One-day escapes from the capital, with the inside track on what to do and where to eat
Travel from London: The train from Finsbury Park takes 35 minutes
With its higgledy-piggledy, pastel-coloured buildings, cobbled streets and pedestrianised centre, Hertfordshire’s 17th-century county town serves up a slice of English antiquity that’s postcard-pretty enough to satisfy both shiny-eyed tourists and weary Londoners looking for fresher air, shorter queues and somewhere different to look at for the day. With trains running every half an hour, it’s possible to find yourself marching around its 15th-century castle grounds (check ahead for cinema screenings, talks and events), net fishing from a sandy cove in ancient Hartham Common or mooching about its dinky museum within the hour. Alternatively, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can cycle the 20 miles or so from London to Hertford along the River Lea towpath.
On arrival, dip into its handful of boutiques – The Women’s Society Boutique looks imposing but is in fact a treasure trove – before stopping at one of the many independent cafés and restaurants. Popular deli bar Giambrone serves authentic Italian plates, while Hertford Coffee Lab makes for a cool pit stop and beautiful Georgian townhouse and B&B Number One Port Hill hosts occasional pop-up suppers. The artsy Dog and Whistle, meanwhile, once a pop-up café, has blossomed into a hipster foodie pub and music venue with rooms. Indeed, Hertford, quiet market town by day and more bustling nightspot come eve, specialises in pubs, and particularly old-world ones. There’s The Salisbury Arms Hotel, said to have housed Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War and have its own ghosts, the 16th-century White Horse, the 17th-century Blackbirds, and the riverside Old Barge (exact age unknown, but ‘old’ is in its name…). If you can, do the 3-mile walk to Ware alongside the River Lea towpath – the neighbouring town also has a plethora of pubs – and you can (should!) catch the train back to London from there.
If you decide to stay over: Hertford House Hotel took over the former local newspaper’s offices in pretty Parliament Square in 2006 and hasn’t stopped evolving since, with its latest restaurant and bar renovation set for completion in autumn 2020. Don’t miss out on brunch in the secret garden, a locally-sourced roast in the restaurant and pint in smart sister pub, The Quiet Man.
BOOK YOUR STAY
By Becky Lucas
Travel from London: The fast train from St Pancras International takes 1 hour 22 minutes
This hillside scribble of Georgian streets tucked behind the Kent coast really hit our radar in 2018. Nicknamed ‘Margate’s little sister’, it’s a much cosier, countryside version of its arty neighbour. And that’s exactly its appeal. Deal is less shouty than Margate, but there’s still an exciting slew of shops, cafés and galleries that have arrived over the past few years. The Saturday Market stalls are worth a rummage, but it’s the food that brings the locals back each weekend. For more of a sit-down lunch we love Frog and Scot where the chef, previously of The Sportsman in Seasalter, cooks up a daily changing menu based on hyper-local produce. Founder of Smugglers Records Will Greenham (ex singer and guitarist of the band Cocos Lovers, who’ve supported Mumford & Sons on tour) is at the heart of the town’s music scene, and in terms of art, Linden Hall Studio is a contemporary gallery in a converted chapel that wouldn’t look out of place in Mayfair.If you decide to stay over: The Rose was revamped in 2018 and now there are eight cute bedrooms splashed in bold colours and filled with vintage finds. The restaurant is looked after by Rachel O’Sullivan (previously of East London’s Towpath Café) who dishes up Scandi-inspired breakfast plates of smoked salmon, avocado, soft-boiled egg, dill and whipped cream cheese.
By Tabitha Joyce
Read more about Deal, Kent
Travel from London: The train from from St Pancras takes 1hr 13 minutes
This little town on the north Kent coast isn’t quite the sort-of-secret it was back in the 1990s, when DFLs (local jargon for Londoners) rediscovered it, arriving at weekends for seafood at Wheelers on the high street and pints of Kentish ale at the beach-side Old Neptune pub. But it’s still an atmospheric place to head for a hit of vitamin B12 – via a dozen or so oysters – then a scrunch along the shingle shore, spotting Second World War sea forts across the waves and seals in the harbour. There are plenty of places to eat: avoid the overpriced Royal Native Oyster Stores and head instead to JoJo’s, just down the road in Tankerton, for mackerel fillets and Med-inspired small plates. Or Samphire, a Whitstable bistro with cuttlefish risotto and Romney Marsh lamb on the menu. There’s also a thriving micropub scene here, with The Handsome Sam, The Black Dog, and the larger Twelve Taps for hoppy experimentation. But our favourite pastime is picking up a pot of cockles and whelks from the quayside, or fish and chips and oysters from The Forge shack, and devouring them in the shade of a wooden groyne on the beach, preferably with a bottle of English fizz to hand.
If you decide to stay over: The Victorian fisherman’s huts on the beach are the best place in which to hole up, the sound of waves and boat masts jangling in the wind outside, and can be booked via Hotel Continental. Along the coast in Seasalter is the Driftwood Beach House B&B.
By Rick Jordan
Travel from London: The train from St Pancras International takes about 1 hour 10 minutes with a change at Ashford International.
Rye is home to what might just be Britain’s prettiest (and most prettily named) street, and a wave of newcomers have moved in alongside the quaint old-timers in Mermaid Street and beyond, opening smart interiors stores and artisan bakeries next to unironically vintage tea rooms and souvenir shops. After breakfast at Whitehouse Rye – order the halloumi hash – pick up a new read at The Tiny Book Store (the clue’s in the name) and window shop for that fantasy mansion at striking antiques shop Strand House Interiors. The blustery dunes and invigorating waters of Camber Sands, one of the best beach near London, are a 15 minute ride away on the local bus, but head back in time for a rustic supper at Tuscan Rye, where fresh pasta (ricotta ravioli with brown-butter sauce, potato and thyme tortellini in a rich ragu) draws loyal locals.
If you decide to stay over: Book a room at the lively George in Rye, which welcomes A-list guests (George Clooney and Helena Bonham Carter have both checked in for sleepovers) and smart locals in the same breath.
By Sarah James
These are our favourite things to do in Rye
Travel from London: the fast train from London St Pancras takes 1 hour 25 minutes.
It’s no secret that this Victorian seaside town has had quite the hipster renaissance in recent years, sparked mostly by the arrival of the Turner Contemporary gallery in 2011 and spurred on by a slew of new openings and a wave of Londoners upping sticks and moving down to the Kent coast. For a cultural outing, the waterside Turner Contemporary is still a must. Entry is free so it’s worth popping in even if you’ve never heard of the artists on show, and the shop has some nice local products. For more contemporary art head to Crate, an artist-led project space in an old printworks. If you’d prefer something older – much older – wander over to the most ancient building in town, the Tudor House, a Grade II-listed 16th-century timber-framed house on King Street. It’s on your route from the seafront to the mysterious Shell Grotto, a spooky set of underground tunnels covered in more than four million shells.
A trip to Margate isn’t complete without a few hours in Dreamland, whether it’s for some spins on the rides or to see one of the amusement park’s impressive line-up of gigs in the evenings. Do take a stroll around town to hit up the vintage shops selling retro clothes, furniture and homewares, where you can still find some decent bargains. And don’t forget to head over to Cliff Terrace to visit the flagship store of cult natural skincare brand Haeckels, which makes divine-smelling beauty products using seaweed gathered on the beach nearby. Speaking of the beach, if you want to go swimming walk along the coast to Walpole Bay Tidal Pool, a man-made sea lagoon where you can find calm waters and steps for easier access. If you arrive early (or stay the night), tuck into cracking breakfast at Storeroom coffee shop or at Cliffs, where there’s also a record shop, a hair salon and a yoga studio. In fact, the whole up-and-coming area of Cliftonville is worth exploring. After all that roaming, great seafood can be found for dinner at either Angela’s or Hantverk & Found – reserve a table in advance though, as both get booked up.
If you decide to stay over: The best beds in town are at The Reading Rooms, a boutique b&b in a restored Georgian townhouse a few minutes’ walk from the seafront. Be sure you don’t have to rush off in the morning as they’ll bring breakfast to your room so you can eat it overlooking the leafy square.
Travel from London: The train from London Victoria takes 1 hour 30 minutes.
Eastbourne is an old-timey British seaside town with a Victorian pier, a pebble beach, and a much-loved bandstand where tribute acts reign: ‘Queen’, ‘ABBA’, ‘Frank Sinatra’ and ‘Lady Gaga’ have all played. You could spend the day taking in the town’s thriving art galleries, with plenty of opportunities for refuelling stops along the way (our favourite is the stripped-back-trendy Nelson Coffee Co opposite the station) but the real draw here is enjoying the great outdoors at Beachy Head, where you’ll find the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. A hike with seriously impressive views out to sea runs across the top. Wander all the way along to neighbouring Seaford or make one of the secret beaches tucked away at the foot of the cliffs your way point. It’s a steep climb down, but Falling Sands Beach is quiet and sandy and well worth the adventure. Eastbourne often makes the list of the sunniest places in the UK, so don’t forget your sunglasses.
If you decide to stay over: Book into the Beachy Head holiday cottages – there’s a choice of 8, all set around a rambling walled garden with fruit and vegetables you can help yourself to.
By Olivia Holborow
An insider guide to the South Downs
Travel from London: The train from London Victoria takes 1 hour 34 minutes.
Brighton is a brilliant mish-mash of retro, seaside fun and progressive culture. Book in advance and you can get return tickets from London for as little as £10. A maze of bunting-lined streets, The Lanes bursts at the seams with vintage shops – don’t miss Beyond Retro and Dirty Harry, and our two favourite independent boutiques, Our Daily Edit and Peggs & Son, as well as retro memorabilia (navigate the turnstile at Snoopers Paradise for collectors’ items, vinyl, and furniture). Time your day trip to include breakfast at Kensingtons – grab a table on the balcony for giant plates piled high with eggs, toast and beans. It’s not the easiest spot to find, so look out for a shop called Artemis on Kensington Gardens, which overflows with sheepskin rugs and pelts – the café is on the left; follow the smell of bacon up the stairs. Later, reserve a table at Food for Friends, a superb veggie restaurant with award-winning flavours and presentation. A short walk away is the huge 8km pebbly beach – the section near the Palace Pier is dotted with stripy deckchairs and usually buzzing from spring to autumn (and often absolutely crammed in summer). There’s something terribly British about layering up and enjoying a windswept walk in the winter months, too. Reward yourself with a bag of hot, sugary donuts from the pier.
If you decide to stay over: Walk along the seafront to The Ginger Pig, a restaurant-with-rooms with pre-mixed cocktails in the minibars and Cowshed bottles by the standalone bathtubs.
The best restaurants in Brighton
EATING & DRINKING
Travel from London: The train from London Victoria takes just over 1 hour.
Lewes: the market town in the South Downs that sits against a backdrop of chalk hills and green peaks. Cobblestoned ‘twittens’ (narrow streets), handpainted shop signs and crumbling tiles from the 1960s make it feel like a town time forgot, and its slower rhythm makes for a reinvigorating gear-change. The Needlemakers on West Street is home to a range of small, independent shops that sell local craftsmanship, from jewellery to books – Alexis Dove is a favourite for delicate silverware and Susie Petrou has an eye for vintage blouses and Romanian embroidery. There’s an incongruous well at the bottom by the vintage shops – throw in a penny for good luck before you start hunting through piles of clothes and bags. Lewes Flea Market is an alluring source for antique furniture and quirky homeware, and is open daily (not to be confused with the outdoor Sunday market, which is also worth a visit). At the other end of town, at the bottom of Cliffe High Street, you can find Bill Collison’s very first Bill’s restaurant, a European deli-turned-eatery, where you can get hearty dishes such as pumpkin, fig and chestnut roast, or a beef, bacon and camembert burger. After lunch, ponder the paperbacks at the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, which has been carefully restored in recent years but remains as much of a landmark as Lewes Castle. Finish the day with a pint; Harvey’s Brewery is the only independent brewery in Sussex and provides the John Harvey Tavern over the road with local cask ales (download the self-titled app to find out where you can get it in London).
If you decide to stay over: Head to Firle for a night at The Ram Inn, and enjoy crisp linen and generous breakfasts served by an open fire.
Travel from London: The fast train from London St Pancras to Ashford takes 40 minutes, where you can change for Folkestone Central.
The seaside town of Folkestone is mid-makeover, which is the ideal time to visit – before everything gets priced up and the place’s quirks glossed over. The appeal of Sunny Sands beach is self-explanatory – this tiny, windswept slip of sand is one of the best beaches in Kent and the ideal spot to kick off your day (unsurprisingly, it fills up with families wielding buckets and spades, sticky with sunscreen, too). A trio of swashbuckling pubs and restaurants – The Ship Inn, The Mariner and The Captain’s Table – lines the seafront, but the real treasure can be found in the Creative Quarter. At the bottom of The Old High Street is Bounce Vintage, an open space with rails full of retro sportswear, French chore jackets and Aloha shirts. If you exchange smiles and pleasantries with the rosy-cheeked owners, they might just offer you an espresso on the house. Failing that, further up the road, Steep Street sells specialty coffee, homemade cake and books. Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves of hardbacks tower over fat leather armchairs and blackboard tables that you can doodle on in chalk. There are endless places to eat and drink around town: Rocksalt for a smart menu and sea views; Papas for old-fashioned fish’n’chips; Beano’s for veggies; La Casa Del Bello Gelato for ice cream Follies for pizza and The Pullman for pints. The Harbour Arm, though, is where Folkestone’s own folk go – the Champagne bar hidden in the lighthouse at the end is rustic, romantic, and completely charming.If you decide to stay over: Book a room at the Linen Shed, a dove-grey, weatherboarded house on the old Roman road to Canterbury.
The best restaurants in Kent
GREAT BRITISH BREAKS
Travel from London: The train from London King’s Cross takes 45 minutes.
Like cycling in Amsterdam or taking trams in San Francisco, punting really is the most sophisticated way to see the city of Cambridge and the university grounds. Scudamore’s is the oldest ‘chauffeur’ company and offers a more traditional tour, but board a boat from the Garret Hostel Bridge for a younger, more humorous experience (ask your punter why the GHB is also known as Orgasm Bridge). For lunch, foodPark is a top hawker convoy of Sri Lankan curries, wood-fired pizza and open-wide burgers that sets up from 12pm until 2pm in varying locations around Cambridge from Wednesday to Friday. For something more upscale, book one of Galleria’s terrace tables on the south side of the Magdalene Bridge, with British fusion food and views of the River Cam (your gluten- and dairy-free friends will thank you, as there are two separate menus specifically catering to their diets). In the autumn, the leaf-covered colleges are particularly picturesque as they turn red and rust, and in spring, Parker’s Piece is a scenic stretch of greenery from which to navigate (spot the lamppost that supposedly inspired the post in CS Lewis’ Narnia). From here, find eccentric English shop Bowes & Co, Fitzbillies for iced buns, Aromi for Italian nibbles, Kettle’s Yard art gallery and G David for antique books. Finish your day with the choral evensong at King’s College Chapel around 5.30pm: goosebumps guaranteed. For more ideas, see our guide to the best things to do in Cambridge.If you decide to stay over: It doesn’t get much better than the iconic University Arms hotel, reopened in 2018 after a serious reboot.
AWAY FROM THE CITY
Travel from London: The train from London Victoria takes 1 hour to East Grinstead (a 15-minute drive from Forest Row).
AA Milne famously wrote the stories of Winnie the Pooh while living just north of Ashdown Forest. Known as 100 Acre Wood in Pooh’s world, the forest is home to the spellbinding stories and is an enchanting place to stretch your legs for a day, easily accessible via East Grinstead station. Stretches of open heathland give way to leafy walkways and carpets of bluebells in spring, where the woods teem with wildlife (spot fallow deer, badgers and the odd friendly pheasant – no honey-eating bears, though), and the only noise is birdsong. You can even visit Pooh Bridge (for a game of Poohsticks, naturally), but be warned, it’s a prominent tourist spot. Pooh was a big fan of having ‘a little smackerel of something’, and nearby village Forest Row has plenty of places for elevenses. Taffels deli is a family-run café and much-loved lunch spot (there is nothing skinny about the skinny chips; they are double-fried and divine) and caters to all dietary requirements, while Java & Jazz serves huge hot chocolates cakes and crispy-crusted pizza. For proper pub food, the cosy Hatch Inn (one of our favourite country pubs near London) is known for roasts with all the trimmings and offers plenty of dog-patting opportunities. If you’re not in a hurry to get home, head to Linton’s car park – locally known as ‘the viewpoint’ – for sunset.
If you decide to stay over: Gravetye Manor is a very English Elizabethan country-house classic and one of our favourite weekend breaks in the UK.
Travel from London: The drive to Romney Marsh via the A20 and M20 takes 2 hours.
Arriving in Dungeness from London feels a little like stepping out of a Tardis into a different time zone, where a recent apocalypse has left the landscape barren, the wildlife overrun, the buildings flattened, and the population dramatically compromised (in fact, the Dungeness Power Station appeared in Doctor Who in 1971). Unofficially known as ‘Britain’s only desert’, Dungeness has a unique environment – single-storey buildings appear to have been swallowed by the shingle and plants let loose with little regard for human-imposed order. The beach resembles a mass shipwreck; abandoned fishing boats, crumbling shacks, winches and forgotten tractors coated in decades of rust sit, untouched, unmoved and as mysterious as a Russell T Davies plot. There’s not a whole lot to do here – but there’s so much to see, and so much to pique your curiosity that you’ll spend the journey back Googling the area. Kids will love the sheer strangeness of it all, and it’s impossible to resist the childlike urge to climb and run and play. Few places so close to London feel like such an adventure; the journey can take less than two hours and, if you time it right, you can order the catch of the day for lunch from roadside hut the Snack Shack, which does the freshest fish, lobster rolls and ice-cold cans of San Pellegrino.
If you decide to stay over: You’ll have to venture out of Dungeness – try The Rose in Deal, a grown-up bolthole splashed with bold colours and covetable vintage finds.
Travel from London: The train from London Waterloo to Dorking takes 50 minutes.
Surrey’s proximity to London makes the journey a breeze – and it’s an especially astute pick if you’re likely to be coming with a car full of little ones. At Henry VIII’s home Hampton Court Palace, there are family-friendly events such as beast quests and ghost tours, as well as the famous giant hedge maze, where adventurous kids can lead the troops. In winter, an ice rink is set against the historic backdrop of the palace, a building whose grandiose architecture is shaped by both the Tudor and Baroque periods. If you’re escaping the city (and the kids), however, check in at Grayshott Health Spa, a traditional country home with cutting-edge treatments. Surrounded by 47 acres of flowering gardens, it’s a peaceful place to step back and take stock. Connect with nature at Kew, too, where the Royal Botanic Gardens are open to the public all year round. The winter light show is particularly mesmerising, when the sun starts to sink earlier and earlier. Be sure to take cash for mince pies and mulled wine as you wander through the grounds. Having recently been awarded a Michelin star, Steve Drake’s restaurant Sorrel in Dorking (a market town with chocolate-box charm) is currently the county’s hottest restaurant with the most exciting ‘discovery menu’.
If you decide to stay over: You can also crash at [link url=”[link url=”https://www.booking.com/hotel/gb/grayshott-spa.en-gb.html”]https://www.cntraveller.com/gallery/best-spas-in-uk[/link]”]Grayshott[/link], where the Manor House rooms offer faded charm.
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