London is very difficult to leave. You could spend a lifetime there, let alone a holiday, without getting bored. But London isn’t England: there’s so much to see and do beyond the extremities of the Underground that some longer day trips are de rigueur. The same routes that bring millions of commuters into the capital daily can be used to advantage as highways to adventure. We’ve selected ten of the best and, within minutes of breakfasting in the capital, visitors can be on their way to a stately home, seaside resort or historic city, confident they will be back in time for the nightlife.
Seaside delights: Brighton, 52 minutes. It was the fun-loving Prince Regent, later King George IV, who made this resort fashionable, building the exotic, oriental-style Royal Pavilion as his pleasure dome in 1822. Brighton hasn’t been out of fashion since. City and seaside combine in a heady mixture. Go out to sea without getting your feet wet by strolling along the pier. Renowned for its shopping and nightlife, Brighton’s population is predominantly young, its pace frenetic.
Centres of learning: Oxford, 60 and Cambridge, 50 minutes. Two of the world’s oldest universities are north-west and north of the capital respectively. Oxford was founded in the 12th century, beating its rival by a few decades. At both, you can go punting along the river, though the bicycle is the preferred means of transport. Neither has a central campus: Oxford – the ‘city of dreaming spires’ – has 39 separate colleges; 31 make up the University of Cambridge. Stroll around the quadrangles or ‘courts’ at selected times – usually in the afternoons (times vary). The cities have remarkable museums: Oxford’s Ashmolean is the grand-daddy of museums, dating from 1683; Cambridge has the Fitzwilliam. Walk streets trod by innumerable famous folk: from J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll (Oxford) to Charles Darwin and Maynard Keynes (Cambridge).
Spa city: Bath, 85 minutes. The Romans were quick to make use of the hot thermal waters gushing out of the rock that Bath stands upon. Tour their bath, then bathe in modern thermal pools (complemented by wide ranging spa treatments) at the Thermae Spa. Long fashionable, the city is full of elegant 18th century neoclassical architecture which has earned it World Heritage City status from UNESCO. Just 20 km west is a bigger neighbour: Bristol, with its landmark suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge; a lively arts scene; a new shopping hub, Cabot Circus; and the world’s first iron-hulled ocean liner, SS Great Britain.
Midsummer night’s dream: Stratford-upon-Avon, 130 minutes. This Heart of England market town put itself on the map in 1564 when poet and playwright, William Shakespeare was born. Tour his birthplace and other properties linked to the Bard. A new Royal Shakespeare Theatre is set to open in 2010; in the meantime, it’s possible to take in a performance at the Courtyard Theatre. Nearby is Warwick, location of an iconic castle that brings medieval England to life, with all its chivalry, romance – and gore.
Viking stronghold: York, 120 minutes. Thanks to a fast train service, this historic walled city 337 km north of London is within the realms of day-trip territory. Attractions include a Minster church filled with rainbow-coloured stained glass; shopping along medieval cobbled streets, a chance to step back a thousand years to the city’s Viking past at the Jorvik Centre; museums; regular festivals and daily ghost walks. A café culture is epitomised by Betty’s, where tea and cakes is a gastronomic experience.
Royal castle: Windsor, 53 minutes. While York is many leagues beyond the capital, Windsor is almost next-door. Its focal point is world’s largest and oldest inhabited royal castle, towering above the Thames. The preferred home of the monarch, you will know when Queen Elizabeth II is in residence as the Royal Standard flies from the ramparts. Don’t miss Queen Mary’s intricate doll’s house with its working lifts and water system. An exhibition of treasures, marking 500 years since King Henry VIII’s accession, runs until April 2010. Cross the bridge into Eton, famed for its boys’ school which has tutored 18 British prime ministers: see the exclusive graffiti on the desks!
Home most stately: Woburn Abbey, 80 minutes by car. Home to the Dukes of Bedford for 400 years, Woburn is a feast of art and extravagance, embellished with fine furniture, old masters, gold, silver and porcelain. The tradition of afternoon tea reputedly originated here, circa 1840, and you can partake too, in the Duchess’ Tea Room. Outside, deer roam a spacious park, and there’s a new exhibition of monumental sculpture.
Green and pleasant land: the Cotswold Hills, 120 minutes by car. Think picture-perfect towns and villages of golden stone, tea shops, and countryside of rolling hills and meadows, dotted with gardens and historic houses. One, Snowshill Manor, contains a collection of artefacts so large its eccentric owner was forced to live in an adjacent cottage. The region sweeps in a wide arc north-eastwards from Bath and is best seen by car or on a bus tour. Towns such as Chipping Campden, Broadway and Bourton-on-the-Water are deservedly popular. So delightful that many celebrities, from Kate Winslet to Liz Hurley, choose to live hereabouts.
Luxury training: Orient-Express British Pullman. A train of opulent carriages with starched tablecloths, polished mahogany decor, and white-suited attendants, pulls out of London’s Victoria station every few days. It heads for day-trip destinations including gardens of Kent and Sussex, Hever or Leeds Castle, with everything arranged, including fine dining as the countryside flashes by. Decadent perhaps, but a great way to celebrate a special occasion. Journey times are by train unless otherwise stated.
For further inspiration, see VisitBritain’s website www.visitbritain.com