Offbeat Britain

Not quite what you'd expect to do in Great Britain.
By Rick Steves

While roaming Great Britain, I've come across some offbeat sights — here are a few of my favorites:

Blackpool

Tacky Blackpool, north England's Coney Island, has a sticky yet genteel charm. You find it best on its three venerable piers. Blackpool's famous piers were originally built for Victorian landlubbers who wanted to go to sea but were afraid of getting seasick. Each of the three amusement piers has a personality. Each is a joy to wander.

The sedate North Pier is most traditional and refreshingly uncluttered. Dance down its empty planks at twilight to the early English rock on its speakers. Its Carousel Bar at the end is great for families, with a free kids' DJ nightly (parents drink good beer while the kids bunny hop and boogie).

The something-for-everyone Central Pier is lots of fun. Ride its great Ferris wheel for the best view in Blackpool (rich photography at twilight, get the operator to spin you as you bottom out). And check out the sadist running the adjacent Waltzer ride — just watch the miserably ecstatic people spinning.

The rollicking South Pier is all rides. From the far end of each pier you can see the natural-gas drilling platforms in the Irish Sea. In the distance, off the North Shore, a floating gaggle of wind turbines capture energy.

Liverpool

About an hour south of Blackpool is Liverpool, with a newly gentrified Albert Dock harborfront featuring the city's top museums, a cheap hotel, vast parking, and plenty of Beatles lore.

John and Paul's boyhood homes are now both restored circa 1950s and open for visits, but if you want to go inside, you have to take a National Trust tour. It's a worthwhile pilgrimage for the faithful. Die-hard fans may want to invest a couple more hours taking the Beatles "Magical Mystery" bus tour, which hits the lads' homes (from the outside), Penny Lane, and so on. For something more extensive, fun, and intimate, consider a half-day minibus Beatles tour.

The "sights" each tour covers are basically houses where the Fab Four grew up, places they performed, and spots made famous by the lyrics of their hits ("Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields," the Eleanor Rigby graveyard, etc.). While perfectly boring to anyone not into the Beatles, fans will enjoy the commentary and seeing the shelter on the roundabout, the fire station with the clean machine, and the barber who shaves another customer.

Beatles fans will want to explore Mathew Street (a 15-minute walk into the center from Albert Dock) to see the famous Cavern Club, the new Cavern Club nearby, a statue of the young John Lennon, and the Beatles Shop at #31.

Lake District

Pencil Museum: Graphite was first discovered centuries ago in Keswick. A hunk of the stuff proved great for marking sheep in the 15th century. In 1832, the first crude Keswick pencil factory opened, and the rest is history (which you can learn all about here). While you can't actually tour the 150-year-old factory where the famous Derwent pencils are made, you can enjoy the smell of thousands of pencils getting sharpened for the first time. The adjacent charming and kid-friendly museum is a good way to pass a rainy hour. Take a look at the "war pencils" made for WWII bomber crews (filled with tiny maps and compasses) and relax for 10 minutes watching the The Humble Pencil video in the theater.

North Wales

Portmeirion: Ten miles southwest of Blaenau Ffestiniog, this "Italian Village" was the lifework of a rich local architect who began building it in 1925. Set idyllically on the coast just beyond the poverty of the slate-mine towns, this flower-filled fantasy is extravagant. Surrounded by lush Welsh greenery and a windswept mudflat at low tide, the village is an artistic glob of palazzo arches, fountains, gardens, and promenades filled with cafés, tacky shops, a hotel, and local tourists who always wanted to go to Italy. Fans of the cultish British 1960s TV series The Prisoner, which was filmed here, will recognize the place.

Conwy: It's easy to miss the Smallest House in Britain on the town harborfront — but don't. It's red, 72 inches wide, 122 inches high, and worth the cheap admission to pop in and listen to the short audioguide tour. (No WC— but it did have a bedpan.)