Five great car-free breaks around the UK

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History and hostelling, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

This year is seeing 12 months of celebrations to mark 1,900 years since Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall, so what better time to visit this ancient monument.

Bus AD122 runs five times a day from Hexham station to Haltwhistle (both on the Newcastle-Carlisle railway) via interesting sites along the wall. Stop off at the fort on the Tyne at Chesters, the Mithraic temple at Brocolitia (free), or Housesteads with its communal latrines and hobnail Roman shoes (£10/£6). Or take in the gold November birches and blue lake at an old whinstone quarry at Walltown. When it’s too wintry to hike across the moors and slippery rock steps, use the bus to shuttle between these atmospheric places, and stay (weekends only except Christmas week) at the Sill youth hostel (private en suite rooms from £49, ).

In wet weather, the mostly tarmac stretches of the Hadrian’s Wall national trail around Newcastle are a good bet, and rich in cafes and museums like Segedunum Roman Fort near Wallsend metro station (£5.95 adult). Here, a viewing tower overlooks the outline of the fort and maps of imperial power sit alongside details of everyday life: the dice that Roman soldiers used to pass the time or the mark of a cat’s paw on an ancient piece of pottery.
Trains to Newcastle take about an hour from York (from about £8) or 1½ hours from Edinburgh (from £11, lner.co.uk). Trains from Newcastle to Hexham take around ½ hour (£7.80 return, northernrailway.co.uk). A day ticket for the AD122 bus is £12.50

Gardens and fat rascals, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

 a cobbled Street lined with Restaurant and Shops in Harrogate
Harrogate has pedestrianised old streets and great coffee shops. Photograph: Alpegor/Alamy

This Victorian spa town is ideal for a car-free break in autumn and winter. It’s a pleasant couple of miles’ stroll from Harrogate station, through Valley Gardens and the semi-wild Pinewoods, to RHS Harlow Carr – and arriving car-free gets you 30% off entry (taking it to £8.95). The gardens are colourful all winter, with red and yellow stems of willow and dogwood, feathery grasses and the earliest snowdrops flowering from November. There are scented shrubs, flaming acers, and an on-site branch of Bettys for tea and the rich cherry-studded scones they call fat rascals.

New research for London North Eastern Railway suggests that if everyone switched just one leisure trip from car to train, the UK’s leisure travel carbon emissions would fall by 16%. LNER has produced green guides to destinations along its routes: this year’s guide showcases Harrogate, along with Inverness and Lincoln, and has tips for food tours, refill shops, bike hire, and hotels such as the White Hart near Valley Gardens (doubles from £79 B&B).

Harrogate has Baltzersen’s, a Scandi-style coffee shop four minutes’ walk from the station, which sells legendary cinnamon buns. Tannin Level, half a mile from the hotel, is perfect for locally sourced candlelit dinners – this season’s menu features beetroot-sorrel risotto and a vegan chocolate mousse with orange and hazelnut.
Harrogate is half an hour by train from Leeds (from £4 single, northernrailway.co.uk) or three hours from London (from £23.60 single, lner.co.uk)

Island stomps by bus, Argyll & Bute

wild beach and lighthouse
Glencallum Bay, Bute, seen from the West Island Way. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

As the ferry sails beneath mountains, and across a sea where seals and dolphins are regularly sighted, it’s difficult to remember that you only left Glasgow an hour ago.

Interconnected train and ferry transport, plus onward buses, make the Isle of Bute a superlative car-free destination. From Glasgow’s Central station, it’s a 50-minute train journey, partly along the Firth of Clyde, to Wemyss (“Weems”) Bay with its elegant Edwardian station, where the ferry will be waiting.

It drops you at the island’s main town, Rothesay (“Roth-see”), where you can wander past the circular sandstone walls of a moated castle and climb the Serpentine Road for more views across the water. Book ahead to eat fresh local langoustines at the Bonnie Clyde, or opt for quayside fish and chips in the fading light. There are regular buses south to Kilchattan Bay, start of the West Island Way, a long-distance walk covering most of Bute. The route opens with a rewardingly strenuous six-mile circuit around the south end of the island, past a curving bay with a lighthouse, a bullrush-fringed loch, and the ruined chapel of Saint Blane.

Bus 490 (10 a day) to Kilchattan Bay runs past the gates of Mount Stuart, a palatial neogothic mansion in red sandstone with landscaped grounds sloping down to the sea. The house and gardens are closed in winter, but there’s a Christmas food and craft fair in the main house on 4 December, and those who stay in one of two self-catering properties on the estate can wander the gardens at will.

The converted Kennels has a woodburner, a stack of logs and a sunset-facing sitting room (£795 for three nights in December, sleeps four, mountstuart.com/stay/kennels).
Trains from Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay cost £8.40 single (scotrail.co.uk). Ferry tickets £6.90 return, calmac.co.uk

Millionaire views, Bournemouth, Dorset

garden with palm trees
The Garden of the Russell-Cotes Gallery. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

The Bournemouth area is a great place to explore without a car. Salty sea air gusts across the region’s open-top buses as they brush through pines and holm oaks in Bournemouth’s green suburbs. You can peer into millionaires’ gardens in Sandbanks and spot cormorants diving into waves beyond.

A PlusBus ticket for Bournemouth (£4 or £2.65 with a railcard) is valid on open-top bus 50 as far as the Sandbanks chain ferry. Hop off, pay £1 to cross as a foot passenger to Studland Bay, with views of Brownsea Island, and it’s free to come back. (The bus is diverted during November while the ferry has its biennial refit, but should be running as usual by early December.) The PlusBus scheme is one of the UK’s great car-free travel bargains. Buy a train ticket and a day’s unlimited bus travel at the other end costs an extra couple of pounds.

For rainy days, the Russell-Cotes gallery (£8.50), a flamboyant, palm-guarded villa on the cliffs, is packed with stained glass, sculpture, peacock friezes and Alhambra-inspired alcoves. The art collection includes a pouting pre-Raphaelite Venus by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lots of buses from the railway station stop five minutes’ walk away at the top of Bath Hill.

Buses run to Christchurch Priory or Upton country Park beside Poole harbour, but are also handy for exploring Bournemouth’s wooded “chines” (valleys) and subtropical Victorian gardens. A smart new Premier Inn (doubles from £48 room only) near West Cliff opened in summer 2021, with luggage storage, public transport information and umbrellas to rent. It’s next door to a bus stop for route 50 and five minutes from the beach via the West Cliff zigzag footpath.
Train tickets from Basingstoke to Bournemouth start at £5.60 (and include New Forest views through the window), southwesternrailway.com

Welsh coastal walking, Barmouth, Gwynedd

Barmouth rail bridge over the Mawddach estuary.
Barmouth rail bridge over the Mawddach estuary. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin/The Guardian

The views of the Mawddach estuary near Barmouth are at their best with late autumn colours, winter wading birds and the yellow gleam of all-year gorse. The Victorian seaside town makes a great base for using the train to explore parts of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which is 10 years old this year.

The railway from Birmingham to Barmouth is one of Britain’s great scenic journeys, running alongside the Dyfi estuary, whose sandbanks teem with seabirds. The line runs near the Coast Path, from Aberdyfi to Pwllheli, past saltmarsh and sand dunes, hills and waterfalls, so can then be used to do station-to-station walks. It takes careful planning as there are gaps between trains, and the final stages of restoration work on the spectacular wooden Barmouth Bridge across the Mawddach estuary mean intermittent rail replacements.

Trains are running and the footpath will be open from 10 December. The panoramic six-mile walk to Barmouth from Llwyngwril station passes standing stones, prehistoric cairns, mossy stream-crossed oak woods, the relics of an old slate quarry and crosses the viaduct to Barmouth’s harbourside Last Inn.

The Wales Coast Path has produced a list of accommodation along the route, including several B&Bs on Barmouth’s Marine Parade – next to the coast path – and the Tal y Don hotel (doubles from £99 B&B) on the high street is open through December and January.
Tickets from Birmingham New Street to Barmouth from £24 single, tickets.trc.cymru