WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF TAKING A HOLIDAY ABROAD BEING UNCERTAIN TO SAY THE LEAST, NIGEL ROBINSON TAKES A LOOK AT SOME OF THE BEST PLACES IN THE UK FOR A GAY STAYCATION
Birmingham has come a long way from its industrial beginnings and has been named one of the best places to live by the Sunday Times. The second largest city in Britain, it has more canals than Venice, and a summer afternoon’s strolling along them towards the hub of the canal network in Gas Street basin, with its colourful narrowboats, trendy cafes and restaurants makes a welcome respite from big city life. It’s also a surprisingly verdant place with plenty of parks and green spaces dotted around the city. Birmingham is the birthplace of the balti which was invented here during the 1970s, when the city’s Pakistani residents created a fusion dish more appealing to western tastes. A meal in the Balti Triangle around Ladypool Road is a must.
For a culture fix, try the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (birminghammuseums.org.uk) which has the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the country, or the Ikon Gallery (ikongallery. org) for its internationally acclaimed collection of contemporary art. The Custard Factory on Gibb Street is the heart of Birmingham’s creative community and is where you’ll find a regular flea market, vintage shops, several groovy coffee shops and bars.
To flex the Pink Pound, head on down to the Bullring (bullring.co.uk), the UK’s busiest shopping centre with hundreds of shops and restaurants including one of only three Selfridges outside London. If you’ve got the cash for flash then the Jewellery Quarter (jewelleryquarter.net) is the place to go. It’s home to more than 100 jewellery shops and diamond dealers, as well as classy bars and restaurants. Jewellers have been trading in this area since the 18th century and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (birminghammuseums.org.uk/jewellery) is well worth a visit.
THE GAY STUFF
Concentrated around Hurst Street, Birmingham has a hectic and friendly LGBTQ+ scene, with one of the best venues being oldie but goldie the Nightingale (nightingaleclub.co.uk). It’s Birmingham’s oldest and largest LGBTQ+ spot playing crowd-friendly music over three floors. The Fox (thefoxbar.co.uk) describes itself as “a little gay bar with a big heart” and is a particular favourite with lesbians, while the Loft (theloftbrum.co.uk) serves cocktails, food and craft beers to a stylish thirtysomething crowd.
Think brash, bold, bawdy, boozy and brilliant, and there you have the pulling power of Blackpool, served up on a plate of fish and chips with the obligatory mushy peas. If you want a quiet little getaway then try somewhere else. Making no attempt at subtlety, the UK’s most popular seaside resort is still pulling the tourists in, as well as the hen and stag parties at the weekend, which can sometimes turn the centre of town into an outtake from one of the Mad Max movies. But that’s part of the fun and charm of Blackpool, and with its three piers, gypsy fortune tellers along its famous Golden Mile, candy floss and kiss-me-quick hats, and more sticks of Blackpool rock than is good for your pearly-whites, sophisticated it is not and it’s probably all the better for it.
The Pleasure Beach (blackpoolpleasurebeach.com) is one of the biggest theme parks in Europe with over 30 white-knuckle roller coasters and rides, plus restaurants, bars and an ice-skating arena. Just up the Golden Mile, the landmark Tower (theblackpooltower. com), Blackpool’s answer to that other one in Paris, is a major entertainment venue, home to the legendary Tower Ballroom and its mighty Wurlitzer, the Tower Circus, a mini golf course, and even the Tower Dungeon. Ride the lift to the top of the Tower and on a clear day you can see, if not forever, at least as far as the Lake District, North Wales and the Isle of Man. And when the nights get darker then Blackpool turns on its legendary Illuminations, a million light bulbs lighting up 10 kilometers of the seafront. This year the world’s greatest free light show runs from 3 September to 3 January 2022.
THE GAY STUFF
The gay quarter is centered on the Talbot Square area in the north of the town, where no staycation is complete without a visit to burlesque show Funny Girls, hosted by Betty Legs Diamond (funnygirlsshow.co.uk). Other homo hot spots include long-running and recently refurbished The Flying Handbag (on Queen Street, of course, and only in Blackpool would a gay bar get away with a name like that), and new kid on the block, its next-door neighbour Kaos (kaosbar.co.uk).
Pride 2021: 5 June • Go to: prideblackpool.co.uk • Tourist info: visitblackpool.com
WHY BLETCHLEY PARK?
Now the face of the new £50 banknote, gay codebreaker Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and broke the Germans’ Enigma Code, which, historians estimate, shortened the war by as much as two years, and saved many millions of lives in the process. Turing was gay when homosexual acts were illegal. He was convicted of gross indecency and committed suicide. He received a posthumous pardon in 2013.
Bletchley Park is now open to the public, with a series of exhibitions and huts rebuilt as they would have appeared when Turing was working there. The National Museum of Computing (tnmoc.org) is in the same grounds, and traces the history of computers from the 1940s to the present day. Bletchley is part of Milton Keynes, which has a wide range of attractions including Snozone (snozoneuk.com), an all-year venue for skiing, snowboarding and sledging indoors.
THE GAY STUFF
Pink Punters (pinkpunters.com) is an LGBTQ+ night club in Bletchley with three floors of entertainment.
Go to: bletchleypark.org.uk
You don’t have to be LGBTQ+ in Brighton – but it does help. Officially the gayest city in the country, one in five men is estimated to be gay here and the wider LGBTQ+ community makes up for 13 per cent of the population. Its proximity to London and its laid-back but funky atmosphere make it the ideal day-trip destination for even the most jaded metropolitan scene queen. Brighton Pride is also the biggest Pride in the country and has previously featured headliners like Kylie, Britney, and the Pet Shop Boys.
The bustling Lanes and the North Laines area with their winding streets of upmarket restaurants and cafés, chi-chi boutiques, and independent shops, selling everything from retro to raunch, classy to kitsch, gives you a perfect opportunity to wield that plastic to the max. Just down the road the Palace Pier (brightonpier.co.uk) is the place to eat the best fish and chips (if the seagulls don’t get them first) and take a turn on the fairground rides. The nearby British Airways i360 Viewing Tower (britishairwaysi360.com) “flies” you 450-feet high for the best views of Brighton and the south coast. Close by is the magnificent and not-to-be-missed Royal Pavilion (brightonmuseums.org.uk/royalpavilion), the flashy and over-the-top former pleasure palace of the Prince Regent with its mix of Indian, Chinese and Gothic styles, which, surprisingly. somehow works.
Brighton is also big on festivals so check the official tourist website. The Brighton Festival (brightonfestival.org) is the largest of its kind in England, and with its cheeky baby brother Brighton Fringe (brightonfestivalfringe.org.uk) takes over the city’s cultural life every May.
THE GAY STUFF
The main gay area is Kemp Town, just down the road from the Royal Pavilion. The down-to-earth (in a good way) Bulldog pub on the main Saint James’s Street drag seems to have been there forever, and sooner or later, you’re bound to see everyone you know. Bar Revenge (revenge.co.uk) offers you great drag entertainment plus fantastic views of the seafront, especially from its newly opened rooftop bar. For a more traditional pub experience, try the Camelford Arms (camelford-arms.co.uk), a genuine community pub popular with everyone (and their dogs).
The Welsh capital’s rough red-light dockland district, formerly known as Tiger Bay, has been transformed into a bustling entertainment district, packed with stylish bars and restaurants, as well as some top-rated cultural must-sees. The Wales Millennium Centre (wmc.org.uk) is the national home for the arts in Wales, featuring musicals and cabaret, opera, ballet and contemporary dance, standup comedy, art exhibitions and bars and restaurants. If you think its exterior looks familiar then that’s probably because you’ve seen it in Torchwood and Doctor Who, which is filmed just up the road. There’s even a fan-made shrine to fictional character Ianto Jones, played by actor Gareth David-Lloyd, who was killed off in the third series of Torchwood. For top international wining and dining try the restaurants on Mermaid Quay, or take the boat and head off to Flat Holm island, now a nature reserve and where, depending on the weather, you can spot a handful of shipwrecks. Cardiff Castle (cardiffcastle.com) set in beautiful parklands at the heart of the city is one of Cardiff’s top tourist attractions. Originally the site of a Roman fort, the Normans founded the castle, and it was rebuilt and added to over the centuries.
THE GAY STUFF
Cardiff’s LGBTQ+ scene might be small but it makes up for it in quality. You’ll find the main venues around Charles Street and Churchill Way. The Golden Cross is a traditional pub on Hayes Bridge Road, popular with gay men and hosts karaoke nights as well as a busy dancefloor, while The Main Stage on Windsor Place is a café bar by day with cabaret at night. Now in its 15th year, the Iris Prize LGBTQ+ Film Festival is held every October and features the best in LGBTQ+ independent cinema (irisprize.org)
The Scottish capital has been called the most creative city in the UK, and for the month of August plays host to two of the world’s greatest arts events, the Edinburgh Festival (edf.co.uk) and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com), the latter of which is the largest arts festival in the world, and gets bigger and better every year. Expect ground-breaking comedy from some of the stars of tomorrow (Lily Savage, The League of Gentlemen and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge all got their big breaks on the Fringe), as well as theatre, dance, street performers, circus acts and spoken word events – many with a distinctly queer slant to them. This is Edinburgh at its busiest and buzziest best. But watch the plastic – things aren’t necessarily cheap during Festival time.
Outside of the Festival season, there’s still plenty to do and, if you need a break from all things cultural, then be prepared to be amazed at Camera Obscura & World of Illusions (camera-obscura.co.uk), five floors of mind-blowing visual trickeries and illusions, or go to whisky school and get the taste for the real thing at The Scotch Whisky Experience (scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk). And if you’re looking for a more open-air experience then Portobello, Edinburgh’s very own seaside, is just a short bus ride away.
THE GAY STUFF
Most of Edinburgh’s LGBTQ+ scene is centred on the “Pink Triangle” around the top of Leith Walk, just off Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare. CC Blooms (ccblooms.co.uk), is the oldest gay venue in town, a stylish bar and restaurant during the day and in the evening a classy nightclub, while The Regent is a real ale pub with a great atmosphere (theregentbar.co.uk) and attracts a warm and welcoming diverse crowd.
Go to: prideedinburgh.org.uk
Tourist info: edinburgh.org
WHY HEBDEN BRIDGE?
Named by British Airways as the fourth quirkiest place in the world, this tiny market town in West Yorkshire is known as the lesbian capital of Great Britain and is said to have more ladies who like ladies per square foot than anywhere else in the country, with a bustling creative community to put many of the big cities to shame. Its pretty high street is packed with independent and funky shops (you won’t find a chain store around here), and it plays host to several music and arts festivals throughout the year, including its very own LGBTQ+ festival, Happy Valley Pride. Poet Sylvia Plath is buried in nearby Heptonstall. Set in some gorgeous countryside including the National Trust owned Hardcastle Crags, a beautiful wooded valley just two miles out of town, and with easy access from Manchester or Leeds, Hebden Bridge offers a welcome break from city life for the queer traveller.
THE GAY STUFF
Pride 2021: Happy Valley Pride is a week-long festival in August celebrating LGBTQ+ life
Voted the hippest city in the UK, the area around Liverpool’s historic waterfront and its iconic Liver Building is an Unesco World Heritage Site, and its redeveloped Albert Dock with its first-class museums, swish restaurants, artsy craft shops and its very own Tate Gallery is its top tourist attraction. The Maritime Museum (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime) here is a top choice, with its exhibition on the Titanic a big crowd-puller, and, during our visit Hello Sailor!, a celebration of gay sailors on the open wave. Nearby, the Museum of Liverpool (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ mol) has an entire floor given over to the city’s influence on music and popular culture (think Cilla, Frankie, OMD, The Teardrop Explodes, Deaf School, and, of course, The Beatles). In fact, you could spend an entire week in the footsteps of the “four lads who shook the world”, from magical mystery bus tours of their childhood homes, to Fab Four cab rides and real-life locations Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields and their very own museum (beatlestory.com), before catching a gig at the legendary Cavern Club (cavernclub.com) on Mathew Street, now one of the hubs of Liverpool’s lively music scene. In August they host the annual International Beatles Week (internationalbeatleweek.com).Hope Street which runs between Liverpool’s two cathedrals was voted the UK’s Greatest Street a few years back and the Hope Street Quarter is the heart of trendy and arty Liverpool, packed with some great restaurants, funky cafés and cool bars.
THE GAY STUFF
Just a short sashay away from the Cavern is Liverpool’s gay quarter centred on Stanley Street – you can’t miss it, most of the street signs around here are in rainbow colours and the area has been gay ever since the first sailors docked in from their ships on the Mersey. Grande dame (or mad auntie, you take your pick) of them all is basement bar The Lisbon on Victoria Street which seems to have been here forever. Rough and ready and at times wonderfully messy, you probably won’t find the girl or boy of your dreams here, but its inclusive, all-ages and types and up-for-it attitude guarantees a great night out, and it’s a start before heading off to see the drag at Superstar Boudoir or the sexy seamen at the Navy Bar both on Stanley Street. Every November sees Homotopia (homotoppia.net), the UK’s longest-running LGBTQ+ arts and cultural festival, held at venues all across the city.
Pride 2021: Liverpool Pride has been cancelled for 2021 but will be back bigger and better in 2022
WHY NEWCASTLE GATESHEAD?
Antony Gormley’s iconic the Angel of the North welcomes everyone approaching from the south, and it’s a symbol of the regeneration of Newcastle and its twin city Gateshead. There’s a buzzing night life here with Geordies really knowing how to have a good time and Newcastle Gateshead (as it likes to market itself) is home to the fastest growing cultural scene in the UK. With its hip art galleries and trendy bars (it even has a community-run urban farm!), Ouseburn Valley is Newcastle’s cultural quarter and home to one of the most vibrant creative communities in the North East with artists, musicians, designers, printmakers and even a couple of breweries! For fans of contemporary art the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (balticmill.com) is the jewel in Newcastle Gateshead’s crown. The biggest gallery of its kind in the world, it’s housed in a former flour mill on the Gateshead bank of the River Tyne, and has a constantly changing programme of exhibitions and activities. Nearby on the same bank is Norman Foster’s Sage Gateshead music centre (sagegateshead.com), a major venue for live performances. From here you can take a walk along the trendy Quayside, packed with cafés and bistros and sit back and admire the seven iconic bridges which span the Tyne.
THE GAY STUFF
Newcastle Gateshead has one of the busiest gay scenes in the North. Most of the bars are to be found located in the “Pink Triangle” between the Central Station and the Metro Radio Arena. Powerhouse (clubph.co.uk) is the largest gay-friendly nightclub in the North East with an attitude-free environment and an up-for-it clientele. Rusty’s has a DJ playing “cheese, chart and camp” and regular drag entertainment, while Boulevard (boulevardnewcastle.co.uk) hosts an ever changing programme of burlesque entertainment, drag, and show boys and girls.
The birthplace of Robin Hood, this historic town with its winding street and alleys in the town centre, has been named the UK’s friendliest city, with a thriving arts and theatre scene, as well as being home to Michelin-starred restaurant Sat Bains (restaurantsatbains.com) . The historic Lace Market is home to some of the city’s chicest bars and England’s oldest pub Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem rests below Nottingham Castle. Part of the pub is attached to a series of caves and Nottingham has more manmade caves than anywhere else in the country and they enjoy the same protected status as Stonehenge.
THE GAY STUFF
Nottingham was the home of the first officially licensed gay club, appointed the very first professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies, and introduced the first permanent rainbow crossing on Broad Street in the town centre. The New Foresters is a traditional and welcoming gay boozer in the centre of town.
Pride 2021: 31 July
Go to: nottinghamshirepride.co.uk
Tourist info: visit-nottinghampshire.co.uk
One of the most visited places in the country and voted by the Sunday Times as the best place to live in the UK, the walled city of York is steeped in history. Over the years it has been occupied by the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans. The York Minister (yorkminster.org), the largest Gothic cathedral in the country, dominates the city and among its many superlatives is the Great West Window, the largest stained glass window in the world.
Get a feel of the history of York by visiting the twisting and cobbled streets of Stonegate, founded by the Romans, and the Shambles, with its narrow streets and timber-framed houses, just as they were in medieval times. It’s here that the medieval York Mystery Plays are performed each year. Due to Covid there are no performances in 2021 but they will return in 2022. When the Danes invaded the city in the ninth century, they renamed it Jorvik, and today the JORVIK Viking Centre (jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk) and its original Viking Encounter is one of the city’s biggest attractions. If you want to channel your inner Viking then be prepared to queue, or book in advance. Its state-of-the-art galleries, cutting-edge technology, and world-famous ride take you on a trip through 10th-century York, experiencing the sights and sounds – and smells – of the city over 1,000 years ago. York also holds the annual JORVIK Viking Festival, the largest Viking Festival in Europe. It’s digital this year, but will return next year. Step even further back in time and experience one of the city’s many nighttime ghosts tours, or if, vampires are more your thing, head on over to nearby Whitby: it’s the place where Count Dracula first set foot on English soil in Bram Stoker’s novel and which hosts two Goth Weekends a year, with the next being this Hallowe’en (whitbygothweekend.co.uk).
To see how the other half lives, take the short journey out of town to Castle Howard (castlehoward.co.uk), one of the UK’s most beautiful and opulent stately homes and gardens. Both the original TV series and the subsequent movie of Brideshead Revisited were shot here, and it also stood in for the family estate of the Duke of Hastings in Netflix show Bridgerton.
THE GAY STUFF
Sadly, York doesn’t have much of a commercial gay scene to speak of but you are guaranteed a friendly welcome in most of its pubs and bars.
Pride 2021: Originally scheduled for early June York Pride has been cancelled for this year, but promises that it will be back next year bigger and better than ever for its 50th birthday.
Due to the Covid situation some attractions may be closed. Always check before you set out on your staycation. Where listed, Pride dates were correct at the time of going to press but may be subject to change.