Near London, other British cities have their appeal, too

Contributing Travel WriterAugust 18, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    London area

    Getting there: A BritRail Flexi-Pass is the best way to get around. It must be bought at Britrail.com before travel to Britain. The London Plus Pass, which includes all of southeastern England, will get you to Bath, Brighton and Rye. Prices for an adult standard fare range from $149 for a pass valid for two days of travel within eight days to $285 for seven days of travel within 15 days. The London-to-Bath train leaves from Paddington Station; the London-to-Brighton train departs from Victoria Station; and the London-to-Rye train leaves out of St. Pancras.

    Where to stay:

    ■ Villa Magdala, Bath. A boutique B&B with 20 stylish rooms and a great location: It's a short walk from the city center. Villamagdala.co.uk.

    ■ Blanch House, Brighton. An elegant B&B just a block from the beach in bohemian Kemp Town. Blanchhouse.co.uk.

    ■ Jeake's House, Rye. A 16th-century house that was turned into a B&B. Jeakeshouse.com.

    Learn more: Visitbath.co.uk, Visitbrighton.com, Visit1066country.com, Visitengland.com

With the future of the British monarchy presumably safely ensured for many years to come, visitors to London have other things to focus on. If you love London as much as I do, you'll never run out of things to do there. But if you want to venture farther afield — though not too far), here are three destinations to consider.

Bath

It's comforting to know there are places in the world where you can return after a five-, 10- or even 20-year absence and find that very little has changed. I first visited Bath as a new college graduate with a degree in English and visions of Jane Austen dancing in my head. It was years later that I discovered Austen, who wrote so eloquently about the city, didn't much care for Bath.

She must be the only one. There's a reason why this UNESCO World Heritage City is one of the most-visited destinations in England. Austen might have introduced Regency-era Bath to readers, but it was the Romans who gave it its raison d'être.

Legend says the famous baths were discovered in the 9th century B.C. by Prince Bladud, father of King Lear, who was exiled from the royal court because of his leprosy. After bathing in the mineral-rich waters, his skin lesions vanished. True or not, it adds to Bath's lore.

What is certainly true is that it was the Romans, arriving as a conquering legion in A.D. 43, who made a ritual of "taking the waters." They used the namesake baths not just as a source of healing water but as a sacred place for communing with the deities of the underworld.

Visitors still flock to Bath to indulge in Britain's only natural thermal spa, where the water maintains a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and contains 43 different minerals.

The largest pool is the Minerva Bath, but many prefer the roof terrace pool of Thermae Bath Spa. Here, through thin veils of mist rising from the steamy water, they are spectacular views of the town spires and surrounding countryside.

After the Romans left in A.D. 410, Bath took 1,300 years to become fashionable again. During the Regency period, aristocrats and hangers-on followed the Prince Regent (who later became George IV) to indulge in fun and frolic here.

The neo-classical Pump Room, completed in 1799, became the social heart of the city. Today's visitors enjoy high tea in the elegant room where the dandy Beau Brummell once held sway.

Across from the Pump Room is magnificent Bath Abbey. Founded in the 7th century as a Benedictine monastery, it has undergone several renovations and is considered one of the best examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in England.

If the Romans were responsible for the namesake baths, the Regency period saw the construction of Bath's other iconic site, the Royal Crescent. This semi-circular street of 30 gracefully terraced houses is a paradigm of Georgian style. The five-star Royal Crescent Hotel is at No. 16.

Another legacy of the Regency era is picturesque Pulteney Bridge, spanning the River Avon and lined with shops and restaurants in the manner of Florence's Ponte Vecchio.

Even if you don't have a clue where Northanger Abbey is or couldn't name Pride and Prejudice's five Bennett sisters if your life depended on it, you should visit the Jane Austen Centre for a retrospective of the novelist's time in Bath.

Search out Bath's oldest house, now home to Sally Lunn's Tearoom. Lunn, a young French Huguenot refugee, settled here more than 350 years ago, bringing with her the recipe for her namesake brioche pastry. It's the rare visitor who leaves without trying one.

Brighton

Leaving London, you can be in the seaside resort of Brighton in an hour. Your first stop might be a shrine to hedonism, the Royal Pavilion. Describing it, 18th-century Anglican cleric Sydney Smith remarked, "It looked for all the world as if the Dome of St. Paul's had come down to Brighton and pupped."

I thought it more Taj Mahal than St. Paul's, which is surely the effect the ubiquitous Prince Regent and his architect John Nash were going for. The gleaming white domes, parapets and cupolas are Indian in style, but the lavish interior combines the glamor of the subcontinent with a tantalizing taste of China.

By contrast, Brighton Pier is pure English. Not merely a place for a seaside promenade, it is a one-stop entertainment shop. You can enjoy fine dining in a full-service restaurant or fish and chips at a takeout counter; take a ride on a roller coaster or wander through the House of Horrors. There's even a spa where sea breezes accompany your pampering.

During the 18th century, the Prince Regent's dalliance here with his mistress earned Brighton a reputation as a place to go for "dirty weekends." It's considerably more G-rated these days. Chic, moneyed Londoners flock here to shop in the fashionable boutiques of The Lanes, and they nosh on oysters and Champagne at high-end restaurants such as Riddle and Finns.

Still, there's enough quirkiness to keep Brighton from being merely a seaside outpost of London. Wander North Laine, an alternative to The Lanes, and rub elbows with Rastafarians and Goths while picking up a pair of fairy wings (always useful) or hunting for bargains at the flea market.

For an extra dose of quirk, book a table at the delightfully eccentric Tea Cosy, where customers reportedly have been asked to leave if they fail to stand during impromptu renditions of God Save the Queen, and where dishes are named for members of the royal family.

Rye

A little more than an hour from London is one of England's most historic towns. Rye, with its cobbled streets and medieval coaching inns, held an important position in the Middle Ages.

One of the Cinque Ports, it played a key role in defending the English Channel against the French. Over the years, the coast line receded (the sea is now 2 miles away), leaving the town stranded, overlooking the Romney Marsh.

The fickle sea might have deserted Rye, but its charm never did. The quintessential English village, it has cozy homes with names such as Lantern Cottage; cobbled streets such as Watch Bell, and even a pastry shop called Simon the Pie Man.

Begin your exploration at Rye Heritage Center for a look at the town model, a miniature accurate to the last tree and shrub (don't miss the sound and light show).

St. Mary's Church is also worth a visit — mainly for its lovely churchyard, but a climb to the tower reveals a vista of town and sea.

Of Rye's four original fortified entrances, one remains — Landgate, dating to 1329, but Ypres Tower, built a century before, still stands and is part of Rye Museum.

Rye's most famous street, the one on all the postcards, is Mermaid Street, and its most famous building is the Mermaid Inn. A coaching inn since the 12th century, it gained notoriety in the 17th century as the hangout of the Hawkhurst Gang, smugglers who plied their trade in the mist-shrouded marshes along the Sussex Coast, building a network of tunnels from the inn to the sea.

As with any coaching inn worth its salt, the Mermaid reputedly is haunted, with six rooms claiming a ghostly presence.

Across the street is the equally historic Jeake's House. This ivy-swathed 16th-century house once belonged to Samuel Jeake, whose devotion to his Puritan religion once got him summoned before Charles II at Whitehall in London. The monarch had a disdain for Puritans who, under Oliver Cromwell's tenure during the civil war, executed his father, Charles I.

There's nothing puritanical about the lavishly appointed guest rooms, each with a view toward Romney Marsh. Adding to the charm is that the owners have kept all the nooks and crannies intact.

Time spent in Rye might convince you this is England's best-kept secret.


IF YOU GO

London area

Getting there: A BritRail Flexi-Pass is the best way to get around. It must be bought at Britrail.com before travel to Britain. The London Plus Pass, which includes all of southeastern England, will get you to Bath, Brighton and Rye. Prices for an adult standard fare range from $149 for a pass valid for two days of travel within eight days to $285 for seven days of travel within 15 days. The London-to-Bath train leaves from Paddington Station; the London-to-Brighton train departs from Victoria Station; and the London-to-Rye train leaves out of St. Pancras.

Where to stay:

■ Villa Magdala, Bath. A boutique B&B with 20 stylish rooms and a great location: It's a short walk from the city center. Villamagdala.co.uk.

■ Blanch House, Brighton. An elegant B&B just a block from the beach in bohemian Kemp Town. Blanchhouse.co.uk.

■ Jeake's House, Rye. A 16th-century house that was turned into a B&B. Jeakeshouse.com.

Learn more: Visitbath.co.uk, Visitbrighton.com, Visit1066country.com, Visitengland.com

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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