Six great British art breaks away from the crowds
Arty breaks don’t need to revolve around big cities and famous museums. Our guide takes in places as diverse as Kirkcudbright, Southend and Petworth
Words: Rachel Dixon
Six of the best British small-town art breaks
If it’s galleries galore you’re after (ideally without the madding crowd), look no further. Plus readers’ tips
Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway Make the trip for …
This harbour town on the River Dee is known as the artists’ town, thanks to the creative types who lived and worked there from the 1880s – and the artistic community that is still active today. Fiona Lee’s Kirkcudbright Art Tours are a great way to discover the compact town on foot (£12, from April).
She takes visitors to Broughton House & Garden, the Edwardian home and studio of the Glasgow Boy EA Hornel; Kirkcudbright Galleries, with work by the Faed family, Charles Oppenheimer and Samuel Peploe; and the Tolbooth Art Centre, which has an exhibition of Jessie M King’s work. Fiona may also introduce them to some of the contemporary artists who have studios and homes in the town, including printmaker Laura Boswell and landscape artist Richard Brinley.
Drumlanrig Castle , AKA the Pink Palace, is well worth the hour’s drive north from Kirkcudbright, not least for its collection of paintings, furniture, silver, tapestries and porcelain. Its masterpiece is Rembrandt’s An Old Woman Reading, which now has pride of place above the fireplace in its own sitting room (£18/£9, opens 8 April).
When to go
More than 100 artists open their doors for the annual Art & Crafts Trail (4-7 August). There are plenty of summer festivities, from a children’s festival to a jazz weekend, culminating in the Kirkcudbright Tattoo and fireworks display (26 August).
There are lots of galleries and gift shops in Kirkcudbright, and bookworms shouldn’t miss Wigtown, 40 minutes away by car. Scotland’s national book town has a dozen independent and secondhand bookshops and hosts an annual book festival (22 September-1 October).
The nearby Balcary Bay Hotel is the starting point for a circular walk to
Rascarrel, across cliffs, beach, forest and farmland (five miles in total, with two shorter options). Keep an eye out for red squirrels near the start.
Drinks and dinner
The Masonic Arms, which dates back to 1790, stocks no fewer than 260 gins, including Sky Garden gin made by the Dark Art Distillery in Kirkcudbright. The cosy Selkirk Arms – where Robert Burns once stayed – serves local produce such as Kirkcudbright scallops, Galloway venison, vegan haggis and Cream o’ Galloway icecream.
The Selkirk is also the pick of places to stay, with 16 rooms (doubles from £99.75). It now has competition from the Garret, which reopened last month after a refurbishment, and has eight Georgian-style rooms (doubles from £120 B&B).
The nearest railway stations are at Dumfries, Lockerbie and Carlisle, after which it is useful to hire a car.
Petworth, West Sussex
Make the trip for … This pretty market town is known for its antique shops, but now also has an agenda-setting new art gallery. Newlands House Gallery, which opened in 2020 in a converted Georgian townhouse, focuses on “the great artists of the 20th century”. It has had a run of stellar exhibitions so far, including Lee Miller, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Last summer’s Frank Auerbach: Unseen was a superb collection of paintings, etchings and drawings by one of Britain’s greatest living artists. The current exhibition is Two Worlds Entwined: Annie Morris and Idris Khan , showing the artist couple’s work side by side for the first time in the UK (adult £14.50, child £7.25, until 7 May).
Petworth House, a stately home called “that house of art” by John Constable, has one of the National Trust’s best collections of paintings. There are 19 landscapes by JMW Turner, who was a regular visitor, plus works by a host of other artists including Titian, Bosch, Van Dyck and Gainsborough. Other treasures include one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c1420) and the Molyneux Globe (1592). The current exhibition is Explorations in Paint (£12/£6, until 24 September), featuring artworks by Sir Frank Bowling, Gillian Ayres and more, and inspired by the “Studio Experiments” of Joshua Reynolds, born 300 years ago this year. By contrast, Petworth Cottage Museum gives an insight into the more humble lives of estate workers. It is furnished as it would have been in 1910, when seamstress Mary Cummings lived there (free, 2pm-4.30pm, Tues-Sat, April-October).
When to go
Any time, but the Petworth festival is a three-week summer arts bonanza (11-29 July); its sister event is an autumn literary week (27 October-5 November).
The Petworth Art and Antique Dealers Association has 37
members, including Petworth Antiques Market. There is an annual antiques and fine art fair in Petworth Park from 19-21 May.
The National Trust has devised a Turner walk through Petworth deer park, which was designed by Capability Brown. It includes the lake where Turner fished, and the vistas depicted in his paintings The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks.
Drinks and dinner
The E Street Bar & Grill specialises in Sussex produce; the Star pub on Market Square dates back to 1591. The Horse Guards Inn in neighbouring Tillington has a daily changing menu of foraged, homegrown and local food – perhaps Brighton mackerel with fennel and anchovies (£16.50). Langham Brewery has a taproom with 11 beers. Upperton Vineyards is open for tastings on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Angel Inn, a historic coaching inn, has seven elegant rooms and great breakfasts (doubles from £124 B&B). Woodfire Camping is a lovely off-grid campsite on a small farm a few miles to the south (pitches £19.50/£9).
The old railway station is now a cafe and B&B (the line closed in 1955), but there are buses from Chichester, Worthing and Horsham.
North Norfolk Make the trip for …
North Norfolk is peppered with grand houses with impressive art collections. Houghton Hall near King’s Lynn, which was built for Robert Walpole in the 1720s, is no stuffy stately home. Its parkland is a treasure trove of modern sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Henry Moore and more. Some large-scale pieces are in full view, but many others are hidden. Armed with a numbered map, visitors search mazes, walled gardens and woods to track down the artworks – so it’s great fun for kids, too.
The first sculpture to be commissioned, one of James Turrell’s Skyspaces, created in 2000, is still one of the most impressive, while Jeppe Hein’s Waterflame is mesmerising. This year, Sean Scully has a sculpture exhibition in the grounds, plus paintings in the house and the Contemporary Gallery (23 April-29 October, adult from £20/under-18s free). There is also an exhibition of artists and makers based in East Anglia, East to East, and a model soldier museum. The house itself is a Palladian mansion with sumptuous state rooms.
Another of north Norfolk’s great houses is just 14 miles away. Holkham Hall is also an 18th-century Palladian house, in extensive grounds. It has one of the biggest private collections of French landscape artist Claude Lorrain, plus works by Poussin, Van Dyck and Rubens, and a statue gallery. Other stately homes open to the public include royal residence Sandringham, Blickling Hall and Felbrigg Hall.
The Georgian town of Holt has lots of art galleries, bookshops and antique shops, such as Holt Antiques & Interiors Centre. Holt Sunday Market, on the first Sunday of the month, brings together 50 regional makers plus buskers and six street food stalls (April-December). Wells-next-the-Sea also has several galleries selling photography, prints, and ceramics.
When to go
The Houghton festival is a celebration of electronic music and art, with live
performers and DJs, plus sculpture garden tours, life drawing classes, a spa and a floating restaurant on the lake (10-13 August).
On vast, beautiful Holkham Beach there’s a three-mile circular walk along the sands and back through pinewoods, and there are also beach walks east to Wells or west to Burnham Overy Staithe.
Drinks and dinner
The Suffield Arms, a pub, tapas bar and Mediterranean restaurant near Cromer, opened in 2021 and showcases some of art dealer Ivor Braka’s collection. Braka also owns the Gunton Arms a couple of miles away. This is a gastropub with rooms, with works by Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, and a sculpture park. Wells Crab House sells platters of Norfolk crab, lobster, oysters and mussels, plus other English seafood, to eat in or take away.
Holly Lodge, a boutique B&B in Thursford, has six rooms and a luxury shepherd’s hut (doubles from £135 B&B). Deepdale Camping & Rooms in Burnham Deepdale has regular live acoustic music and is next to Dalegate Market, which has independent pop-up shops and art workshops (pitches for two from £18 a night).
The nearest railway station to Houghton Hall is King’s Lynn, 13 miles to the west.
Make the trip for …
Southend-on-Sea, a traditional British resort, may not be an obvious art destination, but it is an emerging street-art destination. Southend City Jam, its inaugural street art festival, took place last September. More than 100 local and international artists created murals for the city centre and seafront, and many are now permanent fixtures. This year’s event is set for 1-3 September. There is a map of the art at southendcityjam.co.uk, or for a quick fix, the railway bridge over the High Street has three excellent examples. The LuminoCity light festival also launched last year, and returned last month.
The free Beecroft Art Gallery has a collection of 2,000 works donated to the town by Walter Beecroft, a local solicitor, in 1952. His tastes were eclectic: 17th-century Dutch masters, an early work by Constable, a Jacob Epstein bronze. The gallery also houses Southend’s fashion collection – including 500 bathing suits – while the Jazz Centre downstairs hosts live music on Saturdays.
The Forum is home to the contemporary Focal Point Gallery, which also curates Big Screen Southend in Elmer Square, showing daily video art. NetPark, in nearby Chalkwell Park, Westcliff-on-Sea, claims to be the world’s first digital art park. It has 15 artworks experienced via smartphone and headphones, including music and spoken-word poetry. Southend’s Central Museum has a permanent display of archaeological finds from the Prittlewell Princely Burial, the earliest dated Anglo-Saxon princely burial in England (about AD580-605).
When to go
There’s always something going on in Southend, and it’s a lovely resort to wander around in spring and summer. Alternatively, the Halloween Parade, which began in 2021, is a fun, free event – and a chance to get creative with costumes.
Upmarket Leigh-on-Sea (less than 10 minutes by train or a one-hour coastal walk) is full of independent shops and galleries. The annual Leigh Art Trail runs from 8-16 July – last year, 69 artists exhibited work at 50 venues.
Southend is the proud location of the world’s longest pleasure pier: 1.34 miles. Visitors can stroll to the end and back (or jump on the narrow-gauge train) and stop at the Pier Head for fish and chips.
Drinks and dinner
Twenty One is a cafe, gallery and live music venue on the seafront, with lots of vegan options. The Royal Hotel, built in 1791, is a buzzy spot for a pre-dinner bellini. Follow it with ribeye steak with chimichurri at the Mews, a bar and atmospheric first-floor restaurant.
In Leigh, Food By John Lawson is an experimental no-menu restaurant. The three-course Friday lunch, based on seasonal vegetables and sustainable fish, is great value (£29.95 including a glass of wine).
The Roslin Beach Hotel on Thorpe Bay has 62 rooms (doubles from £99 room-only), many with sea views, plus a spa, bar and restaurant.
Southend Victoria has trains to
London Liverpool Street, and Southend Central is on the line from London Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness.
St Davids, Pembrokeshire Make the trip for …
Britain’s smallest city (population 1,350) has history and heritage in spades, and is close to the stunning beaches of the Pembrokeshire Coast national park. It is also home to the country’s first contemporary art hotel. Twr y Felin, a windmill built in 1806, is now a hotel/gallery. The owner commissioned more than 100 artworks representing Pembrokeshire and St Davids when the hotel opened in 2015, and a further 70 for an extension in 2021.
Sinister portraits of Welsh stars such as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey by street artist Pure Evil eyeball diners in the restaurant; spray-painted landscapes by Mr Jago enliven the gallery-like lounge; and depictions of drunken antics, inspired by Dylan Thomas and painted by Cherry
Pickles, spur on drinkers in the bar.
Oriel y Parc, St Davids’ eco-friendly gallery and visitor centre, is a stone’s throw from the hotel and has
exhibits about local nature, geology and archaeology. The gallery often shows works by Graham Sutherland, who was inspired by the Pembrokeshire landscape, and holds temporary exhibitions by visiting artists in its tower. The Riverside cultural centre in Haverfordwest, 16 miles from St Davids, also displays works by Sutherland, plus other Welsh artists including Gwen and Augustus John.
St Davids has been a place of pilgrimage since 1120, and its magnificent cathedral, with its carved oak nave ceiling and many chapels, is still an unmissable sight. Next door is the Bishop’s Palace, which once rivalled the cathedral for glory, and is now a picturesque ruin (£4.80/£3.40).
Several venues in St Davids sell work by local artists, including New Street Gallery, Goat Street Gallery and Albion Gallery. Some fishing villages also have thriving art scenes, including Solva and Porthgain, which is home to the family-run Harbour Lights Gallery, the 18th-century Sloop Inn and a fish and chip bistro, the Shed.
When to go
Events are held at the cathedral year-round, while in August, there are open-air shows in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. The Festival Arts Theatre Company has been performing everything from family shows to Shakespeare since 1969.
The 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coastal Path comes within a mile of the city. The St Davids and Solva Art Group suggests spots along the path to sketch, including Porthclais harbour, St Justinian’s lifeboat station, views of Ramsey Island and St David’s Head.
Drinks and dinner
There are a couple of fantastic pubs in the city: the Farmers and the Bishops. The Farmers has an open fire in winter, a patio with an outside bar and cathedral views, plus live music most weekends. The Bishops is more food-focused, with Welsh dishes such as faggots, lamb cawl and rarebit, and local lobster, crab and mackerel. St Davids Gin and Kitchen specialises in “Welsh tapas”, steaks and seafood platters. Twr y Felin’s restaurant, Blas, serves afternoon tea (2pm-4.30pm), with a free art tour on request. Its fine-dining evening menu showcases ingredients from the countryside and coast, such as olive oil-poached cod with jerusalem artichoke, smoked eel and chicken sauce (£26).
Twr y Felin has 41 en suite rooms, all with original artworks (doubles from £97.50 B&B, plus a free dinner when staying two nights, until 31 March). Its Tyddewi suite occupies three floors of the original windmill tower and has panoramic views of Skomer, Grassholm and Ramsey islands, St Brides Bay and the Preseli hills. St Davids Escapes has a range of cosy holiday cottages in St Davids, Solva and Porthgain. Caerfai Bay Caravan and Tent Park is a family-run campsite 300 metres from the beach and less than a mile from the city centre (pitches from £18 a night for two).
The area is served by Haverfordwest railway station, with trains from Milford Haven, Cardiff and Manchester. There are connecting buses to St Davids.
Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Make the trip for …
A regeneration charity has used art to help transform the fortunes of this former mining town. The Auckland
Project is a multi-venue art exhibition in the town centre, whose star attraction is the Spanish Gallery, which opened in 2021 and has a jaw-dropping collection of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish art by Velázquez, El Greco, Murillo and more, housed in a beautifully converted former bank and school.
By contrast, the Mining Art Gallery has a moving display of more than 400 works made by coalminers. Miners’ sketching societies were set up between the first and second world wars and some of the men left the pits to become professional artists, including Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish.
Meanwhile neo-gothic Auckland Castle, on the edge of town, displays in its opulent dining room “the Zurbaráns”, a series of 13 lifesize paintings depicting Jacob and his 12 sons by Francisco de Zurbarán, which have hung there since 1756. The castle’s Bishop Trevor Gallery has a collection including work by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and
George Stubbs, and also puts on temporary exhibitions.
The Bishop Auckland town hall has a contemporary art gallery, currently showing photographic portraits of 90 girls aged 10-12 (until 13 May, free). The 29-metre-high Auckland Tower has a platform with views across town, castle and countryside. A new addition to the Auckland Project, the Faith Museum, opens this autumn.
When to go
Kynren, a spectacular outdoor, live-action history show with a 1,000-strong cast, is staged in Bishop Auckland every Saturday from 29 July to 9 September.
The castle, tower and galleries all have gift shops that stock jewellery, ceramics and prints from local makers, and there’s even a new artist-designed Bishop Auckland tweed.
The 60-hectare Auckland Castle deer park was created more than 800 years ago by the Prince Bishops of Durham as a hunting ground. Today there are three walking routes (up to three miles) through parkland, oak and chestnut trees, and alongside the River Gaunless. Historic features include a Georgian gothic deer house and restored 17th-century walled gardens.
Drinks and dinner
Fifteas, a vintage tearoom on Market Place, has a live singer on Sunday afternoons. The Stanley Jefferson pub is named after comic legend Stan Laurel (born Jefferson), who spent some of his childhood in the town. El Castillo, a tapas restaurant with a northern English twist, opened next to the Spanish Gallery last year. It sources produce from the castle gardens for dishes such as beetroot, potato and courgette tortilla (£6.75).
The Gables Glamping Pods in Escomb, a village just outside the town, are set in pretty gardens and each have their own hot tub (from £130 for two including continental breakfast). There is a pod spa, a horsebox bar and a dining tipi for breakfast, and woodfired pizzas at the weekend. Escomb’s seventh-century church is one of just four complete Anglo-Saxon churches in England. The recently refurbished Park Head Hotel, on the edge of Bishop Auckland, reopened last month with 38 en suite rooms (doubles from £85.50 room-only).
Durham is the nearest railway station, then car hire is useful to explore the wider Vale of Durham.
Find a new British art break every month at theguardian.com/travel
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