Escape the hustle and bustle of city life with one of these wonderful days out
Every day, huge numbers of travellers converge on London by train. From all points of the compass, railway lines come together in the capital as spokes to a bicycle wheel’s centre. Of course, what goes in must come out, which means all those trains on their return journeys bring a plethora of historic places within an hour or so’s reach of the capital.
They include fine cities, such as Canterbury, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mention Canterbury, and it conjures up images of its great cathedral; the city’s history, however, started long before it was built. To the Romans it was Durovernum Cantiacorum, ‘the town by the marshes’. Little trace remains of the Roman walls, but the medieval successors that we see today follow their path. Of the seven original gates, the West Gate, probably dating from the late 14th century, is the only survivor.
The cathedral, however, is not the city’s only site of religious significance. Beyond the walls lie the fine remains of St Augustine’s Abbey, established in AD598 and burial place of ancient Kentish kings. Greyfriars Chapel, meanwhile, was part of England’s first Franciscan priory. Eastbridge Hospital (hospital as in hospitable place) serves as home to a number of elderly residents. It was founded during the 12th century as a place of shelter for pilgrims.
Perhaps Rupert Brooke was having a bad day when he observed that “Cambridge people rarely smile” for the city’s eye-popping architecture and riverside setting are sufficient to cheer the gloomiest of souls. Less than an hour north of London, Cambridge is noted for its fine college buildings, many being separated from the River Cam by a lawned stretch of riverbank known as the Backs.
Cambridge also has an interesting line in bridges. The Mathematical Bridge at Queens’ College crosses the Cam at the Backs’ southern end. Dating from 1749 (and rebuilt twice since), tradition wrongly says that it was designed by Isaac Newton (he died in 1727). Its true designer was William Etheridge, also responsible for Ramsgate harbour, in Kent. The assertion that the bridge was built without nails or pegs is similarly without foundation.
At the Backs’ northern end is the 1831 Bridge of Sighs, linking two parts of St John’s College. It has little to compare with its Venetian counterpart save that it is enclosed.
King’s College Chapel merits a particular mention if only through the sheer tenacity of its builders. Work commenced in 1446 under the auspices of Henry VI, the college’s founder; it was to be more than a century before it was completed. The result is a magnificent example of the Perpendicular style and reputedly the world’s largest fan vault. The chapel is famous for its Christmas Eve service of nine lessons and carols transmitted worldwide by broadcasters – including more than 300 in the US.
Peterhouse, founded in 1284, is the oldest college. Its proper title is St Peter’s College. The Cambridge University Press, meanwhile, founded in 1534, is the world’s oldest publishing house. The university also has its own botanic garden, established in 1846 and home to more than 8,000 species.
Oxford’s botanic garden, with 5,000 species, can’t quite match that. But, founded in 1621, it is Britain’s oldest. Entire books must have been written about Oxford’s university architecture, whose examples include almost every style from medieval onwards. University College is the oldest, its origins stretching back to the 13th century – although its architecture is largely 17th century. Distinguished alumni (known as Univites) include Shelley, Clement Attlee and Bill Clinton.
Christ Church is almost certainly the most famous. As well as the largest dining hall it has, in Tom Quad, the largest quadrangle. Its chapel dates from the 12th century and stands where the city’s patron saint, St Frideswide, was buried. The chapel also doubles as Oxford’s cathedral – a status assumed in 1542. It is one of Britain’s smallest.
It’s a shade over an hour from London to Faversham, in whose long-vanished abbey King Stephen and his wife, Matilda, were buried. This Kentish creekside market town has more than 400 listed buildings – Faversham Creek, leading to the sea three miles away, having very much driven the town’s story, particularly for the industries that depended upon it.
Among these is Shepherd Neame brewery – Britain’s oldest. Established in 1698, it has a visitor centre and regularly runs tours and tastings. To learn precisely what sparging and trub might be, this is the place.
Faversham is also famous for gunpowder, first manufactured here in 1573; there were once six factories. Were it not for Faversham gunpowder, the face of modern Britain may have been quite different for it was used to clear paths to build railways and canals. Later, high explosives such as TNT were manufactured here.
Dudley Lord North, an English nobleman, can scarcely have imagined what he was starting when, in 1606, he stumbled across a spring near what is now Tunbridge Wells, in Kent. Indulging of the iron-rich water, he lauded what he perceived to be its health-giving properties.
Word spread, and the great and the good flocked to the new town that grew around the spring – anxious to take the waters. By Georgian times it was the place to be seen socially, not least because the great dandy Richard ‘Beau’ Nash had appointed himself master of ceremonies – a role he already enjoyed at Bath.
A day would typically be spent promenading, dancing, taking coffee and gathering at the fine assembly rooms. The centre of life was a street known as The Pantiles, named after its square, tile-shaped paving that was baked in a pan.
The Pantiles is a fine colonnaded thoroughfare; buildings worth looking out for include the old assembly rooms, (numbers 40-46) and the Corn Exchange; musicians serenaded promenaders from the balcony of number 43. During the summer, it is still possible to take the waters in The Pantiles, for which a small charge is made – not for the water, but the services of the costumed dipper who serves it.
Guided tours are usually available, taking in the fine architecture that developed as a result of the town’s fame. Alternatively, a ten-minute walk from The Pantiles leads to the Spa Valley Railway, a five-mile steam heritage line through the Kentish countryside.
It did not need Nash to attract the cognoscenti to Brighton: George IV made a thoroughly good job of that when he decided to settle there, his legacy being the onion-domed Royal Pavilion. The city – more correctly the city of Brighton and Hove – is as little as 52 minutes from the capital; small wonder that it is known as London-by-the-Sea.
Here will be found all the glories of the British seaside. Fairground rides, fish and chips, a pier… Brighton once had two, but the West Pier fell prey to a combination of fire and storms. All that is left is a truncated section incorporating the remains of a concert hall. Regardless of that, it does still mount one of the greatest free shows in Britain when, during the winter, as many as 40,000 starlings perform their stunning murmations as dusk falls.
The city is also home to Volk’s Railway, the world’s oldest electric railway and the brainchild of inventor Magnus Volk. Opened in 1883, it trundles for a mile along the seafront during summer months. Literature lovers, meanwhile, may retrace the footsteps of Pinkie Brown and Kolly Kibber from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.
Not to be outdone, Southend-on-Sea in Essex also offers the trappings of a popular day-trippers’ resort. Its star attraction is its pier, at 2,158m (7,080ft) the world’s longest; just as well as it also has the longest pier railway, although walking is still an option.
If that builds a healthy appetite, then three stops London-bound on the train leads to Leigh-on-Sea. It’s an old fishing village, the quarter to the south of the railway retaining much of its original charm. Leigh is famed for its seafood, particularly shellfish – and especially cockles.
In East Sussex, it’s hard to imagine how so much is crammed into the small county town of Lewes. A two motte, Norman castle (the only one similar is Lincoln); the remains of an 11th-century priory that was once one of England’s largest; Anne of Cleves House – part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII (she didn’t live there); a battlefield where, in 1264, Henry III was defeated; the Greenwich meridian; and a world-famous association with bonfire, Protestant martyrs and Guy Fawkes night.
Like many early saints St Alban died for his cause, thus becoming Britain’s first Christian martyr. He was a victim of the Romans in their city of Verulamium and it wasn’t long before a shrine appeared near his burial place. On this site northwest of London, soon to be known as St Albans, were subsequently built a Saxon church and a Benedictine abbey that eventually became St Albans Cathedral. It basks in the glow of being Britain’s oldest place of continuous Christian worship.
After their conquest of Britain in AD43 the Romans, nevertheless, made their mark in what was, at 200 acres, Britain’s third largest Roman town. Much has been excavated, including the theatre – the only one in Britain revealed in its entirety – and part of the city wall.
St Albans also witnessed two battles on its outskirts: the first in 1455, followed by a second in 1461 when Margaret of Anjou defeated the Yorkists on February 17.
Southwest of London, a one and a half mile walk from the station at Egham in Surrey leads to a meadow on the banks of the Thames, just downstream from Windsor. The surrounding area has become a focus for memorials marking man’s struggle for liberty. The Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial commemorates 20,456 Allied airmen and women of World War II who have no known grave; while the Kennedy Memorial, set in an acre of land donated to the United States, marks the assassination of the statesman in 1963.
Yet long before all that, this seemingly modest site bore witness to one of the most momentous events in England’s history. It was to sculpt forever the English way of life, its principles becoming the cornerstone of individual freedom and liberty throughout much of the world. It was here, in Runnymede, that King John signed Magna Carta.