Timeout

Five underrated corners of Britain to discover this summer


So far, so summery. In recent weeks the UK has had the kind of dry, warm – even, occasionally, balmy - weather that makes those of us who are not flying away for our holidays feel a wee bit smug.

That said, as a resident of South Devon, I’m all too familiar with the conundrum of opting for a staycation: from June through to September, the sandy beaches, beauty spots, festival-mad cities and well-trodden trails of these overpopulated islands are thronging with fellow stayers, as well as the millions of foreign visitors who are wont to seek out the classic highlights marketed at them by Visit Britain.

We all know what to avoid if we don’t like crowds: the list of overtourism hangouts includes Ambleside, Bath, Ben Nevis, Central London (and hectic suburban honeypots like Camden and Richmond), Edinburgh, Oxford, St Ives, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Isle of Skye, plus anything that has been product-placed in films, books or the telly. Harry Potter sites are probably in slow decline; Game of Thrones locations will still be thronging.

But where do we go if we want some wilderness? For a small country, we have a lot more options than you might think. Lowland Scotland, Mid-Wales, central England... and Northern Ireland has never flogged the clichés like its Emerald-hued sister to the south. Even close to big hitters such as Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District are underexplored landscapes and towns? When did you last go to the Cheviots? Never, probably. Who’s having a weekend break in Carlisle? Almost no-one.

We’re keen to find out which quiet corners of the UK you’d recommend (use the comment box at the bottom of the article) – if you’re willing to share your secrets, that is. Meanwhile, here are five safe havens where you can get away from it all – and them all!

The Rhinogs, North Wales

The top of Mount Snowdon, with its train, visitor centre and cafe, can feel like Oxford Circus on a bad Saturday afternoon. But just to the south of the main Snowdonia massif is a secret, smallish, rather special range known as The Rhinogs (Rhinogydd in Welsh).

Made up of gently sloping, grassy, heather-cloaked hills as well as more rugged sections, plus the lovely lake Llyn Hywel, the area has walking trails for all levels of ability. Y Lethr (2,480 ft) is the tallest summit, while Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr are popular targets for keen hikers; the Roman Steps packhorse track up the latter mountain is a great introduction to the range. There’s good camping, and you can always opt to stay in Harlech, an often overlooked coast town with a stunning castle. The village of Llanbedr is a good base if you plan to tackle the two peaks.

Lancashire coast

Come the season of sandcastles and short trousers, Southport and Blackpool still pull in punters (though nothing like in their heyday). But south of these resort towns is a strip of continuous beach from Crossens to Crosby. As well as plenty of bathing and picnic sites, it’s ideally suited to walking. Make for the largely flat 21-mile Sefton Coastal Path, passing Antony Gormley’s Another Place installation of 100 life-size bronze figures at Crosby, beautiful Formby, Ainsdale nature reserve, and the Marshside RSPB reserve. Cyclists can ride some sections or or do a 34.7-mile loop just inland on the Seaside Circular path, using a hybrid or mountain bike.

Once you’re done, exit on the train through Liverpool’s impressive cuttings (on the world’s oldest passenger line) and make a stop at St Helens, an off-radar Lancs mining town, with an excellent glass museum, the North West Museum of Road Transport and the Heart of Glass socially minded arts practice.

The Cairngorms

While competing with Exmoor for the alluring title of “UK’s least visited national park”, the Cairngorms have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Spread over 1,748 square miles – twice the size of the Lake District – this is the largest national park in the land and a truly massive area of mountains, forests, rivers, lochs and wildlife sanctuaries, with friendly villages and distilleries to provide the essential bunks and drams.

Come prepared. Five of our six highest mountains lie within, alongside 55 Munros – mountains over 3,000 ft – and, as seasoned walkers will tell you, hikes here often involve long approaches. The weather can turn faster than the local mountain hares, which puts off the fair-weather softy-strollers, leaving it even quieter for hardier folk. The arctic-alpine tundra-like environment is a habitat for golden eagles, ptarmigan and capercaillie, and wild camping is encouraged. Want to forget that other people, cities, civilisation exist? Last year the area southwest of the Glenlivet distillery was named the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world.

Carmarthenshire, Wales

The M4 is South Wales’s tourism jugular, speeding those Midlanders and southerners who can’t afford Cornwall to the “Little England” that is Pembrokeshire. But to get to Tenby, St David’s and the other crammed coastal enclaves, all cars, buses and trains have to pass through Carmarthenshire. While living in Laugharne a few years ago, I never understood why more people didn’t pause, or even stay put, in this huge, green, serene, historic county.

As well as the tiny estuarial township I adopted for a while, where lie the remains, and writing shed, of Dylan Thomas, Carmarthenshire is home to the National Wetlands Centre, National Botanic Gardens of Wales, ancient Carmarthen (once one of the most populous place in Wales), several Norman forts including the imposing and well-preserved Kidwelly Castle, good coastal walking, lots of beaches – from Pendine with its motor-racing history to silky-white, eight-mile-wide Cefn Sidan – and the less explored westerly peaks of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Enter/exit via Swansea, another oft-overlooked high point on any South Walian sojourn.

Birmingham

While Manchester hypes itself endlessly, England’s second city keeps its usual low profile. Why? Well, it might be that Brummies are a bit humbler – or perhaps it’s that they are quietly confident as the UK’s undisputed second city and don’t feel any need to show off. Perhaps more important than having more canals than Venice, a superb symphony orchestra, bud-tingling Indian cuisine, Digbeth’s post-industrial quarter – home to the Custard Factory arts and food hub, and 571 green spaces (more than any other city in Europe), Birmingham is sufficiently vast enough to appeal to the flâneur in search of nothing in particular.