Escapes from London
Hop a train from London and in less than two hours you can be hiking country trails, soaking in mineral spa waters or shucking oysters by the sea. Sara D’Souza rounds up the best escapes from the capital
Just 40 minutes by train from Paddington Station via a route that cuts through lush countryside and the Mendip hills, a trip to Bath feels like stepping back in time: The streets are cobblestone, there’s honey-hued architecture at every turn and street buskers bring the city to life. The real draw has remained the same since Roman times: The city’s babbling hot mineral rich waters, which are said to be restorative for the body, mind and soul. To sample their healing powers, head to the Thermae Bath Spa at twilight and bathe in the rooftop pool as the sun sets and casts a glow over the surrounding stone buildings. Or visit the Roman Baths to walk through the Terrace, the Sacred Spring and the Temple, before popping into the 18th-century Pump Room for a spot of afternoon tea. For more sweet treats, tuck into a traditional Bath Bun at Sally Lunn’s, a teashop located within Bath’s oldest house, dating back to 1482. Learn about literary luminary and former resident, Jane Austen at the museum of the same name or gawp at the Instagram-friendly Georgian houses that line the stunning Royal Crescent. For evening entertainment, nab a ticket for a performance at the 200-year old Theatre Royal Bath.
Forget Brighton and its crowd-packed beaches and make a break for the lesser-known, but no less lovely Whitstable, an hour and a half from St Pancras International or Victoria Station. Glide through the picturesque Kentish countryside, dubbed the Garden of England for its wealth of orchards, vineyards, hop gardens and warm climate. This cute seaside spot is a real foodie destination: Head to Samphire to dine on produce from local foragers, farms and gamekeepers; The Cheese Box on Harbour Street for locally made cheese and the Whitstable Brewery Bar for a local brew. The real jewel in Whitstable’s culinary crown is its fresh fish that’s brought in daily. Sample seafood at the wonderful Whitstable Oyster Company or pop into Wheelers Oyster Bar, the oldest restaurant in town. Attraction-wise, there’s a pretty castle surrounded by gorgeous gardens or try your hand at windsurfing or sailing, or sail out to Project Redsands, to see the forts that were built in WWII and later used as a pirate radio station.
Around an hour and a half’s drive from London, the Cotswolds, with its gentle hills scattered with charming villages, farm shops and country pubs, is every inch the English idyll. The area became wealthy in the middle ages thanks to its roaring wool trade and you can pick up beautiful blankets at the Cotswold Woollen Weavers in the teeny village of Filkins, just outside Burford. For more keepsakes, check out Daylesford Organic, which has a fantastic farm shop and offers cookery classes. Potter around the village of Castle Coombe to work up an appetite before tucking into some award-winning cheese at the House of Cheese in Tetbury. Stow-on-the-Wold is jam-packed with antique shops and for the best cream tea in the area try Broadway’s traditional Tisnane’s Tea Room, which has over 30 types of tea and melt-in-your mouth scones and clotted cream. The area is all about long walks followed by hearty meals by roaring open fires in traditional pubs. Walk part of the Cotswold Way (a route that stretches 102 miles from Chipping Campden to Bath); try the four miler that starts on Broadway High Street, and tracks up to the beautiful Saxon Broadway Tower, from which you can see across the Severn Vale into Wales and pop into the 16th-century Kings Head Inn for a post-walk pint.
Just an hour by train from Paddington Station, Oxford is England’s most prestigious university town (rivaled only by Cambridge) and has architecture so beautiful it inspired poet Matthew Arnold to describe it as the ‘city of dreaming spires’. Perhaps, the most stunning of all the buildings is the intricate 18th-century Radcliffe Camera, which was originally built as the Radcliffe Science Library. To step back further in time, check out the Ashmolean Museum, which houses everything from antiques from Ancient Egypt to discoveries from the Anglo-Saxons. While away an afternoon with the typically British pastime of punting (a gondola-style flat-bottomed boat propelled by a pole) and head for either the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse or the station at Folly Bridge to pick up your own punt or cheat and opt for a chauffeur. Blenheim Palace, just outside the city is well-worth a visit (Harry Potter fans will recognize it from the Order of the Phoenix). It was a gift from Queen Anne to the 1st Duke of Marlborough and is one of the most beautiful Baroque houses in England.
Direct trains run every 20 minutes from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly and in two hours you can explore the birthplace of Northern Soul. Make a beeline for the Northern Quarter: Located between Piccadilly and Ancoats, it’s filled with quirky vintage shops, from Café Pop to Oaklahoma (home to a tiny vegetarian café). For one-off finds head to the Manchester Craft & Design Centre, which takes residence in a former Victorian Fish Market and sells handmade jewelry, bags and artwork by local designers. The area, which is constantly being developed, is a vinyl lover’s dream; duck into Eastern Bloc or the Vinyl Exchange on Oldham Street to browse the best of Manchester’s music scene. Lowry Art and Entertainment Center showcases music, comedy, cabaret and plenty of art exhibitions including some unseen paintings and drawings by Mancunian LS Lowry. Refuel on posh nosh at Aubaine inside Selfridges department store, tuck into tapas at lively Spanish basement joint, El Rincon or celeb spot at traditional Italian eatery, San Carlo on King Street. For classy cocktails head to Alchemist in Spinningfields, the rooftop bar at the Great John Street Hotel or scan the city’s skyline, drink in hand, from the 23rd floor of the Hilton Beetham Tower and the Cloud Bar.
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