For many years now I have dreamt of buying a restored VW camper van and touring England. Over the years I’ve been so busy visiting other countries that I have not made enough effort to get to know my own.
One region that I do know fairly well though, is the area of England south-west of London, from the picturesque villages of the New Forest in Hampshire to the vibrant and youthful seaside town of Brighton, in East Sussex. I’d like to share with you just a few of my favourite places, and believe me there are many more that I could recommend to anyone touring the area.
1. The New Forest, Hampshire
Europe’s largest surviving area of ancient pasture woodland where wild ponies, deer and cows roam freely, is perfect for a hiking, cycling or driving holiday. There are numerous quirky old country pubs and pretty villages in the area including Brockenhurst, Lyndhurst and Beaulieu, home to the famous motor museum, house and gardens as well as the popular hotel, The Montagu Arms. Nearby Buckler’s Hard is well worth visiting especially if you enjoy maritime history.
Don’t miss the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive
This narrow road is lined with a mixture of tall trees, large rhododendrons and azaleas which look spectacular when they are in bloom each spring.
2. Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
Simply the most beautiful cathedral interior I have ever seen. I only visited the cathedral for the first time last year and I am so glad I did. We were there to look round the Christmas Market, which was excellent but taking the time out to look around the cathedral was an excellent decision. The interior is breathtaking… literally!
If you can, do take the time to have a look around Winchester itself. This culturally rich, medieval city was once the capital of England.
Don’t miss a guided tour of the cathedral
The tour is included in the entry price. We were going to skip it but without it we would have missed so much… I might not have noticed the grave of Jane Eustin, one of England’s most loved female novelists or visited the flooded crypt and Antony Gormley’s sculpture rising out of the water – the sight of which was one of a number of moments when I caught my breath with surprise and wonder. You should also make sure you leave time to look around the library which shuts earlier than the cathedral itself. It has an amazing collection of exquisitely illustrated books including a huge bible from the 12th century with its beautiful hand-written script and sumptuously decorated initials (understandably no photos are allowed).
3. The South Downs National Park
Recognised as a region of outstanding beauty the South Downs National Park covers an area running from Winchester in Hampshire, through West Sussex and into East Sussex, running just north of Brighton and ending at Eastbourne. There are numerous historic towns and pretty villages to visits and many scenic drives.
A walk along the South Downs Way, or at least part of it, will reward you with stunning views of the countryside. In total it runs 100 miles along the backbone of the hills known as the South Downs and cuts through the centre of the National Park.
Don’t miss Singleton’s Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
The village of Singleton in West Sussex has a fascinating open air museum full of fine examples of architecture from the area that have been taken down brick by brick and re-built and restored in an area of parkland in the heart of the South Downs National Park. Be warned though it does get extremely busy on some weekends when special events are happening such as the Christmas market shown below. There is plenty of room in the museum itself but the queues to get into the car park can be horrendous and I’d strongly recommend arriving at opening time when there’s an event on.
4. Arundel and Amberley, West Sussex
With the grand 11th century castle and gothic cathedral dominating the skyline Arundel is a historic market town that can be enjoyed even from a distance. With numerous antique shops, art galleries and lovely old pubs, it is worth visiting any time of year but even more so during one of its many events such as the Gallery Trail or Arundel by Candlelight, to name but two. My favorite is probably the Gallery Trail where you can wonder around from house to house being welcomed into people’s homes to admire a wide variety of arts and crafts on display. I’ll confess I find the homes themselves are as interesting as the art on show.
Be sure to stroll along Tarrant Street and explore numerous antique shops, stop for a cream tea in one of the cafés or have a meal at The Bay Tree where you’ll find a warm welcome and delicious food.
Bird-lovers should visit Arundel’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre while Swanbourne Lake is just a short walk from the town centre is the perfect place for a picnic.
Take a walk along the River Arun to the Black Rabbit for a pint beside the river. The views as you walk along the river bank looking back at the castle are worth the walk alone. I haven’t timed it but I’m guessing it takes between an hour and an hour and a half. There’s a shorter route back along the road past Swanbourne Lake which will take you back to the centre of Arundel.
The museum and heritage centre up the road in the charming village of Amberley also makes an extremely interesting day out. Dedicated to the industrial heritage of the South East, exhibits include a narrow-gauge railway and bus service providing free nostalgic travel around the site.
Don’t miss Arundel Castle
A visit to Arundel Castle and its grounds is well worth the entrance fee. Set in 40 acres of sweeping grounds and gardens and over looking the River Arun, Arundel Castle is home to priceless works of art – paintings and furniture, tapestries and stained glass, china and clocks, sculpture and carving, heraldry and armour are all on display. Over the years I have also seen a number of live performances in the castle grounds of Shakespeare’s plays, rock concerts and I even went to a cricket match there once. All were a real delight to watch in such a magnificent setting.
5. Brighton, East Sussex
A historic seaside town about an hour by train from South London with some of the finest Regency architecture that can be seen anywhere in England. It is popular with artists, musicians and students. There’s a thriving music scene and a variety of festivals throughout the year including Brighton Festival Fringe (May), Brighton’s Gay Pride Parade (August) and the Brighton Zombie Walk (October).
One of my favourite parts of Brighton is the Lanes and the North Laines (with an ‘i’) - a maze of small streets and alleyways packed with gorgeous shops full of fascinating antiques and designer labels as well as some more unusual and quirky shops. There are quaint old pubs, arcades and hidden squares, old fisherman’s cottages, brick paved streets, chic cafés and a wide range of restaurants serving everything from great value vegetarian home-cooked meals to gourmet cuisine.
The only downside to visiting Brighton is that free parking is hard to find in the summer months and the central car parks are very expensive so I usually catch the train.
Don’t miss The Royal Pavilion
With my love of all things Indian or oriental it is no surprise that at the top of my list would be The Royal Pavilion, a flamboyant masterpiece of exotic architecture resembling an Indian palace. It was built by the Prince Regent in the late 18th century. The magnificent oriental interior is astonishing and, in my opinion, is a must see for anyone visiting Brighton. Be sure to make use of the audio guides which will tell you all about its fascinating history.
By air: Gatwick and Southampton Airport are both within easy reach of this part of England.
By rail: The area is accessible by train from London – from Paddington station to Winchester and the New Forest and from Victoria station to Arundel and Brighton (all taking between one to two hours). Or, if you put it another way, London is an easy day trip if you are staying in the area. You can be there in about an hour from Winchester or Brighton.
By road: From London take the M23 followed by the A23 to Brighton or the M3 to Winchester (and beyond to the New Forest).
There are many wonderful hotels in the area suiting most budgets but if you don’t fancy packing and unpacking your bags every other evening or so maybe motorhome rental would be a good option. I’m not much of a mechanic so maybe an elderly camper van is not for me but I still think it would be a great way to travel around England perhaps with a couple of bicycles to explore on once you’ve parked up. What better way to discover the beautiful English countryside and her picturesque towns and villages.
Have you ever toured England or anywhere else in a camper van or motorhome? How was your experience?
Zombies and protesters clash on Brighton seafront a spoof report on the annual zombie walk
The Caravan Club has a great guide to caravan/mobile home parks in the UK
The Good Pub Guide featuring the best dining pubs across Great Britain