It looks like staycations are here to stay, with bookings for UK cottages, campsites and hotels surging well into 2021. If you’re craving something out of the ordinary as an antidote to this year’s lockdown, you’re in luck. Our little island nation is packed with unusual hotels and B&Bs in fabulous locations, from converted fire engines tucked in the mountains to converted prison cells.
Augill Castle, Cumbria
Channel King Arthur at this genuine castle in Cumbria, one of the UK’s most unusual hotels. It’s only an hour from Lancaster, York and Newcastle and a two-hour drive from Manchester and Leeds, but it takes you back in time with its period claw-footed baths, Victorian leaded windows and four-poster beds. You can even hang your clothes in turrets for wardrobes.
Old doesn’t mean uncomfortable. Augill Castle’s 13 bedrooms, suites and cottages are kitted out with a mixture of contemporary and antique furnishings, giving it a boutique-slash-family home vibe. Then there are the communal spaces to retreat to – the Hogwarts-esque Great Hall, the drawing room, the library or the restaurant and bar – before getting lost in 20 acres of grounds.
Plus, this unusual hotel scores 5/5 on our new hotel cleanliness rating, providing extra peace of mind for staycations during COVID-19.
Cleave Treehouse, Devon
‘Nordic meets nature’ at this veritable treehouse, perched six and a half metres above ground and just camouflaged by tangled trees from the organic, working farm that shares its land. Park 200 metres across the field, load your luggage into a wheelbarrow (you might want to bring wellies) and track down the cabin with the help of the farm dogs Bob and Pickles. Once there, you’ll find all the mod cons your childhood treehouse was missing: hot, running water in a fancy bathroom, a super-kingsize mezzanine bed, a wood-burner with unlimited logs and a proper galley kitchen (although we recommend cooking over fire on the Kotlich pot).
The icing on the cake? This quirky stay has a free-standing bathtub on the deck – big enough for two – from which you can gaze across the green canopy of treetops as the sun goes down. Then, prepare for a silent night’s sleep before waking to a breakfast hamper of farm produce: fresh eggs, milk, bacon.
A Room with a View, Brighton
Many of us have spent much of this year craving some sea air and sand between our toes. This unusual hotel is famed for its panoramic views and prime location just opposite Brighton’s famous, Grade II-listed Palace Pier. Balconies face out directly over the sea and Ferris Wheel, where you can take breakfast and plan your outing to the dodgems, trampolines and piles of candy floss awaiting a few minutes’ walk away.
The pier is taking COVID-19 health and safety measures, as is the hotel itself, which scores 5/5 on our new hotel cleanliness rating.
Houseboat Hotels, Sheffield
Permanently moored on Sheffield’s stylish waterfront, Victoria Quays, are these apartment-style houseboats floating on the 200-year-old canal. Each has a shower, self-catering kitchen and flat-screen TVs, plus central heating for a quirky winter stay. Plus, the staff will rustle you up a full English breakfast to be refrigerated on the boat and prepared at your leisure.
The quay itself is a great spot for escaping the bustling city centre and experiencing local culture. Keep an eye out for local events, hire a bike to explore the tow path or browse the street art trail of 13 murals from local artists.
Lion Lodge, Kent
Unusual hotels don’t get much more unusual than this. Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve is Kent’s largest wild animal park and home to 900 animals, including the UK’s biggest herd of black rhino, plus gorillas, tigers, cheetah, leopards and bears. And this luxury lodge is set right in the heart of the lion’s habitat, transporting you right into the African Savannah just two hours outside of London.
Floor-to-ceiling windows on the side of the Manhattan loft-style lodges put guests almost within prowling distance of the pride – made up of lions Adras and Oudrika, and their three cubs. You could be lounging in the open-plan living space or soaking in the tub, with a mere pane of glass separating you from these magnificent beasts. It’s a spectacular way to ethically admire them close-up, while funding the park’s important conservation work.
Cley Windmill, Norfolk
In the early 19th century, this truly unusual hotel was a working windmill – but it was converted into a unique holiday home by a pioneering architect in 1921. The machinery was removed, deconstructed and used to decorate the inside of the mill, which can be your holiday home too in the cosy, Norfolk village of Cley-next-the-Sea.
The Bed & Breakfast boasts nine individually done-out rooms (plus two extra self-catering options), some with four-poster beds, others with imposing oak beams and wood-burners. Book the Stone Room for its private doorway, leading onto the balcony that encircles the mill and giving sweeping views of the marshes beyond.
Lock us up and throw away the key – Malmaison Oxford boutique is one of the UK’s most unusual hotels thanks to its crime-ridden past. Each of its 95 boutiques and suites are housed in the cells of a former prison, still bearing their window bars and original doors. Its metal-clad central atrium, spanning three storeys, retains a jail cell vibe – despite the fact that the rooms are markedly more comfortable before the building’s conversion in 1996, with drench showers and super-fast WiFi.
Don’t miss the neon-lit cocktail bar, in what was once the visitors’ room, and restaurant championing local produce – and it would be a crime not to take your after-dinner drink outside to the former Exercise Yard (garden). The building was originally a Norman castle at the beginning of its many metamorphoses, so take the time to explore the complex’s history.
Spitbank Fort, Portsmouth
One for pushing the boat out (literally), this super quirky stay is a luxury, private island retreat, a short boat trip off Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quay. With nine suites, it’s one to hire out for a special occasion – a wedding, big birthday or even a corporate getaway. Each overnight stay includes champagne on arrival, a luxury buffet lunch, followed by a four-course dinner and a full English breakfast the next morning.
The 19th-century fort is one of three built to protect the coastline from enemy attacks. It’s been a hotel since 2012 and recently starred in a live-streamed concert by Pendulum (lucky them). It’s also featured on Most Haunted – so keep an eye and ear out for spooky happenings if you ever find yourself at this unusual hotel.
The Bar Convent, York
Another quirky stay steeped in history, this 18-room guesthouse is set in a convent founded in 1686 and still in operation today – Britain’s oldest living convent. You can enjoy the beauty of its baroque chapel, elegant entrance hall and Victorian-style garden (not to mention high tea), getting to understand the lives of the sisters before heading into York city centre. You’re well placed to – the hotel is right next door to the train station and history city walls, just a 10-minute walk to all the pubs and eateries.
If you’re on a budget you can book a shared dorm. Plus, this unusual hotel scores 4.5/5 on our new hotel cleanliness rating, making it extra COVID-friendly.
Red Alert Fire Truck, Keswick
If you have secret firefighter ambitions, test them out at this former fire truck, parked up permanently in the Lake District National Park. This quirky stay is perfect for families as it’s fully equipped with children’s firefighter costumes and a hosepipe, plus fire engine-themed bedsteads and a firefighter pole to get you downstairs in a flash. You can even fire up a sauna to keep any winter chill at bay – the accommodation is at the foot of Blencathra, one of the most northerly hills in the Lake District and within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Better still, the patio area is ideal for al fresco dining by day and stargazing by night. The market town of Keswick isn’t far away for stocking up on Kendall Mint cake, and you’re also a stone’s throw from the famous Derwent Pencil Museum. Unusual holiday sorted.
For a truly sumptuous, unusual hotel stay, these fine 16th-century suites are hard to beat. This indulgent option at the foot of Edinburgh Castle has been welcoming guests for the past 50 years, claiming multiple awards along the way for its legendary restaurant. It was named ‘the prettiest restaurant ever’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who should know a thing or two about theatrical surroundings – this secret garden restaurant is all candle light, tapestries and artisan Scottish produce.
As for the lavish rooms, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more romantic post-lockdown retreat. Think red velvet four-poster beds, silk bedspreads, Gothic touchpoints and even a room in a turret, with breathtaking city views. And to top it all off, this quirky stay scores 4.5/5 on our new hotel cleanliness rating.
Coronavirus-related travel restrictions might have dampened some of our travel plans this year, but it’s perfectly possible to get a dose of excitement without leaving the UK. Remember: travel restrictions apply in the UK, too, so always check in with local government restrictions before making plans.
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Quirky staycation FAQs
Yes, but there are restrictions. On 14 October, the UK government introduced a three-tier lockdown system, implementing an alert system for either ‘medium’, ‘high’ and ‘very high’ risk depending on infection rates. Domestic travellers should avoid areas in tier three, where non-essential travel is advised against. Anyone in tier two is advised against travelling to tier one. If your area is in tier one, feel free to travel around other areas in tier one (much of England).
From Friday 23 October, Wales goes into a two-week lockdown, meaning that non-essential travel there is not allowed.
You should take the same precautions against COVID-19 that you take where you live. Do your best to give people two metres of space, wear a mask whenever you use public transport or take a taxi and wash your hands (for 20 seconds) and use hand sanitiser regularly. If you need to cough or sneeze, keep your mask on and cover your face using the crook of your elbow. Then, immediately change your mask, throwing away or bagging up the soiled one to wash later.