Beyond London: Rural retreats under an hour from the capital

Sunset over the South Downs © Matt Gibson / Shutterstock

Sunset over the South Downs © Matt Gibson / Shutterstock

With autumn fast approaching, it’s time to start planning a cosy countryside break. The rural weekend getaway – bracing walks, inviting gastropubs, stylish bedrooms, bounteous breakfasts – is something we Brits have honed into an artform over recent years, with plenty of alluring options in the green belt and beyond. Whether you’re visiting London for business or pleasure, consider a jaunt beyond the city limits. You can easily squeeze in some of our finest southern scenery on one of these quick overnight stays, all of which are under an hour’s train ride from the capital.

The Chilterns

The Chilterns span a scenic stretch of the home counties between the River Thames north of Reading and the M1 motorway west of Luton, offering glorious walking opportunities around Henley-on-Thames and the National Trust Ashridge Estate in particular. A designated area of outstanding natural beauty, the Chiltern Hills have long been a rural playground for country-loving capital dwellers, who come to cycle traffic-free bike routes, wander through tracts of ancient woodland, or visit some of the region’s stately homes and gardens, like former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Victorian mansion Hughenden Manor.

Quintessential English countryside in the Chilterns © Paul Daniels / Shutterstock

Quintessential English countryside in the Chilterns © Paul Daniels / Shutterstock

Where to stay: The leafy, well-to-do Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden has appeared in TV drama Midsomer Murders, but is best known as the home of famous children’s author Roald Dahl, whose work is celebrated in an excellent small museum in the village centre. A 10-minute walk away, hunker down for the night at the quaint 15th-century Nag’s Head Restaurant and Hotel. This traditional brick-and-flint pub has a large inglenook fireplace, pared-back bedrooms with exposed oak timbers, and an AA-awarded restaurant serving Anglo-French fusion cuisine.

Getting there: Catch a direct Chiltern Railways train to Great Missenden from London Marylebone station. You’ll be strolling down the historic High Street just 45 minutes after leaving the capital.

Surrey Hills

Another official area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the pastoral Surrey Hills encompass the western section of the chalk North Downs, occupying about a quarter of Surrey county. Gently undulating, they contain several accessible and well-known beauty spots, including the natural amphitheatre of Devil’s Punch Bowl, the wooded Leith Hill with its restored Gothic tower, and the scenic viewpoint of Box Hill which has a National Trust visitors’ centre and overlooks the River Mole and the Mole Valley. Box Hill and its surroundings – including the challenging Zig-Zag Road – formed part of the cycling route for the 2012 Summer Olympics road race events, and the sport remains hugely popular with visitors to the area.

Stepping stones over the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill, Surrey © BBA Photography / Shutterstock

Stepping stones over the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill, Surrey © BBA Photography / Shutterstock

Where to stay: The pretty village of Mickleham lies a mile and a half north of Box Hill. It’s home to the charming Running Horses pub; a former coaching inn which gained its moniker after two horses tied for victory in the 1828 Epsom Derby. Named after famous racecourses, the five understated guest rooms come with large sash windows and soft tartan carpets, while downstairs in the cosy restaurant/bar there are generously proportioned wood-panelled dining booths – unusual for a British boozer and a nice touch. There’s free bike storage too.

Getting there: Mickleham is a 5-minute taxi ride from Box Hill and Westhumble station or a 10-minute taxi or 20-minute bus ride from Leatherhead, both of which are served by direct trains from London Victoria in around 45 minutes.

South Downs National Park

View from the South Downs Way © jamesdavidphoto / Shutterstock

View from the South Downs Way © jamesdavidphoto / Shutterstock

Stretching from the medieval city of Winchester to the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head near Eastbourne, the UK’s newest national park is unusual in that it lies so close to the highly populated conurbations of southeast England. Markedly different in scale to the Lake District’s glacial valleys or the barren heathlands of Exmoor, its landscape is more farmland than far-flung, with many of the surrounding towns and villages an easy stroll from its rolling uplands. This lack of remoteness is precisely what appeals to time-pressed tourists and hardworking locals, who can hop on a packed commuter train in London and be walking a section of the 100-mile South Downs Way in next to no time.

Boutique bedrooms at The Bull, Ditchling © The Bull / Emma Gutteridge

Boutique bedrooms at The Bull, Ditchling © The Bull / Emma Gutteridge

Where to stay: Base yourself in the historic East Sussex village of Ditchling on the eastern side of the park and book a room at 2016 Great British Pub of the Year, The Bull. This intimate Tudor inn is within walking distance of the South Downs Way, and offers the warmest of settings for a post-hike pint (preferably from Bedlam; the pub’s own brewery). Upstairs, the four boutique bedrooms come with metro-tiled bathrooms, plush fabrics and period features, and range in tone from moody and dramatic to stylish contemporary country. Down below, the low-beamed, low-lit bar offers a rustic-chic vibe and serves a modern British menu featuring seasonal produce from the ample garden at the rear. The pub’s recent accolades have only heightened demand, so expect to see an ambitious glass-fronted restaurant extension open its doors within the next few months.

Getting there: Trains from London Victoria will deliver you to neighbouring village Hassocks in under 50 minutes. It’s a five-minute taxi ride from Hassocks station to Ditchling, or you can walk there in around 25 minutes.

Discover more to see and do in the capital with our London destination guide.

About Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.
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