Lon-Done? Try Hertford

Hertford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, offering loads of nightlife, dining and cultural options. It offers plenty of day trips too, the favorites being to Stonehenge and Oxford.

If you want to see England without the tourists, there are plenty of smaller towns an easy day trip from London. One of them is Hertford, where I used to live. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it gave its name to Hartford, Connecticut. The Puritan Reverend Samuel Stone from Hertford helped found the settlement in Connecticut in 1636.

The English town dates back to the seventh century or perhaps earlier. Its earliest remains are the crumbled walls of an 11th-century Norman castle that enclose a small park downtown. Next to it stands Hertford Castle, which was originally the gatehouse and later a stately home to kings and local nobility. Just north of town in Bengeo is the interesting little Norman church of Saint Leonard, dating to 1120. Some faint medieval wall paintings can still be seen inside.

Wandering around the town you’ll see plenty of old wood-frame houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, including the world’s oldest Quaker Meeting House, in use since 1670 on Railway Street. A small local museum tells visitors more about the Hertford’s long history.

The rapid development of many towns near London has passed Hertford by. It still retains many local businesses and is small (fewer than 30,000 people) compared with many other bedroom districts of London.

The best pub in town is The Old Barge, a friendly local bar serving real ale at a prime location right alongside the River Lea. This is a perfect place to sit in summertime. For good Thai food try Old Siam. For something a bit more English visit the restaurant at the Salisbury Arms Hotel, which also offers comfortable rooms in a historic building.

%Gallery-185088%Hikers might want to try the Hertfordshire Way, a 194-mile circular route around Hertfordshire that passes through Hertford. This part of England has some pretty woods and little villages and tends to be rather flat. Hikers looking for something more rugged will want to head to the Peak District or Scotland.

Hertford is just 20 miles from central London and easily accessible by train, bus or car. It can easily be seen in a day and makes for a relaxing getaway where you’ll probably be the only foreign visitor. For more day trip and overnight options from London, check out my posts on Canterbury, St. Albans, Bath, and Windsor/Eton.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

London Day Trip: Cambridge

London day trip, Cambridge
London is an amazing city for art, culture, dining and nightlife. It can get a bit overbearing at times, though. If you want to get away from it all you’re in luck. There are plenty of day trips you can do.

One of the best destinations is the university town of Cambridge 60 miles to the north and easily accessible by train or bus. With its Gothic towers, verdant gardens and storied history, it makes for a pleasant change from the big city. The university was founded in the 13th century and is divided into several colleges each with its own character and traditions. In the town itself, winding streets lead to atmospheric pubs, medieval churches, museums and shops. Cambridge is compact and walkable, and it’s easy to get out into the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside.

Sights
The colleges are one of the main attractions. King’s College is the most spectacular and also one of the oldest, having been founded in 1446 by Henry VI. The chapel with its 16th century stained glass and the “Adoration of the Magi” by Rubens is a memorable sight. Its soaring fan vault ceiling can be seen in this photo by Tom Thai. Another popular college is Trinity College, which has graduated more than 30 Nobel Prize winners. Sir Isaac Newton used to teach there. The 17th century library designed by Sir Christopher Wren is a must for any bibliophile and features an incredible collection of rare manuscripts including an 8th century copy of the Epistles of St. Paul.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the university’s art museum and has a large collection of European masters, Asian art, a medieval armory, illuminated manuscripts, artifacts from ancient Egypt, plus lots more. An unusual aspect of the displays is that most are simply hanging on the wall or on shelves as if they were the collection of some eccentric and vastly wealthy collector. Unfortunately, someone stumbled on the stairs in 2006 and knocked over a Ming vase. Luckily he was British, so there wasn’t an international incident, but please be careful.

St. Bene’t’s Church is the oldest of Cambridge’s many churches. Much of the original Saxon construction from c. 1020 is still visible, including the tower, which you can climb to get a photogenic view of the town.

%Gallery-159413%Eating
Step into a bit of English and American history at The Eagle, a traditional English pub that started serving in the 15th century and became popular with American aviators from the nearby air base during World War II. Many of them wrote their names on the ceiling of the back room with candles and lighters, and you can still see their burnt scribbles. The Eagle serves the usual pub fare, including real ale and a fine Sunday roast.

The Cambridge Chop House
is set in a medieval wine cellar opposite King’s College. You can’t get much more atmospheric than this. The cuisine is a mix of traditional British and Continental favorites.

If English cooking is getting a bit too heavy, try the Rainbow Vegetarian Cafe. This cozy little place serves some of the best vegetarian food in England, literally. It was named cafe of the year by the Vegetarian Society. Besides vegetarian food, it also serves a good variety of vegan and gluten-free choices. Even a dedicated carnivore such as myself can appreciate the friendly service, heaping portions and internationally inspired dishes.

Outings
If you walk through town you’ll be sure to get bushwhacked by touts hustling boat rides. Boats generally hold 3-4 people and the punter stands on the stern with a long pole and pushes along the shallow River Cam. You can hire someone to punt for you or do it yourself. Either way it’s a serene way to spend a lazy afternoon.

My personal favorite outing from Cambridge is the walk along the River Cam to Grantchester. It’s only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and you can do it on foot or by punting. Grantchester is a little cluster of thatched roof houses and a famous tea garden called The Orchard. Lawn chairs, a sparkling river and high tea make this one of the most relaxing spots in England. I simply can’t sink into one of those chairs without drifting off to sleep. The Orchard was founded in 1897 and soon became a favorite for university students. Before World War I it was the meeting place for the “Neo-Pagans,” a literary group that included Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. Check out the free Rupert Brooke Museum at The Orchard to learn more about the life of one of England’s most cherished early 20th century poets.

Looking for more London day trips? Check out my articles on Oxford, Anglesey Abbey, Bletchley Park, Bath, St. Albans and Canterbury.

London day trip: Anglesey Abbey

London day trip, Anglesey Abbey
London is one of the great cities of the world and you can spend weeks, even years, exploring it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out. The towns and countryside near London make for fun day trips and one especially pleasant destination is Anglesey Abbey, six miles northeast of Cambridge.

The Abbey got its start in 1236 when Master Lawrence of St Nicholas sold 600 sheep to pay for the construction of an Augustinian priory. It survived until its 400th birthday, when Henry VIII shut it down as part of his dissolution of the monasteries following his break with Rome and setting up of an independent church.

It then became a stately home and changed hands several times. It was spruced up in the twentieth century by Lord Fairhaven, who installed his large collection of art, remodeled much of the interior while leaving many medieval elements intact, and added a sumptuous garden. He left it to the National Trust when he died in 1966.

The 114 acres of gardens, lawns, wildflower meadows, and wildlife habitats make for a relaxing stroll. In winter months there’s still some color thanks to a special winter garden with 150 perennial plant species. There’s even a working watermill. The interior is preserved from another age, when lordly manors were still common. There’s the drawing room, the banquet room, even his Lordship’s wardrobe. The whole thing looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited.

This week archaeologists announced they had discovered artifacts possibly dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages (1000-100 BC) while excavating at the site of a future parking lot at the Abbey. This pushes the history of the site back many centuries. Once researchers study the artifacts, they hope to set up a display at the Abbey.

The best way to get to Anglesey Abbey, assuming you don’t have a car, is to take a train from London to Cambridge and then the number 10 bus from the station to the Abbey. Click here for more London day trip ideas.

Photo courtesy Martin Pettitt.

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The five most beautiful colleges of Oxford

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England and makes a great day trip from London. What makes Oxford unique is its famous university with more than two dozen colleges. While each has its own distinct character, they tend to all be similarly laid out with one or more quads and a chapel. Here are five of the best.

Magdalen College
Founded in 1456, this college’s soaring Gothic tower on High Street is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline. When this was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War, lookouts kept watch from the top for Cromwell’s troops and even kept a supply of rocks up there to drop on them! Today it’s more peaceful and every May Day morning a choir sings from the top in one of Oxford’s most popular traditions. Behind the tower is a large cloister surrounded by a covered arcade with Gothic windows. Passing beyond this you come to a bridge over a stream and a pleasant walk alongside a meadow where deer nibble at wildflowers or laze under the shade of trees in summer.

New College
Despite the name, New College is one of the university’s oldest, having been founded in 1386. Nobody knows how it got its name, although the greater mystery is why it kept it. Like Magdalen College, there’s a large cloister and two attractive quads. The gardens are especially interesting because one of the walls is actually the medieval city wall, built in the twelfth century. The garden, with its lush flowerbeds, medieval wall, and carefully tended lawn, is one of Oxford’s best.

%Gallery-131852%Keble College
Founded in 1868, Keble College departs from the Gothic style of most other colleges and is ornately Victorian with its bright red brick and ornate facades. The chapel looks almost Byzantine with its glowing gold mosaics. This makes for a real contrast from the other colleges and after you’ve seen two or three, come here to see something different. Keble College is overlooked by the majority of tourists so you’ll find it less crowded and more tranquil.

Merton College
This college is one of the university’s oldest, being founded in 1274. It’s also one of the best preserved and much of what you see dates back to the Middle Ages. At the front gate you walk under a 15th century carving of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and enter a quad of similar date with walls covered in ivy. The chapel here is my personal favorite, with an ornate rose window, lots of original medieval stained glass, and an altar painting attributed to Tintoretto. Check out the tombs of various Oxford scholars, including one from 1525 with a globe attached showing the world as it was then known. Two kings lived at Merton College. Charles I made it his home after he got kicked out of London during the English Civil War. Charles II lived here for a time to escape the Plague. Located on a quiet back street, it’s still a peaceful refuge today and not nearly as visited as Magdalen, Christ Church, or New Colleges.

Christ Church College
Founded by Cardinal Wolsey at the bidding of Henry VIII in 1532, Christ Church is famous for Old Tom, a tall tower that like the Great Tower at Magdalen College adds a special touch to the city’s skyline. The front quad has a statue of Mercury in the middle of a waterlily pond. Be sure to see the cathedral with its grand stained glass windows and high vaulted Gothic ceiling. From the gardens you can walk into Christ Church Meadow, a broad expanse of open greenery leading to the River Isis, the local name for the Thames. On a sunny day you shouldn’t miss it!

London day trip: Oxford

Oxford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe because of its eclectic shopping, crazy nightlife, and world-class museums and galleries. It can get a bit tiring and stressful, though. For those who want to get out of the Smoke and see a bit more of England, Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip.

Getting there
The best way to get to Oxford from London is the Oxford Tube, which has regular bus service from various points in London up to four times an hour. There’s train service from Paddington station too, although it’s more expensive. There are also direct buses from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

What to see
Oxford is famous for its university, one of the oldest in Europe. The Gothic and Victorian architecture of its more than two dozen colleges give Oxford much of its charm. Most are open to the public and feature beautiful quads with ivy-covered walls, and medieval chapels with stained glass and soaring roofs. Be sure to take a guided tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the largest in the world and home to some ornate medieval interiors. In the photo above courtesy Tejvanphotos, you can see the ornate Radcliffe Camera, one of the library buildings where I do research in the summer. If you see a guy in a Gadling t-shirt buried in a pile of books on medieval history, take him out for a pint.

Being a seat of learning, Oxford also has several good museums. Three of the best are the Pitt-Rivers for its ethnographic collection, the Ashmolean for its ancient artifacts, and the Museum of the History of Science. The River Thames passes through town and is locally called the Isis. There’s a pleasant riverside walk you can do, or you can strike out on the water by going punting. The best way to get orientated to Oxford is to go on one of the many tours. There are regular walking tours, bicycle tours, charity fundraising tours run by Oxfam, and ghost tours.

%Gallery-131760%Eating and Drinking
Oxford is filled with restaurants, many of them rather disappointing. Here are some of the better ones. The Grand Cafe is on the site of England’s first coffeehouse, built in 1650. Today it serves Continental cuisine in a refined atmosphere. The Vaults and Garden Cafe under the Church of St. Mary serves up healthy food and good coffee under the medieval vaults that give it its name. Chiang Mai Kitchen serves excellent Thai food. High tea at the Randolph Hotel is an Oxford tradition. For a more diverse selection, head down Cowley Road for a variety of Arab, Indian, Caribbean, and Slavic restaurants.

If you like English pubs, you’ll feel right at home here. The White Horse on Broad Street is popular with visitors as well as scholars who flee the Bodleian for a mid-afternoon pint. The Turf just off Queen’s Lane is another popular spot and has outside seating. The Eagle and Child on Saint Giles is famous for being the drinking spot of the Inklings, a writers’ group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Hiking
Oxford makes a great base for hikes to nearby villages and ancient monuments. You can walk along the Thames Path to Abingdon, visit the Rollright Stones (a stone circle), see a folly, and hike England’s oldest road–the Ridgeway.

Staying Overnight
With so much to do, you might want to stay overnight. Unfortunately Oxford is filled with mediocre or just plain bad B&Bs and hotels, and they’re all overpriced. I’ve found only two I would recommend. The Ethos Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood and an easy walk into town. Some rooms come with a kitchenette so you can stock up food and save a bit of money. The Mercure Oxford Eastgate Hotel is utterly lacking in atmosphere but it’s right in the middle of the action on High Street. Living on a writer’s wages I’ve not tried the luxurious Randolph but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

When to go
If at all possible avoid going in the summer, when Oxford is crammed with tourists and English-language students. The autumn is nice with the ivy changing color, and the spring is fine too. Winter isn’t as bad as you might think. Yes, it’s gold and gray, but the university hosts a lot of cultural life such as concerts and lectures during term time.