30 of my favourite places in the British and Irish Isles

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.

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Fishing from the stern of Irene, at anchor off Eigg in the summer dim.

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.

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Passing the Kingshouse on my way across the moor to Rannoch Station.

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.

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On the edge of the North Sea, at the end of the garden.

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.

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The view of Oban Bay and Kerrera from McCaig’s Tower.

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.

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The stunning beach at Feall Bay, on the southern end of Coll.

10. Schiehallion, Perthshire.  The fairy hill has such a perfect pyramid profile from the west.

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At the summit of Schiehallion.  On a clear day, I think you can see all the way across Scotland.

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.

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The rigging of RRS Discovery is a striking part of the Dundee skyline.

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.

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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.

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Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole

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.

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The distinctive rigging of Cutty Sark on the Greenwich riverside.

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.

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At night the sky filled with life as shearwaters came back to the cliffs to 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.

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A liminal space where saltmarsh, mudflat, and shingle banks,  meet the sea and the sky.

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.

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Irene of Bridgwater arriving into Newlyn harbour under full sail.  Can you spot me on the quayside taking mooring lines?  Photo credit: Newlyn NCI
Are any of these places in your British and Irish Isles top 10?
Tell me what makes your list in the comments below.

 

The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume

With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.

Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.

I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.

After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves.  I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset.  I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).

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Living our best Edwardian life.

In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday.  There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders.  But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.

Meet the team

Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.

  • Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
  • Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
  • Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
  • Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.

With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.

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Ready to take on Pen y Fan!  Or die of a chill like a lady in a romance novel.
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Heading up the mountain on the Brecon Way footpath.

My Great Escape

Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.

My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.

Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence.  This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult.  That’s where My Great Escape can help.

All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures.  Everyone on the team is a volunteer.

By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.

Jo

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Fighting the wind as we approach the ridge below Corn Du.

Why Pen y Fan?

At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK.  It also has a notorious reputation:  the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.

Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side.  With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops.  So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.

The Great Corset Caper

Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient.  It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.

The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du.  Then suddenly we were just below the summit.

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On the top of Pen y Fan, launching My Great Escape into the wild!

Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind.  We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners.  We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.

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Looking like we’re at the cover shoot for our new album of folk music.

With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf.  Our outfits  had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine.  The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle.  I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.

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The Corset Capers ladies, looking most dashing and windswept from their mountain adventures.

The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear.  I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.

Thank you!

We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather!  And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.

Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.

*completely soaked.

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Jo gives a flash of a corset to prove the challenge was complete.
You can continue to support our silliness at https://mygreatescape.org.uk/climbingcorsets/
Your donations help to get survivors of domestic abuse get out and achieve something amazing.  Please donate what you can to help this great cause.