We asked nature writers to choose their favourite market town or small city for a late-season break. Plus 10 more autumn breaks in the UK countryside
Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
School holidays saw my mother and me visiting my grandmother in Starbeck, a suburb of posh Harrogate, on the way to the pretty town of Knaresborough. Part of its magic lay in Mother Shipton’s Cave and Petrifying Well: Mother herself, a 17th-century crone with (dubious) powers of prophecy, had long vacated. But the cave, on the mossy flanks of the river Nidd, still oozed witchiness. (The well, too, was strangely intoxicating. When I was seven, I gave it a sock. When I was 11, it gave me a concrete boomerang.)Today, greater pleasures are to be had mooching in the avuncular shadow of the arched railway bridge, taking tea (or a coronation chicken sandwich) at the Lavender Rooms on Market Place. Best of all is coffee and a slice of cake at the waterside cafe on the Nidd beneath the castle, the ruins of which you have strolled among, arm in arm with your other.
The view from the castle promises greater pleasures: the improbably formed Brimham Rocks, and the Gothic splendour of Fountains Abbey are a short bus ride away. Or, better still, set out into the Yorkshire Dales with an Ordnance Survey map and a sausage roll from Thomas the Baker, and return in time for beer and mussels at Six Poor Folk on Castlegate. (If its full, head down a few doors to the Spice Merchant for a curry. Its autumn after all.)
Where to stay Right on the waterfront with great views of the castle and still close to the town centre, Teadrop Cottage (doubles from £95 B&B)has four comfortable rooms and generous breakfasts.
Tom Blass, author of The Naked Shore: Of the North Sea (Bloomsbury, £20)
You don’t arrive in Tregaron by chance. This tiny market town beneath the Cambrian mountains has to have been your primary destination. Just getting there is part of the pleasure, though: Tregaron is surrounded by some of the remotest and most beautiful countryside in the southern half of Britain. If you drive under blue skies, either via Abergwesyn pass or through the Elan valley and over the russet-coloured hills from Rhayader a road once called one of the 10 most scenic drives in the world by the AA you wont forget it. Arriving by bicycle along the Ystwyth Trail, a lovely mix of dismantled railway lines and quiet country lanes winding east from the Irish Sea, is equally memorable.
Tregaron may be sleepy today but it was once a bustling agricultural hub, and its charter dates from 1292. For three centuries from the late 1500s, the town was a major centre for drovers who herded sheep, geese and cattle on long-distance routes to London. On the square today, a craft shop sells jewellery handmade from Welsh gold and paintings by local artists. If you’re thinking about winter, visit Jane Beck in Llwyn y Groes to buy a Welsh woollen blanket.
Cors Carron, a large raised bog just outside Tregaron, is a nationally important habitat full of rare flora and fauna. There is a bird hide, and raised walkways from which you could catch sight of otters, adders, hen harriers and polecats. For yet more fresh air, visit the Hafod Estate, once home to Thomas Johnes, a farmer, writer and social benefactor. From 1780, he ran an experimental farm here, building houses and schools and planting some four million larch, Scots pine, oak and beech trees over 30 years. The stately home fell down in the early 20th century but his picturesque landscape is still evident.
Where to stay
Where there was a drover, there was usually a pub and Y Talbot, on Tregaron’s main square, is a cracker, with recently refurbished rooms (doubles from £120 B&B). Legend has it there’s an elephant buried in the back garden.
Robert Penn, author of Woods: A Celebration (Pavilion Books, £20)
Image(s) courtesy of theguardian.com