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15 UK market towns you’ll want to discover

Gemma Bowes
·17-min read
<span>Photograph: Danny Thomas/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Danny Thomas/Getty Images

Ludlow, Shropshire

As one of the country’s celebrated foodie hubs, Ludlow will become a battle zone for outdoor table slots now that lockdown has relaxed.

In a region famed for its wealth of local produce though, even low-key venues pack a flavour into every dish. Opt for takeaway salad boxes or cook-at-home three-course-meal kits from The Green Cafe, grab a box of nibbles go from Cicchetti Bar Ludlow or fine fare from Harp Lane Deli, where ingredients such as Amalfi lemons, n’duja and cognac are used as commonly as salt and butter by most of us.

Along with the medieval streets of black- and-white buildings, this town is particularly ogle-able thanks to the sight of Ludlow Castle (adult £8, child £3.50) rising above the River Teme in the centre. It’s just reopened for tours.

Like many of the country’s small museums, the pandemic left the Land of Lost Content (adult £8, child £4, book ahead) in nearby market town Craven Arms, desperate for visitors. This one’s as quirky as they come, a trove of the nostalgic ephemera of everyday life.
Accommodation options left with Sykes for the next month include the black-and-white half-timbered Stone House (sleeps four, £555 for seven nights in May) in the village of Caynham three miles away, which has its own bronze and iron age earthworks.

Glossop, Peak District

A section of long-distance footpath over the hills near Glossop, UK.
A section of long-distance footpath near Glossop. Photograph: RA Kearton/Getty Images

Name the key towns around the fringes of the Peak District national park and you’re likely to think of Bakewell, Buxton and Matlock first, but Glossop, to the north-west of the park not far from Manchester, has plenty going for it. Its oldest parts date from the 12th century, cotton mills have been transformed into shops and pubs, and pre-pandemic there was a growing creative community of musicians, artists, makers and founders of independent stores and venues.

Pick up healthy picnic stuff from zero waste-focused Glossop Wholefoods and head out on the many walking and cycling trails into the Dark Peak region – that’s the wilder, higher moorland and gritstone area of the Peak District (as opposed to the lower White Peak limestone plateau).

Options include the seven-mile Longdendale Trail cycle route along an old railway trackbed to five reservoirs, the Pennine Way or the Pennine Bridleway National Trail. Drivers or cyclists could follow the A57 Snake Pass across the park to Ladybower Reservoir, Edale and the Hope valley for more outdoorsy shenanigans. Polish off your day with a superior pint from Glossop’s Howard Town Brewery, whose tap beer garden has just reopened.

If you fancy staying over, cottages.com offers the smart Kinder Apartment (sleeps two, from £435 in May). Gorgeous options with availability later in the year include rustic Allmans Heath Cottage Byre (sleeps two, from £80 a night) and Woodcock Farm, a design-led barn conversion with two cottages each sleeping two (from £110 a night).

Wetherby, West Yorkshire

The Shambles, Wetherby, Yorkshire.
The Shambles, Wetherby. Photograph: James King-Holmes/Alamy

On the banks of the River Wharfe, within easy reach of Leeds, York and Harrogate, the market town of Wetherby is a reet nice spot. The compact centre looks like Elton John’s dressing table in spring and summer, when this “floral town” is bedecked in blooms. Wetherby’s old-school cinema won’t reopen until mid- May, but outdoor attractions include the Jubilee Gardens and Grade II-listed Georgian Bath House, the attractive Church Street and Shambles – with shops under the arches – and a farmers’ market on the second Sunday of the month.

Passing through Wetherby, the easy Harland Way cycle track follows a disused railway line to 14th-century Spofforth Castle, and a local team of mountain-biking volunteers have been busy creating a series of tracks for Wetherby Bike Trails, including a new section of berms and banks cheekily named Lateral Flow.

“Very generous portions” are served in the beer garden of The Windmill Inn in Linton. And just outside in Clifford, Westwood Cottage (sleeps four, from £415 for six nights in May) is one of a few round these parts from Yorkshire Cottages.

Alresford, Hampshire

Interior of a steam train carriage, Watercress Line, Mid Hants Railway, Hampshire England, United Kingdom.
Steam train carriage on the Watercress Line. Photograph: Alamy

Quiet, a little chichi, with a gorgeous Georgian high street of colourful buildings housing independent shops and cafes, the market town of Alresford, 7½ miles from Winchester, is perfect for a relaxed escape. You’re not going to be winkling out edgy neighbourhoods here, just wandering beside the river on the Alre Valley Trail, tackling the Pilgrims Way, Watercress Way or Itchen Way, eating picnics supplied by Heidi’s Patisserie or Long Barn Cafe, which has a garden shop. Make sure you ask for watercress with that.

The town and surrounding area are famed for growing and trading the highly nutritious leafy green. It is with regret I write that this year’s Watercress festival (usually in May) has been cancelled, but – exhale – it’s going to hold the “first ever” virtual Watercress festival instead (nothing says “I’ve exhausted Netflix” like signing up for this one).

The Watercress Line (single tickets £16 adult, £8 child, book ahead), a heritage steam railway that once connected to London, is now open again, with spring events set to go ahead including a Day Out With Thomas for kids (£65 for four people, from 29 May), complete with live Fat Controller.

For a quirky accommodation option, Watercress Lodges and Campsite overlooks the railway, with six lodges styled to look like railway cottages (sleep six, from £100 a night, campsite and tipis open later in May).

Good pubs include the Bush Inn in neighbouring New Alresford, with a waterside garden by the River Itchen. And Hattingley Valley Wines in the nearby village of Lower Wield is an eco-friendly vineyard specialising in sparkling whites, where tours (£17.50, book ahead) with tastings have resumed.

Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester

Halo: A Panopticon in Haslingden, Rossendale, by John Kennedy, near Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester, UK.
Halo: a Panopticon, by John Kennedy, in Haslingden, near Ramsbottom. Photograph: John Davidson Photos/Alamy

On the edge of the West Pennine Moors to the north of Manchester, this market town is fast becoming one of the trendier and desirable parts of the city’s outer reaches thanks to its music scene, independent shops and restaurants. Get back into the swing of raising pint glass to lips at great pubs such as the Eagle + Child, with a huge beer garden set among the pots and vegetable patches of the pub’s allotment, and try to bag an outdoor table at pintxo bar Baratxuri and/or its sister restaurant Levanter.

Hopefully the weather will play ball for walks into the Irwell valley to the Irwell Sculpture Trail, or for exploring the Forest of Bowland or Peak District national park, each a 30 minute drive away. The East Lancashire Steam Train (adult £13 round-trip, child £8.50, book ahead) reopens on 1 May.

Move fast to bag Springfield (sleeps six, £339 for two nights in May or June), a gorgeous white Victorian house with rooms painted grey and blue, near paths into the National Trust’s Stubbins Estate, where the tall Peel Tower tops the wooded hillsides and moorland overlooking the town.

Saffron Walden, Essex

Cottages, Castle Street, Saffron Walden, Essex, England, United Kingdom.
Cottages, Castle Street, Saffron Walden. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Colourful half-timbered buildings overhang sloping medieval streets in this genteel hub in the Essex countryside. Until indoor life resumes, spend time in the wealth of fancy gardens nearby, not least Capability Brown’s at Audley End (£19 adult, £11.40 child, English Heritage members free, book ahead), the grandest of grand country mansions. Quirkier plantings include the humpy bumpy Turf Maze on the town common, the largest example of its type in the world. At the end of May, the free Fry Art Gallery should reopen, showing work by Eric Ravilious, John Aldridge, Grayson Perry and more.

Embrace reopening at The Cricketers, Jamie Oliver’s parents’ 16th-century pub, in the nearby village of Clavering, for cask ales and seasonal fare in the fairy-lit “spring garden tipi”.

A smattering of places to stay in or near the town remain for April/May on cottages.com, including Ivy Todd Barn (sleeps six, from £785 for seven nights in April or May), a converted barn with exposed beams.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland

Town and River Tweed, Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, United Kingdom, on a sunny day.
Town and River Tweed, Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, United Kingdom, on a sunny day.

Fancy a beach break? Turn your eyes from booked-up Cornwall to the other end of the country, where a visit to the old shipbuilding border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed can be combined with the wide-open sands of the Northumberland coast.

Start by walking round Berwick on its mile-long Elizabethan town walls, then cross the River Tweed to Spittal beach, a typical Victorian seaside resort with promenade, lighthouse and children’s splash park. From here the Northumberland Coastal Path leads south towards Holy Island, or you can join the Sandstone Way, a new long-distance mountain biking route. Four miles south, the vast beach at Cocklawburn has rock pools and grassy dunes.

Back in town, many pubs and restaurants have embraced the slow food movement, including Foxton’s Wine Bar, serving moules- frîtes and roasts again in its garden marquees.

Self-catering options include Bankhill Cottage (sleeps four, from £982 a week in May), and “secret cottage” (sleeping two from £117 a night in April and May), both on Airbnb.

Wareham, Dorset

Boating on the River Frome, Wareham Quay, Wareham, Dorset, England, United Kingdom
Boating on the River Frome, Wareham Quay. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Threaded through by the rivers Frome and Piddle, pretty Wareham has all of classic Dorset within reach while remaining far less touristy than many places in the county. Most of the action is outdoors- focused, from Ammonite-inspired fossil-finding fun on the Jurassic Coast and walking in the Purbeck Hills to taking towels to the enormous sandy beach at Studland Bay.

Worth a trip, too, is the Blue Pool nature reserve, around a deep rain-filled clay pit that is turned a vibrant shade by suspended clay particles. The surrounding heathland is home to rare green sand lizards, buzzards and sika deer. It also has a super tearoom.

If it’s real ale, curry, pies and squid rings you’ve been missing, go to the garden of the Horse and Groom. Also open again are the independent homeware stores, delis and zero-plastic food shops that line South Street down to the Quay, where boat trips run up the River Frome and to Poole Harbour – you can also hire your own boats and kayaks.

Attractions-wise there’s Corfe Castle (£10 adult, £5 child, National Trust members free, book ahead), from where you could walk the stunning Purbeck Ridgeway to the coast, returning aboard the Swanage Railway steam train (single ticket £9 adult and £5.50 child, book ahead); and the blossom-filled gardens of Venetian-style-swank-palace Kingston Lacey (£13 adult, £6.50 child, NT members free, book ahead).

Dream Cottages has a few Wareham pads left including the Old Post Office (sleeps eight, from £887 a week in April), and light, bright Elm Villa (sleeps six, from £1,342 a week in June).

Midhurst, West Sussex

In the centre of the South Downs national park and home to its official visitor centre, Midhurst combines gorgeously buxom countryside with a wealth of cutesy stores. While neighbouring Petworth is tumbling with antiques shops, Midhurst is all posh-boho independents, for all your bunting and billowing-cotton-dress needs.

The Crafty Pint shop will do you for unusual bottles of beer to take on picnics by the River Rother, which runs through town and through the nearby Woolbeding Estate, with accompanying footpaths. Or order a picnic hamper or wood-fired pizza from the farm shop of the Cowdray Estate.

From here it’s easy to make trips to Chichester, Arundel Castle (garden entry £12 adult, £6 child, book ahead) for its spectacular flowers, or the Weald and Downland Museum (adult £15.50, child £7.50, book ahead), an outdoor heritage site collating rescued rural buildings spanning 1,000 years of history.

Like everywhere, self-catering accommodation is heavily booked for the coming months, but Airbnb has a few flats available in April and May from around £100-160 a night for two people.

Monmouth, Monmouthshire

Monnow Bridge and Gate, Monmouth, Wales, UK.
Monnow Bridge and Gate, Monmouth. Photograph: Matthew Taylor/Alamy

As a busy market town in the ridiculously picturesque lower part of the Wye valley and at the confluence of the rivers Wye and Monnow, Monmouth is a gorgeous base for canoeing (try Monmouth Canoe for hires) and walking the Offa’s Dyke Path.

Even closer points of interest worth wandering to are the ruins of Monmouth Castle (free and open to wander into) and, a little way upriver, the triple-arched Monnow Bridge, the last remaining medieval fortified bridge in the UK, with its gate tower still intact. Atop the hillside Kymin nearby is a white tower built in 1794 for a group of local gentlemen to dine in – like a prototype man shed for nobles. Also look out for the blue plaques of the Monmouth Heritage Trail, indicating 24 of the town’s most interesting historic sites.

Now shops are open again, you can browse the many independents here, and 10 minutes’ walk from the centre is the Secret Walled Garden, a Tudor garden with a perfume workshop, Monmouth Botanicals, and two glamping cabins, including Apple Tree, which has a hot tub (sleeps two, from £200 a night in May).

If you don’t fancy cooking over fire, procure some fragrant Thai takeaway from the raved-about Whole Earth Cafe and Bistro.

Machynlleth, Powys

A view of Machynlleth, Powys, west of the town from the top of a 100 metre hill showing the river dovey and surrounding areas. UK.
Machynlleth. Photograph: Tony Boydon/Alamy

A little bit arty, a little bit eco, pretty outdoorsy and very quaint, Machynlleth is a mid-Wales market town with everything going for it. Surrounded by glorious countryside and with southern Snowdonia to the north, it’s well-placed for hikes along the Glyndwr Way long-distance trail and mountain biking on well-kept trails through the nearby Dyfi Forest. Investigate vintage shops and book stores, pick up bara brith bread and local cheese from Cletwr and, when it reopens, pop into the Museum of Modern Art to check out its strong collection.

Sustainable living is rife here, not just a fad – after all it’s where the Centre for Alternative Technology was established in the 1970s, in an old slate quarry. Hopefully its courses and exhibitions will resume shortly. Nature lovers will want to visit the RSPB Ynys-hir nature reserve and get the binocs out to spy migrating ospreys returning to the Cors Dyfi nature reserve.

Near Machynlleth, Under The Thatch offers an off-grid, pink walled converted barn, Ysgubor Dyfi (sleeps eight, £694 for four nights in April, but from £469 if there’s only two of you) in an isolated position in the Dyfi valley. Or there’s Llwydiarth Hall (sleeps 14, £1,710 for seven nights in May), a huge period house surrounded by mountains.

Chepstow, Monmouthshire

The gardens at Dewstow, Wales UK.
Dewstow Gardens. Photograph: Chris Howes/Alamy

It’s not only the racecourse that brings folk to Chepstow in south Wales. Walking in the Lower Wye valley and a glut of historic attractions mean there’s loads to do, even if the wide variety of music festivals usually held here don’t go ahead this year.

Focusing on outdoors attractions, Chepstow Castle (currently free but book ahead) is most visitors’ first port of call, but don’t miss the Dewstow Gardens and Grottoes (adult £7.50, child from £2.50, book ahead), a moss-dripping, fern-wafting verdant wonderland of tunnels and caves and tropical planting, or the graceful Gothic ruin of Tintern Abbey (free, book ahead).

Castle House Apartment 1 (sleeps two, from £635 for seven nights in April) is one of several here with cottages.com, or hire a yurt on a farm at Hidden Valley Yurts (each sleeping seven from £839 for three nights in April).

Linlithgow, West Lothian

Aerial drone view of Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian, UK.
Linlithgow Royal Palace. Photograph: Alan Oliver/Alamy

Less than 30 minutes by rail from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, the small and picturesque town of Linlithgow is a winsome spot for exploring a side of Scotland away from the Highlands. Here hikes follow the Linlithgow Canal, the river Avon and circumnavigate the town loch, which only takes an hour.

The most famous attraction is Linlithgow Royal Palace (adult £7.20, child £4.30, reopens 30 April), birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots and home to many other Scottish kings and queens, now a dramatic shell of a building that overlooks the loch. The town’s history as a Royal Burgh is told in the free Linlithgow Museum.

The high street is lined with 17th-century pubs and independent shops; locally grown produce and organic groceries come from Grow Wild; and places to hire bikes and electric bikes include Easygo and Elevation Cycles. You could take them up to Beescraigs Country Park, a free, 369-hectare space in the Bathgate Hills.

You’ve missed the Linlithgow Distillery’s special Easter gin, but other unusual flavours can be ordered ahead for collection, for nightcaps in your bolthole. Perhaps a kooky triangular wooden cabin with veranda at Craigs Lodges (sleeps five, from £173 for three nights in May).

Forres, Morayshire

Findhorn Bay at dusk, Moray, Scotland, UK.
Findhorn bay. Photograph: Keith Fergus/Alamy

One of Scotland’s oldest towns, Forres, 25 miles north-east of Inverness and almost on the Moray Firth, is as lovely and off-radar as they come. A creative streak runs through it, with galleries and craft shops adding interest to the centre, and a little way north you can walk around the bay of Findhorn to the splendid fishing village of the same name for seafood, a long sandy beach and handmade ceramics at the Findhorn Pottery.

A few miles away is rose-coloured Brodie Castle (£5 for garden, NTS members free) where bloom-filled gardens feature great swathes of daffodils – 400 species of them– in spring; the evocative ruins of Elgin Cathedral (reopens 30 April, adult £9, child £5.40); and along the coast is Nairn, with opportunities for spotting dolphins and minke whales. That’s without even mentioning all the wonders of the nearby Highlands.

As to where to stay, Easter Wood (sleeping two from £50 a night in May and June) is a simple studio annexe attached to an eco-house. Holiday Lettings and Eco Holiday Shop have a few properties in the town; and if you happen to have a huge household and bubble, there’s Dalvey House (sleeps 18, from £2,647 a week in May), a grand mansion with vast grounds – though perhaps this is a better option for a big party once the rules are fully relaxed.

Coleraine, County Londonderry

Single malt whiskey barrels of Old Bushmills at its distillery in Northern Ireland, UK.
The Bushmills distillery. Photograph: Alamy

As a base for exploring the Causeway Coast, making trips to the amazing wide sandy Atlantic beaches a few miles to the north, and visiting Bushmills, with its famous distillery and inn (pubs in Northern Ireland are still closed and the region’s roadmap does not have specific dates), you could do worse than Coleraine. This small but affluent town on the River Bann has a few interesting sites of its own, too, particularly the Mountsandel Fort (free), a Mesolithic site dating to 7000BC, now mainly grassy lumps and bumps, in the Mountsandel Forest. Also close is the medieval Dunluce Castle (adult £4.50, child £4), dramatically poised on an outcrop above the sea, sure to be a victim of coastal erosion before too many more centuries pass by.

You’re spoiled for choice of beach, with Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock nearby. When it reopens, the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Railway (return £6 adult, £4 child) is a charming way to tour the coast, in vintage red carriages on a narrow-gauge track.

Kings Country Cottages (from £440 a week for a cottage sleeping six) is a collection of properties of various sizes attached to a farm with goats, lambs and llamas.

Or if that’s full on your dates, Holiday Lettings has a supply of – it has to be said – fairly basic self-catering places in the town, of which Quiet Waters Cottage (sleeping six from £112 a night) is the sweetest-looking.
Opening details, accommodation availability and prices correct at the time of going to press