How much of our own country do we really know? Perhaps not a lot. Has our annual rush to the sun abroad stopped us from discovering the glories of Britain? Almost definitely.
So with the uncertainty over foreign holidays this summer, a UK city break has never seemed more appealing.
We asked a selection of famous Blue Badge Guides — who undergo rigorous exams — about seven cities close to their hearts, and why you should visit their neck of the woods.
Talk of York
York has a Cold War bunker, built in 1961 and open to the public
Guide: Sarah Cowling (britainsbestguides.org/guides/sarah-cowling).
Attractions: York Minster, city walls, the National Railway Museum, chocolate, Vikings.
What Sarah says: ‘York’s compact, winding streets are soaked in history, from the Georgians to the Normans, the Vikings and the Romans, who settled in 71AD.’
Did you know? York has a Cold War bunker, built in 1961 and open to the public.
Insider tip: Visit the glorious medieval stained glass windows of All Saints North Street.
Where to stay: Middlethorpe Hall & Spa from £138 B&B (middlethorpe.com).
Durham down the years
Inspiring views: Bill Bryson says Durham’s cathedral is the best on Earth
Guide: Laura Rhodes (laurarhodes.co.uk).
Attractions: Norman cathedral, castle, shrine of St Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede’s resting place.
What Laura says: ‘Walter Scott penned verse on the beauty of the Norman cathedral from the riverside at Prebends Bridge: ‘Grey towers of Durham … Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot’, while 200 years later, Bill Bryson said it is ‘The best cathedral on Planet Earth’.’ Did you know? This is the home of English mustard, invented by Mrs Clements in 1720. Insider tip: Head to the magnificent Great Hall in the Town Hall.
Where to stay: Forty Winks from £110 B&B (goodhotelguide.com/review/forty-winks).
Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is among Blue Badge Guide Verity Tiff’s recommendations
Guide: Verity Tiff (ventureswithverity.co.uk).
Attractions: Basil Spence’s cathedral, Transport Museum, history of Lady Godiva at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.
What Verity says: ‘Coventry has been unlucky with her cathedrals: the first destroyed by Henry VIII, the second during World War II. Coventry is City of Culture 2021 and is hosting this year’s Turner Prize (coventry2021.co.uk)’.
Did you know? London Road Cemetery was designed by Joseph Paxton, who is famed for the Crystal Palace.
Insider tip: FarGo Village, a quirky area in a recently regenerated part of the city, features independent businesses offering organic foods and craft beers.
Where to stay: Coombe Abbey from £89 B&B (coombeabbey.com).
Norwich’s Elm Hill has been voted one of England’s five prettiest streets
Guide: Jude Sayer (email: [email protected]).
Attractions: Norman cathedral, castle, The Great Hospital, medieval guildhall.
What Jude says: ‘Norwich has the best medieval street pattern in the country, and 32 medieval churches. ‘Until about 1800, it was England’s second city, grown rich from the manufacture of textiles. It is home to England’s most complete surviving Dominican friary.’
Did you know? The 14th-century anchoress, Julian of Norwich, was the first woman to write a book in English. You can visit the site of her cell in the church of StJulian.
Insider tip: Elm Hill, connecting the Saxon Tombland area with the Dominican friary, has been voted one of England’s five prettiest streets.
Where to stay: The Assembly House from £170 B&B (assemblyhousenorwich.co.uk).
London Blue Badge Guide Russell Grant recommends checking into The Goring hotel
Guide: Russell Grant (britainsbestguides.org/guides/russell-grant)
Attractions: Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Greenwich Royal Observatory, British Museum (and much more).
What Russell says: ‘London exists thanks to the Thames — because of its 21 ft tides and deep-water harbour the Romans created a trading port near what has become the financial centre.’
Did you know? It’s one of the most diverse cities in the world, with some 300 languages spoken. A third of its population is foreign-born.
Insider tip: Visit the Battle of Britain bunker at RAF Uxbridge, HQ of No.11 Group Fighter Command.
Where to stay: The Goring from £410 (thegoring.com).
Exeter’s 14th-century Parliament Street, 25ins wide at its tightest point, is the narrowest street in Britain
Guide: Viv Robinson (absolutours.co.uk).
Attractions: St Peter’s Cathedral, Exeter Quay, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Roman Walls, Guildhall.
What Viv says: ‘Expect surprises from the Norman gatehouse of Rougemont Castle (where the last English witches were executed in the 1680s) to medieval vaulted underground passages. Gandy Street is said to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.’
Did you know? The 14th-century Parliament Street, 25ins wide at its tightest point, is the narrowest street in Britain.
Insider tip: The cat flap in the tower of the cathedral’s Astronomical Clock is connected to the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock. Mice used to run up the ropes as they were greased with animal fat, and cats kept them in check.
Where to stay: Southernhay House from £141 B&B (southernhayhouse.com).
An aerial view of Bath’s Royal Crescent, where the upscale Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa is located
Guide: Andy Clark (bathwalkingtours.co.uk)
Attractions: Roman Spa & Temple, springs, Pulteney Bridge, Royal Crescent and Georgian buildings.
What Andy says: ‘The city has its own healing goddess, Sulis Minerva, whose bronze head was discovered some 300 years ago. It now lives in the Roman Baths Museum.’
Did you know? The 12th-century scholar Adelard of Bath translated Arabic texts on astrology, alchemy and mathematics into Latin, and was among the first to introduce Arabic numerals to Western Europe.
Insider tip: The Botanical Gardens in Royal Victoria Park was opened by a young Princess Victoria in 1830, but she never returned to Bath after hearing someone shout: ‘She has fat ankles.’
Where to stay: Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa from £330 B&B (royalcrescent.co.uk).
BLUE BADGE GUIDES
York guide Sarah Cowling
- Professional tourist guiding in the UK began in 1950, when seven guides met at the George Inn in London’s Southwark and decided to form an association.
- There are 1,400 Blue Badge Guides in England, Northern Ireland and Jersey.
- They all wear blue badges — a symbol of tourist-guide professionalism.
- To become a Blue requires gaining accreditation from the Institute of Tourist Guiding in England (itg.org.uk), and similar bodies in the other home nations.
- To book, visit britainsbestguides.org.