Get the Hell Out of London

20 May

On a clear, windy day, ominous clouds creep in over the ancient landscape. (Photograph by Sam Bourns, My Shot)

Olympics, Olympics, Olympics.

With the Olympics coming up, the world’s abuzz about London. But sometimes you just want to get away from it all — especially when things are at their most frenetic.

Here are five fab getaways just hours from London (including the real Downton Abbey) by train.

Hampshire and Salisbury (90 minutes from Waterloo Station)

A couple takes in the scene at Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey. (Photo by Dave Parker, My Shot)

Wind along the sweeping drive toward Highclere Castle — the setting for Emmy Award-winning Downton Abbey – and the world of the Crawleys and their servants slowly emerges. “Let the building show you the way,” says current chatelaine Lady Carnarvon.

From Highclere, head southwest to Salisbury, the cathedral city immortalized in John Constable’s 19th-century landscape paintings, and see the best-preserved copy of the Magna Carta.

A few miles away stands Stonehenge, the “heathen temple” of stone slabs on Salisbury Plain. 

Brighton and South Downs (60 minutes from Victoria Station)

And no British city embodies full-blown English eccentricity better than Brighton. Blame it on George IV. He built the loopy, orientalist-inspired Royal Pavilion here as his seaside escape, helping to transform the relatively sedate fishing village of Brighthelmston into a fashionable Regency-era retreat.

A view of Brighton from the Palace Pier. (Photo by Elisa Condoluci, My Shot)

Yet Brighton is also the gateway to the South Downs and that quintessentially English ritual of the country walk. You can experience both the peculiar and the pastoral sides of the British personality after a quick trip south from London.

Birmingham (2 hours from Euston Station)

The biggest metropolis in England’s Midlands region, Birmingham was a crucial engine of the industrial revolution, but faltered when the 20th century brought disaster and decline.

Step off the train today, and you enter a place that looks like the result of a TV makeover show. Walk the key nightlife drag of Broad Street and you gain a glimpse of the city’s character (warm and defiantly unpretentious), then dabble in high culture at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and Symphony Hall.

Amid all this, Birmingham’s former life has not been forgotten: the city’s heavy-toil heritage has left it with a canal network that runs 35 miles.

Norwich and Sandringham (2 hours from Liverpool Street Station)

You don’t have to be a writer or a bibliophile to love Norwich, but this ancient city in Norfolk has lots of tales to tell and a literary tradition that dates back to the

Impeccably pruned trees and hedges on Sandringham grounds. (Photo by Sandra Angers Blondin, My Shot)

14th century. It’s easy to see why the atmospheric cathedral quarter would appeal to a writer. Historical novelist Rachel Hore says that when she wanders the old streets, “it’s as though voices from Norwich’s past are whispering to me.”

You probably won’t hear any literary gossip at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s estate 53 miles northwest of Norwich, but visiting the giant Victorian manse offers unique glimpses of the rural royal lifestyle enjoyed by four generations of England’s monarchs. 

Dover and Calais (80 minutes from St. Pancras Station a 90-minute ferry to Calais, France)

On a clear day, the chalky white cliffs are visible from Calais. (Photo by Fletcher Heisler, My Shot)

You could very easily be sitting over sole meunière for lunch at a Calais bistro, having tucked into bacon and eggs in Blighty (as the Brits call their island home).

Dover itself is “steeped in history,” says Jon Iveson, curator of the Dover Museum. The city is home not only to one of the oldest boats in the world, thought to be around 3,550 years old, but also to one of the finest medieval castles in Europe, with the best maintained freestanding Roman lighthouse in the world.

“The forts of the Western Heights are also well worth a visit,” says Iveson.

And don’t forget to check out those famous cliffs. 

Get the Hell Out of London

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