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In spite of London’s many playthings, the metropolis sometimes gets too much; sky-rises feel claustrophobic and the tube, positively suffocating. But you needn’t start booking hotels and flights for a spot of R&R. These daycation destinations offer maximum holiday vibes in just 24 hours – though we wouldn’t blame you for staying longer.
50-minute train journey from King’s Cross
A city of quirky rituals, riverside gardens and rolling meadows, Cambridge is an idyll of gastronomic, cultural and intellectual feats – rumour has it that the Latin edition of Scrabble is popular here. While a college tour would be no doubt be dull in most places, for Cambridge we make an exception; the honey-hued university buildings are among the city’s most spectacular. With spiral staircases and boundless bookshelves, this is Hogwarts territory. The line for evensong at King’s College often winds down the street but we suggest you join it, religious or not; the mass is a spectacle of bygone tradition and Catholic opulence.
It’s not all medieval art and dusty books, however. The university’s Kettle’s Yard showcases 20th century art; distinctive paintings, sculptures, ceramics and glass offer a bubble of modernity in this city of antiquity. The culinary offering here is small but flavoursome; grab a hearty brunch at Stir near Jesus Green before rubbing shoulders with patch-elbowed professors at Hot Numbers café. A Chelsea bun from Fitzbillies is also a must. Finish an evening, cocktail in hand, in the sunken garden of Hidden Rooms before hopping aboard the service from Cambridge Station to either Liverpool Street or King’s Cross. PSA, plan ahead: you won’t get last-minute deals here.
2. Eltham Palace
15-minute walk from Eltham Station
Few National Trust houses are within easy reach of London, and even fewer are as storied or as fun to visit as Eltham Palace. First recorded in the Domesday Book, Eltham Estate was presented to King Edward II in 1305 before becoming the childhood home of King Henry VIII. Of all its illustrious timeline, however, Eltham’s reincarnation as a 1930s pleasure palace is a favourite. The decrepit house – with a moat, bridge and all the frills – was saved from decline by 1930s millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld who set about transforming the palace into the home of wonderment and eccentricity it is today.
A time-machine within a time-machine, Eltham Palace facade remains rigidly medieval and out of sorts given its proximity to London’s high-rises. Yet peep through its circular entrance hall and you’ll find a delightfully strange mix of art-deco and Swedish design and a heavy-handed helping of orientalism. Befitting of Jay Gatsby, this is the place to while away hours exploring Virginia’s reconstructed walk-in wardrobe, marvelling at the palace’s special detailing for the Courtald’s pet lemur – which include a mural in the billiard room and a private heated quarters to make him feel at home – and wandering through the 1,000 acres of deer park on its doorstep.
1-hour train journey from London Bridge
The original daycation for families across England, Brighton’s coastal charisma and seaside kitsch continues to charm even in areas where the pastel paint has chipped and the Flake 99s cost £1.50. Its labyrinthine streets of overpriced vintage shops and the brashly lit pier have us enthralled. Arrive early for breakfast at Black Mocha where the menu is much more than your run-of-the-mill avocado toast and eggs. From here you’ll be in a prime position for treasure hunting at Snoopers Paradise, an Aladdin’s cave of vintage oddities, vinyl, racks of clothes and collectors items that range from a set of bowling pins to fossilised beetles.
After braving the crowds of Kensington Gardens, it’s time to hit the beach. Fair warning: as soon as temperatures rise past the minuses Brighton’s pebbly shore can get very busy. Embrace it – an ice cream from Scoop and Crumb in hand. For a spot of culture head to The Royal Pavilion, the neoclassical summer abode of royal bad-boy George IV. Its Taj Mahal-esque facade is striking against Brighton’s faded decor – but do venture inside and see the dragon chandelier. Whatever the weather and no matter the crowds, Brighton will always be a go-to for Londoners looking for a slice of summer sans hotel and flight.
1 hour 45 minute train from Victoria
Margate is quickly making a name for itself that’s much more interesting than “the hipster’s Brighton”. A direct train journey from London, Margate is certainly doable in a day – although its uncanny sense of nostalgia will plant an allure that lasts much longer. One of the three Georgian and Victorian seaside resorts in Kent, Margate has recently attracted hordes of visitors (primarily of the beardy, tattooed variety) courtesy of its irresistible retro charm that offers up a seaside experience with a twist.
Begin the day with a ramble along its long stretches of golden beach or, if you’re feeling brave, a dip in nippy waters is a surefire way to get the blood pumping (and extremities numbed). Post-beach, it’s time for a stroll into town, where colourful bunting flies overhead as you make your way through eclectic boutiques touting contemporary crafts and vintage furniture. Once you’ve filled up on seaside tat, it’s on to culture. Besides the Turner Contemporary, a quick pause and ponder at Nayland Rock Shelter, where T. S. Eliot composed parts of The Waste Land, is recommended, as is a trip to the bizarre and beautiful Shell Grotto. For lunch, Margate’s array of eateries which include vegetarian and specialty bakeries offer plenty of options – all to be finished off with an ice-cream from one of the town’s many stalls. Finish the day in Dreamland amusement park – roller disco, anyone? – before hopping on the train back to London.
1 hour 30 minute train journey from Paddington
Bath is steeped in history – or perhaps we should say drowning in it. Named after the Roman baths built upon its naturally heated springs, the city’s past running beneath its cobblestone streets like veins. A day trip to this Unesco World Heritage should concentrate on historical offerings, including a restorative soak. While the rooftop pool of Thermae Bath Spa is enticing, its queues (which can stretch down the street at peak times) are equally off-putting. Bypass the crowds and head instead for The Gainsborough Bath Spa, a luxury hotel housed in the most magnificent 18th-century mansion. Here, beneath a glass atrium, a pool of naturally heated water promises to ease your aches and clear your mind.
Adequately refreshed, drag yourself out of the spa and on to the real thing. The Roman Baths tour is an interactive experience that will put even your favourite school excursions to shame – plus the view across to the Abbey from above the Great Bath is arguably the city’s best vantage point. Other highlights of this Avon beauty include The Holbourne Museum and The Jane Austen centre. Dinner is at Menu Gordon Jones where a surprise feast of six courses will delight and, well, surprise you. Come evening, when the rest of Bath is readying for bed, head to The Hideout for a cocktail or two at this sultry drinking den.
Transport via the Overground or Underground
Richmond is so easily accessed but rarely ventured to. Though often disparaged by city dwellers as “not really London”, it’s this same attribute that is the suburban town’s most attractive trait. With countryside green, quaint taverns and the occasional celebrity, Richmond is a destination where the many nooks and crannies can be explored in a day. Venture here when the sun shines to enjoy Richmond at its best, as riverside restaurants including Stein’s and Gaucho fling open their windows to usher in the rays and, with them, the Lululemon-wearing mummies who abound in this affluent area.
Stop at Hollyhock Café or Petersham Nurseries for coffee and picnic fodder because next on the itinerary is a visit to the area’s crown jewel: Richmond Park. Vast and bountiful, this park was created by Charles I in the 17th century and is where the monarch came to escape the Great Plague. Now a national nature reserve, the park is kept in a condition so pristine it’s easy to forget you’re only a few tube stops away from smog and pollution. Plant yourself on the banks of Adam’s Pond with your basket of goodies and watch deer prance about. Put the finishing touches on your excursion by taking in a show at the Orange Tree. Set in a disused gothic-style Victorian primary school, this theatre hosts performances that do its storybook setting justice.
One hour 40 minute train journey from Paddington
Escape to the UK’s official happiest place to live, if only for a brief respite. Admiring Bristol’s charming terraced houses of ice-cream shades, you’d be forgiven for making comparisons to Notting Hill. Yet the faint scent of weed, liberalism and drum ‘n’ bass wafting through the streets defies such a likeness. Not that locals would brag, but Bristol is genuinely “cool” – although its cred is being threatened by throngs of Londoners who’ve caught on. Be warned: a trip to Bristol could well turn into a life move.
From the Banksy murals that nonchalantly appear and the star-spangled ceiling of Primrose Café to Europe’s largest annual meeting of hot air balloons over Ashton Court Estate and the Stokes Croft’s buzzing nightlife scene, the rolling hills of Bristol offer everything that you could want from a daycation. Take an early train from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads, armed with comfortable shoes and a well-stocked wallet (for all its liberalism, Bristol isn’t cheap).
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