Stirling Central Scotland
Most visitors go to Scotland for the scenery, the culture, eventful history and the cold-Caribbean-like coast. As a base for exploring the Highlands, with shops and society yet no city throngs, Stirling is a bonny option.
The dramatic castle towering above the town nudges into every view, ensuring no visitor forgets to visit, but book ahead for special Christmas lunches in the intimate Green Room, and carols on 15 Dec, and the play A Christmas Carol (20-22 Dec). Stirling Winter Festival has a long list of events, from a Family Ceilidh on 14 Dec to children’s show Snow Play on 20 Dec.
It would be rude not to go for a hike, so choose your Ben – Ben A’an and Ben Lomond are goodies (but make sure you are properly prepared for the likely conditions). Less taxing is the climb to the Wallace Monument for views over the city. After dark, you could target Andy Scott’s illuminated equine sculptures, the Kelpies, south of Stirling at Falkirk, for a night walk – take a head torch to follow the Forth and Clyde canal.
Less challenging is Stirling Reindeer Trail, where kids can spot 20 colourful reindeer statues around town, while parents nip into House of Henderson for kilts, tweed hip flasks and blankets, and the smart clothes and jewellery stores of the 19th-century Stirling Arcade. A fair selling handmade Scottish arts and crafts runs until 5 Jan at the Macrobert Arts Centre, part of the University of Stirling, and the centre is also screening the Royal Opera House Live’s Nutcracker on 17 and 18 Dec, and has some availability for an interactive family show, Santa’s Sleigh Light Keeper (until 24 Dec, £10).
Reboot your evening with a tot of nettle gin infused at the new Stirling Distillery, in a prime location at the foot of the castle.
Arran Aromatic toiletries, natty William Morris wallpapers, sleigh beds and silent fridges lend comfort at the Victoria Square hotel (doubles from £95 B&B), a grand Victorian mansion close to the castle with a relaxed new Orangery Restaurant in a period conservatory with decorative tiled floor.
You’d be reluctant to stop in Corfe in summer, when it’s clogged with traffic and visitors. In winter, though, you can have the 1,000-year-old ruins of Corfe Castle almost to yourself before buying presents from the Boilerhouse Gallery, Corfe Castle Pottery and Seasons Green gift shop, all in the grounds. The castle runs weekend crafting sessions till 22 Dec, and carol singing on 7 and 13 Dec. Then, on 11 dates between 14 and 31 Dec, a revival of the medieval Christmas tradition of the Lord of Misrule – the person appointed by Tudor noblemen to manage Christmas activities at court – with games, dances and entertainment. Larks might enjoy an early opening to watch the sunrise on the winter solstice (7.15am, 21 Dec, £12.50).
All this fun works up an appetite, so trot over the road to the Greyhound Inn for a hearty pie, wild boar faggots or something vegan. Mortons House Hotel (doubles from £140 B&B), a 16th-century manor house with panelled walls and huge fireplaces, has an Elizabethan suite with a four-poster among its guest bedrooms.
Next morning, stomp the Purbeck coast and wide beach of Studland Bay, where brent geese overwinter and sika deer roam at dawn and dusk. At the National Trust’s Knoll Beach cafe, festive cheer comes in the form of a pizza, topped with turkey and cranberry, and mulled wine. Last stop is the Purbeck Artisan Yard in nearby Wareham, for handmade artworks, vintage and upcycled bits and bobs.
Richmond North Yorkshire
Richmond Castle (£6.50/£3.90), at the heart of the town, is one of England’s oldest stone-built castles, matched only by those at Durham and Colchester, with a 30-metre keep and fantastic views of the Dales. Built in 1071 on land gifted to Alan the Red of Brittany by William the Conqueror as a reward for his part in the victory over Harold, it was intended as a base for controlling the unruly north. A millennium later they’re pretty civilised. Richmond is a refined, Regency sort of place, with Georgian buildings, cobbled market place and attention-grabbers such as the 15th-century Friary tower.
The Station, a gallery and cafe in the old Victorian railway building, hosts a festive brocante on 7 Dec, selling salvage, curios and festive foliage; on 15 Dec there’s live music on the platform from Reeth Brass Band, plus a Christmas table decoration workshop with Chatsworth’s florist (£30).
For shopping, drive a few miles to the Teesdale market town of Barnard Castle, clustered around a 12th-century ruin spectacularly situated above the Tees gorge, with a sloping central street of cute antiques stores and cafes.
Appetites piqued, it’s time to head for a rural gastro pub, of which there are several greats. The Fox Hole in the Roman village of Piercebridge, has put a rocket under the local dining scene, with cool interiors of dark aubergine, copper pots and log fires, and Insta-friendly dishes of Chateaubriand steak and crispy cod cheeks. The Black Bull at Moulton has also moved with the times, serving chicken breast with truffle pancakes; or wood pigeon with celeriac, pickled blackberry and nasturtium.
A bonus of staying at Millgate House (doubles from £125 B&B), a Richmond townhouse crammed with elegant antiques, oriental rugs and paintings, is the walled garden, still glorious in winter.
With the Forest of Bowland to the north, the rambling moorland and glorious gastro pubs of the Ribble Valley at its feet, and the smallest Norman castle in England (woohoo!), the hilltop town of Clitheroe is a proper charmer.
The Forest of Bowland is one of the few truly dark sky areas of the UK, so perfect for stargazing – as authentic a Christmassy activity as you can get. There are five designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites within this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, each with a car park, and over a dozen local businesses are credited as “dark sky friendly”, having had training with an astronomer that they can pass on to guests. Among them are the Spread Eagle Inn (doubles from £95 B&B), in the shadow of Pendle Hill, with a log fire and festive menu to warm up with after a jaunt.
This is a great town for supplies. Load up at the Christmas-themed Great British Food Festival (14-15 Dec, adult day ticket £5.40) at Stonyhurst College, a Grade I-listed building in the forest, hosting 70 traders and TV chefs. Stock up on wines from the vast underground cellar of D Byrne & Co, maybe even this year’s 12-bottle connoisseur’s case (£152) for the oenophile in your life. Take a cool bag for bangers from Cowmans Famous Sausage Shop, whose 75 varieties include Ted’s Christmas Special (turkey), and pork with cranberry and rosemary. This butcher is old-school (120 years) so there’s no vegan option on the menu – not a sausage!
Lovely Ribchester, west along the Ribble Valley, is worth a snoop for its Roman Museum, shops (try the Wine Shed, and Potters Barn for vintage toys, paint-your-own pottery and homewares) and art gallery Ascot Studios, with great landscapes, abstracts and still-lifes to buy.
For pub grub (and sleepovers), there’s plenty of choice: the Assheton Arms in Downham (doubles from £99 B&B) and Freemasons at Wiswell (doubles from £160 B&B) are well-regarded. If you’re there on a Thursday night, don’t miss Emporium bar’s Christmas gin and jazz nights, showcasing local musical talent in an old chapel.
Straight off the lid of a biscuit tin, pretty Sherborne has streets of butter-toned local stone and one of England’s most decorative abbeys, with an ornate vaulted ceiling and 13 centuries of history. Here, on 9 Dec, a Christmas variety show unites musical acts including the Abbey Choir and Sherborne Town Band. Plenty of other carol services burst into the falalalalas there throughout the run-up to Christmas.
Alas, both the town’s castles (Sir Walter Raleigh so loved the ruins of the 12th-century Old Castle he bought the grounds and built another next to it, now known as the New Castle) are closed in winter, but there’s still the Sherborne Museum for eyeing local relics, from Georgian silk shoes made in the town, to a letter from Thomas Hardy.
The high street is no common Superdrug/Dorothy Perkins/Clinton Cards line-up; instead find posh coffee and wine shops aplenty, plus the likes of Molecula, a vast retail outlet connected to design and antiques magazine, Vintage Explorer, with a wildly eclectic range of sculpture, 20th-century design, vintage motorbikes and art.
If any of your family would welcome a mounted taxidermied fish in their stocking this year, or a 1970s space-age Danish lamp, this is your place. For further purse shaking, head to Circus Boutique for cashmere jumpers with skull patterns, Bella Freud knits and Penelope Chilvers boots, or the shelves of Chapter House Books.
There’s a late-night shopping event across the town on 11 Dec, also the date of a one-off comedy night called Sherborne’s Big One! (tickets £12, eventbrite.com), with craft beers, dancing and comedians including former dentist Michael Hackett.
Thirsty yet? The White Hart, with beams and flagstone floors, is a good shout, and the Queens Arms (doubles from £100 room-only) does fancy nibbles such as citrus courgette with ricotta and chilli, sushi nori scallops, then hefty mains of white truffle gnocchi or West Country ribeye steak with charred Spanish onion.
For the type of nosh that comes with dots and smears of sauce, head to The Green, in a scrumptious, honeyed Grade-II, whose small gallery shows work from Bruton’s Moorwood Art gallery. Try root vegetable kimchi with pumpkin pesto, or guinea fowl supreme with bronze turkey stuffing.
Or stay in a sweet little thatched cottage for two at Munden House (from £95 a night) three miles out of town. Part of a collection of farm cottages, it’s perfect for forays into Thomas Hardy country, carrying a copy of his Christmas poem The Oxen to recite on the way.
Is Shrewsbury the Tokyo of Shropshire? The fact that it’s home to a cat cafe, Paws Cafe, and gaming coffee shop Nerdy Coffee Co (board rather than computer, though) might suggest so. But in every other sense it’s the antithesis of the hi-tech Japanese capital, full of old-world charm, ancient churches, and wonky half-timbered Tudor buildings. Tucked under their overhanging floors are interesting, arty shops, where panicking Christmas shoppers can rejoice at not being in some Bluewater hell. The street to target is sloping Wyle Cop, home to White Lotus, for bed linen, artwork and fashion; Tanners Wines, for prize-winning bottles to complement the turkey; and year-round festive shop Christmas Perks. More gems are tucked between the big brands of the High Street and Milk Street, along Butcher Row and Fish Street, where proceedings can be jollied along in the indecent number of pubs. If champagne’s more you, Ten and Six is a fizz-focused, Alice in Wonderland-themed bar in a topsy-turvy building, where super-keen Christmas hosts could prep with a cocktail masterclass (£25pp).
Find peace at the Abbey, the red sandstone castle and the walkway along the town walls. On 11 Dec, Shrewsbury Rock Choir is performing at St Mary’s Church, while a week later on 18 Dec, there’s a festive night market at the Shrewsbury Market Hall, and Aladdin at the new Theatre Severn.
Shrewsbury is well-supplied with good places to eat and sleep, and the best of both are frequently under one roof. Drapers Hall (doubles from £80 B&B) has a great reputation for stylish bedrooms and smart, creative dining: wrap your chops round loin of red deer with chanterelle pithivier, wild mallard with physalis, or Wigmore brie tortellini in brown onion consommé. Darwin’s Kitchen (doubles from £115 B&B), named after the town’s most famous son, is another gourmet option, with a vegan/vegetarian options and a Wednesday jazz club.
Also worth trying are: the Boathouse, a foodie pub on the Severn with splendid river views; its sister venue, the Lion + Pheasant (doubles from £130 B&B) with smart, minimalist rooms; and the colourful, whimsical, medieval mishmash that is the Golden Cross Hotel (doubles from £85 B&B), which dates from 1428. For value and atmosphere, there’s the St Nicholas (doubles from £69), a converted church that’s a cafe by day and a grill restaurant at night, with a cocktail bar upstairs on Saturdays and five luxury bedrooms with beautiful stained glass windows.
Petworth West Sussex
This arty market town is a gorgeous little enclave of well-preserved Tudor buildings, cobbled streets and interiors stores, all within the South Downs national park.
To start, take a frosty walk through the Capability Brown-designed grounds and deer park at the National Trust’s Petworth House and Park, bang in the middle of town. Inside it has an incredible art collection and, until 5 Jan, selected rooms are dressed for Christmas in Georgian style – before turkey and tinsel gained favour – with talks in the medieval chapel, parlour games, and costumes to try on. There’s a cafe in the former servants’ quarters, and the shop is selling Georgian Christmas foods such as hackin – a sweet haggis-like pudding of minced beef with oats – and mistletoe grown in Petworth Park.
Christmas shoppers could pick up champagne flutes and oven gloves at Tallulah Fox, a nude oil painting for grandma in Timothy Langston Fine Art and Antiques, stocking-fillers at the Petworth Bookshop or smalls in Guilt Lingerie, or stock up on goodies for the festive table at the Hungry Guest Foodshop and Butcher.
On a chilly day, go for a curry at Indian restaurant Meghdoot’s Mystique Masala; one of chef Mili’s private or group cookery demonstrations would make a great gift for a foodie friend (group class from £35).
For a quirky treat of a place to stay, choose a converted Pullman carriage or room in the main building of the Old Railway Station (doubles from £204 B&B), where teas and mulled wine are served in the old waiting room. Just outside Petworth in the village of Balls Cross, Stag Cottage (doubles from £80 B&B) is well-placed for walks across Ebernoe Common nature reserve, and also two doors down from the traditional Stag Inn.
Christmas was not really a thing in Shakespeare’s day. There’s Twelfth Night of course, and a line in Hamlet (and did you know that Falstaff’s red-nosed drinking buddy, Bardolph, is believed to be the model for Rudolph?) … yet the Bard only used the C word three times in his writing. How we celebrate today (or did before Black Friday and vegan wellington) is really Charles Dickens’ doing, with roots dating back no further than the 1840s. But that won’t stop Shakespeare’s birthplace going full throttle on the festivities.
The house where he was born, now the Shakespeare’s Birthplace museum (£17.50/£11.50) is draped in winter foliage by local floral designers until 5 Jan, with exhibits telling how Tudors spent the 40 days prior to Christmas fasting and praying, with houses only decorated on Christmas Eve. Tudor Wassailing is revived from 30 Dec-1 Jan, with cups of traditional hot spiced cider to try. Tudor World (£6/£3), an interactive museum, has Christmas quizzes and atmospheric evening Christmas carol tours with (not Tudor but Victorian) “Ebeneezer”.
Further Tudor and medieval traditions, local history and more Bard facts than you can shake a spear at are covered on a town tour with Stratford Town Walk (£6/£3, daily, even on Christmas Day). Stallholders dress the part at the Victorian Christmas market today and tomorrow, with funfair and light displays.
Pick up gifts Uncle Drosselmeyer would approve of at the Nutcracker, a year-round Christmas shop on Henley Street; vinyl and collectibles at Henley Street Antiques Centre; and artisan cheese from Paxton and Whitfield.
Where to eat? All ingredients come from within Warwickshire at 33 The Scullery, where December’s menu has roasted vegetable and walnut crumble or slow-braised local game with mulberry gin and puff pastry topping. Former OFM young chef of the year Paul Foster is chef-patron of Salt, doing clever cooking such as partridge with parsley ketchup and cured halibut with pear, kohlrabi, buttermilk and dill.
Three miles out of town, well-regarded Baraset Barn Restaurant (doubles from £140 room-only) added 16 bedrooms (neutral but with wild fabrics) this year.
Portree Isle of Skye
Skye’s landscape is an otherworldly realm of mountains, frozen pools and jagged coastline – but as eye-spanglingly beautiful as it is, on a moody winter’s day it could be considered intimidating. Who could be blamed, then, for forgoing winter wild camping to hole up, cosy as a Hobbit, in a twinkling enclave like Portree instead? The island’s capital offers the benefit of classic treks up the Old Man of Storr, Fingal’s Seat and Ben Tianavaig, with Christmassy mini-break essentials: supping a pint of Skye Gold in the Isles Inn, nibbling a sweet cranberry bannock bread at the Isle of Skye Baking Company, buying turquoise prints of Hebridean rock pools at the Skye Blue Gallery
Shoppers should also look out for toiletries from Island Botanics, whose bog myrtle exfoliating massage bar will banish your winter troll skin, and buy whisky lovers a single malt at source at the Talisker Distillery, half an hour away on the shores of Loch Harport, with grand views south to the Cuillins. Oysters may not be the best stomach-liner, but with Carbost’s Oyster Shed so close, its salty shucked and cooked temptations are not to be missed.
You’re spoilt for accommodation across Skye – try Portree’s, slick-but-hygge-filled Bosville Hotel (doubles from £127 B&B) opposite the harbour, which has 20 rooms in cool, muted shades.
Another of those arty Welsh enclaves, border town Abergavenny has carved a niche with its locavore shops, cheesemongers and gourmet markets, but it remains down to earth, with lots more going for it besides food.
The spectacular Brecon Beacons are close at hand, so it’s worth getting any Christmas shopping out of the way quickly so you can tramp the hills. Fab independent shops include Mockingbird for jewellery, homewares and interesting kids’ bits, from glow-in-the-dark jigsaw puzzles to wooden arks. There’s also the Wool Croft, selling supplies for crafters, and Cuddle and Cwtch for unusual, green children’s brands such as Little Green Radicals and Frugi Organic, and rails of “pre-loved” and “gently used” secondhand kids’ clothes.
Dozens of makers sell jewellery, pots, toiletries and other crafts at Talgarth Mill (admission £5/£1), a beautiful community-owned watermill, whose flour is turned into additive-free deliciousness in the traditional bakery. The scones, sourdough breads, cakes and Bara Brith can be wolfed down in the cafe or stuffed into your knapsack for a picnic lunch as spectacular as any of the mountain paths you tread (Sugar Loaf and Little Skirrid are classics).
Where and what to eat is going to cause some Fobo (fear of a better option) here. Michel Roux is a fan of the Hardwick (doubles from £139 B&B), which has a great vegetarian menu (breadcrumbed butternut arancino, salt-roast beetroot on winter leaves) and a Christmas one (stone bass with winter chicories and Christmas pudding crème brûlée please). The Michelin-starred Walnut Tree is where renowned chef Shaun Hill has been “shaking the pans”, as he has it, for a decade (go for sea bass with dashi broth; rabbit loin with leg bolognese; banana and peanut ice-cream sandwich). The inn has a couple of smart cottages (night in December from £150, with DIY breakfast). Its sister hotel, the Angel (doubles from £105 room-only in December), features devilishly tempting bites such as pappardelle with mushrooms and chestnuts. There’s a pop-up après ski bar in the courtyard, and the rustic-glam Foxhunter bar for cocktails.
It’s not all swank and glory, though. Takeaway nibbles can be foraged on the shelves of Marches Deli, whose seasonal treats include pheasant liver pate with sloe mulberry gin, local cheeses and Hay charcuterie, which can be packed into Christmas hampers or devoured on the spot in the Monmouth coffeeshop. Likewise, Carpannini’s has Italian-style hampers, liqueurs, wines and homeware to take back.
Helmsley North Yorkshire
Few places do good old-fashioned English “scran” as well as rural Yorkshire, and Helmsley – arguably the most charming of all the friendly towns around the North York Moors – does it better than most. It boasts a triumphant deli, Hunters of Helmsley, on the square.
Once your basket is loaded with scrumptious Yorkshire hams and cheeses, patés and pies, jars of posh handmade horseradish, peach chutney and sloe gin, treat yourself to a “chubby hunter” (the local equivalent of a Betty’s fat rascal), a cherry-topped squidgy biscuit. Use the energy boost to dash around Helmsley Traditional Sweet Shop and Cut Price Book Shop, Libby Butler for jewellery – before exploring 900-year-old Helmsley Castle (£7.20/£4.30), an impressive medieval fortress with tower. From here a lovely 2½-mile hike leads to Rievaulx Abbey (£9.40/£5.60), the astonishingly beautiful ruins of a Cistercian monastery founded in 1130, which is holding a carol concert from 1-3pm on 8 Dec.
Alas Helmsley Walled Garden, where much of next year’s Secret Garden film was shot, doesn’t reopen until March, but there’s the opportunity for a blustery blast of fine Yorkshire air in the tree-filled Duncombe Park, which sells Christmas trees grown on the estate, and along the 109-mile Cleveland Way, which begins in the town, heads north across country to Saltburn-by-the-Sea then back south along the coast. Even if you only manage a mile, reward yourself with a pint of Striding Riding pale ale – the official beer of the Way – at the Helmsley Brewery Co tap room.
An annual Christmas Tree festival is in full swing at All Saints Church until 15 Dec, with decorated trees, music, mince pies and hot drinks, plus a panto-influenced Beanstalk Window Trail around town, in part to promote Helmsley Arts Centre’s show (until 15 Dec, £15/£7.50). It also has a screening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker (17 Dec, £15/£7.50).
After all that excitement, relax at the Feathers (doubles from £90), with a festive menu and coffeeshop. Rather less affordable is the Feversham Arms (doubles from £250), though the latter is good for spa treatments or dinner (mine’s the treacle-cured salmon, then onion tarte tatin with goat’s curd).
Its setting, on a volcanic outcrop by the sea, has made Bamburgh Castle (£11.25/£5.50) one of England’s most iconic, and it’s a dramatic starting point for hiking the great sweep of beach, perhaps down to the fishing village of Seahouses. Though it was the first castle in the world to fall to gunpowder, in 1464 during the War of the Roses, it has been restored to Kevin McCloud-pleasing standard, with towers, battlements, grand panelled state rooms and a spectacular King’s Hall, where recitals by pianists, harpists and Northumbrian pipers rattle the tapestries through December. Kids can lay down their demands at meet and greets with Father Christmas in the Victorian stables.
That other Northumbrian honeypot, Alnwick Garden, hosts a spectacular Winter Light Trail (£8.95, under-4s free) this month, Christmas gift stalls every weekend and, until 5 Jan, an indoor playroom filled with real snow (£3pp) where kids can build snowmen and chuck snowballs even if a white Christmas fails to materialise.
A few miles inland, the vast Ford and Etal country estate, with trails, railway, mills and art, hosts a Christmas Fayre on 22 Dec. Nearby, the Old Dairy gathers antiques and vintage sellers under one roof, with a coffee shop and monthly suppers in the old milking parlour.
Bamburgh has some interesting shops, but there’s more unusual treasure-hunting over on Holy Island, where the Celtic Crafts sells traditional, Celtic-influenced jewellery and Game of Thrones-y pewter goblets. Stop for a pie and a pint at the Ship Inn, or coffee and a cinnamon bun at Pilgrims Coffeehouse and Roastery – proof that there is now a hipster coffee shop in absolutely every corner.
In Alnwick, Barter Books, in an old Victorian railway station, is considered one of the world’s most exceptional bookshops, with open fires in winter, cosy armchairs and a working model railway chuntering round the ceiling.
Stay in the middle of everything at the Lord Crewe (doubles from £90 B&B), a tarted-up pub with simple, tartan-y rooms, opposite the castle.
All manner of gourmet treats can be found at The Potted Lobster in Bamburgh: Lindisfarne oysters, haddock chowder, seafood platters and whole lobster, then a Pimm’s jelly knickerbocker glory to top things off.
What a joyful Kentish town Faversham is. Best-known for its constant stream of farmers’, artisan and food markets, harvest and hop festivals, and lashings of ale, it’s plonked amid some of the county’s richest farmland, and liberally peppered with perfect pubs. The Shepherd Neame brewery, Britain’s oldest, is a draw for many, where a tour (book in advance, £18pp) offers a chance to taste this season’s festive ales, Northern Lights or Rudolph’s Reward.
Through December, the cheery central streets, home to a handful of interesting independent retailers, are illuminated by thousands of bulbs, while Standard Quay, by Oare Creek, just north of the town centre, has a winning combination of treasure-filled antiques stores in old black timber warehouses, plus the cosy, low-ceilinged Shipwrights Arms. This is a good starting point for a reviving hike along the Oare Creek to the marshes.
Just to the south, Macknade Fine Foods is possibly the country’s, if not the world’s, greatest food hall. I’d get absolutely everything for Christmas lunch there if possible, from Colston Basset stilton to sprouts, plus basics from lentils to muesli from its Unpackaged plastic-free dispenser system.
Sadly, Faversham’s dining options don’t live up to that standard, but lunch at the Hot Tin Cafe is fab, for amazing dhal, sarnies and cocktails in a tin chapel that doubles as an arts venue with films and music. Faversham Christmas Sunday Market comes to the pretty Guildhall on Market Place on 22 Dec, for unusual ingredients to pep up a festive feast, and last-minute gifts, toys, jewellery and crafts. Creek Creative, an old Victorian brewery housing artists’ studios and non-profits, has a Christmas Emporium selling handmade goods daily, except Mondays, until 20 Dec.
Stay at the central 14th-century Sun Inn (doubles from £85 B&B), in smart rooms with exposed rafters.
On the banks of the River Dee, wreathed in pretty woodland and with a definite creative bent, Llangollen is a perky little Welsh gem. Transport fans, prepared to be thrilled: not only is the town home to the impressive Pontcysyllte aqueduct, the UK’s largest stone and cast iron aqueduct no less, with festive canal boat rides at weekends through December (£14/£12 with mulled wine), but there’s also the Llangollen steam railway, dolled up with Chrimbo razzle-dazzle. Rides upriver to the village of Carrog are themed as Santa’s Christmas Specials (£20), with gifts for kids and a tipple for grownups, daily until Christmas Eve; then, when Santa’s resting, “mince pie specials” (£18/£10) run from 26 Dec until 1 Jan. Those who prefer the brooding aspect of winter can climb up to the crumbling walls of Castell Dinas Brân (Crow Castle), on a hill above the town, for spectacular views.
Next weekend, an International Christmas event at Llangollen Pavilion (15 Dec, llangollen.net, £13/£5) includes a “reverse grotto”, where guests can donate to the local food bank, plus world music, carols and mince pies.
The town’s shopping options include trendy outlets (Ty Nook for cactus pots, plant books, statement earrings and bags made from Welsh blankets; Gwalia Ceramics for funky vases and milk jugs; teddies and bunting from Lily Rose Interiors) among the more traditional (see the Welsh Love Spoon store for sentimental stocking-fillers). In the Memorial Hall, Llangollen Country Market sells foodie gifts, plants and crafts on Friday mornings.
For face-stuffing, try smart new bakery and cafe M’eating Point, and just outside town, cosy coaching inn the West Arms (doubles from £135 B&B) for a mean afternoon tea, dinner (goat’s cheese tart with micro herbs or organic Berwyn mountain lamb) and somewhere to sleep it off.
Take a romantically rugged setting, mix in lots of gorgeous Edwardian and Victorian architecture, a dab of historic grandeur, some sprinkles of contemporary culture, then just add water (from a thermal spring, if you please) and you have cooked up one of the north’s most evocative towns.
On a December weekend, take a tour (£16pp) on Discover Buxton Tours’Victorian-style tram, jazzed up with festive fripperies such as blankets, hot water bottles, truffles and mugs of hot chocolate to keep passengers frostbite-free.
Now that bottled water is a no-no, fill your sustainable one from the source, at St Anne’s Well, near the Georgian Pump Room and Crescent. These buildings, which earned Buxton the moniker “Bath of the North”, are being turned into a luxury hotel with spa (the famous water bubbles up at 27C beneath the building), due to open in early 2020.
The opulent Buxton Opera House is another big draw. This month Cinderella (until 1 Jan, from £20.50/£18.50) is providing panto fun, and the Buxton Studio Choir (12 Dec, £7/£5) mixes festive pop from the 1960s onwards with choral favourites. Too high brow? The Pavilion Arts Centre screens corny Christmassy flicks, from the nostalgic (Home Alone) to the new (Last Christmas and Frozen 2).
Jump-start a shopping spree with a quick sharpener at Buxton Brewery Tap House, which serves a creative range of freshly released beers in the renovated Old Court House.
Independent makers form a permanent artisan market at The Arches at Hogshaw Mill; there are plenty of independent stores across town in Higher Buxton, and on 15 Dec Pavilion Gardens hosts one of its regular bazaars, with crafts and bites. If that doesn’t hit the mark, the nearby Staffordshire town of Leek – where William Morris studied dyeing and bought silk – is renowned for its well-priced antique stores, such as Odeon Antiques, and the extensive Leek Antiques Centre.
Gift list ticked, it’s time for a frosty walk in the gritstone ruffles and folds of the Peak District. One superbly atmospheric hike is to Lud’s Church, a spooky mossy dripping chasm where persecuted church reformers of the 15th century used to meet (park at Gradbach); or blast the cobwebs away with a trek up Kinder Scout, Derbyshire’s highest peak.
Back in Buxton, stick to the wintry theme for dinner at St Moritz, which serves Italian favourites in an Alpine-themed interior , and sleep in historical surroundings at the Old Hall Hotel (doubles from £70 B&B), whose 35 rooms have four-posters and opulent fabrics. It claims to be the oldest hotel in England: there’s evidence a building existed on the site for over 3,000 years, and it’s where Mary Queen of Scots spent summers while held captive, under the care of the building’s owner, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
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