We all need to get back to nature sometimes, especially when what we do see of daylight seems to be spent navigating crowded London pavements and foraging for the juiciest looking sandwich at lunchtime. Luckily it doesn’t take long to escape the capital and plunge into some of England’s nicest countryside. It’s such a great, inexpensive way to spend a day of your weekend – all you need is a tasty picnic, a decent cheap car hire deal, and maybe a friend or two, and you’re free to explore.
Spanning the M25 to London’s north east, Epping Forest is a strip of just under 24.5 square kilometres of ancient forest, once royal hunting land and now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, protected by the City of London. The forest, which has grown here for at least 7,000 years, has been enjoyed for pleasure for centuries – Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge can still be seen in the town of Chingford (which borders the forest to the south) and makes for a good starting point for your day out. Now the forest is popular amongst mountain bikers, horse riders, walkers and runners, with numerous well-signposted trails laid out for you to follow. Camping is available too, if you fancy spending longer here.
Beautiful, green and archetypally English, the Cotswolds is lived-in countryside, rather than wilderness, and has been for centuries. Scattered with centuries-old stone villages, elegant stately homes and impressive castles, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty lies to London’s west. It spans several counties between Oxford in the East, Bath to the South, Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford in the North, and Gloucester in the West. The region is easily accessible by car or train, and offers everything from full-on hikes across the hills to gentle strolls along riverbanks and through flower-carpeted woodland.
South Downs National Park
Stretched out for 140 km along the South Coast from Eastbourne (a popular seaside town) to Winchester (an ancient city, once the capital of England), the South Downs National Park protects just over 1,600 square km of countryside. The South Downs themselves are a spine of chalky hills, perfect for walks, cycling and kite-flying, but the park covers a great deal more besides, with dense woodland in the West and of course the nearby coast, with its iconic chalk cliffs and pebble beaches.
Some ambitious walkers spend days hiking the Park’s entire length, but a less exhausting option might be a pleasant day spent with a picnic, gently exploring and looking out for wildflowers, including orchids, and Red Kites, Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, a variety of small birds and butterflies, and of course the grazing farm animals as they happily munch away in the fields.
Another protected piece of ancient forest, the New Forest lies to London’s South West, down near Portsmouth and Southampton. Its wildlife is diverse, and you’ve a good chance of spotting at least something small and furry, like wild rabbits and squirrels, if not larger animals like deer and boar. The New Forest ponies, a small breed which have grazed here for thousands of years, can be spotted everywhere, and even ridden. Only if you go to a stable and arrange a trek, though! The wild ones won’t react well if you just try to clamber on board the first one you see. The New Forest is full of well-marked trails for walking, cycling and pony trekking, with lots of nice spots for a picnic.
Remember: always make sure you take your litter with you, and close gates behind you so that livestock can’t escape.