing just two bedrooms and a series of reception rooms, the intimate wing offers sumptuous surroundings jewelled with lavish accents. The rooms feature a king-sized bed, an oversized freestanding bath, and homemade bath and body products by Mitchell and Peach, produced on the family's Foxbury farm. The abbey is within easy driving distance of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

 

Inverlochy Castle Hotel, Fort William, Scotland

Nestled among the glens, lochs and mountains of the west Highlands of Scotland, Inverlochy Castle has 17 individually-designed rooms and suites, and a private self-contained gate house. Dining at the castle is an experience in itself – renowned father and son chefs Albert and Michel Roux Jr are at the helm, and the in-house restaurant serves modern British cuisine with French influences.

 

Llangoed Hall, Wales

Opened in 1990, Llangoed Hall is an elegant Edwardian country house located in the heart of the Welsh countryside near to the Brecon Beacons National Park. It houses 23 bedrooms, all of which are individually designed. Outstanding views of the Black Mountains can be enjoyed from the Master Suite, which has its own lounge area, room service, and a four-poster king sized bed, where you can relax as you sip your complimentary sherry. The hotel is just over an hour’s drive from the Welsh capital Cardiff.

 

Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, London, south-east England

Since opening in 1837, Brown's Hotel has welcomed esteemed guests from royals and presidents to world-famous authors. With a bold statement of being 'splendidly English, thoroughly cosmopolitan, quintessentially Mayfair' the classic hotel offers first-class modern facilities in grand surroundings. Try the Kipling Suite, named for author Rudyard Kipling – he penned The Jungle Book while staying in the hotel. Expect a huge marble bathroom, a grand sitting room, king-size bed, and individually-chosen pieces of furniture and décor. The hotel will collect you from the airport, have your luggage unpacked, and introduce you to gallery and shop managers, if wanted.  

 

The Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland

Established in 1924, Gleneagles Hotel was quickly acclaimed as 'the palace of the glens' – today, it boasts two Michelin star dining, a three championship golf course, and a spa, and offers 232 luxury bedrooms, including 26 sumptuous suites. The Royal Lochnagar Suite has a welcoming hallway that opens up onto a comfortable sitting room; from there you can make your way to the guest bathroom and master bedroom which is followed by a relaxation area, walk-in dressing room and master bathroom. Overlooking the main entrance is the Blue Tower Suite: split over two levels, it offers two bedrooms and a steam shower.  The hotel is just over an hour’s drive from Edinburgh – it also has its own helipad.