If you’re searching for quintessential English landscapes – green valleys, chocolate-box villages of wonky black-and-white timbered houses, woodlands steeped in legend such as Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest, and stately homes that look like the last lord of the manor just clip-clopped out of the stables – you’ll find it here in the country’s heart. You’ll also find the relics of centuries of industrial history, exemplified by the World Heritage-listed mills of Ironbridge and the Derwent Valley, and by today’s dynamic cities, including Britain’s second-largest, Birmingham: a canal-woven industrial crucible reinvented as a cultural melting pot and creative hub, with striking 21st-century architecture and red-hot restaurant, bar and nightlife scenes. Beyond them are tumbling hills where the air is so clean you can taste it. Walkers and cyclists flock to these areas, particularly the Peak District National Park and the Shropshire Hills, to vanish into the vastness of the landscape.
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Regeneration, renewal, and grand-scale construction continue at a breathless pace in Britain’s second-largest city. Birmingham’s grandest civic buildings are clustered around pedestrianized Victoria Square, at the western end of New St, dominated by the stately facade of Council House, built between 1874 and 1879. The square was given a facelift in 1993, with modernist sphinxes and a fountain topped by a naked female figure, nicknamed ‘the floozy in the jacuzzi’ by locals, overlooked by a disapproving statue of Queen Victoria. To the west, Centenary Square is bookended by the art-deco Hall of Memory War Memorial, the International Convention Centre, and Symphony Hall. There’s a gleaming golden statue of Birmingham’s Industrial Revolution leading lights Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and William Murdoch. Centenary Sq’s showpiece is the spiffing Library of Birmingham. During the industrial age, Birmingham was a major hub on the English canal network and today the city has more miles of canals than Venice. Narrowboats still float through the heart of the city, passing a string of glitzy wharfside developments. Birmingham has been a major jewelry player since Charles II acquired a taste for it in 17th-century France. The gentrifying Jewellery Quarter, three-quarters of a mile northwest of the center, still produces 40% of UK-manufactured jewelry. Dozens of workshops are open to the public. The next best thing to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is Cadbury World, 4 miles south of Birmingham. It aims to educate visitors about the history of cocoa and the Cadbury family but sweetens the deal with free samples, displays of chocolate-making machines, and chocolate-themed rides.
Warwickshire could have been just another picturesque English county of rolling hills and market towns were it not for the birth of a rather well-known wordsmith. William Shakespeare was born and died in Stratford upon-Avon, and the sights linked to his life are a magnet for tourists from around the globe. Famous Warwick Castle attracts similar crowds. Elsewhere visitor numbers dwindle but Kenilworth has atmospheric castle ruins, Rugby celebrates the sport that takes its name at its World Rugby Hall of Fame, and Coventry claims two extraordinary cathedrals and an unmissable motoring museum. Notable towns in this county include Coventry, Warwick, Kenilworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Rugby.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, begin your Shakespeare quest at the house where the world’s most popular playwright supposedly spent his childhood days. In fact, the jury is still out on whether this really was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, but devotees of the Bard have been dropping in since at least the 19th century, leaving their signatures scratched on to the windows. Set behind a modern facade, the house has restored Tudor rooms, live presentations from famous Shakespearean characters, and an engaging exhibition on Stratford’s favorite son. Before tying the knot with Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway lived in Shottery, 1 mile west of the center of Stratford, in this delightful thatched farmhouse. As well as period furniture, it has gorgeous gardens and an orchard and arboretum, with examples of all the trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. A footpath (no bikes allowed) leads to Shottery from Evesham Pl.
Despite being wedged between the ever-expanding conurbations of Birmingham and Manchester, Staffordshire is surprisingly green, with the northern half of the county rising to meet the rugged hills of the Peak District. Even without its magnificent Gothic cathedral – one of the most spectacular in the country – the charming cobbled market town of Lichfield would be worth a visit to tread in the footsteps of lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson, and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. Johnson once described Lichfield folk as ‘the most sober, decent people in England’, which was rather generous considering that this was the last place in the country to stop burning people at the stake.
Famed for its eponymous condiment, invented by two Worcester chemists in 1837, Worcestershire marks the transition from the industrial heart of the Midlands to the peaceful countryside of the Welsh Marches. The southern and western fringes of the county burst with lush countryside and sleepy market towns, while the capital is a classic English county town, whose magnificent cathedral inspired the composer Elgar to write some of his greatest works. Worcester (pronounced woos-ter) has enough historic treasures to forgive the architectural eyesores from the postwar love affair with all things concrete. The home of the famous Worcestershire sauce (an unlikely combination of fermented tamarinds and anchovies), this ancient cathedral city was the site of the last battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Worcester. Tumbling down the side of a forested ridge about 7 miles southwest of Worcester, the picturesque spa town of Great Malvern is the gateway to the Malverns, a soaring 9-milelong range of volcanic hills that rise unexpectedly from the surrounding meadows. In Victorian times, the medicinal waters were prescribed as a panacea for everything from gout to ‘sore eyes’ – you can test the theory by sampling Malvern water at public wells dotted around the town.
Adjoining the Welsh border, the county of Herefordshire is a patchwork of fields, hills, and cute little black-and-white villages, many dating back to the Tudor era and beyond.
Surrounded by apple orchards and rolling pastures at the heart of the Marches, straddling the River Wye, Hereford is best known for prime steaks, cider, and the Pretenders (three of the original band members – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chamers – were locals). Its key draw for visitors is its magnificent cathedral.
Set on a red sandstone bluff over a kink in the River Wye, hilly Ross-on-Wye was propelled to fame in the 18th century by Alexander Pope and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who penned tributes to philanthropist John Kyrle, Man of Ross, who dedicated his life and fortune to the poor of the parish.
Creaking with history and dotted with antique shops, Ledbury’s crooked black-and-white streets zero in on a delightfully leggy medieval Market House. The timber-framed structure is precariously balanced atop a series of wooden posts supposedly taken from the wrecked ships of the Spanish Armada. Almost impossibly cute Church Lane, crowded with tilting timber-framed buildings, runs its cobbled way from High St to the town church. At the top of the lane lies the 12th-century church of St Michael & All Angels, with a splendid 18th-century spire and tower divided from its medieval nave.
Sleepy Shropshire is a glorious scattering of hills, castles, and timber-framed villages tucked against the Welsh border. Highlights include castle-crowned Ludlow, industrial Ironbridge, and the beautiful Shropshire Hills, which offer the best walking and cycling in the Marches.
A delightful jumble of winding medieval streets and timbered Tudor houses leaning at precarious angles, Shrewsbury was a crucial front in the conflict between the English and the Welsh in medieval days. Even today, the road bridge running east towards London is known as the English Bridge to mark it out from the Welsh Bridge leading northwest towards Holyhead. Shrewsbury is also the birthplace of Charles Darwin.
Strolling or cycling through the woods, hills, and villages of the peaceful Ironbridge Gorge, it’s hard to believe such a sleepy enclave could really have been the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, it was here that Abraham Darby perfected the art of smelting iron ore with coke in 1709, making it possible to mass-produce cast iron for the first time. The bridge remains the focal point of this World Heritage Site, and 10 very different museums tell the story of the Industrial Revolution in the buildings where it took place.
With one of those quirky names that abound in England, Much Wenlock is as charming as it sounds. Surrounding the time-worn ruins of Wenlock Priory, the streets are studded with Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian houses, and locals say hello to everyone.
Cleaved into two by a dramatic sandstone bluff that tumbles down to the River Severn, Bridgnorth is one of Shropshire’s finest- looking historic towns, with a wealth of architectural charm despite much of the High Town succumbing to fire in 1646 during the Civil War. Around its namesake church, the High Town’s adorable St Leonard’s Close contains some of the most attractive buildings and almshouses in town, including a splendid six-gabled house, once part of the grammar school. A 19th-century cliff railway – Britain’s steepest – and several narrow lanes drop down from the High Town to the Low Town, including the vertiginous pedestrian Cartway, at the bottom of which is Bishop Percy’s House, dating from 1580.
Tucked in a deep valley formed by the Long Mynd and the Caradoc Hills, Church Stretton is an ideal base for walks or cycle tours through the Shropshire Hills. Although black-and-white timbers are heavily in evidence, most of the buildings in town are 19th-century fakes, built by the Victorians who flocked here to take the country air.
Set amid blissfully peaceful Shropshire countryside, Bishop’s Castle is a higgledy-piggledy tangle of timbered townhouses and Old Mother Hubbard cottages. The High St climbs from the town church to the refurbished Georgian town hall (1765) abutting the crooked 16th-century House on Crutches, which also houses the small-town museum.
On the northern bank of the swirling River Teme, Ludlow fans out from the rambling ruins of its fine Norman castle, with some superb black-and-white Tudor buildings lining its cobbled streets.
Say Nottinghamshire and people think of one thing – Robin Hood. Whether the hero woodsman existed is hotly debated, but the county plays up its connections to the outlaw. Storytelling seems to be in Nottinghamshire’s blood – local wordsmiths include provocative writer DH Lawrence, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame, and hedonistic poet Lord Byron. The city of Nottingham is the bustling hub, but venture into the surrounding countryside and you’ll discover historic towns and stately homes surrounding the green bower of Sherwood Forest.
Forever associated with men in tights and a sheriff with anger-management issues (aka the Robin Hood legend) Nottingham is a dynamic county capital with big-city aspirations, atmospheric historical sights, and a buzzing music and club scene thanks to its spirited student population. Over the centuries, the sandstone underneath Nottingham has been carved into a honeycomb of caverns and passageways. The evocative lakeside ruins of Newstead Abbey are inextricably associated with the original tortured romantic, Lord Byron (1788–1824), who owned the house until 1817. Founded as an Augustinian priory in around 1170, it was converted into a residence in 1539. Newstead Abbey is 12 miles north of Nottingham, off the A60. Nottingham Castle crowns a sandstone outcrop worm-holed with caves and tunnels. Various cave tours include one through underground passageway Mortimer’s Hole, emerging alongside five 17th-century cottages comprising the Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard. The much-photographed statue of Robin Hood (Castle Rd) stands in the former moat.
A graceful scattering of grand, wisteria-draped country houses, pretty little Southwell is straight out of the pages of a novel from the English Romantic period.
Newark-on-Trent paid the price for backing the wrong side in the English Civil War. After surviving four sieges by Oliver Cromwell’s men, the town was ransacked by Roundheads when Charles I surrendered in 1646. Today, the riverside town is a peaceful place worth a stop to wander its castle ruins.
Lincolnshire unfolds over low hills and the sparsely populated, pancake-flat Fens where the farmland is strewn with windmills and, more recently, wind turbines. Surrounding the history-steeped county town of Lincoln you’ll find seaside resorts, scenic waterways, serene nature reserves, and stone-built towns tailor-made for English period dramas. Two of the county’s most famous ‘yellowbellies’ (as Lincolnshire locals call themselves) were Sir Isaac Newton, whose home, Woolsthorpe Manor, can be visited, and the late former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a humble greengrocer from the market town of Grantham.
Ringed by historic city gates – including the Newport Arch on Bailgate, a relic from the original Roman settlement – Lincoln‘s old center is a tangle of cobbled medieval streets surrounding a colossal 12th-century cathedral. The lanes that topple over the edge of Lincoln Cliff are lined with Tudor townhouses, ancient pubs, and quirky independent stores. Flanking the River Witham at the base of the hill, the new town is less absorbing, but the revitalized Brayford Waterfront development by the university is a popular spot to watch the boats go by.
One of England’s prettiest towns, Stamford seems frozen in time, with elegant streets lined with honey-colored limestone buildings and hidden alleyways dotted with alehouses, interesting eateries, and small independent boutiques. A forest of historic church spires rises overhead and the gently gurgling River Welland meanders through the town center. It’s a favorite with filmmakers seeking the postcard vision of England and appears in everything from Pride and Prejudice to the Da Vinci Code.
It’s hard to believe that sleepy Boston was the inspiration for its larger and more famous American cousin. Although no Boston citizens sailed on the Mayflower, the port became a conduit for persecuted Puritans fleeing Nottinghamshire for religious freedom in the Netherlands and America. In the 1630s, the fiery sermons of Boston vicar John Cotton inspired many locals to follow their lead, among them the ancestors of John Quincy-Adams, the sixth American president. These pioneers founded a namesake town in the new colony of Massachusetts and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dotted with villages full of pincushion cottages with thatched roofs and Tudor timbers, Northamptonshire also has a string of stately manors, including the ancestral homes of George Washington and Diana, Princess of Wales.
About 8 miles south of Northampton, brightly painted barges frequent the charming village of Stoke Bruerne nestled against the Grand Union Canal, the main drag of England’s canal network. From here, you can follow the waterways all the way to Leicester, Birmingham, or London.
Built over the buried ruins of two millennia of history, Leicester suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe and postwar planners but an influx of textile workers from India and Pakistan from the 1960s transformed the city into a bustling global melting pot. The astonishing 2012 discovery and 2013 identification of the remains of King Richard III in a Leicester car park sparked a flurry of developments, including a spiffing visitor center on the site, and the restoration of the cathedral, where the king was reburied in 2015. And sporting history was made in 2016, when Leicester City Football Club won the Premier League against 5000:1 odds at the beginning of the season, having never won a top-division championship in the club’s 132-year existence.
Tiny Rutland was merged with Leicestershire in 1974, but in 1997 regained its ‘independence’ as England’s smallest county. Rutland centers on Rutland Water, a vast artificial reservoir created by the damming of the Gwash Valley in 1976. Covering 4.19 sq miles, the reservoir attracts some 20,000 birds, including ospreys.
The Derbyshire countryside is painted in two distinct tones: the lush green of rolling valleys crisscrossed by dry stone walls, and the barren mottled brown hilltops of the high, wild moorlands. The biggest draw here is the Peak District National Park, which preserves some of England’s most evocative scenery, attracting legions of hikers, climbers, cyclists, and cave enthusiasts.
Gloriously sited at the southeastern edge of the Derbyshire hills that roll towards the Peak District, Derby is one of the Midlands’ most energetic, creative cities. This was one of the crucibles of the Industrial Revolution: almost overnight, a sleepy market town was transformed into a major manufacturing center, producing everything from silk to bone china, and later locomotives and Rolls- Royce aircraft engines. The city suffered the ravages of industrial decline in the 1980s but bounced back with impressive cultural developments and a rejuvenated riverfront.
Perched at the southern edge of the Peak District National Park, Ashbourne is a pretty patchwork of steeply slanting stone streets lined with cafes, pubs, and antique shops.
Unashamedly tacky, Matlock Bath (not to be confused with the larger, work-a-day town of Matlock 2 miles north) looks like a seaside resort that somehow lost its way and ended up at the foot of the Peak District National Park. Following the River Derwent through a sheer-walled gorge, the main promenade is lined with amusement arcades, tearooms, fish-and-chip shops, pubs, and shops catering to the bikers who congregate here on summer weekends. Outside summer, the town is considerably quieter.
The eastern gateway to the Peaks, Chesterfield is worth a stop to see the astonishing crooked spire rising atop St Mary & All Saints Church and the magnificent Elizabethan mansion Hardwick Hall nearby.
Rolling across the Pennines’ southernmost hills is the glorious Peak District National Park. Ancient stone villages are folded into creases in the landscape, and the hillsides are littered with stately homes and rocky outcrops. The Dark Peak is dominated by exposed moorland and gritstone ‘edges’, while to the south, the White Peak is made up of the limestone dales. No one knows how the Peak District got its name – certainly not from the landscape, which has hills and valleys, gorges and lakes, wild moorland and gritstone escarpments, but no peaks. The most popular theory is that the region was named for the Pecsaetan, the Anglo-Saxon tribe who once populated this part of England. Founded in 1951, the Peak District was England’s first national park and is Europe’s busiest. But even at peak times, there are 555 sq miles of open English countryside in which to soak up the scenery.
The ‘capital’ of the Peak District National Park, albeit just outside the park boundary, Buxton is a confection of Georgian terraces, Victorian amusements, and parks in the rolling hills of the Derbyshire dales. The town built its fortunes on its natural warm-water springs, which attracted health tourists in Buxton’s turn-of-the-century heyday. Today, visitors are drawn here by the flamboyant Regency architecture and the natural wonders of the surrounding countryside. Tuesdays and Saturdays are market days, bringing color to the grey limestone marketplace.
Guarding the entrance to the forbidding Winnats Pass gorge, charming Castleton is a magnet on summer weekends for Midlands visitors – come midweek if you want to enjoy the sights in relative peace and quiet. The village’s streets are lined with leaning stone houses, with walking trails crisscrossing the surrounding hills. A wonderfully atmospheric castle crowns the ridge above, and the bedrock below is riddled with fascinating caves.
North of the Hope Valley, the upper reaches of the Derwent Valley were flooded between 1916 and 1935 to create three huge reservoirs to supply Sheffield, Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby with water. These constructed lakes soon proved their worth – the Dambusters squadron carried out practice runs over Derwent Reservoir before unleashing their ‘bouncing bombs’ on the Ruhr Valley in Germany in WWII.
Surrounded by majestic Peak District countryside, this cluster of stone houses centered on a pretty parish church is an enchanting place to pass the time. Edale lies between the White and Dark Peak areas and is the southern terminus of the Pennine Way. Despite the remote location, the Manchester–Sheffield train line passes through the village, bringing throngs of weekend visitors.
Quaint little Eyam (ee-em), a former lead-mining village, has a poignant history. In 1665 the town was infected by the dreaded Black Death plague, carried here by fleas on a consignment of cloth from London, and the village rector, William Mompesson, convinced villagers to quarantine themselves. Some 270 of the village’s 800 inhabitants succumbed while surrounding villages remained relatively unscathed. Today, Eyam’s sloping streets of old cottages backed by rows of green hills are delightful to wander.
The second-largest town in the Peak District, charming Bakewell is a great base for exploring the limestone dales of the White Peak. Filled with storybook stone buildings, the town is ringed by famous walking trails and stately homes, but it’s probably best known for its famous Bakewell Pudding, a pastry shell filled with jam and frangipane invented here in 1820.