Countryside walks, oysters and village pubs with roaring fires… Sarah Riches discovers the most charming day trips from London, whatever the weather. Prepare to swoon
Take a romantic break and head to one of the country’s great escapes, from the university city of Cambridge to the beautiful beaches of Whitstable.
NORTH A UNIVERSITY CITY CAMBRIDGE
What with its 13th-century architecture, tearooms and River Cam, Cambridge ticks all the boxes for a romantic day trip. The city was used as the backdrop in TheTheoryof Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, as they retold how Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilder fell in love.
Once you’ve seen the big guns – King’s and Queens’ Colleges and the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College – visit Cambridgeshire Wine School, and get steamy in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.
Whatever you do, make time for a river trip for two. On a crisp day, cuddle up close to your lover on a private daytime tour with The Cambridge Punting Company. Opt for a dusk or candlelit tour and you’ll have the river to yourself – and the stars. Champagne, strawberries and balloons are optional if you really want to push the boat out.
For lunch, you can’t beat a traditional ploughman’s at The Orchard Tea Garden, which was established in 1897. Later on, enjoy dinner at The Varsity, a British restaurant in a listed building in the heart of the city.
The city dazzles all year round but visit during e-Luminate (10-15 Feb) to see iconic buildings illuminated at night with rainbow-coloured lights and film projections. Cuddle up to keep warm! Folk music fans can listen to ballads at CityRoots (3-11 Feb), a new festival at various venues. How to get there: Return trains direct from London King’s Cross to Cambridge take around 45 mins and cost from £24.20.
EAST A SEASIDE BREAK WHITSTABLE
With its cobbled alleyways, art galleries and blustery beach, no doubt you’ll find the coastal town of Whitstable enchanting. If the weather’s fine, visit the harbour before strolling along Tankerton Beach.
If the clouds roll in and the sky threatens rain, there’s no need to despair – just make a beeline for Whitstable Castle & Gardens. Built as a family home in the 1790s, it is now open to the public and hosts regular antique fairs.
Alternatively, learn about the town’s maritime history and annual summer oyster festival at Whitstable Museum and Gallery at the end of the High Street – after all, oysters are reputedly an aphrodisiac.
Spend a few hours in Tree Tops Retreat Spa just south of the town. You can hire its relaxation lounge, sauna, Jacuzzi and pool just for the two of you.
Lunch is easy: pop into Tea & Times on the High Street for a sandwich and toasted teacake, or share a bag of fish and chips from VC Jones, which has been serving fried suppers since 1962. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to seafood restaurants, but if you want to dine somewhere special in the evening then Samphire on the High Street fits the bill. Decked out with chalkboards, this smart yet cosy bistro serves pots of mussels and the catch of the day alongside local,
seasonal ingredients. How to get there: Return trains direct from London King’s Cross to Whitstable take from around an hour and 22 mins and cost from £9.90.
SOUTH AN ALTERNATIVE DAY OUT RYE
Fans of EF Benson’s MappandLucia novels and their BBC TV adaptation will recognise Rye in East Sussex as the location of the fictional town of Tilling. But whether you’re a fan or not, it’s a great destination for visitors who want to experience a pretty medieval town. Small but perfectly formed, it’s easy to get around on foot.
Rye Castle Museum is a real-life fairytale. Also known as Ypres Tower, it was built as a fortress in the 13th century and has since been a home, prison and mortuary – not the most romantic of places, admittedly, but it does win passion points for its balcony views of the glorious surrounding countryside and the quaint medieval herb garden.
History buffs will also enjoy visiting Benson’s Georgian home, Lamb House, which is now a National Trust property with a pond and walled garden. And from 1897 to 1916, it was also the home of the writer Henry James. King Henry VIII’s fortress, Camber Castle, is south of the town. Guided tours include Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, a wild, low-lying space near Camber Sands beach that feels straight out of
romantic novel. Back in town, have lunch at The Cobbles Tea Room, a cottage built in 1826, then get sticky over chocolate fondue at Edith’s House. For dinner, share a bowl of spaghetti à la Lady andtheTramp at Tuscan Rye, or cosy up in front of a log fire at The Globe Inn Marsh. This month, Rye Bay Scallop Week (18-26 Feb) hosts tastings, cookery demonstrations and live music events. How to get there: Return trains from London King’s Cross to Rye (via Ashford International) take an hour and 17 mins and cost from £14.40.
WEST A ROYAL CASTLE WINDSOR
A royal castle, riverside spa and horse-drawn carriages – Windsor has all the right ingredients for a romantic day out. While Windsor Castle gets all the glory, its grounds are also home to the 14th-century St George’s Chapel. You can cruise past both aboard a French Brothers’ Edwardian steamboat – opt for a Vintage Tea Cruise or an evening dinner dance. Want to go one better? Then treat your partner to a Windsor Carriages’ horse-drawn carriage ride in Windsor Great Park. Cuddle up under blankets as you trot to the park’s highest point, Snow Hill, for panoramic castle views. If you’re thinking of proposing, then visit Ascot Racecourse nearby, as the tradition of popping the question on one of its pink benches dates back to the Regency period. You can watch a race on 18 Feb.
Prefer to hibernate during winter? Then try making fudge at Fudge Kitchen instead, or splash out on a massage at the riverside Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa.
You can eat at the hotel, but if you’re looking for a cosy pub then The Carpenter’s Arms fits the bill. Dating from 1844, it’s about as traditional as pubs get; look out for etchings of carpenters in the windows.
For a more upmarket option, dine at The Waterside Inn, which has three Michelin stars and incredible views over the River Thames.
If music is the food of love, then watch the musical Blood Brothers, about two twins who were separated at birth, at Theatre Royal Windsor (from 27 Feb) before heading back to London. How to get there: Return direct trains from London Waterloo to Windsor & Eton Riverside take 54 mins and cost from £11.80. Return train fares are based on the cheapest prices, which are booked in advance, with NationalRail.www.nationalrail.co.uk
“TREAT YOUR PARTNER TO A TRIP IN A HORSEDRAWN CARRIAGE”
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The Globe Inn Marsh