With its excellent transport links, getting out of London for a break in the countryside, the seaside or a historical town is child’s play. The only problem you’ll have is deciding where to go. From Medieval villages to ancient forests, here are some of Culture Trip’s favourite destinations within 90 minutes of the capital.
London is one of the greatest cities in the world, but when the temperature rises and you need a cooling sea breeze, or autumn morning mists call you into the countryside, there’s nothing more enjoyable than hopping on a train and escaping the bustling city for a day.
When exploring the streets of Britain’s prettiest Medieval village, it would be easy to think you were on the set of a period drama, one whose colourful history takes in a market charter from Henry III in 1257, a 16th-century visit from Elizabeth I, a study stint by the painter John Constable and, more bizarrely, John Lennon and Yoko Ono riding a hot air balloon from the Market Square. The Swan at Lavenham, a good lunch spot, adds its own fascinating story through interiors filled with Air Force memorabilia and a wall signed by British and American airmen.
Built in the early 13th century, Chislehurst is a historical 35-kilometre (22-mile) labyrinth located under the Kent woodlands. Explore this countryside gem via an absorbing 45-minute tour that takes visitors through spooky lamplit tunnels to reveal centuries of history – from providing chalk to help build London to gigs by David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. It also played an important role in World War II when it was Britain’s biggest underground air-raid shelter. Above ground, Down House, the former home of Charles Darwin, adds to the area’s appeal.
A day in the New Forest is like a day in another world. Hire a bike to enjoy 161km (100mi) of traffic-free cycle paths in the forest, but leave plenty of time to explore the village of Brockenhurst. Here, wild ponies (and sometimes cows) wander the streets, while donkeys graze on the green. Deer frolic in the woodland, and rhododendrons fill the scene with vibrant colour in spring. Just beyond the outskirts at the Balmer Lawn Hotel, the small sandy Brockenhurst Beach is a great spot for a picnic lunch.
Less than 5km (3mi) from the Medieval market town of Tonbridge in Kent, the tiny All Saints’ Church in Tudeley offers a genuinely unique art experience, having the distinction of being the only church in the world with all of its 12 stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. The Russian-French artist, commissioned to create one window, loved the church so much on his visit in 1967 that he decided to make all of them, and experiencing his vibrant colours and scenes in this very special little church is magical.
Exploring scenes that have inspired art and artists is always interesting. In the Berkshire village of Cookham, where Sir Stanley Spencer lived and painted for most of his life, a booklet from the excellent Stanley Spencer Gallery helps you do just that, detailing three lovely walks featuring key Spencer sites in and around the outskirts of the village. The village itself has lots to offer too, and further afield, Enid Blyton’s childhood home at Old Thatch, Bourne End makes a pleasant 4.8km (3mi) round walk from it.
Margate has been drawing day-tripping Londoners for centuries, and 21st-century Margate has a broad appeal that ensures something for everyone. Don’t miss the fabulous retro-themed Dreamland amusement park; tiny Old Town, with its cute cafés, vintage shops and galleries; and Cliftonville, with its derelict but photogenic 1920s lido. The town is also home to the astonishing Shell Grotto, where 4.6 million shells cover the walls and form beautiful mosaics and, of course, the arresting David Chipperfield-designed gallery, Turner Contemporary. Come early evening and you might get to see a Margate sunset, as spectacular today as it was in JMW Turner’s day.
This fascinating Sussex town is a great place to ramble and the perfect base for some bracing South Downs walks, but bonuses come in the shape of the Anne of Cleves House, set in a Medieval timber house bequeathed to Henry VIII’s third wife, and St Michael’s Church, featuring murals by Bloomsbury Set locals Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The pair made their home at Charleston Farmhouse, 6.4km (4mi) away in Firle, and a walk to their house and garden is just one of the many South Downs walks in the area.
England’s most easterly island, 14.5km (9mi) southeast of Colchester, is connected to the mainland by the ancient Roman causeway the Strood. Once here, it offers relaxing walks among its salt marshes, as well as hidden fossils, shark’s teeth and animal bones dating back 300,000 years. The plankton-rich creek waters produce oysters so good that Pliny the Elder declared them to be “the only good thing to come out of Britain”. Try them for yourself at the ever-popular Company Shed beach shack – bring your own bread and wine for a proper treat.
With its picturesque setting at the meeting of the Thames and Cherwell rivers, the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ has lots to offer beyond its colleges and museums. But, if it’s your first visit, some of those are a must; the shrunken heads of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the archaeological collections in the Ashmolean have enough to keep adults and kids occupied for hours. Outdoors, Oxford Botanic Garden, Britain’s oldest, contains some 6,000 different plant species, and a relaxing riverside walk from Magdalen Bridge along the Cherwell to The Victoria Arms pub at Old Marston makes the perfect day out.
Britain’s longest bench (called Long Bench and twisting its way along 324 metres (1,063 feet) of the seafront) is not the only reason to visit this pretty West Sussex seaside resort, set on a beautiful stretch of the South Downs coast. There are at least three more: the dune systems and tranquil expanse of West Beach across the River Arun; East Beach, where Thomas Heatherwick’s striking East Beach Café looks like a vast organic piece of driftwood; and Littlehampton itself, which once attracted lyrically minded figures such as Lord Byron and still manages to delight visitors of all ages.
A surefire winner with younger visitors, this Buckinghamshire village was the home and workplace of Roald Dahl for 36 years, and as you’d expect, it has plenty of excellent Dahl-associated attractions. Start with the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and continue with the village itself. With its setting in the pretty Misbourne river valley, its cobbled alleys and handsome high street are fun to explore and include the timber-framed Crown House (which inspired the ‘norphanage’ in The BFG) and Angling Spring Wood (an ancient woodland that’s home to the fallen ‘Witching Tree’ that inspired Fantastic Mr Fox).
London’s commuter belt has plenty of charming villages (such as Alfriston, Chilham, Castle Hedingham and Shere), but unlike Ashwell, none of them can lay claim to mummified rats in a mesmerising museum, Medieval graffiti in a 14th-century church, or a Victorian manor with a garden by Gertrude Jekyll. It’s this idiosyncratic mix of attractions that makes Ashwell so compelling, as well as lots of lovely buildings spanning more than 500 years. These days, many are home to shops selling home-made foodstuffs that make for a fine picnic at the nearby Ashwell Springs on the outskirts of the village.
This arresting Medway town, topped with a wonderful castle, is the place to head if you want to take in many sites associated with Charles Dickens, who lived nearby and set many of his novels in the area. However, it’s filled with plenty of other attractions too. Pick up a guide from the Visitor Information Centre, and explore the 17th-century Guild Hall, the majestic cathedral, the Elizabethan Eastgate House, Dickens’s Swiss Chalet – where the author worked on some of his most famous novels – and Baggins Book Bazaar, a bibliophile’s heaven.