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Ten Great Daytrips Out of London

Given the way London Theatre and Concert Tour's schedule offers you stretches of free time most days from the end of the morning meeting at 10:30am until dinner, not to mention the two completely free days as well, one can easily find occasion to take a train to a nearby town or city, see quite a bit, and make it back in plenty of time for the evening show.

Below are suggestions for such daytrips—including a couple (Bath and Salisbury) that are a little longer and therefore more comfortably done with a full day’s time. You may note that I omit the three most obvious very-close to London daytrips--to St Albans in the north, to Hampton Court in the west, and to Windsor a little farther west still. I omit them not because they are not fine trips, but because I imagine you'll already know of them. All three are just 30 minute train rides, and all three are absolutely fabulous destinations. They just aren't exactly "daytrips" in the same sense as the cities and towns I list here.

(By the way, I highly recommend Earl Steinbicker’s Daytrips London: 55 one day adventures by rail or car.… His entries, more capacious than the paragraphs I give below, offer advice on transportation and itineraries, and note attractions that my brief descriptions below will often overlook.)

Bath. Lots to see in this town. It's a regency jewel, with a predominantly 18th and early 19th century architecture. When people think Austen, they also, with good reason, think Bath. The Crescent, and its wonderful museum at #1, are worth an hour and a half all by themselves. And the town itself, especially by the picturesque bridge over the river overlooking the weir, is lovely to walk around. Bath Abbey is a great example of the perpendicular school, with a wonderful (and not that common) 16th century wooden roof. Even better, the town is also home to the Roman Baths from which it takes its name, and they are very interesting, too. It’s well worth the 90 minutes this visit takes for an unhurried investigation. Throw in lunch in one of the many restaurants, and you've got a great day out. Requires a certain amount of serious walking—but it’s quite doable, especially on a free day when you can get an early start. (Some add a stop-over in Salisbury to visit Stonehenge on this trip, but I would caution you on that. I've done it, but it makes for a long day.)

Winchester. One of my favorites amongst the near-London towns. Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral (in the nave's north aisle), which is otherwise distinguished by having the longest nave in Britain. (Isaac Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, is also buried there.) Parts of the medieval city wall still stand, with a lovely little chapel called the Church at St Swithin-upon-Kingsgate sitting atop it. It’s tucked up above Kingsgate (duh!)—try not to miss it! And of course there is plenty of Arthuriana—the city likes to think of itself as the home of King Arthur's Roundtable. But whether you want to buy that or not, the town really is a lovely place to walk, especially around the Cathedral precinct.

Salisbury. Do you like Constable's paintings? Then you'll like this most Constable-painted of the cathedral towns. Salisbury Cathedral is spectacular, with the tallest spire in England (to the top of which as the story goes youths used to climb while drunk in order to relieve themselves from above). Salisbury also has one of the four extant copies of Magna Carta, and it is in general a wonderful town to walk in. What most people make sure to do, though, is walk across the fields from the east side of town to approach the cathedral as Constable painted it. If you plan your time well, you can also catch a bus out to Stonehenge. That is indeed an impressive monument, and can be seen and fully appreciated in the just over half an hour it takes for the bus to leave you off and then come back again to pick you up. The great walkers amongst you might want to leave the bus on the way back just before it enters the town for a walk around Old Sarum, a very old hill fort on the outskirts of town (and actually the spot of the original settlement), though check your watch—it closes at 4 in March—which fact led, I’m afraid to say, to my scaling the farside of the hill in pursuit of my more adventuresome son, and entering the premises from a hole in the fence on the monument's southwest side).

Canterbury. A brilliant daytrip—including Canterbury Cathedral, the most famous English church building outside of London, which also is home to the Archbishop of Canterbury (surprise!). But the cathedral is only one of the many ecclesiastical relics from the middle ages left about the town. As the spot where Thomas à Becket was murdered in the cathedral back in 1170, Canterbury was the destination for thousands of pilgrims to the site of his martyrdom, and the town still retains a number of the buildings originally established to house and feed the travelers. A good part of the city wall also remains and can be walked; you can also see the fabulous ruins of the Augustinian Abbey (where I was lucky enough to see the absolutely full moon rising through the last arch left standing in the nave at just about 6 o’clock one early December evening!). (Canterbury also houses my nomination for most impressive Starbuck’s outlet anywhere—in a 14th century half-timbered building just outside the Cathedral gate.)

Lincoln. Probably my favorite town/city for a day trip in all of Britain. Lincoln Cathedral is many an expert’s nominee for best high gothic cathedral in Britain, and I would agree. It truly is stunning. Much more consistent in design than most of the world’s cathedrals (which tended to be built, and sometimes rebuilt, over two or three hundred years, and thus reflect several quite different aesthetics), it includes the absolutely beautifully graceful Angel Choir—maybe the finest example of high gothic architecture anywhere (yep, even better than anything at Chartres). I’ve wandered this building many a time, and I’ve never tired of “reading” it as I go. (I especially like the Judgment Tympanum at the south transcept door.) But as nice as the building is, it is made more impressive by its setting—high on what is the only substantial hill for miles in any direction. You can see it from afar, and it truly dominates not just the town, but the entire area. And if this were not enough, it also has a charming Castle poised on the other half of the hilltop. It’s not a big imposing thing like the Tower of London or Warwick Castle, but it has walls and lookouts and other bits that I’ve had a wonderful time exploring. And then, the town itself is worth walking about—especially that part of the town on the hill. All in all, a fine day out. (This takes two trains--check the schedules carefully to avoid a long wait....)

Cambridge, Oxford. I’ll offend all scholars at Oxford and Cambridge by dealing with both at once, but truth to tell, though very different, these cities also share a lot. Cambridge is a little more walkable, maybe, and accommodating, but both are chock full of walled colleges, each with its own sights and traditions. You are always a visitor, of course, so be prepared to be blocked from some of the sights on many days, and with so many of us peeping in their gates, many colleges have taken to asking an entry fee to wander within. If you happen to have a connection with someone at one place or the other, use it. They will be able to take you places and show you things that others can only dream about. Both are easy train rides; each can be investigated in a day.

Rochester. If you like Dickens, you are very likely to like Rochester. You will probably like Rochester, in fact, whether you like Dickens or not! It has a fabulous cathedral—not quaint, exactly, but not so imposing and BIG as many of its peers. I like its nave as well as any in England—built on solid Norman piers. (Of course, I have a great fondness for solid Norman piers. Others may prefer the heaven seeking arches of later centuries.) There is also Rochester Castle's wonderful keep to wander, and a Dickens Museum that true Dickensians will love. If you have just a bit of ingenuity, you can also find your way to “Miss Havisham’s House”—or at least the house tradition says Dickens had in mind when he was writing the early chapters of Great Expectations. (Unlike Satis House, as Dickens names it in the book, this house obviously has never gone up in smoke!) (And by the way, if you've never read Great Expectations, it has to be right up there with the best introductions imaginable for a trip to London!)

Colchester. Another of my favorite towns, Colchester is best known for its Roman remains. It was a major Roman settlement, and because it was sort of in the boonies, when the Romans left no one seemed driven to use the Old Roman Wall and buildings as stone or brick quarries as they did in London and St Albans. So you can wander around a LOT of Roman remains. It, too, is a hill town, has a fine old Castle Keep and Museum to visit, and makes a nice, calm, and uncrowded day out. The ruins of old St Botolph's Priory are also pretty cool. Tourists do not flock there—in many ways it is still a backwater. And that, for my purposes (though certainly not for everyone's purposes) makes it a very fine place indeed.

Battle. This town gets my award for most surprisingly interesting day trip. It’s a town built at the site of the Battle of Hastings down near the English Channel. That battle, all will remember, was in 1066 and led to the ascendancy of the French speaking Norman kings over what had been an Anglo-Saxon (and very Danish-influenced) country. Be that as it may, what lies in Battle is the field itself where much of the battle took place, along with Battle Abbey, an establishment built at the top of the battlefield by William the Conqueror himself, commemorating his victory. Ruins of this Abbey remain and are a pleasure to meander through; later buildings, in the Webster family (!) for centuries after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century, have now become a girls' school. You can wander around the battlefield from sign to sign, each describing a stage in the affair. I put this visit off for years, and then went down one year for lack of anything else I wanted to do, and I really enjoyed this. The town itself, too, is very pleasant. I imagine it fills with tourists at some point, but it was pretty laid back when I went in mid-March, quiet, pleasant--all in all, a good place for good weather and a good walk.