The prettiest places for a pre-Christmas winter break, from Alnwick to Windsor

The prettiest places for a pre-Christmas winter break, from Alnwick to Windsor

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – but that is not always a good thing. While the season brings cheer, it can also be hectic, with parties to attend, presents to buy and the big day to organise.

So why not plan for a pause this winter and escape to a picturesque town or village over the coming weekends? Family politics and pre-holiday work demands can wait while you take in the lights, go on bracing walks and enjoy mince pies and mulled wine beside open fires in traditional pubs.

Half-timbered buildings filled with independent retailers offer more original gifts – and a more enjoyable shopping experience – than chain-clogged city high streets. And, with your yuletide spirit revived, you may feel in the mood for a ride on a Santa express train or a night at the pantomime.

Afterwards, you will return to the festive frenzy feeling refreshed.

Holt, Norfolk

Crisp walks among the pines in the 100-acre woodland at Holt Country Park, Christmas shopping at Bakers & Larners department store – which has been in the same family since the 18th century – and hearty meals in historic pubs are all on the cards during a pre-Christmas getaway to this Georgian market town, with its colourful houses and flint cottages.

You can also take festive trips on the steam and diesel trains of North Norfolk Railway’s Poppy Line. This year, the heritage operator is offering three seasonal experiences on board its trains – mince pie specials, Santa Specials and The Norfolk Lights Express, when the trains are garlanded in lights.

While Holt is not on the rail network, it is 20 minutes by bus from Sheringham (where beach walks await), served by Greater Anglia.

Double rooms at The Feathers start at £91 B&B (thefeathersholt.com). A night at the two-bedroom Old Concert Hall holiday townhouse costs from £150 through norfolkcottageagency.co.uk.

Alnwick, Northumberland

This cobbled market town comes into its own at Christmas. Every year, the 67-acre Alnwick Gardens hosts a Winter Light Trail and this time the garden’s new Lilidorei playground will offer additional activities including storytelling, carols and meetings with Santa.

Set inside the town’s former rail station, which dates to 1850, Barter Books is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in the UK and a great place to pick up presents.

For winter warmers, Alnwick has a long list of pubs with hearty menus and fireplaces, including The Dirty Bottles, whose name is linked to a murky secret.

The closest railway station is in Alnmouth, which is served by several operators. From there, it is 15 minutes by bus to Alnwick.

Three nights at the centrally located Barley Loft, which sleeps four, costs from £455, while three nights at The Craftsman’s Cottage (sleeps six) starts at £650, both with crabtreeandcrabtree.com.

Lilidorei's Magical Christmas Village at The Alnwick Garden (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)
Lilidorei’s Magical Christmas Village at The Alnwick Garden (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

The medieval market town stepped into Christmas last week, when its lights were switched on. Shop for gifts at its raft of independent food businesses, including Book-ish and Cooks Galley, get inspiration for cheeseboards at Welsh cheese specialist Madame Fromage, and fill up on festive treats at The Angel Bakery, where the counters are stocked with mince pies and pickled clementines.

The Angel Hotel is one of the main hubs of seasonal activity in the town this year. This four-star property, where rooms start at £145 a night in December, is offering festive high teas, an après-ski-themed pop-up bar, and pre-bookable sleigh rides with Santa, angelabergavenny.com.

Abergavenny’s rail station is served by Transport for Wales.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

This market town with its 660 listed buildings and cobbled passageways was used as a filming location for a big-screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the 80s and the BBC’s recent Great Expectations.

The author is known to have visited on several occasions. Throughout December, you can tour sites used as sets for the 1984 film with experts from Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.

Shrewsbury has a lively festive events programme that includes Christmas markets, candlelit carol concerts, and wine tours at Tanners Wine Merchants.

With independent retailers outnumbering big brands, the town is also a great place to pick up gifts – including at the year-round Christmas shop Christmas Perks.

Shrewsbury is served by West Midlands Railway, Avanti West Coast and Transport for Wales.

A night at the Grade II listed Darwin’s Townhouse (darwinstownhouse.com) costs from £140, while rooms at The Mercure Shrewsbury Albrighton Hall Hotel & Spa are available from £87 in December, mercureshrewsbury.co.uk.

Shrewsbury shropshire Image supplied by Jo Gaukrodger
Shrewsbury has hundreds of listed buildings (Photo: Jo Gaukrodger)

Garstang, Lancashire

This black-and-white-painted market town between Preston and Lancaster (both around 30 minutes’ drive) lends itself to winter walks. It is located on the 45-mile Wyre Way, which leads to the Forest of Bowland to the north-east and the Fleetwood coast to the south-west.

The town centre is home to a clutch of independent shops, tea rooms, and traditional inns, such as The Royal Oak, a family-run establishment with beamed ceilings and a fire. Alternatively, book in for an afternoon tea (£16.50pp) at Lulu-J’s Vintage Tea Rooms.

A unique winter sport is also an option. The Flower Bowl entertainment centre, a 10-minute drive away, has an Olympic-sized curling rink, as well as a cinema, bowling and crazy golf. Beginners’ curling skills sessions are £22 per person and must be booked in advance, theflowerbowl.uk.

Lancaster station is served by several operators. A direct bus from Common Garden Street near Lancaster railway station to Garstang takes around 40 minutes to an hour.

Rooms at the Best Western Garstang Country Club start from £80 a night in December, bestwestern.co.uk.

Oakham, Rutland

With a mainline railway station on the Birmingham to Peterborough line, this pretty, cobbled market town is a great choice for a car-free break. The town woos visitors with a heritage trail that is worth wrapping up warm for, shops that sell traditional sweets, books, deli gifts and handmade jewellery, and plenty of locally run cafés, restaurants and pubs. A highlight is The Lord Nelson, which serves Camra-approved real ales.

Those who do visit by car can also make the 40-minute journey to the turreted Belvoir Castle, which is decorated with a Twelve Days of Christmas theme until 2 January; £10 for children aged 4-16, £19 for adults, under-fours go free, belvoircastle.com.

Rooms at the recently updated 17th-century coaching inn the Whipper-In Hotel (thewhipperin.co.uk), are priced from £80 in December, while doubles at The Barnsdale in nearby Rutland Water are available from £103.50 next month, (barnsdalerutland.com).

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

The timber-fronted, gabled buildings of this riverside town have been basking in the glow of Christmas lights since last week and its festive season is now in full swing. Independent shops are stocked with seasonal gifts such as Café au Chocolat’s milk chocolate spirit bars, the town’s restaurants have launched their festive menus – The Tudor House Hotel is offering three courses for £32pp – and the Christmas events programme, which includes events from carol concerts to a panto for adults at The Roses Theatre, is under way.

Doubles at Tewkesbury Park Hotel, which has a swimming pool, outdoor sauna and hot tub start at £136 a night in December (tewkesburypark.co.uk).

Banchory, Aberdeenshire

Christmas trips to Banchory, half-an-hour’s drive from Aberdeen (or around an hour on the 201 or 202 bus), begin with crisp country walks to the Falls of Feugh and Corsee Wood, where red squirrels scramble through the trees.

Afternoons can be spent on Christmas shopping sprees around the town’s independent gift, book, clothing, and wine and spirit shops – locally made Seidear (cider made in the Champagne method) makes a great stocking filler.

Evenings are best filled with meals in the town’s family-run restaurants, where local ingredients such as Scottish salmon are headliners.

A night at the Banchory Lodge, which overlooks the River Dee, starts at £78 in December (banchorylodge.com).

Saltaire, West Yorkshire

This World Heritage village near Bradford is home to a living Advent calendar. Between 1 December and Christmas Eve, 57 windows across the village will be “opened” or lit up and remain illuminated until the new year.

Saltaire makes Christmas shopping easy – the village is dotted with one-off shops, including Radstudio for homewear and Giddy Arts. And be sure to stop for a drink – there is something particularly satisfying about having a tipple in one of the village’s locally owned bars (and one called Don’t Tell Titus in particular) because, when Saltaire was founded by Titus Salt to house workers for his mill in the late 19th century, alcohol was prohibited.

Saltaire station is on the Airedale Line that runs between Leeds and Skipton and accommodation is available in the centre from £89 a night through online booking sites.

Doubles at The Coach House in nearby Skipton cost from £154 (thecoachhouseskipton.com).

Belleek, Co Fermanagh

Set on the far west edge of Northern Ireland, a two-hour drive from Belfast, Belleek is best known for the fine china pottery it has been producing for more than 150 years and, at Christmas time, visitors can take a tour of the pottery factory. The tours include the opportunity to make personalised baubles and Christmas decorations.

Belleek also offers bracing walks through the 200-acre woodland at Castle Caldwell Forest and warming meals in cosy pubs.

Rooms at the Fiddlestone Bar bed and breakfast start from £74 in December, (facebook.com/fiddlestone.bar).

Members of the Royal Collection Trust staff put the finishing touches to a Christmas tree in the Crimson Drawing Room, during a photo call for Christmas decorations at Windsor Castle, Berkshire. Picture date: Thursday November 24, 2022. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
The Royal Collection Trust staff put the finishing touches to a Christmas tree in the Crimson Drawing Room at Windsor Castle (Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

Windsor, Berkshire

Windsor is pulling out all the stops for the festive season this year. Not only will Windsor Castle’s State Apartments be lavishly dressed for Christmas from 30 November, but the town’s Alexandra Gardens will host Windsor on Ice (a covered ice rink with food outlets and festive entertainment) until 7 January,

Windsor Great Park will be putting on a nightly light show until 2 January, and a broad events programme that includes everything from festive craft markets to performances of The Nutcracker will unfold at venues across the city.

Windsor & Eton Central railway station is served by Great Western Railway, while Windsor & Eton Riverside is served by South Western Railway.

Double rooms at The Castle Hotel are available from £139 in December (castlehotelwindsor.com).

The cobbled market square in Lymm, Cheshire (Photo: Richard Fairless/Getty Images)
The cobbled market square in Lymm, Cheshire (Photo: Richard Fairless/Getty Images)

Lymm, Cheshire

Clustered around a Grade I listed cross, the village of Lymm offers more than enough to fill a weekend. Visitors can follow up wintry walks around Lymm Dam with a hot chocolate or mulled wine from the deli linked to the Church Green pub, run by former Michelin-starred chef Aiden Byrne.

There are plenty of places in which to stock up on Christmas gifts (try Ruby & Harry and Bird & Bay) and tuck in to festive menus – The Spread Eagle is among the standout pubs.

A 15-minute drive away, Dunham Massey Country Park has stag-speckled landscapes that resemble a Christmas card scene and a festive light trail that is open every night until 31 December.

Nearby Warrington (20 minutes’ drive) has three railway stations served by several operators. From Warrington Bank Quay station, walk to Thynne Street, then catch the Cat5 Cheshire Cat or X5 bus to Lymm Cross (the journey is around half-an-hour).

A night’s stay for two at the Lymm Boutique Rooms starts from £80 in December (lymmboutiquerooms.co.uk).