Most international travelers eventually find themselves in London, often more than once. For more than 20 million visitors each year, it’s a chosen destination, especially for people whose first language is English. (Note that “English speaking” here and “speaking English” in the U.S., however, has considerable variation!) Countless more pass through London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s largest and the busiest airline hub in Europe. Since airlines allow passengers to book connecting flights that include single or multi-day stopovers in London, often for no extra fee, travelers frequently opt to tour the area. And since London is also an embarkation point for many cruises (after a train or bus ride to Southampton), many passengers arrive early in order to experience the city.
London never disappoints. From the shows and lively pubs in the West End theater district or gawking at both the girth of Henry VIII’s suit of armor and the glittering Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, there’s always something to see or do. We’re all familiar with the iconic sights of London, but there is nothing like the experience of actually standing next to them. Walking the banks of the River Thames racks up the steps on your fitness watch while affording amazing views of the city. And when it rains, the museums are abundant. But if repeated visits have made the city feel a little “been there, done that,” it’s time to look beyond London.
Hotels and websites such as Viator, TripAdvisor and EvanEvansTours offer day trips beginning within London but venturing outside the city limits. Often quite good, these are led by individuals with varying experience and knowledge. Less recognized in the U.S., but a symbol of excellence in the U.K., are the Blue Badge Guides. Leading personalized tours throughout the British Isles, these official national guides are rigorously trained and fully insured. Committed to delivering an experience to remember, Blue Badges feel more like a knowledgeable friend than a hired guide (britainsbestguides.org). They also offer “driver guides,” who pick up at your door – a wise choice in a country where the act of crossing the street can be tantamount to taking your life in your hands as you look one way while drivers come from the other. And renting a car?
The thought evokes memories of Clark Griswold in “European Vacation” driving round and round the same traffic circle for hours, unable to negotiate the exit!
Here are some great destinations outside the “city box,” and many can be combined:
Wimbledon: The oldest tennis tournament in the world, it’s the only Grand Slam played on grass (the original surface of “lawn tennis” on modified croquet courts in the late 1800s). Wimbledon honors many long-standing traditions, including a strict dress code, the eating of strawberries and cream, royal patronage, and no sponsors or advertisements surrounding the courts. Instead, most of the work of the tournament is undertaken by members of the prestigious All England Lawn Tennis Club, site of the tournament 30 minutes southwest of London in the town of Wimbledon. The tour of the grounds and newscaster booths is surreal after years of watching it on TV, and the year-long process required to restore the grass after two weeks of rigorous play is a strong argument for going “lawn-free”!
The Cotswolds: Located less than 2 hours south of London, the Cotswolds are 800 square miles of sheep-flocked rolling hills (the wolds), babbling streams and sweeping meadows dotted with picture-perfect, honey-colored stone villages. A tranquil spot that echoes of bygone times, the area is not without modern amenities and famous residents who appreciate the anonymity that their stately country homes and gardens provide. Charles (Prince of Wales) calls Highgrove House home, and Harry and Meghan (Duke and Duchess of Sussex) have rented a house. Royalty aside, David and Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss, Kate Winslet and Liz Hurley all have Cotswold countryside estates. And the meat, fish, vegetables and cheeses locally produced have given rise to gastropubs and fine restaurants.
Bath: Just south of the Cotswolds, Bath’s hot springs were discovered by the Romans in 43 B.C. and developed as a thermal retreat. It was a center for the wool industry in medieval times. The rediscovery of the old Roman baths in the 1800s transformed it into the social destination for the Victorians. Also home to Jane Austen, Bath was the setting for two of her romantic novels. The city draws visitors today for its great beauty, history, architecture, therapeutic springs and the stone bridge crossing the Avon River with shops to either side (one of only four bridges in the world with this design).
Windsor Castle (opening Photo): Forty-five minutes west of Central London, Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. It’s a medieval fortress and English royal home for 39 monarchs over the past 1,000 years. The queen spends most weekends here. It’s open to the public year-round; most visitors take a 30-minute free guided tour of the castle exterior before choosing to see the richly decorated State Apartments, the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard or St. George’s Chapel (site of the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle). The castle occupies 13 acres surrounded by 655 acres of parkland (Home Park). Frogmore Cottage lies within Home Park and is undergoing renovation for Prince Harry and family. The compact city of Windsor (dominated by the castle) sits to one side of the River Thames and is filled with “one-off” (one-of-a-kind) shops, teahouses and pubs. The sister city of Eton (home to the elite boarding school of Eton College, established in 1440) sits on the other shore, and the two are connected by Windsor Bridge.
Lavender Farms: Located about an hour southeast of London, these fields may not rival those in Provence, but the sweeping carpets of vivid purple in the rolling English countryside are quite something to see and are well-known for their relaxing and healing properties. The area’s pervasive smell and visual beauty of row after row of explosive color alone soothe the soul. Castle Farm in Kent is the largest at 95 acres. Its shop is open year-round, but entrance to the fields and lavender oil distillery plant are by pre-booked, guided tour only. Mayfield Lavender in North Surrey is smaller at 25 acres, but its picturesque location is an original 1900s farm that supplied lavender for English products worldwide. It’s open to the public from early June to September (bloom to harvest); July to August is peak season for both bloom and visitors.
Greenwich: Providing sweeping vistas of the city, a 5-mile cruise on the Thames brings London visitors to Greenwich’s UNESCO World Heritage Site rich in maritime history. The 1869 Cutty Sark (the last surviving British tea clipper ship) is “docked” within a museum and available to be toured. The 1675 Royal Observatory is built on the Prime Meridian (zero longitude) and allows visitors to understand the concept of global time zones while straddling the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Oxford: The oldest English language university in the world, Oxford lies about an hour northwest of London and is filled with galleries, shops, pubs and museums. Composed of 38 individual colleges (each with its own distinct dorms, dining halls, chapels, gardens and classes), it is architecturally stunning and was the setting for the Harry Potter films. While Christ Church College’s Great Hall (dining hall) may be known as the model for Hogwarts, it has educated no less than 13 British prime ministers and countless world leaders. Oxford’s colleges have also inspired scenes and locations in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The nearby River Cherwell is the location for an old English pastime – punting, or sailing slowly in a flat-bottomed boat using a long pole to push off from the river bottom.
Cambridge: Farther north are the 31 distinct colleges that comprise Cambridge University, located in another picturesque city with similar amenities. More than 90 Nobel Prize winners, such scientists as Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and such renowned poets as Byron and Wadsworth have all studied here. The architecture is equally as impressive, and the view from the river (dotted with punting boats) is magnificent. Visitors can drink at the pub where discovery of the structure of DNA was announced, visit the lab where the first atom was split, and see the university square that inspired the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire.” The Kings College Chapel’s fan vault ceiling (intricate ribbing) is the largest of its kind in the world. The choir at the chapel is world famous and performs daily when school is in session.
Blenheim Palace: This early 1700s country house is considered one of England’s grandest with its 200-foot-long library, soaring entrance hall, lavish paintings, countless tapestries and priceless furniture. The birthplace of Winston Churchill (and home to the family for 250 years), it’s located one hour northwest of London. The gardens, considered some of the most important in England, were designed by England’s greatest landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (who famously told clients that their gardens were capable of improvement).
Hampton Court: King Henry VIII’s palace is a grand blend of Tudor and baroque architecture. Located on the River Thames 40 minutes southwest of London, its gardens are extensive and include the world-famous Great Maze as well as the Great Vine planted in 1768 (today, the largest in the world). The Great Hall’s hammer beam timber roof and chapel’s royal blue fan vault ceiling are magnificent (and the chapel is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s beheaded fifth wife). The labyrinth kitchens, the largest of the time, had 200 cooks preparing upward of 800 meals each day.