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20 brilliant excuses to get out of London this spring

Take dates and mates on these day trips from London, all easy to reach by train

By Time Out London in association with Thameslink

What have you got planned for Monday? Another day at the office or a fabulous lunch in the East Sussex countryside? A crammed bus commute or floating down the river Cam in a punt? From hang gliding to sculptures by the sea, from vintage shopping to cycling on the South Downs, read on and be inspired by our host of great ideas for doing something different to celebrate the spring. All of these destinations are easy to reach by train, too, so you can relax and maybe even treat yourselves to a cheeky glass of wine before you head back to town at the end of the day. 

Or how about a day out with the kids? Check out our 20 great family day trips

A concert for dogs

1. A concert for dogs

This year’s guest director of the annual Brighton Festival is Laurie Anderson (pictured), who has has written a 20-minute piece called ‘Music for Dogs’, specifically designed for the canine ear. Like many of the great events in the main festival and the Fringe Festival that runs alongside it, ‘Music for Dogs’ is free. Other highlights include free art exhibitions at Fabrica and the University of Brighton Gallery, challenging theatre including ‘The Litvinenko Inquiry’ and debates and talks, including an appearance by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. The festival runs from May 7 to 29.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Brighton (54 mins); London Bridge to Brighton (60 mins)

A flea market full of one-offs

2. A flea market full of one-offs

Lewes, between Brighton and Hastings, has a daily flea market that specialises in curios and collectibles from India and the Far East, but you’ll also find shelves stacked with homegrown trinkets. If you want your pad to stand out from the Ikea homes you’re surrounded by, this is interior decor heaven – retro and painted furniture, quirky lamps and mirrors, or perhaps a stuffed animal might catch your eye? There are lots of vintage fashions and secondhand books to browse for, too.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Lewes (60 mins)

Posing in a punt
© Iain Lewis, Visit England

3. Posing in a punt

After you’ve wandered the pretty alleyways and boutiques of Cambridge town centre, take to the water and do as every undergraduate has surely done at least once during their time at the university – go punting. If you don’t feel confident guiding your own vessel (or you doubt your date’s steering skills) hire a chauffeured punt and sit back to take in those picturesque colleges and bridges.

Getting there by train: King's Cross to Cambridge (46 mins)

A good lunch well earned

4. A good lunch well earned

The picturesque East Sussex village of Firle boasts a stately home, a cricket ground and a classic country pub, the Ram Inn. Some of the best hikes on the South Downs end here, where you can reward yourself with hearty, perfectly prepared English dishes. Or skip the walk and head straight here for a romantic fireside time of it. In summer, cool off in the pretty walled garden with a pint of local cider and a pint of prawns, caught daily by the local vicar.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Glynde (72mins)

Skydiving without a plane

5. Skydiving without a plane

Twinwoods Adventure Centre just north of Bedford offers indoor skydiving sessions as well as other adrenaline-pumping activities like surfing, climbing, shooting, archery and simulated motor racing. Their Bodyflight simulator lifts your body with an 180mph updraft, so you can hover in the air as if you’re really flying.

Getting there by train: St Pancras International to Bedford (35 mins), then bus

Spotting sculptures among the sea shells
© Stuart Wilson

6. Spotting sculptures among the sea shells

Linked to London by fast train, Folkestone is one of the quickest seaside fixes going, though when you arrive you’re presented with what just looks like another busy Kent town. So head straight down to the narrow old streets of the Creative Quarter near the harbour, where art galleries sit alongside cafés and independent shops and local artists rent studio space. Check the website and take a tour of the town’s artworks, including a few highlights right on the sea.

Getting there: Folkstone rail

Losing yourself in a field of lavender

7. Losing yourself in a field of lavender

Hitchin Lavender in Hertfordshire opens in early May, and from then until autumn it’s a heavenly scented retreat. In the flowering season, from mid-June, you can pick your own blooms, and in August there are perfume-laden outdoor cinema screenings at dusk. Or why not take a sketchbook and release your inner artist? The farm shop sell products they’ve made from the lavender, too. Open for visits from May 2 to September 18.

Getting there by train: King's Cross to Hitchin (30 mins)

Cycling without stopping for red lights

8. Cycling without stopping for red lights

Travel off peak or on weekends and you can take your bike on the train and really stretch your legs. If you want a gentle start, try the Nickey Line in Hertfordshire – seven miles of former railway track that’s now an easy journey through nature (Harpenden rail then change for Ely). For something a little more challenging, try the Fens – an 18-mile route on country lanes from Ely Cathedral to Wicken Fen Nature Reserve and back (Cambridge rail then change for Ely). Or take on the Brighton to Hastings 45-mile trip via Eastbourne and fill your lungs with coastal air while you’re at it (Brighton rail).

Picnic à la Austen
© Andrew Butler, National Trust

9. Picnic à la Austen

Keen cyclists might associate Box Hill with road racing ever since London 2012, but 200 years ago Jane Austen set the doomed picnic in her novel ‘Emma’ on the very same Surrey slopes. Now a National Trust estate, it’s wonderful for walking and photogenic views. Pack your own lunch and a blanket – your picnic can’t turn out any worse than Emma’s did.

Getting there by train: Clapham Junction to Boxhill & Westhumble (43 mins)

Wakeboarding wake-up

10. Wakeboarding wake-up

What else are you going to do with your weekend? Snooze under a newspaper? Box End Park near Bedford has outdoor watersports for all ages and abilities and plenty of ways to give yourself an almighty rousing as you speed across the water. Try the water-skiing and wakeboarding activities for adults or the open water swimming sessions.

Getting there by train: St Pancras International to Bedford (35 mins), then taxi

Retreating to an artists’ village

11. Retreating to an artists’ village

Hidden in various corners of Surrey countryside you’ll find all manner of Arts & Crafts gems, and the Watts Gallery Arts Village is one of the finest. This estate near Guildford features the first purpose-built gallery created to display the work of one person, Victorian painter and sculptor GF Watts. He and his wife created a place where other artists could come and work, as they continue to do today. As well as visiting the elegant art gallery, you can tour the family home, the surrounding woodlands and Mary Watts’ exuberantly decorated Chapel.

Getting there: Guildford rail then bus

Off-roading with a butler to serve you lunch

12. Off-roading with a butler to serve you lunch

Goodwood might be known for its horse racing, but it has other attractions with a lot more horsepower, too. Their Ultimate Driving session puts you behind the wheel of a flashy car (your choice of a funky Mini or something more slick and Bond-like) before you go for a spin on the track or head into the woods for an off-road adventure. One option even includes a ‘Butler’s Picnic’ lunch to take a break from all that tyre-screeching.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Chichcester (88 mins)

A rummage for treasure

13. A rummage for treasure

St Albans might be famous for its Roman past, but there are many more modern gems to be unearthed here too. For an easy day out from London, head here for the quirky vintage and antique shops. Try LA James (11 George St), which has been selling antiques and collectibles including Moorcroft pottery, Steiff bears and fossils for over 60 years, and The Fleetville Vintage Emporium (221 Hatfield Rd), with over 50 sellers and an ever-changing stock of everything from vinyl to old toys.

Getting there by rail: London St Pancras to St Albans City (20 mins)

Veggie shoes

14. Veggie shoes

Yes you heard us right. Next time someone thinks they’ve got the better of you for eating nowt but veggie burgers but still wearing leather shoes, put them in their place by showing off your trendy heels or trainers made without any animal having to pay the ultimate price. Located along the bustling boho streets of the North Laine district in Brighton, Vegetarian Shoes (2 Gardner St, BN1 1UP) specialises in footwear, belts and other stylish accessories usually made of leather.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Brighton (54 mins); London Bridge to Brighton (60 mins)

© Bridget Smith

15. Architecture-on-sea

In the polite coastal town of Bexhill stands one of the UK’s most stunning, truly gorgeous buildings – the De La Warr Pavilion. This curvaceous Modernist arts centre was built in 1935 and is lovingly maintained in all its dazzling whitewashed glory, sitting right on the seafront. There are regular free exhibitions and building tours, and a busy schedule of live shows, films and activities. Get your culture fix then sunbathe on the lawns out front.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Bexhill (107 mins)

An art adventure

16. An art adventure

East Sussex has some of the most wonderful art galleries you’ll find anywhere outside London. If you want to make your art experience more active, take on the Coastal Culture Trail – a 20-mile route linking the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. The trail’s website has travel details and places to stay, shop, eat and drink along the way.

Getting there by train: East Croydon to Eastbourne (65 mins)

Playing volleyball, California-style

17. Playing volleyball, California-style

Okay, so Brighton seafront isn’t quite Malibu, but Yellowave Beach Sports is open all year round for anyone who’s up for a little sporty action on the sand. Yes, sand. Pack your shorts, hope for sun and hone your beach volleyball skills, or book a beach rugby pitch and work up an appetite for chips on the pier afterwards.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Brighton (54 mins); London Bridge to Brighton (60 mins)

The cradle of good theatre
© Philip Vile

18. The cradle of good theatre

Not every good stage show starts in the West End. The Chichester Festival Theatre was the birthplace of the National Theatre Company when its first artistic director was Laurence Olivier, and it’s been a well respected creative space ever since. Among its more recent successes was ‘Enron’, which transferred to London and Broadway, and this season’s highlights include new productions of old favourites and fresh writing, plus star-studded casts. In the spring Patricia Hodge stars in ‘Travels with My Aunt’ and Huge Bonneville appears in Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Chichcester (88 mins)

Getting funky by the beach
© Dean Chalkely

19. Getting funky by the beach

It’s long been a tradition for the hippest music events to be held at what were once regarded as the naffest places – the good old British holiday camp. In May the Soundcrash Funk & Soul Weekender flies the flag for just that, a weekend at Camber Sands Pontins with all manner of groovesome noises from some of the best live acts and DJs on the planet, including Roy Ayers, Afrika Bambaata and Norman Jay (pictured) among a packed line-up. Go along and find out exactly what ‘disco yoga’ is.

Getting there: Rye rail

Flying like a bird

20. Flying like a bird

At Devil’s Dyke (acres of rolling hillside just a short bus ride from Brighton) you can try your hand at hang gliding and paragliding. Even if you haven’t been before, there are local organisations like the Southern Hang Gliding Club that can help get you off the ground for an experience like no other.

Getting there by train: Victoria to Brighton (54 mins); London Bridge to Brighton (60 mins). Then bus. 

Thameslink offers

Thameslink offers

Thameslink operates train services to and from the heart of London, between Bedford and Brighton via Luton and Gatwick Airport, and St Albans and Wimbledon.

Great Northern connects King’s Lynn, Cambridge and Peterborough, via Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City with London King’s Cross. Metro services run to and from Moorgate weekdays, late evening and at weekends.

Kids travel for just £2 when accompanied by an adult on our great value Off-Peak tickets, plus get 2FOR1 offers to heaps of attractions when you travel by train.

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