23 best things to do within 2 hours of home
Are you ready to (gasp) leave your local area? From safari parks and city skylines to a hotspot for water sports, here are the 23 best outdoors things to do within 2 hours of Essex.
Leaving the county has never seemed so glamorous! We love our local area but —sweet lord, are we itching to get away from it. Enter the Covid-safe daytrip: an outdoor excursion within two hours of home, essential for saving those last scraps of sanity. (Quite honestly, at this point, we’d be delighted to sit in a field with a thermos flask if the view was just slightly different, but we’re pretty sure we can do better.) Instead, here’s a list of all the best things to do within two hours of Essex. We’ve started with some classics at home too, just in case you need to ease yourself in.
The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead
Small (in terms of public gardens), but oh-so perfectly formed, the world-famous Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead, north Essex, have been attracting green-fingered visitors from across the country since 1960 – when the award-winning gardener Beth Chatto first begun to turn this once wild, overgrown seven acres of wasteland into a series of five inspiring outdoor spaces. Take your time wandering from the Water Garden and Woodland to Screen Garden and Reservoir – there’s beauty to behold at every turn.
Trekking the Thames Estuary Path
A 29-mile stretch along the Essex strait, The Thames Estuary Path wiggles its way through some of the county’s most dramatic landscapes, from a tapestry of mud flats in the south and Tilbury town’s industrial docks, to the sheaf of cockle-shed bays that bid the Thames goodbye in Old Leigh. Positively brimming with biodiversity, a criss-cross of bubbling creeks and clay-like marshes dominate this low-lying riverscape, but the walking trail is clearly marked out and (don’t worry!) you can easily break it up, too: stations along the London Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line serve to slice the route into manageable weekend romps.
We might not be leaving the country this year but, under the red and gold lanterns of Chinatown and surrounded by an unfamiliar alphabet, you might be able to pretend. It’s a bit of a walk from Marylebone and Paddington stations, but we’ve all become excellent walkers anyway, and there’s so much to nose at on the way you’ll hardly mind. Once there, tuck into a well-deserved mountain of dumplings: Dumplings’ Legend is rumoured to be the best, but you’re unlikely to get a dud anywhere. Then don’t miss the opportunity to peer into the bakeries, full of ornate mooncakes. If you seek out Chinatown Bakery you’ll be rewarded with the strangely mesmerising machine in the window, which makes waffles in the shape of fish, then fills them with custard. Definitely one for the ‘gram.
Within 15 minutes’ walk from Paddington Station is Little Venice, a pretty stretch of canal full of bobbing coloured houseboats that’s surrounded by posh Victorian houses and lots of greenery. Meander along, convincing yourself that life on a houseboat would be utterly charming (until you eat a dodgy curry, that is), and admiring the scenery. It’s also a pleasing place to cycle, free of cars, if you feel like renting ‘Boris’ bikes. For lunch, grab an excellent salad and baked goods to go from Raoul’s Deli on Clifton Road.
Just a hop, a skip, and a jump away from Marylebone station (or a 20-minute walk from Paddington) is Regent’s Park, currently full of blossom and manicured spring flower beds, and surrounded by Nash’s picture-book Regency terraces. But keep going, across the road and into Primrose Hill, and you can see a tremendous view of the London skyline. A great opportunity to impress (ie, bore) any kids with how many iconic buildings you can point out. Grab something for lunch from one of the many restaurants, delis, and cafes on Regent’s Park road, eyes peeled for any passing celebs. There’s good portable stuff from Greenberry Cafe (bacon baps, cheese toasties, a changing selection of salads, cakes) or, come 12 April, tuck into excellent Greek food from Lemonia in their heated and covered outdoor seating area.
Kings Cross to Camden Town
Walking in a rural paradise? So over it. Instead, start off by grabbing something to eat at Coal Drops Yard next to King’s Cross station (the sandwiches at Sons + Daughters are famous for a reason, FYI). Maybe linger a bit, to grab a drink from one of the many bars — just a little pick-me-up, you know how it is. Then, head down to the water’s edge and wander along the canal, past the lock, noting the fabulously expensive luxury flats made out of old gas holders along the way. Within 25 minutes (or more, depending on how much you ate) you’ll have reached Camden Town, where you can climb up to street level and go nosy around Camden Market, with all its strangely enticing tat.
Hampstead Heath and Village
From Kings Cross station, and via the 46 bus, it’s 20 minutes to Hampstead Heath (get off at the Royal Free Hospital). Walk up Parliament Hill to see the full glory of the skyline; it’s one of the highest natural points in the city. From there, it’s a highly pleasant 20 minute walk across the lush Heath up to Hampstead Village, where you might peep a celeb local like Ricky Gervais. You can count the blue plaques of past famous residents as you go: Constable, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, John Keats. Get yourself tea and cake to go from Burgh House, or a fine French lunch from La Cage Imaginaire.
If you haven’t yet been to the picturesque coastal town of Southwold you are in for a treat. Pastel-coloured beach huts line the seafront, and the town itself is bustling with lovely cafes, restaurants and shops. The Two Magpies bakery does incredible coffee and sweet treats and the smell of Adnams brewery wafts through the streets. In fact, you can take a tour of the brewery itself or head to the shop for some great wine and foodie shopping. And if you’re in shopping mode get some coastal chic from the brilliant boutique, Coleen and Clare. Lunch could be pasties or fab fish n chips from the Sole Bay, or when things are open, the rather lovely Swan Hotel. The pier is a must-see: a quirky and cool place with old-school fun (wall of mirrors!) and cheeky water fountains – and the brilliantly eccentric under the pier show (when everything is open again) will have you doing such madcap antics as experiencing the life of a fly in VR or exercising on a bed! Make sure to check out the harbour area, too – lovely fisherman’s huts and great views of Walberswick.
GoApe, Thetford Forest
We have been cooped up for far too long so how about doing something different and daring? Go Ape in the centre of Thetford forest is the adventure we all need in our lives after lockdown. The treetop adventure will have you and all the family (it’s suitable for anyone over 1m tall) doing Tarzan swings through the trees, gingerly navigating ‘stepping stones’, zooming across zip wires, plus plenty more devilish challenges. Get harnessed up for the ultimate family bonding experience. Once you’re don, the forest also boasts exhilarating bike trails, a Gruffalo orienteering trail, archery, bushcraft survival courses, and a forest segway tour.
Find Felixstowe between rivers of Orwell and Deben on the East coast – an Edwardian seaside town that is also Britain’s busiest port. History buffs will be in their element exploring the Languard Peninsula and the 18th-century fort, plus there are numerous Martello towers. Stroll along the promenade and take in the seafront gardens, watch the ships coming in, play in the arcades or try crazy golf, eat fish and chips, enjoy the nature reserve, and visit the Bawdsey Radar Museum (once open). You can also hop on the ‘foot ferry’ from the quaint sailing hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry (yes, the name of the village) to Bawdsey and buy fresh fish to take home for your dinner. We also love the look of the recently launched Beach Street – a collection of shipping containers housing some super cool street food, cafés, indie shops, yoga studio and kids’ climbing wall. Perhaps catch one of the Ibiza social brunches and you will feel like you’re properly on your holibobs!
Let’s go punting, Cambridge
Whether you know the pretty city of Cambridge or not, exploring it by punt is a must. You can take a guided tour, either for just your family or in a shared punt (made Covid-safe with screens) or you can brave steering your own. We recommend a tour guide, as they do all the hard work navigating you up the river, as well as regaling you with the area’s history, while you can sit back and enjoy the ride, perhaps with a glass of fizz! The views are simply stunning – perfectly manicured lawns and the amazing architecture of the majestic Kings College Chapel, and Trinity, St John’s, and Clare colleges plus the beautiful bridges. You can also take a punt towards Grantchester – the safer bet if you are self-guiding. Once past the busy city area, you can enjoy a picnic on the river bank, where many also swim (watch out for Newnham Riverbank Club who like to do it naked!) or maybe you will make it as far as the Orchard Tea Rooms, where Rupert Brooke and friends hung out, to enjoy a scone the size of your head to power you back to Cambridge. Book in advance with Scudamores or Rutherfords Punting.
The Botanic Gardens, Cambridge
Cambridge University Botanic Gardens has been in the news of late, with the blooming of the magnificent Moonflower. Now the garden is bursting with colour, incredible blossom trees, and these gorgeous rare tulips. Plus, there are over 80 species on display in the Alpine House, a collection that has its origins in the 1920s. The garden is open seven days a week, 10-6pm, April-September, and tickets must be booked online in advance. Take a picnic or grab a takeaway lunch from the Botanic’s fab café.
The Raptor Foundation, Huntingdon
Are you cuckoo about birds? Or maybe your kids are. Either way, a visit to this amazing conservation centre near Huntingdon could be just what you need when your wings have been clipped for the last few months. Open from 12 April, you can see a variety of eagles, hawks, falcons and owls that have been rehabilitated at the centre, plus there are regular – and very impressive – flying displays. You can also sign up for a variety of courses and activities including a Hawk Walk, where you quite literally take a hawk for a walk and experience the thrill of the birds flying back to your (gloved) hand. So egg-citing! (Sorry – bird puns are so hawk-ward!). After your bird-watching why not head to the nearby village of St Ives, where you could take a picnic lunch by the lovely River Ouse.
Wicken Fen, Near Ely
Wicken Fen is the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve and a great destination if you want to blow away the cobwebs and enthuse any budding David Attenborough’s in your midst. One of Europe’s most important wetlands, Wicken Fen has recorded more than 9,000 species including rare butterflies, dragonflies, birds, and plants. You view the marshlands via raised boardwalks and if you are fed up with your usual walks and landscape (who isn’t?), this is the perfect antidote and has an almost Scandi feel to it (think sweeping Wallander-esque marshlands). Take a picnic and binoculars. But, you’re also not far from the city of Ely, with its amazing cathedral (the ship of the fens) that can be seen for miles around – so leave time to pop into this picturesque market town and you might be lucky enough to catch one of its fab food markets.
Hatfield might not be the No. 1 destination on every tourist’s wish list, but did you know that the grand Hatfield House is one of the top film set locations for period productions in the UK? Most recently, Olivia Coleman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Favourite was captured in this wonderful Jacobean Manor, not to mention all those that came before, including Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shakespeare in Love and even Batman. Who knew? Oh, and the actual Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her youth at Hatfield Palace (an older house on the grounds), and you can still (literally) walk in the footsteps of this epic monarch today. The park and woodland walks will open from 29 March with the gardens following shorty after on 3 April.
Visit Verulamium (St Albans)
St Albans was once one of the largest Roman cities in Britain – Verulamium. Grab a coffee and wander into the Roman Verulamium Park. On the far side is the Hypocaust (a Roman mosaic). From here head to the Cathedral – an amazing mix of architectural styles, with much of it built in the 11th century from Roman materials.
Hever Castle, Hever
Hever Castle is set in rural countryside 30 miles from central London and three miles southeast of Edenbridge on the Kent/Surrey/Sussex border. Once – most famously – Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, it’s one of our favourite historic destinations. It’s not too big and sprawling, so easy to negotiate, and stands in a beautiful area that’s steeped in all that marvellous Tudor history. With stunning gardens and lots of year-round event, there’s plenty to do here. We especially love the play areas, which include Acorn Dell, a natural playground for toddlers and children up to seven years old, or for older children (7-14 years old) there’s Tudor Towers adventure playground consisting of a wooden, nine-metre tall castle to really fire their imagination.
Bewl Water, Lamberhurst
Bewl is a big, beautiful reservoir – the largest stretch of open water in the South East in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It offers a fantastic range of water sports – from canoeing, sailing and stand up paddleboarding – to name a few. It’s also extremely popular for cycling (around the perimeter) and offers everything from camping to outdoor cinema, oh, and a decent restaurant too! The Bewl Water Aqua Park re-opens on Mon 12 April for the summer season and is basically 3000sq meters of floating inflatable fun – consisting of two trampolines, monkey bars, flippers, slides, hurdles, springboards, overhang climbing frame, giant iceberg… you get the idea. It’s a great holiday activity for groups, families and children from 6 years old (there are some sessions times/restrictions for younger children).
Elmley Nature Reserve, Isle of Sheppey
Who needs to leave the country for a safari holiday when you have Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent waiting for you? OK, we are not talking lions, tigers and bears but since 1991, Elmley has been deemed a National Nature Reserve and is an internationally recognised site for the the conservation of rare birds, plants, animals and insects. With lots of wonderful options for luxury overnight stays – either for a romantic getaway or with 3,200 acres, Elmley provides a fab family retreat for a night – there is also a family-run farm with approximately 700 cattle grazing the pasture each year plus chickens, ducks and tractors to admire. Their Wildlife Tours are resuming from Mon 29 March, and the Reserve will be open every day over the Easter hols.
Top travel guide the Lonely Planet has released its first ever list of the nation’s most ‘memorable, beautiful, surprising and compelling sights’ – and Kent’s very own Bedgebury Forest sits right there in the list of UK-based experiences not to be missed. If you live in Kent, you’ve probably come across this local gem, technically called Bedgebury National Pinetum, *sniff* if we’re being proper about it. With walks, bike trails, Go Ape and more, if this place doesn’t tire them out, nothing will.
Wildwood, Herne Bay
One of our fave family days-out, Wildwood is due to re-open on 12 April. Positioned just outside Herne Bay, you can get to know over 200 native animals set in 40 acres of beautiful ancient woodland. Expect to see bears (although they are relocating to Devon any day), wolves, Arctic foxes, bison, owls, wild boar, lynx, wild horses, badgers and beavers – that’s just 10 of those 200! Stroll through the woodland, admire any new arrivals (how cute are these cubs, above?), check out the play areas – including Kent’s TALLEST drop slide, tree-top towers, wild fort towers, climbing frame and helpfully an under-5’s play area too. Plus there’s a tree trail for the kids as they’ve planted hundreds of new trees during lockdown so a good way to educate little minds.
Woburn Safari Park
It’s seems rather unlikely that one would stumble upon an all-singing all-dancing safari park just outside historic, elegant Woburn, but here it is. This Bedfordshire wonder, reopening on 12 April, offers both the Road and Foot Safaris (we know which one we’d prefer) and is a brilliant day out with the nippers in tow.
Canoe Trail, Bedford
Ever done a canoe trip with the kids? Take it from someone who has – it’s wet, tiring and one of the best days out ever! This family-fun business offers canoe, kayak, and SUP hire on the calm (thankfully) River Great Ouse. Take your pick from a relaxed and fairly dry canoe trip to soaking-wet fun on a paddle board.