Image credit: Greg Knapp
If London’s charter’d streets have taken their toll, and you need to get away from it all without sitting in traffic for hours on end, here are our best tips for seeking out the green and pleasant land that lies just an hour’s journey from St Pancras International where our newest branch has just opened.
It’s easy to forget that the UK capital is fringed on its north-eastern limits by 6,000 acres of thick, verdant woodland. Once the hunting ground of kings, Epping Forest has a rich (if at times, murky) history, and has attracted all nature of characters; from poets and vagabonds, to legendary bandits such as Dick Turpin, who was thought to once lurk in its darkest reaches.
These days, the forest is marketed on its merits as a bio-diverse environment for more gentle pursuits such as hiking and cycling, although white knuckle thrills can be had at the Olympic white water rafting centre. For keen ramblers, the recently reopened High Beach visitor centre offers a great starting point for exploring the forest on foot, as does The Temple in Wanstead Park. But, if you prefer a more unique experience, the charming Ongar heritage steam railway line runs right through the trees and passes by some of the quaint villages and towns nestled among them. All aboard!
When it’s not playing host to the Gallagher brothers or Robbie Williams, Knebworth House in the heart of Hertfordshire offers an altogether more peaceful respite from the modern world.
This neo-gothic mansion -a tribute to Victorian decadence, despite its Tudor origins – is perfect for a little quiet reflection. Take stock in one of the many ‘garden rooms’ created by Sir Edwin Luteyns, or, if you find yourself in need of a medicinal breather, a stroll amidst the herbs within the 28 acre formal gardens will have you feeling right as rain in no time. Those seeking something a little more challenging can attempt the maze, and younger guests will delight in a dinosaur hunt along the prehistoric trail.
Brush away those Winter cobwebs in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Just an hour’s drive from the Big Smoke lays The Chilterns Gateway, where you can walk barefoot among the Five Knolls, beneath which Bronze Age remains lay buried, and saunter through Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, planted in memorial to those lost in World War 1.
It’s the ideal place for simple pleasures. Seek out the Bee Orchid among the many rare flowers, or the Chalkhill Blue among the butterflies that frequent them. Fly a kite in the gusty hilltops, or just watch the clouds pass overhead at the peak of the downs. Little ones can chase rabbits, real and imaginary, in the Medieval Warrens or head into Chute Wood, where scramble walls and drums can be found amidst the natural play things.
Experience history at its most tangible in an open air museum housed on the site of an original Norman village – rebuilt to recreate life as it would have taken place around 1066. The medieval motte and bailey walls of the castle surround the village, whose remains lay forgotten for over 700 years.
Reconstructed in its entirety, a visit here makes for a pleasant escape from the daily grind and serves as a reminder that, although modern life may be gruelling at times, we at least have much better protection from the weather than our Norman forbears. Go equipped for the forecast, in any event.
Clear your head and refresh your senses in the pleasantly pungent rose gardens of Wrest Park – the recently restored French style mansion with 90 acres of landscaped surroundings.
Revived after years buried beneath its own fauna, this once crumbling pile has been restored to its former glory; all ornate staircases and rococo ceilings. But it is the gardens that really make this worth the trip, now they have been returned to their manicured best. The French Parterre’s complex flourishes of floristry, in particular, are a veritable work of art, along with a dramatic hothouse and ornamental dairy, filled with statues too fragile to be left outside. Viva la France!
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