British Tourism Q&A: Travel Writer Donald Strachan

British tourism is a big topic in 2012. With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next month, the Olympics in July and August, and the Paralympics in August and September, the United Kingdom is under some serious scrutiny, in particular as a national brand and a tourist destination.

Here I ask Donald Strachan, travel journalist, guidebook writer and all around Twitter delight, some questions about the current state of tourism in the UK. (Be sure to check out my earlier Q&A on the state of tourism in Britain with Sally Shalam.)

Q: Donald Strachan, define your occupation.

A: I’m a travel journalist, an advice columnist for the Sunday Telegraph focusing on consumer travel technology, and a guidebook writer for Frommer’s specializing in England, Wales, and Italy. I’ve also authored content for iPhone apps to Florence and Turin, and am working on some new self-published eBooks.

Q: As a travel writer, how did you come to specialize on the UK?

A: About eight years ago I decided that I didn’t want to continue to fly, and I haven’t been on an airplane since. That choice has narrowed the field down a little, obviously. I also think that there’s so much within an hour’s journey of anyone’s home that they will never discover, even if they live to be 80. I think I made the right decision. I love the areas I know, and love having the time to explore them in more depth, without the lure of the next tropical island to distract me.

Q: How would you assess the state of tourism marketing in the UK – strengths, weaknesses?

A: To be honest, I pay very little attention to this. Marketing a destination is (necessarily, I guess) such a broad-brush activity, and yet what really interests people about a place is usually specific and fine-grained. I’ve always wanted to go to Buenos Aires, because I remember the tickertape raining down at the 1978 World Cup Final. It formed such a strong impression. How do you market to that?

The UK advertisements I have seen seem to stick to the clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a cliché, in itself; so many of our travel goals, all this bucket-list stuff, it’s basically a list of clichés. But as a specialist, I guess, it’s my job to dig a bit deeper, to be respectful to those clichés a visitor wants to experience while gently nudging her or him toward something they haven’t thought of. I rarely see anything that picks out the nuances of Britain, that really makes it obvious how different, say, Suffolk is from Somerset.Q: What are the strengths of the British tourist product, for lack of a better term?

A: Wow, that’s a big question, and any answer I’ll give is definitely tainted by my own interests. One thing I will say is this: if you’re just box-checking when you design your itinerary around the country, London, Oxford, maybe York or Chester or Stratford, then north to Edinburgh, something like that, you’re missing some of the best the UK has to offer.

So, those strengths? Landscape is an obvious one. It’s no coincidence that our greatest artists, Turner and Constable, were great landscape painters. Architecture, especially Gothic architecture. Regarding hotels, I love the fact that the hotel scene here isn’t dominated by chains. For all but business travelers, it’s all about small hoteliers and B&Bs.

There are rural corners like the hamstone villages of Somerset or the Cotswolds that are wrapped up in the joy of small place with a single street, some thatched cottages, and the village pub. Which brings me to ale. There’s so much happening around microbrewing and brewpubs, craft ales in the cities and countryside, so take some time to explore that too. You wouldn’t visit France without a spot of wine tasting, after all. And food. The food here, the produce, is way beyond almost everywhere else I visit. (I’m excluding Italy.) The idea that British food is rotten is massively inaccurate these days.

Museums and culture: it’s easy to forget all the in-destination incidentals when you’re planning, but a long weekend museum surfing in most big cities could easily come to $100. Not in the UK, where all the state museums are free, and those state museums are pretty much the best museums there are, in London especially. I doubt there’s a destination anywhere that offers as much culture for your buck.

Q: Where do you like to travel in the UK?

A: I’ve lived in London for 20 years, most of that time in Hackney, so while there are other cities that I like (Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield), there are few that I love. An exception would be Glasgow, where I was born. I like Dorset, especially the coast from Lyme to Purbeck. Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, is another spot I love for the coastal scenery. And rural south Somerset.

Q: Regionally speaking, where can visitors find good value and low general costs?

A: It’s worth being very careful. “Low costs” and “good value” are not always, perhaps not often, the same thing. To take an example: rural Wales has some of the best eating in Britain, with exceptional cooking of the local produce offering way better value than the equivalent in southeast England. But it isn’t what you’d call “low cost.” In fact, I think you have to be especially careful about “low cost” eating here. Pay just a little more and you’ll find you’re getting a lot better; you’re paying for a supplier who knows exactly where his meat comes from, for example.

Q: Good points, Donald, but I’d really love for you to recommend some regions that are less expensive than London.

A: More generally, pretty much everything’s cheaper away from London. Less heralded spots worth checking out include rural Carmarthenshire, South Wales, and the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales, where the walking is superb. Dorset and Somerset are cheaper than Devon and Cornwall. And that little corner of Britain where Dorset, Somerset and Devon meet – it is idyllic.

Q: Where are you off to next?

A: The Cotswolds, by rail, in July. And probably Dorset again before then; it’s one of the areas I specialize in for Frommer’s and there’s a couple of new places I’d like to check out as soon as possible.

Nudists Cause Controversy On Welsh Beach

Cefn Sidan beach in Pembrey, Wales, is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing controversy over nudists in the UK.

The local government says it has received numerous complaints about bathers baring all at the eight-mile-long beach. The spot is a favorite for families and attracts more than a million visitors a year, most of who wear bathing suits. There have been complaints about nudists “approaching” non-nudists, and also reports of inappropriate behavior.

The local government has put up signs forbidding nudity and threatens to prosecute violators. However, nudist organizations have pointed out that being naked in public is not illegal in the UK and that the local council’s ruling is thus illegal.

Nudism is a legal gray area in the UK. While simply getting naked isn’t a criminal offense, nudists have been prosecuted for using their nudity “to harass, alarm or distress others.” This rule is vague enough to be applied to a wide range of cases and of course depends on the sensitivity of the person making the complaint.

Nudism seems to cause controversy every year in the UK. One nudist hiker in Scotland has been jailed repeatedly, with his latest sentence being for 21 months. A nudist B&B in Staffordshire, England, has caused many neighbors to complain.

What do you think of nudism in public places? Should it be allowed? Would you go to a nude beach? Tell us what you think in the comments section!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This photo actually shows Haulover Beach, an official nudist beach in Florida.

British Brewery Campaigning To Save Traditional Pubs

I’ve talked before here on Gadling about how British pubs are in danger. In 2011, an average of 14 per week shut down, and the trend is continuing. This is due to a number of factors, including the economic downturn, competition from cheap supermarket alcohol and ever-increasing taxes.

Now Wychwood Brewery has started an online petition to “Stop the Beer Duty Escalator.” Taxes on beer go up annually at 2 percent above the rate of inflation. The petition says this adds “considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities” and asks for this practice to stop.

“Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer,” the petition states. In a company statement, Wychwood Brewery said, “Imagine a world without pubs. Imagine communities with no heart. Imagine thousands of livelihoods affected.”

While this sounds like exaggeration, anyone who has lived in the UK for any length of time knows that it isn’t. Pubs really are a cornerstone to the national culture. The majority of people are regular pub goers, either for a quick pint of real ale or to watch a game or to enjoy a Sunday roast. They’re also a great way for tourists to experience the country and meet locals. The withering of that culture is reducing quality of life. I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford and every year I see prices go up and pubs close. It’s depressing.

Wychwood is aiming for 100,000 signatures, which will force the petition to be heard in the House of Commons. So far they have 27,517. If you’re a resident of the UK, I say sign this petition. You’ll be fighting for one of the nation’s cultural institutions and helping independent businesses.

[Photo courtesy Andrès Moreno]

Britain’s Heritage Cities are ready for visitors

Thanks to the London Olympics, which will open on July 27, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, 2012 is expected to be a boom year for tourism in Great Britain. In the hopes of capitalizing on this trend, six historic cities have teamed up to get noticed by travelers intent on venturing beyond the English capital.

Bath, Carlisle, Chester, Oxford, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and York, Britain’s so-called Heritage Cities, are trying to lure tourists with eight itineraries that explore their shared history. The Literary, Visual and Performing Arts tour, for example, takes in Oxford, Bath, and Stratford with stops at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Bodleian Library, the model for Hogwarts Library in the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Meanwhile, travelers interested in England’s North Country may want to follow the Great Castles, Stately Homes, and Gardens tour, which visits three countries (England, Wales, and Scotland) and three Heritage Cities (Carlisle, Chester, and York), and includes stops at a 12th century castle, the homes of Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth, and sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

Beyond exploring these cities in a package tour, Britain’s Heritage Cities website offers a glimpse of the top 10 attractions in each town. Did you know that York is considered the most haunted city in Europe? Or, that the city of Chester still carries on the medieval tradition of town criers? The most oh-so-British traditions and folklore live on in these Heritage Cities, so it may be worth checking them out while the past is still present.


Weird monument in Wales has interesting history

If you’re staying in Aberystwyth, Wales, you can see it from pretty much everywhere–a tall tower on a bluff to the south of town. At first it’s hard to see what it is, so my wife, five-year-old son and I decided to walk there and have a look.

It was an easy two or three kilometers from town through a wooded trail up a fairly steep slope. What greeted us once we made it through the trees was rather surprising–a giant stone cannon pointing at the sky. The bluff gave a commanding view of the town, a horse racing track, and the open sea. A little plaque declared that this was a monument to the Duke of Wellington, who beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo with some timely help from the Germans. It was erected c. 1852.

But. . .why? What’s the connection between a Welsh seaside report and one of the British Empire’s greatest heroes? There isn’t even a statue of the Duke duking it out with the undersized French dictator. From town it looked for all the world like the smokestack of some Victorian factory.

The owners of our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, told us the tale. It’s called the Derry Ormond Tower, after the local landowner who first came up with the idea of the tower. Ormond was a veteran of Waterloo and wanted to honor the general he served under.

Originally the cannon was supposed to serve as the base for a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse, looking suitably imperious. Money ran out, however, and some say the statue languished in a stonemason’s yard in Cardiff until someone with deeper pockets took it off their hands.

So Aberystwyth is left with half a monument. Ah well, at least the view was nice.

What’s your favorite odd monument? Tell us about it in the comments section!