Dramatic coastal towns, castles and historic churches are an easy trip from London—whatever the weather.
Just 6km inland, Rye has just two main streets, but you can spend a day exploring the cobbled alleyways branching off them. Start by visiting Ypres Tower (also called Rye Castle), a fortress built in the 1300s that later became a jail, and is now Rye Castle Museum. A gardener in medieval costume may guide you around its herb garden, while inside you can see cells and a signaling lantern used by smugglers. The balcony has great views of Rye Harbour.
Warm up with a cup of hot chocolate from Knoops—try the 34 per cent with sea salt, caramel and lime zest – then observe wildlife at nearby Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Stop for scones in Avocet Tea Room, or walk along Camber Sands, a beautiful 8km beach.
Back in town, stroll the grounds of The Parish Church of St Mary. Lamb House is nearby: the building is the former home of the author Henry James, who wrote the novel "The Portrait of a Lady".
Afterwards, browse the antique shops, and independent galleries such as Rye Pottery. Rye is lined with cafés—The Cobbles Tea Room is among the best. Teacups hanging on brick walls gives it a cosy feel; expect jacket potatoes, toasties and pork pies. The Apothecary, on the High Street, is a wood-panelled café lined with gilt mirrors and bookshelves. Take a pew by a fireplace and order a toasted teacake, soup or Welsh rarebit.
Getting there: train from London St Pancras (1 hr 15 mins; change at Ashford)
Broadstairs might be a seaside town, but it’s equally wonderful in winter. On a fine day, stroll from Viking Bay in the centre of town along West Cliff Promenade, a grassy clifftop path that hugs the coast to Dumpton Bay in the south and Stone Bay to the north. Whatever the weather, pop by Morelli’s Gelato near the bandstand in Victoria Gardens, which has been selling sundaes since 1932. It’s now a global chain, run by the fifth generation of the Morelli family.
Don’t leave without looking around Bleak House Museum, the site where writer Charles Dickens lived from 1837 to 1859—renamed to honour Dickens’ novel Bleak House. Fans should also visit Dickens House Museum near Morelli’s, which the novelist regularly visited – the character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield is based on Mary Pearson Strong, who lived in the house.
After seeing the sights, explore the town’s gift shops and galleries: New Kent Art Gallery & Studio and Kent Coast Gallery are a good start. Wander down quaint cobbled alleyways such as the aptly named Serene Place and you’ll find The Old Bakehouse bakery; you can also stop for tea and chai latte cake at Bessie’s Tea Parlour. For dinner, order fish and chips or dine at Wyatt & Jones, which serves British dishes such as Dover sole in seaweed butter, or Stour Valley rabbit.
Getting there: train from London Victoria (1 hr 20 mins)
Start your day trip by climbing Lewes Castle, a 1,000-year-old Norman fort with fabulous views. A combined ticket includes admission to Anne of Cleves House Museum, a medieval house with a Tudor garden and storytellers in medieval costume. Lewes Priory Park, home to 11th-century monastery ruins, and Southover Grange Gardens, 16th-century landscaped gardens, are nearby—stroll around the gardens’ flowerbeds and sculptures, and see trees planted by the Queen in 1951.
Walk up to the High Street, past The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, and turn left up the hill to visit St Anne’s Galleries and The Pelham Arms, which has an on-site smokehouse and microbrewery. At the bottom of the hill, browse Cliffe High Street’s farmers’ market on the first and third Saturdays of each month, then cross the River Ouse for Cliffe Antiques Centre and Lewes Antiques Centre.
For lunch, seek out Café du Jardin, in the courtyard of a former coaching inn; in the evening, dine in its wine cellar. The Snowdrop Inn is tucked beneath a white cliff, painted like a Romany caravan complete with a multicoloured spiral staircase. It stages live music on Saturdays and Mondays and offers local beers such as Harveys, which has brewed ales since 1790.
Getting there: train from London Victoria (1 hr)
This town has a lot of appeal: Churchfields and the Esplanade on the banks of the River Medway; 12th-century Rochester Castle; and Rochester Cathedral, founded in 604AD – visitors can attend services and concerts, join a tour and explore the refurbished crypt. On the High Street, local history buffs can visit Guildhall Museum, which was built in 1687; and the Huguenot Museum, where you can learn how Huguenots brought their craft skills to the UK. Eastgate House is a Grade I-listed former townhouse and now a museum.
After enjoying the historical sites, pop into The Cheese Room, Frances Illes Galleries, and Sweet Expectations, a traditional sweet shop. Warm up with hot drink from Bruno’s Bakes and Coffee, or Fleur de Thé. For something more filling, The Coopers Arms—built for monks in the 1100s, and opened as an inn in 1543—has an open fire as you tuck into a Sunday roast or pub favourites such as chilli con carne.
Getting there: train from London St Pancras (40 mins)
Saffron Walden, Sussex
Start your visit to this medieval town in Essex at Saffron Walden Museum, by the ruins of Walden Castle. The museum has everything from drums in the local history section to tribal leather slippers. Follow the pretty houses along Castle Street to Bridge End Garden, a restored Victorian garden with a hedge maze and sunken Dutch garden. The 15th-century St Mary’s Church is opposite. Visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays for a produce and crafts market – there’s been a market on this spot since 1141.
Later, enjoy coffee from Angela Reed Café & Baker in nearby Great Dunmow, or soup at Café Cou Cou on Hill Street. The Old English Gentleman is opposite – it’s a 19th-century pub with an open fire and log burner, serving hearty Sunday roasts. Head inside Audley End to discover the opulent Jacobean interiors, including the 18th-century State Bed and Robert Adams suite of beautiful rooms. The kids will love Audley End Miniature Railway.
Getting there: train from London Liverpool St to Audley End (1 hr)