Three Great Days Out
If you hire a car in London, then it’s easy to reach Stonehenge and Salisbury to the west, Brighton and the South Downs to the south, and Oxford and its university to the northwest. Here’s why each of them offers a brilliant day out.
Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall
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One: Discover one of Britain’s best historic adventures
It takes just a couple of hours to drive the 100 miles from central London to Stonehenge but you’ll be travelling back thousands of years in time. You’ll spot Wiltshire’s world-famous mysterious pre-historic stone circle on the crest of a grassy hill as you approach on the A303 from the east. Park at the award-winning modern visitor centre, a mile to the west, then board a shuttle bus to the site itself. After a memorable audio tour around the perimeter of the ancient stones, it’s worth taking a stroll further afield. Explore this inspiring and thought-provoking landscape of ceremonial avenues and burial mounds, trying to imagine what it was all for. And if you’ve got time, make the short 24-mile drive to Avebury for even more Neolithic landmarks – including Europe’s largest stone circle and tallest man-made mound.
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The historic city of Salisbury is just ten miles south of Stonehenge. Its old centre is a charming place to visit, with quirky shops, galleries and cafés in half-timbered buildings along cobbled streets, winding paths through picturesque water meadows along the River Avon and grand buildings lining a busy market square. There’s also the notable hill-fort of Old Sarum on the outskirts. But towering above all these attractions, Salisbury’s highlight is the magnificent cathedral, whose needle-like medieval tower can be seen from miles around. It’s Britain’s tallest spire, and was once the world’s tallest building. Today the breathtaking interior houses the best-preserved copy of the Magna Carta and Europe’s oldest working clock. It also boasts the country’s largest cloisters and biggest cathedral close, a walled grassy stretch also containing the preserved old houses of Salisbury’s rich grandees. It makes a marvellous spot for a picnic.
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Two: Bohemian Brighton is just an hour’s drive from London
Whether it’s trendy roller-bladers gliding through elegant white Regency square or cool cafés in the arches under the Victorian Promenade, Brighton manages to combine the historic and contemporary in one appealing package. If you hire a car in London you’ll find the south coast resort is an easy 53-mile drive away. You can be in Britain’s most sophisticated seaside city in an hour.
Brighton’s reputation for bohemian fun started 200 years ago, when the Prince Regent – later George IV – built the extraordinary Royal Pavilion, a riotous indulgence of Indian domes and lavish Chinese interiors. Even today the Pavilion is one of Britain’s most exotically beautiful buildings.
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The flamboyant George bestowed a liberal atmosphere upon his ‘City By The Sea’ and it still attracts those seeking alternative lifestyles. That can mean shopping is much more fun that usual. Look out for unusual souvenirs in the Brighton’s eccentric narrow winding mazes of brick-paved alleys and streets known as the Lanes. You’ll find everything from crystal healers to second-hand unicycles. There seem to be restaurants, cafés and bars at every turn and Brighton is renowned for its dance and club scene.
And of course, there’s a long sand and pebble beach to enjoy, along with lively amusements on the historic Pier and bargain-priced factory outlet shops at the bustling yacht marina.
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Need a calm moment? Drive a short way out of town into the glorious rolling chalk countryside known as the South Downs. It’s a protected National Park full of wildlife, views and gorgeous villages. If you have a hire car, it’s a perfect area for a relaxing scenic drive.
Three: Visit Oxford to learn more… about the historic university
It’s a quick 60-mile drive from the centre of London to the university city of Oxford. This is the famous ‘city of dreaming spires’, which gives you a chance to visit one of the world’s most prestigious centres of academic learning and a city packed with links to both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.
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The centre of Oxford is great for a wander at any time: it’s full of beautiful old college buildings dating back to medieval times. There are more than 900 historic buildings in one square mile. Wander through a maze of cobbled alleyways and quadrangles as students cycle past clutching their books, or explore the ancient Bodleian Library, one of the biggest in the world. Peep into the doorways of the colleges to see the old ‘quads’. You’ll find they all have different opening times and arrangements but the best ones to visit are Christchurch, New College and Magdalen, which has its own deer park.
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Among dozens of galleries and museums, you’ll find the grand colonnaded entrance of The Ashmolean, one of the best art and history museums outside London and one of the world’s oldest. It’s free to enter. Wander down the High Street, which is lined with grand college buildings, and dodge the cycle traffic in Broad Street. Here you’ll find the enormous Blackwell’s bookshop, again, it’s one of the world’s biggest with a quarter of a million different titles on two-and-a-half miles of shelves. There’s even a pub in the middle of it. Climb the steps up to the top of St Mary’s church tower for the best view of the centre – you’ll even be able to peer down into the gardens and quads of the colleges that aren’t open for visitors.