The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations. Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area. There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.
From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my 30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there. It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit. But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves. Who’s for a road trip? Or a sailing voyage?
1. Stromness, Orkney. I have a thing for small coastal towns with lots of old boats and rusty, rotted fishing gear. And I’m fascinated by the local connection to exploring the Arctic and the discovery of the Northwest Passage.
2. Ben Loyal, Caithness. Its distinctive profile dominated landward views from our family favourite holiday destinations of Talmine and Scullomie, on the coast at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue.
3. Oldshoremore, Sutherland. A few miles further on the dead-end road from the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, a sweeping curve of pink-gold sand that collects Atlantic rollers.
4. An Sgùrr, Isle of Eigg. A striking fin of basalt rock that rises from the island, making it seem like a rolling whaleback from the shore around Arisaig.
5. Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. I’m sure a couple of hundred years ago, I’d be one of those “grand tour” travellers that became mesmerised by the mountains and have to be committed, insensible, to an Alpine sanitorium. I just can’t not look at the Black Mount. Which is awkward if you’re walking in the opposite direction.
6. Glen Tanar, Royal Deeside. The Cairngorms hold, in my opinion, some of the most stunning landscapes in the whole of the UK, and in late autumn are the place I want to be. Gold, scarlet, bronze and deep green gloss the trees, and the light is magical.
7. Haughs of Benholm, Aberdeenshire. Home.
8. Oban, Argyll. Most visitors will pass straight through, getting off the train and onto one of the ferries. But the town has plenty of character, and entertaining characters. And plenty of old boats and rusty fishing gear.
9. Isle of Coll. I only spent a few days here last summer, but this was one of those places that stole a little bit of my heart. I want to live here one day.
10. Schiehallion, Perthshire. The fairy hill has such a perfect pyramid profile from the west.
11. Corrie Fee, Angus. A steep-sided bowl of rock at the head of Glen Clova in the Angus Glens, just below Mayar and Driesh, two of my first munros.
12. RRS Discovery, Dundee. The place to where I can trace both my love of tall ship sailing and the history of polar exploration. A favourite school trip destination.
13. Tentsmuir, Fife. A deep, dark pine forest, opening out onto a vast bright expanse of beach. I’ve seen grey seals and red squirrels, vast white-tailed eagles and tiny coal tits, and one day, one of the 30,000 or so eider ducks I look at each winter will be a king eider.
14. Rathlin Island, Country Antrim. Allegedly, the home of wise spiders that can give you advice for success in your endeavours.
15. Peel, Isle of Man. A favourite port of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre.
16. Tynemouth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The North Sea is “my” sea, and just as beautiful on a slaty-grey winter day as in the height of summer. Plus Super Gran’s house is here.
17. Tryfan, Snowdonia. A great snaggletooth of rock sticking out into the Ogwen Valley.
18. Barmouth / Abermaw, Snowdonia. As a teenager, we’d travel all the way from northeast Scotland to Snowdonia for an Air Cadet adventure training camp, making Barmouth seem extremely exotic and exciting.
19. Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. A collection of ethnographical treasures collected from around the globe; a fascinating introduction to world cultures. I was a volunteer here when I first moved to England.
20. Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. A fascinating place, telling the story of polar exploration from the early days, through to cutting edge research in glaciology and climate science. I’ve been lucky to spend a few days working here before deploying to Antarctica.
21. Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire. Practically on my doorstep for a while, this is a favourite location for woodland walks, trail runs, and wild camps.
22. Maritime Greenwich. My favourite part of London, and the place that I think tells most about the history of Britain and its place in the world.
23. Stackpole and Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire. A beautiful corner of West Wales.
24. Lundy, Bristol Channel. Just one night on anchor, surrounded by swirling clouds of thousands of Manx shearwaters looking for an overnight roost.
25. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth. I’m a bit too young to remember the raising of Mary Rose, but I think the restoration featured often on Blue Peter. Watching it led me to the realisation that we can read the stories of people who have gone before us through the traces they leave behind, and it was exciting to finally visit.
26. Lymington, Hampshire. The walk along the old sea walls between Lymington and Keyhaven is an old favourite.
27. Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight. Watching the sunrise on frosty winter mornings with a coffee, listening to the contented purring of brent geese.
28. Swanage pier, Dorset. More accurately, the underside of Swanage pier; one of my favourite coastal dives in the UK, and where I saw a John Dory swimming for the first time.
29. Helford River, Cornwall. I’ve only arrived in the river by night while under sail. Living my best Poldark smuggler life.
30. Newlyn, Cornwall. While not as picturesque as nearby villages like Mousehole or Porthleven, as a working fishing port, Newlyn is full of characters and there’s always a story to listen to in the Swordfish pub.
Are any of these places in your British and Irish Isles top 10?
Tell me what makes your list in the comments below.
I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger. As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds. Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.
Western Yar Estuary
Route length: 7km (4.5 miles) circular route, with possibility of an extension to make 11km (7 miles)
Start / Finish: Yarmouth
The Western Yar is a snapshot of the geological past of southern England, a remnant of a much larger river rising from the chalk downland that once stretched from the Needles, at the tip of the Isle of Wight, all the way to Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset coast. Now, a small stream quickly becomes a vast tidal estuary, edged with mudflats and saltmarshes that support hundreds of waders and wildfowl.
The riverside path from the harbour passes the old mill and joins the old railway line that once linked Freshwater and Yarmouth to Newport. Listen for the whistles and whoops of teal and wigeon, and the piping calls of oystercatchers from the estuary mud. The walking is pleasant and easy, with small birds flitting between the hedgerows lining the trail. The copse further on is a good spot to look for red squirrels scampering overhead.
The walk can be extended from the Causeway towards the narrow ridge of chalk downs, and the coast known as the Back of the Wight. A short distance on footpaths and minor roads takes you past Afton Marsh Nature Reserve towards the golf course. To your left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Old Military Road, with the crumbling coastline below, and to your right, it dips down to Freshwater Bay before rising sharply toward Tennyson Down.
Rather than retrace your footsteps, a winding path leads down the side of some houses, alongside the early stages of the river Yar, passing through thick reedbeds back to the Causeway crossroads.
From the Causeway, turn left and find the footpath that runs between the Red Lion pub and All Saints Church. The path leads northwards, away from the edge of the estuary, across rolling farmland and through the woods. Look out for views across the Solent to the New Forest as you leave the woodland behind.
Cross the swing bridge and finish the walk back in Yarmouth by the harbour. Pop into PO41, one of my favourite spots on the island for coffee and home-made cake to finish the day.
Route length: 5km (3 miles)
Start / Finish: Newtown National Trust Visitor Centre
One of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Isle of Wight, Newtown was once a thriving medieval port, the most important on the island, with a bustling saltworks and several streets of houses. But after centuries of ebb and flow, Newtown Creek is now a quiet backwater that, in winter, bustles only with bird life. In the 1960s plans to locate a nuclear power station here were protested by the local community, and led to the creation of Newtown Harbour National Nature Reserve.
From the National Trust carpark, cross a minor road and follow the route of the medieval street eastwards. The track opens out into a beautiful area of pasture, with several ancient oak trees (and the entrance to the Upside Down), which is grazed by heritage cattle at certain times of the year.
Leave the field at the far side, turn right then follow the road for around 200m to enter Walter’s Copse, a pocket-sized wood with both ancient woodland and rotational coppice management, that edges onto the saltmarsh of the creek. Follow the trail through the wood and back to the road. Turn left, then right, to retrace your route to the Visitor Centre.
Continue on the road past the church, then take the track at Marsh Farm to reach the Mercia Seabrook hide. National Trust volunteers will open the hide on selected days during the winter, and lead guided walks to show visitors the spectacular winter birdlife; look for hundreds of golden plovers, diminutive dunlins, and a variety of ducks. Grey seals often lounge on the shingle spit on the far side of the creek.
Cross the field to reach the wooden boardwalk leading to the old boathouse, which has views across the creek and out to the Solent beyond. A path leads around the edge of the historic salt pools, and back to the hedgerow-lined meadow. On a crisp winter morning, with the purring sound of brent geese filling the air, it’s a pretty magical place to visit.
Brading Marshes and Bembridge Mill
Route length: 10km (6.2 miles)
Start / Finish: Brading
Brading was once a busy fishing port, and the coastal village of Bembridge, just a couple of small farms on an isolated peninsula. Land reclamation along the estuary of the Eastern Yar* over 120 years ago moved the coastline downstream several miles, creating a sheltered haven between Bembridge and St Helens.
From Brading, follow the road towards the RSPB reserve, then bear left onto Laundry Lane. This raised track looks over into marshes and scrapes that fill with waders and wildfowl through the winter. At the end of the lane, bear right on the edge of the main road into St Helens village.
Head downhill from St Helens village green to the embankment, then bear right onto the footpath through the edge of the RSPB reserve. The trail runs alongside a series of saline lagoons, attracting shorebirds seeking refuge over the high tide in the harbour.
From the Tollgate, which has great views across the harbour to the area of sand dunes known as the Duver, follow the road up through the pretty village of Bembridge. Take the road on the right after the church and the library, leading out of the village towards Bembridge Mill.
Picturesque Bembridge Mill is the only surviving windmill on the island, falling out of use in the early 20th century and used as a Home Guard lookout during WWII, before being restored to working condition by the National Trust.
Enjoy the views before heading downhill from the windmill, following the line of the old sea wall, across the edge of Bembridge Airfield, and into Centurion’s Copse, a red squirrel hot spot. Bear right, and pass through the RSPB reserve. The ditches and sluices allow for careful control of water levels to manage one of the most important wetland areas in southern England.
At the end of the old sea wall, you’ll meet the end of Laundry Lane, and be able to retrace your steps back into Brading. Pop into the Auctioneer for a pot of tea and a huge wedge of cake, and even a browse through the latest selection of antiques and curios on display.
*The Isle of Wight has three large-ish rivers. Two of them are called the Yar. The story is that no islanders ever travelled the vast distances from Bembridge to Yarmouth (about 45 minutes drive now), or the opposite direction, so the lack of imagination in naming never really mattered.
Tips to watch wildlife responsibly in winter:
Avoid causing disturbance to birds feeding or resting in coastal areas.
Bring binoculars for a good view without getting too close.
If the birds become alert and stop feeding on mudflats and saltmarsh, move further away and allow them to settle down.
Stick to paths and marked routes where they exist, and avoid emerging suddenly onto saltmarshes and creeks.
Stop for a while on your walk, or move slowly, to see what emerges from nearby hedgerows or reedbeds
Listen to the sounds; they might reveal something you would otherwise miss.
Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch, fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location. However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has more mysteries for you to discover.
Natural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, their great age is evident in their pitted and weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces. The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period. The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, approximately 1,500 BCE.
The Rollright Stones have been reported on throughout recorded history, attracting visitors from the local area and further afield. Antiquarian William Stukeley, who pioneered the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, made early investigations in the mid-18th century, leading to their eventual protection as one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments in England.
The Whispering Knights
The Whispering Knights are the easternmost stones, so named as their position suggests a group leaning in conspiratorially, plotting against the one who would be king, and the oldest of the three formations at Rollright. It’s believed that they are a “portal dolmen”, a burial chamber that would have originally looked like a stone table (like something from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the entrance to an otherworldly realm.
Archaeological exploration of the chamber inside the stones uncovered the disarticulated bones of several individuals, along with pottery from early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age cultures, suggesting it was one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use over many centuries.
The King’s Men
The closely-spaced stones known as the King’s Men mark a ceremonial circle around 33 metres in diameter, and are reputedly uncountable. If you make three circuits of the stone, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s desire.
There may have once been as many as one hundred, standing shoulder to shoulder in a near-perfect circle, with two stones on the outside marking an entrance portal opposite the tallest stone.
The design of the stone circle is similar to others in the Lake District and in Ireland, and may have been constructed by people from those areas for their ceremonial gatherings.
The King Stone
Standing alone, just below the crest of a low rise, the King Stone is thought to have been erected around 1500 BCE to mark a Bronze Age burial ground. Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of wooden posts marking the locations of human cremations in the surrounding land.
The unusual shape of the stone is only partially due to erosion of the limestone. Souvenir-hunters and superstitious cattle drovers en-route to the mart in Banbury would chip off fragments as lucky charms against evil.
The Witch and the King
According to folklore, the notorious witch, Mother Shipton, accosted a petty king out riding with his army on the edge of the escarpment, tempting him with the promise of greatness.
Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!
The fighting men gathered in a circle to await the outcome of the challenge, while the knights gathered in close counsel. But the foolhardy chieftain, blinded by thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cacking of the witch.
As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!
It didn’t sound like that great a deal for old Mother Shipton; through possibly preferable for a witch to being tortured, burned, or drowned. In later years the stones gained a reputation for fortune-telling; to dance naked through the stone circle and whisper to the old king would reveal the identity of your one true love.
Walk: The Rollright Stones from Long Compton
Route length: 13km (8 miles) circular route
Ascent: 245 metres (800′)
Approximate hiking time: 4 hours
The route starts in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton, by the Red Lion pub, heading east on farm tracks and bridleways, before ascending the escarpment to Great Rollright. On the edge of the village, the route joins a waymarked long-distance trail known as the D’Arcy Dalton Way, named for a local rights-of-way campaigner, to follow the ridge of the escarpment westwards.
After passing through woodland, you’ll see the Rollright Stones to your right. From this direction you’ll approach the Whispering Knights first, followed by the King’s Men, and finally the King Stone on the far side of the road. Retrace your steps to the D’Arcy Dalton Way, and continue on to the picturesque hamlet of Little Rollright.
This entire hamlet, once owned by one of the Oxford University colleges, was sold a few years ago; the manor house, rectory, five cottages, and a handful of farm buildings and barns were listed for a cool £18 million. One of the new residents is an award-winning cheesemaker, who produces a lovely-sounding, squidgy, stinky, reblochon-like cheese that I need to track down.
From Little Rollright head northwards following the waymarked Shakespeare’s Way long-distance trail, descending the escarpment back towards Long Compton.
Short sections of the route follow minor roads without a footpath, so care must be taken especially in late autumn afternoons. The sections on footpaths and bridleways can be muddy, and as they cross through farmland, be aware of grazing livestock, particularly if you’re walking with a dog.
Find details of this walk, including a route map, on ViewRanger.
An alternative circular route to the stones starts and finishes in the village of Salford, near Chipping Norton, around 8km (5 miles) and ascending over a more gentle gradient. Parking is also provided on the roadside adjacent to the Stones if you prefer not to walk; the monuments are all within 500m of each other.
The Cotswolds are England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), stretching across Gloucestershire, west Oxfordshire and south-west Warwickshire. The rolling hills lie between the river valleys of the Thames and the Severn, with an abundance of quaint towns and villages of golden stone houses nestled into their folds. The Rollright Stones are located on the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment on the northern edge of the hills, to the north of Chipping Norton.
For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.
Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.
The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.
So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…
…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.
The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.
The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.
Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.
Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.
We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.
For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”). Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.
But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries. Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.
So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.
*Oxford, I meant Oxford.
Punting on the Cam
If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam. These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower) and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed. It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.
The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery. You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers. Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.
If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge-style rather than Oxford-style if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers). Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour. It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online. Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.
If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).
It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges, I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real. Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined). Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.
King’s College Chapel
In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel(£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight. The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.
Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir. Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space. (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)
The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places. Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter). A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.
Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures. All listed below are free to visit.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute
In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base. The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
If like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home. It gathers together artefacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero). The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.
Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples. Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia. A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula). Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.
But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
Robert Falcon Scott
**I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences
The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since. Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.
***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?
Museum of Zoology
Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom. These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares. The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history. Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.
This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day. The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.
Explore by Bike
After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artefacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well require some fresh air. Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills. The council website has maps available to download.
To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations. Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it. Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it. Simple.
For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside. The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there are no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.
Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles. Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses. When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.
Eat and Drink
Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh focaccia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things. Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels. I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church, is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles. Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam Museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s. Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on-site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies. They also do a full brunch menu and very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but you’ll likely have to wait a while for the tablespace.
The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process). A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century. It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.
****Cake Manager #lifegoals
Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.
Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund. I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavnfor a week longer than expected.
The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales. Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars. And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.
I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now. I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there are some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town. And Portuguese food is pretty good too.
Back in the UK, I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.
What I’ve done:
Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park. It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.
I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month. So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing. Watch this space for more news.
I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter. I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.
Do bears run in these woods?
Parkrun timing chip
My autumn love list:
Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read. But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind. An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.
Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history. With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period. Which brings me on to…
Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews. The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.
Dressed for the chill
What I’ve loved this autumn
Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season. That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab. I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.
Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most. As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.
Treats: Autumn always means mince pies. They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season. I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.
I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family. I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.
I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides. In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east. Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two. This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
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I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. Let me know in the comments below.
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