The best road trips from London that take 2 hours or less
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With nine million of us now living in London and an ever-increasing range of car rental options, a day trip out of town is easy to plan. But with time so precious, we don’t want to spend all day in the car.
From historic cities, National Parks and seaside scenes, you won’t even have time to play “I spy”. Here are some ideas for your next road trip — all in under two hours from central London — and some inspiration on where to have lunch while you’re there.
Before you set off, don’t forget to check the best U.K. credit cards to use for car rental. When you are road-trip planning, make sure you avoid the London Congestion Charge zone, especially as the congestion charge is set to be raised as well as the days and times extended.
Distance from London: 35 miles (around an hour).
Marlow and the Home Counties are really closeby with plenty of things to do. Marlow is right on the river, so start by crossing Grade I-listed Marlow Bridge and go for a stroll along the Thames Path to spot wildlife (and the occasional rowing boat) on the river. After that, check out The High Street and venture on a blue plaque-hunting escapade. Look hard enough and you will find the building that TS Eliot called home during World War I and the house where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Car parking can be a little tricky especially at lunchtime, but Liston Court Car Park lets you park for up to six hours for £4.
Where to have lunch: Marlow is a Michelin-star mecca but just a few miles away is Hurley House Hotel where there is a smorgasbord of lunch options from sushi to steak. And there’s a lovely outdoor terrace and garden with weekend BBQs.
Distance from London: 90 miles (just under two hours).
If I didn’t live in London, I would live in Bath. But that’s over our two-hour threshold. So instead, a day trip to Stonehenge is called for, especially as the summer solstice draws ever closer. From London, it’s an easy drive down the M3 to this 5,000-year-old Wiltshire stone circle. Stonehenge remains a truly remarkable relic of the prehistoric world — older than the Great Pyramids and still largely a mystery. On average, a visit to Stonehenge takes around two hours, so if you have time, head over to the Army Flying Museum on the way back to London, which tells you about the journey of British soldiers in the air from the pioneering days of balloons and kites right through to the modern chapter of helicopter operations.
Where to have lunch: The Stonehenge Inn is the closest pub to Stonehenge and even hosts a mini-Stonehenge, an exact replica of the great monument. Here you can expect classic pub grub and also a pizza kitchen.
3. The New Forest
Distance from London: 84 miles (just under two hours).
A trip to the New Forest is about as close as you can get to a safari without buying a plane ticket. As you make your way down dappled lanes and across the heather-covered heath, you’ll be watched by ponies that have grazed there for thousands of years with cattle and pigs casually hoovering up fallen acorns. Every July to September, the New Forest open-top bus tour is a hop-on, hop-off experience with three different routes. You can even bring your bikes and (well-behaved) dogs along.
Where to have lunch: New Forest pubs are an important part of the area’s heritage. The Pilgrim Inn is what us Londoners imagine a country pub to be with a thatched roof, roaring log fires and a cosy dining room for lazy lunches.
4. Mersea Island
Distance from London: 59 miles (1.5 hours).
Attached to the mainland by a causeway that floods at high tide, this island getaway is great if you love water. Mersea Island has beach huts, ice cream, windsurfers and lots of boats. A boat trip around the harbour from the Causeway Jetty on Coast Road will show you the local sights from the water. Mersea Island’s sometimes sunny south-facing beach looking over the Blackwater Estuary and is a curious a mix of sand and shingle but has great views. If you visit Mersea at the end of August you could also pop into the Clacton Airshow, which is free and includes a good mixture of activities from The Red Arrows to historic aircraft shows.
Where to have lunch: The big draw is The Company Shed, which serves seafood platters that pull in crowds from all over the country every weekend. It doesn’t take bookings, so get there before midday to feast on local oysters, prawns and dressed crab. Talking of which, catch-and-release crabbing is fun and it’s free. Just watch out for those crab claws!
Distance from London: 60 miles (1.5 hours).
The Kent coast is dotted with picture-perfect towns like Margate and Deal, but Whitstable is really pretty with its pastel-painted beach huts and thriving arts scene. Explore Whitstable’s arty side with a wander round its galleries including the Fishslab Gallery, which used to the local Fishmonger. Whitstable’s historic Harbour Street is a must-visit for every day-tripper who comes, followed by The Harbour Market to pick up curious knick-knacks and furniture with character.
Where to have lunch: The Lobster Shack is a local favourite, famous for local oysters and live shellfish. With beach views and lots of outdoor seating, it’s the place for people-watching in the summer and getting cosy by the log burner in colder times.
6. Leeds Castle and the White Cliffs of Dover
Distance from London: 43 miles (one hour) to Leeds Castle then 39 miles (45 minutes) to the White Cliffs of Dover.
Staying in glorious Kent, this two-stop day trip starts at Leeds Castle (not in Leeds), which is picturesquely placed in the middle of a lake surrounded on all sides by forests and parklands. Stroll through the Lady Baillie Gardens before a quick drive to the truly iconic White Cliffs of Dover. A symbol of home, hope and freedom, their dazzling white chalk faces reach 350 feet. Also look out for two herds of resilient Exmoor ponies whose mission is to graze away to keep the coarse grasses, bushes and trees at bay so that the chalk grassland of the cliffs can thrive.
Where to have lunch: Meander 10 miles up the Kentish coast from the gorgeous cliffs to the village of St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe where you will find The White Cliffs Hotel Bunkhouse Kitchen Bar. Here you can expect a proper Kentish experience with Folkstone fish, foraged herbs and home cultivated ice creams.
We do love London — most of the time. It just so happens that it’s also conveniently located in the middle of a bunch of great road-trip destinations, all under two hours away by car. So jump in the car, get your GPS out and away you go.
Featured photo by Photos by R A Kearton/Getty Images