The Home Counties Hype: Five Creative Enclaves Near London

The Home Counties – that grassy cushion that surrounds London – are teeming with culture-rich towns and design-forward coastal villages that make for ideal weekend staycations. Here, we spotlight a few of our favourites.

Thought the Home Counties were all crumpets and croquet? Think again. The grassy cushion that surrounds London is studded with culture-rich towns and design-forward coastal villages that make for ideal weekend staycations or day trips from the capital. Here, we spotlight a few of our favourites and the best places to stay when you're there.

Five towns perfect for a creative weekend in the home counties



Despite what TV magnates might have you believe, Essex is actually rather beautiful - and no, not in that tango-orange kind of way. Colchester Castle is fine, but we suggest making tracks for Firstsite, a gleaming architectural feat of a gallery with a busy schedule of art exhibitions, film viewings and events. Head to Art Exchange in the University of Essex for more contemporary art, to the canvas-strewn home of Alfred Munnings for something a little more trad or hitch a ride to the beautifully curated Beth Chatto Gardens just out of town. For dinner, we suggest wrapping up warm and eating outside, under the wavy canopies of Le Talbooth. It sits pretty on the banks of the River Stour and serves up an award-winning menu of classic ingredients whipped into bougie dishes - broad bean fricassée and Granny Smith soufflé, anyone?

Where to stay? Kingfisher's Nest



Kick things off with a tour of Hastings Contemporary. It's the big grey building which looms over the waterfront; you can't miss it. Nibble small plates while watching the seawater lap against the shoreline at its inhouse restaurant before scoping out the smaller galleries and knick-knack shops Hastings has to offer. Grab some locally made ceramics from Made In Hastings, ogle the luxurious candles and minimalist homewares at Reste and step back in time at A.G. Hendy & Co., where rustic homewares (flowery feather dusters, lovingly hewed wooden brooms and vintage tin buckets) all sidle alongside each other - we're calling it "curated clutter". The art deco-style De La Warr Pavilion is a scooch along the coast but well worth the walk, especially on a good-weather day. Inside, you'll find a riot of contemporary exhibits. Currently, you can expect a multimedia exhibition from Zadie Xa, which immerses viewers in a sub-aquatic parallel universe, and a retrospective exhibition on Rock Against Racism.

Where to stay? The 1066



It all started when the Turner Contemporary opened way back in 2011. Since then, Margate's old town has grown dense with poky little antiques shops, streetwear emporiums and biodynamic brunch spots. Once you've checked out the Turner Contemporary and watched Another Time (Antony Gormley's solitary statue placed out on Margate beach) get swallowed up by the tide, make tracks for the Carl Freedman Gallery, where you'll find 10,000sq ft of industrial space sparsely but thoughtfully filled with untouchable fragments of contemporary art. Then, check Margate Now's website to see which projects are currently on show around the town, using it as your guiding compass to navigate the seafood cafés and restaurants. You'll want some souvenirs, of course. We suggest picking up some locally grown skincare from Haeckels or picking out a dusty-old treasure at Paraphernalia, one of Margate's most chaotic but charming secondhand shops.

Where to stay: The Reading Rooms



In recent decades, this stretch of coastline has been overlooked as too Essex-y for its own good. Redolent with the sickly-sweet smell of hot doughnuts, patrolled by rambunctious, fun-loving teens and scored by a soundtrack of yelps and screams from the Adventure Island theme park, Southend is like many a faded seaside town. But Southend is more radical than most people realise. For proof, head to the impressive Focal Point Gallery, a dynamic organisation on the cusp of the UK's contemporary art scene; check out the current goings-on at Metal, a community hub that's always packed with artists' in residence; or pootle about the sleepy streets of nearby Leigh where every other building is an independent gallery. Still not convinced? Check out Radical Essex for more information on Southend's pioneering past and electrifying present.

Where to stay: Old Leigh Cottage



Margate's received a lot of press recently for its newfound hipster credentials, but Folkestone has a little more edge. Those who like old-world glamour should take a stroll down The Leas promenade, a boulevard studded with 19th-century mansions and mostly designed by Decimus Burton, the brains behind London Zoo and Kew Gardens. Head down to the harbour to refuel on fresh seafood before diving into Folkestone's Creative Quarter, a higgledy-piggledy burrow of streets teeming with independent businesses and tiny galleries. Alternatively, hop in a car and crunch your way cross the shingle beach to Dungeness - specifically Prospect Cottage, where seminal queer artist Derek Jarman saw out his dying days. It's an arresting landscape, a wilderness ravaged by harsh climatic conditions and surveyed by a nuclear power plant - not pretty, but not to be missed either.

Where to stay: Cabu by the sea

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