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Where Londoners go for weekends away

Where Londoners go for weekends away

For the inside track on escape routes from the capital, Vicki Reeve and Sophy Roberts wend their way into the English shires

For the inside track on escape routes from the capital, Vicki Reeve and Sophy Roberts wend their way into the English shires

August/September 2016

60 MINUTES 47 MILES AWAY

1 BRIGHTON, SUSSEX

A 50-minute train trip from London gets you to the Brighton seafront. For regal excesses, King George IV’s exotic Royal Pavilion delivers in ways the once magnificent West Pier does not; the latter is now a skeletal spectre, victim to arson attacks in 2003. Newly opened, Brighton’s take on the London Eye, the British Airways i360, is changing the shorescape. From the viewing pod near the top of this soaring 531ft tower dubbed the Doughnut (its profile is reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle), you can see 26 miles of coastline from Bexhill to Chichester. Look inland for a taste of the South Downs National Park – then visit Devil’s Dyke for jaw-dropping panoramas, and hike the network of trails. Cycle Brighton rents out mountain, road and hybrid bikes as well as tandems. For the less actively inclined, shopping is an easy way to fritter away an afternoon. Kemptown, in the east, bubbles with Brighton’s liberal attitude and large LGBT population – along with some of the best vintage stores, including William Morris Antiques for decorative art and furniture, and Moderne for slick mid-century lighting and homeware. In the Lanes, a warren of tiny streets in the centre, stop by Pecksniff’s for bespoke scents, and the tiny 64 Degrees for small plates of food, including succulent kimchi chicken wings with blue cheese, or Plateau for pork belly, hogget empanada, boudin noir and spiced duck breast.

1HR 20 MINUTES 51 MILES AWAY

2 ISLE OF SHEPPEY, KENT

The Thames Estuary has one of the great wilderness reserves of England, Elmley Nature Reserve, a privately owned, 3,200-acre swathe of unfenced marshland and upland meadows on the Isle of Sheppey. Off the M2, you take the A249 to the Old Sheppey Bridge (an earlier rendition, built in the reign of Edward I, was washed away by a tidal wave). Hang a right at the ubiquitous brown sign that signifies a British tourist landmark, and a few minutes later, turn off the engine. You come here for the birdlife – for the golden plover, teal and curlew, marsh harriers, merlins and short-eared owls – and to walk on an English saltmarsh that was reclaimed in the late Middle Ages with the building of the first seawall. On a slight rise is a clutch of three shepherd’s huts, with a fourth opening this month (from £100, or $145, a night for a double) decked out in Romsey Wool blankets, with ensuite bathrooms. When you don’t want to cook, head to the pretty seaside town of Whitstable where you can pick up some oysters at The Royal Native Oyster Store, or treat yourself to Thornback ray with brown butter at The Sportsman, a Michelin-starred, but unpretentious inn at Seasalter, a 15 minute-drive from the edge of Elmley. For home-foraging inspiration, The Wild Kitchen leads walks along the shore near Deal, teaching you which seaweeds to eat and which to avoid; then go back to your shepherd’s hut and pick your own.

2HRS 20 MINUTES 114 MILES AWAY

3 BRUTON, SOMERSET 

In 2014, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, gallerists from Switzerland, opened a massive contemporary art gallery in the honeysuckled Somerset village of Bruton. With a fast train from London Paddington to nearby Castle Cary (90 minutes), Hauser and Wirth Somerset – showing the work of former Turner prize-winner, Martin Creed until September 11th – is at its best in summer, when the surrounding gardens (pictured) are in full bloom. They were designed in the naturalistic “prairie style” by Piet Oudolf, who was responsible for the gardens on the High Line in New York. Tucked in the town centre is the perennially popular bakery and restaurant-with-rooms, The Chapel, which puts on events in its clubroom between October and April. Autumn’s line-up includes talks by Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk, eco-activist and founder of Resurgence magazine. Food, though, is at the heart of Bruton’s identity. Highlights include Westcombe Farm Shop at Evercreech, two miles outside Bruton, for the tangy local cheddar, Julian Temperley’s cider brandy and brews from the Wild Beer Company, made with locally foraged fruits and wild yeasts. For those with time to spare, book into a day course run by Charles Dowding, known for his no-dig approach to organic vegetable gardening (£115 per person, including lunch).

3HRS 123 MILES AWAY

4 SOUTHWOLD, SUFFOLK

The beach huts in Southwold are part of what makes this small seaside town an endearing relic of the 1950s. It’s the sort of place that went into decline as Britons started travelling abroad for their holidays, but Suffolk’s coast is popular among prosperous Londoners, who have kept Southwold afloat. They quite like the tackiness of the pier – built in 1900 and reinvented with arcade games and a Wacky Wall of Mirrors – and the B&Bs, but visitors may prefer to pick up their fish and chips at the Sole Bay Fish Company and stay ten miles away on the Wilderness Reserve. It is a 5,000-acre, now largely fence-free estate created out of rehabilitated farmland in an ambitious scheme by British landscape architect, Kim Wilkie. You can rent one of ten houses, ranging from electricity-free Hex Cottage (from £294 a night, based on two nights) to the newly renovated Moat Cottage (from £562 a night, based on a seven-night stay), a six-bedroom Tudor farmhouse with its own moat. You can hike and bike around the entire estate. If you’ve come by car, venture out to the Southwold Beach Surf Academy, which offers surf- and paddle-boarding lessons from £22, or walk along the heathland between Walberswick and Dunwich. The latter is a faintly spooky village which was a port on a similar scale to London until a 13th-century storm swept most of it into the sea. 

3HRS 30 MINUTES 154 MILES AWAY

5 LYME REGIS, DORSET

It’s a long haul down a slow road, but worth the slog for a weekend in seaside Dorset. If you get hungry along the way, pull over at the Old Willoughby Hedge Café, a greasy-spoon truck stop in a layby three miles outside Mere, for one of their excellent bacon butties, before heading south-west to the Regency seaside town of Lyme Regis. It is here that one of the great West Country hikes begins: a ten-mile coast-path route from the Cobb (the harbour where Louisa Musgrove slipped in Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, “Persuasion”) to the red cliffs at Branscombe, following the densely foliated Lyme Undercliff where Jurassic ferns burst up like giant shuttlecocks from the forest floor. You can extend the trip with an overnight stay: Mark Hix, the London-based chef who grew up on this West Country coast, has a pretty B&B in Lyme, Hix Townhouse (from £110), while Branscombe has a cosy pub with rooms, The Masons Arms (B&B from £95). Given a slightly bigger budget, it’s worth pressing on to the new Pig at Combe (doubles from £145), a country-house hotel near Honiton, with a bar in the foyer, a restaurant menu featuring food grown in the three walled gardens, and two spa treatment rooms in potting sheds. Nearby, Burrow Farm Gardens is worth a visit. What started as a nondescript bungalow set in 13 acres on the outskirts of Axminster has grown into one of the great unsung gardens of England.

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