This article covers castles in Kent County, Cotswolds, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, Canterbury, Rochester, and Manchester, with different levels of familiarity from me. Each of them can technically be explored on an intraday visit from London, but a good portion of them easily support longer stays and exploration.
The southeastern corner of England hosts several attractive castle-centric destinations.
Hever Castle ♥♥ had been built about 800 years ago and at some point was owned by the family of one of the less fortunate wives of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. It was acquired by the Astor family (of Waldorf-Astoria fame) at the end of the 19th century and exquisitely rebuilt. The interior of the castle is not uniformly spectacular but includes several beautiful period rooms (the library and the large sitting room are especially fetching). It also offers a couple of exhibitions, including an extensive one on the ubiquitous topic of the six wives of Henry VIII.
The grounds are nothing short of spectacular, with pristine lawns (which are heavily used for picnics), several gardens (amongst them an absolutely magnificent Italian garden), a lake (where you can hire a paddle boat for a leisurely ride), a water-obstacle maze (be prepared for your offspring to end up head-to-toe wet – coming with bathing suits or additional sets of clothes is highly recommended), a children’s playground, and so on. In good weather, taking in the castle and all its attractions, plus a picnic on the side, will make the whole day go by in a flash.
No fortress in England boasts a longer history than Dover Castle ♥. Commanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent, the site has served as a vital strategic center since the Iron Age. The major castle’s structures were built in the 12th century, and it was an important coastal residence of the kings for several centuries. The main castle keep, which is the most impressive structure, reconstructs Henry VIII’s visit in 1539 with an interesting exhibition. There is a Royal Regiment Museum, medieval tunnels, a Roman lighthouse, and a Saxon church. Castle walls and yards are interesting to simply walk about, with several impressive vista points. A tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels is another supposed highlight of the site, but although not requiring an extra fee, they need to be booked in advance as space is limited (hourly tours of groups of 30 are all there is).
The grounds of Leeds Castle ♥♥ are expansive and appealing, and the castle itself is beautiful to behold from several vantage points. Its rooms are furnished in both medieval and early 20th-century styles but are probably no more than nice. It’s what’s outside that is the main attraction. Just walking around the grounds is a pleasure, both through wooded areas and formal sculpted gardens. The maze is quite challenging – getting to its center turned out to be rather hard; the exit from it is through quite an amazing underground grotto. The aviary contains several dozen of species: parrots, cockatoos, toucans, etc. There are also owls and falcons nearby, with daily displays of falconry (weather permitted). Special events, such as Food and Wine festivals, and so on are held throughout the year. Tickets are valid for a full year after issue, making it easy to come back.
Sissinghurst Castle went through a number of reincarnations over the centuries, fell into disrepair eventually, and now only the Tower and the Long Library are open to visitors. The main attraction here is the garden ♥, built by the famous poet and writer Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s. The six acres do not make a “showy” impression, which makes them altogether more authentic as a prime example of English gardens. There are several different “rooms” in these gardens, separated from one another by natural hedges and old castle walls. The Rose Garden, the White Garden, the Herb Garden, the Cottage Garden, as well as the Italian-style Lime Walk, are among the most impressive parts of the estate.
Cotswolds for England is similar to what Provence is for France, Tuscany for Italy or Andalucia for Spain. Except, of course, the weather here is not as exceptional as it is in the aforementioned continental regions.
Touring the villages, manors, and gardens, complemented by walks in the fields, is the primary sightseeing activity in the Cotswolds.
Bourton-on-the-Water ♥♥ is the most picturesque of the villages, aided by a small river Windrush that runs through the town center. Several bridges span the river, which is flanked by inns and cafés on one side and the village green on the other. The central portion of the town feels park-like because of this arrangement. Birdland ♥, which is home to over 500 different species of birds, is located literally up the street from the center of the village. There are penguins, pelicans, flamingos, toucans, emus, owls, peacocks, etc. The penguins are fed in the afternoon, accompanied by a lecture from the handler, always drawing a big crowd. Dragonfly Maze ♥ is next to Birdland; it sends you on a quest to collect 14 clues around its path, which when put together spell out directions for uncovering the mystery at the end of the maze; adults play too, but kids absolutely love it. Other attractions in Bourton worthy of consideration are the Model Village, a 1/9-scale replica of a Cotswolds town, and the Cotswold Motoring Museum & Toy Collection.
Stow-on-the-Wold ♥ is bigger and more well-known, but it suffers from being too car-friendly, with the main town square literally being one big parking lot. The Market Square is quite big and built around the town church. Many of the square’s buildings are architecturally striking, most housing antique and gift shops and art galleries.
Stratford-upon-Avon ♥ is Shakespeare’s birthplace, with several attractions devoted to the man. Strolling around the town core is a pleasant activity, even if it is a bit too touristy. The “waterfront”, where two small rivers meet in the center of town, is very nice, with a small park and several restaurant barges docked along the banks.
Broadway ♥♥ is simply beautiful and architecturally cohesive. Its wide main street – that gave the town its name – is defined by stunning period houses.
Broadway Tower ♥♥ is situated at the second highest point in the Cotswolds, and you can supposedly see across 13 different counties from its top. Small tower rooms hold a simple exposition on the history of the area and the tower itself, but that view from the top is the reason to come. Vast fields with grazing sheep surround the tower, allowing for refreshing countryside walks.
Chipping Campden ♥ is not as airy as the other towns, with the High Street hemmed in by stone houses much more than in Bourton or Broadway. But that actually gives the village a bit more medieval feel. There are many lovely cottages all over this village.
Sudeley Castle’s ♥ main apartments are accessible with a guided tour only, while other parts of the castle and its grounds are accessible on a self-guided basis. Birds are the killer feature here – a couple of dozen of impossibly brightly colored species of pheasant, as well as peacocks.
Hidcote Manor Garden ♥♥ would have earned a “must” designation, if not for the time of the year. When the roses are in bloom and the sun shines, it has got to be absolutely stunning. On a cold day in early April, with only a few blooming flowers, it was still very alluring.
Snowshill Manor ♥♥ has an enchanting, if unremarkable, garden with many benches strategically tucked away in various corners. The manor itself is truly extraordinary, not so much for its architecture or interior design, as for the collection that it houses. It can only be described as a collection of everything. The estate’s owner in the early 20th century gathered art objects, curiosities, and seemingly everything else from all over the world. The house is chock-full of stuff. There is a room of dozens of early bikes, another one of sewing machines, a display of samurai gear, model ships, clocks, toys, paintings, musical instruments, etc, etc. Despite the fact that the entry to the house is regulated by timed tickets, the place is fairly cramped and you cannot help but queue after other visitors at times. The manor is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and opens only at noon on other days.
Among other things to do in the area, the town of Moreton-in-Marsh holds a great market every Tuesday. Blenheim Palace and Warwick Castle are two great estates that each may require a day of exploration.
Horse riding is a common activity when in the Cotswolds. If that strikes your fancy, Jill Carenza Equestrian Ltd in Stanton offers horse-riding lessons and hacks. Even a person who never sat on a horse before can enjoy a leisurely ride through the village and surrounding hills. The semi-private hack, lasting around an hour, is well worth it.
Kids are likely to enjoy the experience at Honeybourne Pottery in a small shop in an otherwise plain village. The hands-on workshop includes a brief lesson in pot-making, and then a painting opportunity.
For just a pile of rocks, this formidable and mysterious monument is certainly worth seeing ♥♥♥. The closest you can get to it is a few dozen meters to one side, but even at that distance, it is an awesome sight to behold. Even with modern machinery, positioning these rocks the way they are would unlikely be a trivial exercise. Imagine the task of doing it with nothing but mules and muscles. The audio guide provides quite an enlightening lecture, but it is almost enough to just hang around and take in the view.
Bath ♥♥ owns its prominence to the hot springs on which it resides. The Romans built their baths there in the first century. In the 18th century, the town gained unparalleled fame as a spa resort. During that time, as rich and famous descended en masse, the place assumed its magnificent Georgian townscape, which it retains today. The center of the city is fairly small and compact, and pedestrianized in its core, so you can easily walk pretty much all of it in just a couple of hours. While unfortunately overrun with tourist crowds – it is in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage site – the lively city holds quite a number of attractions, with honey-colored houses providing an elegant backdrop.
The Roman Baths ♥♥ are the number one attraction. While there is little left from the time of their origin, they are nonetheless an infinitely interesting place to see. The water in the main pool – called The Great Bath – is fed by the hot spring at a constant temperature of 115°F. You have to use your imagination to envision how the baths looked in ancient times, but you can see numerous fragments of Roman ornamentation throughout the exhibition.
The Bath Abbey is closed for services on Sunday mornings, but it is more interesting on the exterior according to what we heard. The west front of the cathedral, looking out on a small square that acts as the central point in town, has interesting carvings commemorating the legend of God dictating the form of the church to a bishop in the 15th century.
No.1 Royal Crescent ♥ is a museum in one of the Palladian-style houses on the arched street that is often hailed as the most majestic in Britain. The house magnificently showcases what life was like for 18th-century aristocrats, with very detailed furniture and accessories. Every room has an extensive information sheet, and docents often provide colorful commentary.
Pulteney Bridge ♥, akin to Florentine Ponte Vecchio, is lined with shops. It is quite charming, but also quite underwhelming, since when you are on it, there is no indication at all that you are actually on a bridge.
Parade Gardens ♥ is an inviting little park by the river Avon, where lovers of ages past used to steal away for their amorous liaisons. There is a small charge for entry, but it is likely worth it.
There are several other minor museums, of which the Fashion Museum may be worthy of consideration for a visit.
There is a number of interesting places around Bath, and it can make for a pretty good base for other excursions, to places such as Bristol, Cheddar Gorge, Wells, Stourhead, Avebury, and Salisbury, in addition to Stonehenge. In that, it should probably be viewed less as an intraday destination from London and more as a springboard to other explorations.
We briefly visited the tiny picturesque village of Lacock ♥, which on more than one occasion doubled as a cinematic locale. It is truly remarkably maintained in its pristine state. Harry Potter aficionados will undoubtedly want to take a selfie by the house that appeared in flashbacks in the very first movie as the home of the infant Harry and his parents. One big drawback of the village is the automotive transport. Seeing residents’ cars parked in front of a row of centuries-old buildings tends to diminish the ocular delight.
Brighton ♥♥ is an atmospheric seaside town 60 miles south of London. It is a tremendously popular location, reputedly overrun by tourists in summer. The seafront boulevard is a nice strolling avenue a lá Nice, with beaches and the sea beyond on one side and fancy hotels on the other. The sunset viewed here provides an unbelievable palette.
The Royal Pavilion ♥♥ is the most well-known point of interest in Brighton, an impressive small palace of the early 19th century, heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese architectural styles. Several rooms inside – banqueting hall, kitchen, music room – are entirely jaw-dropping. The palace is not very large, and there is a children’s illustrated guide to the place that gamifies the tour for younger visitors.
If you stick around for when the darkness comes, the palace is illuminated in magical light.
Lanes Traders district in the middle of the old city is a maze of narrow passages, reminiscent of corners of Venice (sans canals), with smart shops and all types of eateries.
Cambridge ♥♥ is a gem in its own right, given the architectural grandeur of several of the colleges that comprise the famous university. Of those, King’s, with its splendid chapel, and Trinity, Newton’s alma mater are probably the most magnificent.
The town is very compact and pleasant in itself, with small, winding streets, albeit packed with tourist shops, and a bustling central market square.
Behind the colleges runs a small river Cam, traversed by dozens of bridges. The opposite bank of the river, called The Backs, is the succession of meadows and wooded alleys, with idyllic, and at the same time imposing, views onto the colleges.
The river is no more than 15 meters across, but it is very busy with boats, steered by using a pole, not unlike what gondoliers do in Venice. You can hire one ♥♥ or you can even try punting yourself.
Oxford ♥♥ is probably less picturesque than Cambridge but far surpasses the other in architectural grandeur. The center of the town is bigger and, unfortunately, more touristy, but Broad Street is very beautiful, and several towers, churches, colleges, and other buildings all over town date from medieval times. Many church gardens house cafes, which in nice weather do not have spare tables.
Christ Church College ♥ has an expansive and serene quad and is also home to the town cathedral.
Carfax Tower ♥ is the best-known high point that one can climb for a view of the town from above. There are several others.
Rochester ♥ is one of the nearest southeastern day-trip destinations from London by car (less than half an hour by car from Blackwall Tunnel). The compact historic town boasts several architectural gems, some of which are closely associated with Dickens. For instance, Restoration House is the residence of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, although in the book it is called “Satis House”, which happens to be the name of another building in Rochester. Several of these buildings are situated along the pretty High Street ♥, which is full of quaint little shops and varied eateries.
The fine Cathedral ♥ possesses a magnificent organ. The modern-looking chandeliers in the main nave (they remind me of elaborate baby mobiles) are a feature that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
The ruins of the Castle Keep ♥ are worth exploring. There are great views of the town from the upper levels and interesting informative displays throughout. The interactive model of the castle in its heyday does not fail to fascinate children.
Behind the cathedral and the adjoining school lies a small park, The Vines ♥. We happened along on a quiet Sunday afternoon and found it positively serene.
The medieval spiritual and learning center of England, Canterbury ♥♥ has a town center that is compact, car-free, and eminently walkable. Central streets are well-commercialized but full of architectural gems, and some of the side streets provide very pleasant strolling opportunities.
The chief attraction is the tremendous Cathedral ♥♥, dating from the 11th century, – a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. Its interior is surprisingly airy, with some stunning ornamentation throughout. The cathedral is surrounded by pleasant gardens and outbuildings, all within medieval walls and ruins.
There are a few other attractions potentially worth exploring: The West Gate with access to battlements for a panoramic view of the city; Eastbridge Hospital, founded in the 12th century; ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey; Roman Museum; animatronic recreations of scenes from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
You can also take a boat trip on the River Stour – which is, in reality, a narrow and shallow canal.
This larger town in the northwest of England is the least likely of this selection to be a day trip from London and among the most likely to support a multi-day stay. My familiarity with Manchester ♥ is limited to a few hours ahead of a football game once. The city center is surprisingly pleasant, with many impressive architectural ensembles and a lot of mix of the old and new. The most impressive edifices are around Albert Square ♥, centered on the Town Hall ♥.
Cathedral ♥ betrays the fact that it was almost entirely rebuilt after the destruction of World War II with its bright mosaics of abstract patterns. A couple of smaller churches are worth stepping into in the city center.