Professional travel writer David Else has written the best-selling Lonely Planet guides to England and Great Britain. When it comes to England, few people possess his knowledge of the best-loved and lesser-known parts of the country. We spoke to David about some of his favourite places, what it is that makes England special, and his top family holiday ideas.
Lonely Planet recently published 1000 Ultimate Sights, a guide to the world’s most awe-inspiring attractions. Tiny old England features nearly 50 times, in categories varying from prehistoric cave paintings and historic houses to the world’s kitschiest and most risqué sights.
What’s the one thing everyone must see or experience in England?
I would always advise visitors to England to see the great cities, and London of course because it dominates everything. But I would always say to try and experience some classic English countryside as well. I’m thinking of places like the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the farmland of Devon.
Are there any unsung hero locations in England? Tell us about one lesser-known gem.
The Cotswolds is a very well-known area but it’s actually split into two areas, and most visitors go to the north. The south Cotswolds is relatively little visited. If people want to see a hidden gem, the south still has the classic English-country-cottage-style rural landscape but far fewer crowds than the north Cotswolds, and it’s less ‘prettified’. It has a slightly more authentic atmosphere, particularly towns such as Tetbury, and the villages of North Wiltshire – which is the South Cotswolds. Another place I’d recommend people consider is the stone circle at Avebury, which is often overshadowed by Stonehenge.
What’s your ultimate insider tip for visitors to England?
England has an astounding variety of places and a huge number of attractions per square mile compared to many other countries. Some countries may have more attractions overall, but they are bigger. England really packs in amazing variety within a relatively small geographical area. A mistake that some visitors can make is trying to see it all. My tip is to slow down, don’t take train rides across the whole country, but focus on a smaller area, get under the skin of it and enjoy that area rather than always be travelling between places.
Describe the best meal or food experience you’ve ever had in England.
It’s hard to pin down a single favourite meal. Personally what I enjoy and always recommend to visitors is to not necessarily seek out the fanciest restaurant, but to seek out a good welcoming local pub, where they serve freshly made wholesome food like a steak pie and chips, well cooked and well presented, in a friendly pub, washed down with a pint of genuine English beer. If all that is done well – the food, the beer, the surroundings – then I don’t want for anything else.
Of the English places you know, which best encapsulates England, and how?
It’s hard to pin down a specific place, but I would probably go for a traditional English market town which perfectly encapsulates that link between the city and the country. I’m thinking of places like Marlborough in Wiltshire and Alnwick in Northumberland. The other thing that I think encapsulates England in a slightly more whimsical way is a good old fashioned seaside resort, like Southwold or Whitby.
Tell us about a holiday you had in England that positively redefined how you see England?
The kind of holiday that works best for me and my family is in a self-catering cottage. We stay at a lot of cottages around England, generally near the coast because we like to be near a beach, and generally in an area where we can go and do a bit of walking as well. We stayed in a town called Porthcurno [in Cornwall] one year, and hired a self-catering cottage. It was within a hundred yards of the beach. Everything we wanted was within walking distance – the beach, the shop, a pub, a little museum, the South West Coast Path so we could go walking over the cliff tops. Everything was close. We stayed there for the week and we didn’t get in the car – we didn’t need to be anywhere else.
Could you recommend your top three family experiences in England?
With my kids you can’t go wrong with a castle, and England’s got quite a few to choose from. I’ve taken my kids to Warwick, Helmsley, to Alnwick – any of the great English castles. For slightly older children with a literary interest, I’d recommend the Beatrix Potter museum in Cumbria, or the steam train ride in Yorkshire where The Railway Children was shot. I went there and the kids love the trains and me and my wife did a bit of reminiscing about our own childhood. Another place I took my kids was the SS Great Britain in Bristol, a great ship that’s being renovated. My kids are quite young and they really got it – it’s not just a thing for teenagers who might be studying Victorian engineering at school.
What’s your most cherished holiday memory in England?
I remember going camping when I was a boy at a place called Cuckmere Haven in Sussex, in between the sea and the South Downs. Several decades later, I went camping with my family in the New Forest, fairly close to the sea. Personally, for me, those camping holidays with the family when the sun shines have been very enjoyable. I did it with my mum and dad, and now I’ve taken my kids to do the same thing.
What was it about the New Forest that made it special?
The New Forest is great for families. You can do a bit of walking, a bit of cycling, the kids can ride around on the road away from the traffic. So for a sort of low-key, simple, back-to-basics family holiday, it’s got everything you need.
Where would you take your family on a holiday in England today, and why?
Because my kids are relatively young, the number one item on the list has to be a good beach. So a good, self-catering cottage anywhere on the English coast. Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Suffolk, Norfolk, Yorkshire – wherever it happens to be. That’s what does it for me and my family.
If you were to release a book entitled England’s 100 Ultimate Sights, what would be in the top five?
Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights is on sale now, and can be purchased from all high street bookshops, and from Lonely Planet’s website.
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Cambridge English graduate raised in Sussex. Inspired by English countryside, literature, historical buildings, and experimental music.