If you’re a keen reader or writer and are looking for somewhere inspiring to holiday this year, then this blog is for you. I’ve gathered together a top ten list of places to visit in the UK which not only have a literary connection, but which are also great holiday destinations in their own right.
1. The Lake District Wander lonely as a cloud following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Visit Dove Cottage, and then visit Hill Top Farm, the famous residence of Beatrix Potter, now owned by the National Trust. (It’s always busy, even in non-covid times, so pre-book). Sail on Coniston Water where Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons was set. A little extra treat is the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick where you will be inspired to take up scribbling of one sort or another.
- Books to take with you: complete works of Beatrice Potter of course.
2. Yorkshire. You’re going to need a long holiday here, there is so much to see. Start in Hebden Bridge, setting for the wonderful TV series Happy Valley, and from there visit Heptonstall and the graveyard where Sylvia Plath is buried. Catch a glimpse of Ted Hughes’s Lumb Bank writing retreat run by the Arvon Foundation. Maybe you’ll stay there and write for a while, or maybe stay in Hughes’ childhood home in Calderdale. After you’ve had your fill of Hughes and Plath, head ten miles north to the Brontes’ home, the Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire. You’ll need a couple of hours to savour the house itself and longer to wander on the moors looking for Heathcliff. Don’t worry, Haworth is full of tea shops to fortify you.
The parlour in Haworth, where the Bronte sisters wrote their novels.
The view from one of the bedrooms in Ted Hughes’s Lumb Bank,
Fifty miles north of Haworth is Thirsk, the setting for James Herriots’ vets stories, but if you’re a fan of the original TV series then you may also want to visit Askrigg, where you can eat at the Kings Arms, one of the prime locations (and which has a delicious menu). Askrigg is also close to Wensleydale, where you can find out how the famous crumbly cheese is made, as well as discover how Wallace and Grommit changed the fortunes of this tiny dairy. (En route, in Leybourn, sit at the same spot as JMW Turner when he painted ‘Simmer Lake’). Finally don’t miss out on Whitby, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Whitby, with the infamous ruins of the abbey seen here through a whale’s jawbone.
- Books to take with you: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and A Kestrel for a Knave.
3. Cornwall. Everyone is talking about the TV series Poldark, based on novels written by Winston Graham who lived most of his life in Perranporth, but let’s not forget how much Cornwall inspired many other writers. Kenneth Graham, author of Wind in The Willows, lived near Fowey, as did Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, The Birds, and Jamaica Inn.) You can stay in the real Jamaica Inn in the middle of Bodmin Moor and visit their museum of smuggling, as well as the room they have dedicated to du Maurier. Then head a few miles north to Polzeath, which was the model for Tresoddit, the holiday home of the Webers in Posy Simmond’s gentle cartoons. While you’re there, pop into neighbouring Daymer Bay and visit the tiny church of St Enodoc (below) where the former poet laureate, John Betjeman, is buried.
- Books to take with you: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
4. Oxford. A beautiful place to visit, with some fabulous bookshops (don’t miss Blackwells, for instance, this was the chain’s birthplace and is probably still the largest branch today). Visitors may be thinking about Phillip Pullman and Lyra’s Oxford, they might also be thinking about Harry Potter, as many of university buildings were used in filming; Christchurch College was the original Hogwarts, for instance. But wander around the streets and imagine CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll scribbling away in their spare hours.
5. Dorset Lyme Regis is a good place to base yourself; walk to the Cobb and remember the crucial scene in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Jane stayed here and the local museum has a small collection dedicated to her. There are three bookshops in the town, including the huge lyme regis bookshop which was recently been taken over the by founders of the award winning Aberfeldy Watermill. From here you could walk the eight miles of coast to West Bay, the setting for Broadchurch, looking for fossils on the way. But Dorset is also the real location of Wessex, Thomas Hardy’s fictional county. Go to Dorchester and visit the cottage where he was born as well as the house where he spent his later years, both owned by the National Trust. There is even a Hardy trail for diehard fans.
Enid Blyton spent many a holiday in Dorset, and the Isle of Purbeck is the setting for several of her books; visit Corfe Castle (below) in particular, which is the Famous Five’s Kirrin Castle, and Brownsea Island (you can take a boat trip and see red squirrels) is Whispering Island.
And finally it is really worth taking a visit to Tyneham Village, if you can (above). This was evacuated during the Second World War as the government wanted to use the area for military training, but they decided to hang on to it when the war was over and so it was never re-populated. It’s a place where time has stood still, and it’s remarkably evocative and sad. As there is still shelling in the area, you can only visit on certain days, so do plan your visit carefully.
- A good book to take with you is Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which was recently made into a film Ammonite, filmed locally.
6. Alynwick, Northumberland. Ok I’ve sneaked this one in under the radar, basically because Alynwick Castle (below) is the location for Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter film, but even though you can have broomstick flying lessons on the same patch of grass as Harry did, it is worth a visit in its own right. The gardens are amazing; there is a restuarant in the treetops, some amazing water features, and the poisons garden (you have to book in to be escorted round, but it’s great fun – just don’t touch anything!). And of course Alynwick is the home of the biggest second-hand bookshop in the UK, located in the former railway station, Barter Books – bring a bag of books and swap it for credit. You’ll want to spend several hours browsing here, and luckily they have an amazing cafe in the former waiting rooms.
- Books to take with you – any of the Vera series by Anne Cleeves.
7. Dumfries and Galloway. This south westerly region of Scotland was visited by Robert Burns (you can visit the museum dedicated to him in Dumfries) and it was also home to JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, for a few years. He said that Moat Brae was the inspiration for that story, and this is now the National Centre for Children’s Literature; make sure you pay a visit to the Enchanted Lands Garden. You’ll also want to spend at least a day in Wigtown, which is Scotland’s equivalent of Hay-on -Wye. This small town is dominated by about twenty new and second hand bookshops. Visit in September and catch some of the events during the two week Wigtown book festival.
8. Orkney. George Mackay Brown is Orkney’s most famous son, and you should probably head to the Stromness Museum if he interests you, but while you’re there don’t miss the Pier Arts Centre, home to many of Barbara Hepworth’s works. Orkney is an inspirational place though, and there is so much to see. Don’t miss the tiny Betty’s Reading Room in Tingwall (below).
- Books to take with you: Outrun by Amy Liptrott and Crash Land by Doug Johnstone.
9. London. Where to start? A visit to Kensington Gardens and the statue of Peter Pan perhaps? Baker Street with its statue of Sherlock Holmes and nearby museum? Or perhaps Kings Cross Station where you can get a photo taken outside the Harry Potter giftshop at Platform 9 3/4 (Though personally I wouldn’t bother, it’s a disappointing ripoff. Anyway JK Rowling was actually picturing the neighbouring St Pancras station, which is far more impressive and far less busy! And while you’re there, go and see The British Library; they always have something interesting going on. If you are desperate for Potter stuff, get on a train at Euston and go to the Warner Brothers studio exhibition, which is just brilliant).
Dickens is probably one of London’s most famous writers, and there are plenty of places to visit. Finish your wander at his burial place; Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and see how many other names you recognise. Afterwards, maybe wander down the Thames to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and then up to Bloomsbury looking for blue plaques (the place is riddled with them, as well as bookshops).
It’s also worth taking a day trip to Stratford upon Avon, home of William Shakespeare. His house no longer exists, although you can visit its site, but his childhood home is still there, as are the homes of his wife and his daughter.
- Books to take with you: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (but then you have to visit Highgate Cemetery as well – and why not?). Anything by Dickens.
10. Edinburgh. I’ve saved the best till last of course. Does any other city boast as a centrepiece, a 200 foot high monument to a writer (Walter Scott) or has named its main railway station after said writer’s novels? Edinburgh Waverley is also the place to get on board the newly opened Borders Railway, and visit Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House, We also have a writers museum and one of the largest book festivals in the world (see pic below). The last two weeks of August is book festival time, but the city is rammed then, so try and squeeze in a visit out of season. Arthur Conan Doyle was actually born here so we’ve got a statue of Sherlock as well, outside his birthplace at the top of Leith Walk. Edinburgh lays claim to being the birthplace of Harry Potter too, and you can’t move in the old town for shops selling Potter paraphernalia. One of the cafes – the Elephant cafe – where JK Rowling wrote chunks of the book recently burnt down but it was pretty overrun with tourists, and in fact it was a cafe in Nicholson Street which was her main writing spot and even though that has changed hands a few times, you can still get coffee there (and it’s handily close to Blackwells, Edinburgh). There are also several Harry Potter walking tours which will show you, amongst other things, Tom Riddle’s grave and Victoria Street (or Diagon Alley). There are also Rebus tours, if you feel inclined, and If you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith then you can visit Scotland Street and other locations in his books. But Edinburgh has more bookshops per square foot than any other city in the UK, and you can spend a happy day walking between them all.
- Books to take with you – honestly probably better not to, because there are so many bookshops…..