Cornwall. Cumbria. Northumbria. North Yorkshire. Gloucestershire. Seascapes, moors, mountains, lovely stone houses, the houses of poets and the legacy of empires. Wonderful places all. And all over-publicised.
At least compared to these. I’ve chosen these as the most underrated counties to visit in England; and the least written-about. As a Midlander (originally) there’s maybe a bias in favour of those counties folk from the south and north speed through on the motorways. As a Londoner (adopted) I’m always dismayed how little otherwise well-travelled friends know of places just up the road.
1. SHROPSHIRE (OR ‘SALOP’)
Any county that shares its nickname with a French prostitute has be a bit unusual. You could argue that Salop gets a fair bit of attention as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. But how many tourists get beyond Ironbridge? – to a beautiful riverside county town (Shrewsbury), wonderful hills (The Wrekin, Bredins), and idiosyncratic towns (Ludlow, Much Wenlock). Literary interest: the sombre, puzzling very English A Shropshire Lad (A E Houseman).
Some of the UK’s least prepossessing towns surrounded by some of its most beautiful villages. It’s a real crossroads of north and south – Watford Gap is here – as is Watford Locks, a stunningly beautiful stretch of the Grand Union Canal.
Look beyond the stockbroker and footballer mansions to the Chiltern hills – the most beautiful rural area in the southern half of England until you get to Dartmoor. For a tree hugger, especially, if they love wrapping their arms around a rare black beech, the forest and woods at Ashridge and Wendover offer acres of delight. Get there before they put a train line through it.
There is another way to Essex – and another side to it. Find the sweet villages and big coastal skies as the county blends into much more celebrated Suffolk. “Sweet, uneventful countryside,” wrote John Betjeman. And what’s wrong with that?
Has Lincolnshire ever quite got over the stigma of being home to the most boring town in Britain? Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, was given that accolade in 1982. But before Maggie, this was Tennyson’s county, and so inspired some of the finest lyric poetry ever written. The Wold gives the lie to those who think the county is relentlessly flat. Then there’s Skegness – a seaside resort no other country in the world could ever have produced. Even if they wanted to.