Each of these thoroughfares is endowed with history, good looks and no shortage of independent businesses
The great British high street is on life support. Two years of pandemic restrictions, the rise of working from home and this winter’s soaring energy prices have created the perfect storm, sending scores of retailers into administration. Plans to increase business rates and corporation tax – from 19 per cent to 25 per cent – in April will only make matters worse. 
That said, its decline pre-dates the pandemic. Online retail has had a detrimental effect for years, turning some high streets into ghost towns and forcing others to reinvent themselves around services – think coffee shops and beauty salons – rather than shopping. Your typical 21st-century parade now consists of a Starbucks, a Greggs, a Specsavers, and a sorry assortment of bookmakers, phone repair shops and pound stores. 
But there are beacons of light piercing the gloom: thriving high streets in handsome towns that retain a healthy selection of quirky and independent businesses, giving Christmas shoppers a fine reason to escape the tyranny of Amazon. Here are 15 of the country’s finest, chosen by our UK destination experts. 
The term “retail therapy” was never so apt. Because Norwich’s Royal Arcade is a pretty near perfect prescription for those who crave Christmas shopping, but are allergic to the garish American-Mall-ification of the experience elsewhere.
Opened in 1899, it sits at the very centre of “the fine city” yet is a haven from it. The Art Nouveau tiles that cover its walls were designed by WJ Neatby, who also dreamed up those in Harrods Food Hall. Decorative columns and stained-glass windows frame rows of identical, bowed mahogany shop fronts. Inside, independent boutiques tempt.
At Christmas, its vaulted glass ceilings and wrought-iron lamps are garlanded in green. Fat Christmas trees, winking with traditional gold lights, are tied with red bows. It really is a tonic. And there’s even somewhere to buy the gin.
Foodies will find plenty over which to salivate at Macarons & More – an award-winning patisserie – and Saffire, an artisan chocolate shop run by three generations of one local family.
Tick children’s gifts off your list at Langleys, a treasure-trove of a toy shop that has been in Norwich since 1883. Men are catered for at Izola – a super-chic male grooming and fragrance shop, all handmade in Norfolk – and women at Juni & Co, which sells its own vegan, organic and super-covetable cosmetics.
The Gyre and Gimble Gin Academy hosts workshops in which you can make your own tipple under the tutelage of an expert distiller.
Named after the Norfolk word for “munch”, two-storey food hall Yalm opened on November 22 promising to showcase the region’s best independent cooks. Accordingly, upstairs hosts – among others – Eric’s Pizza (from up on the North Norfolk coast), and taco bar Baha (from the brains behind firm Norwich favourite Oishii Street Kitchen). Downstairs, there’s a fondue and wine bar, plus a coffee and cocktail joint.
Hattie Garlick
Belper is doing something right. This former powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution has successfully reinvented itself for the 21st century: it’s the only place in the country to have won the Great British High Street’s High Street of the Year award twice (most recently in 2019), and is lauded for its community engagement and proactive association of independent businesses. 
“I love Belper,” says local chef Leo Hill. “I’ve watched it fight through recessions, win awards, help businesses grow and also band together to pull all of its people through the pandemic. The sense of community makes it stand out from most other towns.”
Sitting handsomely in the Derwent Valley, Belper is only 11 minutes by train from Derby. Combine Christmas shopping here with a bracing walk – perhaps to the nearby, and excellent, Holly Bush Inn. Or visit on December 4 to take in Belper’s Winter Food Festival, when producers from across the East Midlands showcase their wares. 
Primsisters is something of a magic kingdom, full of sparkly delights year-round but even more so at Christmas – think glittery toadstools, giant gingerbread houses and circus-giraffe baubles. 
Nordicana is hygge in retail form, with a cosy-cool array of Scandi blankets, linens and knick-knacks. 
Belper has several indie clothes stores – Project stocks Peak District-ready menswear, as well as pre-loved outdoor kit.
For an eclectic rummage, visit Derwentside Shopping Mill, where 40-plus retailers sell everything from old vinyl to vintage clobber.
Try Leo Hill’s monthly-changing, always-inventive 10-course tasting menu at Arthur’s. For homemade cakes and the best all-day breakfasts, head to Nourish.
Sarah Baxter
Catnip to Instagrammers but also unexpectedly good for independent shops, the elegant yet whimsical double-decker curve of colourful Victoria Street (historically known as the West Bow) picturesquely connects the Grassmarket and the Royal Mile. 
It was designed by architect Thomas Hamilton in Flemish Revival style, although India Buildings on the south side of the street (now a swanky Virgin Hotel with a great cocktail bar) is pure Scottish Baronial. The upper terrace is still home to the Quaker Meeting House and curiously, a shop selling Masonic regalia. 
Widely considered J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley, it is thought that the home of Thomas Weir (the “Wizard of West Bow” executed for witchcraft in 1670) was here, although a more benign wizarding link might be to the much-mourned Cresser’s brush shop. Virtually unchanged from its 1873 opening to closing in 2004 it sold every incarnation of brush imaginable, including made-to-order brooms.   
Harry Potter fantasy-themed shops will keep any youngster happy, leaving adults free to explore I J Mellis Cheesemonger, then the Whisky Shop next door.  
Continue to Walker-Slater’s two shops selling luxurious country clothing, both off-the-peg and bespoke. For trendier tartan, there’s Islander for tweed handbags, gloves and footwear. 
Passing the sword-maker on the left, cross the Grassmarket at the bottom for mouth-watering Hawico Cashmere, Fabhatrix Hats, Armstrong’s vintage clothing and Mr Wood’s Fossil Shop.
Sunny day? Head to the terrace at Scott’s Restaurant. Or try its sibling restaurant Howie’s just below; both serve good food all day and into the evening.
Linda Macdonald
Sir Walter Scott was certainly a fan: he called Stamford “the finest stone town in England”. More latterly, others have agreed: in 1967 this cluster of medieval and Georgian architecture became the first designated conservation area in the country. 
It’s a great hub for shopping: the high street is pedestrianised and many of the town’s 600-odd listed buildings house fabulous independents – speciality food stores, cafes, antique shops, clothing boutiques. 
The Lincolnshire limestone looks especially lovely in low winter sunshine or shimmering with fairy lights. Visit on Shop Stamford Day (December 3) when many businesses hand out goodies or offer special deals.
Burghley House sits on the outskirts. Fresh from starring as Windsor Castle in the latest series of The Crown, the Elizabethan house is closed for winter but its Christmas shop is open and its Orangery serves festive afternoon teas. Also, an enormous Christmas Fair takes over the grounds from November 24-27, with 130 stalls, a Victorian carousel and a lot of mulled wine and sparkle (burghley.co.uk).
Nook is the place for furniture, accessories and gifts, with a good seasonal selection – the Fairtrade robin hand warmers look especially appealing.
Long-standing indie clothes shop Energy is the place for thoughtfully-curated fashion; new Christmassy stock includes sequinned blazers and hot-pink puffa jackets. 
Everything looks delicious at Stamford Cheese & Deli, but the indecisive could opt for a Royal Christmas Cheese Board, £125 worth of the best English and French artisan cheeses, pâtés and salami, Lincolnshire plum bread and chilli chutney.
The George is an institution; its speciality is roast sirloin of British beef, carved at your table from the silver trolley. For cocktails and modern fine dining, head to the Slanted Door.
Sarah Baxter
Chester was voted the most beautiful city in the world earlier this year in a survey based on Google Street View. Walking the half-timbered main streets is a promenade through 2,000 years of history from the Romans to the modern day. 
The Christmas market opened on November 18 on central Town Hall Square, while nearby examples of Tudor buildings, Georgian townhouses and Victorian flourishes complete a history-spanning backdrop to mooching, gift hunting and hot-chocolate supping. 
Check out the exhibition, On Another Level: Exploring the Unique Rows of Chester, at the Grosvenor Museum to explore the story of Chester’s medieval covered walkways. It features rare watercolours by the Victorian artist, Louise Rayner. Look out, too, for free, family events, ranging from carolling to Christmas craft sessions, until December 18, while The Snow Queen, the flagship show at the Storyhouse arts centre, runs from December 10. 
Compact, bustling and packed with independent boutiques, Chester is big on festive atmosphere and rich with heritage. No wonder it beat Venice to the top spot.
Chester’s unique Rows are the hotbed of local traders. Try Crichton on Watergate Row North for bespoke tailoring, or Weasel and The Bug opposite for traditional, wooden toys. Outside the Rows, hidden-gem locals include The Cheese Wedge and Amblongus Books for local history and antiquarian treasures. There’s also a scattering of pop-up art galleries for souvenir images of the city.
The food court in the new Chester Market offers variety; otherwise, Da Noi is a local favourite for top-notch Italian, with its spin-off Augusto Pizzeria offering less formal fare. 
David Atkinson
Totnes has become a bit of a cliché through its reputation for independent shopping, green thinking and “alternative” lifestyles. Its self-proclaimed status as a “Transition Town” – keen to wean itself off fossil fuels – is more a mental state than a political force, but Totnesians are proud defenders of the right to look and behave differently. 
The high street has more Tudor buildings than many cities, and it’s worth pausing on the hike up its steep incline to take in the facades, architectural features and window displays. 
St Mary’s Church is imposing and has a wonderful rood screen. Carol singers, Morris dancing, open-air harp performances, and the Christmas market and late-night shopping on December 6, 13 and 20 turn the thriving retail gauntlet into a positively Dickensian whirl. There are some lovely walks nearby, including to the Dartington Estate and all along the Dart River; Vire Island is a nice place to sit back and relax when your shopping’s done.
For stylish women and men’s fashions, Fifty5A is hard to beat; the lovely staff serve coffee (and even whisky) to waiting guests. Drift record store at the top of town stocks a small but carefully curated selection of indy, ambient, classic rock and electronica vinyls. Me and East on the Rotherfold (the old market square for cattle-trading) opposite Drift is tiny but has some quirky gift and décor items. 
There are dozens of independent shops along the one main street – including bookshops, fancy dress hire, ethnic clobber, design items, art galleries, instrument shops – so do some browsing before getting down to business.
Gather is very Totnes, sourcing produce locally and foraging for some items in the surrounding countryside. The £65 tasting menu features “hedgerow beignets” and seaweed-based sauce. The Bull Inn is a great gastropub, with rooms, and the Curator down on the Plains (at the bottom of the high street) is the place to go for flat whites and gluten-free cakes.
Chris Moss
If ever a town could get you in the festive groove (and instantly Googling properties on Rightmove), it is Crickhowell. Deep in the Brecon Beacons, where hedgerows sweep up the hills and proper peaks are but a muddy boot stomp away, this cute-as-a-button town won Best High Street of the Year in 2018. 
Locals have staunchly resisted the tidal wave of chains and here the great British high street lives on, with a butcher, baker and a sprinkling of independent shops from delis to art galleries and bookshops.   
A vision of pastel-painted Georgian loveliness, Crickhowell feels especially festive in the blue of dusk, when there’s a nip in the air and the lights are aglow in its houses and pubs. 
Pleasingly old-school, it has changed little since Tolkien hung out here on his holidays (word has it the village inspired Crickhollow in The Hobbit). And it is fantasy stuff, especially if you ramble up to flat-topped, 451m Crug Hywel, where its Iron Age hillfort and views reaching for miles across the Black Mountains provide perk on even the drizzliest of days. 
Crickhowell is tiny, but you’ll nevertheless stop every few metres to nose around its shops. Dip into Oriel Cric Gallery for one-of-a-kind Welsh paintings, prints, jewellery, ceramics, glass and sculpture, and Book-ish, the indie bookshop dream, with a cracking café out the back. 
The Black Mountains Smokery spices up stockings with home-smoked and hill-sourced treats, from oak-smoked salmon to fancy pâtés, all-Welsh wines, craft beers, charcuterie, honeys, preserves and cheeses (pick up a smoky Pwll or Blaenavon Dragon’s Breath cheddar).
You can’t miss The Bear, a glorious 600-year-old coaching inn with roaring fires and low beams. Go for a pint and well-done pub classics here, or nab a table for Sunday lunch at The Vine Tree on the banks of the River Usk.
Kerry Walker
The shops may have new names, but the look and feel of Fore Street has changed surprisingly little over the last century. Pretty slate-hung shops line the winding cobbled street and serve both locals and tourists. This is a proper mixed-purpose main street with a Post Office, the excellent St Ives Bakery, the Allotment grocery, a bookseller and leather goods and clothes shops to suit all ages and budgets. Most are independently owned and the many galleries reflect Penwith’s artistic heritage. Finding original Christmas presents is made easy here.
Tarquin’s Gin School at number 14 lets you make and label your own flavoured gin in a mini copper still and sells its delicious botanicals range. The New Craftsman at number 28 is the best of the town’s art galleries with a Christmas show from December 10 that includes Emily Nixon’s covetable necklaces and rings. 
A few doors down at number 30, The Common Wanderer sells top-class outdoor gear including Cornish eco-brand Finisterre. Next door but one, at number 34, is Atlantic Shore, which has been selling affordable fishermen’s wool jumpers and sheepskin slippers since the 1980s. 
For local sardines, crab and mussels, The Seafood Cafe is the place to go. If you prefer a steak or a burger visit The Firehouse; head upstairs for a window table and a grandstand view of the harbour. For coffee, cake and ciabatta sandwiches drop in at The Yellow Canary.
Gill Charlton
Clitheroe is one of central Lancashire’s oldest towns. Established in the 12th century as a Norman stronghold and sited on a Roman Road, it hasn’t suffered quite the same cycles of boom and bust as nearby industrial centres. The castle ruins sit atop a hill inside the main park, affording awe-inspiring views over Bowland and Pendle Hill. 
The high street runs from the edge of the park, up and then down, and is full of shops and cafés, historic inns and hair salons – all well used by locals and popular with Lancastrians from outside the Ribble Valley and from West Yorkshire, who trip in for the gaily illuminated Christmas period. Small but busy enough to sustain independent retail, Clitheroe is a lovely place to explore for itself and a great base for walking and cycling holidays.
Clitheroe Books is a well-stocked, old-school secondhand bookshop with a good number of local history and specialist books as well as hardback fiction. Outdoor clothing specialist Varey’s has two separate outlets, with a great selection of hats, winter wear and “town and country” fashions. 
Clitheroe Market, as old as the town, operates Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and is good for fruit, veg, pies and samosas. Booths supermarket, the “Waitrose of the North, is just opposite.
Holmes Mill is a really good example of how to repurpose former industrial buildings, with a smart dining and deli area, good wines and a pub that still houses original machinery. Jungle does the best coffee and cake in town.
Chris Moss
Petworth is picture-perfect at Christmas. With its well-preserved Tudor and Georgian houses arranged along winding, chain-free streets, the market town oozes olde-worlde atmosphere. No surprise that Bridgerton crews have filmed here. 
JMW Turner was also keen (he painted in Petworth a lot in the 1820s), and art is still a big deal. The town’s Newlands House Gallery hosts first-class exhibitions, currently focusing on Lee Miller and Picasso. Meanwhile, the National Trust’s Petworth House boasts one of the country’s largest art collections); for the festive season, its cultured halls will also be decked with spectacular themed Christmas trees.
There are many great independents to browse, from the Petworth Bookshop to Guilt Lingerie. For the biggest retail hit, visit on December 3, when the Christmas lights are switched on, 75 stalls line photogenic Lombard Street and choirs sing on Market Square.
Petworth is the only town outside London to have more than 30 arts and antiques dealers within a one-mile radius. Start at Petworth Antiques Market, where many gather under one roof, purveying vintage lace, gentleman’s paraphernalia and more. 
Augustus Brandt also sells antiques, plus modern pieces and homewares – the 1920s-style Madison Coupe glasses look just the thing for a happy new year. Award-winning deli, shop and bakery the Hungry Guest stocks a cornucopia of artisanal treats; its seasonal specials include a Christmas Merriment Hamper, packed with the finest Sussex products.
For high-end dining, majoring on quality local produce, head for the E Street Bar & Grill. The Angel is a historic coaching inn with rooms, and Sussex County Winner in the 2022 National Pub & Bar Awards.
Sarah Baxter
With its age-worn narrow streets York could be the archetypal festive shopping scene of many a Christmas card. Add in the powerful presence of the Minster, in all its Gothic glory, and you’re likely to be humming carols as you trip from shop to shop. While the alpine-style chalets of its Christmas market create a big, warm splash in Parliament Street and St Sampson’s Square, there’s a cosier glow in Stonegate. 
This narrow, paved street, with its hotch-potch of buildings – thick-walled medieval, half-timbered Tudor, red-brick Georgian and a dizzying array of window styles jutting out at first-floor level – lies directly above the Via Praetoria, the main route in Roman-age York. 
It continues to be a prime address, leading to the Minster which seems to fill the sky at the eastern end. Barley Hall, a medieval townhouse, was the home of Alderman William Snawswell, goldsmith and Lord Mayor of York, in the 15th century. Unbelievably it was hidden behind offices and only discovered, and restored, in the 1980s. 
The malevolent red devil face above number 33 indicated the building was once a printers – “printers devils” carried the hot metal type – while the street-spanning timber beam emblazoned with “Ye Olde Starre Inn” is an 18th-century bullish piece of advertising that still directs customers to the hostelry tucked down a snickleway (narrow lane). 
Käthe Wohlfahrt, a year-round Christmas shop, has everything imaginable, from snow globes and nativity scene figures to gingerbread earrings and snowman pillows. 
Abraham Moon has offered Yorkshire-woven wool products for more than 180 years. As well as tailored jackets and trousers, you can find scarves, hats and gloves. 
Hebden Tea Company sources and blends a wide range of brew that should satisfy the fussiest of palates. 
At Plush Cafe, choose from one of three colourful themed rooms and a menu of brunch favourites or a full-on afternoon tea. Los Moros, stepping distance from Stonegate down Coffee Yard snickleway, serves up colourful North African dishes such as Algerian merguez cassoulet and shakshuka. 
Helen Pickles 
Chipping Campden is a Cotswolds showstopper of golden stone and gracious houses. Its high street is almost implausibly exquisite, a parade of dreamily handsome properties built by well-to-do wool merchants between the 14th and 17th centuries. 
At its centre is a 400-year-old market hall with arched open sides and a floor marked with the patina of time and trade (“Chipping” derives from the Old English word for market). The town became one of the richest places in the country, but it has another major story, too: in the early 1900s it became the headquarters of the Guild of Handicraft in the Arts & Crafts movement – and it continues to have a gently (and palpably) arty heartbeat today. 
Campden, as it’s known by locals, is on a network of minor roads going nowhere much, so it’s rarely engulfed by tourist coachloads. A steady trickle of savvy visitors comes for the wonderful mix the town offers – of beauty, history and enticing little stores.
Head to Dove Country Lifestyle for a tempting  array of gifts, soaps and accessories. 
Fillet & Bone deli is where to go for flavours of the Cotswolds, from honey to fudge, ale and Cotswold Distillery Gin. 
Robert Welch offers such fabulously displayed dining and kitchen ware it looks like an art gallery. 
For a treat, stroll around the corner to the Old Silk Mill housing The Gallery at the Guild art cooperative store.
Neat little Café Huxleys is ideal for lunches of salads and toasties. Much-loved locally, Michael’s Mediterranean offers great charm along with dishes such as vegetable moussaka and beef stifado. 
For wonderfully elegant dining book at table at Fig restaurant at handsome Cotswold House Hotel and enjoy sharing platters and mains such as barbary duck breast with juniper jus. 
Harriet O’Brien 
The weather can be wicked and the storms wild, but Aberystwyth has its own moody magic in winter, with booming surf adding drama to a festive shop. Full of students and sparkle (the lights arrive on November 26), the seaside town is in high spirits at Christmas. 
And when you’re done browsing its boutiques, delis, galleries and craft shops, you’ll find some of the hottest places in Wales to eat and drink, not least SY23, which won its first Michelin star in 2022 and scooped the guide’s much-coveted Opening of the Year award.
Climb the hill for a post-shop culture shot. The National Library of Wales harbours millions of rare and precious tomes and manuscripts, the medieval Nanteos Cup (a Holy Grail contender) and a terrific gift shop. Next door, the Aberystwyth Arts Centre has Christmas crafts and performances. Back in town, walk to the Victorian pier to catch a smouldering sunset and starling murmurations arcing and swaying in the sky. Some 50,000 of these migratory birds roost here in winter. 
Kick off a festive shop at dinky, retro Italian deli Agnelli’s, wherer Mario (from Milano) will sell you the finest salumi, Sardinian pecorino and Sicilian sweets. Nearby, Coastal Antiques is a rambling attic of gifts (from gladstone bags to kid-leather gloves), while Ystwyth Books brims to the rafters with second-hand titles. 
Swing over to Bottle and Barrel for local beers and gins, or Red Vintage for upcycled arts and crafts in colours and patterns that pop (its lampshades are incredible). 
SY23 is booked months ahead, but you can nearly always snag a table by one of the firepits on the terrace for Welsh wines and tapas delivered with panache. Ultracomida’s sunny vibe, small plates menu and carefully-curated vinos and vermouths instantly transport you to a Madrid backstreet. 
Kerry Walker
Sitting between the River Tweed and the Eildon Hills, Melrose has a mighty 12th-century ruined abbey and the high street of your nostalgic imagination. There are few chains here. Instead, it has butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers (well, Natural Crafts sells candle-making kits, along with other art supplies). 
It also has a greengrocer, a fishmonger and traditional sweet shop, well-stocked with handmade festive chocolates and Scottish tablet. Come on December 1 for late-night shopping and festive tunes from the Galashiels Town Band. 
Sir Walter Scott loved this area too, so much so that he built his home just west of town. Combine Melrose with a visit to see Scott’s Abbotsford dressed in 1820s Christmas style; there’s also a December weekend market – tuck into haggis, neeps and tatties while browsing books, knits and other gifts.
Abbey Fine Wines stocks 100-plus whiskies, plus boutique wines, local craft beers and Borders gins; tastings are held in its cafe bar, including festive events on December 1 and 2. 
Pick up local-made textiles, ceramics and homewares at Love Scottish, including festively fragrant Christmas Tree and Spiced Orange candles. 
For original gifts, head to The Gallery, which sells a diverse array of paintings, prints, glassware, ceramics and jewellery; Selkirk-based woodturner Michael Allan’s pens, made from old oak whisky barrels, make good gifts. 
Bank House Living stocks lovely ladieswear; Nepalese bobble hats are now in store, with profits going back to the knitters.
Provender creates delicious dishes from local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. Or walk over the river to the Hoebridge in Gattonside, one of the smartest restaurants in the Borders.
Sarah Baxter
With its high street parade of wonky, half-timbered, pastel-painted Tudor houses (300 of them listed), the medieval Suffolk wool town of Lavenham is ridiculously pretty at any time of year. But during the festive season, it’s a ready-made Christmas card. White lights twinkle in shop windows and dress the tree on the market square by the Guildhall. Stop for hot chocolate and mince pies and take the kids on the festive trail that ends at the wishing tree. 
Lavenham’s good looks attract independent minds, with a sprinkling of shops and boutiques doing a brisk trade in everything from antiques to pottery, vintage teddy bears to bespoke jewellery. When you tire of shopping, spare a moment to visit the magnificent St Peter and St Paul, a church of cathedral-like proportions in Late Perpendicular Gothic style, where the Bury Bach Choir will belt out Christmas classics on December 17.
On the fourth Sunday of the month, Lavenham Farmers Market (next dates: November 27 and December 18) is one of Britain’s very best. Buy your Suffolk pork, Longhorn beef, venison, and homemade cakes, preserves, chutneys, honeys and cheeses here. 
The Lion House Gallery has a thoughtful selection of local paintings, ceramics, prints, jewellery and sculpture, or try Posy for cards, decorations, homeware and candles. 
The most unmissable is tremendously festive The Swan, creaking with history and medieval beams. Dinner in its minstrels’ gallery is a season-spun feast of British flavours with a whisper of French finesse. 
Or if you just fancy a glass of wine and cheeseboard by the fire, head to Number Ten. Opposite the Guildhall, Lavenham Blue does a proper old-fashioned afternoon tea. 
Kerry Walker
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
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