10 unusual days out from London
Wandering the bleak marshes of Romney, near Dungeness, is a surreal affair at the best of times, but when you spot one of the Denge sound mirrors, it becomes officially Tarkovsky territory. These three imposing concrete structures, two circular ones of 20ft and 30ft and one huge curved 200ft-wall, were constructed more than a century ago as early radar devices aimed at providing early warning of enemy aircraft approaching Britain across the English Channel. They weren’t terribly effective (it’s said you could actually hear the enemy approaching with the naked ear before the mirrors picked them up) but there they stand like some weird sci-fi sentinels. There’s no close-up public access, but join one of the guided walks run by the Romney Marsh Countryside Project and you’ll get a mine of interesting info, as well as some great photos.
Get there: By car in about two hours from central London, or by train from St Pancras International to Ashford International and bus to Lydd or Dungeness.
On a summer’s day you could easily think you were in Provence as you approach the 25 acres of bright purple blossoms that make up Mayfield Lavender Farm. Tucked away behind a stretch of Croydon Lane (and easily accessible thanks to the 166 bus) on the North Surrey Downs near Epsom, the family-run organic farm is open from late spring (usually May) until autumn (mid- September), but if you’re planning to take part in its annual photo competition, owners Lorna and Brendan Maye advise visiting during July and August. Four miles away at Reigate Road near Epsom Downs, there’s also a nursery and gift shop, open year-round, Tue–Sat.
Mayfield Lavender Farm, Croydon Lane, Banstead, Surrey SM7 3BE
Get there: By car in about one hour from central London, or by train from London Bridge to Woodmansterne, then the bus.
OK, it’s not quite Necker Island or the desert island of Robinson Crusoe, but Osea Island on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex is quite a remarkable semi-deserted private island. You have to stay for at least two nights to be able to visit this ‘exclusive luxury island holiday resort’, but once you’ve booked it’s a real adventure getting onto the tiny tidal island, accessed via a mile-long causeway emerging from the estuary for just four hours a day. Having made it across, the 380 acres of countryside, pretty village and four miles of beaches and coastline make it feel like another world. Bring your cozzie; should the grey waters of the estuary prove unappealing dip-wise, there’s a saltwater swimming pool on the island, and you can borrow a bike to cycle around it all.
Get there: By car in about two hours from central London, or by train from either Liverpool St to Witham (and taxi to Osea in about 15 minutes).
Set on the southern edge of Windsor Great Park, near Ascot, the 2-mile-long Virginia Water is bordered by some properly weird features, including a 100ft-high totem pole, carved from a single cedar tree in 1958 by Mungo Martin. Other less unusual features include the Ruins (a collection of artefacts from Libya), and a manmade waterfall. It can all be seen on a great lakeside walk (half paved, half natural trails) of around 4.5 miles that takes these in and offers loads of picnic spots. Best of all, it’s free, though you do have to pay to park in the car park, which is open from 8am to 7pm (or dusk, if earlier).
Get there: By car in about 50 minutes from central London, or by train from Waterloo to Egham or Virginia Water.
Tiny All Saints’ Church Tudeley has the distinction of being the only church in the world whose stained glass windows are all by Marc Chagall, and the contrast between the humble church and the rich European modernism of the artist’s swirling blues and golds is unmissable. Chagall’s hauntingly lovely windows were brought about by the tragic death in 1963 of a young modern art lover, Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, whose parents commissioned Chagall to design the large east window as a tribute to their daughter. Arriving in 1967 to install the window, Chagall apparently said ‘It's magnificent. I will do them all.’ Colours range from golden yellows to deep blues, via bursts of orange, purple and pink, and detailed scenes encompass traditional Chagall tropes of hope and joy, such as angels, asses, birds and horses; experiencing them here, in this very special little church, is magical.
All Saints' Church, Tudeley, Tonbridge, Kent TN11 0NZ
Get there: By car in about 90 minutes from central London, or by train from Charing Cross, Waterloo East or London Bridge to Tonbridge.
There aren’t many transport hubs left that call to mind a bygone era of glamour, but Shoreham’s 1930s terminal building is a deserved Grade II-listed art deco gem, and forms part of an airport that, at the ripe old age of 106, has the distinction of being the oldest airport in the UK and the oldest purpose-built commercial airport in the world. Pack your vintage Vuitton and hop on a scheduled flight to Alderney or France, take a pleasure flight over Brighton, or even give flying a plane a go – lessons start from £99.
Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex BN43 5FF
Get there: By car in about two hours from central London, or by train from Victoria to Shoreham-by-Sea.
These 22-miles of manmade tunnels 30 metres under the Kent woodlands date back to the nineteenth century, when they used to provide the chalk needed in the production of bricks for the building of London, but there’s evidence of a chalk cave having been here at least 100 years before then, and a mention of mines here as far back as 1250. But it’s in the last century that the sprawling underground space really came into its own, when it was used for everything from an underground music venue hosting such mega-stars as Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin to a huge air-raid shelter in Britain during WWII, housing up to 15,000 people. You can learn all about the caves’ history on the atmospheric 45-minute lamp-lit tour that uses tableaux to create a suitably spooky atmosphere.
Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, Kent BR7 5NL
Get there: By car in about 1hr 10 minutes from central London, or by train from London Charing Cross, Cannon Street or London Bridge to Chislehurst.
Real snow! At Hemel Hempstead’s Snow Centre you can ski on tonnes of real white powder as you glide effortlessly down the main 160m-long slope, or edge down a bit less effortlessly on the training slope aimed at beginners and novices. If skiing’s not your thing there’s also sledging, ice gliding and snowboarding on offer. Changing park plans on Thursdays and Fridays enable freestylers to experience something new each time they come, and a wide range of lessons and passes should suit everyone. And if you really hate it, you can watch your mates fall flat on their arses from the alpine-themed restaurant offering panoramic views over the slope.
The Snow Centre, St Albans Hill, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP3 9NH
Get there: By car in about an hour from central London, or by train from Euston to Hemel Hempstead.
Many stately piles contain the odd folly, but in the eighteenth century the painter, gardener and designer Charles Hamilton really went to town with this 250-acre garden, constructing a space that he envisaged as being unique in Europe. And it is – filled with mad follies like a fake ruined abbey and mausoleum, a Turkish tent, the columned Temple of Bacchus that draws its inspiration from Ancient Rome, an amphitheatre, an elegant five arch bridge, a cute little round cottage called the Hermitage which once contained an actual hermit, and a beautiful red-brick Gothic tower. The piece de resistance though is undoubtedly the recently restored Crystal Grotto, in which hundreds of thousands of crystals have been used to recreate this most extraordinary of Hamilton’s follies. The 2.5-mile trail devised by him takes you past all of the garden’s features in the order he recommended.
Painshill Park, Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1JE
Get there: By car in about an hour from central London, or by train from Waterloo or Vauxhall to Cobham & Stoke d’Abernon or Weybridge.
Quite how an attraction filled with nothing but thousands of tiny, mostly static elements can be quite so absorbing for quite so long is a mystery, but this 1930s version of little Britain really does keep visitors hooked for hours. It’s the oldest model village in the world, with beautifully kept gardens and buildings – more than 200 of them – all threaded through with up to ten trains running along 450 metres of railway tracks, combining to create a view of the nation that’s utterly enchanting. It’s all thanks to creator Roland Callingham – or perhaps more accurately his wife, who reputedly told him that either the ever-expanding indoor hobby left the house or she did – and over the years it’s expanded to encompass a racecourse, boating lake, coalmine, fairground, port, aerodrome and castles.
Bekonscot Model Village, Warwick Road, Beaconsfield, HP9 2PL
Get there: By car in about an hour from central London, or by train from Marylebone to Beaconsfield station.