A royal day out
No matter how long your visit to London, you’ll never tire of things to do here but if you want a change of scenery from fast-paced city life, there are plenty of places within easy reach. London is surrounded by its home counties; Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, which are all worth a visit if you have time and can be reached in less than an hour by train or car. And how about a trip to the coast? Take the train to wonderful Brighton and Hove and spend a day by the sea.
To the west London borders Berkshire, giving easy access to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Walk the Long Mile up to Windsor Castle and then tour the palace known as the Queen’s second home. Windsor is also home to Legoland – the second most visited theme park in the UK and a great day out for families with younger children – while just six miles away, in the village of Ascot, Ascot Racecourse, which although famous for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes held in July, hosts race meetings throughout the year.
The River Thames runs all the way into Berkshire, right past Windsor Castle, and a boat trip from London offers an altogether different viewpoint. Make a stop at the 13th-century and picturesque market town of Henley-on-Thames, now famous in over 100 countries as one of the locations for the fictional county of Midsomer in the classic TV show Midsomer Murders. Each June/July the town is taken over by visitors thanks to the Henley Royal Regatta – one of the most famous in the world – but if you’re not in town at that time of year then you can get a flavour for its history at the River & Rowing Museum.
If you cross across Berkshire’s north border you’ll find yourself in Buckinghamshire – a place many Londoners migrate out to thanks to its bountiful countryside, excellent education offerings and general high quality (and slower pace) of life. The county is well known for its ornate country homes and manor estates. Waddesdon Manor, an opulent 19th-century mansion, in Aylesbury, built for Baron de Rothschild and styled like a Neo-Renaissance French chateau, is worth a visit, even if only to see its famous wine cellar, where over 10,000 bottles of wine are stored.
Meanwhile, the unusual Palladian double colonnade of West Wycombe Park dates to the late 1700s and is home to the Premier Baronet of Great Britain. You can also visit Missenden the home of writer Roald Dahl, who set many of his whimsical stories, such as Matilda and Fantastic Mr Fox, in a Buckinghamshire-like setting, and take a trail through the countryside to see the sights that inspired him.
The River Thames runs all the way into Berkshire, right past Windsor Castle, and a boat trip from London offers an altogether different viewpoint
Famous film and TV locations
Pinewood Studios, one of Britain’s largest film and TV studios, is also located in Buckinghamshire in Iver Heath. You can visit the studios famous for productions such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Ultimatum and the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately you can’t tour the studios but you can sign up for free tickets to be in the audience of live shows filmed there.
If you head east out of London you’ll get to Essex; the setting for long-running TV show Birds of a Feather and – in more recent years – reality show The Only Way is Essex. The county combines modern facilities, fascinating towns and villages and an ever-changing coastline to create the perfect day trip out of London.
For shopaholics, Lakeside, in Thurrock, has more than 2,600,000 square feet of shops, bars and restaurants all under one roof, while those who like a flutter can head to Chelmsford City Racecourse, which opened in 2015. If you’re into your history then head to Audley End House in Saffron Walden, where you can catch a glimpse of working life in the Victorian service wing and nursery, while those who prefer more modern activities should head to the cutting-edge Rafael Viñoly-designed Firstsite gallery, in Colchester.
The up-and-coming town of Leigh-on-Sea, on the coast near Southend, is worth a visit for a traditional day out by the seaside but with a modern twist; the town has become a bit of a haven for Londoners priced out of the city and, with its plentiful bars and restaurants, Broadway is where the cool kids hang out.
You can visit the studios famous for productions such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Ultimatum and the Harry Potter series
Kent and Surrey
Known as the Gateway to England thanks to its close proximity to mainland Europe on the south east coast and also the Garden of England, thanks to its abundance of orchards and hop gardens, Kent can be reached by train from London in less than 40 minutes.
From the Victorian walled garden at Quex to the rose gardens at Hever Castle, there’s a secret garden to uncover around every corner, as well as a whole host of historical adventures from discovering how Tunbridge Wells became Royal to the secrets of Chatham’s historic dockyards and medieval misadventures at Canterbury Tales. Kent is also known for its shopping and is home to Bluewater, the largest shopping centre in the south east of England outside London.
Heading immediately south from London is Surrey which, no matter what part you want to visit, is never more than 45 minutes from the city by train. The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty spans more than a quarter of the county and contains some of the south east’s most beautiful and unspoilt countryside and quintessentially English villages, which have inspired some of England’s most influential writers.
Jane Austen spent holidays at Great Bookham with Box Hill providing the setting for the picnic scene in Emma. History buffs and those interested in the country’s royalty can visit the 500-year-old Hampton Court Palace, which is tucked away in the village of East Molesey and is home to the only surviving royal chocolate kitchen in the country.
Jane Austen spent holidays at Great Bookham with Box Hill providing the setting for the picnic scene in Emma
Let’s go to the beach
If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie then don’t miss Mercedes-Benz World, on the famous Brooklands site in Weybridge, where you can put your driving skills to the test on the handling circuit or sit in the passenger seat and let the Silver Arrows Display Team show you how it’s done. The city of Chichester in West Sussex, with its cathedral and famous Festival Theatre, is just a 90-minute train ride from London and there are plenty of interesting pit stops along the way, from pretty Petworth with its stately house to Midhurst where you can stop off and watch the polo at Cowdray Park.
London also makes a great base from which to head to the coast. Designated a city despite its lack of a cathedral, the cosmopolitan centre of Brighton & Hove should not be missed as it is one of the most popular seaside destinations frequented by Londoners when the sun comes out. Just an hour by train from Victoria station, there is so much to see and do there – from exploring the quirky, funky shops of North Laine, to losing yourself for a few hours in one of the many antique markets. Or why not sit and watch the world go by at one its incredible cafes, or get a bird’s eye view of the city and countryside beyond, by taking a ride on the i360 – a glass pod that slowly glides up to 450ft?
While most beaches on the south edge of the British Isles are pebble, Camber Sands, also in East Sussex is known for its seven miles of dunes. Stop at the nearby Medieval town of Rye and wonder at its charming cobbled streets or head to the traditional seaside resort of Hastings for fish and chips at the famous Blue Dolphin Fish Bar and a bit of crazy putting at the Hastings Adventure Miniature Golf Complex, right on the seafront.
West Sussex also has its own stretch of sandy beach at West Wittering – a Blue Flag award-winning beach set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at the entrance to Chichester Harbour. However, the county of Kent has more Blue Flag beaches than anywhere else in the UK; from the wonderful white sands of Botany Bay and fabulous surf at Joss Bay in Broadstairs to the shingle shores in Folkestone – there’s a reason the county was recently named the best place in Europe for a family holiday by Lonely Planet. So if you fancy a day away from the city by the coast, then this is a particularly good option.
Portsmouth, in Hampshire, is hugely accessible from London via the A3 and, while it isn’t famous for its beaches, there are plenty of fun things to do. Home to around 100 retail outlet stores, restaurants and a 14-screen cinema, Gunwharf Quays is a great destination if the weather isn’t on your side, while the 170-metre tall Spinnaker offers far reaching views across The Solent to the Isle of Wight.
Designated a city despite its lack of a cathedral, the cosmopolitan centre of Brighton & Hove should not be missed as it is one of the most popular seaside destinations frequented by Londoners
Talking of the Isle of Wight, ferries head there from Portsmouth every 30 minutes so it’s easy to make a day trip to the island. In the summer months you can enjoy events including Cowes Week Regatta, the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival, while in the quieter, winter months popular tourist attractions, such as The Needles Park, Godshill Model Village and Blackgang Chine remain open to visitors.
Taking the train from King’s Cross, Cambridge is another city crammed with beautiful museums and art galleries. Of course, Cambridge is famed internationally for its world-class university which dates back to the 12th century. Attended by some of the country’s top writers, actors, comedians and politicians, the college is set in stunning grounds. Admire the beautiful architecture and majestic college buildings including examples of the earliest patterned brickwork in England. Explore quaint passages set around the historic market place and colleges, where a unique and relaxing shopping experience can also be found. There are many beautiful pubs, restaurants and cafes to enjoy after all that tough exploring.
If you want to head even further afield then London is a great base from which to explore a host of other UK and European cities. From Euston and Kings Cross stations you can catch fast and direct trains to the Midlands and the North including cities such as Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, while catching the Eurostar from St Pancras station places the likes of Brussels, Lille and Paris are within easy reach.
Flying is also an option thanks to London’s many airports – wherever you’re staying in the city, an airport is within easy reach. London City Airport is not only great for business travellers but delivers flights to a host of European city and beach locations and is accessible directly off the District Light Railway (DLR). Each of Heathrow’s five terminals are accessible via the under and over ground rail network, while the Gatwick Express allows travellers to reach London Gatwick (which is actually located in Sussex) from London Victoria Station in just 30 minutes.
If you’d rather take the car with you to travel across to Europe, however, then Kent’s harbour towns of Folkestone and Dover provide a gateway to the continent, with ferries travelling to Calais and Dunkirk up to 23 times a day or – if travelling by sea is not your thing then the Eurotunnel also enables tourists to cross the Channel in as little as 35 minutes with Le Shuttle trains leaving Folkstone for Calais up to four times every hour. But whichever direction you head in from London, you will find plenty to see en route, ensuring the journey is just as pleasurable as the destination.
Everything you need to know about London
Where to eat in London
The best things to do in London
The best shopping in London
The best nightlife in London
Your guide to arts and culture in London