Absolute Escapes May 24 2022

At Absolute Escapes, we’ve been arranging award-winning self-drive holidays since 2004 and our team loves nothing more than getting out to explore the UK.

While world-renowned cities like London and Edinburgh are packed full of fantastic experiences, there’s a wonderful range of delightful small towns waiting to be discovered.

From the bustling and characterful to the quaint and peaceful, our adventures have uncovered some true hidden gems. Read on to discover our team’s favourite small towns in the country.


Inveraray, Argyll (Katia)

Hidden in wild Argyll and overlooking stunning Loch Fyne, Inveraray is a delightful destination. With its pretty harbour overlooking the picturesque Garron Bridge, the town is the perfect place to stop when travelling en-route to Islay, or if following our scenic Argyll & Mull of Kintyre self-drive holiday itinerary.

There are plenty of lovely cafes to choose from, such as Brambles on the Main Street which serves huge scones and homemade sausage rolls. Or the recently opened and rather swanky Ocho Inveraray, offering creative brunch dishes in an elegant setting.

Inveraray Castle sits on the shores of the loch, featuring beautiful grounds and neo-Gothic style architecture. Dating from the 18th century (when the town was planned), this is the traditional family home of the Dukes of Argyll and its most startling feature is an impressive armoury hall. History lovers will also enjoy a visit to the award-winning museum at Inveraray Jail and Courtroom.


Rye, East Sussex (Daisy)

East Sussex is peppered with quaint little towns, each with their own charm and character. Growing up in south east England, a favourite for my weekend day trips was the delightful destination of Rye.

Just inland from the vast sunny beach of Camber Sands, Rye is a higgledy-piggledy maze of cobbled streets and medieval houses. The red roof tiles, white walls, and timber beams are a winning combination, and you’ll want to spend some time simply walking among them soaking in the views. You could visit Rye Castle (otherwise known as The Ypres Tower), a defensive fortress dating back to 1249 which has served as a fort, a prison, and now a museum. Those with literary interests might also enjoy a visit to Lamb House with its beautiful walled garden.

If all that leaves you with an appetite, you could pop into the picturesque Cobbles Tea Room, or for something a little different, you might want to try The Grapevine champagne and jazz bar.


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Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway (Zoe)

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland on the Solway coast, Kirkcudbright is home to streets of pastel-coloured houses, boutique shops and a lovely harbour. This ‘hidden gem’ has a rich history in the artistic community, with generations of artists calling the vibrant harbour town their home.

I would recommend visiting Broughton House, a beautiful Edwardian townhouse where Scottish painter Edward Hornel once lived. The house now contains a museum displaying many of his works and those of his contemporaries, and there is also a tranquil Japanese garden to the rear.

The Arts & Crafts Trail, which takes place every summer, is a fantastic time to visit the galleries and even see the local artists’ studios which would usually be off-limits.


Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (Scott)

This delightful little town was home to a booming cloth industry for six centuries, with the legacy being an incredible number of golden stone mansions (once belonging to wealthy merchants) and wonderful old mills.

Sometimes referred to as ‘Bath in Miniature’, the architectural similarities to its larger neighbour are obvious but Bradford-on-Avon has its own unique charms – and far fewer visitors. Don’t miss a visit to the impressive Tithe Barn which dates back to the 14th century, followed by a cuppa at the Bridge Tea Rooms. The amazing exterior here is a popular spot with photographers and the staff even wear Victorian costumes!

The riverside area next to Lamb Yard was once the town’s industrial heart and is now home to fabulous independent shops and eateries, including Pablo’s Bistro which serves delicious Spanish tapas.


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Richmond, North Yorkshire (Sine)

Founded by the Normans in the 11th century, Richmond is teeming with history. Explore the iconic, cobbled market place, meandering alleyways and breathtaking Georgian architecture, then climb to the top of Richmond Castle, with its commanding position and stunning views towards the Yorkshire Dales.

On market day, the best of Yorkshire produce is on display. Richmond is full of independent shops, traditional pubs and popular restaurants with alfresco dining. Go for a pint at the local Cricket Club and enjoy the classy entertainment, preferably in blazing sunshine!

Sitting at the foot of the valley of Swaledale, one of the most picturesque in the Dales, a stay here also offers fantastic walking opportunities, and Alfred Wainwright’s legendary Coast to Coast walk passes through town. If you venture out, recharge at The Holly Hill Inn – a country pub with open fires, local ales and a cracking beer garden.


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Cardigan, Wales (Pippa)

Ideally situated between Pembrokeshire and the Ceredigion Coast, the town of Cardigan is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise!

Just a stone’s throw away from the coast, Cardigan is a quaint market town with an ancient castle, modern restaurants and a range of exciting activities. Follow the Pembrokeshire Coast Path for sweeping views of the town and the River Teifi meeting the sea, and keep an eye out for marine wildlife that can be often spotted in the bay.

Alternatively, head inland to the Welsh Wildlife Centre where you can learn about the diverse range of flora and fauna in Wales, and perhaps even spot an otter or kingfisher.


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Oakham, Rutland (Shivani)

The quintessentially English market town of Oakham sits in the heart of the UK, in its smallest county – Rutland. With its Cotswold-esque charm, colourful farmers’ markets and cosy eateries, the town oozes laid-back country living. Not to mention the wonderfully preserved Norman architecture and the largest reservoir in England, which is just a stone’s throw away!

This hidden gem can be uncovered on our Highlights of England holiday and is a delightful halfway point that breaks up the journey between Oxford and York.

If visiting on a Wednesday or Saturday, be sure to sample the fine local produce at the Market Place, and the artisan baked goods at the award-winning Hambleton Bakery. Once suitably fuelled, take a stroll around the beautifully restored Oakham Castle, the eight acres of Barnsdale Gardens or the county’s crowning glory – Rutland Water. Here, you will find the iconic Normanton Church, a lovely piece of classical architecture appearing half-submerged on a narrow peninsula overlooking the shore.


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Nairn, Highlands (Sheila)

This small seaside town on the Moray Firth is known for its stunning sandy beaches and championship golf courses. It is also close to many famous Scottish landmarks, including Culloden Battlefield, Cawdor Castle, and Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

Scotland may be known for its wetter climate, however, my picturesque home town is one of the driest and sunniest places in the country! Exploring the coast around Nairn is an excellent day out – this area has an abundance of wildlife with dolphins, seals and a whole host of seabirds in its waters.

Stretching for more than 8 miles along Nairn’s coastline, the Culbin Forest is simply magical. Tourists and locals alike come to walk and cycle in this pine-covered forest in the dunes.

For a special treat at the end of the day, head to the Sun Dancer restaurant and watch the sun set over the Moray Firth.
Just 16 miles from Inverness, a visit to Nairn is the perfect addition to your North Coast 500 road trip.


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Lewes, East Sussex (Lottie)

I’m yet to find a town as lovely as Lewes in East Sussex. It has a rich history, beautiful gardens, hilly cobbled streets, and a welcoming community. It’s easily accessible from Brighton and can be visited as part of a South of England Road Trip.

Start your day by visiting Lewes Castle on the main High Street. It’s an impressive Norman fortress where you can climb the battlements for spectacular views of the Sussex countryside. No visit to Lewes is complete without popping to a pub, where you can enjoy a locally-brewed Harvey’s beer and play a round of Toad in the Hole, a pub game which is totally unique to Lewes.

The afternoon is a great time to explore tranquil Southover Grange Gardens which date to 1542. End the day back at the High Street, which is packed with enough independent shops to satisfy any consumer, from a 15th-century bookstore to artisan chocolatiers.


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Dunbar, East Lothian (Charlotte)

Tucked away on the southeast coast of Scotland, Dunbar makes for a wonderful seaside retreat or day trip from Edinburgh or the Scottish Borders. Take a stroll around the fishing harbour, overlooked by the ruins of Dunbar Castle, and enjoy the views south down the coastline from the Battery. The high street hosts an array of local shops and eateries, and don’t miss The Rocks Restuarant.

Dunbar is famous as the birthplace of John Muir, the naturalist and conservationist, and naturally, the John Muir Way concludes here. You can visit his birthplace which is now a small museum dedicated to him, and just outside the town is the John Muir Country Park, a nature reserve home to an array of wildlife.

Walk around the coast, enjoying stunning clifftop views to reach the tiny (and unique!) Belhaven Bridge spanning the estuary, and Belhaven Bay, a beautiful, wide expanse of beach. Beer aficionados can then return to the town via the Belhaven Brewery, Scotland’s oldest working brewery!


Harrogate, North Yorkshire (Melanie)

With cobbled streets, landscaped gardens, and historic houses, Harrogate is a quintessentially English town.

Situated by the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales, this quaint town has plenty of beautiful walks to choose from. I recommend the picturesque walk along the River Skell to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey.

Known for its Turkish spa, cream teas, and independent shops – this spa town is the perfect place to indulge and relax. My favourite thing to do in Harrogate is to treat myself to a visit to the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms. Established in 1919, this family-run business has been serving delicious afternoon teas for over a century. Step inside this iconic Art Deco cafe for a wonderfully vintage English hospitality experience.

Just a 40-minute drive from the historic city of York, a peaceful wander around Harrogate is the perfect addition to a self-drive holiday in Yorkshire.


Banchory, Aberdeenshire (Jack)

Nestled in the quiet heart of rural Aberdeenshire, Banchory is perfectly situated as a base to explore Royal Deeside, the northeastern coastline and the western Cairngorms.

With extensive local woodlands a rich culture in traditional Scottish music, cosy cafes and historic castles, Banchory is the perfect alternative to Aberdeen for those who want to escape the city, and would make an ideal overnight stop on a North East 250 road trip.

Whether you take in the views from the fantastic Scolty Hill, enjoy a stroll around the beautiful Crathes Castle, Gardens & Estate or rest and refuel at Banchory Lodge, Royal Deeside and Banchory are sure to capture your heart!


Porthleven, Cornwall (Laura)

Porthleven is nestled on the stunning Lizard Peninsula, on the edge of Mount’s Bay – giving you an endless coastline to explore. It is a charming, vibrant Cornish town and remains the most southerly working harbour in the UK. It sits on the South West Coast Path and is a town not to be missed if you are visiting Devon and Cornwall on our self-drive trip.

If you are a foodie in search of the Cornish experience then Porthleven is a must-see. Tipped to be the next hotspot for food tourism, there is a raft of restaurants along the harbour front delivering everything from street food to fine dining – catering for all palettes and budgets.

Hunker down in The Ship Inn, a 17th century smugglers’ haunt full of character or, if you can get there before sell-out, Mussel Shoals provides relaxing alfresco dining with a twist. Time it right and you could catch Porthleven’s ever-growing food festival held annually in April.


Discover Hidden Gems

If you’re feeling inspired to get off the beaten track, Absolute Escapes offer award-winning self-drive holidays in the UK & Ireland. These are 100% tailor-made to your preferences so that we can help turn your trip into an unforgettable personal experience.

Whether you are a foodie, a history fan, a walker or a nature-lover, your perfect itinerary is just an enquiry away. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch to start planning your self-drive holiday.

The Absolute Escapes Team

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