London, in all its vibrant, metropolitan glory, cannot be missed, but England’s real crown jewels? They don’t reside in The Tower. Come rain or come shine, the English countryside is evergreen and, with some of her most historic houses and princely castles within easy reach of the capital.
I’m a firm believer that if you want to experience a country, you have to visit its countryside. A bucolic getaway needs never be much more than an hour out of town – that’s little more than most Londoners’ morning commutes.
41 minutes by train from Paddington Station to Taplow
51 minutes by car via A40 and M40
First stop, Cliveden House. Under an hour’s drive and 43 minutes west by train from Paddington, it is the grandest and most convenient of the three. Designed by Charles Barry (best known for his work on rebuilding the Houses of Parliament), its 19th-century façade is unmistakable. A Grade-I listed building, it is bursting with period features, tapestries, and artwork – there is even a gilded Rococo dining room, imported by piece by piece by William Waldorf Astor following a visit to Madame de Pompadour’s lavish Château d'Asnières.
From Winston Churchill to Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw to Queen Victoria herself, Cliveden boasts a long list of esteemed guests. With award-winning dining, champagne boat cruises, spa facilities befitting a country club, palatial rooms, and 376 acres to explore, a stay at Cliveden House is a stay amidst British history.
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
49 minutes by train from Marylebone to Haddenham & Thame Parkway
56 minutes by car via A40 and M40
Onto Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, a slice of Raymond Blanc’s characteristic ooh la la in Oxfordshire. Less than 60 minutes by car or 45 minutes by train from Marylebone, it is a stay for the devout gourmand. Le Manoir’s ivy-clad, 15th-century manor house, built in that archetypal, honey-colored Oxfordshire style, is really a restaurant with (impeccably smart) rooms. It’s all about the food. Though many a hotel will celebrate a paltry “kitchen garden” and stretched “seasonal dishes,” Le Manoir is the real deal. Acres of verdant plots growing every ingredient a serious chef might need – there’s even a rather groovy-sounding “mushroom valley.”
A platoon of gardeners marches out across its grounds each morning at 8 a.m. sharp, armed with nothing more than clippers and a wheelbarrow, to harvest the day’s ingredients. And the result? Seven courses of culinary nirvana. It has earned the titles of both England’s finest and England’s most expensive restaurant. Pair this with your choice of (or why not leave it up to the sommelier) several hundreds of bottles of wine and you have the recipe for a truly indulgent stay.
1h20 by train from Victoria Station to Amberley
1h45 by car via A3 and A283
Last stop, Amberley Castle, the farthest of the three, but worth traveling for. An hour and twenty minutes from Victoria by train, one hour and forty by car, through some of West Sussex’s most picturesque landscapes, this 12th-century castle is the stuff of fairy tales. Hidden amidst the eponymous chocolate-box village of Amberley, it’s effortlessly quaint.
Ascend a long, gravel driveway to pull up in front of its grandiose edifice, former moat, drawbridge, and all – the flag of St. George flying proudly above, the cherry on top. Much cozier inside than the exteriors suggest – soft, floral upholstery, weighty curtains, and thick-pile carpets are paired with original, arched, lead-paned windows and the odd suit of armor. Experimental dining is superb and painstakingly presented – a far cry from the oft-unimaginative country-hotel fair. The “three-course” dinner changes daily and consists of canapés to start and an amuse-bouche in between each course. So not very three-course after all.