Some of Britain’s best-kept secrets, whether stately homes with hidden rooms or bars with concealed entrances, come with fascinating histories. Other gems have been rescued from decades of neglect and brought back to life by passionate volunteers.
Nature plays its part too, with ancient woodlands, rivers and coastlines that are a wonderful world away from the congested tourist trails.
When restrictions are lifted, it’ll be our chance to tread lightly into the nation’s less-visited areas and marvel at their magic.
England: Hidden railways and pubs inside telephone boxes
Tunnel vision: Part of the underground network that shifted mail around London for a century
Shipments of smuggled whisky used to arrive regularly at Rumbling Kern beach in Northumberland, thanks to its remoteness. Now this tiny cove near Howick is ripe to be discovered by others. And if you want to linger, and gaze out at Coquet Island, you can rent The Bathing House, an isolated cliff-edge 19th Century cottage that sleeps six, with access by a private track (northumbria-byways.com).
In Devon, the River Erme has rich rewards for explorers. Start at Mothecombe and swim or paddle on to Ivybridge for otherwise inaccessible waterfalls, before reaching the centuries-old forest of Piles Copse and then Dancers Stone Circle and Staldon Stone Row – standing stones that have been in place for thousands of years.
Even in Cornwall, for every packed beach you should be able to find one you might have to yourself, such as Pedn Vounder near Land’s End. It is for the sure-footed only – it involves a tricky descent – and bring a picnic and water so you can enjoy its extraordinary white sand for as long as possible.
Off the tourist trail: Parts of the River Erme in Devon accessible only by taking to the water
Frenchman’s Creek, north of the Helford River, also in Cornwall, still has the same magic that Daphne du Maurier wrote about in her novel of the same name as it snakes inland, blending fresh water with salt-laced smuggling history. The Landmark Trust has a cottage here, sleeping four, reached either by foot or boat (landmarktrust.org.uk).
Inland has plenty of secrets too. You can go off-grid in style at Greenway Bank Country Park in Staffordshire for a medley of woodland, waterfalls and wild swimming (enjoystaffordshire.com).
In Cumbria, the beautifully named Giggle Alley, near Eskdale, has a Japanese garden that was planted in 1914, now lovingly restored (forestryengland.uk). Crook Hall And Gardens in the centre of Durham is a series of gardens surrounding a medieval manor, and you can stay there too (crookhallgardens.co.uk).
Ramsgate Tunnels in Kent was once a 1930s railway, then a Second World War air-raid centre, and is now packed with an echoing sense of history
All that glisters is usually quite well hidden in London. The Bank of England, which stores about 400,000 gold bars in its vaults, may be one of the most secure buildings in the world, but less well known is that inside there’s also a museum where you can try to pick up one of the surprisingly heavy bars. You’ll find the entrance, reminiscent of the imposing doors into Gringotts bank in the Harry Potter films, in Bartholomew Lane (bankofengland.co.uk/museum). But head through a similarly solid-looking door in nearby Chancery Lane and you’ll find Silver Vaults, a collection of 30 subterranean shops selling antique silver (silvervaultslondon.com).
One of London’s most famous buildings even has a secret hidden in plain view. Between the spires of Westminster Abbey, in a space that was closed for 700 years, is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which is now a showcase for the abbey’s oldest treasures (westminster-abbey.org).
The Postal Museum allows visitors to ride through the network of underground trains that took mail across the capital for nearly 100 years (postalmuseum.org).
Other cities have their underground history too. Williamson’s Tunnels in Liverpool were built by a Victorian eccentric for reasons no one can quite understand, but volunteers are continuing to restore them and run tours (williamsontunnels.co.uk) – while Ramsgate Tunnels in Kent was once a 1930s railway, then a Second World War air-raid centre, and is now packed with an echoing sense of history (ramsgatetunnels.org).
We can share aristocratic in-jokes when we visit their stately homes. Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk has a series of hidden doors. The wittiest can be found in the library, which is given away by shelves full of tongue-in-cheek titles that refer to events and people from Oxburgh’s history. Caught short? At Montacute House in Somerset, Lord Curzon built a secret en suite bathroom inside a cupboard (nationaltrust.org.uk).
Cliveden House in Berkshire has seen plenty of scandal, from the Profumo Affair to Second World War intrigue. It’s now one of Britain’s most exclusive and beautiful hotels, and guests can book in for dinner inside its secret cave, once a wine cellar (clivedenhouse.co.uk).
Williamson’s Tunnels in Liverpool were built by a Victorian eccentric for reasons no one can quite understand, but volunteers are continuing to restore them and run tours
The Rockhouse Retreat in Worcestershire is a more modern celebration of British eccentricity. This 750-year-old cave house was abandoned until 2010, when its total refurbishment by a new owner featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Now it comes with all mod cons and sleeps two (therockhouseretreat.co.uk).
In Cornwall, Ropehawn may not be quite as grand as Cliveden, but if you rent it you’ll have your very own, very private part of the coastline. Sleeping eight in considerable luxury, it has its own natural harbour. There’s no road access but you can get here by boat from Fowey (boutique-retreats.co.uk).
Manchester’s Washhouse looks like a laundrette from the outside, but go through a secret door and it’s one of the city’s trendiest bars. And should you have a spillage, the washing machines really do work (the-washhouse.co.uk).
The Rockhouse Retreat in Worcestershire is a 750-year-old cave house that offers all the mod cons for just two guests
When it comes to practicality, it doesn’t get much better than A. G. Hendy’s in Hastings. Hidden in a trendy homeware shop is a top restaurant that foodies adore (aghendy.com).
In London’s Chinatown, you can get some of the city’s most acclaimed cocktails by knocking on a jade-coloured door in Gerrard Street and nipping upstairs to the Opium bar (opiumchinatown.com).
To find Ex-Directory in Liverpool, you’ll have to head into a red telephone box in Vernon Street. Pick up the phone and you’ll get admittance to its underground bar (ex-directory.co.uk).
Scotland: Off road and away from monsters
The turf-roofed Seashell cottage overlooks Loch Sunart and is kitted out with designer furniture
The sheer amount of empty space in Scotland means its hidden worlds can be very large. For example, the beach at Forvie in Aberdeenshire has dunes that seem to rival the Sahara’s, and you’ll rarely come across anyone else at this pristine slice of nature (nature.scot).
Loch Etive gets a fraction of the visitors that Lomond and Ness do because it does not have a road running alongside it (or a resident monster). However, you can get a mesmerising view of its mountains and rivers with Etive Boat Trips (etiveboattrips.co.uk).
Also on the west coast, Loch Sunart isn’t on the tourist track either but is deeply beautiful. Staying at the turf-roofed Seashell will allow you to escape into the landscape too, although the interior is pure aspiration, with floor-to-ceiling windows and designer furniture (cottages-and-castles.co.uk).
At Ayrshire’s 19th Century Glenapp Castle, now one of the grandest hotels in Scotland, the master suites in the turrets have hidden spiral staircases leading down to the gardens
Being hard to get to helps keep places unspoiled. The Knoydart peninsula may be on the mainland but there are no roads, so it is a choice between a ferry and a two-day walk from Kinloch Hourn (visitknoydart.co.uk).
Tucked away on the coast near Inverary, Crarae Gardens is a 50-acre garden filled with Himalayan plants, laid out with Edwardian passion, with streams and waterfalls that the National Trust for Scotland has been restoring since acquiring it in 2001 (nts.org.uk).
Every good castle needs a secret. At Ayrshire’s 19th Century Glenapp Castle, now one of the grandest hotels in Scotland, the master suites in the turrets have hidden spiral staircases leading down to the gardens (glenappcastle.com).
And there’s more well-bred wit at Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh. Not only is there a restaurant in what was once the dungeon, but to access the bar you’ll first have to find the moving bookcase in the library (dalhousiecastle.co.uk).
Book cover: To access the bar in Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh you’ll first have to find the moving bookcase in the library
Glaswegians have always been known for their humour too. The Berkeley Suite is a speakeasy hidden behind the frontage of a pawnbroker (berkeleysuite.com).
Dunbar’s Close in Edinburgh is a series of gardens just off the Royal Mile. Owned by the local council, they’d probably be much more well known if they belonged to a heritage group, but they beautifully balance out the city’s full-on history with a bit of serenity. Just a stone’s-throw away is Edinburgh Vaults. Built in the 18th Century – and once used as subterranean homes for the poor – it is not easy to get access, but Mercat Tours can take you there (mercattours.com).
Across the Forth Bridge in Fife, it can be disconcerting to see signs for the Secret Bunker, but this farmhouse near St Andrews was an innocent-looking cover for a nerve centre for countering a nuclear attack – a reinforced concrete bunker that could sleep up to 300 people (secretbunker.co.uk).
Wales: Private valleys and live like a hobbit
Blaenau Ffestiniog, a former slate quarry, has become the cave-dwelling Bounce Below – a trampoline park like no other
No nation in the UK is better endowed with gorgeous coves and unspoiled coastal villages than Wales. Abercastle in Ceredigion rewards those willing to take the 15-minute walk from the car park with a pristine, uncrowded beach. Explore a bit more and you’ll find neolithic burial chambers and Iron Age forts.
On Anglesey, the owners of the Plas Cadnant Hidden Gardens estate are opening up a series of gardens that have been neglected since the 1940s. There’s holiday cottage accommodation too (plascadnant.co.uk).
Rosebush in Pembrokeshire feels otherworldly. The former quarry is now a freshwater lake, while the community-owned Tafarn Sinc pub has sawdust floors, superb meals and views of the Preseli Hills (tafarnsinc.cymru/eng). At Blaenau Ffestiniog, a former slate quarry has become the cave-dwelling Bounce Below – a trampoline park like no other (zipworld.co.uk).
You can dig in, Hobbit-style, to The Burrow in Powys, a one-bedroom cabin tucked away in the landscape
In Monmouthshire, Llanthony Priory Hotel exists in its own tiny valley within 12th Century ruins. There are no televisions or mobile phone signals and, for an extra sense of seclusion, there’s also a hidden bar (llanthonyprioryhotel.co.uk).
Meanwhile, you can dig in, Hobbit-style, to The Burrow in Powys, a one-bedroom cabin tucked away in the landscape. Also sporting a turf roof, the only clue to its existence from the nearest road is a small chimney (canopyandstars.co.uk).
Northern Ireland: Ethereal splendour
The Gobbins is a spectacular coastal path in County Antrim, which was created by an Irish railway engineer in 1902
Coney Island is nothing like its funfair-minded namesake in New York. This one is on Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. Owned by the National Trust, Coney Island is accessible only by kayak or on a boat trip from a nearby marina, but if you make the effort, you’ll find a completely unspoiled seven-acre wood.
Northern Ireland’s loughs are its ethereal joy, packed with mystery and rarely crowded.
Lough Erne is dotted with islands, including Devenish, which still has traces of its medieval past, including 9th Century raids by Vikings when they ransacked monasteries along its shores. For something more modern, check in to one of the clear Bubble Domes hidden in the woodland at the waterside Finn Lough (finnlough.com).
If you want to go a bit wilder, try The Gobbins. This spectacular coastal path in County Antrim, which was created by an Irish railway engineer in 1902 to attract visitors to the area, fell into decline in the 1950s and was eventually closed for safety reasons. But a few years ago its network of bridges, tunnels and vertigo-inducing pathways was reopened. Hard hats and a sense of fun are obligatory (thegobbinscliffpath.com).