A Staycation Guide to the Sunny South East

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Although it is only the third largest of England’s regions, the South East is the most densely populated, thanks to its proximity to Greater London and its numerous transportation links. In addition to this, the South East has plenty of international links, with Gatwick Airport and regular ferry crossings enabling easy access to Europe and beyond. 

Some of the UK’s most celebrated destinations can be found here, including the Garden of England (Kent), one of the world’s most renowned university cities (Oxford), and an impressive British naval museum (Portsmouth, Hampshire). Other counties include Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Surrey and the Isle of Wight.  

Here are our top picks from each county, to give you some ideas for a South East staycation. 

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

We’re kicking off our tour of the South East in the Garden of England herself, Kent. And where better to begin your exploration of this fine county than at the celebrated Canterbury Cathedral? The site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s brutal murder and one of England’s longest standing places of worship, this medieval structure has played a vital part in the history of the United Kingdom.

Wandering among the honey-hued pillars, you’ll find yourself gazing upwards into the artfully vaulted ceiling (rather at odds with the higgledy-piggledy nature of the rest of Canterbury!) and many splendid stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible. Included in the cathedral’s tombs is one that belongs to the Black Prince – the son of King Edward III, father of King Richard II, and a revered military leader.

Outside the main body of the cathedral are the ancient cloisters and Chapter House: once a key part of monastic life, these beautiful structures make for an excellent place to reflect while gazing out upon the well-pruned garden. Exploring the quiet lanes around the cathedral is also recommended, as you’ll find many swoon-worthy properties in the shadow of the spire, and get a chance to see the peregrine falcons that have made this remarkable place of worship their home. 

Bodleian Library, Oxfordshire

It’s only fitting that one of the oldest and most revered universities in the world should be the site of an ancient place of learning such as this: the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. There has been a library at Oxford University since 1320, but this iconic library as we know it today was opened to scholars in 1602.

Altogether, the Bodleian Libraries (the collective term for all the libraries included on campus) house more than 13 million printed items, including many original manuscripts: four copies of the 1217 Magna Carta, William Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio, and a papyri document from the third century BC.

Self-guided and expert-led tours are available when it comes to viewing the Bodleian Library itself, with the chance to see the celebrated Tower of the Five Orders, as well as the ornate entrance encrusted with the coats of arms of the university’s many colleges. From antiquity to the present day, many of the UK’s defining characters have wandered the halls and perused the ancient texts on display, and if that doesn’t give you a strange tingle up your back, what will? 

Highclere Castle, Hampshire

No, your eyes don’t deceive you – this is indeed the Downton Abbey, home of Robert and Cora Crawley and a plethora of upstairs/downstairs antics. In real life (sorry, fans!), the ubiquitous set is actually Highclere Castle, a vast country house sitting within acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. Although the castle may look medieval, it was merely built in the Jacobethan style, and only dates from the 19th century, although the site was previously the grounds of a much older structure, originally listed in the Domesday Book.

You may be surprised to know that visitors can enjoy a large Egyptian exhibition on a tour of the house, but why? Well, for generations Highclere Castle has been home to the Carnarvon family (the eighth countess still resides there), and in 1922, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon discovered Tutankhamun’s Tomb! His lifelong fascination with the subject reached new heights, and many of the relics he discovered can be found gracing the halls of this fine house. Of course, after Downton Abbey’s roaring success, you’ll also find plenty of memorabilia from the show scattered throughout the premises, although we can’t guarantee an appearance from Maggie Smith herself… 

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

Did you know that of all the palaces in Europe, Windsor Castle has been occupied for the longest period of time? Originally built following the Norman Conquest, it became a royal residence during the reign of Henry I (son of William the Conqueror), and has since played a huge role in the English monarchy.

Today, much of the grandeur of the castle is on display to the public, with the gold-anointed state apartments and the exuberant hues of the crimson drawing room on hand to give visitors a flavour of the royal life. One of the most popular exhibits, and rightly so, is Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. Built by a revered architect, nothing has been overlooked in this miniature world: running water and electricity service the rooms; over 200 books can be flipped through; and there are minuscule works of arts and a full wine cellar! If only we were allowed to play!

Elsewhere, portraits by celebrated artists can be admired, as can views from the battlements. The Changing the Guard is another key draw to Windsor Castle: the switch between two groups of guards occurs at 11:00am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and has been performed at Windsor Castle since 1660. Queen Elizabeth herself still frequents her weekend abode from time to time, but don’t expect to see her pottering among the portraits of her predecessors on your wanders.  

Bekonscot Model Village & Railway, Buckinghamshire

Following on from Queen Mary’s mini mansion (and offering something different to all the ancient buildings we’ve discussed so far!), we submit Bekonscot Model Village and Railway as our Buckinghamshire highlight. Originally a private project for an accountant, the model village didn’t become commercialised until the 1930s, when the intricate portrayal of 1920s England captured the imagination of the press, and then the general public. Since then, all proceeds have been donated to charity, and the miniature metropolis now holds the title of the world’s oldest original model village. Wandering the impressive site, you’ll be treated to the gentle chug of steam trains, the roar of an Ascot crowd, a zoo and plenty of tongue-in-cheek shop names, each detail a homage to Britain in a time gone by. In 2018, New Town was officially opened after years of planning and construction, in which visitors can admire a fully functioning Underground station (not the Central Line then…) and a funicular railway. If that doesn’t tempt you, maybe the charming Instagram will.

Camber Sands, East Sussex

Awaken your inner child with the thrill of a trip to the seaside! Evoking memories of those long summer days spent with bucket and spade, Camber Sands in East Sussex is the county’s only sand dune environment, making it an incredibly popular day trip destination for travellers as far away as London.

Once used for military exercises during World War Two (the dune system is said to mimic that of the beaches in Normandy), there are only minimal suggestions of the shoreline’s wartime past, although the area has been used multiple times in film as both Dunkirk and D-Day beaches! Today, however, you’re more likely to come across kitesurfers making the most of the favourable winds, toddlers with ice cream-smothered faces and happy dogs in need of a bath. Take your picnic blanket, your favourite book and change for the fish ‘n’ chip shop for a nostalgic day out on a golden swathe of coast – lovely! 

Devil’s Dyke, West Sussex

Sticking with our outdoorsy theme as we look to West Sussex, we turn now to Devil’s Dyke. But this V-shaped valley is no ordinary natural landscape, as the mystical tales of devils and gods attest! Although there are three variations of the story, this trilogy of oral histories states that the devil himself dug the valley: some say that it was dug in order to flood the Christian villages nearby; others suggest the devil’s attempts were thwarted after stubbing his toe; while numerous tales suggest that the digging was an attempt to create a giant goat-like creature from the Earth that would quash the good Christian churches. It’s rumoured that even Thor, God of Thunder, got involved at some point. Either way, the devil’s goal never came to fruition, although folklore has it that the two peculiar mounds at the bottom of the dyke are where the bodies of him and his wife now lay. 

Visitors to this peaceful spot today are unlikely to encounter any demonic apparitions – overly-excited dogs rummaging through the bushes are the only terrors – although some day-trippers may shudder a little at the prospect of adders. Well-trodden walking trails line the valley, with a good old National Trust tea shop providing much-needed sustenance after a day’s strolling – make it a tea and a scone for us, please. 

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

One of the Royal Horticultural Society’s many gems, RHS Garden Wisley is the second most popular horticultural day out after Kew Gardens in London. Given to the RHS in 1903 by the society’s former treasurer, Wisley has been growing and flourishing ever since, and now occupies over 240 acres in the heart of the Surrey countryside.

On your sojourns between the verdant flower beds, discover the vast glasshouse (carefully managed to obtain desert, tropical and temperate climates), the innovative laboratory (which faces out onto the Jellicoe Canal) and the Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, home to over 4000 varieties of brilliant blooms. If the sights and smells of Wisley leave you feeling more than a little green-fingered, head to the on-site library for botanical inspiration, or simply swing by the shop in search of ready-to-plant additions for your very own horticultural haven. 

Isle of Wight

Strangely enough, the Isle of Wight actually harks back to what we were saying about Devil’s Dyke! One of the rumours is that, in digging the trench, the devil cast aside a vast clod of earth and threw it into the sea, where it became the Isle of Wight. Uncanny, right?

Once a favourite destination of Victorian holidaymakers, the Isle of Wight was somewhat overlooked for a period, before being rediscovered as a laid-back, sort-of-off-grid option for those on the busy mainland, thanks to the rolling landscape and abundance of beaches. Probably the most iconic spot on the whole island, however, is The Needles, a series of white chalk stacks rising out of the ocean at the furthest extremity of the headland. The Needles Lighthouse is accompanied by the Old Battery and the New Battery, this popular point on the island can be accessed via the sweeping Military Road (a must for those travelling by car) or on one of the numerous walking trails that zigzag the landscape. Neighbouring Tennyson Down provides an excellent opportunity to take in the rolling waves away from the crowds, while ascending to Headon Warren will blow away any remaining cobwebs in a hurry.