Catch the 59 bus to Doune from Stirling (around half an hour by train from Edinburgh or Glasgow). Once there visit grey-walled Doune Castle (£9/£5.40), by the riverside. It’s a beautiful place – even if you’ve no interest in its film and TV connections – with views from the top of the walls across the leafy Teith valley. Much of the first season of the raunchy Outlander was filmed here and the time-travelling romantic fantasy returns to Amazon Prime for a fifth season this month. Actor Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser, has added to the castle’s original audio guide narrated by the much-missed Terry Jones (the castle also starred in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Afterwards,stop off at water-powered Deanston Distillery, one bus stop back towards Stirling. It’s open all-year with hourly tours until 4pm (£12.50 including a taster). Stay Neoclassical Hotel Colessio (doubles from £64 room only), not far from Stirling railway station. Next day Explore Stirling, especially atmospheric around Valentine’s with its huge (and very different) castle (adult £16, 5-15 £9.60) rising out of the mist above the frosty trees and river.
Glasgow to Mallaig
The West Highland Line, from Glasgow to the coast, is among the world’s most spectacular train rides. Advance tickets start from £17 each way for the epic five-hour journey to Mallaig, passing lochs and mountains, woods and villages. The railway runs beside Loch Lomond for 10 miles, then climbs to wild Rannoch Moor. The landscape gets even more breathtaking beyond Fort William and changeable weather simply makes the journey more dramatic. Watch out for waterfalls beside the tracks, stags on the hillside and herons flapping over the lochs. Finally, sea views with islands and curving sandy beaches mean you’re arriving at Mallaig. Stay The tartan-decked Moorings Guesthouse (doubles from £90 B&B), five minutes’ walk from Mallaig station, has free whisky, harbour views and Mallaig kippers for breakfast. Next day Pick up a picnic from the harbourside bakery opposite and consider taking a ferry to Skye (Britain’s most romantic location, according to a 2018 Mills and Boon survey) for £6 return. Otherwise, if you’re heading back by train towards Glasgow, stop off for a few hours in Glenfinnan for walks by the loch and under the curving viaduct, which gained extra fame when the Hogwarts Express crossed it in the Harry Potter films. Don’t miss climbing up the monument to the Jacobite rising (£4 entry) on the shore of Loch Shiel, near the National Trust Scotland cafe (open all year). Two people get in for the price of one when you arrive by train.
Carnforth, Silverdale and Lancaster, Lancashire
“It all started on an ordinary day in the most ordinary place in the world,” begins Laura’s unspoken confession to her husband in Brief Encounter (1945). Noël Coward wrote the screenplay and director David Lean chose Carnforth station, 10 minutes north of Lancaster by train, to represent Milford Junction, where a chance meeting leads to love. In the station’s heritage centre, you can watch the film on a loop in retro cinema seats, or have tea and scones in the light-filled vintage refreshment room. Head up the line one more stop, past glimpses of Morecambe Bay and Warton Crag, to explore Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve. It’s a five-minute stroll from Silverdale station, there’s a 50% discount for car-free visitors, and plenty of winter birds among the golden reedbeds and starling murmurations overhead at sunset. Hold hands in one of seven hides (you can even get married here) and watch teal and tufted ducks dive into the lakes or marsh harriers circling above, £4 with discount. StaySilverdale Hotel (doubles from £70 B&B) is a cosy and friendly pub with rooms in the nearby village, with bay views. Hourly bus no 51 runs almost to the door from Leighton Moss or Carnforth. Next day There’s an unbeatable choice of local walks: saunter along a stretch of cave-pitted coast or into nearby Eaves Wood, where violets and primroses may decorate the moss. Rainy day? Get the train to Lancaster: the castle, Priory church and riverside Maritime Museum (£3) are all within 10 minutes’ walk of the railway station.
Liverpool and Wirral
Ferry ’cross the Mersey from Liverpool to Birkenhead’s Woodside and elegant Hamilton Square; one of the ferries has designs by Peter Blake, co-creator of the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Saveaway tickets offer unlimited off-peak bus and train travel plus direct ferry crossings (£5.55). Hop on a train to explore the garden village of Port Sunlight, founded in 1888 by William Lever for the workers in his soap factory. In the Dell, a few steps from Port Sunlight station and the ginghamtastic Tudor Rose tearoom, snowdrops and camellias flower around the sandstone bridge. It’s less than 10 minutes’ stroll to the Lady Lever Gallery (free), founded by Lever in memory of his wife Elizabeth. The main hall is packed with pre-Raphaelite damsels and gardens and, under one cupola, stands a 2½ metre-high marble statue of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s handsome young lover. In the half-timbered cafe downstairs, you can tuck into Scouse (meat and veg stew topped with pickled red cabbage, £7.95). StayThe Titanic Hotel (doubles from £77, room only, £150 inc breakfast and three-course dinner, offer until 27 February), in Liverpool’s Stanley Dock, is a 19th-century warehouse with cool, contemporary decor. It is well worth the half-hour walk from the city centre. Next day Hire bikes from the citybike stand outside the hotel (from £3/day) for a dockside ride to the cultural fix of your choice: constructivist heads at Tate Liverpool, delicate Japanese drawings at the World Museum (£6) or the full tourist dive into the Beatles Story (£17), from the early energy of Love Me Do to John Lennon’s Imagine – the loos are submarine-themed. Committed Fab Four fans could ride bus 76, from the bus station over the road, past Penny Lane, to Lennon’s childhood home on Menlove Avenue. Strawberry Field, with a new visitor centre, free garden and cafe, is close by (£12.95) and St Peter’s church, where Lennon first met McCartney and the real Eleanor Rigby is buried, is four stops further.
Check out Monet’s misty sunrises and Cezanne’s oranges in the National Museum (free), 20 minutes’ walk from Cardiff Central railway station, past the castle. Then catch the boat (£5 one way) from neighbouring Bute Park to Cardiff Bay and choose a lunch spot by the water. In the afternoon, hire bikes at the bay and cycle to fairytale Castell Coch along the riverside Taff Trail, spotting herons and kingfishers before you even leave the city (Pedal Power, from £16 for three hours; or catch bus 26 to Tongwynlais). With neo-gothic towers and turrets and wonderfully OTT interiors, Castell Coch is open most days (£7.30). StayRiver House (doubles with shared bathrooms from £44 B&B) is close to the train and bus stations with a farmer’s market outside on Sundays. There’s organic coffee and Welsh cakes for breakfast. Next day Catch the hourly bus no 32A from Westgate to the huge, free open-air St Fagans National Museum of History to explore reconstructed bronze-age huts, deep in the forest, a medieval dovecote, or graceful, terraced castle gardens with fountains, mulberry trees and vinery.
Avebury and Bath
Less crowded than Stonehenge, Avebury’s prehistoric banks and sacred avenues are full of numinous wonder: ancient long barrows, tumuli under clumps of beeches and the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. And it’s free to visit. Ride bus 49 from Swindon to Avebury to stroll among the stones; there’s downland scenery and a glimpse of the Hackpen White Horse from the window during the half-hour journey (£5.10 return). Nearby, the mysterious, 4,000-year-old Silbury Hill, similar in size to many Egyptian pyramids, towers above the little River Kennet. Snuggle up, as the sun sets, in the thatched Red Lion next to the bus stop. StaySwindon’s Marriot Hotel (doubles from £85, room only). Yes, it sounds screamingly unromantic but with a pool, sauna and cheerful bar, it’s far more enjoyable than you might guess from outside – and close to several bus routes including the no 49 from Avebury. Next day Get the train to Bath (£12.30 for a day return with GWR) for a day of Georgian gorgeousness. Follow Jane Austen’s footsteps over Pulteney Bridge, through the elegant streets and gardens to see portraits by Gainsborough or the new Grayson Perry exhibition at the Holburne Museum (£12.50). On weekdays, show your train tickets to get four hours for the price of two in the mineral-rich waters of the Thermae spa (£36). Its eucalyptus-scented steam rooms and giant, curving jacuzzi are a 10-minute walk from the railway station. There’s an outdoor, rooftop pool for after-dark swims as the floodlit turrets of Bath Abbey and neo-gothic spire of St John’s loom out of the geothermal mists.
England’s largest lake has been attracting crowds of tourists since the Windermere and Kendal branch line arrived in 1847 but it’s relatively peaceful in early spring. Catch the train from the main line at Oxenholme (15-minute ride), hire bikes at the station (from £23 a day; electric bikes from £37) and plan a route that takes in Blackwell Arts and Crafts house (£9). Created in 1898 for a Victorian brewing tycoon, the mock-medieval hall is all stained-glass panels and peacock friezes while the light-flooded white drawing room has an iridescent turquoise-tiled fireplace and mesmerising views. Stay Adults-only Applegarth Villa (doubles from £140 B&B), with its candlelit lounge, rain showers and dimmable lights, is just five minutes’ walk from the station. The restaurant serves dishes like guinea fowl with black cherry and damson gin sorbet or (fabulous) gluten-free sticky toffee (£29.95 for two courses). The new suites in the stable block are ideal for splashing out: they come with glowing, bubbling hot tubs on a private sunset-facing patio. Next Day Head to Bowness Pier (10 minutes on the no 599 bus) and cruise round the lake (from £9 for 45-minute Islands Cruise), stopping off for lunch in the glass-walled cafe of the new Windermere Jetty museum (online prices £7.50/£4), overlooking the wide island-dotted water and the distant fells.
Brighton, East Sussex
The sea glimmers blue to your left, the Weald stretches out on your right: a six-mile stretch of the blustery South Downs Way from Ditchling Beacon will clear out the cobwebs. The weekend-only double decker bus 79 heads hourly all-year-round from Brighton into the hills; sit upstairs for the best views. A £5 Breeze Return lets walkers follow the acorn-marked national trail west to Devil’s Dyke and catch bus 78 back from there (pub nearby). On the way, you pass the Jack and Jill windmills and the Wildflour Cafe (open from March, 10% off with your bus ticket) at Saddlescombe Farm. More car-free walking ideas along the South Downs in this leaflet. StayJury’s Inn Brighton Waterfront in the old Thistle hotel (doubles from £80 room only), compensates for its monstrous architecture with sea views and a pool. Reopened in 2017 after a £5m refurbishment, it backs onto Brighton’s characterful Lanes, narrow shopping streets lined with cafes, and faces the bronze-pebbled beach. It’s a 15-minute downhill stroll from the railway station, mostly along colourful pedestrianised streets. Next day Stroll by the sea, past the atmospheric skeleton of the old West Pier, and check out the stylish Brighton Museum (£6), in the Pavilion garden, five minutes’ walk from the seafront. There are decorative pieces such as Dali’s Mae West Lips Sofa, paintings by Turner and Constable, and an exhibition of queer fashion until March.
Sheringham and Cley next the Sea, Norfolk
Take the train to seaside Sheringham and switch to steam on the North Norfolk Railway (£8.50 one way) for a sooty dose of nostalgia with wide views of wooded Sheringham Park and out to the shining sea. Follow the mile-long path from Weybourne station to the village, with its ruined priory, and ride the CH1 Coasthopper bus to Cley. Explore the cobbled lanes and reed-fringed paths, winding between misty sands and marshes. StayCley Windmill (doubles from £159 B&B), whose brick tower and white sails are visible for miles across the level landscape, close to the Coasthopper bus stop. Above the circular sitting room a viewing platform overlooks the red-roofed, village and reedy Glaven valley. A ladder, at the top, leads up to the popular four-poster Wheel Room. Next day Pick up a picnic from nearby Cley Smokehouse and the local deli (smoked mackerel and lavender bread, perhaps) and catch the Coasthopper to Morston, 10 minutes further along the coast (bus day ticket £10). Book ahead with Beans Boats (£13/£7) to cruise from the quay. Watch the harbour seals, whose round faces look as if they’re smiling, and the darker, dog-faced grey seals with their more melancholic air.
•Some travel provided by GWR (advance tickets from Paddington to Swindon from £12.50 each way and to Cardiff from £19.50) and Southern (direct Thameslink trains from London Blackfriars, St Pancras, Bedford and Cambridge, Southern trains from London Victoria to Brighton, advance tickets from £5 each way). Accommodation provided by Silverdale Hotel, Titanic Hotel, Applegarth Villa and others; elsewhere, the trip was supported by Visit Brighton and Visit Wiltshire
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