France’s Best River and Lake Beaches

With a large landscape bursting with colour and ‘joie de vivre’, it’s no wonder we can’t keep away from France’s gorgeous golden shores. Yet despite its scope, and abundance of lovely locations, you can still find yourself encountering the very things you went on holiday to avoid: overcrowded beaches, long queues and playing the world’s least enjoyable game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with car parking spaces and sun loungers…

If you want to beat the French crowds and enjoy cleaner, warmer water in complete tranquility then head inland and enjoy the natural beauty of one of France’s best-kept holiday secrets this summer: lake and river beaches.

France’s inland beaches are a thing of beauty with lush, verdant borders, miles of unspoilt, sandy shores and crystal clear waters to enjoy. What’s more they’re often accessible and offer more amenities than their coastal cousins.

Here’s our pick of France’s best lake and river beaches for summer 2017.

Pont d’Arc, the Ardèche

Part of the glorious Gorges de l’Ardèche, and often referred to as the ‘European Grand Canyon’, the Pont d’Arc is a huge natural bridge shaped by the winding river. Needless to say, it’s very popular with climbers and kayakers, but the sandy shores are perfect for basking in the sun and the river is perfect for cooling off in afterwards too.

Aydat Lake, Puy-De-Dome, Auvergne

Located in France’s largest Nature park, Aydat is the largest of Auvergne’s lakes. Edged by woodland, it offers a wealth of activities on its waters, including supervised swimming in July and August, boating and water-sports, fishing and more. The grassy shores offer bars and restaurants, games for children, picnic benches and parking.

Lake Annecy, Haute-Savoie    

One of France’s biggest and best-known lakes, there’s no shortage of activities in and around Annecy should you want to do more than just enjoy its famed clear waters. Nature reserves, decorative gardens and walking trails are in abundance, but if you’d prefer a more vibrant slice of life than visit the stylish lakeshore nightclubs – open into the early hours.

Soustons Lake, Landes

The best of both worlds awaits at this beautiful lake in France’s south west. Here you will find a lovely waterside setting just a short distance from the Atlantic coast between Azur and Soustons. The lake itself is nestled amongst pines and offers a tranquil spot for bathing and water-sports. If you want to really dive-in to local life you can enjoy grilled sardine parties and witness the famous stilt-walkers!

Lac de St Croix in Provence

The calm turquoise waters of Lac de Sainte-Croix are perfect for exploring via pedalo – not to mention for cooling off after a spell in the Provencal sunshine. This artificial lake is fed by the breath-taking Verdon Gorge, a popular spot for climbers and hikers comprised of huge limestone outcrops. With parking available all around the lake, it’s perfect for a picnic stop in Provence too!

Pont du Diable, Occitanie

‘Devil’s Bridge’ may not sound like the kind of place you might stop to relax and cool off, but this scenic stop – originally built to allow pilgrims to cross the gorge – offers a wonderfully tranquil experience, providing you don’t mind the spectacle of people plunging into the water from the rocks.  The shore is a great place for a picnic but make sure bring shoes and blankets to make it comfy.

Pont du Gard, Languedoc Rousillon / Occitanie

A huge three-tiered Roman aqueduct provides a scenic backdrop to your swimming in this scenic, Southern France location. For this reason Pont du Gard is equally popular for its heritage status as its crystal clear, cool waters, but it’s safe to say that the swimming and kayaking opportunities are equally enchanting.

Lac de la Tricherie, Mesnard-la-Barotiere, Vendee

The scenic setting of this natural park in the Vendee might be perfect for lazing on the grass, but you haven’t really visited Lac de la Tricherie if you haven’t climbed through the trees, fired arrows, dodged paintballs and lasers, played golf and navigated through some of France’s most stunning woodland with map and compass. All this is available in the Tépacap adventure world. Oh, and the lake is a bit special too.

World Book Night -The UK’s Best Real Life Literary Locations

 

In honour of World Book Night we have put together the ultimate guide to Britain’s literary landmarks.

Pack your paperback, hit the road and immerse yourself in the best of British literature.

Chesil Beach, Dorset

Chesil beach

Chesil Beach: Star of Ian McEwan’s 2007 Booker-shortlisted novel

Ian McEwan has a real gift for making us feel the most profound misery through his tragic characters and their depressing lives. If you’re into that sort of thing, you absolutely have to visit Chesil Beach in Dorset – the eponymous location for his 2007 Booker-shortlisted novel On Chesil Beach.

The beach is stunningly beautiful in its own right, but after you have read the book you will curse McEwan for ruining your seaside holiday.

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Fancy solving a real life literary mystery? On 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in Berkshire following a row with her cheating husband and simply disappeared. Her car was found abandoned by a lake in Guildford, Kent a few days later, and a national manhunt attracted the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (who hired a spirit medium to track her down). After 11 days, she was finally spotted in Harrogate, North Yorkshire – hundreds of miles from home – claiming to have amnesia.

No one has ever figured out where she went or what she did during those ‘lost’ 11 days – can you retrace her steps and solve Christie’s greatest mystery? Maybe try at Christie’s own summer residence – available to rent on cottages.com: www.cottages.com/cottages/greenway-apartment-nt012044

Whitby Abbey, Whitby

Whitby Abbey: Where else would Dracula stay?

Whitby Abbey: Where else would Dracula visit?

For maximum effect, go after dark, alone, and bring plenty of garlic. That’s right – Whitby Abbey is the real life inspiration for the vampire’s castle in Dracula. During a visit to the Yorkshire town of Whitby in 1890, Bram Stoker spent some time walking around the looming ruins of the ancient abbey, and in his mind a story started to take shape… the rest is horror history.

Whitby Abbey is one of those places you’ve probably already had a dozen nightmares about, without ever actually visiting it. The shadowy arches are home to actual bats, while a steep set of the crumbling steps leads right into the sea, perfect for bringing shipwrecked vampires to the shore.

The ruins are still standing today, while Dracula’s ‘grave’ is situated nearby, and the apartment where Stoker stayed when he stayed in Whitby is available to book with cottages.com: www.cottages.com/cottages/brams-view-28336 

Laugharne, Wales

Dylan Thomas loved Wales, and Wales loved him right back. He was born in Swansea and lived all over picturesque West Wales, but it was in the small town of Laugharne where he was truly inspired.

From a boathouse nestled in a tiny glen beside the glassy water of the Taf Estuary, he wrote the iconic Under Milk Wood, and it is not hard to see why. Laugharne is one of the most calming nooks in all of Carmarthenshire – the perfect place to loll among the daffodils and catch up on your Welsh literature.

Winchester, Hampshire

Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

One of England’s prettiest cities, Winchester has been responsible for inspiring some of the greatest novels every written. From her Winchester home, Jane Austen dreamed up the love story between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, a scheming young character called Emma, and many other iconic characters and stories which would go on to become global classics.

Visit Austen’s home (now a museum) in Chawton, and make some time to indulge in a long walk around the countryside, just as she did.

Incidentally, Colin Firth also hails from Winchester, so if you hang around the lakes long enough you may be lucky enough to recreate a certain scene from the BBC adaptation…

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Cornwall is the eternal star of Rebecca Du Maurier’s novels, and Jamaica Inn is no exception. Her famous tale of murder and mayhem is set in the brooding Jamaica Inn on Bodwin Moor – and it is still standing today. Du Maurier stumbled across it one night in 1930 after getting lost in the fog while out on the moor. Captivated by the inn’s intense atmosphere and the innkeeper’s chilling ghost stories, she got to work on her most celebrated novel.

Hike across the moors for yourself (fog machine optional) and reward yourself with a pint and a pasty at the real life Jamaica Inn. Just remember – don’t trust anyone!

Alnwick Castle (AKA: Hogwarts), Northumberland

Alnwick Castle and the River Aln

Alnwick Castle: The wizarding world of Harry Potter

OK, so this is cheating a little – J.K. Rowling wasn’t technically thinking of Alnwick Castle when she wrote about Hogwarts, but thanks to the films, the castle has become synonymous with Harry Potter.

The huge castle is open to the public for most of the year, and even hosts the odd Harry Potter themed day – bring your wand and recreate the magic for yourself.

Kirriemuir, Angus

This unassuming “wee red toonie” in the east of Scotland was where Neverland was born. The hometown of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, it features in many of his novels including Auld Licht Idylls, The Little Minister and A Window in Thrums. It was here that he wrote Peter Pan, and the rugged, lush landscape of Neverland was based on the local Angus scenery.

Kirriemuir has some of the clearest night skies in the UK, so you can map your own route to Neverland. According to Barrie, it is near the “stars of the milky way”, “second to the right, and straight on till morning”, and most easily spotted at sunrise.

Haworth, West Yorkshire

This way to Wuthering Heights

This way to Wuthering Heights

The West Yorkshire village of Haworth was home to the Bronte sisters for many years, and it was in the Haworth Parsonage where they wrote most of their books. You can’t miss the connection when you visit – almost every landmark has a ‘Bronte’ association (the Bronte Waterfall; Bronte Bridge, etc), while the old Parsonage is now a museum.

There is no real-life Wuthering Heights, but it is widely assumed that Emily Bronte was inspired by Top Withins, a desolate and rural farmhouse approximately 3 miles outside of the village.

Celebrating Shakespeare: Must-See Settings for his Greatest Works

On 23rd April 1616 our greatest dramatist William Shakespeare died. To celebrate over 400 years of his legacy, we’ve put together a list of the loveliest real-life locations that inspired his world-famous plays…

Verona, Italy

Verona

Verona, the enchanting city in northern Italy’s Veneto region is the setting for Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It has earned World Heritage status and gives its neighbouring romantic rival Venice a run for its money, especially during the Valentine’s’ Verona in Love’ festival. It’s perfect for an afternoon stroll, a gelato stop in a sunny square or a visit to the market at Piazza delle Erbe and the imposing Arena di Verona. The latter is one of the largest and best preserved Roman arenas and still presents a summer season of opera. Still, the Verona most people come for is the one that inspired the bard.

The legend of the star-crossed lovers was already a popular story in Italy in the 14th century before Shakespeare took the story worldwide. At Casa di Giulietta you can step out on the world-famous balcony and rub the right breast of Juliet’s bronze statue if you’re looking for luck in love or enjoy hushed reflection at her tomb in the dark crypt under the church of San Francesco al Corso.

Rousillon, France

Carcasonne

Shakespeare takes the characters of his dark comedy All’s Well that Ends Well all over France, but the play revolves mainly around the protagonists’ home in Roussillon, in the far south – an area stretching between Provence and the Spanish border. Today the Languedoc/Rousillon region represents to many the ‘real south of France’, where you can enjoy unspoilt landscapes and sample wonderful, traditional wines, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc.

Visit the magical fortress of Carcassonne, stroll around mediaeval Montpellier or explore the Spanish influence of Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrenees, with its gothic palace and far-reaching views. Plus, it’s not far along the coast to the French Riviera to taste the glamour of sun-drenched Nice and Monaco.

Venice, Italy

Venice

Arguably the world’s most romantic city, Venice is unique, other-worldly, breathtakingly beautiful. Not surprising then to find here the setting for two of Shakespeare’s plays – his great tragedy Othello, whose title character is a Moorish general in the Venetian army and the rather controversial comedy The Merchant of Venice. In Shakespeare’s play the money lender Shylock asks for news from Rialto and for centuries it has been the city’s commercial centre. Now it’s a tourist Mecca; an area boasting fabulous food markets and of course the stunning Rialto Bridge, crossing the Grand Canal.

Wonder at the decadence of Saint Mark’s Basilica, take a trip to the colourful, glass-making island of Murano or soak up a Venetian sunset listening to live music in the Piazza San Marco.

Birnam, Scotland

Scotland

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth between 1604 and 1606, shortly after England’s new King, James I (and 6th of Scotland) had ascended the throne. The Scottish born monarch was reportedly interested in witches and Shakespeare would have gained James’ approval for his Scottish play. Macbeth – a violent story of ambition and murder – seems to be a mix of fact and fiction. There was indeed a Macbeth who ruled in Scotland in the 11th century, although the finer details of the drama have benefited from Shakespeare’s artistic license.

In the centre of the town of Birnam today stands a single stately oak, reputed to be the last of the ancient Birnam Wood made famous in the play. ‘Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill, shall come against him.’ And it was on Dunsinane Hill that the real Macbeth took a defeat in battle.

The Birnam and Dunkeld area is located in the beautiful Big Tree Country of Perthshire, and is so lovely that it has been popular with tourists since the railway brought the first illustrious Victorian holidaymakers such as Beatrix Potter.

Yorkshire, England

yorkshire

The imposing Yorkshire castles of Middleham and Pontefract mingle history and art once again. Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, mentioned in the Domesday Book , was King Richard III’s favoured seat – known as the ‘Windsor of the North’ during his reign.  Today, Middleham is an impressive ruin, located in a superb area for walking and close to the traditional Dales market town of Leyburn. Rather than Middleham , Shakespeare uses Pomfret Castle (now Pontefract) as the historic setting for both Richard II and Richard III.

Pomfret had a fearful contemporary reputation. In Richard III, the character Rivers describes it, ‘O thou bloody prison!’  It lies in ruin now, but offers visitors great views of Pontefract itself and fascinating tours of its underground cellars, which truly were used as a prison during the English Civil War.

Windsor, England

Windsor

Shakespeare and his work, was patronised by both Elizabeth I and James I, so it is perhaps fitting that he should set one of his comedies in royal Windsor. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce about lecherous and jealous men and the women who get the better of them. The castle and the royal family also celebrated 400 years of the bard, with ‘Shakespeare in the Royal Library’ throughout 2016.  The exhibition celebrated his connections with the royal seat and included royal collections of Shakespeare’s works and even Shakespeare inspired art created by members of the royal family. It all formed part of the special Shakespeare400 series, commissioned to celebrate the playwright’s legacy.  

The Queen’s residence, Windsor Castle is the oldest castle still occupied in the world and summer tourists may be lucky to visit on one of the few days that the neighbouring Frogmore Estate is open to the public. It’s a tranquil and private royal house and grounds, owned by the crown since it was purchased by Henry VIII. Shakespeare set a scene from The Merry Wives in a ‘field near Frogmore’ – its name derived from the proliferation of frogs flourishing in its marshy Thames bank setting.

Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Stratford

No Shakespeare inspired itinerary would be complete without a trip to his birthplace and home in Stratford-upon-Avon. This beautiful, quintessential English riverside town close to the Cotswolds boasts the house where the great bard was born, his wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – fine example of a Tudor farmhouse with beautiful gardens – and the home of his mother, Mary Arden, where you can learn the art of Tudor archery and enjoy falconry displays.

Conclude your day with a trip to the specially restored 15th century Guildhall, or in contemplation of the playwright’s final resting place. The grave’s noteworthy inscription, believed to have been penned by Shakespeare himself, includes the words; ‘Blese be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.’ Well, you wouldn’t dare, would you?

And of course, there are few better places to watch contemporary versions of his world-famous masterpieces than at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s incomparable Stratford theatre.

Tour de Yorkshire – 2017 Highlights

Dashing through dramatic countryside and taking in two World Heritage Sites, from Friday 28 April to Sunday 30 April, Yorkshire will be gripped once more by the gruelling beauty of Le Tour.

In honour of the third competition, we’ve picked some superb spots to catch the whir of wheels, plus the greatest en route attractions to enjoy all year round.

Pocklington and the Yorkshire Wolds

Stage 1 of this year’s Tour, aptly named ‘The Coast and Wolds’ pursues a lovely loop between the coastal resorts of Bridlington and Scarborough, whizzing through the wonderful Yorkshire Wolds in the middle. The first ‘King of the Hill’ climb hits cyclists at Côte de Garrowby Hill, immortalised by the swirling, technicolour bends in David Hockney’s painting. Take your own Hockney art trail around Thixendale, Sledmere and Woldgate, or base yourself in nearby Pocklington-the Gateway to the Yorkshire Wolds. Walk The Wolds Way; take to your own two wheels on the Yorkshire Wolds Cycle Route or simply salute the peloton.

Robin Hoods Bay and the coast

Robin Hoods Bay

Smugglers hideout turned tourist mecca, Robin Hoods Bay in the North York Moors National Park is one of this coast’s most scenic stop-offs. Famous for fossils and fish and chips, the tiny fishing village’s beach has been voted one of the best in the world. Low tides allow you to walk along the shore to neighbouring sands. Alternatively, you can cycle north to Whitby on the captivating Coastal Cycle Trail. Dominated by gothic gorgeousness, here you can discover ‘Dracula’s’ abbey, visit the excellent Captain Cook Memorial Museum or lose yourself in the vintage emporia amongst cobbled hills and alleyways.

Seaside Scarborough

Scarborough

The legendary sprint finish along Scarborough’s North Bay forms the thrilling finale to Stage 1. This quintessential coastal town is believed to have been the world’s first seaside resort; holidaymakers have flocked to Scarborough’s golden sands for nearly 400 years. The epitome of British good-old-fashioned fun, there are two charming beaches guarded by a splendid castle, a Sea life Sanctuary, an open air theatre and two Victorian funicular cliff lifts. A stroll past North Bay’s rainbow-bright beach huts cheer up the dullest day.

Historic Ripon

Fountains Abbey

Heralded as the day of ‘Historic Market Towns’, Stage 2 begins in Tadcaster and both the men’s and women’s  route will set riders racing past the World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey – Britain’s most complete surviving Cistercian abbey. This magnificent 12th century monument is surrounded by a medieval deer park with miles of easy walks and the stunning Georgian masterpiece, Studley Royal Water Gardens.  If nature’s not your thing, indulge your gambling side at Ripon racecourse, or visit its imposing cathedral and ancient crypt, dating back to the 7th century.

Harrogate

Any self-respecting Tour de France fan will remember Mark Cavendish’s heartbreaking fall in Harrogate in 2014.  Stage 2 will again climax here, showcasing this sophisticated North Yorkshire spa town in an exhilarating sprint finish. After all that excitement, let off steam in the opulent saunas and plunge pools at the Turkish Bath & Health Spa and enjoy the town’s elegant shops and restaurants. The original Bettys tea shop was first opened here in 1919 and shoppers have been queuing round the corner ever since! Alternatively, stroll through the Grade II listed Valley Gardens or wander the 200 acres of the Stray; a town centre grassland, enchanting at cherry blossom time.

Bradford & Salts Mill

Stage 3 begins with a backdrop of fountains in the multi-award winning City Park in Bradford city centre. Wheeling through the handsome Lister Park and past Cartwright Hall – home to works by JS Lowry and Andy Warhol, following the peloton’s path is a great way to explore the city. You could also squeeze in a trip to the National Science and Media Museum or prestigious Alhambra Theatre. Craft beer fans won’t want to miss the Keighley and Worth Valley Ale Trail. On to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saltaire, an impressive Victorian model village dominated by Salts Mill itself, which displays a large collection of artworks from local lad turned internationally renowned artist, David Hockney.

Skipton and the Dales

Bolton Abbey

Frequently listed as one of Britain’s best places to live, Skipton boasts an award-winning market, a museum and an impressively-preserved Norman castle. The town is also surrounded with natural splendour.  The Yorkshire Dales National Park expands to the north with riverside delights at Burnsall and Appletreewick, and the beautiful Bolton Abbey lies close by, to the east. This longest and toughest stage has the terrifying moniker, ‘The Yorkshire Terrier’ – presumably on account of the eight hill climbs! A good bet for spectating is the Côte de Silsden – a 1.5km hill with a 10.4% gradient, i.e. steep! It’s bound to slow even these superhuman cyclists down.

Holmfirth

There’s a Hollywood in the hills of South Yorkshire? Yes, Holmfirth or ‘Little Hollywood’, as it’s known, has its own film festival and is immortalised as the quaint setting for TV classic, Last of the Summer Wine. Nestling in the picturesque Holme Valley, you can drink in the view whilst sipping a tipple at Holmfirth Vineyard. The peloton rushes through Holmfirth itself but perhaps the highlights of this gruelling third day are the four huge climbs at the eccentrically named Deepcar, Wigtwizzle, Ewden Height and Midhopestones, which the riders must conquer before chasing down the finish line at Fox Valley, Sheffield.

For more info on this year’s route, check out Le Tour’s official website.

Britain’s Greatest and Greenest Gardens – National Gardening Week

Whether you’re a keen, green-fingered gardener or just looking for some peace and tranquility amongst glorious living surrounds, there’s no denying that Britain is home to some truly spectacular open gardens.

To celebrate National Gardening Week, we’re bringing you our pick of Britain’s greatest and greenest gardens. Enjoy rare and exotic flora, colourful country houses, space age surroundings and plenty of tranquil oases in some of the UK’s most gorgeous locations.

Chatsworth House Gardens (Chatsworth, Derbyshire)

Chatsworth house

This magnificent estate is home to the Duke of Derbyshire and is open year round to visitors and is set in the heart of the Peak District within easy reach of Bakewell, Tideswell and the historic Eyam. The style and elegance of the house is mirrored in the 105 acres of gardens that offer a variety of interesting sculptures, fountains and of course the ubiquitous English garden maze. Perhaps the most striking feature of this impressive stately garden is the cascading trough waterfall situated to the western edge of the house.

Kew Gardens (London, England)

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are located in the Richmond, London, providing over 121 hectares of space which features open spaces and greenhouses and is home to the largest collections in the world. The gardens originally opened in 1759 and are also home to a number of historic buildings. Some of Kew Gardens’ main attractions include Alpine House, featuring a striking apex roof, Chokushi-Mon which was designed to look like a traditional Japanese Garden and located near to the Pagoda, as well as Kew Palace and others. Kew Gardens offers the perfect opportunity to get out of the busy city and enjoy some spectacular greenery.

Inverewe Gardens (Inverewe, Scotland)

Hydrangeas, Inverewe Garden

Whether it be Tasmanian eucalyptus, blue poppies from the Himalayas or Chinese rhododendrons, Inverewe gardens are home to a delightful collection of flora and fauna from throughout the world. Owned by the Scottish National Trust and overlooking Loch Ewe this stunning botanical garden is one of the most popular attractions in the Scottish Highlands. The distinctive scenery of Wester Ross is some of Scotland’s most stunning countryside with the essence of a wilderness barely touched by the 21st century. Perhaps surprisingly this coastline is home to some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the country, with stunning white sand and crystal blue waters.

The Dingle Garden (Welshpool, Wales)

The small and secluded Royal Horticultural Society’s Dingle Garden is a serene idyll in the middle of Wales. Four and half acres of lawns and lakeside gardens are dominated by unusual trees and shrubs. And, despite being only two miles from the busy town of Welshpool, in this sheltered dingle (a deep wooded valley or dell) you feel more like a million miles away. There are shady glades and a beautiful arboretum, and Dingle is particularly acclaimed for its colour-themed planting which comes into its own in the autumn. Leaves explode into a rich riot of burnt reds, yellows, oranges and gold and the woods which steeply slope towards a tranquil lake are reflected majestically in the water below.

The Eden Project (Cornwall, England)

Eden project

An ideal option for rainy British days, the Eden Project gives you the chance to stay dry whilst exploring the exhibitions as well as get a taste of both tropical and Mediterranean environments. The Eden Project opened in 2001 and is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK. Some of the must-see attractions include the Biomes, The Core and The Seed. Visitors can also take the opportunity to find out about the charitable and environmental projects undertaken by the Eden Project, whilst there are also plenty of fun activities for children.

Abbey Garden (Tresco Island, Isles of Scilly)

In 1834 Augustus Smith began creating a garden amongst the 12th century ruins of St Nicholas Priory on the temperate island of Tresco. Abbey Garden is now home to thousands of exotic plants from more than 80 countries. It’s a sub-tropical paradise which survives despite its far-westerly position, 30 miles off the tip of the Cornish coastline. Stroll through monastic arches dwarfed by huge palm trees, and marvel at the array of superb succulents and the sea of bright blues, pinks and flame reds. Walled shelters and a warm, south facing slope provide the perfect conditions for plants usually found in the southern hemisphere to thrive. It’s a richly colourful place to visit, even in the dead of winter, when, incredibly, more than 300 plants are in full bloom.

Hampton Court Palace Gardens (Greater London)

Just outside London, on the banks of the river Thames lies the Royal Palace of Hampton Court. Exquisite and extensive gardens and grounds delight visitors, and every year in early summer, it plays host to the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show. The palace’s Privy Garden is a fantastic example of formal gardening, created for William III in 1702, and restored to its former geometric glory. For centuries this garden had been the exclusive retreat of monarchs, including Henry VIII, who undoubtedly took many a wife for a secluded stroll here. The yew tree maze is an exciting place to lose an hour and The Great Vine – the longest grapevine in the world – is a testament to Capability Brown, who planted it in 1769. It still bears fruit and the sweet black grapes are sold in palace shops in early September.

Bodnant Garden (Conwy, Wales)

Bodnant Garden, The Old Mill

Bodnant Garden is known worldwide for its botanical collection, and has stunning and spectacular views of Snowdonia at any time of the year. Five generations of the same family have created more than 80 acres of fabulous gardens and the amazing collection of plants has been grown from either cuttings or seeds gathered on Victorian plant-hunting exhibitions. One of the most impressive sights is the wonderful yellow scented laburnum arch, at its best in late spring and early summer. Italian-style terraces hold formal gardens, roses and invite visitors to enjoy the dramatic vista of the Carneddau mountains. You can even tie the knot here and a more romantic setting is hard to imagine.

Mottisfont Abbey (Hampshire)

Mottisfont, near Romsey in Hampshire is a must-see in early to mid June. Here, the absolute highlight is an internationally-renowned walled rose garden boasting more than 500 varieties of old-fashioned roses. When they are all in full bloom, it’s a feast for the senses – waves of colour accompanied by sensational, sweet scents. Many of the roses growing here are on sale so you can attempt to recreate the magic in your own garden. It is believed that the ancient Mottisfont plane tree is the largest in the country, its branches spreading over more than 1,500 sq metres. The gardens also stretch right down to the River Test, a fantastic chalk stream which due to careful National Trust management and regeneration is now home to otters, water voles, the striking blue flash of the kingfisher and the rare southern damselfly.

Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden (St Ives, Cornwall)

Gardens in St Ives Cornwall

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth is one of Britain’s most important and celebrated 20th century artists. Sitting beside the Barbara Hepworth Museum on a hillside above St Ives harbour is a beautiful and unusual garden filled with her sensational sculptures. Barbara relished the opportunity to work on her pieces in the great outdoors here from 1949 until her death in 1975. Her huge, bold works can today be viewed, in the most part, exactly where she placed them in a garden she laid out herself. Her sculptures are enclosed by the lush foliage and trees surrounding them and the trademark circular holes in smooth, curving bronze act like windows onto nature.

Trebah Gardens (Helford, Cornwall)

Open all year and extending across 26 acres with 4 miles of footpaths traversing themed gardens, Trebah has a special quality that fascinates throughout the seasons.  Leafy palms, camellias and magnolias await inquisitive guests and with delightful ponds Trebah have echoes of Giverny within a tranquil landscape that offers a haven of peace. With vibrant Falmouth just a short distance to the north, and the Lizard peninsula within easy striking distance to the south, Trebah sits proudly in a treasured corner of Cornwall.

The Royal Botanic Garden (Edinburgh)

Situated just a mile from the bustling, cosmopolitan centre of Scotland’s capital is the 70 acre oasis of The Royal Botanic Garden. A centre of internationally important research and conservation, the garden is home to thousands of alpine flowers and a huge collection of Chinese plants. It also boasts massive American redwoods and the Scottish Heath Garden, which celebrates native species and has created a haven for wildlife within the city. If the infamous Scottish weather is against you there are many magnificent temperate and tropical glasshouses to take refuge in. They house palms, ferns, incredible orchids and exotic rainforest foliage and visitors to The Windows on the World experience can explore ten different climatic zones, (probably all preferable to British drizzle.)

The National Botanic Garden of Wales (Carmarthen, Wales)

Located near Llanarthney, the National Botanic Garden of Wales is one of the most popular attractions in the area, and within easy distance of popular holiday destinations such as Tenby and Saundersfoot. Whilst the gardens only opened in 2000, their history dates back to the 17th century and the Middleton family of Oswestry who resided there. Explore the gardens or enjoy attractions such as the meerkats, the Gallery, the Ghost Forest and many others, providing a fantastic day out for all of the family.

Drummond Gardens (Perthshire, Scotland)

Situated 2 miles to the south of Crieff in Perthshire, these large and beautifully manicured gardens are open to the public from the beginning of May until the end of October. With a history dating back to 1490, the gardens at Drummond Castle really began to flourish during the 17th century evolving throughout the centuries to produce a striking and enchanting landscape that has been immaculately tended by some of Scotland’s finest gardeners. The careful attention to detail creates a symmetry which is simply breath-taking and with the backdrop of the castle, there is a truly timeless quality which entices visitors into a world gone by.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden (Kent)

Sissinghurst kent

Nestled in the Weald of Kent, the world-famous garden at Sissinghurst is endlessly popular and, for many, is the epitome of an English garden. It was created in the 1930s by poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her author husband Harold Nicholson and their original vision is now being carefully recreated. A prison for French sailors in the 18th century and a home to the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War the castle has seen many guises. Today wild flowers are being reintroduced, there’s a fragrant herb garden, rose garden, orchard and a nuttery, dedicated to Kentish cobnuts (a variety of hazelnut). A climb to the top of the Elizabethan tower affords a panoramic view of the large estate and the rolling Kent countryside beyond.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan (Cornwall, England)

One of the most popular botanical gardens in the UK, Cornwall’s Lost Gardens of Heligan have plenty to offer for those who enjoy these types of attractions, as well as providing a great family day out. Built in the 18th century through to the 20th century by the Tremayne family, they are a larger part of the family’s estate. Whilst the gardens were neglected following the First World War, they underwent restoration in the 1990s and now feature a number of plants from all over the world, including aged plants. Some of the most popular attractions within the gardens include The Jungle, a working pineapple pit (the only one in Europe!), the mysterious ‘Mud Maid’ and the ‘Giant’s Head’.

Powis Castle (Welshpool, Wales)

Created in the Baroque style of classical Italian gardens with more than a touch of French spirit, the grand terraces at Powis castle (originally built in the 1680s) are an evocative throwback to continental gardens of the 16th Century. With a wide selection of carefully selected colourful plants to complement the Mediterranean theme, the terraces are probably the best example of 17th century gardens left in the country. The surrounding woodland offers a number of different walks whilst the castle itself offers a fascinating trail designed for children who will be left captivated by the sense of adventure exploring the medieval fortress surroundings.

Now You’re Tolkien – The best Middle-Earth locations in the UK

wander

While John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s legacy has left an indelible impression on film and literature, places to celebrate and learn more about the English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor are relatively scarce.

Yet throughout his life Tolkien lived, and was a frequent visitor to, some of the UK’s most splendidly scenic settings. And it is in these bucolic landscapes that he found inspiration for the land and locations of his beloved Middle-Earth.

In honour of Tolkien Reading Day (25 March), we have journeyed into Middle-Earth to find you the finest real-life locations and inspirations that helped bring J.R.R Tolkien bring the rich tapestry of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to life.

Cheddar Gorge Caverns, Gloucestershire aka Helm’s Deep

If the subterranean beauty of the caves at Cheddar Gorge were not enough to sway you to visit then perhaps their oft-rumoured influence for the ethereal Glittering Caves in The Lord of the Rings might. Both Gough’s Cave and the smaller Cox’s Cave are open to the public and offer a stunning array of chambers and rock formations with a myriad of beautiful crystalline stalagmites and stalagtites.

So while you may be in the Somerset countryside, you will instantly feel transported to another world. It’s no wonder Tolkien chose to enjoy part of his honeymoon there.

Sarehole and Edgbaston, Birmingham aka The Two Towers & Hobbiton

Tolkien’s childhood in the village of Sarehole were described as the happiest years of his life, despite being chased around the village’s mill by the Miller’s son, whom he referred to as ‘the White Ogre’. Sarehole Mill directly inspired the irritable Ted Sandyman and his mill in Hobbiton. The two towers of Tolkien’s youth: Perrott’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks’ tower also provided inspiration for the towers of Barad-dûr and Orthanc in The Lord of the Rings.

The Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire aka Fangorn Forest

Forest of Dean

A similar strange exoticness can be found at Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean – though this location is anything but typical. Puzzlewood’s unique ambience is immediate once you take a walk among the ominous ‘scowles’ and withered trees. Tolkien was a keen visitor to the region. In fact, at the time of writing The Hobbit, he advised on an archaeological dig at the aptly named Dwarf’s Hill in Lydney Park – a location rumoured to have been inhabited by goblins and small folk after the Roman exodus.

It is also here that Tolkien was alleged to have been told the tale of a cursed Roman ring with an inscription on the inside. Sound familiar? He started work on The Hobbit a year later.

Stonyhurst College, Ribble Valley, Lancashire

The centrepiece of the Ribble Valley’s ‘Tolkien Trail’, it was here that JRR would spend weekends striving away on The Lord of the Rings whilst his son John was studying at the college in Lancashire. The region’s influences on his work are fairly clear: Stonyhurst was built by the Shireburn family, who named the Shirebourn River in the saga. There was also a ferry over the River Hodder that bore a striking resemblance to the description of the Buckleberry Ferry in The Fellowship of the Ring, a Shire Lane and a grey stone New Lodge, eerily similar to the description of Tom Bombadil’s home, views of the Misty Mountains and all!

Leeds, Yorkshire: The other Two Towers & The Royal Armouries

Leeds University

Tolkien spent 5 years at Leeds University in the 1920s before leaving for Oxford. It is thought that his time here – and the Anglo Saxon remnants dotted throughout the Yorkshire landscape – inspired the remnants of past civilisations throughout The Lord of the Rings. Of note is a theory that the stark white tower of the university’s Parkinson Building and the dark spire of a local church were the true inspiration for the Two Towers.

Whilst in the city, visit The Royal Armouries museum to see copies of Andúril, Strider’s Sword, Glamdring, and Sting from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy too.

The Eagle and Child Pub, Oxford

Tolkien honed his own craft whilst working as a professor at Oxford, forming a writing group known as the Inklings with his peers, including CS Lewis of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe fame. The Inklings got together in The Rabbit Room at The Eagle and Child pub to recount tales of goblins, elves and witches. The ‘Bird and Baby’ is still open today if you fancy honing your literary talents, your Tolkien knowledge or just enjoying a nice drink in historic surroundings.

Northmoor Road in North Oxford is also well worth spotting. Tolkien lived at number 22 before moving to number 20, where he wrote The Hobbit and most of The Lord of the Rings. Finally, the University’s Botanic Garden is where he would rest against his favourite tree – a huge gnarled Austrian pine, similar in form to the fabled Ents from The Lord of the Rings. Incidentally, the location also inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy too!

St Mary Immaculate Church, Warwick

St Marys

More concrete connections to Tolkien can be found at St Mary Immaculate church in Warwick. It was here that Tolkien married Edith Bratt on 22 March 1916. This beautiful Grade II listed building boasts a wonderfully elaborate design in keeping with its traditional Decorated Style. Of course, Warwickshire is no stranger to stunning historic buildings – or esteemed English writers. It was among the county’s rolling hills and historic buildings that Shakespeare honed his craft. Perhaps there’s something in the water?

Britain’s Most Poetic Places – World Poetry Day

The rich landscape and diverse history of Britain has fuelled the imaginations of the world’s greatest poets for centuries. Whether it’s the Romantics and their pastoral celebrations of nature and the countryside, Chaucer’s ribald celebration of the road to Canterbury or Robert Burns, whose verses have become forever entwined with the cultural identity of Scotland – the importance of poetry to the nation is certainly something to champion.

This is why World Poetry Day is such an important celebration – not only of poets and poetry, but of the very landscape that has played such an important part in inspiring countless classic verses. We’re going to take a look at some of our favourite poets, poems and the locations that inspired them.

William Wordsworth: The Lake District, Cumbria

Dove Cottage

Daffodils is perhaps the quintessential English poem, and undoubtedly one of the most popular. It was inspired by a walk Wordsworth took alongside the banks of Ullswater on a stormy day with his sister. Despite the famous opening line, it’s not too easy to wander lonely as a cloud in the Lake District today.

Thanks to the heritage of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets – not to mention the wonderful lakes and landforms, the Lake District is something of a holiday hotspot. Though, if you take yourself away from the tourists, it is entirely possible to find your own corner of this Cumbrian paradise to contemplate the beauty of nature and find your own inspiration.

Robert Burns: Dumfries and Ayrshire, Scotland

Burns Cottage

My Heart’s in the Highlands is a beautifully vivid celebration of the iconic landscape and native wildlife of Scotland. With this, and many other works, often set to music, Burn’s is equally celebrated as a songwriter as he is a poet. Ayrshire is the place to visit to begin your appreciation of the ‘Scottish Bard’. The village of Alloway hosts the Burns Cottage Museum, the home Robert’s father built and where the poet lived until he was seven years of age.

The Robert Burns House in Dumfries is where he spent his later years, creating some of his most beloved works in the study. It is a key pilgrimage site for many Burns admirers, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats among others visiting to pay their respects over the years.

Dylan Thomas: Laugharne, Wales

Laugharne

As Robert Burns is to Scotland so too is Dylan Thomas to Wales: a national treasure and cultural icon whose work captures a wonderful sense of place. Thomas’s life in the Carmarthenshire town of Laugharne was a constant inspiration to the writer with his famous radio play Under Milk Wood capturing several of the characters he encountered there (though the setting more closely resembled New Quay).

Poem In October is a more fitting example that displays the region’s beauty. Written after a birthday walk from his home The Boathouse up to the shoulder of Sir John’s hill, the poem provides a perfect accompaniment whilst you enjoy the ‘Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk’ around the area.

The Brontës: Haworth, Yorkshire

Haworth

Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Patrick (aka Branwell) were home schooled in the delightful Yorkshire Dales village of Haworth. The siblings’ father was parson at the church and it was in the Haworth Parsonage where they developed their literary talents, developing stories of increasing complexity. After receiving lukewarm feedback from one of her poetry idols, Charlotte and her sisters eventually decided to try to get published together – using the more masculine pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Their first book of poetry only sold three copies, but the sisters continued to produce work in secret and their literary legacy was secured in the following years. The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth is undoubtedly the best place to visit for an appreciation of the Brontës and the surroundings that inspired them. Alongside a packed calendar of events you will find much to admire in the surrounding area.

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury, Kent.

Canterbury

Chaucer is regarded as ‘the Father of English Literature’ due to his work helping to popularise Middle English over the more frequently used Latin, Italian and French. The collected Canterbury Tales was his magnum opus, a work that many claim he never completed but still comprises 24 stories over 17,000 lines of text. The Canterbury Tales themselves are often bawdy stories told by a large cast of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

While the tales themselves offer a fine sense of place, they also offer a wonderful window into a time of great change in Britain, with references to social upheaval, the invention of paper, the written word and political clashes. The cathedral today offers a wonderfully preserved experience to visitors.  One of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England, there’s much to admire and, if you’re feeling inspired, write home about.

Rudyard Kipling: Burwash, Sussex

kipling

Kipling is also known for his short stories and novels alongside poems such as IF-, a beloved ode to stoicism and often voted the UK’s most popular poem. Whilst he dwelt in some of the UK’s most scenic and vibrant locations, it was his time in Burwash, Sussex that proved the most creatively fruitful. Here, amongst many other works, he was inspired to create Puck of Pook’s Hill, a collection of short stories and poetry narrated to two children living near Burwash. The work itself is considered a seminal work of fantasy that incorporates classic English literature and history.                       

Burwash is the perfect place to celebrate and explore Kipling’s life. The author spent over 30 years there at Batemans, a stunning Jacobean mansion that is now open to the public through National Trust stewardship. Inside you will find it as Kipling left it when he passed away in 1936, with a book-lined study and many South Asian artefacts.