Excursions

No matter how much you love, enjoy, live and breathe London, it's good to get out of the city every now and then. Many Londoners appreciate their city more once they've had a chance to relax from its relentless pace. For visitors, getting out of London is fantastic for understanding just how different the capital is from the rest of the country. You don't really know England (or indeed, Britain) until you leave the capital - it's wildly unrepresentative of the rest of the country. Forget ethnic and religious diversity, urban chaos and architectural variety (for the most part) - you're up for a whole different experience, a classic England that's about fish and chips, thatched roofs, cream teas, and pubs open until 11pm. That's not to say there isn't quality outside London - you'll find some fantastic places to eat (among them one that's run by

I Britain's best chef, Heston Blumenthal), and the alfresco culture that's taken over London is spreading to the provinces, too. If you're here in the summer and head for the coast, you may even get to have a swim in the sea.

There are plenty of options to choose from in London's surroundings: the classic towns of Oxford and Cambridge offer a serene but intellectual day out, while costal towns will give you m quaint streets, a sense of space and long, windy beaches. If you're a castle lover, some of Britain's S best castles are within London's easy reach. But whatever you go for, we can bet you'll be glad == when you come back to London, step out of the station and feel the big city's buzz.

1 CLASSIC TOWNS

If you want to immerse yourself in the historical and academic, Oxford (p366) and Cambridge (p369) are the obvious choices. Just over an hour away from London, both have quarters that have remained largely unchanged for eight centuries. Commanding Canterbury Cathedral (p376) may also take your fancy.

SEASIDE

'I do like to be beside the seaside' goes the 1920s song, and if you like the seaside and come from the Continent, prepare for something completely different. The weather may be unreliable, but that's part of the English experience. The sea here is not so much for enjoyment and swimming, but for gazing at while battling to save your chips from being blown away by gale-force winds. The coastal towns are usually more working-class, with charming fish-and-chip shops and seafood stands (selling lobster tails, jellied eels and so on), kitsch game halls and fantastic long beaches. But having said that, Brighton (p371) is only half like that - it's the most vivacious of the seaside places, its rapid gentrification having made it almost an extension of London, with cool bars, clubs and restaurants. During the summer you can even swim at its lovely pebbly beach. But the real charm is in the classic English seaside towns such as nostalgic Broadstairs, kitschy Margate or mussel- and oyster-rich Whitstable (for all three, see p374). Medieval Rye (p375) is a great combination of the seaside with a historic town. Romney Marsh and Dungeness (both p375) coastal areas bordering Rye are some of the weirdest you'll ever encounter - in an extremely beguiling way.

CASTLES

As if to prove the saying that an Englishman's home is his castle, successive kings, queens, princes, dukes and barons have outdone each

WHY NOT WALK?

Another way to get out of London for the day is to join an organised country walk. A good-value, quality and fun option is English Country Wall (www.englishcountrywalks.com; per person ind lunch, transportation & admission fees £30-68), which takes small groups rambling through farm fields, exploring castles such as Leeds (p379 in Kent or take you teetering on the edges of the seaside White Cliffs at Dover. You get the added delight of refreshing (with a beer, usually) atone of the traditional pubs along the way. The charming guide is full of informative and entertaining stories about local history, and walks start and finish at rural train stations that are easily accessible from London terminals.

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term time if possible, because this is Oxford's real guise - without the students it may feel a little dead.

The town dates back to the early 12th century (having developed from an earlier Saxon village) and in the intervening period has been responsible for educating 26 UK prime ministers, among them Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Even Osama bin Laden and former US president Bill Clinton briefly studied here (the latter puffed pot, as well).

Oxford's 35 colleges and five 'halls' are scattered around the city, but the most important and beautiful are in the centre. A good starting point is the Carfax Tower (§§ 792653; cn r Queen & Corn market Sts; aduIt/7-16yr £2/1; S9.30am-5pmApr-Oct, 9.30am-3pm Nov-Mar), part of the now-demolished medieval Church of St Martin. There's a great view from the top (99 steps).

Christ Church College (@ 276150;www.visitchristchurch .net; St Aldate's; adult/child £4.70/3.70; H 9am-5pm Mon-Sat,1-5pm Sun, last entry 4.30pm), the grandest of the colleges, was founded in 1525 and is massively popular with Harry Potter fans, having appeared in several of the movies. The main entrance to Christ Church is below Tom Tower, the top of which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1682. However, the visitors'

other by building some of the world s finest country houses over many hundreds of years. Windsor (p378), official residence of the Queen, is the oldest inhabited castle in the world (and while you're out this way you can delve into the gastronomic delights of nearby Bray, p378). Winston Churchill's birthplace, Blenheim Palace (see the boxed text, opposite), is amazingly opulent, while Hever Castle (p380), the childhood home of Henry Vflf's second wife, Anne Bo-leyn, has lovely landscaped gardens. Set on two lakes, fairytale Leeds Castle (p380) - nowhere near Leeds but actually in Kent - has been called 'the loveliest castle in the world'. Slsslnghurst Castle Garden (p380) is home to one of the planet's most famous contemporary gardens.

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