The dictionary definition of a village is simple: a collection of houses and buildings that is smaller than a town, larger than a hamlet, and in a rural setting. The real picture, however, is far more difficult to define. Britain’s villages are more akin to a patchwork quilt of fabrics in every size, shape and pattern imaginable. Each one has a charm and a character all of its own, and for visitors that’s precisely where the appeal lies.
This difference is strikingly clear when one moves between neighbouring regions. Just as dialects vary from one postcode to another, so too do the village scenes. From humble cob houses with neatly thatched roofs to rows of half-timbered houses criss-crossed with extravagant patterns, Britain’s villages are a living, breathing embodiment of the country’s rich history.
Indeed, no cluster of buildings, tangle of streets or intersection of roads is the same from one village to the next; what Britain’s bigger towns and cities boast in uniformity and precision, its villages counter in variation and charm. Here is our pick of five villages whose beauty lies in their uniqueness – just be sure to take a camera.
Endorsements don’t come much better than from a certain William Morris, who once declared Bibury “the most beautiful village in England”. Indeed, the designer isn’t the only one to have fallen in love with this typical Cotswold village just a short drive from Cirencester.
Perhaps the most photographed of its chocolate-box scenes is Arlington Row, a string of cottages built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and later converted into weavers’ cottages. Emperor Hirohito is said to have stayed here and fallen in love with them, Henry Ford liked the cottages so much he tried to ship them over to the US, and you might just recognise them if you’ve ever left the country: a blue-hued version of the row has graced the inside cover of British passports since 2010.
Elsewhere in the village, life centres on the square of St Mary’s Church – an ancient building with a charming combination of Saxon, Norman and medieval influences – on the banks of the River Coln, which runs through the village, and the vast expanse of Bibury Trout Farm. The latter takes in 15 acres of the Coln Valley, one of the most beautiful in the Cotswolds.
When wilderness was being handed out, Scotland undoubtedly got given an oversized portion. From lochs to mountains, forests to glens, you can’t seem to go for more than 30 minutes without running into another chunk of camera-ready, wild landscape, just waiting to be explored. And even more so when you head north.
Inverness sits at the mouth of the River Ness, which feeds into the Moray Firth and forms part of the 100km-long Great Glen that cuts diagonally across Scotland. The city is a portal into the Highlands, with varied wilderness available in every direction.
And it’s not just visitors who are discovering the appeal of the UK’s most northerly city. Since 2001 the population of Inverness has risen by nearly 10%; it has also been ranked as the top Scottish city in terms of quality of life. It’s easy to see why.
From boat trips and kayaking on the Caledonian Canal, to the tempting hills and forests that rise nearby, to the Cairngorms National Park (only a short drive south), the opportunity to get outside is on the city’s doorstep.
Getting outside is practically mandatory when you come up this way – the main problem is deciding where to go first. Head south-west along the Great Glen and you’ll hit the 37km-long expanse of Loch Ness, the freshwater loch famed for its alleged resident plesiosaurus… But whether you believe in monsters or not is unimportant – it remains a spectacular spot. With tree-covered hills flanking the loch on both sides, the area really justifies its ‘Great’ Glen moniker. Lace up to best experience it – there are routes along the shoreline and amid the peaks above.
If trees are your thing, visit the National Nature Reserve of Glen Affric, 50km from Inverness. Home to the ancient Caledonian pine that would have covered most of Scotland’s Highlands 5,000 years ago, it offers a glimpse into an ancient wilderness. While away a day by strolling one of the many well-marked tracks to take in waterfalls and look out for osprey, otters or red- and black-throated divers.
For more birds and wildlife at altitude, head further south-west from Inverness to Britain’s biggest national park, the Cairngorms. Here, mountains (including five of the six highest peaks in the country) sprawl in every direction. It’s also home to the renowned RSPB reserve of Abernethy Forest as well as a host of comely villages and whisky distilleries.
To truly discover the Scottish wilderness would take months. However, if you only have a few days, the best way to get a bitesized portion is to catch the train to Inverness on a Friday night. This allows for a mini break that packs a big wilderness punch.
Surely Scotland’s fruitiest weekend away, The Pineapple is an elaborate architectural joke. The 4th Earl of Dunmore got the idea during his tenure as Governor of Virginia, where sailors would indicate they were safely back from a sea voyage by spiking pineapples on their gateposts. Dunmore marked his own return to home in 1777 with a commission for 37 feet of intricately carved masonry, its stone leaves apt decoration for a hothouse growing pineapples.
Internal accommodation is mercifully unprickly, with two cosy bedrooms, a country-style kitchen and a living room with log fire. The Pineapple presides over a huge walled garden open to the public, but guests also enjoy a private back garden, and there are some lovely nearby walks with views of the River Forth and Ochil Hills.
Arrive: Dunmore is on the A905, the closest motorway is the M9. Regular buses run from Stirling to Dunmore. Alternatively, the nearest railway station is six miles away in Larbert, which has services to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Claiming the dubious honour of being the ‘most haunted castle in Britain’, Chillingham has acquired its ghosts over the course of eight centuries. A medieval pile complete with crenellated parapets, this 12th-century garrison castle is home to several spiritual residents, including a frail white figure found in the pantry, and the mysterious `blue boy’.
The Torture Chamber displays arcane instruments of punishment, and in the dungeon visitors can see the crude graffiti etched into the wall by former inmates. Ghost tours take place at night and you can stay in one of several self-catering apartments. Our favourite is the Grey apartment, furnished with a four-poster bed, antiques and wall-mounted horns.
Arrive: Chillingham is off the A1 between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnwick.The castle is around an hour by car north of Newcastle, and 1.3/4 hours southeast of Edinburgh. Public transport to the castle is limited.
Sat on the pebbly beach of Dungeness, Seaview is a peaceful spot to watch the waves roll in as small craft bob gently across the English Channel. Once home to working fishermen, this two-storey cottage has had its net store converted into a second bedroom, and its interior given a nautical-style makeover — with blue-striped linens, log burner and decorations made from shells and driftwood.
Round the back, sheltered from sea breezes, there’s a large wild garden that’s ideal for summer barbecues — load your grill with seafood caught that day by local fishermen. Extend your sea view by braving the climb to the top of nearby Old Lighthouse, a mighty 46 metres tall. Also close by is an RSPB bird sanctuary, a great place to stroll mile after mile of shingle while spotting bitterns, little-ringed plovers, Slavonian greebs, smews and wheatears, depending on the season.
Arrive: The nearest train station is a half-hour cab ride away in Rye, East Sussex, with connections to Ashford International, and on to London.
If aiming for a full fruit bowl of accommodation experiences, these coconut-shaped floating cabins should be next on your list. Eight are to be found bobbing gently on the Domaine des Grands Lacs, a vast wetland in the little-visited region of Franche-Comté. Most are accessible only by boat, giving a sense of romantic isolation only enhanced by the absence of electricity — light being provided by solar-powered lamps, or good old-fashioned candles.
A breakfast of croissants with local jams and honey appears daily on your landing deck, but guests can also arrange for the delivery of champagne or a platter of regional meats and cheeses. The point is to do not very much at all except enjoy the natural surroundings, but on a fine day it’s fun to hire a kayak or a bike to explore the lakes and surrounding trails.
Arrive: The nearest airport is Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, about a 1.1/2 hours’ drive away. Fly there from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow, Luton, Manchester or Stansted, with BA, easy Jet or Ryanair. Car hire starts at around £40 per day.
Venice is full of bacari (traditional bars) that serve up one of the city’s best-kept secrets, the tapas-like tradition of cicchetti. These appetizers — from spicy olives to calamari and artichoke hearts —are an after-work ritual for who head to a bacaro for a few plates with an ombra (a small glass of wine), gathering at the counters where the snacks are laid out or huddling around convivial tables. On Venice Urban Adventures’ Cicchetti of Venice tour, travellers join in their ‘giro d’ombra’ (bar crawl; forget all thoughts of the beery boozing of the British version), visiting five of the most atmospheric bacari in the city with a local guide.
Setting off from a quiet medieval square, the tour stops at historic inns and lively hole-in-the-wall bars, sampling cicchetti like polpette (meatballs) and marinated seafood on of polenta. This being Venice, it’s a little grander than your average city centre wand—also stopping off at the famous – Rialto market and taking a-traghetto (gondola ferry) across the Grand Canal.
After a Saturday outing, start your Sunday with an espresso in the café-lined piazza of Campo Santo Margherita before exploring more of the Rialto district, with its gourmet shops selling specialities like cured meats, truffles and wine, and the Pescaria, Venice’s 600-year-old fish market.
Arrive: EasyJet, Jet2 and Monarch fly to Venice from UK cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Stay: A city house with a country feel, hidden in a walled garden of pomegranate, olive and magnolia trees, Oltre Il Giardino has palatial, antique-filled rooms.
Just like its landscapes, the food of southern Italy’s Amalfi Coast reaches dizzy heights — pizza, gelato and sweet limoncello liqueur are just a few of the culinary fortes of this sunny promontory. Based in the hills around Sorrento, Le Baccanti’s gourmet day tour takes in many of these greatest hits. It begins at an extra virgin olive oil factory with vertiginous views, before heading on to lemon groves for a limoncello tasting; a visit to a mozzarella producer; expert help in making your own pizza; and a gelateria for a crash course in Italy’s incomparable ice cream.
Arrive: BA, easyJet, Monarch and Thomson fly to Naples from the UK. Sorrento is around an hour’s drive away.
Stay: La Tonnarella has antique-filled rooms in a villa right on the coast.
Poland’s lively capital makes a great place to discover two of the country’s beloved staples, pierogi and vodka. Start by mastering pierogi — crescent-shaped dumplings with a variety of fillings — on Eat Warsaw’s two-hour cooking class, where you’ll learn how to make them Russian-style (with potato and onions) or stuffed with pork, before a sweet finale that sees them filled with raspberries or strawberries. Stomach lined, spend the evening on Eat Warsaw’s vodka tour, which visits several bars chosen for their range of high quality Polish tipples and accompanying snacks.
Arrive: BA, LOT, Norwegian and Wizz Air fly to Warsaw Chopin airport, while Ryanair flies to the less central Modlin.
Stay: Castle Inn has artistically themed rooms in a townhouse in the old centre.
With around 80 food markets, Paris offers an embarrassment of produce for anyone keen to cook up their own French feast — if they know how. On the evening cooking course run by Cook’n with Class, held in an intimate Montmartre kitchen, participants learn how to transform their edible array into a complete dinner, from starter to dessert. Would-be chefs begin at the Rue du Poteau street market, visiting its stalls and speciality shops with a professional chef to select the ingredients. Back at the school the group settles on a three-course menu to cook from scratch, under the guidance of the chef — a typical lesson might include the likes of sautéed scallops, duck breast with stewed cherries or financier cake with figs. Finally, everyone gathers round a table for a leisurely meal continental-style, with the requisite Gallic extras — abundant cheese and wine — plus a traditional aperitif.
Arrive: Eurostar serves Paris from London St Pancras; most flights from the UK land at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport.
Stay: Montmartre’s Hotel Amour features ultra-cool, individually themed rooms.
The average Londoner might not brew their own beer any more as they did in medieval times, but the city’s new raft of craft ales and microbreweries make it a great place to make your own DIY stash. Head to the gastronomic hotspot of Brixton for a half-day course at London Beer Lab, where wannabe brewers learn how to make 20 litres of their favourite all-grain beer, with a return session, ideally about six weeks later, to bottle their nicely fermented brew.
Complement it by seeing how the professionals do it on a tour of the state-of-the-art Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. Toast the weekend down the road at sister site the Old Brewery, a restaurant-brewery inside the Unesco-listed Royal Naval College’s old brewhouse. In a hall hung with bottles, diners have views of the brewing process as they tuck into a British menu.
Arrive: Brixton is a seven-minute tube journey from Victoria station, and North Greenwich nine minutes from London Bridge station.
Stay: Set in a storied Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, the Harlingford is full of historic features.
The aurora borealis is Mother Nature’s greatest light show – a firework-like display lighting winter skies at some of the planet’s darkest latitudes. Named after the Roman goddess of dawn (Aurora) and the northerly wind (borealis), it occurs when charged particles from the sun are magnetically deflected to the Earth’s polar regions, releasing light as they collide with the atmosphere. Most displays are green, but some include reds, blues, pinks and violets.
The lights are most dependably seen at latitudes north of 60° N, on clear, cloudless nights between September and April. They’re sometimes visible as far south as Scotland, but are most usually sighted in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Alaska and Canada. Though you might see the aurora anywhere within the Arctic Circle, Abisko in Sweden, Tromsø in Norway and Nellim in Finland are popular spots to track them.
The Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca believed the green bands to be giant holes in the sky.
Viking sailors reputedly held that the lights were the Valkyries (Odin’s fair maidens) galloping across the heavens.
Inuits imagined the lights represented the spirits of their family and friends dancing in the next life.
Fishermen in northern Sweden once deemed the phenomena a good omen, and a sign of rich catches.
Seeing the aurora is never guaranteed, but head away from urban areas and light pollution, pick a clear, starry night and find a good vantage point, such as a hilltop or lakeside. Also, check if your hotel has a wake-up service, to alert you if the lights appear.
Brewing in London
The Bermondsey Beer Mile is a welcome new map label in London: a clutch of small breweries set up under the railway arches that strike out from London Bridge station towards Kent – the home of English hops. Most only open for tastings on Saturdays, and a weekend trip is also the best bet to experience UBREW, where visitors can craft their own brews. The six-hour, all-grain course starts from scratch, and ends with – a few weeks later – a truly unique beer to bring home. In the meantime, take a stroll via the old riverside warehouses of Shad Thames to the nearby George Inn, a National Trust-owned beauty from 1677 that gives a glimpse into past centuries of London beer-drinking.
Go Wild in Yorkshire
Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch; at least, once you’ve paid to learn how to forage for food safely and legally in the British countryside. Taste the Wild runs a variety of courses in North Yorkshire, where they own a plot of woodland in pastoral country near the town of Boroughbridge.
The Wild Food Weekend is stretched over two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, with foraging walks and classes on preparing wild game and cooking over a wood fire. By the time you head home, you should be converted to the joys of salting your own foraged mushrooms and making stockpiles of preserves from future weekend walks.
Cooking in Ireland
Wicklow is the first county south of Dublin, and it helpfully gathers some of the best Irish experiences in one place for those short on time, from driving past mountains and ruins on the old Military Road to expanding your cooking skills over a weekend at the ivy-clad, 19th-century Ballyknocken House. Its owner, the Wicklow-born celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio, has added Italian influence to the Irish menu, so at dinner you can expect the likes of sorrel soup with soda bread to be followed by spinach and ricotta-stuffed rosemary chicken. A Foodie Short Break for Two includes a night’s accommodation, Irish breakfast, a four-course dinner and two places on one of a variety of half-day courses.
Bread-Making in Scotland
For something so basic, bread can be hard to fathom: a foodstuff far more than the sum of its parts, whose success can turn on the slightest of factors. Bread Matters aims to take most of the mystery out of the process with its courses in the renewably powered Macbiehill Farmhouse, overlooking the hills of the Scottish Borders. The most popular is the two-day Fundamental Course. After some theory, to show what’s going on with yeast and flour at a microscopic level, there’s time for plenty of practice, ending up with a half-dozen types of bread to take home.
A Wine Tour In Spain
La Rioja may be Spain’s best-known wine region, but Ribera del Duero can claim some top vintages, in more sense than one. Prized wines from this stretch of the Duero river include Vega Sicilia and Dominio de Pingus; and at around 800 metres in altitude, the vines grow higher than in most Alpine vineyards. SmoothRed offers a three-day taster, with chauffeured tours and tapas lunches that bring out the best in the Tempranillo-based wines.
Feasting In Athens
Long before its link with rice pudding, ambrosia was the food of the gods in Greek myth, believed to confer immortality. That delicacy is sadly not available beyond Mount Olympus, but an Athenian Ambrosia Cooking Experience is open to all who wish to find out what powers modern Greeks. Taught by Athenian Eleni Melirrytos, the one-day class heads to a local market to pick up ingredients, before tackling a menu that might include cheesy filo pies, stuffed aubergine, and pistachio-filled baklava. The next day, see what the city’s most exciting restaurants are doing with Greek produce at addresses like Athiri and south Greece-inspired Mani Mani.
A Norman Conquest
Its combination of long sea coast and rich farm country has always made Normandy a welcome guest at the French dinner table, with specialities from scallops and salt marsh lamb to Camembert and calvados. Irish-born Sinéad Allart has spent a decade helping visitors master the culinary nuances of her adopted home through courses at La Blonderie, an 18th-century manor house just inland from the beaches of the Cotentin Peninsula. Excursions to a local cider maker and the market in medieval Bricquebec provide changes of pace in between sessions concocting Norman favourites such as poulet Vallée d‘Auge (chicken in a creamy apple and calvados sauce) and teurgoule – local rice pudding.
The heather-clad hills of the Trossachs and their centerpiece, Loch Lomond, the largest and most famous of Scotland’s fjordlike lakes, have enthralled travelers since novelist Sir Walter Scott’s writings first popularized the area in the early 19th century. Here the Lowlands meet the Highlands of the north and west in an area rich in history thanks to Rob Roy (Red Robert), a real-life 18th-century Highlander, cattle dealer, and outlaw who became a Scottish folk hero akin to England’s Robin Hood. In addition, there is Stirling Castle, the country’s most significant stronghold—whoever held Stirling controlled the Scottish nation.
Dating to the Middle Ages and second only to Edinburgh Castle in grandeur, it was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, as an infant monarch. Just north of Glasgow, the Trossachs envelop visitors in the sort of pristine wildness usually associated with the Highlands farther north. The “bonnie, bonnie banks” of Loch Lomond (dotted with thirty-some tiny islands) are bonnie indeed, but Sir Walter Scott also favored the freshwater beauty of Loch Katrine.
You’ll leave the world behind when you step on the private launch that brings you to this remote 17th-century sheep drover’s inn on the steep shores of Loch Broom. Altnaharrie’s otherworldly loveliness is due in part to no TV, no phones, and a generator that shuts down at night. There are just eight simple bedrooms of great charm to accommodate the worshipful food lovers who come from all over to partake in the artistry of Norwegian-born chef Gunn Eriksen.
A remarkable meal begins as you sit at a table where wildflowers are folded into your napkin. There’s no choice in the set five-course menu, but you’ll be happy to leave the evening in the masterful hands of the chef who relies entirely on whatever is available from the local waters and suppliers. She has achieved celebrity status by not adhering to strict gastronomic conventions; the success of each inventive dish derives from delicate and simple flavors. Breakfast is as much a joy as the evening’s repast was a masterpiece.
Every country estate must have country, and Kinnaird is surrounded by 9,000 glorious acres of it. Even in Scotland’s beautiful countryside, few of the many castles or manor houses accepting overnight guests can match this. Despite the breadth and enormity of the estate, and the growing reputation of its impeccable restaurant, Kinnaird, with just nine beautifully furnished rooms in the magnificent 1770 manor, is a place of great warmth and charm.
Its welcoming ambience is due in large part to the smiling, house-proud staff and the easy going outlook of the owner, the American-born Constance Ward. She ensures the well-heeled guests an authentic Scottish country-house atmosphere free of stifling reserve, but with an infallible attention to the utmost detail more commonly found in five-star hotels. Set above a bluff overlooking the fish-rich River Tay and with storybook views down the valley, Kinnaird was built as a hunting lodge for a local duke of obvious wealth.
It still attracts a mostly field-and- stream clientele, though even the most unoutdoorsy types are lured by country walks through a contemplative and poetic landscape of woodlands, moors, lochs, ponds, and heather-covered hills.
The small, fertile island of Shapinsay, one of the northernmost of the sixty- seven islands that make up Scotland’s remote Orkney archipelago, is even today given over mostly to cattle and sheep rearing and is small enough to walk around in one day. Here you can get away from Wi-Fi and tax collectors and reduce stress to zero; seal and bird watching (with some 300 species identified in the islands) are the highlight of the day, and your background music is the bleating of lambs and the sound of seagulls against the ocean waves.
The seven-spired Balfour Castle is a land mark of the windblown Orkney Islands. Built in 1848 around an existing 1793 house by Shipinsay’s most important benefactor, Balfour Castle was purchased in 1960 by a Polish officer, Captain Zawadski. His Scottish widow and her family run it today as a distinguished home and country manor for twelve lucky guests. Meals are ample, simple, and delicious, with vegetables from the castle’s gardens, locally grown meats and shellfish from the island’s waters (guests are not likely to recall ever tasting sweeter lobster or scallops) and served when the gong is sounded from somewhere deep in the castle.
If there’s a TV on the premises no one ever requests Cliffs of the Orkney Islands it, and the only newspaper on the island is the Orcadian, which comes out every Thursday. The only pub in Shapinsay, found in the castle’s old gatehouse, gives a unique spin to “island nightlife.”