10 places in Britain that look like France

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Oliver Smith
·10 min read
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Dunrobin Castle - Getty
Dunrobin Castle - Getty

As France battled a third wave, raising doubts about summer holidays to the country, we lament the loss of being able to explore the European country so close to us. Fortunately for travellers, there are plenty of alternatives to your French favourites on UK soil.

Swap the Loire for… Sutherland

Dunrobin Castle, with its fairy-tale turrets and beautiful formal gardens, wouldn’t look out of place in the Loire.

Designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind the Houses of Parliament, it has served as a naval hospital and a boarding school for boys, and parts of it remain the private home of the Earl of Sutherland. Nevertheless, visitors are permitted (the property reopens in the summer).

On the east coast of the Northern Highlands, it overlooks Moray Firth, just north of the villages of Golspie and Dornoch (famous for its cathedral and Royal Dornoch Golf Club) and around 50 miles from Inverness.

The castle is an essential stop on the North Coast 500 long-distance driving route, which takes in the best of Sutherland, including its stunning beaches. Find time to visit Sandwood Bay and Balnakeil, both backed by undulating dunes. Even the Loire can’t compete with that.

Swap Champagne for… Sussex

“Sussex is home to some of the most impressive names in English wine,” writes Victoria Moore, The Telegraph’s viticulture guru, in her guide to the UK’s top vineyards. “These include Ridgeview, in Ditchling on the South Downs, which welcomes visitors for pre-booked tours, and the resoundingly blue chip Nyetimber, which has vineyards in Hampshire, too, but is based near Pulborough around the beamed manor house that was given to Anne of Cleves following the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII. It opens its doors to visitors only a few times a year – snap up tickets as they are very limited.”

Harvest time at the Nyetimber vineyard - Getty
Harvest time at the Nyetimber vineyard - Getty

There are other options, too.

“Cresting the South Downs, looking across to the sparkling sea at Cuckmere Haven, Rathfinny has an exceptional visitor offering. You can stay, eat, taste or walk here, taking in the beautiful views,” says Moore.

“Tours at Wiston Estate begin with tea, coffee and biscuits before going on to explore part of the Goring family’s 6,000-acre estate. At Bluebell Vineyard Estates, on the edge of Ashdown Forest, they offer 30-minute tasting sessions and food pairing tours. At the small, family-owned Albourne Estate, they make still and sparkling wine and a very good vermouth. You can drop in for tastings, vineyard picnics and there’s a regular Friday evening ‘pop-up’ dining experience.”

Swap the Alps for… the Cairngorms

The obvious alternative to Europe’s highest peaks is Britain’s largest national park, home to some of its loftiest mountains. At 1,748 square miles, it’s twice the size of the Lake District and bigger than Luxembourg.

The Cairngorms offers skiing in winter, but in the summer, as in the Alps, it’s all about soaking up the mountain scenery on foot. You might see stags, or rare capercaillies and ptarmigans if you’re in the park’s ancient Caledonian pine forests, and cute little red squirrels are ubiquitous. Less likely is a sighting of a Scottish wildcat. One of our last remaining natural predators, it is now as rare as the Bengal tiger: latest research (2014) suggests there are only between 100 and 300 left.

The Scottish wild cat - Getty
The Scottish wild cat - Getty

For somewhere swankier than the local bothies, book a stay at Killiehuntly. Its Danish owners have transformed a 17th-century farmhouse, just a caber’s throw from Aviemore, into a haven of Scandinavian style, with farm to fork dining for guests famished after biking and hiking in the hills.

Read more: Why roaming the roof of Scotland is so rewarding during summer

Swap Menton for… Tenby

Queen Victoria frequented Menton, on the French Riviera, but we’re certain she would have also found plenty of amusement in Tenby, the swanky resort’s Welsh doppelganger, where cheerful Georgian townhouses in chalk-box pastels rim the harbour.

Our Wales expert, Kerry Walker, advises grabbing an ice cream cone down by the seafront, before heading to cliff-backed Castle Beach – a fine scoop of golden sand that does a vanishing act at high tide. At low tide, you can walk across to St Catherine’s Island, with its cake-topper of a Victorian fortress.

Who needs the French Riviera? - Getty
Who needs the French Riviera? - Getty

Take lunch at hip SandBar, which offers craft beer alongside dishes such as cod tostada with crumbled feta and Tenby lobster with “dirty” fries.

Spend the night at Penally Abbey, a few miles out of town, “Probably Pembrokshire’s loveliest bolthole,” according to our reviewer. “It’s set above the sea, amid tumbling gardens, and is just a 30 minute-walk from Tenby. The beautiful bones of this Strawberry Gothic house have been brought back to life by a family who run it with love, decorate it with a keen eye for interiors, and source food locally.”

Swap Provence for... Surrey

The famous lavender fields of Provence become a gorgeous tangle of purple from mid-June right through until August.

However, you can still indulge in some heady lilac delight with a trip to Mayfield Lavender farm, which reopens in June. The 25-acre farm in Banstead, Surrey, grows three types of organic lavender and you can explore the fields either on foot or by tractor ride.

That's not Provence - Getty
That's not Provence - Getty

You can’t picnic on the farm (nothing to do with lockdown), but the café has plenty of choice, not least the farm’s unique lavender cider. Vive la difference.

The wider Surrey Hills AONB too has plenty to rival Provence. Running from Farnham to Oxted, the range of chalk downs not only offers cycling, running and walking routes, but also historical places to visit. Military forts from 1899 adorn Box Hill, near Dorking, and anti-invasion pillboxes left over from the Second World War crumble amid the yew trees scattered across the hillsides.

Read more: England’s 34 glorious – but underrated – Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Swap Normandy for... Cornwall

For visitors to Northern France, a trip to Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel is usually high on the to-do list. But far fewer crowds reach the humble beauty of St Michael’s Mount, just off the Cornish shore at Marazion.

St Michael's Mount - Getty
St Michael's Mount - Getty

This rocky island, which is reached during low tide by an ancient cobbled causeway, is crowned by a medieval church and castle. A magnet for history lovers, you can also see nature at its most daring by taking in the gardens which cling to a near-vertical granite rock face above the sea. A combination of Gulf Stream and heat-retentive granite walls and bedrock make it the perfect home for a huge range of exotic plants.

Read more: 48 hours in Cornwall, an insider guide to the wild west of England

Swap Paris for… Southport

We could have been lazy, and used the similarity between its tower and the one named after Gustav Eiffel to recommend Blackpool. Instead, we’ll opt for another faded seaside resort. But why Southport?

Our France expert, Anthony Peregrine, explains: “Louis Napoleon (the future Napoleon III), during his exile in Britain, travelled to Bath, Leamington Spa and (in either 1838 or 1846: sources differ) to Southport. He stayed a while in what was then a new resort. The future emperor was apparently so struck by the (main) Lord Street with its gardens, arcades and glass and iron canopies that he used it as inspiration for the creation of Parisian boulevards when he finally gained French power.” Whence Lancastrian claims that “Paris is the Southport of France”.

It has a lovely pier, too - Getty
It has a lovely pier, too - Getty

If the faded grandeur doesn’t appeal, head south to Formby, a spectacular expanse of beach, sand dunes and pines that’s home to red squirrels, voles, owls and stoats, and which has even attracted Premier League footballers and their families.

Swap Colmar for… Lavenham

Colmar, a fairy-tale town of half-timbered houses, gables, galleries, courtyards and cobbled streets, has a British impersonator: Lavenham, a village in the south of Suffolk. It possesses an extraordinarily collection of creaking Tudor buildings, a relic of a time when its wool industry turned it into the 14th richest town in England.

The Telegraph’s Tom Ough says: “Lavenham was at this point exporting its fabrics as far as Russia. Its wool merchants were so rich that, when visiting in 1487, Henry VII fined some of them for being ostentatious. A better way of showing off turned out to be church-building: the height of Lavenham’s wealth is marked by the 141-foot tower of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, a lavish Perpendicular Gothic construction that must weigh as much as the rest of the village combined.

Lavenham - Getty
Lavenham - Getty

“But this rich tapestry was soon to unravel. Skilled Flemish weavers, on the run from war at home, began to populate the South East. For Lavenham, it was no longer weavers but irrelevance that loomed. What followed was a 300-year period of impoverishment. The villagers who inherited the expensive oak-framed houses were unable to upgrade them to brick or stone. So by the time Lavenham emerged from its slough, its wonky half-timbering was so rare and olde-worlde as to be fashionable again. And thus a twee film set of a town was born.”

See his guide to visiting the village.

Swap Verdon for… Cheddar

Admittedly, Verdon Gorge, which plunges to depths of 700 metres and is around 15 miles in length, puts Britain’s most famous canyon (depth: 137 metres) in the shade, but only one can be combined with a day of cider tasting.

Cheddar Gorge can be explored by driving or cycling along its bottom and then following a four-mile circular cliff-top walk that starts at Cufic Lane, opposite The Original Cheddar Cheese Company (be sure to try their cave-aged cheddar). It is steep and challenging but offers splendid views across to Cheddar Reservoir, sparkling beyond the jutting cliffs.

Cheddar Gorge - Getty
Cheddar Gorge - Getty

There’s plenty more to do in the wider Mendip Hills AONB. Roam the heights and you will stumble on Neolithic long barrows, the remains of henges at Priddy, and Iron Age hill forts such as Dolebury Warren. Ebbor Gorge is a more peaceful alternative to Cheddar, while in the north-eastern fringes of the AONB, the twin reservoirs of Blagdon Lake and Chew Valley Lake offer some of the finest still-water fly-fishing.

Swap Lyon for… Berkshire

The gastronomic capital of France? We’ll raise you the triumvirate of Maidenhead/Bray/Marlow. Andy Lynes, our culinary travel expert, explains: “Maidenhead town centre is mostly a gastronomy-free zone (Boulters Riverside Brasserie excepted), but there are more than 20 Michelin-listed restaurants within a 10km radius. They include everything from the one-star pub The Crown at Burchetts Green to the world-famous Cliveden hotel and its fine dining restaurant headed up by chef Andre Garrett – all supported by the well-to-do residents of Buckingham and Berkshire, the presence of a large number of technology companies (the area is known as Britain’s Silicon Valley) and easy access from London and Heathrow.”

Heston Blumenthal - Clara Molden
Heston Blumenthal - Clara Molden

The pick of the bunch are The Waterside Inn, Opened by the Roux brothers in 1972 and offering classic French cuisine, and Heston Blumenthal’s outlandishly experimental Fat Duck (where you’ll need to book six months in advance), both of which are in the pretty village of Bray.