Best of Britain
Everyone wants to make the most of their time on earth and Rough Guides’ new compact sized book, Make the Most of Your Time on Earth, tells you how to go about it. We’ve handpicked five of Britain’s best travel experiences to whet the appetite
HUNTING GHOSTS IN YORK
Roman and Viking history, the Minster and Betty’s Tearooms maybe visitor staples during the day, but there are some rather different experiences to be had on the backstreets of York after dark. At night, at various points around the city, groups of tourists gather, some nervously wringing their hands, others cracking jokes to ease their apprehension. As the Minster bell tolls, their guide arrives, clad in funeral black, and a hushed silence falls upon the group. Leading his flock down the shadowy streets, the ghoulish journey begins.
With its turbulent history, it’s not surprising that York is such a hangout for things that go bump in the night. Founded by the Romans in 71 AD as “Eboracum” the city has suffered Viking invasion, Civil War, the Black Death and a cholera epidemic. With its narrow lanes, twisting alleyways and dark, looming Tudor buildings, it’s a decidedly spooky place to wander in the dark. The Shambles (originally the Anglo-Saxon “Fleshammels”– meaning “Street of the Butchers”) is an obligatory stop off for any “hunting party”, one of the city’s oldest streets and mentioned in the Domesday Book. Ghostly apparitions that have appeared here include a headless Sir Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who was executed in 1572 for plotting against Queen Elizabeth 1; and a forlorn Margaret Clitherow, crushed to death by authorities for illegally harbouring Catholic priests in 1586. Another stop is The Treasurer’s House, reputedly the most haunted building in Britain. Legless Roman soldiers, a murderous wife and sallow faced children are all said to lurk in the corridors of the house, built in 1419. The ghosts are not just limited to humans though: a large black hound with red glowing eyes is also said to patrol the city’s gloomy snickleways and passages.
You have been warned.
Is Holkham Bay in north Norfolk the best beach in Britain? It must certainly be the broadest. At high tide, you follow the private road from Holkham Hall, walk through a stretch of woods and expect to find the sea at your feet. But it is – literally – miles away: two miles at the very least, shimmering beyond a huge expanse of dunes, pools, flat sands and salt marsh. If it’s your first visit, it may seem oddly familiar – for this was the location for Gwyneth Paltrow’s walk along the sands, as Viola, at the end of Shakespeare in Love.
The amazing thing about Holkam is that, even with the filming of a Hollywood movie in full swing, you could have wandered onto the beach and not noticed. It is that big. You could saunter off from the crowds near the road’s end and within a few minutes you’re on your own, splashing through tidal pools, picking up the odd shell, or – if it’s warm enough – diving into the sea. You can walk along the beach all the way to Wells (to the east) or Overy Staithe (west), or drop back from the sea and follow trails through woods of Corsican pines. Just beware going out onto the sandbanks when there’s a rising tide: it comes in alarmingly fast.
Birdlife is exceptional around Holkham – which is a protected reserve – and you’ll see colonies of Brent geese, chattering and little terns, and many other birds. And if you head down the coast to Cley-next-the-Sea or to Blakeney, you’ll find even more riches, accompanied by rows of twitchers, camped behind binoculars. Take time to walk out to the hides at Cley Marshes or for a boat ride to Blakeney Point, where you can watch up to 400 common and grey seals basking on the mud.
HOARDING BOOKS IN HAY-ON-WYE
Though a drive through the electrically green countryside that surrounds Hay-on-Wye makes for a perfectly lovely afternoon, the more potent draw is the sleepy Welsh town’s mouth-watering amount of printed matter: with over a million books crammed into its aging stories, quaint, cobblestoned Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelkli, in Welsh) is a bibliographic Mecca to be reckoned with.
Dusty volumes are packed in like sardines, occupying everywhere the eyes roam. Moldering British cookbooks fight for shelf space – some of them in shops down tucked away alleys verdant with moss and mildew – with plant taxonomy guides, romance novels and pricey but lavishly produced first editions.
To unearth these treasures, the intrepid book hunter need only meander into one of the many bookshops that liberally dot the town. And with a human-to-bookstore ratio of 40:1, there’s a lot of choice. Mystery aficionados should check out Murder & Mayhem, while a visit to The Poetry Bookshop is de rigueur for fans of verse. One of the largest and most diverse collections can be found at the Hay Cinema Bookshop – rickety mini-stairways, two sprawling floors and a labyrinth series of rooms loosely divided by subject matter create a unique book-browsing space that seems to exist outside the space-time continuum for the way in which it can so wholly consume an afternoon. Stay long enough and your faith that there’s an underlying logic to the bookshelves’ progression from “Fifteenth-century Russian History” to “British Water Fowl” to “Erotica” will grow wonderfully, psychotically strong.
Topic-driven pilgrimages aside, a visit to the two outdoor used bookstores in front of crumbling Hay Castle is unmissable. Ringed by stone ramparts, the castle – nearly 1000 years old – provides a striking backdrop as you rifle through scads of books eclectic in appearance as much as theme.
FLYING WITH BA TO BARRA AND BEYOND
BA88555 is perhaps the oddest scheduled domestic flight in Britain. It is a twenty-seater propeller plane that takes off daily from Glasgow and lands an hour later directly on the beach at Barra, the southernmost island of the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides. There is no airstrip, nor are there even any lights on the sand, and the flight times shift to fit in with the tide tables, because at high tide the runway is submerged.
Even if Barra were a dreary destination, the flight would be worth taking simply for the views it gives of Scotland’s beautiful west coast and the islands of Mull, Skye, Rum and Eigg. It’s probably the only British Airways Flight on which the woman who demonstrates the safety procedure then turns round, gets into the cockpit and flies the plane.
The Western Isles is the only part of Britain – and one of only a few in the world – where you can experience truly stunning landscape and solitude at the same time, a hundred-mile-long archipelago consisting of a million exquisitely beautiful acres with a population that would leave Old Trafford stadium two thirds empty.
Give yourself a week to drive slowly up through the island chain, from Barra to Eriskay, site of the famous “Whisky Galore” shipwreck (both the real and fictional one), from South Uist to Benbecula to North Uist, then finally to Harris and Lewis. Some islands are linked by causeways (all of which have “Beware Otters Crossing” traffic signs), others by car ferries. Stop if you can at the Scarista Inn, a gourmet paradise set in the midst of a walker’s Eden alongside a stunning, vast, perpetually empty white sandy beach.
CATCHING THE LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS
As much a part of the British summer as strawberries and cream, the Proms can also lay claim to being the biggest classical music festival on the planet, watched by millions around the globe. Eight weeks of daily concerts culminate in the raucous end of term party that is the Last Night, when after a relatively light programme of popular classics a 5000 strong audience – including a core of die hard “Prommers”, armed with Union Jacks and klaxons and sporting straw boaters – attempts to raise the roof of London’s Royal Albert Hall with rousing patriotic sing-alongs in the Rule Britannia vein. Tickets are not easy to get. To apply for Last Night tickets in advance, you need to book for at least six other concerts. If this seems like overkill, join the misty eyed, flag waving hordes at the open-air Proms in the Park for big screen link-ups to the main event in Hyde Park and now in other cities around Britain too. All together now: “Land of Hope and Glory….”
For a further 995 ultimate travel experiences in Britain and beyond, check out Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: A Rough Guide To The World, £12.99, www.roughguides.com