How well do you know England? Like many of us, perhaps not as well as you’d like. To inspire you to explore beyond your normal boundaries this year, we’ve created a list of three cities in England with additional experiences within easy reach, so you can enjoy the best of both town and country in a weekend away. Here’s part one of these suggestions for a satisfying "microgap" – a chance to disconnect and discover something new without travelling too far; three destinations centred on the ever-varied landscapes of the south, east and west of the country.
Cambridge has an idyllic setting on the River Cam and enjoying a punt along the river remains an essential challenge for any visitor. These flat-bottomed craft were once workboats, used by reed-cutters and duck-hunters but can now be rented by anyone brave enough to take on the challenge. We won’t believe you did it unless we see the selfies, though.
This university city is also a delight to walk or bike around, taking in sights such as the much-photographed Bridge of Sighs or joining in a Cambridge Food Tour. With the large student population, you’ll find there is a great choice of places to eat, as well as traditional pubs and quirky cocktail bars. Late night, there’s plenty of appealing clubs, while the Cambridge Corn Exchange has hosted stars such from David Bowie and Queen to the Manic Street Preachers, and also puts on comedy, opera and musicals.
If telling your friends you “studied at Cambridge” appeals, the University of Cambridge lists hundreds of lectures and events open to the public – many of them free. Look out for short courses in subjects such as cookery and wine-tasting, held in Cambridge itself. Also check out our guide to the best things to do in Cambridge and find activities that go beyond the typical Cambridge experience.
Grantchester needs no introduction for fans of the TV detective series of the same name. It’s a charming village on the banks of the River Cam, popular with university staff and hence reputed to have the world’s highest concentration of Nobel Prize-winners.
Grantchester Meadows is a lovely picnic spot for visitors who punt along the River Cam from Cambridge, a route equally enjoyable by bike or on foot. For the ultimate local experience, enjoy tea at the Orchard Tea Garden where you’ll find a nearby statue of former resident WWI war poet Rupert Brooke.
The No.18 Stagecoach bus runs to Grantchester every hour from Cambridge and takes 15 mins. By car, it’s just 10 minutes from town. The footpath alongside the River Cam is only six miles return, but allow extra time to enjoy the views.
Norwich escaped the great road-building boom of the 1950 and ‘60s, leaving its historic centre – built on the wealth of the wool trade – almost intact. Its Norman-era cathedral, castle and market square, cobbled Cathedral Quarter and maze-like Norwich Lanes (small alleys lined with independent coffee houses, bars, restaurants and shops) feel like a time capsule of medieval life.
There are so many good independent shops, it’s impossible to visit them all in one visit. One of the oldest is Bowhill & Elliot, which has been around for over 140 years and is famous for its handmade slippers. The Good Earth Clothing Co sells clothing made from all-natural fabrics, while Norfolk Yarn, a wool-lover’s paradise, offers workshops in skills that range from knitting and crochet to felting and spinning.
Norwich is a university city, which brings all the thriving bars, clubs and arts venues you might expect. Norwich Castle is a museum of local history but also an art gallery, and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts on the University of East Anglia’s campus has world-class collections of Art Nouveau work, plus ceramics and other treasures from around the globe.
With miles of picturesque waterways to discover, the Norfolk Broads are made for exploring by boat. You can hire your own motorboat or, if that idea doesn’t appeal, join an organised day trip. Canoe tours with an expert guide are another, more energetic way to enjoy a unique experience, learning about the abundant birdlife and local history.
Among the fascinating facts you’ll discover is that all the canals are man-made and date back to medieval times. The waterways are also all lock-free. If that makes hiring your own boat a more tempting idea, you’ll find plenty of places to moor up alongside country pubs or pretty villages and market towns with a wide choice of places to eat.
Great Yarmouth, with excellent access to the Broads, is a 40-min (22-mile) drive via the A47 from Norwich. Trains and buses run regularly, taking 50 mins.
Start your visit in Cathedral Yard with a guided tour of Exeter Cathedral. It’s one of the most magnificent sacred buildings in England, dating back to the 12th century, with an interior space that is the world’s longest continuous Gothic stone vault. You can discuss your newfound historical knowledge over a classic Devon cream tea in the charming cafe with a vaulted ceiling – another unique experience.
Suitably refreshed, set your sights on another must-see, the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum), which has an eclectic collection of objects from around the world, including a whale skeleton, Egyptian mummies, Afghan sculptures and Samurai armour, plus paintings and sculptures by the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hepworth. Even regular visitors can learn something new from the local volunteers who lead guided tours, so why not join one to explore further?
The medieval Underground Passages are another sight unique to Exeter. Built to house the pipes that brought drinking water to homes in the city, they can now be explored by intrepid hard-hatted visitors. For yet more history, head to Powderham Castle, home of the Earl of Devon, a stately home sitting in deer-filled parkland. You can learn more on the Deer Park Safari which takes in the sights with a running commentary on the wildlife and history of Powderham.
Bovey Tracey is known as the “Gateway to Dartmoor” and is a good base for hikes or bike rides exploring the natural beauty of the moors, as well as other outdoor activities like climbing and canoeing. Horseriding is another option, or even a walking tour with llamas who'll carry your picnic lunch.
Bovey Tracey’s winding streets are filled with more than 100 listed buildings, many now turned into cafes, restaurants and shops catering to visitors. The town’s long craft-making tradition is highlighted in the riverside Devon Guild of Craftsmen, and annual Contemporary Craft Festival. One more recent craft is distilling and you can tour Dartmoor Whisky to learn more about the process and even taste some of the spirit before it is put down to age.
Exeter to Bovey Tracey takes 25 mins (15 miles) by car via the A38. Buses take about 50 mins and run every hour between the two.
Top image: Punting on the river Cam © Shutterstock