But sometimes a day in nature just isn’t long enough, and a good stint in the green stuff is what’s required. Luckily, the UK has some grand patches of countryside to unwind in. So many, in fact, that it can be tricky to decide where to go.
That’s where Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty come in. These verdant areas are given special conservation laws to limit development and preserve their natural beauty. In other words they’re quiet, pretty, and could be your next getaway. There are 46 AONBs across Britain, and a handful of these are fairly close to London. Take a look through our list of AONBs within three hours of London and start planning your countryside retreat.
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Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty near London
What is it? An uncrowded and peaceful area of natural beauty, which inspired the likes of Roald Dahl, Oscar Wilde, and Agatha Christie.
Why go? Reclaim your personal space in The Chilterns, a quieter alternative to more well-known UK holiday destinations. Kids will love the Roald Dahl museum (Dahl lived here for almost 40 years), and grown-ups will love the relaxed rustic pubs and Michelin-starred restaurants. The area is so well bestowed with countryside walks, that it’s got it’s own festival dedicated to hillside strolling. Plan your trip for October (exact dates for 2020 TBC) and rub shoulders with fellow ramblers.
Don’t miss: Food fans should add Marlow to their bucket list. Tom Kerridge has no less than three restaurants here, settle in for pub grub in at The Coach or head to The Butcher’s Tap for food on the go.
Stay here: Nestled on the edge of the historic Stonor Park estate, a short drive from picturesque Turville, White Pond Farm has choice of cosy accommodation. Treat yourself with a cute barn-conversion, or go all out with a wing of the main house.
Get there: Around 40 minutes by train from Marylebone to Amersham.
What is it? A charming medieval landscape with a lively events calendar.
Why go? Whether you want to wander the pretty woodland walks, scale the sandstone crags of Harrison’s Rocks, or pedal along the 22km of cycle tracks in Bedgebury Forest, High Weald packs a lot into its patch of south east England. Despite enjoying a relaxed pace of life, the area also has a bumper line up of events throughout the year, from a popular walking festival to yoga sessions in the woods.
Don’t miss: A trip along the Spa Valley Railway. Steam train experiences include the High Weald Belle – a retro dining experience in the plush 1960s carriages hauled through the picturesque countryside by a steam or diesel engine.
Stay here: Cabins don’t get much cuter than those nestled in the 40 acres of gardens belonging to Swallowtail Hill. Choose from the fairytale Meadow Keeper’s Cottage, complete with log burner and stable door, or the luxe Roundhouse with a wood-fired hot tub.
Get there: Around 45 minutes from London Bridge to Tunbridge Wells, which has bus services out into the High Weald countryside.
What is it? A pretty patch of verdant countryside that’s surprisingly easy to reach from London.
Why go? Even the reluctant day-tripper can get on board with the Surrey Hills, a convenient green getaway that visitors can reach in under an hour. The area goes big on walking and trail running – both of which make the most of outstanding scenery. There’s a huge choice of destinations on offer, but for starters, go for Box Hill and follow the three-mile butterfly walk.
Don’t miss: The Georgian market town of Dorking is the perfect base to explore the surrounding hills. There’s Michelin-starred Sorrel restaurant, incredible antiques stores, and bags of independent character.
Stay here: Book the Garden Cottage, surrounded by formal grounds on the estate of grand Edwardian retreat Polesden Lacey. As an added bonus, the National Trust-run cottage allows guests free use of the on-site croquet courts and gardens out of hours, and entry to the main house for free. That’s if you can drag yourself away from the roll top bath.
Get there: Around 50 minutes by train from Waterloo to Dorking Station.
What is it? Gentle rolling hills dotted with orchids, orchards and long winding rivers.
Why go? The iconic white cliffs of Dover might be the most famous part of the Kent Downs, but the area has so much more to offer. Bike routes – such as the Great Stour Way and the Perry Woods Cycle Trail near Canterbury – offer paved, car-free paths through the countryside, while well-trodden rambling paths allow walkers to immerse themselves in nature. For the best views, trek up Lympne Hill and look out over a patchwork of fields and Romney Marsh.
Don’t miss: One of the Kent Downs’ most stunning natural habitats is surprisingly (and conveniently) close to the M2. Nature-lovers should make a bee-line for the Medway Gap, just south of Rochester, famed for its orchids, wild poppies, dormice, birds, and butterflies.
Stay here: Perfectly placed for exploring the surrounding hills, Eastwell Manor is a grand old house and gardens under two hours drive from central London. The building is regal, but the vibes are much more chilled, with a modern fit-out and a selection of cosy rooms to choose from. We love the shepherd’s huts, based in the hotel grounds and overlooking the north Downs.
Get there: One hour 20 minutes from London Bridge to Wye.
What is it? A pretty pastoral landscape, captured by some of the UK’s best loved artists.
Why go? Even if you haven’t been to Dedham Vale, you may well recognise it. The scenery inspired a troupe of nature-loving artists, its cute villages and agrarian scenes immortalised by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough. Imitate art and book a trip to enjoy boat trips on the River Stour, walk along the Stour Valley Path, or meander through any one of the chocolate-box villages.
Don’t miss: The tiny hamlet of Flatford was a huge inspiration for Constable, and much of it is now owned by the National Trust. Walk in his footsteps and admire the cottage on Flatford bridge, the old mill and the granary. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to create your own masterpiece.
Stay here: Live out your pastoral dreams at Thornington Lodge – a seventeenth-century building with bucket-loads of character, beaches within easy reach and long walks straight from the door.
Get there: Around two hours by car, or 1 hour by train to Colchester and 20 minutes by taxi from there.
What is it? Picture-perfect villages, winding canals and Neolithic marvels in the third largest AONB in the UK.
Why go? If giant horses float your boat, gallop over to the North Wessex downs. There, you’ll find the famous White Horse – a huge chalk equine figure carved into the hillside. When you’re done horsing around, there’s a colossal 670 sq miles of lush countryside to explore, which takes in parts of Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.
Don’t miss: A walk along The Ridgeway – a prehistoric route which starts at Overton Hill and passes right through to the Chilterns.
Stay here: From locally made ale to hand-made scotch eggs, the Red Lion Freehouse is a traditional boozer that strives to do things the right way. It’s been given a Michelin star for its troubles, and boasts comfortable dog-friendly rooms – some with roll top baths.
Get there: Around two hours by car.
What is it? A pretty island of chalk cliffs, meadows and sandy bays.
Why go? Sun seekers take note: the Isle of Wight is consistently among the sunniest places in the UK – the seaside resort of Ventnor even has its own microclimate. Aside from blue skies, the island has loads to do, including llama walks, cool gin bars and a steam railway which cruises through the countryside.
Don’t miss: Get better acquainted with the stunning white cliffs of Freshwater Bay with a sea kayaking expedition with Isle of Wight Adventure Activities. Instructors are on hand to help navigate sea caves, and wetsuits ensure you’re wrapped up warm, whatever the weather.
Stay here: Tiny Homes owners Helen and Frazer Cunningham are the proud creators of these adorable wooden houses, complete with wood-burning stoves and composting toilets. What’s more, the retreats are solar-powered and sleep up to four people. Cosy.
Get there: One hour 30 minutes by train from Waterloo Station, plus ten minutes by bus and 25 minutes by boat.
What is it? Lush green meadows and chocolate box villages in a stunning corner of rural England.
Why go? The Cotswolds take up almost 800 square miles. Expect village fetes and kitsch dog shows galore in pretty honey-coloured villages. We’re big fans of Bibury, and the self-described ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’, Bourton-on-the-water. It’s heaven for ramblers, who can walk all or part of the Cotswold Way National Trail - 102 miles of outstanding scenery, passing through historic sights, castles and churches.
Don’t miss: Just because it’s steeped in history doesn’t mean it’s stuck in time; there’s plenty of forward-thinking attractions in the Cotswolds, such The Wild Rabbit – a modern pub with a seasonal kitchen which sources directly from nearby organic farms.
Stay here: Close your eyes and think of an idyllic rural pub. It probably looks something like The Swan Hotel, an old coaching inn covered in Ivy and set by the river. The idyllic spot also has cosy rooms – a great base to explore the local area.
Get there: Around two hours 30 minutes by car.
What is it? Charming countryside, winding country roads and cute villages.
Why go? This AONB gets its name from the hunts that used to take place here – but nowadays it’s a much more relaxed affair. Stressed city folk can get in touch with nature (or at least the local village pubs) in Cranborne Chase, with its remote downland, ancient forests and winding streams. Highlights include the world-famous landscape gardens at the National Trust’s Stourhead, walks along the Nadder Valley, and road-tripping between the many charming villages.
Don’t miss: End of the Road Festival is chilled and friendly with a well curated line-up, and takes place at Larmer Tree Gardens at the end of August.
Stay here: Soak up the rural vibes without giving up home comforts with a stay in this boutique shepherd’s hut based on the grounds of Marshwood Farm. They even deliver a breakfast hamper to the door of your hut, if the short stroll to the farmhouse is a little too strenuous.
Get there: Around two hours 45 minutes by car.
What is it? A pebbly stretch of heaths and estuaries for salty seaside walks through the bracken.
Why go? While it’s impossible to ignore Sizewell B – Britain’s youngest working nuclear power plant – this rather bulky building by no means dominates the Suffolk Coast. Elsewhere along the shingle coastline there’s pristine nature reserves, windy walks and pretty fishing towns.
Don’t miss: Brace yourself and take to the north sea, which - despite being chilly - is a hot spot for kitesurfing, sailing and jet skis. Lowestoft, Kessingland, and Felixstowe are among the best beaches to get some water sporting action.
Stay here: The luxury lodge tents at Secret Meadows are somewhere between luxury tent and country cottage, boasting everything you could need for a boujie weekend escape, including a hot tub and wood burning range.
Get there: Around two hours 20 minutes by car.
What is it? A huge expanse of serene coastline for you to stretch out and do your thing.
Why go? The Norfolk coast is the perfect antidote to the overpacked streets of London. Broad sandy beaches and sweeping dunes provide an atmospheric backdrop – and film-makers seem to agree, with many spots along the Norfolk coast featuring in major films and TV productions.
Don’t miss: Blakeney Point – it’s a salt marsh that’s home to a cute colony of grey seals. It’s best seen by boat, and it’s well worth a trip in winter: if you’re there between November and early January, you might spot pups.
Stay here: Wells-next-the-Sea is a sprawling sandy bay dotted with classic beach huts. Not that you’ll be spending much time paddling after you check into your deluxe room at The Crown Hotel, with its freestanding, outdoor copper bathtub.
Get there: Around three hours by car.
What is it? A geologist’s dream filled with breathtaking views and dramatic cliffs.
Why go? The Jurassic Coast, West Country accents and Thomas Hardy: just three reasons why Dorset should be your next UK getaway. Fact-fans will be happy to hear that Dorset’s AONB takes up 44 percent of the county, and provides restorative, laid back charm. This protected area features the fossil-studded, historic Jurassic Coast and stunning limestone rock formations like as Durdle Door, which display around 185 million years of Earth’s history.
Don’t miss: Just along the coast from Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove is a sheltered white pebble beach that is almost perfectly circular, offering a haven of serenity as you watch the boats bobbing in the clear blue water.
Stay here: Travel light and pitch up at a wooden camping pod at the Durdle Door Holiday Park. Just 200m from the beach, pods feature picnic tables, heating and electricity – but you will need to pack a sleeping bag.
Get there: Around three hours by car.
What is it? Rolling hills with breathtaking views over Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Why go? Fans of walking will love a good ramble over the Malvern Hills, famed for its stunning hillside treks – just remember to pack some locally bottled Holywell Malvern spring water for the journey. Start with the Worcestershire Beacon, a short hike from the town centre of Great Malvern to the highest point in the Malvern Hills and the county.
Don’t miss: The water in Malvern has attracted all sorts of eminent guests, from Queen Elizabeth I to Florence Nightingale. It’s supposed to have curative properties, but see for yourself at one of the many spas that have sprung up around the district, using the local spring water in pools and treatments.
Stay here: There’s a few hotel options in Great Malvern but they can be a little fusty – we’re fans of this modern apartment in the town centre. Available on Airbnb, it features a roll top bath, two bedrooms, a tranquil garden – and of course, the Malvern Hill walks at your doorstep.
Get there: Around three hours by car.