If you need a break from London after a week of hectic sightseeing, England’s compactness means there are many day trips on the doorstep of the capital. From the dreaming spires of Oxford to sophisticated, sexy Brighton, from upper crust Windsor and Eton to classy Bath, you can easily hop on a train or bus to a range of real gems.
The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires”. For visitors, the superb architecture and unique atmosphere of the university – made up of more than three dozen colleges and synonymous with academic excellence – and their courtyards and gardens remain major attractions.
The town dates back to the early 12th Century, having developed from an earlier Saxon village, and has been responsible for educating some 26 British prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron.
Best sight: Pitt Rivers Museum is an Aladdin’s cave of explorers’ booty spread over three floors, crammed with fascinating items like blowpipes, magic charms, voodoo dolls and shrunken heads from the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific.
Best place to eat: The Jericho Tavern is a chilled out venue with big leather sofas, a large beer garden and a live-music venue upstairs (supposedly Radiohead played their first gig here). This old coaching inn just outside the city gates in the trendy Jericho district is also an excellent gastropub.
Best place to drink: Turf Tavern is hidden away down a narrow alleyway off Holywell Street. This tiny medieval pub is one of the town’s best-loved, and bills itself as “an education in intoxication”. Home to real ales and student antics, it is always packed and is one of the few pubs in Oxford with plenty of outdoor seating.
Getting there and away: Oxford Tube and Oxford Express buses depart every 10 to 30 minutes from London’s Victoria coach station and the journey takes about one hour 40 minutes. There are two trains per hour from London’s Paddington station, with a journey time of around an hour.
With its large student population, the country’s biggest gay scene outside London, and working-class families down for a jolly, this city by the sea caters to everyone. It offers atmospheric cafes, excellent restaurants, old-style beach seafood huts and a good-for-a-laugh amusement pier.
The town’s character dates from the 1780s, when the dissolute, music loving Prince Regent (the future King George IV) built his outrageous summer palace, the Royal Pavilion, here as a venue for lavish parties by the sea. And that charmingly seedy “great-place-for-a-dirty-weekend” vibe lasted throughout the gang-ridden 1930s of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock and the mods versus-rockers rivalry of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Best sight: The Royal Pavilion Palace , Brighton’s primary attraction, is an extraordinary folly – Indian palace on the outside and over-the-top chinoiserie within. The first pavilion, built in 1787, was a classical villa. It was not until the early 19th Century, when Asian things were all the rage, that the current confection began to take shape under the direction of John Nash, architect of Regent’s Park and its surrounding crescents. The entire over-the-top edifice, which Queen Victoria sold to the town in 1850 (apparently she found Brighton “far too crowded”), is not to be missed.
Best place to eat: Family-owned restaurant Sam’s of Brighton in easternmost Kemp Town is well worth the journey for its innovative take on dishes like roast breast of guinea fowl and braised Southdowns lamb. Brunch is served from 10 am on the weekend.
Best place to drink: The Basketmakers Arms Pub, which has eight ales on tap, is probably the best traditional pub in Brighton, located in the North Laine district, southeast of the train station. Food (like fish of the day and Mexican chilli) is way above average and served daily from noon to 8:30 pm (7 pm on Saturday, 6 pm on Sunday).
Getting there and away: National Express runs hourly buses from Victoria coach station (two hours). There are about 40 fast trains each day from London’s Victoria station (slightly less than an hour), and slower ones from Blackfriars, London Bridge and King’s Cross.
Windsor and Eton
With its romantic architecture and superb state rooms, Windsor Castle is one of Britain’s premier tourist attractions and, since it is so close to central London and easily accessible by rail and road, it crawls with tourists in all seasons. If possible, avoid visiting on weekends and during the peak months of July and August when the queues to get into Queen Elizabeth’s humble abode are at their longest.
If you cannot avoid these periods and need a respite from the crowds, cross the pedestrian Windsor Bridge over the Thames and head for Eton, which by comparison it is far quieter. And while it, too, is a one-trick pony in the form of the world’s most prestigious boys’ school, its pedestrianised centre is lined with antique shops and art galleries.
Best sight: British monarchs have inhabited Windsor Castle for more than 900 years. It is also well known to be the Queen’s favourite residence and the place she calls home after returning from her work “week” (now just Tuesday to Thursday) at the “office” (Buckingham Palace). A disastrous fire in 1992 nearly wiped out this incredible piece of English cultural heritage, but luckily damage , though severe, was limited. A £37 million pound restoration, completed in 1997, returned the state apartments to their former glory.
Best place to eat: Just beyond the bridge in Eton is one of the area’s finest restaurants. Terracotta tiling and a sunny courtyard garden lend Gilbey’s a Continental cafe air, but the understated decor and menu are indisputably British.
Best place to drink: The Two Brewers pub, a17th-century inn perched on the edge of Windsor Great Park and the Long Walk is close to the castle’s tradesmen’s entrance and supposedly frequented by staff from the castle. It is a quaint and cosy place, with dim lighting, obituaries for castle footmen and royal photographs with irreverent captions hanging on the wall. It does great pub food too.
Getting there and away: Green Line buses 701 and 702 link Victoria coach station with Windsor at least hourly every day (65 minutes). Trains from Waterloo station go to Windsor Riverside station every 30 minutes, or hourly on Sunday (55 minutes). Trains from Paddington go via Slough to Eton and Windsor Central station.
This delightful city of honey-coloured stone has always been renowned for its architecture, especially its fine Georgian terraces. Nowadays though, it is celebrated in equal measure for its association with the novelist Jane Austen – not so much for her actual works but for the films based on them. Sometimes it seems the crowds just cannot get enough.
Best sight: Ever since the Romans arrived in Bath, life has revolved around the three natural springs that bubble up near Bath Abbey. The 2,000-year-old baths, today part of the Roman Baths Museum, form one of the best-preserved ancient Roman spas in the world.
Best place to eat: The appropriately named restaurant Circus on the western edge of the Circus is a favourite place in Bath. The food, prepared by chef/owner Alison Golden, is excellent and beautifully presented, the welcome is warm, and you can choose to eat on the ground floor overlooking a small courtyard or in the intimate cellar dining room.
Best place to drink: The Star Inn retains its original 19th-century bar fittings and is the brewery tap for Bath-based Abbey Ales. Some ales are served straight from the barrel into traditional jugs, and you can ask for a pinch of snuff in the “smaller bar”.
Getting there and away: National Express buses links London’s Victoria coach station with Bath up to 10 times a day (around three and a half hours). There are direct trains from London, Paddington and Waterloo stations at least hourly (two and a half hours). (Source: bbc.com)