101 places to go – The best British Christmas lights

We’ve got a bumper festive issue of ‘101 places to go’ this week. The big day may be several more weeks away but the preparations have begun in earnest; not least at cottages4you, where we’ve been busily beavering away on our Christmas celebrations and working hard to find fantastic festive offers for our customers (more info here:  http://bit.ly/PTOByR).

This week we’ve focussed on one thing that gets us more in the festive mood than listening to Bing Crosby while writing Christmas cards in a snow covered cottage. We’re talking about the unsung hero of the most magical time of the year: Christmas lights. So for this installment we’re looking at some of the best places to enjoy festive illuminations.

Westonbirt Arboretum

Regular readers won’t be unfamiliar with our love of this special place. A trip to the National Arboretum boasts a wealth of wonder at any time of year, with the seasons beautifully showcased through its living exhibits. Christmas at Westonbirt offers a unique magical trail through the trees with shadows and lights creating a wonderful festive tapestry. Father Christmas and his reindeer will be turning on the lights on 30 November, but don’t worry if you don’t make it; he’s going to be on-site in the run-up to Christmas, along with craft activities, refreshments and more.

Alnwick Gardens

Slightly closer to his home, Father Christmas will also be appearing at the North East Pole at Alnwick Gardens this year. Before then there’s a host of other festive activities to enjoy including the Duchess of Northumberland unveiling the gardens’ permanent lighting exhibit ‘Sparkle’. Phase one of the project will see the iconic hornbeam tunnels transformed into a ‘stunning spectacle of light and colour.’ Sounds unmissable to us but if you need more convincing there are also a number of craft workshops and lantern walks to get you into the festive spirit at this already magical location.

Bath

The Georgian streets and buildings of this fantastic World Heritage City provide some of the most atmospheric festive locations you could wish for. If you did need more help to get into the festive spirit then the Bath lights were officially switched on the One Show’s Matt Baker and Alex Jones with John Bishop on 12 November. On 30 November Bath’s festive market opens with stalls, carols and refreshment under the shadow of the stunning cathedral. If you’re looking for the most traditional festive lights on this list then you need look no further.

The Eden Project

Looking for a more unconventional Christmas? The Eden Project’s exotic topiary may provide a slightly off-beat festive attraction but it’s no less fun for it. The indoor ice rink has returned in 2012 with special skating sessions for youngsters, and there are plenty more festive activities including the chance to meet Father Christmas, his reindeer and elves, lantern parades, live music, food and drink, craft workshops and more – all within the magnificent illuminated ‘biomes’.

Manning Close

For many of us, Christmas doesn’t really start until we hang the lights on the tree or in the window. Spare a thought then for Paul Toole who spends the best part of the year planning the display at his parents’ house in Wells, Somerset. The Manning Close Christmas light show has grown in fame and stature each year propelling Paul into the spotlight (you may have seen him in Channel 4’s ‘King of Christmas Lights’ last year). This year’s switch-on is on 30 November and promises to be bigger and better with 40,000 light bulbs and participation from Paul’s neighbours on Manning Close.

Do you agree with the list? Share your favourite Christmas illuminations below!

101 places to go – World’s Biggest Liar competition 2012

Glen Boylan: Regal sandwiches not pictured.

At cottages4you we’re proud to champion those local events that offer a little something different, so it didn’t take us long to choose the annual World’s Biggest Liar Competition in the Lakes as our new recommended destination.

Every November a group of liars (we think we can say that) get together at The Bridge Inn at Santon Bridge in the Lakes to share tall tales and decide which teller is sufficiently far-fetched to earn the dubious merit of ‘World’s Biggest Liar’.

The event was started in remembrance of landlord and local celebrity Will Ritson who entertained his patrons with many a story. For example, Will once claimed that the turnips in Wasdale were so big that they could be used as sheds for the Herdwick sheep on the fells. Since then there have been hundreds of dubious tales recanted at The Bridge each year. This year’s event takes place on 15 November. Find more info on The Bridge Inn website.

Here are a few of our favourite facts about the world’s most openly dishonest competition.

• Last year’s winner, Glen Boylan told a tall tale about losing a snail race following advice from Prince Charles. The Prince suggested he take his snail’s shell off to make him more aerodynamic. Upon losing, the future King of England was good enough to take pity on Mr Boyland and share his peanut butter sandwiches with him.

• A Bishop of Carlisle was once alleged to have won the title after the event’s shortest speech. He simply said ‘I have never told a lie in my life’.

• Seven time winner John ‘Johnny Liar’ Graham has had more success evading the truth than any other competitor. Winning the event a grand total of seven times,  John’s tales have involved voyaging to the depths of the ocean in a wheelie-bin, flying on the back of a giant snake and tales of German World War II submarines surfacing on UK shores to steal digital TV decoders.

• While the competition is open to almost everyone, politicians and lawyers are barred from entering as their skills at evading the truth are supposedly too finely honed. To put it bluntly: they’re just too good at lying!

101 places to go – British Pub Week special

With the resurgence of microbreweries and more pubs getting back to their roots by supporting local beers, it seems as though the celebration of the Great British pub is something that takes place in ale houses up and down the country every weekend. But that’s not to say that British pubs don’t deserve – or need – the additional focus.

While CAMRA happily report that the level of operational breweries around the UK is the highest that it’s been for over 70 years, they’ve also recorded a more worrying trend:  that over 300 community pubs permanently closed between September 2011 and March 2012, and that approximately 12 pubs close each week in Britain.

So there’s never been a better, or more important, time to support your local British boozer! For our celebration of British Pub Week (at least the one we’re going to talk about here) we’re going to take a look at some of the country’s most unique pubs. In the meantime we’re giving away our final copy of the cottages4you sponsored 2012 Good Pub Guide on Facebook this week. Make sure you stop by and like our page if you want to be in with a chance of winning this special 30th anniversary edition.

Of all the claims made by pub owners up and down the country, the most hotly disputed is which one is the oldest. From our research, that all depends on who you’re talking to and how much they’ve had to drink. After all, who doesn’t like to embellish their conversations after a trip to the pub! According to the Guinness Book of Records, this distinguished honour is held by the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, Hertfordshire. The unique octagonal structure is another notable feature of the pub – based on a former life as a pigeon house. The name itself comes from the original entertainment offered in the bar area which, thankfully, has long since abated.

What continues, however, is the debate over which is Britain’s oldest pub. Many maintain that Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem in Nottingham boasts the title by dating back to 1189 AD. And while it may not carry the official title, it does have a few other tales to tell. Apparently, the name derives from its status as a pit-stop for knights on their way to the holy lands to fight in the Crusades. It is also claimed that great woe will befall anyone who attempts to clean the model galleon that now, unsurprisingly, lies covered in dirt behind glass to protect drinkers’ pints. ‘The Trip’ also boasts caves carved out of the sandstone rock beneath the castle, so even if it’s not Britain’s oldest pub it is suitably unique and well worth a stop.

If things have a tendency to go a little ‘squiffy’ when you venture to the pub then you’d be advised to prepare yourself before you visit The Crooked House in the West Midlands. Thanks to mining subsidence in the 1800s, the pub boasts a very unique appearance, where one side of the pub is four feet lower than the other. After being condemned in the 1940s it was saved by a local brewery reinforcing the building while preserving its ‘lop-sidedness’. It now hosts a few optical illusions that are bound to play havoc with one or two patrons.

If you needed proof that great ideas are born from Britain’s pubs then consider The Eagle and Child in Oxford. Now owned by St John’s College, it presumably boasts a greater than average IQ through its regulars, but the reason for its appearance on this list is due to a connection to ‘The Inklings’. Otherwise known as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson, this writing super-group would meet up at lunchtimes to read from their works in progress. It’s amazing to think that such a significant amount of English literature was birthed from these informal meet-ups in the pub. So if you’re ever looking for an excuse, grab a few sheets of paper, a pipe and scarf and make your merry way to the ‘Bird and Baby’ in Oxford.

Not to be outdone, The Eagle in Cambridge is where Francis Crick and James Watson interrupted revellers one lunchtime in 1953 to announce that they had just discovered the secret of life by unlocking the structure of DNA. This achievement is commemorated with a blue plaque by the entrance. ‘The Eagle’ also boasts a renowned ‘RAF ceiling’ created by returning pilots from World War II signing their names with lipstick, cigarette lighters and whatever else was at hand.

Like The Eagle and Child, The Jamaica Inn, located near the centre of Bodmin Moor, has also left a legacy on British literature thanks to the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. Regarded as one of the UK’s most haunted destinations, the inn’s remote location and history as a smuggler’s favourite haunt don’t really help the rumours. Still, they’re clearly good for business as even the owners claim numerous ghostly residents call the Jamaica Inn home.

Few pubs enforce the no drinking and driving law better than the Berney Arms in Norfolk. Located 5 miles from Great Yarmouth, with no road nearby, access to the Arms is by foot, boat or rail only. The Berney Arms station is a request stop on the Wherry Lines while boat access is relative easy thanks to the pub’s location on the north bank of the River Yare. If you’re stuck waiting for a train, the Berney Arms Windmill – the biggest in the region – is situated opposite and well worth a moment’s admiration.

The Tan Hill also provides a welcome challenge to visitors. At 1,732ft above sea level, it’s the highest pub in Britain and is located near the head of Arkengarthdale on the edge of Swaledale in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park. The Tan Hills’s remoteness is due to the fact that it used to be a hostelry for miners working in the coal pits on the hill. When the pits closed in the 1920s, the surrounding cottages were demolished, leaving only the Inn as a reminder of the region’s industrial past.

If you fancy a more intimate drink then The Nutshell in Bury St Edmonds is the perfect place for a cosy pint. As Britain’s smallest pub, measuring a tiny 15ft by 7ft, you may find yourself jostling for space at the bar – or indeed, just trying to get through the door. Still, once you’re inside you already have a tale to tell!

What’s your favourite British pub? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

101 places to go – Xmas in Arras

Arras Grand Place at night

What do you like best about winter? Is it waking to find the landscape has turned into a winter wonderland overnight? Maybe it’s the opportunity to snuggle up and get cosy next to a crackling fire. At cottages4you we’d have to say it’s the opportunity to explore and enjoy far reaches in a completely new light.

Take Arras in France for example; not only does the historic centre of the Artois region boast stunning monuments to its culturally diverse past – including two UNESCO World Heritage sites – in the summer months the town comes alive to the sounds of the Main Square Festival. But as enjoyable as it is to soak up the French summer to the accompaniment of some of music’s biggest names, we have to say: we’re a little more partial to Arras in winter.

This is due in no small part to the annual Christmas market. Over 60 exhibitors secure their pitch and offer a variety of delightful wares from the end of November to Christmas Eve. There are local delicacies, like the heart-shaped biscuits and wine, alongside delicacies from all over the world. You can view a myriad of delightful arts and crafts goods, or enjoy a range of other activities, including cookery demonstrations and fun fair rides!

Taking a winter walk through the historic streets of Arras is a joy in itself. Here are a couple of the town’s highlights…

• The stunning town hall isn’t one to miss. Not that you would, since its Gothic decor and grandiose belfry dominate the skyline.

• Just north of the town you’ll find the National Vimy Memorial. It was built to commemorate the Canadians who fought in the Battle of Arras during the First World War and is both a striking and sobering reminder of the Great War.

101 places to go – Eilean Donan Castle

Our new recommended destination is something of a ‘one size fits all’ attraction, offering a beautiful showcase of British history, some stunning surrounding scenery and connections to some of the country’s most popular cultural exports.

Located on an island that, at the last count, had the sum total of one lucky resident, Eilean Dolan Castle is not just one of the greatest examples of medieval architecture that you could wish to experience on a break in the UK; it’s also not just one of Britain’s most naturally beautiful filming locations, having featured in James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Highlander, Entrapment and more. Eilean Dolan Castle and its surrounds is actually a wonderful combination of all these things, which, needless to say, makes it enormously popular with visitors.

Despite its popularity, it’s still entirely possible to find yourself surrounded by nothing but tranquillity and stunning views at Eilean Dolan Castle. Visit in the early hours, with the mist drifting in from the water, and it’s like you’ve been transported back to a time when the unique left turning spiral staircases offered a practical advantage to its occupant (a left-handed king) and not just a rare architectural quirk!

The journey to Eilean Donan Castle is equally unique. Close to Dornie, a small village that runs along the waterfront, you’ll find a stone walkway that connects you to the island. Once you’ve made your way over you’ll find a wealth of natural scenic beauty that perfectly complements the castle’s iconic façade. In fact, just stopping and admiring your surroundings is one of the best ways to pass the time at Eilean Donan.

Have you visited Eilean Donan? Share your experiences in the comments section. If you’d like to pay a visit then take a look at our fantastic featured holiday cottages in Scotland today.

101 places to go – Ilfracombe & North Devon coast

We’re celebrating North Devon’s seaside heritage this week with a wonderful window into the region’s coastal life. Ilfracombe is every inch the quintessential English seaside resort with lovely Victorian architecture, fantastic coastal scenery, enjoyable walks and some great cultural celebrations.

The town also boasts a burgeoning arts scene with several art galleries and places to appreciate works from the likes of local resident Damien Hirst (Hirst’s The Quay restaurant is also one of the town’s most popular eateries). The surrounding area is equally rich with leisure opportunities and stunning sights. For example, the lovely Exmoor National Park just 4 miles away. One of the UK’s first protected parks, it boasts wide expanses of open heath and wild moorland. Equally lovely is the island of Lundy off Devon’s northern coast. Undisturbed by time, it’s a wonderfully tranquil place with rich wildlife, a tranquil ambience and a fascinating heritage.

Here are a few more recommendations for things to see and do in and around Ilfracombe and the North Devon Coast.

• The Sea Ilfracombe Maritime Festival basically distills all that makes the region so appealing. There are music performances, boat trips, workshops, art exhibits, sporting events, food, drink and much more. It runs from Friday 31 August until Tuesday 4 September.

• If the weather is against you on your visit to Ilfracombe then we’d recommend a stop-off at the town’s cinema. Often described as like stepping back in time it offers the film releases of today with the nostalgia – and prices! – of yesterday.

• Ilfracombe’s rocky coastline is justly celebrated, and its beach has received numerous plaudits for its rock-pooling opportunities. However, along with its natural geography, it attracts more than its fair share of visitors for the man-made caves that were excavated in Victorian times to allow visitors to reach the beach. Now it’s as much a tribute to the town’s past as it is a gateway to a fantastic beach. But, either way, it’s a ‘must-see’ attraction for those visiting the area.

If you fancy staying in the area we still have availability on a number of properties at Moorhead Farm.

101 places to go – Ride with Brad Sportive, 19 August

Image courtesy of Graham Watson ©

This is the third year of sponsoring our local cycling sportive but, we have to say, that the Ride with Brad sportive is shaping up to be the biggest and best one yet.

We like to think this has something to do with the cottages4you team’s increased proficiency in the saddle, but we suspect it’s more down to the involvement of a certain Bradley Wiggins: Yellow Jersey wearer, multi Olympic medal recipient and overall nice fellow.

The Ride with Brad Sportive isn’t just an opportunity to explore some of Lancashire’s finest scenery; it’s also an opportunity to experience the landscape that helps keep Britain’s only Tour de France winner at the top of his game whilst also helping to support a number of good causes. The first is the launch of the Bradley Wiggins Foundation, which aims to make sport more accessible to all by encouraging exercise, providing equipment and helping talented athletes take their skills to the next level. At cottages4you, our competing staff will be raising funds for Pendleside Hospice, a very worthy local cause.

• If you fancy taking part there are two routes, both of which take in some of rural Lancashire’s most stunning natural scenery, including the Forest of Bowland, Ribble Valley and many beautiful open expanses. The longer 160km route offers many challenging climbs and descents which have previously featured in the Tour of Lancashire, the Tour of Britain and the National Road Race Championships. The 100km route is a little more accessible but still encompasses some of the region’s stunning natural beauty.

• If you’re happier on two legs than you are on two wheels, come down to the FREE family cycle show at Victory Park, Barnoldswick (12pm-5pm) to celebrate with the competitors and Brad Wiggins in his first public event following the Olympics. Entertainment will be offered by a big-top circus, face-painter, balloon modeller, cycle stunts, stalls and much more.

Hope to see you there!

Find more info on the Events page of the Bradley Wiggins Foundation website.

101 places to go – Goodwood

It may get lost in the shuffle of huge global sporting events but this week’s recommended destination provides a fantastic display of heritage and a not too shabby array of sporting entertainment all year round.

The neo-classical façade of Goodwood House may be a big draw in its own right, but most pay a visit due to the sprawling grounds and the wealth of entertainment they contain. From the famed flat-races of Glorious Goodwood to the celebration of speed and automobile culture that makes up its motor-racing calendar, there’s a wealth of events taking place in every season.

We’re going to highlight a few of our picks for the year-ahead at Goodwood. If you’ve been and want to share your tips then please leave a comment below!

• The forthcoming Festival of Speed may be the premier choice for thrill seekers, but those seeking a more refined celebration of speed and car culture will be better-served with September’s Goodwood Revival. Re-live (or live!) the golden age of motor-racing by admiring a range of heritage sports cars while dressed up to the nines.

• Dressing-up also plays a large part in the attraction of the Glorious Goodwood horse racing festival. Running from this weekend, Glorious Goodwood offers a chic and relaxed atmosphere, music and dancing and the opportunity for a little flutter!

• If you’d prefer a more sedate experience of Goodwood then there are a number of walks that offer fantastic views of the West Sussex countryside – including views of the racecourse and out over the Solent.

Take a look at our featured holiday cottages in West Sussex for accommodation in the next few weeks.

Find more info on the Goodwood website.

101 places to go – Buxton

Not only the ‘Gateway to the Peak District’ – a region so spectacular it practically invented the National Park – our new recommended destination also offers one of the UK’s finest celebrations of high culture. That’s not to say that the Buxton Festival is an overly highbrow affair best watched through a polished  monocle. Far from, much like Buxton itself, it’s a fantastically accessible gateway to a wonderful world of music and literature.

The Festival’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the Buxton Opera House. When this stunning Frank Matcham designed building was restored in the late 1970s the Buxton Festival became all about opera. And if you’ve ever taken in a show, or enjoyed a stroll around the lovely theatre complex, you’ll know there are few better venues to enjoy a show or a front row exploration of traditional British culture.

But there’s far more to the Buxton Festival than opera, and there’s certainly more to Buxton than the Festival! You can check out a few of the other events on the website. In the meantime we’re going to list a few of Buxton’s other notable highlights so you make the most of your visit.

• With the surrounding beauty of the Peak District you won’t be short of glorious views to admire, but not all of Buxton’s beauty is above ground level. The illuminated crystal formations at Poole’s Cavern offer a truly magical experience to visitors. Though they remain one of the region’s most popular attractions, the Cavern still maintains a unique, otherworldly atmosphere.

• A walk through the Pavilion Gardens, sometimes known as the ‘green heart of Buxton’, is truly like taking a step back in time. The lovely Victorian Pavilion and its surrounding gardens offer a tranquil oasis in an already relaxing environment. There are also a variety of seasonal attractions running throughout the year so a unique experience is all but assured.

• Our last recommendation is something of a two-for-one. Buxton Crescent is a listed building that offers a wonderfully complex 18th century architectural style. When you’ve finally finished admiring its regal stylings you can pay a visit to St Ann’s Well, opposite. Here you’ll find a natural spring supplying Buxton with its famed geothermal water. Of particular interest is a well-dressing festival that takes place every summer.

Share your Buxton recommendations in the comments below. If you’d like to book a break then take a look at our featured holiday cottages in Buxton today.

101 places to go – The Wickerman Festival

There are different levels of appreciation when it comes to cult classic film The Wicker Man. Some enjoy tapping their feet and singing along to its memorable folk soundtrack. Others watch from behind the nearest cushion whilst vowing never again to take a holiday in remote Scotland. And others still rightly recognise it as one of the greatest British films ever made, before deciding to organise an outdoor festival in its honour.

Regardless of how people have reacted to it over the years, the long-lasting legacy of Robin Hardy’s folk horror film is beyond reproach – whether you’re a sing-along fan or still haunted by its iconic ending. So it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that the annual Wickerman Festival in Scotland continues to go from strength to strength.

We’re fairly sure the festival’s unique alternative line-up plays a larger part in its continued success than the climactic burning of a giant wicker man. Since 2012’s event offers headline performances from The Scissor Sisters, Texas, The View, Mike Skinner and Newton Faulkner, alongside an eclectic mix of alternative acts, it’s safe to say that the Wickerman is as strong as it’s ever been.

You can find more info on the event website. In the meantime here are a few facts about The Wickerman Festival…

•  The festival wicker man stands approximately 30 feet tall, and its climactic burning makes for an incredible spectacle. Thankfully, we are told this is where the similarities with the film end!

•  The festival’s motto is ‘Better than it needs to be’, which is either a tribute to the film’s enduring popularity or a testament to the festival’s plucky underdog spirit. Either way, it’s not very scary.

•  Despite climaxing with a burning wicker man, the main ties with the film come from the fact it’s set in the same Dumfries and Galloway countryside. We’re sure that this comes as no small relief to attendees!

•  If  you do fancy travelling to Scotland to scour the countryside for clues you might be interested to hear that organisers have hidden a number of geocaches around the country. Each box contains a number of limited edition items linked to the festival. Happy hunting!

Find holiday cottages in Dumfries and Galloway.