Photography: Steve Speller/Alamy
Hidden stories. In 2022, that phrase may bring to mind heated discussions at the National Trust, disputes over controversial statues, and the righteous efforts of activists and academics to write various groups of people back to the shared history of these islands. But perhaps it has a double meaning. I’ve always thought of Britain as somehow hidden: a kind of place with nooks and crannies, its best and most exciting bits often hard to find, and all the more exciting for that.
It goes back to my childhood, I suppose, when we were sometimes taken to climb Rowtor Rocks, a sandstone outcrop on the edge of the Derbyshire village of Birchover. The old story about this collection of carvings and caves is that they are druids, an easy story to believe, as the nearby heathlands are home to several stone circles. But the truth is quite different. These mystical altars and thrones were actually carved in the 18th century, supposedly by a parish priest named Thomas Eyre, and that may be the reason why, even as an adult, I still love climbing them.
It’s unfortunate that while the French consider, say, Deauville in Normandy still terribly chic, we don’t think the same of Scarborough in North Yorkshire. But maybe that doesn’t really matter. Scarborough, like so many places in Britain, is incredibly interesting, a fact that endures even in bad weather (although I would also say that in good weather, Scarborough can be beautiful). That quality is shared with so many places, and it’s something that makes me feel proprietary over those I like, and quite evangelically determined to fool the kind of people who think the countryside begins and ends in the Cotswolds, and that a city break should they can only be taken outside, outside their comfort zones. Go ahead! I think. Open your eyes and your minds.
I want you to see the room in Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house on Coniston Water in the Lake District, where the great critic went mad. In Bamburgh, in Northumberland, of course I hope they gawk at the castle overlooking the best beach in the world. But I think you should also visit the churchyard, where there is a Gothic monument to Grace Darling, her pale stone effigy flanked by a set of stone oars Darling was the daughter of the lighthouse keeper who, in 1838, rowed out to sea with her father to rescue passengers from shipwreck forfarshire, a feat that made her a national heroine. I can’t imagine why anyone would go to Margate without first going to that great and mysterious madness of the Cave of Shells. Crab sandwiches can be eaten later.
In this series, Observer writers recommend their own corners of Britain: here are stone circles and grand houses, gardens and playgrounds, small museums and even tinier art galleries. Some are relatively obscure, others are simply – in the eyes of their fans – gravely underappreciated. For my part, I could have written in at least eight different places, each one more beautiful and more seductive than the last; it was hard to choose.
There’s a lot wrong with Britain right now, but there’s no shortage of – and never will be – fascinating places to visit; so many layers to be peeled off and commented on later on the way home.