Where to live in the UK this summer
December 23, 2013 12:53 PM   Subscribe

My spouse and I are interested in living in the UK next summer. We'd like to stay for three months, and we're looking for ideas on where to live and how to approach organizing this visit.

Ideally, we'd like to find a place where we can be part of the community, rather than just constantly traveling around the country for three months. We plan on taking our bikes or renting bikes there, but otherwise will be relying on public transportation.

We'd like to find a smaller city or town. We're from the U.S., and we've visited London previously.

At this point, we're trying to be as open as possible in our brainstorming, so I apologize in advance if this is overwhelmingly vague.

Tips, hints ... is this a crazy idea? How would you approach this?
posted by foggy out there now to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a recentish survey of bike-friendly towns and cities.

Bristol's an obvious standout, though it depends what you mean by 'smaller'.

Somewhere like Huddersfield might actually work for you. Relatively cheap cost of living, not too far from open countryside (hilly, though) and pretty well connected by rail and bus networks to bigger cities. I'm biased, but I think there's some truth behind the stereotype of the north being more open to visitors.

One caveat: the Tour de France starts in Yorkshire next year, and I suspect that some rentals have been booked for that weekend since the day it was announced. On the other hand, you're looking for a long rental, and you have a chance to see the Tour de France. In Yorkshire.
posted by holgate at 1:23 PM on December 23, 2013

Edinburgh might be worth considering. It's a small city by US standards. August has the Festival and Festival Fringe which are as big as such things get, and are definitely worth experiencing. Normally accommodation is expensive at that time, but I think there's a good chance you could get a deal on some student digs if you are taking it for the whole summer. It has good transport connections, and if you find yourself a decent local pub, you should be able to make some friends.
posted by Jakey at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2013

Sheffield might fit the bill. It's a city that feels more like a lot of little villages stuck together, and it's a stone's throw from some stunning countryside. We have community in spades, and the public transport is reasonable.

You would have to enjoy riding your bike up and down hills.

If you particularly like climbing or beer then this is a no brainer. We have more climbing walls and little breweries than pretty much anywhere else.
posted by emilyw at 2:18 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was actually going to suggest Plymouth before I even looked at that list. Cornwall in general (while a bit hilly in places) is a fantastic area and the coastal access and high tourist friendliness of the area is excellent.

It kind of depends what you want. A norther city like Huddersfield is a very, very different place to a Cornish city. I'd happily cycle around Cornwall until my wheels fell off, but if slow pace isn't for you then I'd consider Bristol or Edinborough.

Bristol has the advantage that you can take the train with your bikes to a lot of the Costwolds pretty easily. But I'm a fan of Southern England more than the North if I'm not in a car (better weather, hills not typically so severe, places closer together and better infrastructure).
posted by Brockles at 2:48 PM on December 23, 2013

What you need to know:

Banking will be difficult particularly if you are American because the UK has a more modern bank system and people make heavy use of direct bank transfers even for casual things like making up for not splitting a dinner bill or paying when a friend buys a concert ticket. You will likely not be able to get a UK bank account for just 3 months. International cash transfers cost about 20 quid or 40usd depending on who is doing the charging.

Make sure your debit card and credit card can handle chip and pin systems. Try and find one will a good deal on exchange rates.

You can score bikes on ebay for far less than the price of shipping them (unless you have really nice bikes). The public transit is good but train travel is extremely expensive unless you book well in advance (months). It's often cheaper to get to ireland, spain or france than london.

Whichever end of the country you stay in you will have to stay overnight to visit the other end. The south is more expensive and more dense with things to do and see. The north has beautiful countryside (Peak district) and the people are friendlier but the cities are far apart in travel terms.

The middle has its own charm (you may have to dig a bit to find it and you might not be able to understand its accent) but is actually quite awkward to travel south from as a lot of trips will require you go to London and then out again as it functions as a bit of a transport hub for trains at least.

Whatever you do, do not think that English camping is camping. It is rather shockingly not. Think less beautiful forested semi private campsites and think more of windswept open fields recently vacated by sheep but not their poop.

You can cycle in Sheffield but you better be damn strong because it has some pretty awesome grades.

If you live on the seaside you better be a heavy sleeper or early riser because seagulls.

Small towns in the country are really small. Like one corner shop, no sidewalks (they call it pavement), and people barreling around in Land Rovers. No real public transit. So don't go too rural.

I liked Bristol. Wales has great castles along the coast and you can visit several around Conwy in one day by train. The Cotswolds are pretty.
posted by srboisvert at 3:58 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Small towns in the country are really small.

Yep. I'm thinking decent-sized market towns that really open up into the countryside very quickly, have a train station with good service, and aren't entirely saturated with daytrippers or holiday cottagers in the summer: Shrewsbury, Keswick, Northallerton, etc., but not Bath or York or Stratford. That might be a bit too small for the OP, and the alternative would be a larger city with distinct villagey neigbourhoods like Sheffield.
posted by holgate at 5:50 PM on December 23, 2013

Cambridge is very beautiful, with lots of history, architecture, museums, cultural stuff etc. The cycling is reasonable - much of the town centre is blocked off to all motor vehicles except buses, and so many people cycle that local drivers are used to it. It's also got some of the best weather in the UK (mostly not raining!). Potential downsides include relatively high cost of living/housing and a limited nightlife - plenty of pubs, but fewer bars and clubs, and other cities have a better live music scene.

If you fancy something similar but a bit bigger, Oxford is also lovely. Both Cambridge and Oxford have good travel links to London - you can get there on the train in around an hour from both if you want some big city fun.

I was also going to suggest Bristol, as it's a very fun place, although pretty wet and hilly (both of which have put me off living there in the past, and would put me off cycling if I did live there).

Personally I wouldn't go for Plymouth, but I'm very biased as I grew up there and hated it. From what I've heard, it's regenerating a lot and the restaurants/cultural stuff have really improved in the last five years. The weather is similar to Bristol - damp and wet more often than not, but it's surrounded by the sea and the moors, which is nice. If you do go for Plymouth, I'd recommend getting an apartment in the Hoe/Barbican/Royal William Yard/city centre areas (Mutley/Stoke/Manadon at a push - the first two are a little more boho, the latter slightly fancier). Don't be tempted by a house in the suburbs, especially if you want to cycle.

I've got direct experience of living in both Cambridge and Plymouth - feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions about either city.
posted by terretu at 12:45 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too was thinking that a market or county town would be a good idea, Shrewsbury, Worcester, Chester, Winchester, Canterbury, Norwich and York would all be nice, have railway stations and are surrounded by pretty countryside.

Oxford or Cambridge are also good picks, I would lean towards Oxford for ease of travel. If you want a larger city then Bristol, Edinburgh and maybe Swansea might suit.

Northern cities and towns like Sheffield and Huddersfield have good access to the countryside but feel more urban and less touristed, which may or may not appeal.
posted by plonkee at 2:38 AM on December 24, 2013

I'll recommend Stroud, which is near where I live.

It is smack in the middle of the Cotswolds and yet doesn't quite belong to it. Stroud is a small town but is more urban, more lively than the surrounding pretty but quieter Cotswold villages.

It is a left-leaning town (Green party mayor) renowned for being full of artists and hippies. It has an award-winning farmers market. The people are really friendly. It makes a good base to explore the area. There is a rail station which zips you over to Gloucester or right into Wales. There is bus links up to Cheltenham or down to small towns like Nailsworth or Tetbury.

Plenty of Cycling and plenty of gorgeous walking in the surrounding Cotswolds.
posted by vacapinta at 2:47 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you fancy something similar but a bit bigger, Oxford is also lovely.

I've never been to Cambridge in the long vac months, but I have spent the summer in Oxford, and I wouldn't recommend it. The city fills with tour groups and visiting scholars on research grants and summer school residents, while the remaining students are generally stressed-out graduates. Even the leafy inner suburbs like Summertown and Headington clear out to some degree. There's a pervasive tetchiness about the place, and not much of the community the OP is looking for.
posted by holgate at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2013

"Smaller than London" covers a lot of ground. I'll concentrate on your requirement to be part of the community, which will be different from place to place.

There are a number of larger cities: Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, .... These are considerably smaller than London, but still large, diverse communities. You'd be able to get involved in things very readily: there are loads of meetup groups, volunteering opportunities, sports teams, religious groups, etc. This sort of place might be great for a three month visit as you could readily engage with lots of organised community activities, and find the kind of sub-communities that suit you. These sorts of places have the advantage that there are lots of people moving there and moving on, so there are lots of people eager to form new social groupings.

Smaller towns - to pick a few random examples, places like Huddersfield, Maidstone, Aberystwyth, Durham, Lancaster, Perth - might in some way seem more authentic. This is the sort of place where the majority of families live in the UK. But, they are harder to break into than the larger places - there will be considerably fewer activities, and the majority of people will be rather wrapped up in their own family life, and might well have grown up locally and have social networks formed from childhood. I overgeneralise, of course, and some good exceptions are given above.

At the far extreme are the larger villages. Some of these have very active communities, with lots of family centred things happening every week. This is the sort of place you want to target if "community" to you means getting to know about things by chatting to the neighbours. These sort of places do lean largely towards the (socially and economically) conservative, which might or might not suit you, and are rarely well served by public transport.

Another thing to bear in mind is that finding somewhere to live for three months will be a challenge. You are staying for too long to stay in "holiday" accommodation but you might struggle to find a normal house/flat that is for rent for less than six months. This might sway you a little towards the larger cities, which are accustomed to people coming for short work contracts and consequently have more appropriate housing options.
posted by Jabberwocky at 10:58 AM on December 24, 2013

Oh and I absolutely recommend a visit to an English seaside resort town for the sheer abandoned decrepitude of them. Blackpool is fun but if you go smaller like Margate you get to see the English equivalent of Detroit ruin porn. In most of England you get no sense of former imperial glory but at the seaside it is there (even the decline actually really started post-empire). They have a sort of beautiful melancholy.
posted by srboisvert at 3:43 PM on December 24, 2013

I'd recommend York. Good cycle network both in and out of the city. The city is beautiful and it's very easy to get into the countryside. You can be in London or Edinburgh in about 2 hours by train. Also Yorkshire folk are lovely! Feel free to get in touch if you'd like to know anything in particular about the area.
posted by chr at 12:07 AM on December 25, 2013

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