We’ve learned that if there’s something you love to read, it’s getting the lowdown on England’s secret spots. For your travelling pleasure, we’ve added a new collection of England’s most beautiful destinations that are a little less well known. From small villages to vibrant cities, we’re recommending these beautiful places for your trip. Be sure to check out these hidden gems of secret England.
- 1 Secret England: What Do We Mean?
- 2 Exeter: A Condensed History of England
- 3 Ironbridge: Cradle of Invention
- 4 Bideford: The Little White Town On The River
- 5 Robin Hood’s Bay: Wild Smugglers’ Tales
- 6 Rutland: Meet England’s Smallest County
- 7 Chester: Medieval Majesty On The Borders
- 8 Stroud: Cotswold Charm
- 9 Margate: Seascapes and Surprises
- 10 Shrewsbury: Welsh Border Town
- 11 Matlock Bath: A Place Of Quirks And Epic Beauty
- 12 Poole: Islands, Harbours And The Jurassic Coast
- 13 Secret England: How To Visit The Hidden Gems
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Secret England: What Do We Mean?
Cast a cursory glance online and you’ll be sure to find all kinds of recommendations for places to visit on your trip to the UK. In our secret England series, we’ve tried to find you something a little different. We’re thinking beyond the heavy hitters of the tourist trail. Here you’ll find small villages with quirks that require investigation. There are cities where you can spot the history of England within a 5 minute walk. You’ll see places that are less famous, but just as spectacular. And you’ll find spots that – without trying too hard – typify England.
Did you catch our first collection of secret England? If not, you’ll find it here: England’s Best Kept Secrets: 15 Undiscovered Places To Enjoy
Buxton: Jewel Of The Peak District
The highest market town in England, standing over 1000 feet above sea level, Buxton is the gateway to the Peak District National Park. It’s an elegant and fascinating place. Occasionally cut off by snow in winter, Buxton has numerous charms that make it well worth making the effort to explore. Blessed with buildings like the Georgian Crescent above, Buxton is one of England’s historic spa towns. Also here you will find the Opera House, ornate with stained glass and with a full programme of cultural treasures including music and theatre festivals.
Poole’s Cavern is an extensive limescale system waiting to be explored. You’ll also find St Anne’s Well, fed by geothermal springs and the source of bottled Buxton Mineral Water. The Romans built baths here, and Mary, Queen of Scots was held captive in the Talbot Tower while she took the “water cure”. As you would expect from the gateway to the Peak District, many outdoor adventures also start here.
Exeter: A Condensed History of England
Forgive me for a little nostalgia here, as I spent some years living in Exeter. If you want to get a grip on secret England’s history in a single spot, then you can’t do much better than this beautiful city on the river Exe in Devon. Favoured by the Romans, you can still see parts of Isca’s city walls, plus Roman relics in Exeter Museum. Then there’s the glorious cathedral, rising in Gothic splendor from the green lawns of Cathedral Yard. In this beautiful green square, you’ll find plenty more nods to architectural eras of excellence. There’s Tudor (Mol’s Coffee House) and Regency elegance (the side of the Yard that gives way to the High Street).
Down a little lane, you’ll find the quaint, dark Ship Inn, frequented by seafarer Sir Francis Drake. (Yes, the one that dealt with the Armada.) Then there’s the ornate Guildhall. To one side you’ll find Parliament Street, reputed to he the narrowest street in England. Breathe in. Walk a little further to Gandy Street, whose tiny and curious shops gave inspiration to J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley.
Next are the elegant red remains of Rougemont Castle. Don’t forget to engage in house envy at its fabulous lodge. Fore Street Hill leads you to the House That Moved, a black and white Tudor building shifted gently on giant rollers to make way for a new road. Then there’s the Maritime Museum at the Quay, and a brilliant walk to the Double Locks pub, which can only be approached by towpath or boat. You could also try the Mill on the Exe, built over the weir.
Ironbridge: Cradle of Invention
You’d expect the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution to be just a little industrial. But I’m delighted to say that the town of Ironbridge is beautiful, meandering gently alongside the River Severn in a deep gorge. Yet it was here that the great minds of the Industrial Revolution came together. First, there’s the Ironbridge itself, creating an elegant swoop of a semi-circle with its mirror image in the water below. This feat of engineering was built in 1779, and, like the area that takes its name, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Successive generations of the Darby family coaxed giant blast furnaces into operation, with their iron products making a great change in prosperity across the country. In essence, the building of the great Iron Bridge was the social media campaign of the time, creating excitement about the changes taking place. Today you’ll find this to be a destination that encourages walking around. There are many vibrant living museums, full of activities and not at all stuffy. Then you have the independent shops and tearooms, and walks in the Gorge to gain an appetite for your next stop. Don’t forget to visit Jackfield and Coalport, both famous for pottery, tile abd porcelain. Despite being a World Heritage Site, this is still secret England, so go explore.
Bideford: The Little White Town On The River
Author Charles Kingsley is responsible for this description of sweet Bideford, which does indeed rise like a collection of polka dots alongside the estuary. As you approach from the high swooping new bridge, you can see that Bideford is still full of those white houses climbing the hills from the bank of the River Torridge. The beautiful arched stone bridge above dates back to 1535, with Bideford itself having been mentioned earlier in the Domesday Book. The old bridge links Bideford with the descriptively named East-the-Water, surely worth a visit for its name alone
This is a traditional port town, and one with plenty to offer. From here you can pick up the Tarka Trail, a cycling and walking path taking you along the river estuaries of the Taw and Torridge to the coast. Tarka the Otter country is truly breathtaking. This is also one of the ports from which the MV Osterberg sails to untamed Lundy Island, full of wildlife and stark landscapes. Lights go out at night on Lundy unless you are in the 24 hour island pub, so it’s a great place to stay over and see the stars.
Bideford seems to offer a gentler way of life. Here you can get a flavour of secret England from many years ago. There are small lanes studded with cottages, independent shops and adventures to have on the river. In fact it gives me nostalgia for childhood life in Devon, with the smell of the bakery, ice creams on the quay and taking the bike somewhere to discover new places. It’s also a great base to stay and explore. Don’t forget to expend more adrenaline here, whether dinghy racing at Instow or surfing on the north Devon coast.
Robin Hood’s Bay: Wild Smugglers’ Tales
This historic fishing village is on the Heritage Coast of the North York Moors. It boasts a family and dog friendly sandy beach, laced with rock pools and fossils. The village itself is charming, with narrow winding cobbled streets and alleyways. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine the maritime history here: fishermen, sailors and smugglers. Legend has it that Robin Hood took back goods stolen from the village by French sailors and returned them to their rightful owners.
This part of secret England has many secrets of its own. The maze of tiny streets provided an easy environment to lose people in pursuit of smugglers. There is reputed to be a network of underground passages linking the houses. The Yorkshire coast was home to plenty of smuggled goods in the 18th century, with contraband consisting of gin, rum, brandy, tobacco and tea being brought in from France and the Netherlands. The excise cutters Mermaid and Eagle were chased out of the bay in 1773 by three smuggling vessels, with a dockside battle over 15 sacks of tea and 200 casks of brandy and gin in 1779.
Today you get cafes, independent shops, pubs and restaurants. With neighbouring Whitby and Scarborough to boost your explorations, don’t forget time to take in the North York Moors National Park too. This is a place for coastal and country walks, with cycle paths and bridleways passing the village. Want to see Robin Hood’s Bay right now? Check out their webcam. There are plenty of dogs enjoying the sands while I’m writing this on a Sunday lunchtime.
Rutland: Meet England’s Smallest County
Tiny Rutland is the smallest historic county of England. It measures just 18 miles by 17 miles, sneaking in between Leicester and Stamford. Here you’ll find two towns: pretty Oakham and Uppingham, home to a renowned school. Many of the older cottages in Rutland are made from limestone or ironstone with thatched or slate roofs. In Oakham, check out the great hall of the Norman castle with its six carvings of musicians, plus All Saints Church. The market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Be sure to stop off at the Buttercross, where you can see the ancient wooden stocks. Do something bad, and you’d spend time locked up there, and possibly get pelted with unpleasant items.
Rutland Water is a large reservoir acting as an important nature reserve for overwintering birds. It’s also a breeding site for ospreys. Driving down to Rutland Water surprises you with the size of the reservoir. In fact it’s so big that you, like us could take the Rutland Belle to explore the waters from this elegant boat in its secret England lake.
In 2006, it was reported that Rutland had the highest fertility rate of any English county. I could source no more recent data, but I mention it in case this influences your decision to visit… Also, should you be of royal descent or a peer, be sure to comply with tradition and have a horseshoe ready to present to the Lord of Oakham. You’ll find 200 horseshoes in the castle. Oddly, they hang the wrong way up (gap at the bottom). This is thought to be unlucky, but Rutlanders believe it prevents the Devil riding in the horseshoe.
Chester: Medieval Majesty On The Borders
A walled city on the banks of the River Dee, Chester was founded as the Roman fort Deva Victrix in 79AD. The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls to protect the city against the Danes, Chester later being one of the last cities to fall to the Normans. William the Conqueror then ordered a castle to be built to defend this border city against Wales. From this history, you’ll be pleased to note that Chester is one of the best preserved walled cities in England. The city walls are almost intact, save for a hundred metre gap. Black and white timbered buildings are preserved here. Many of them are Victorian reconstructions. If these timbered buildings delight you, then don’t forget to check out their counterparts on the black and white villages trail in Herefordshire.
One magnificent feature of the city is the Chester Rows. The Rows are covered walkways at first floor level, off which are entrances to shops and other businesses. There is street level access to a lower set of shops and business, thus making a two tier street. Or, if you like to think of it this way, a medieval shopping centre. The Rows, which cover the four main streets of Chester, are completely unique. The undercrofts to The Rows were built in stone with timber buildings above. About 20 of the stone undercrofts remain, and many of the buildings above contain portions of the original structures.
There’s a 1000 year old cathedral to explore with what are said to be Europe’s finest medieval carvings plus the oldest Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Don’t forget to take a picture of Eastgate Clock (above). It’s one of the UK’s most photographed clocks after Big Ben. There’s a great foodie vibe in the city too, with restaurants, cafes and pubs to enjoy.
Stroud: Cotswold Charm
Gentle Stroud sits to the west of the Cotswolds, beyond most daytripping choices from Oxford or London. Full of steep streets and cafe living, this is a town full of feelgood factor. Surrounded by the Cotswolds Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Stroud has plenty of reasons to feel good. You can join the Costwold Way to enjoy walking the breadth of the beautiful Cotswold Hills here.
Stroud’s wealth grew in the Industrial Revolution when the rivers of five valleys powered mills to weave the wool of Cotswold sheep. You’ll also find evidence of much earlier settlement from Neolithic times onward, including long barrows at Selsey Common and Roman remains at Frocester. There’s medieval Belverston Castle and Tudor houses at Newark Park and Owlpen Manor. Woodchester Mansion, a splendid example of Gothic Revival, can be visited in the summer months. Hidden in a beautiful valley, this is about as secret England as you can get.
Once described as being to art what Hay-on-Wye is to books (and that’s a mighty fine recommendation), Stroud has also been likened to Notting Hill with wellies. Are you getting the vibe yet? Home to a bohemian atmosphere, with gatherings of artists, musicians and authors, Stroud is clearly the place to get inspired.
Margate: Seascapes and Surprises
Just 15 miles from Canterbury in Kent, you’ll find the seaside town of Margate. Considered a “limb” of Dover as one of the historic Cinque Ports, there’s are seafaring histories here, including being part of the Hundred Years War. The town’s own website describes it as the “orignal seaside” which gives you some idea of what to expect. Surrounded by chalk cliffs and sandy bays, you have lots to explore on foot here, using the Viking Coastal Trail as your guide.
Step over to Dreamland amusement park for vintage rides, including a spectacular rollercoaster noted for having the brakeman operating the ride from the centre of the cars. Margate Museum will tell you more of the history of sea bathing and daytrippers. The Tudor House is thought to have been the home of a wealthy yeoman farmer. The Theatre Royal is the second oldest in the country, and the wonderfully named Tom Thumb one of the smallest.
Impressed by the seascapes here? So was the artist Turner, who conveyed the surprising beauty of Margate’s skies and seas to canvas. Here you’ll find the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Why not try your hand at capturing the beauty of the coast either in paint or on film?
Shrewsbury: Welsh Border Town
Almost enclosed by a loop of the River Severn, the charming town of Shrewsbury hosts a Welsh Bridge and an English Bridge. Over 600 listed buildings give the town its character and its recommendation as a part of secret England. There are timber framed houses, the red sandstone Shrewsbury Castle and the former Benedictine monastery at Shrewsbury Abbey. The town is the birthplace of Charles Darwin, and he certainly had plenty to explore in the natural world surrounding the town.
Shrewsbury’s visitor website comments on its delightful higgledy-piggledy set of streets, and that’s entirely true. Those streets also have mightily quirky names. The Dana (pronounced Danner) is named after a local vicar and will take you (via steps) around the castle. Ditherington Road in the north of the city takes its name from the original meaning of dither, meaning shake or quake. Public hangings once took place here at Old Heath. Battlefield does indeed refer to a battle – the first using longbows. As for Grope Lane? I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Matlock Bath: A Place Of Quirks And Epic Beauty
I’ve struggled to find words to describe Matlock Bath. It’s both exquisitely beautiful and odd, but in a very good way. The village of less than 1000 people is situated in the Peak District, so its small population helps make it part of secret England. If you think that means spectacular natural scenery, you’re absolutely right. In the 19th century, the area was developed as a spa town. The very steepness of the river valley means that the development rests mostly on one side of the river, with footbridges carrying people to the other bank.
John Ruskin and Lord Byron were visitors to Matlock Bath. Byron compared it to alpine Switzerland, and that remains a perceptive view of the beauty of the area. So why do I call it quirky? It’s the unusual marriage of epic scenic beauty and tourist attractions. Here you’ll find the Heights of Abraham, complete with a cable car ride up High Tor (the cliff itself being popular with climbers). If you have a head for heights, try Giddy Edge, the aptly named narrow winding path along the cliff edge.
There’s also the Gulliver’s Kingdom theme park, the Peak District Mining Museum, the Grand Pavilion, an aquarium and a confection of tea shops. On summer Sundays you’ll catch hundreds of bikers enjoying the challenging winding ride through Matlock Bath, maybe stopping off for an ice cream or two. It shouldn’t work. But it absolutely does, and Matlock Bath is always high on my list of places to visit. I commend it to you as part of secret England. Try visiting in autumn for the Venetian Nights with illuminations along the river and on boats.
Poole: Islands, Harbours And The Jurassic Coast
You’ll discover some of the UK’s most exclusive housing at Sandbanks in Poole, where property comes at eye watering prices to enjoy the heart stopping views. However, it’s easy to enjoy the delights of Poole on a normal person’s budget. Poole’s natural harbour is the largest in Europe, There are eight unique islands and a peninsula to explore. And you’re on the Jurassic Coast, surely one of the world’s most amazing coastlines and a World Heritage Site in its own right. It took a massive 185 million years to carve that beauty.
Poole has award winning beaches, an extravagance of watersports, and history aplenty reflecting its role in maritime trade to places as distant as Newfoundland. By the early eighteenth century, the town had more ships trading with North America than any other English port. This brought wealth, which is why you see fine Georgian buildings in the town. Poole was an important embarkation port for the D-Day Landings. Be sure to visit Old Town and Poole Harbour during your trip. If you’ve already seen Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, you’ll be sure to enjoy Poole as part of secret England.
From Poole, you can take a ferry to Cherbourg – a frequent trip for our family when I was a child. You can also take a choice of much shorter boat trips to Brownsea Island. This island wildlife sanctuary has epic views to the Purbeck Hills and each season brings new things to treasure. One of the few UK colonies of red squirrels is found here. The Island is managed by the National Trust. In addition to day trips you can stay in cottages, the bunkhouse or camp to make the best of this epic wild space. Brownsea Island Ferries also offer trips to see more wildlife, including birds and dolphins.
Secret England: How To Visit The Hidden Gems
If you have just 10 days in the UK, you may wonder how you are going to fit in some of these hidden gems. I’ve tried to show you a scattering of places across the country. This means that you could manage a side trip or two. If anywhere is jumping up and down and saying “vist me”, then it’s likely to be possible. For example Poole isn’t far from Salisbury, Shrewsbury is just over an hour from Birmingham, and Stroud is easily visited from Bristol. So take your itinerary in both hands, look at what will make you happy to see secret England and get planning.
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Are there places you’d like to see included in future hidden gems? Let us know in the comments below. We’ve spent more than a century between us exploring England’s great places, and we’re always eager to explore more.
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