Five great car-free breaks in the UK | Holidays in the UK

History and hostelry, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

This year there are 12 months of celebrations to mark 1,900 years since Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall, so what better time to visit this ancient monument.

The AD122 bus runs five times a day from Hexham station to Haltwhistle (both on the Newcastle-Carlisle railway) via interesting sites along the wall. Stop at the fort on the Tyne in Chesters, the Mithraic temple at Brocolitia (free) or the Housesteads with their communal toilets and Roman studded shoes (£10/£6). Or take in the golden November birches and blue lake at an old whinstone quarry in Walltown. When it’s too wintry to hike the stilts and slippery rock steps, use the shuttle bus between these atmospheric spots and stay (weekends only except Christmas week) at the Sill Youth Hostel (private en-suite rooms from £49 , ).

In wet weather, the mostly tarmac Hadrian’s Wall National Trail around Newcastle is a good bet and is rich in cafes and museums such as Segedunum Roman Fort near Wallsend tube station (£5.95 adults). Here, an observation tower overlooks the outline of the fortress, and maps of imperial power sit alongside details of daily life: the dice used by Roman soldiers to pass the time, or the mark of a cat’s paw on an ancient piece of pottery.
Trains to Newcastle take around an hour from York (from around £8) or 1 ½ hours from Edinburgh (from £11, lner.co.uk). Trains from Newcastle to Hexham take around ½ hour (£7.80 return, northrailway.co.uk). A day ticket for the AD122 bus is £12.50

Gardens and Thicket, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Harrogate has cobbled old streets and great cafes. Photo: Alpegor/Alamy

This Victorian spa town is ideal for a car-free break in autumn and winter. It’s a pleasant couple of miles’ walk from Harrogate station, through Valley Gardens and wild Pinewoods, to RHS Harlow Carr – and arriving without a car will get you 30% off entry (coming to £8.95). The gardens are colorful throughout winter, with red and yellow stems of willow and dogwood, feathery grasses and the first snowdrops blooming from November. There are scented bushes, burning irons, and a sprig of Bettys for tea, and the rich cherry candies they call fat rascals.

New research for the London North Eastern Railway suggests that if everyone switched just one leisure journey from car to train, carbon dioxide emissions from leisure travel in the UK would fall by 16%. The LNER has produced green guides for destinations along its routes: this year’s guide features Harrogate, along with Inverness and Lincoln, and has tips for food tours, top-up shops, bike hire and hotels such as the White Hart near Valley Gardens (doubles from £79 B&B).

Harrogate has Baltzersen’s, a Scandi-style cafe a four-minute walk from the station, which sells legendary cinnamon buns. Tannin Level, half a mile from the hotel, is ideal for local candlelit dinners – this season’s menu includes beetroot and chocolate risotto and vegan chocolate mousse with orange and hazelnut.
Harrogate is half an hour by train from Leeds (from £4 single, Northernrailway.co.uk) or three hours from London (from £23.60 single, lner.co.uk)

Island bus tour, Argyll & Bute

wild beach and lighthouse
Glencallum Bay, Bute, seen from the West Island Way. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

As the ship sails under mountains and in a sea where seals and dolphins are regularly spotted, it’s hard to remember that you left Glasgow just an hour ago.

Interconnected rail and ferry transport, as well as return buses, make the Isle of Bute a great car-free destination. From Glasgow Central Station, it’s a 50-minute train ride, partly along the Firth of Clyde, to Wemyss Bay (“Weems”) with its elegant Edwardian station, where the ferry will be waiting for you.

It drops you off at the island’s main town, Rothesay (“Roth-see”), where you can wander past the circular sandstone walls of a castle moat and head up the Serpentine Road for more water views. Book in advance to eat fresh local langoustines at Bonnie Clyde or opt for fish and chips by the dock in the fading light. There are regular buses south to Kilchattan Bay, the start of the West Island Way, a long walk that covers most of Bute. The route opens with a rewardingly strenuous 6-mile circuit around the southern tip of the island, past a curving bay with a lighthouse, a lake of bull bombs and the ruined chapel of Saint Blane.

Bus 490 (10 daily) to Kilchattan Bay passes the gates of Mount Stuart, a palatial neo-Gothic mansion in red sandstone with beautifully landscaped grounds sloping down to the sea. The house and gardens are closed in winter, but there is a Christmas food and craft fair in the main house on December 4, and those staying in one of the two self-catering lodges on the estate can wander the gardens at will.

The renovated Kennels has a woodburner, a log stack and a sitting area with sunset views (£795 for three nights in December, sleeps four, mountstuart.com/stay/kennels).
Trains from Glasgow city center to Wemyss Bay cost £8.40 (scotrail.co.uk). Ferry tickets £6.90 return, calmac.co.uk

Millionaire’s View, Bournemouth, Dorset

garden with palm trees
The Garden of the Russell-Cotes Gallery. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

The The Bournemouth area is a great place to explore without a car. The salty sea air wafts through the area’s open-top buses as they weave through pine and oak trees in the leafy suburbs of Bournemouth. You can look out over the millionaire’s gardens at Sandbanks and spot cormorants diving in waves beyond.

A Bournemouth PlusBus ticket (£4 or £2.65 with a railcard) is valid on the 50 open-top bus to the Sandbanks chain ferry. Go, pay £1 to pass as a foot passenger at Studland Bay, overlooking Brownsea Island, and get back for free. (The bus is diverted in November, while the ferry will be refurbished every two years, but should be back up and running by early December.) The PlusBus scheme is one of the best deals for car-free travel in the UK. Buy a train ticket and unlimited one-day bus travel to the other end costs an extra two quid.

For rainy days, the Russell-Cotes Gallery (£8.50), an imposing palm-guarded cliffside villa, is filled with stained-glass windows, sculptures, peacock friezes and Alhambra-inspired alcoves. The art collection includes a mute Pre-Raphaelite Venus by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Many buses from the train station stop within a five minute walk at the top of Bath Hill.

Buses run to Christchurch Priory or Upton Country Park by Poole Harbour, but are also handy for exploring Bournemouth’s wooded chines and subtropical Victorian gardens. A smart new Premier Inn (doubles from just £48) near West Cliff opened in summer 2021, with left-luggage, public transport information and umbrellas for hire. It is next to a bus stop for route 50 and five minutes from the beach via the zig-zag West Cliff path.
Basingstoke to Bournemouth train tickets from £5.60 (and include New Forest window views), southwesternrailway.com

Welsh coastal walk, Barmouth, Gwynedd

Barmouth Railway Bridge over the Mawddach Estuary.
Barmouth Railway Bridge over the Mawddach Estuary. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/The Guardian

The views of the Mawddach estuary near Barmouth are at their best with late autumn colours, winter birds and the yellow glow of the hill all year round. The Victorian seaside town makes a great base for using the train to explore parts of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which turns 10 this year.

The Birmingham to Barmouth railway is one of Britain’s great scenic journeys, running alongside the Duffy estuary, whose sandbanks are teeming with seabirds. The line runs close to the Coast Path, from Aberdyfi to Pwllheli, past salt marsh and dunes, hills and waterfalls, so it can be used for station-to-station walks. Careful planning is needed as there are gaps between trains and the final stages of restoration work on the impressive wooden Barmouth Bridge across the Mawddach Estuary means intermittent rail replacements.

Trains are running and the trail will be open from December 10. The scenic six-mile Barmouth Walk from Llwyngwril Station passes standing stones, prehistoric stones, mossy oak woodland, the remains of an old slate quarry and crosses the viaduct at Barmouth’s Last Inn Harbour.

The Wales Coast Path has compiled a list of accommodation along the route, including several B&Bs on Barmouth’s Marine Parade – next to the coast path – and the Tal y Don Hotel (doubles from £99) on the high street is open until December and January.
Tickets from Birmingham New Street to Barmouth from £24 single, tickets.trc.cymru

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