When you start planning your holiday, the West Midlands is probably not a region that immediately springs to mind. But can this change?
According to new research from Airbnb, Stoke-on-Trent is the most popular ‘quirky’ destination among UK users, beating the likes of Scarborough, Cardiff and Paignton to the award.
The website claims they are impressed by the town’s “range of barn conversions”, and with four-bed country properties costing as little as £130 a night in midsummer, they will make people think twice about paying high prices for poor B&B rooms in rip-off honeypots like South Devon and Pembrokeshire.
But perhaps British holidaymakers are waking up to the fact that Stoke is actually a fascinating city that offers open-minded visitors everything from factory tours, beautiful gardens, arts and crafts workshops, dolls with pottery history and a 60-acre forest where Barbary macaque monkeys roam free. There are four local museums, one of which displays part of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures ever found. Holiday with children? Alton Towers and Jodrell Bank are up the road. Cannock Chase, the Shropshire Hills AONB and the Peak District are also just a short trip away.
Your friends will probably think your holiday choice is eccentric. You can assure them that it is polycentric. Stoke is a city conjured up in 1910 from six small townships. Confusingly, local author Arnold Bennett – a literary superstar of the early 20sth century – referred to it as “Five Cities”, because it sounded more melodious. Why go to an obvious city when you can see half a dozen original ones?
Once you start heading down the road less travelled, the UK is packed with options for a long weekend. Hundreds of cities are bypassed and overlooked every summer, as the mindless hordes rise, queue and lounge in the same overhyped seaside resorts, twee villages and festival-filled city centres. Here are five of our off-the-radar favorites…
Five more underdogs for a brilliant weekend break
The 253-foot Wainhouse Tower towers over the approaches to Halifax. The dyehouse magnate John Edward Wainhouse had it built partly to show his opulent neighbor Sir Henry Booth that the lord, entrenched in the country estates, should look up to the achievements of the mill owners. Some call it the “Tower of Spite” or “the highest folly in the world”, but it is a fitting symbol for a city that played such a prominent role in the Industrial Revolution.
On arrival there is the even more impressive Grade I-listed Piece Hall, opened in 1779 to provide handloom weavers with an august setting from which to sell their wares. Like a handsome palace on the Grand Canal, it would be a teeming over-tourism hotspot if it were in London; here you may have the vast piazza all to yourself.
Calderdale Industrial Museum provides the backdrop to the region’s rich history of labour, steam power, transport and textiles, while Eureka! The National Children’s Museum is the ultimate rainy day option for families. Just a mile away by car is Shibden Hall with its beautiful gardens. All around are the misty moors and lush valleys of the West Riding, with the Pennine Way nearby at Hebden Bridge.
The most underrated city (sorry, city!) in England? It may well be, because Preston, although it doesn’t look immediately enticing, boasts several ground-breaking first times. It is widely regarded as the birthplace of temperance movement, thanks to local man Joseph Livesey, who pledged abstinence after one too many whiskeys in the 1830s. To toast his memory, wander down to the Plau on Friargate – the former Plow Inn, originally associated with the gin craze, later with tea stalls, and now a Grade II-listed beauty of a bar serving good food, beer, spirits – and soda pop.
St Walburge’s Church is a short walk from the center but you won’t struggle to find it as it is topped by an awe-inspiring needle of a spire – the tallest of any parish church in England. On weekends there are guided heritage tours, which take in the Gothic Revival exterior, hammer-beamed ceilings and ornate stained glass windows. Some tours include a climb up the spire.
Preston North End was a founder member of the Football League, winning the inaugural Championship and FA Cup; matchday at Deepdale is a fantastic family day and the stadium boasts a memorial to the pioneering Dick, Kerr Ladies FC team, much in the news following the Lionesses’ triumph at the European Championships. It is a short drive to the bird-filled Brockholes nature reserve, the Guild Wheel cycle path and Blackpool beach. Or take the bus – and see Britain’s most striking modernist bus station on the way.
The once fabled New Town is now old enough to be taken seriously as a heritage. To understand what the future looked like to the architects and town planners of the Sixties and Seventies, take a tour around Milton Keynes’ epoch-defining Mies van der Rohe-influenced shopping centre, Central Library and former bus station – all listed buildings – plus MK Art Gallery, with bucolic detours via the towpath to the Grand Union Canal and Campbell Park, full of public art and one of Europe’s finest modern parks.
MK has become known for its grid system and roundabouts, but one of the functions of the New Town project, which had its roots in the earlier “Garden Cities”, was to encourage residents to get around on foot; amenities are so well connected here that Ramblers nominated the town for its 2019 Best Walking Neighborhood award. If you’re holidaying with kids, you can choose between an action-packed afternoon at Xscape (where there’s indoor skydiving, climbing walls, skiing, trampolines and a games cafe) or the ultimate nerd zones at Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing.
Merthyr once powered the Welsh economy. Coal mining and ironworks scarred and shaped the landscape and the people. The first steam locomotive, by Richard Trevithick, was built here. The Glamorganshire Canal and then the Taff Vale and Heads of the Valleys railways linked the town – the largest and fastest growing in Wales in the Victorian era – with the city and docks of Cardiff. To get a feel for all this drama and crunch, ride one of the self-guided city center trails at welovemerthyr.net.
The Big Pit National Coal Museum – which offers underground tours – is just 16 miles away. To see the brass that all this muck can generate, spend a delightful day at Cyfarthfa Castle, commissioned by Ironmaster William Crawshay in 1824. Bikepark Wales, Britain’s first purpose-built mountain biking area, is located in Gethin Woods at the southern end of town. Ride the Brecon Mountain Railway from Pant, two miles north of Merthyr, to Torpantau – there to plunge into the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The best view of Liverpool? From Birkenhead, obviously, where you can see the Three Graces, two mighty cathedrals and the panorama of the Victorian harbor without bumping into any statues of the Fab Four or selfie-snapping Beatlemaniacs – before turning your back on the clichés to explore a more original side of the Mersey. The East Wirral Coastal Path is a fantastic walk for fans of maritime history. Nearby is Birkenhead Priory – the oldest building on Merseyside – and the Georgian architecture of Hamilton Square, second only to Trafalgar Square for the number of Grade I listed buildings in one location.
Birkenhead Park, opened in 1847, was the first park to be established from the public purse. It was laid out by Joseph Paxton, best known for Chatsworth House, and its abundance of native and exotic trees, ponds, rock gardens, footpaths and bridges and “probably the oldest brick-built cricket pavilion in the world” was a template for future city parks. The American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited in 1850, took inspiration from Birkenhead when he designed Central Park in New York. The Lady Lever Art Gallery and Port Sunlight model village are on your doorstep.