Best of British: Hidden gems

BY Fiona Hicks

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Best of British: Hidden gems

Venture away from the more beaten track and you’ll be sure to find that our great isle is full of all sorts of hidden treasures. What are you waiting for?

Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean


It’s fitting that this hidden forest is frequently used as a filming location, as it really does look like a film set. In fact, Kathleen Kennedy, president of LucasFilm (the juggernaut behind Star Wars), visited not too long ago and exclaimed, “It’s the most magical forest on the face of the earth!”

Comprising 14 acres of ancient woodland in the Forest of Dean, Puzzlewood is a magical cornucopia of knobbly trees, twisted roots and mossy rocks. It also has a generous sprinkling of fable-themed attractions—so as visitors wander along the meandering pathways, they can challenge themselves on the toddler racing track or balancing beams and explore hidden doorways.

Exploration is hungry work and, happily, there’s a lovely little café on site. For the full fairy-tale experience, families can opt to stay in one of the snug cottages for a night or two.

Visit puzzlewood.net for details


Old Soar Manor, Kent


If you wind down several country lanes, weave between the hedgerows and pass several whorled trees, you’ll be greeted with the sight of the ancient bricks and ecclesiastical façade of Old Soar Manor.

This is the remarkably preserved home of a 13th-century knight. And yet—far from perpetuating the romanticisation and glamour usually associated with knighthood—the property is most interesting in the way it subtly showcases the harsh realities of medieval life. Rumour has it that the Culpepper family, who built the manor, amassed their vast wealth through staging kidnaps and forced marriages.

Their home was thus steeped in defence: not only is there barely a wall without an arrow slit, but there are also no internal doors. Walking round to get to each room may seem tedious, but it soon dawns on you that it would make it easier to trap an intruder—or, indeed, a new bride.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk for details


The Valiant Soldier, Devon


We’ve all wondered what it would be like to time travel—and this secret spot can go some way to showing you. An active pub since the early 19th-century, The Valiant Soldier ceased business in 1965 when the brewery decided there were too many pubs in the town of Buckfastleigh, and thus withdrew the licence. Mr and Mrs Roberts, the landlords at the time, left everything as it was—right down to the change in the till.

Until the mid-1990s, everything remained untouched, including the brewery equipment, furniture, and even old bills. Teignbridge Council realised the historical significance of the property, and acquired it after Mrs Robert’s death. Even today, nothing has been tampered with—leaving a hint of the olden days for children, and relic of golden days gone by for more senior folk.

Visit valiantsolider.org.uk for details


Grant Museum of Zoology, London


Have you ever heard of a quagga? Until the 19th century, this eight-feet-long creature (pronounced kwa-ha-ha) roamed the plains of South Africa. It had brown and white stripes on the front of its body and its rear half was brown—a zebra-horse hybrid, as it were.

The species became extinct during the Victorian period, but 21st-century animal-lovers can become acquainted with it at University College London’s incredible zoology department.

One of the last university museums in London, this treasure trove was founded in 1828 and remains open to the public today. “The museum is packed with thousands of skeletons, skulls and animals preserved in jars,” says manager Jack Ashby. Once you’ve passed the quagga, you can even say hello to the dodo.

Visit ucl.ac.uk/museums for details


The Lost City of Trellech, Monmouthshire


Today it’s a tiny village, but in medieval times Trellech was larger than Cardiff and one of the most important towns in Wales. An epicentre of iron ore and charcoal production, the settlement prospered for years before suffering raids and succumbing to the Black Death.

Fast forward to 2005 and a young archaeology student bought a field in the area and began excavation work. Before long, Stuart Wilson had uncovered medieval walls.

“Most ancient cities are hidden under current urban settlements but here we’re fortunate that only fields cover the settlement, allowing large areas to be dug”, says Stuart, who continues to run digs today.

“Experience Days” take place throughout the year, and real enthusiasts can even book in for four weeks at the Annual Summer Dig—perfect for aspiring Indiana Joneses.

Visit lostcityoftrellech.co.uk for details


The Theatre of Small Convenience, Worcestershire


From its inauspicious beginnings as a gentlemen’s loo, this discreet stone building in Great Malvern has gone onto much brighter (and rather more fragrant) things.

Keen puppeteer Dennis Neal had the idea of creating a tiny theatre. He approached the town council, but thought his dreams were scuppered when they said they’d charge him £1,800. “But then the town council-manager gave me a call and got us a peppercorn rent,” he says.

The ornate set took two years to build, with Dennis sourcing all the material (mainly old furniture) from car-boot sales, markets—and even skips! His son painted the bright backdrop, and they put on their first performance in 1999. The short shows, says Dennis, continue to attract the crowds. “It’s like street theatre—but off the street.”

Visit wcthreatre.co.uk for details

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


The fact that this museum isn’t in London is a huge boon. If it were, you’d barely be able to get through the door. Historical Oxford is hardly tourist-free, but the multifaceted nature of this institution means one has to know about it to take full advantage of its offerings.

The museum has accrued a collection dating from 8000BC: Egyptian mummies, Anglo-Saxon treasures and the world’s greatest collection of Raphael drawings.

Even more exceptional is the fact that you can enter the Print Room and handle some artworks yourself. Simply drop in, don a pair of gloves, and you can wile away the afternoon gazing at works by Cezanne, Rembrandt and Turner, amongst many others. Looking at a painting on a gallery wall is one thing—but actually handling them somehow enables their human stories to traverse time.

Visit ashmolean.org for details


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