Britain is packed with historic sites, nature reserves and beautiful gardens, many of which have visitor centres, which can range from wonderful to deeply uninspiring. The five below have been chosen either because they showcase outstanding design or house some fascinating local knowledge which it’s absolutely worth the extra trip to absorb.
The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae is one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. Uncovered by a storm in 1850, it gives a remarkable picture of life 5,000 years ago.
In the beautifully-designed visitor’s centre a replica house allows one to explore its interior and view artefacts discovered during the archaeological excavations. The cafe sells very good tea, sandwiches and scones, and the well-stocked gift shop has locally-made souvenirs and crafts alongside the obligatory shortbread.
Outside the main building, the walk down to the site (which, thanks to coastal erosion now sits alongside one of those amazing Scottish white sand beaches) is presented as a journey back in time. As one passes landmarks like the first man on the moon, or the building of the pyramids at Giza, and continues on along for quite some time to get back to the site itself, it cleverly conveys a sense of how far past almost everything else we know in our history you must go to get back to this tiny Scottish village by the sea
Open April 1 to September 30 every day, 9.30am to 5.30pm, and October 1 to March 31 every day, 9.30am to 5.30pm
The Welsh Wildlife Centre
Maps, binoculars and backpacks are available at The Welsh Wildlife Centre (above) on the banks of the Teifi river, and all sorts of wildlife-focused activities run throughout the year, from pond dipping to listening to bats. The café serves fantastic home-cooked food, and will even sort you out with a picnic. New attractions include a willow maze and an osprey platform with views over the reserve. Open daily 10am to 4pm, and from March 31 between 10am and 5pm.
Jorvik Viking Centre
A firm favourite with budding historians (16 million visitors have passed through the doors since it opened), Jorvik was built on the miraculously well-preserved remains of Viking York. But there’s nothing dry or dusty about it – you can listen to Old Norse being spoken as you tour the exhibits, feel the blast of heat from a blacksmith’s furnace on your face and smell authentic Viking cooking. Open daily 10am to 4pm, and 10am to 5pm from April 1 to November 3.
Thurrock Thameside Nature Park
Built on what was once one of Europe’s largest landfill sites, this striking, fort-style visitor centre is a triumph of sensitive design. It’s the focal point of a network of footpaths, bridleways and cycle routes, and the surrounding area is a wildlife haven – rare bees, birds and reptiles abound. Open daily 9am to 5pm, closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
The Savill Building
Near Virginia Water
This striking pavilion (above), a modern addition to the 1,000-acre Royal Landscape at Windsor, has been compared to a cathedral – and deservedly so. The undulating, leaf-shaped roof (made from sustainably sourced timber) and glazed walls create an awe-inspiring feeling of light and space. Leith’s has an outpost here, and afternoon tea – served on proper china – is a must during the summer. Open 10am to 6pm daily until October 31 (10am to 4.30pm thereafter), with last admission to the gardens at 5.30pm.