Get Out of Town

Off-the-beaten-path excursions on the outskirts of London

By: Mark Tapio Kines

London remains a popular destination for American travelers, who frequently return for subsequent visits thanks to affordable airfares and the ease of getting around in an English-speaking country. But for those who say “been there, done that” to the usual sights Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and so forth and who long to escape the bustle of the big city for a few hours, there are several wonderful, affordable and often overlooked options, most of which are also more family-oriented than many of London’s own attractions.

The breathtaking Leeds Castle is, fortunately, not in faraway Leeds, but in Maidstone, Kent, just an hour southeast of London by rail or car. Although it’s a major draw for British tourists, I am surprised that so few Americans are aware of this incredible place. The castle itself past home to several generations of English royalty, most notably Henry VIII is the stuff of fairy tales and romantic landscapes, a grand stone palace right in the middle of its very own lake. A day pass to the grounds not only includes an extensive tour of the castle but also access to rolling hills, lush gardens, shops, restaurants, a menagerie of rare birds (including black swans and albino peacocks), the world’s only dog collar museum and my personal favorite, a real-live hedge maze, with an enchanting “secret grotto” as a reward for those clever enough to find their way to the center.

Less extravagant but still lovely are the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, close enough to the heart of London that they can be reached via the Underground, yet worlds away from the crowded city. A short walk from the Kew Gardens Tube station takes visitors to the main gate, beyond which lies an extraordinary collection of gardens, wooded glens, lakes and greenhouses including the gigantic Temperate House and the sprawling Princess of Wales Conservatory, which features 10 different climatic zones. There are both dining and shopping opportunities on site, as well as a delightful botany-themed playground tailor-made for younger children.

At the opposite end of London is Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath. The Heath itself is a vast wilderness of a park, the sort of place where clients might encounter old men in tweed caps with walking sticks. Bordering the Heath is the venerable Kenwood House, a former 17th-century

manor open to the public free of charge. The Manor is notable for housing one of only 36 Vermeer paintings in the world, as well as a haunting Rembrandt self-portrait and other masterpieces. Movie buffs will note that part of “Notting Hill” was shot here, too. There’s a surprisingly tasty cafe at Kenwood, and tickets for Music on a Summer Evening outdoor concerts can be purchased in advance. (Art Garfunkel and the Buena Vista Social Club performed here in 2006.)

Finally, nothing says “offbeat” quite like the Chislehurst Caves, a 20-minute train ride from Central London in the peaceful village of Chislehurst. It took me nine visits to the U.K. before I finally made it out to the caves, but they have since become my favorite thing to do in the London area. Obscure as they are, I recommend them to everybody who visits.

Carved entirely by hand over thousands of years, these mysterious underground chalk caves date back to the ancient Saxons and Druids. The Romans used them as well. They served as a bomb shelter for thousands of Londoners during World War II and were truly an “underground” venue for rock bands during the 1960s.

As rich in atmosphere as they are in history, the caves make an intriguing half-day trip for those seeking something truly different. I especially recommend them to families with older children; as teens may quickly tire of all the museums in town and crave a bit of adventure, the Chislehurst Caves provide a great alternative to the grisly and touristy London Dungeon. Experienced guides lead 40-minute tours, and visitors even get to carry around their own oil lanterns to help light the way, which is absolutely charming. A cafeteria on the premises provides hearty meals.


Chislehurst Caves

Kenwood House

Leeds Castle

“Music on a Summer Evening”
at Kenwood House

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew