Exploring the English countryside
July 12, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Going on our first international vacation in September! We're looking for suggestions of a good town or village to explore that is within two or three hours of London by rail or bus.

My wife and I will be traveling to Europe in early September. We've booked a hotel in London for a full week, but are interested in taking one or two day trips outside of the city during that time. We both love the beauty of the English countryside, but are limited to public transportation in our ability to explore it.

Can anyone suggest a good town or village we can explore that is within two or three hours of London by rail/bus? It doesn't have to have museums or castles or a big tourist draw, just nice scenery (my wife loves sheep and cottages). We will not be renting a car, so access to public transportation and walkability are a must.
posted by relucent to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
but are limited to public transportation

This will be much less of a problem than you think.
posted by randomination at 10:11 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I like Leeds Castle (in Kent, not Leeds).
posted by k8t at 10:12 AM on July 12, 2010

Cambridge - less than an hr on the train and in Cambridge is compact, you can walk anywhere!
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:19 AM on July 12, 2010

Brighton will be lovely in September, but it's a seaside resort rather than a village (great for shopping and traditional English piers, though, and perfect if you're gay or vegan as it's a pretty alternative place.). You could do worse than seeing the pier and the Pavilions. The Sussex coast is lovely though.

A friend went to Rye recently - you get the train to Brighton/Eastbourne and out from there - and that sounds like just what you want. Otherwise, Henley on Thames is a very traditionally English place. I've also heard good things about Aldeburgh but have never been. Cromer is an old-fashioned seaside place on the Norfolk coast too.

If you want to go further, Hebden Bridge and York are gorgeous, and Bath and Harrogate are lovely towns with spas and olde worlde charm, but they aren't really 'near' London. The Cotswolds could also be worth a look, but I went there in a car so I'm not sure how long it would take otherwise.

You won't have problems with public transportation. The UK is a far less car-centric country than the US and most Londoners don't own cars. If you're going to somewhere with a train station, you'll be fine as long as you check your train times.
posted by mippy at 10:28 AM on July 12, 2010

Oh - London has some huge parks as well which are very country-like. Richmond Park has deer. I also like the old Cemeteries - Abney Park and Highgate are lovely and you could have a look at the latter in an afternoon.
posted by mippy at 10:29 AM on July 12, 2010

Following on from Mippy, the Cotswolds and Oxford are within two hours from London by train, and it doesn't get much prettier than Oxfordshire. Actually, I think "two hours from London by train" encompasses most of the southern half of England. Be warned though, unless you choose times etc carefully and book in advance, train travel in the UK is expensive enough to make your eyes bleed. Still the best way to go anywhere though.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:34 AM on July 12, 2010

Cotswolds : It can be done as a day trip but it will be worth it. Here is some more info
posted by shr1n1 at 10:42 AM on July 12, 2010

Oxford is really pretty, and is only an hour away by bus.
posted by Kololo at 10:45 AM on July 12, 2010

I've also heard good things about Aldeburgh but have never been. Cromer is an old-fashioned seaside place on the Norfolk coast too.

Both Cromer and Aldeburgh are very pretty places by the sea but unless you have a car and are able to explore the other local beauty spots that are nearby easily there isn't really enough there to fill a whole day in my opinion, or not enough to make up for six hrs return travel time you'd face to go to either from London.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:45 AM on July 12, 2010

How about the Isle of Wight? Two hours by train to Portsmouth, and then a quick ferry. Or an even quicker hovercraft!
posted by randomination at 10:57 AM on July 12, 2010

Bath. 90 minute train ride f from Paddington, leaving every 30 minutes. Train station in Bath is a 5 minute walk from the Roman Baths. Return trains run quite late, so if you want to bring your kit you'd have time to do a spa session at the Thermae Bath Spa
posted by IanMorr at 11:22 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

To save money book your tickets in advance online once you know where and when you want to go. If you pick a specific train you can save a lot of money. Train travel can be very expensive otherwise.

Seconding Bath as somewhere nice to go or alternatively Cheltenham which is Cotswald town with beautiful scenery.
posted by Laura_J at 11:36 AM on July 12, 2010

mippy: "Brighton will be lovely in September, but it's a seaside resort rather than a village (great for shopping and traditional English piers, though, and perfect if you're gay or vegan as it's a pretty alternative place.). You could do worse than seeing the pier and the Pavilions. The Sussex coast is lovely though. "

The other benefit of Brighton is the easy access to the stunning downs (and their sheep) and nice small towns such as Lewes.

koahiatamadl: "Cambridge - less than an hr on the train and in Cambridge is compact, you can walk anywhere!"

Cambridge is an excellent call if only for the gorgeous walk along the Cam to the quiet village of Grantchester for afternoon tea. More cows than sheep along that route though.
posted by turkeyphant at 11:41 AM on July 12, 2010

Chepstow, Monmouth, and anywhere else around the Wye River, including Tintern Abbey, is heaven on earth for those who love sheep, rolling hills, public walking paths through farmland, and tiny country towns.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:10 PM on July 12, 2010

As an Ugly American who has been to England many times, I'll throw in my two pence and say don't bother with Stonehenge. You can see it closer-up on National Geographic TV specials, and there's not much else to see or do in the vicinity. In addition to the suggestions above I'd add York. It's about a two hour train ride from London, but it is a beautiful historic area and very walkable. My first two trips to England I made day trips to Liverpool (about 2 1/2 hours one-way from London) just because I'm a huge Beatles fan.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:23 PM on July 12, 2010

I live in London and wouldn't even think of going to Liverpool and back in a day! But geography seems bigger over here.

Here's how to get cheaper tickets:
- Book in advance on thetrainline.com, Southern Railways' website, or virgintrains.com.
- the Megabus is cheap, no-frills coach travel.
posted by mippy at 12:36 PM on July 12, 2010

I lived in Oxford for a year. You should definitely consider it. If you go, take the bus (the misleadingly named Oxford Tube) instead of the train--it's much more convenient. The buses have numerous pickup and dropoff points, and leave every 10 minutes (according to their website).

A really excellent walk there is through Port Meadow (a cattle pasture in continuous use for millennia, no sheep though) on up to the Trout Inn. It's a short walk from there to a bus back to Oxford.

If you go to Cambridge, I second the "Grantchester for afternoon tea" suggestion.
posted by A dead Quaker at 1:00 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Greenwhich, I lived in London and depending on where you are staying, it feels like a day trip.
Thames boat ride to Richmond and\or Kew Gardens are ok, start early. Beer on the boat.
Personal favorite: Windsor, castle tour is nice, village is nicer. Great pubs. Eton college across the river. Cant go wrong here. Great feel.
Bath (skip Stonehenge) is Roman historical and English, take the 60min. bus tour, and revisit what looks interesting. Worth the trip.
Cambridge over Oxford, both are beautiful. Go punting at either (stick rowing) for a small rental with your wife.
posted by torchredraider at 2:04 PM on July 12, 2010

My parents did the same thing in the Cotswolds and loved it.
posted by nestor_makhno at 2:07 PM on July 12, 2010

Seconding forget Stonehenge. Seconding Bath. Suggesting Winchester
posted by A189Nut at 2:10 PM on July 12, 2010

Rick Steves recently covered (212) London and the English countryside on his travel show.
posted by euphorb at 2:49 PM on July 12, 2010

If you had 2-3 days for this and were willing to rent a car, I'd suggest taking the train to Exeter, picking up the car, and driving through Dartmoor, Devon, up to the Coast, and back to Exeter. Sure to see some sheep, some nice villages, and losts of rural territory.

Much of southern England is within daytrip-by-train or bus range of London. While York is up north, it is a fascinating place. The train from London's King's Cross station take 2 hours. While you won't see sheep lurking around a village green, the center of York retains its medieval design and much of its medieval flavor. There's more than enough to keep you occupied for a long day. Grab dinner and an evening train back to London.

Bus travel is fine, and often cheaper than the train, However, check the travel time. Trains ofen travel well over 100 mph, while buses are confined to the roads.

Bear in mind that towns like Oxford, Bath, York, etc.. are not villages. They have populations in the 100,000-200,000 range. The interesting parts are concentrated in the city center.

I agree with everyone who said a Stonehenge visit is often anticlimatic. Nearby Salisbury, easily reachable by train from London, is a different matter altogether.

If you travel by train, buy tickets online as early as possible because prices rise as you approach the day of travel, usually dramatically. (And, UK train fares are miserably complicated, with a ton of options that are usually impossible to understand.) When you buy from a place like Trainline.com, you pick up your tickets on, or before, the day of travel at the station. You feed the card used online into a machine along with a reference number provided to you. The machine spits out the tickeets. (I bought three tickets last night on Trainline.com for an October visit.)

One-way tickets are "singles" and round-trip tickets are a "return" in the local parlance.
posted by justcorbly at 4:51 PM on July 12, 2010

Cambridge and Oxford are similar twin university towns except Oxford is larger because of heavy industry ( motor cars). That also seems to have led to looser planning laws in Ox with some ugly parts of town in the historical centre. Cam is smaller, more
quaint and much better preserved.
posted by Bwithh at 5:37 PM on July 12, 2010

IMHO you don't want to be heading out too far from London if you have only a week. By the time you get to the train station and then do an hour's journey you're talking a 3 hour round trip. That counts out Wales, the Cotswolds, Bath and several other places.

Wales is just too far for the day. Bath is an either way call - it's going to be about a 4 hour round trip with tube journeys added on but is a World Heritage site and you don't normally have to change trains once you leave Paddington. The pretty countryside of the Cotswolds isn't that accessible without a car in my view. Stonehenge isn't near a train station and is basically a trip to Salisbury and a change. If you want to do it, a private tour might be better.

The easiest places to get to would be Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge, Winchester and Brighton - all just within an hour by train of London. If you like all things royal, Windsor's the one - you can combine visiting the castle with a stroll round the deer park. Cambridge is prettier than Oxford (especially along the Backs) but both are nice. Winchester is pretty, has a nice cathedral and has some nice history too but isn't quite in the same league. Brighton is fun and funky. Not so strong on the history but a little bit different.

Leeds Castle is a proper castle. The nearest station, Bearsted (Kent), is just over an hour from London, from which you take a shuttle bus. Definitely worth it if you like castles.

I would, however, consider staying 4/5 days of your time in London. If you like open spaces, Richmond is fantastic and can be combined with a trip to Hampton Court and/or Kew Gardens - they don't feel like "London". Greenwich and Blackheath is a worthwhile day trip. This is before you get to tons of centralLondon stuff - the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, The South Bank, Covent Garden, St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Borough Market, Natural History Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, Tate and Tate Modern, Camden market, Grand Union Canal etc.

If you want to test ou train journey times, go here (the site also has a great list of London attractions, BTW). The main coach operator is National Express. Train journeys will be more expensive if you depart before 9.30 on weekdays as this is peak time, BTW. If you want to book ahead, The Trainline is a decent source. Tickets booked more than a week earlier tend to be cheaper.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:11 AM on July 13, 2010

Check out the Time Out Country Walks near London books. There are two volumes. They are typically an hour train ride from London followed by a half-day to a day of walking in countryside, visiting cute villages, castles etc.

My wife and I have been doing many of them recently. Here's our photos from a South Downs walk last weekend - with a visit to Virginia Woolf's house - and from a walk in the Eden Valley a few weeks ago. The latter walk included a few castles, including the castle where Ann Boleyn grew up and the Tudor village of Chiddingstone.

Another nearby village to visit is Downe, which is just on the outskirts of London and where you can visit Charles Darwin's house.
posted by vacapinta at 4:32 AM on July 27, 2010

Also, up next on our list is a visit to Jane Austen's house and the surrounding countryside.
posted by vacapinta at 4:40 AM on July 27, 2010

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