Planning a train trip from London? Book in advance and save A LOT of money

 

I just came across this really eye-opening infographic on train fares from London to other popular cities across the UK. It really highlights how much you can save on train tickets if you plan advance . . . at least 10 weeks in advance to be exact. I’ll be honest, until I saw this I had NO IDEA train fares fluctuating like this. I do know that from now on I’ll be booking all my train journeys well ahead of time.

trainfares600px-2

Infographic Credit: VoucherCloud

Day Trip: Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury with Luxury Travels and Tours

 

On 6 April my boyfriend and I embarked on a coach trip to Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury with Luxury Travels and Tours, a small London-based company that operates tours across the UK. Together with Stonehenge & Bath and Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon & the Cotswolds, this is one of the most popular day trip options from London as it takes you to two fairytale castles and a marvellous historic cathedral town.

On the morning of the trip we woke up to overcast skies and left our East London flat early so that we could make it to the pick-up point at South Kensington. We reached the South Kensington with 15-minutes to spare and were greeted by pouring rain as we make our way down the street to the awaiting coach.

8:30
The coach took off bang on time at 8:30. Prior to boarding our guide checked our names and collected our entry fees for Leeds and Dover castle. It’s worth nothing that coach tours generally do not include the price of admission into their fares. This caught a few of the passengers of guard, but it’s stated quite clearly on Luxury Travels’ website.

The advantage of paying admission through the guide was that all the passengers qualified for the group rate, which was £15/person/castle. The normal prices of admission to Leeds Castle and Dover Castle are £19.00 and £17.50, respectively.

(10:00 – 12:15) Leeds Castle
After an hour of driving through London traffic, the coach finally made it out onto the motorway and headed southeast through the countryside to Leeds Castle. We arrived promptly at 10:00, which is precisely the time the vast gardens surrounding the castle open, though the castle itself doesn’t open until 10:30. It took about 15-minutes for our guide to get our tickets sorted after which we were let loose in the gardens.

Black Swans at Leeds Castle

Black swans at Leeds Castle

Even on a chilly, misty spring morning, the gardens of Leeds Castle were enchanting. At the entrance you have the option of purchasing a small container of bird food for £1 and I strongly suggest doing so. The castle’s gardens are famously home to beautiful black swans as well as a host of song birds, ducks, geese, and peacocks. Before making my way around the bend to the castle I ran into what may just be the most adorable family of ducks ever.

Ducklings at Leeds Castle

Ducklings at Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

After tearing myself away from all the cute ducklings, I walked over to the castle entrance. Leeds Castle is set up in such a way that visitings are led on a one-way path through the structure. You’re free to walk through at your own pace, but there’s not doubling back in order to keep the flow going.

I think what surprised me most about Leeds Castle is how modern it was. Its exterior is very much that of a castle you’d imagine from the middle ages, but the interior more closely resembles a stately manor, whith only a few rooms paying homage to its medieval heritage. The library struck me as the prettiest room in the castle with its rows of neatly aligned books and gold trim.

Leeds Castle

Tudor-era room in Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle Library

Leeds Castle Library

Leeds Castle Chapel

Leeds Castle Chapel

Depending on your personal pace, it takes anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes to finish a complete tour of the castle. With the coach taking off as 12:15, we left the building with plenty of extra time to explore the grounds. Our first stop was the maze, which is located about a 5-minute walk from the main building. The maze was nothing special, but it bizarrely ended at an underground grotto decorated with seashells. It was too dark to take pictures, but my boyfriend did manage to get one decent shot in.

Leeds Castle Grotto

Leeds Castle Grotto . . . ??

After our excursion to the grotto we started heading our way back to through the gardens towards the car park. Before leaving I gave my last bit of bird food away to a very friendly peacock.

Peacock at Leeds Castle

Peacock at Leeds Castle

In total we got to spend just over 2 hours at the site of the castle, which felt like the right amount of time for what I wanted to see and do. However, I tend to move through historic sites and museums pretty quickly. If you prefer taking things in at a slower pace, two hours might feel a little rushed to you.

(13:00 – 15:15) Dover Castle
The drive from Leeds Castle in Maidstone to Dover didn’t take very long, but I was disappointed to see the town’s famous white cliffs shrouded in fog. At Dover we were given the option of exploring Dover Castle or the town of Dover itself. I had always been more interested in the castle and have to say that as we drove through the town, it looked a little worse for wear.

I made a big mistake by not eating lunch at Leeds Castle, because by the time we reached Dover I was starving and could think of nothing but getting something in my stomach. With only 2 hours to spend at the site, I spent more than half an hour eating! That left us with only enough time to visit the main tower of the castle (called the keep), which to its credit was pretty well preserved and adhered to its Norman roots.

Dover Castle

View from the top of Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Inside Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Wall etchings

What we didn’t really get to see were the World Ward II era tunnels that were dug into the chalk cliffs near to the castle. Entrance into the tunnels and a laundry list of other separate sites is all included in your admission price into Dover Castle, but you need half a day at the very least to really see everything here. If in the future I ever take a ferry from Dover to France, I’ll be sure to pencil in some time to re-visit the castle and check out what I missed.

(15:45 – 17:00) Canterbury
Canterbury is a quick jaunt from Dover and it felt like we arrived in no time. The coach dropped us off at the edge of the old part of town and our guide led us to Canterbury Cathedral, which he warned would probably be closed. Normally the entrance fee into the cathedral, one of the oldest in Britain, is £9.50. Luckily, we arrived just as they were opening their doors for an afternoon Sunday service and were able to pop in for free. If you’ve been to other cathedrals around Europe the one in Canterbury will now blow you away. It has a long nave with an intricate ceiling and some fancy stained glass. There is an interior cloister that is quite beautiful as well as a few separate rooms and buildings to explore.

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

I think what I found more impressive than the cathedral was Canterbury itself. Its historic centre oozes charm, even when it’s loaded with tourists. I caught word from our guide that Canterbury tends to be packed on Saturdays, but the crowds thin out on Sundays. The street adjacent to the cathedral and the main shopping street are pedestrian zones covered in worn cobblestones. There are lots of great historic buildings to look at here and I really thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral peeking through a narrow cobblestone street

Canterbury

Canterbury

Canterbury Public Library Museum

Canterbury Public Library Museum

Canterbury

Canterbury

Back to London
We were warned by the driver that the journey back to London on a Sunday evening could take 2 hours or more, putting our arrival time at 19:00. Because the route back to S. Kensington would take us quite literally past our apartment in E. London, we asked our guide if we could arrange for a special drop off. He passed our request on to the driver and they came up with a plan to schedule two drop-offs: one in E. London and one in S. Kensington.

We made it to the border of London around 18:00 and 15 minutes later the coach driver very kindly dropped us off about a block away from Tower Gateway station, which is just a few stops on the DLR from where we live. We were back home at 18:30 and I had managed to make dinner, eat, and get ready for bed in the same time it would have taken us to drive all the way down to S. Kensington, then take the Tube all the way back to East London. I’d like to thank our guide Jeremy and the driver Ray for saving us all that extra time!

The Verdict
It was a long, yet satisfying day. The tour delivered on everything it promised, which is all you can really ask. My only major grip about the trip was the fact that we had to line up outside in the rain for a while to board the coach because we were asked to pay for our admission upfront. It probably would have been easier to collect the money on the coach. The weather could have also been better, but that just goes along with living in England. As I believe I’ve mentioned previously, while I’m a firm believer in being an independent traveller, there are times when coach tours such as these are just more convenient and cost effective. This would have been a difficult and expensive trip to do by rail and we ended up saving £20/person using a coach rather than hiring a car.

Our guide was helpful and took care of all the logistics for the passengers, but didn’t accompany us into the sites. We were left to explore things on our own, which I strongly prefer. The driver operated the coach safely and I was really happy with the service at the end of the day.

I’d recommend the trip for anyone staying in London for more than a week or so. If you like to take your time when you travel, then opt for the itinerary that hits two of the three sites and visit the third site on your own on another day.

  • To get to Leeds Castle by rail, take the train to Bearsted station, where there is a shuttle service from March to October that will take you directly to the castle.
  • To visit Canterbury, you can take the train from London to Canterbury East or Canterbury West. Trains operate frequently and the journey time is 90 minutes.

How to plan a day or weekend trip from London

 

So you’re spending a semester studying in London or you’re holidaying here for a few weeks. Better yet, you’ve moved to London. Yay!

After you’ve seen Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and hit up a few museums and pubs, it might be time to start thinking about taking some trips outside the city to see what the rest of England is all about. If you’ve reached this point in your London life, then I’m here to help! Below are some tips and some advice on how to plan for short trips outside of the city.

Oxford, England

Destination

First thing’s first – Where should you go?

While I definitely haven’t been everywhere, here are my top picks for day trips outside London:
1. Oxford
2. Cambridge (visit Oxford or Cambridge, but don’t waste time on both!)
3. Bath and Stonehenge (Often done as one trip)
4. Windsor Castle
5. Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury (Often done as one trip)
6. Hampton Court Palace
7. Brighton (in the happier, sunnier months only)

Bath, England

And now here are my top weekend destinations (again, not an exhaustive list):
1. Cornwall
2. Stratford-Upon-Avon and The Cotswolds
3. The New Forest
4. Jersey or Guernsey
5. Isle of Wight (Take a train to Southampton, then hop on a ferry)

New Forest

Transportation

Once you’ve picked a destination, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to get there. For most city destinations, trains will do just fine. Try www.nationalrail.co.uk to see routes and pricing.  Once you get to your destination city, you can either use public transport or one of those city tour buses to get around.

The more remote destinations like Cornwall and New Forest are reachable via train as well, but it’s best to hire a car if you can.

Then there are the specialty tourist destinations like Bath, Stonehenge, Leeds Castle, and Dover. Because these places are so popular, the easiest way to visit them is by tour bus. I’ve done several day trip tours and found them to deliver on their services in that they provide easy and direct transportation. I wouldn’t, however, expect a great tour guide or anything. Nevertheless, it’s a good option if you don’t feel like driving yourself.

The only automatic car available for rent – Oh yea, I totally crashed it.

A word on car hire in the UK:
There are four major things to know about hiring and driving a car in the UK.

  • All standard rentals are manual/stick shift. You will have to pay a hefty daily rate (often £75 – £120) if you want an automatic car.
  • Some major rental companies will not rent automatic cars to you if you are under 25, so double check if you’re in that age bracket.
  • Driving on the left side of the road is weird, but it’s probably not as hard as you think. Just drive slowly and you’ll be OK.
  • US, Canadian, Australian and European driver’s licenses will work just fine for hiring a car. I don’t know about other nations.

Accommodation

There’s nothing out of the ordinary involved with booking a hotel in England. I’ve noticed that some of the older and more traditional B&Bs don’t have great web reservation systems, but they’re still adequate. Bring your passport along as the hotel staff may ask you for ID (and it’s good to have your passport on you when you travel anyway).

B&B in New Forest

Travelling on a Budget

If you’re a student (or non-student) reading this and thinking “this sounds great, but it also seems really expensive”,  then I’ve got a few more tips for keeping within a modest budget:

  • If you’re a Youth (16 – 25) and are going to be in London for a year or more, look into the Youth Rail Pass. It costs £30 but will save you 1/3 on all rail fares for 1 year.
  • Big bus tours to places like Stonehenge and Bath typically offer student discounts, so check them out.
  • Travel in a group – If you can bring along 4-5 people in one car you’ll probably save on transportation. Groups of 2 or more are also eligible for group rail discounts.
  • A lot of towns in the UK have youth hostels where you can get a bed for less than £10/night. You could also try camping if you’re brave enough!
  • If you enjoy eating out, opt for lunch specials over dinner. Meal deals at lunch are almost always a better bargain than at dinner. Head to the local supermarket and pick up some snacks and sandwiches for dinner.

Day Trip: The Hatfield House

 

Hatfield House

It had been a while since I ventured outside of London for a day trip, so the other week I looked up day trips on timeout’s trusty site and learned about the Hatfield House.  The perfectly preserved Jacobean manor is only 30 minutes from London and is still privately owned by the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury.  It was originally built in the 1600s by the 1st Earl of Salisbury and has pretty much been used continuously since then.

 

Today, the Hatfield House is open to visitors between early April and late September each year.  We arrived about an hour before the house opened, which allowed us time to explore the gardens, gift shop and compound surrounding the main mansion. Fall (or Autumn if you’re British) is a great time to visit England’s countryside, especially in that sweet spot when flowers are still in bloom and leaves are starting to turn orange.

Hatfield House Toy Shop

Hatfield House Compound

Once the house was opened at noon, we entered into once of the best furnished manors I’ve seen in my travels. The wood carvings and detail in each of the rooms were impressive, as were the period furnishings. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the house, but the Hatfield website contains a few pictures.

 

The house took about 45 minutes to tour and after that we took a short walk back to the train station and were back in Central London by lunchtime. I definitely recommend a visit to the Hatfield House for those who are in town for a while (exchange students, stays over 2 weeks). It’s a great example of a Jacobean-era home and is so conveniently located that it’s hard to pass up.

In Search of Victorian Splendour in Oxford

 

After an unassuming 1-hour train ride through the British countryside, past the obligatory nuclear power plant and the occasional sheep, we arrived at Oxford’s tiny railway station.  It was a mild July afternoon and I had high hopes that I’d finally be able to experience the Victorian splendor exahlted in Lewis Carrol’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Alice was, afterall, based on Alice Liddel – born in the 1850s as daughter of the Dean of Christ Church college at Oxford University. It was Carrol’s relationship with the little Liddel in Oxford that was thought to be the inspiration for the novel.

Any hopes of recapturing quaint Victorian times in this famous University town were soon dashed as we quickly found ourselves amongst a mob of tourists and wedding parties from every inch of the globe.

Lesson Learned: Don’t visit Oxford in July

After squeezing our way through the crowds, we made our way to Magdalen Bridge Boat house where we planned on either punting or rowing to start off our day.  Unfortunately, we were greeted by a long line of Italian exchange students waiting for boats and decided to tread elsewhere as opposed to waiting in line.  We found nearby Magdalen College and paid a modest £3 entrance fee, which came with a pamphlet about its history.  The grounds may have been only a few meters from the congested Oxford streets, but the scenery was quiet and peaceful. The buildings that make up Magdalen College’s cloister are magnificent and the gardens were lush and healthy. This was more along the lines of what I was hoping for.  After exploring the grounds for an hour or so, we headed back out to the mean streets of Oxford to see what else the city had to offer.

Magdalen College Cloister

Magdalen College Cloister

I love a good view, so I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to climb to the top of The Church of St. Mary the Virgin for what was advertised as one of the best views of Oxford. After a 15 minute wait, we again paid a few pounds to make our way up the narrow staircase to the top of the church tower.  The climb itself is not that taxing (especially after climbing the Cologne Cathedral), but space at the top is extremely limited. The width of the walkways is hardly 12 inches.  Despite the relative discomfort of getting squashed into random strangers, the views turned out to be pretty spectacular.  Nestled just behind Radcliffe Square, the church
has perfect aerial views of almost the entire city, and you can easily peer into All Souls and Christ Church colleges.

View of All Souls College from Church tower

After a much needed lunch break, we came across a private tour company offering tours of the University for a reasonable fee.  We decided to go for it and quickly found out that many of the colleges normally on the tour would not be accessible to due weddings and various other events that were taking place that day.  After a tour of Baillol College, we proceeded to wander around the campus aimlessly with the tour guide desperately searching for colleges that were available for tours.  Along the way be again passed Radcliffe Square and also saw the old library.  Our disappointment in the tour culminated towards the end when we approached the gate of Chritchurch college – the one Harry Potter was filmed in – and were turned away due to a late-running wedding.

Breaking off the tour, we headed back to Magdalen Bridge Boat house, hoping that our second attempt at renting a boat would be more successful than our first.  We were pleasantly surprised by the much shorter line and had just enough time to enjoy some ice cream before cautiously stepping into our wooden contraption for the hour.  It was about £25 to rent a row boat for an hour and the same price for a punting boat.  We decided to row instead of punt because it looked more stable and this was of utmost importance since I can’t swim.

Rowing Along Oxford Canal

A Slice of Victorian Living

The scenery along the canal was absolutely lovely.  Some of the colleges and the city’s botanical gardens remained in view from the canal and we were greeted by the squaks of local ducks and the rings of church bells. For a moment there I could imagine Lewis Carrol rowing Alice Liddel up the very canal I was on, telling her about the whimsical adventures of a girl named Alice in a secret underground world known as Wonderland. The moment didn’t last long, however, as I was quickly forced back to reality after realising we had hit a tree with our boat . . . and possibly a duck.

Canal Views

View from the Canal

With our boating adventure complete, we lightly jogged back about a mile to the train station in order to catch our very-full train back to London Waterloo.  Despite being laden with tourists and exchange students, there are glimpses of Oxford’s Victorian splendor still present within the compact city.  The history, architecture and gardens give it a grand presence that would be difficult for other college towns to compete with.  Its location make it a perfect day trip from London and will ensure its popularity with tourists for decades to come.

Day Trip to Windsor Castle

 
Windsor Castle

Details
Getting There: Trains leave approx. every half hour from Paddington Station in London to Windsor & Eton Central Station. Round-trip fare is approx. 9GBP. Plan your journey here.
Admission Fee: £17 when the State Apartments are open. £9 when they are closed.
Official Website: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/default.asp?action=article&ID=34

Windsor Castle is located just 30 minutes from central London and offers visitors an excellent day or even half-day break from the hustle and bustle of the big city.  It is the oldest and largest active castle in the world and the Queen still spends many of her private weekends at this imposing compound composed of Gothic architecture and fairy-tale style turrets.

Unfortunately, because the Queen does occasionally spend her time at Windsor, it’s not always fully open to the public.  Before you plan your visit it’s best to check the official website to ensure that the castle will be open for visitors on the day you wish to arrive.

Windsor is conveniently located a few steps away from the Windsor and Eton Central train station and there are signs located throughout the town which will lead you towards the entrance to the grounds.  The castle opens at 9:45am and it’s best to arrive as early as possible.  Even in the winter, Windsor gets crowded during the day.

Windsor’s distinct Round Tower

The famous “Changing of the Guard” takes place within the grounds of Windsor Castle every other day at 11am, except on Sundays and the ceremony lasts 20 minutes -a very lenghthy 20 minutes when it’s cold outside. My suggestion would be to visit on a day when the State Apartments are open and the changing of the guard is being performed. This will ensure that you’re getting the most Windsor for your buck . . . or pound. If you’re lucky, St. George’s Chapel will also be open.  Housing the remains of 10 members of the royal family, this gothic-style chapel stands out from the rest of the compound with its creamy-coloured stones and distinctive arched windows.

Aside from the State Rooms and chapel, Windsor also contains Queen Mary’s Dollhouse – an incredibly ornate and fully functional dollhouse complete with electricity and running water.  Exploring the passageways of the public part of the castle, military history lovers will delight in the various collections of weapons grouped by regions such as India and Japan.  Other highlights include a collections of fine china and as well as a rotating list of special exhibits.  Like most royal palaces, the grounds themselves are a spectacle unto themselves.  At Windsor, however, the neatly manicured “backyard” is not open to tourists but it can be viewed from the windows of the State Apartments.

Changing of the Guard

Windsor Interior

At £17, Windsor is by no means the cheapest palace or castle in Europe. However, keeping in mind that it has been an active royal residence for nearly 1000 years and that it is more of a compound rather than a singular castle, the admission fee is justified.  Windsor is easily one of the best preserved castles I’ve visited.  Because of its lengthy history, it offers visitors a chance to step into the dragon-slaying middle-ages all the way through to the Gothic, Georgian, and Victorian ages within a few hours. Add that to the fact that it’s such a short journey from London and it makes for the perfect day out.