Twinkle towns: eight great places in the UK for a festive getaway

Buxton, Derbyshire

This spa town in the Derbyshire hills – the joint highest market town in England (a title shared with Alston in Cumbria) – has beautiful Georgian and Victorian architecture and is surrounded by the Peak District on three sides.

Buildings such as the Crescent (modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath), the Devonshire Dome and the Buxton Opera House look particularly atmospheric lit up for Christmas – and at more than 1,000ft (305 metres) above sea level, there’s a relatively good chance of snow.

Buxton has a wealth of independent boutiques for Christmas shopping. The Cavendish Arcade – converted from the historic hot baths – has shops selling homewares, gifts, clothes and food; it has kept its original features such as tiles and an antique plunge pool, and added a barrel-vaulted stained glass window.

Other indies can be found elsewhere in the historic centre in Lower Buxton; along the high street and Market Place in Higher Buxton; and in The Arches at Hogshaw Mill.

Buxton Opera House
Buxton Opera House

In the run-up to Christmas, these shops are supplemented by markets and fairs. The Pavilion Gardens is hosting an antiques fair (2-3 Dec) and a Christmas fair (9-10 Dec), and there is a Christmas market on the Market Place (9 Dec).

In winter, there are plenty of shows to get visitors in the festive spirit. Buxton opera house always puts on a panto – this year it is Cinderella (8 Dec to 1 Jan) – plus two new year’s ballets (The Nutcracker, 7 Jan; Swan Lake, 8 Jan). The Pavilion Arts Centre has a musical play, Hare & Tortoise, for younger children (16-24 Dec), as well as winter-themed folk and festive films. At the Octagon, there’s a screening of The Snowman with Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers accompanied by a live orchestra (14 Dec). And there is a Christmas concert in St John’s Church, with a brass band and carol singing (22 Dec), titled Brass Christmas (I Gave You My Heart) – what else?

For children who want to meet Father Christmas, Poole’s Cavern is the hot ticket. This vast limestone cave on the edge of town turns into Santa’s grotto – it sells out fast, but at the time of writing there was still availability for the week before Christmas.

There may also be some tickets left for the self-guided Christmas lights walk-through. Failing that, the Pavilion Tea Rooms is doing breakfast with Santa on the first three weekends in December and the landmark Palace hotel (built in 1868) has two Santa Sunday lunches (although adults may prefer its Christmas party nights).

The Crescent buildings.
The Crescent buildings. Photograph: Barry Teutenberg/Alamy

Buxton is within half an hour’s drive of lots more Peak District attractions. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is Chatsworth House, which pulls out all the stops at Christmas. This year the theme is The Palace of Advent, with 24 decorated rooms and a light show transforming the front of the house into a giant Advent calendar. There is also a light and sound trail around the garden; story time with Father Christmas in the farmyard, plus guinea pig cuddling; and Christmas craft sessions (until 7 January).

Where to stay The blowout option is the Crescent, which reopened as a five-star spa hotel in 2020 (doubles from £190 B&B). More affordable and even more historic is the Old Hall hotel, built in 1670 around a 14th-century tower where Mary Queen of Scots was once imprisoned (doubles from £89 B&B).
Rachel Dixon

Totnes, Devon

Train of lights, Totnes.
Train of lights, Totnes. Photograph: Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company

Legend has it that Brutus of Troy first landed in Britain on the banks of the River Dart, striding up what is now Totnes High Street to declare “Here I stand and here I rest, and this good town shall be called Totnes”. Today, Totnes is very much a good town, the poster child for eco-minded, community-centric living with initiatives that run from help-yourself edible gardens to a Mend Assembly for clothing repairs.

Its fiercely independent high street – residents once fought off plans to open a Costa Coffee – runs from the Norman motte-and-bailey castle down to the river. Like the surrounding pretty streets and squares, it is lined with shops for more thoughtful Christmas presents: nature books at the East Gate Bookshop, cult vinyl at record store Drift, candy cane candles at Me and East and handmade clothes at sustainable department store Butterwalk. Stock up for a green Christmas feast at zero waste store Earth.Food.Love or Ben’s Farm Shop (of veg-box-famous Riverford Farm).

The Tuesday Totnes Christmas Markets (5, 12, 19 Dec, 3-9pm) fill the town with even more stalls and festive fun and games, including a vintage carousel, gnome trail and Father Christmas for the kids, as well as mulled cider, morris dancing and a merry ukulele singalong.

Elsewhere, new event space The Albatross is running a festive willow garland workshop (6 Dec) – stop by other days (Tuesday to Saturday) to catch the Almond Thief Bakery pop-up and their moreish mince pies. Or cosy up in the deep sofas at dinky, retro Totnes Cinema for its Christmas classic screenings; head even further back in time with Bizarre Rituals’ Deep and Crisp and Even medieval-themed rave at The Barrel House Ballroom on 23 December.

The Bull Inn, Totnes, Devon
The Bull Inn offers ‘ethical’ accommodation. Photograph: Rachel Hoile

Just outside of town, arty learning hub the Dartington Trust has been a catalyst in shaping Totnes’s progressive outlook, founded in 1925 by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst as a kind of rural incubator for revolutionary thinkers. The public are welcome to roam the sculpture-dotted Grade II-listed gardens (find the 1,500-year-old yew tree in the churchyard), walking trails around the estate and this winter, the Great Hall Craft Fair (2-3 Dec) stocked by local makers.

Santa switches his sleigh for a steam engine onboard The Polar Express (until 23 Dec) which pulls out from nearby Buckfastleigh, while the dazzling Train of Lights (until 30 Dec) chugs the line from coastal Paignton to Kingswear. On the way back into Totnes, pick up a Christmas Eve tipple to leave out for the main man at Sandridge Barton winery – try the spritzy Figgie Daniel Col Fondo which donates a portion of sales to the Dartmoor Preservation Association.

Where to stay Continue the green theme by bedding down on an organic Dartmoor wool mattress at ethical pub with rooms The Bull Inn (doubles from £120 B&B, with 10% discount if you arrive in Totnes by train).
Fiona Kerr

Hereford

Hereford’s Wye Bridge and cathedral.
Hereford’s Wye Bridge and cathedral. Photograph: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

When Santa arrives in Hereford this Christmas he will be riding on a tractor, not a sleigh. The annual Christmas tractor run is one of the highlights of Hereford’s festive calendar. Locals turn out to line the route as a convoy of illuminated farm vehicles weaves through the streets of the town and out into the surrounding villages to raise money for We Are Farming Minds, a charity supporting mental health awareness in the rural community (9 Dec).

Hereford may be a cathedral city but its heart is firmly rooted in its agricultural surroundings. This is reflected in the great choice of local produce on offer in the town’s many independent shops and cafes. Whether it’s a hamper of local cheeses from the Mousetrap Cheese Shop or a bottle of Black Mountain gin from the family-run Secret Bottle Shop, this is the perfect place to stock up the Christmas larder or to buy a gift for the foodie in your life.

Cheese on display at the Mousetrap.
Cheese on display at the Mousetrap. Photograph: PR

With its independent retailers, cafes and one-off boutiques decked out in twinkling lights, Church Street is the perfect antidote to soulless shopping malls. On 16 December, 40 stallholders will set up shop inside Hereford Cathedral for its annual Christmas fair, featuring homemade produce, handcrafted items and, of course, carol-singing. The cathedral will also be the venue for an atmospheric Christmas Music by Candlelight concert by the Ex Cathedra choir (6 Dec, booking essential, tickets from £5).

Festive overload? Head to the Black & White House Museum in a beautiful Jacobean timber-framed house, which will be bringing to life the story of the Christmas Ban, when parliament tried to put a stop to Christmas festivities in the mid-17th century (18 Dec).
Where to stay The Castle House Hotel (doubles from £170 B&B) is a cosseting boutique hotel with 24 rooms, close to the cathedral.
Joanne O’Connor

Cambridge

The River Cam, Clare and Kings Colleges.
The River Cam, Clare and King’s Colleges. Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

Carols From King’s, broadcast by the BBC from King’s College Chapel every Christmas Eve is, for many of us, the soundtrack to last-minute present-wrapping and turkey stuffing, so it’s no surprise to learn Cambridge takes its Christmas festivities seriously.

The buildup begins in earnest with the arrival of the Christmas market at City Hall, where you’ll find about 60 stalls selling gifts, crafts and food, accompanied by carol singers, bell ringers and a brass band (9-10 Dec). The narrow city centre streets are home to dozens of independent shops. Opposite Trinity College you’ll find Cambridge institution Heffer’s, a one-stop shop for books, stationery, music and a brilliant selection of board games. Podarok in Bene’t Street is the place to head for charming felt tree decorations and stocking fillers, while the gift shop at Kettle’s Yard deserves special mention for its selection of inspiring art books and craft kits for adults and children. Stock up on Christmas cheese, charcuterie and chutneys at the Cambridge Cheese Company in All Saints Passage or pick up an authentic Italian panettone at Limoncello deli.

When the light fades, head for Cambridge University Botanic Garden which has illuminated its fountain, lakes, glasshouses and ancient trees for its first ever lights trail this winter (selected dates until 22 Dec, adult £20.35, child £13.20, under-3s free).

King’s College Choir rehearses for a Christmas Eve service.
King’s College Choir rehearses for a Christmas Eve service. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Similar after-dark events will also be taking place at two nearby National Trust-owned properties: Anglesey Abbey Gardens will conjure up a winter wonderland with sculptures, songs and projections (weekends until 10 Dec, adults £20, child £15.50, under-5s free), while Wimpole Hall will be dressed in its Christmas finery with festive fare in the cafe, carols in the stable, paper-chain making and an illuminated trail through the grounds (until 31 Dec, adult £19, child £14.50).

Unless you have a connection to the college, tickets for the Christmas Eve carol service in the gothic splendour of King’s College Chapel are harder to come by than a room at the proverbial inn (you need to enter a ballot or be prepared to start queueing early for a standby on the day). For an atmospheric alternative, the 12th-century Leper Chapel, also known as the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, offers an intimate candlelit service in one of the oldest surviving buildings in Cambridge, with the added bonus of mulled wine and mince pies (10 Dec, 4pm and 5pm. Free, but booking essential).

Alternatively, for the ultimate Cambridge Christmas experience, you can join the Choir from St John the Evangelist on a chauffeured punt as they glide along the College backs singing carols (9 Dec, 2.15pm). Tickets for the floating carol service, which is run by Let’s Go Punting and the Traditional Punting Company and which raises funds for a different charity each year, are bound to sell out quickly, but if you’re near the river on the afternoon of 9 December, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse as they punt by.
Where to stay Jesus College’s West Court has doubles with shared bathrooms from £137 B&B. JO’C

Conwy

Conwy High Street Conwy Winterfest
A medieval procession during Conwy’s Winterfest. Photograph: Hollie Harmsworth/Conwy County Borough Council (Follow Films)

Conwy rivals Chester and York for the title of Britain’s best-preserved medieval town, and it is magical at Christmas. Visitors can walk the town walls for the best views of the streets, backdropped by Conwy Castle and in the shadow of Eryri (Snowdonia). The unbroken fortifications stretch for three-quarters of a mile, with 21 towers and three original gateways (free entry). It is also possible to walk a complete circuit around the Unesco-listed castle’s battlements (adult £11.70, child £8.20, under-fives free, open daily in winter except 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan).

On 9 December, Conwy returns to its medieval roots with Winterfest. A jester leads a parade through town, followed by armoured knights carrying blazing torches. Entertainment comes from sword fighters, fire performers, morris dancers, drummers and singers; there is street food such as roast chestnuts, and late-night shopping. Speaking of shopping, 92.5% of Conwy’s shops are independents with great Christmas present potential, including the Yesteryears toy emporium, Vinomondo fine wines and the Knight Shop – a historical gift shop with 40 types of sword.

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St Mary’s church.
St Mary’s church. Photograph: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Christmas Eve is another big day of celebration, with carol singing in Lancaster Square, an appearance from Siôn Corn (Santa Claus) and his sleigh on the castle walls and a fireworks display. Children can also meet Santa at the Jester’s Tower, a cafe in a tower built for Edward I more than 700 years ago. The cafe’s year-round museum of curiosities, the Secret Repository, is being transformed into a grotto (weekends until 24 Dec).

There is a Christmas tree festival in St Mary’s church (free, 4-9 Dec), with trees decorated by local schools, groups and businesses, and a carol concert on 7 December. At the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art, the annual Winter Show spotlights seasonal paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and textiles by artists with a connection to Wales (free, to 30 Dec).

Llandudno, a neighbouring seaside resort, also has a packed programme for Christmas, including a parade, a 5km Santa Dash and Peter Pan panto. Zip World Betws-y-Coed, an attraction half an hour’s drive away, has a new Festive Forest this Christmas. It includes a Polar Coaster Express ride, Snowtop Nets in the woods and a tipi bar.

Where to stay The Castle Hotel is a 19th-century coaching inn, built on the site of a Cistercian abbey, within the town walls. There are 29 rooms, including one with a four-poster bed, plus a bar, restaurant and treatment room (doubles from £140). During December, the hotel is serving festive afternoon tea (£21.95) and Christmas dinner (three courses from £32). RD

Dunkeld, Perth and Kinross

The Taybank Hotel.
The Taybank Hotel

With carols in a romantic, ruined cathedral and a candlelit Christmas shopping trail, Dunkeld ticks a lot of tinsel-trimmed boxes.

The train trundling north from Edinburgh to the Scottish Highlands stops at the quaint Victorian station of Dunkeld & Birnam, a pair of pretty Perthshire villages linked by one railway station – and separated by Scotland’s longest river, the Tay, forded by a handsome early 19th-century Thomas Telford bridge.

Beneath pine tree-clad, frost-fringed hills, on the banks of a rushing river, it’s a Christmas card scene in the making. It’s hard to believe that dinky Dunkeld, with its stately medieval cathedral and historic market cross, ringed by whitewashed cottages (restored by National Trust for Scotland), was once the country’s capital. In the ninth century the first king of Alba, Kenneth MacAlpin, established his royal seat here. Across the water, low-key Birnam’s claim to fame is literary; the Birnam Oak is the last tree left from the woods name-checked by Shakespeare in Macbeth.

Dunkeld High Street is lined with small, independent stores. As well as a traditional butcher, baker and smoked salmon-maker, there are galleries, vintage and antique shops and artisan crafts, cosy cafes, delis and wine merchants. On 8 December the annual candlelit late-night shopping trail will be laced with mulled wine and mince pies. Browse local ceramics, linens and homeware at By Nova, a pared-back lifestyle store, or pick up a cookery book by Great British Bake Off semi-finalist Flora Shedden in her Scandi-chic Aran Bakery.

The Scottish Deli has a good range of local gins.
The Scottish Deli has a good range of local gins. Photograph: Simon RB Brown/Alamy

Just around the corner, you’ll find artisan grocer Lòn and Kiln Creative, home of local potter Ellen Macfarlane, who runs pottery workshops in the Birnam Arts Centre. The Scottish Deli is an Aladdin’s cave of stocking fillers (including a good range of local gins), as is the winter pop-up market on the terrace of legendary pub the Taybank (all Christmas wreaths and sheepskins).

Once owned by Dougie MacLean, who wrote the Scottish folk ballad anthem Caledonia in 1977, the pub is famous for its live music and has the festive season wrapped up. There are seasonal specials in the restaurant and the cosy bar plays host to mulled wine and cider-fuelled jamming sessions every Wednesday and Thursday (and carols around the piano on Christmas Eve).

The wood-fired cedar-clad Braan sauna, which current Taybank owner Fraser Potter built down by the river, is sure to be this season’s hottest hangout (quite literally). With a fire pit and cold water plunge pool and views of mist-cloaked Birnam hill, it’s named after the nearby River Braan, which flows from Glen Quaich through a deep gorge and past giant Douglas firs before meeting the Tay just opposite the Taybank.

Dunkeld & Birnam’s Santa Day is another annual highlight (9 Dec). Father Christmas will be in his Grotto in the drill hall and there will be Christmas market stalls at St Ninian’s Gardens, along with festive music from the Perthshire Brass band. At lunchtime Santa will clamber on to his sleigh for the reindeer parade, the best Christmas shop window will be judged and, as the light fades, carols will ring out from the cathedral.
Where to stay The Taybank (doubles from £190 B&B). Sauna sessions can be booked until late March.
Lucy Gillmore

Arundel, West Sussex

Arundel Castle from the banks of the River Arun.
Arundel Castle from the banks of the River Arun. Photograph: Andrew Ray/Alamy

Watched over by its imposing castle, the South Downs town of Arundel is charming any time of year but never more so than when the Christmas lights are twinkling and local brass bands and choirs are belting out carols in the square.

With its antique shops, art galleries and independent stores, Tarrant Street is the place to head for unusual Christmas gifts. Shop for vinyl, jewellery and retro clothing in The Old Print Works, a beautiful Victorian arcade which was originally home to the West Sussex Gazette. Nineveh Chapel is a converted 19th-century church where you’ll find antiques, second-hand books, collectables and crafts. Don’t miss Pots & Posies, for gorgeous homewares, handmade soaps, candles and beautifully scented Himalayan bath salts.

Pallant of Arundel champions small food producers and boasts one of the best cheese counters in Sussex, while Galerie Bon Bon is the place to head for handmade chocolates and 25 different varieties of fudge. Arundel Farmers Market comes to town every third Saturday of the month but on 16 December will have a festive flavour with stalls serving roast chestnuts and mulled wine.

Arundel has several fine old antiques shops.
Arundel has several fine old antiques shops. Photograph: Nigel Cull

If you’re looking to stock up the wine cellar ahead of the party season, there are no less than 12 wineries within easy reach of Arundel, the chalky soil of West Sussex providing the ideal terroir for crisp, sparkling wines. Sample local tipples in the high street tasting rooms of Digby winery or take a tour at a nearby vineyard such as Albourne Estate, which will be running its popular Christmas winetasting weekends, allowing you to try before you buy (2-3, 9-10 Dec, 11am-5pm).

For younger visitors, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre will be running its popular Sail to Santa events (2-3, 9-10 Dec, child £13, adult £3 plus regular admission) with elf-powered boats taking families for a gentle ride through the reedbeds for a visit to Father Christmas. Slots sell out quickly so if you’ve missed the boat, you can also catch the man in red in his grotto at the Arundel Museum (weekends until 17 Dec and Fri 22 Dec, 12-3pm, no booking required, child £5). On 9 December there will be an evening of festive choral music and traditional carols within the gorgeous gothic surrounds of Arundel Cathedral (adult £12, child £6).

Too many mince pies? The South Downs beckon with plenty of bracing walks to choose from, including a beautiful 12-mile circular walk from the town centre which takes in the pretty thatched village of Amberley.

Where to stay The Swan (doubles from £85 B&B) is a traditional pub in the centre with 14 cosy guest rooms. JO’C

Malton, North Yorkshire

Castle Howard is a hub of Christmas events.
Castle Howard is a hub of Christmas events. Photograph: Charlotte Graham

Between the rolling chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds and the wild North York Moors, the market town of Malton has a curiously seasonal claim to fame. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens regularly visited his friend, solicitor Charles Smithson, who had his offices on Malton’s Chancery Lane, which the writer used as the model for Scrooge’s counting room in A Christmas Carol. It’s a connection that the Be Amazing Arts company runs with in its immersive theatre performance of the Christmas Ghost Story (5-24 Dec), following an actor playing Dickens around town as he recounts his tale. Tickets (£33.75) include canapes from the Cooks Place, and a warm winter drink to toast to Christmas Future.

In recent years Malton has reinvented itself as “Yorkshire’s food capital” – its bunting-strung market (second Saturday of every month) is packed with local bakers and brewers, its handsome streets and old stable yards filled with small-batch gin producers and artisan coffee shops. Pick up a bottle of vanilla spice gin at Rare Bird Distillery or yorkshire pudding beer from Malton Brewery.

On the corner of Finkle Street and Market Place, Malton Relish has won accolades for its Christmas pudding made with dried figs soaked in local beer. Leave space for mince pie and mulled wine macaroons at Florian Poirot, Talbot Yard, and snowmen truffles at the Patisserie Malton on nearby Saville Street.

There are non-edibles too: beautifully utilitarian homewares at Hare and Wilde, natural soap bars at Cosy Cottage Soap Company, even a cricket bat from Nixon Cricket, hand-shaped from clefts of willow by owner Nick. And the Malton Christmas festival (2-3 Dec) adds even more festive flavour to the mix, with producer stalls and street food, alongside choirs, brass bands, an Emerald Elf show and Santa’s Grotto.

Hare and Wilde in Malton, North Yorkshire
Hare and Wilde

Elsewhere, there are gingerbread house workshops (8 Dec, The Patisserie) and a bake along story time with Father Christmas (3-4pm, 23 Dec, The Cooks Place). You’ll also find Santa on board the North Yorkshire Moors railway, just 15 minutes away in Pickering (until 24 Dec).

Theatrically grand Castle Howard – star of Brideshead Revisited and Bridgerton – really amps up the drama at Christmas, this year with a fantastical Neverland theme (until 2 January). The rooms are filled with fairies, mermaids and pirates, installations and soundscapes to transport lost boys and girls. Don’t miss the bauble emporium, Santa’s Grotto show, and marshmallow toasting and Yorkshire turkey rolls in the courtyard.

Where to stay The Talbot (doubles from 132 B&B) is a 17th-century coaching inn overlooking fields and meadows down to the River Derwent. It had a refresh a few years ago, injecting rich colour and roll top baths in the rooms, to go with the fireside pints and Yorkshire roasts in the bar and restaurant. FK



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