South East England is one of the most visited regions of the United Kingdom, being situated around the English capital city London and located closest to the Continent. But don't think that geographical convenience is the only reason for its popularity; there is much here of interest to the traveller, from varied natural landscapes to historic towns and cities, refined stately homes, globally-renowned gardens and adrenaline-pumping theme parks. Together with London, the South East is the main economic powerhouse of the country and is one of the most densely populated regions of Europe.
Some of the South East's biggest attractions are known the world over: royal Windsor's famous castle and Great Park, Oxford's "dreaming spires" and Dover's White Cliffs are all synonymous with England itself. Venture beyond these icons and you will discover a place blessed with a long and beautiful coastline, two national parks (the New Forest and the South Downs) and eight designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The region's cities each have something unique to offer; from the seat of England's oldest university, to the country's former capital, from maritime Portsmouth to bohemian Brighton, the South East really does have some of the UK's best cities.
There is so much to see and do in South East England that it's high time you discover for yourself why the region is known as the "Beautiful South".
South East England consists of the following counties (listed from the north west):
A Cotswold county, home to the city of Oxford and the Henley Regatta
"Leafy Bucks" evokes affluent countryside traversing the Chiltern Hills
Known as the royal county due to it being the location of Windsor Castle, Berkshire is also the home of Royal Ascot
"Jane Austen Country", home to the New Forest and Anglo-Saxon capital Winchester
A wooded and hilly county in London's commuter belt
|West Sussex |
Roman Chichester and South Downs scenery
|East Sussex |
Known for the vibrant coastal city of Brighton and for being where the South Downs meet the English Channel
The "Garden of England" is a land of orchards and hop farms, surrounded on three sides by sea
|Isle of Wight |
A chalk cliff island that is popular for its beaches and watersports, particularly yachting
These nine towns and cities are of particular interest:
- 1 Brighton (East Sussex) – super-trendy town on the south coast boasting the best cultural events in the south outside of London
- 2 Canterbury (Kent) – England's premier cathedral city
- 3 Chichester (West Sussex) – ancient Roman city located on a natural harbour
- 4 Dover (Kent) – Britain's gateway to Europe with its famous castle and white cliffs
- 5 Hastings (East Sussex) – historic seaside resort with cliffs and medieval old town
- 6 Oxford (Oxfordshire) – world-renowned historic university city
- 7 Portsmouth (Hampshire) – the "Waterfront City", home to Lord Nelson's HMS Victory and the Spinnaker Tower, one of the UK's newest icons
- 8 Southampton (Hampshire) – thriving student city with excellent nightlife and shopping
- 9 Windsor and Eton (Berkshire) – location of Windsor Castle and Eton College
Although geographically within this region, London is treated as a region in its own right.
- Blenheim Palace – in Woodstock, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and a World Heritage site
- The Chiltern Hills – a range of rolling hills in central Buckinghamshire
- The Cotswolds – a countryside of hills and 'chocolate box' villages, primarily in the separate regions of the West Country and West Midlands, but also runs into Oxfordshire
- Hever Castle – childhood home of Anne Boleyn in Kent, where Henry VIII spent his honeymoon(s)
- Legoland - Lego-themed amusement park and resort near Windsor, known for its 'Miniland' model cities.
- The New Forest – not particularly new (William the Conqueror designated it a royal forest over 900 years ago), this national park is home to wild ponies and beautiful woods and heathland.
- The North and South Downs – sweeping through Hampshire, East Sussex, and West Sussex (the South Downs) and Surrey, Sussex and Kent (the North Downs) these majestic chalk hills are popular with walkers, cyclists and people trying to escape hectic urban lives
- RHS Garden at Wisley - the Royal Horticultural Society's flagship garden is located in the Surrey countryside
- Stowe House – one of the most significant 18th-century landscaped gardens in the world
- Thorpe Park - a theme park offering one of the widest range of thrill rides in Europe
- Waddesdon Manor – popular country manor in Buckinghamshire, an excellent example of neo-renaissance architecture in Britain
Seasonal events and festivals
- Attend one of the UK's biggest music festivals by going to Reading or the Isle of Wight.
- Experience a day at the races (and a chance to wear silly hatsǃ) at Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood, two of the best-known equestrian events in the world.
- Celebrate one of Europe's largest LGBT parties at Brighton Pride.
- Scrub up for dinner and opera at Glyndebourne in East Sussex.
- Indulge in a vast range of local fare across Hampshire in the county's annual food festival.
- Get your heart racing at the Farnborough International Air Show or Goodwood Festival of Speed.
The South East is an economically prosperous region and almost every part of it is within commuting distance of London. As such, much of its economy and infrastructure is focused on serving the capital. Because of the population's transitory nature, there is a much weaker regional identity here than is apparent in other regions such as the West Midlands or Yorkshire, with people identifying more closely with their home town or county than being "from the South East". Travellers are likely to find people in the South East among the easiest to understand, as accents are much more heavily standardised than other parts of the country. Received Pronunciation, and its arguably more common working class equivalent Estuary English, have largely replaced the traditional accents and dialects of the region.
Despite this perhaps bleak summary of regional identity, many local traditions and folklore continue to survive. Various cities and counties remain strongly attached to their local industries, for example Kent is associated with fruit production, while Southampton continues to act as a centre for container and cruise shipping. The region's affluence has caused a huge surge in the popularity of farmers' markets and now many counties have an annual calendar of markets touring various towns throughout the year. Folk traditions particular to an area include the 'apple wassail' (the midwinter blessing of apple trees for a good cider crop) in Lewes and 'hop hoodening' (a parade celebrating the hop harvest) in Canterbury.
There are also many myths and legends surrounding various locations in the region. The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, where a legendary king and his soldiers were apparently transformed by a witch into the stone circle that stands today, supposedly come alive at midnight. In Berkshire, you can try to spot Herne the Hunter, an antlered huntsman who is believed to haunt the forests around Windsor. And the Devil's Punch Bowl in Surrey has numerous origin tales attached to it, including that the Devil left a massive crater after jumping from neighbouring Sussex and that the bowl was created by two giants fighting.
Most of the region's counties host a county show in the summer and there are numerous other cultural events throughout the year (see 'Seasonal events' section).
The Eurostar runs passenger trains from major cities in mainland Europe to Ashford, Ebbsfleet and London St. Pancras. If you're bringing your car, Eurotunnel offers a vehicle and passenger shuttle service between Calais in France and Folkestone in Kent.
Rail services to and from the rest of the UK are good. Reading has a major interchange station at the crossroads of the north-south and east-west networks. Almost every station in the South East has a regular direct service from one of the London terminals.
The South's major ferry ports are (clockwise from the north) Ramsgate (ferries from Ostend in Belgium), Dover (ferries from Calais and Dunkirk in France), Newhaven (ferries from Dieppe and Le Havre in France) and Portsmouth (ferries from the Channel Islands, Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre and St. Malo in France and Bilbao and Santander in Spain).
There are countless walking routes all over the region, from long-distance national trails such as the Thames Path and the South Downs Way, to local parish footpaths. Whether you're just out for an afternoon stroll, or a serious hike across the country, walking is an excellent way to get out and explore; from river ambles, to cliff-top rambles, woodland walks to urban adventures, the finest way to enjoy the South East's best known sights is often on your own two feet. Wherever you are in the region, you will find dedicated walking guides for sale in tourist information centres and book shops, and you can usually pick up high quality large-scale maps from petrol stations and newsagents. The best maps for walking are produced by the Ordnance Survey.
Every town has a bus service, although these are privatised and you need to contact the right company for information. Away from the bigger towns, bus services may be limited or non-existent.
- Brighton and Hove (Brighton & Hove Buses)
- Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes (Arriva)
- East Kent (Stagecoach)
- East and West Sussex (Stagecoach)
- Eastbourne and Hailsham (Eastbourne Buses)
- Hampshire (Stagecoach)
- Hastings and Bexhill (Stagecoach)
- High Wycombe and Chilterns (Carousel)
- Isle of Wight (Southern Vectis)
- Surrey, Kent and Sussex (Arriva)
- Surrey and East Sussex (Metrobus)
- Southampton area (Solent Blue Line)
- Southampton area (First)
With excellent public transport links, it is not necessary to have access to a car in the South East. However, for ease of accessibility, especially when exploring the countryside, a car can be a very useful thing to have. Many rural attractions are not served by public transport so driving is essential if you plan on visiting a lot of these. Every city, town and village has at least one good car park and many towns that are popular with visitors have a park and ride service, though you may be put off by how much you have to pay for the privilege.
The region has a very dense and easy-to-navigate road network. The M2, M3, M4, M20, M23 and M40 motorways all connect the region, radiating around London from the M25 peripheral road.
However, with high population density comes a high volume of traffic, and there are often delays on the busiest parts of the network. As a rule of thumb, traffic will always be significantly busier during the 'rush hours' (commuter periods between 7AM-9AM and 4PM-7PM) than other times of the day. Friday evenings are known to be particularly bad for driving, as weekend holidaymakers combine with commuters to make congestion even worse than normal. You should plan your journey accordingly, or avoid travelling at these times altogether.
The main regular 'blackspots' areː
- The M25 is nearly always busy, and there is congestion, sometimes severe, during rush hour virtually every day.
- The M20 (the main motorway between Dover and London) is occasionally clogged up by lorries, often due to French fishery workers going on strike in Calais. "Operation Stack" is the name to listen out for on the radio if travelling.
- The M3 connecting Southampton to London tends to be busy heading towards London in the morning. The reverse is true in the evenings
- The M27 around Southampton and connecting the city with Portsmouth.
Major trunk roads in the region include the A3, A23, A27, A31, A34, A272 and A303. They may act as viable alternatives to the motorways, and are often necessary to reach certain destinations (such as the A23 for Brighton from London).
There are taxi firms operating everywhere, although many must be booked in advance: find the phone number of the local company in telephone directories, at railway stations or online and phone ahead.
South East England has one of the highest densities of railway lines per square mile in the world, so rail travel is a very viable option, but much of it dates back to the early 20th century and there are frequent train delays and cancellations due to engineering works. These costs are passed on to the customer - be prepared for the most expensive tickets in Europe per mile.
The railway lines in the South and South East are some of the busiest and most overcrowded in Britain, especially during the week day rush hours (7AM-9PM and then 4:30PM-6:30PM).
As with buses, rail services are provided by private companies, with Great Western Railway, South West Trains, Southeastern and Southern Railway operating most services. It is advisable to book and plan journeys through National Rail Enquiries, which offers an unbiased and free tool for finding the best journey.
If you fancy the slower pace of life, you can relive the golden age of the train by travelling on one of the many heritage railways that criss-cross the region's countryside. While they no longer form part of the official British rail network, these rural lines are still a great way to explore while travelling in style on board a steam train. These lines have been restored and are operated by armies of dedicated volunteers and typically connect with National Rail trains at one or more of their stations, allowing for easy access. Two of the most popular railways are the Bluebell Railway in East Sussex and the Watercress Line in Hampshire. There are others at Brighton, Didcot and on the Isle of Wight, along with many other locations.
In general terms, the food available in South East England is much like that from the rest of the UK, although there are some regional specialities. Being the "Garden of England", Kent seems like the obvious place to start. A take on the classic English breakfast hails from Whitstable, where streaky bacon is served with shelled oysters and thick crusty bread to create the Dredgerman's Breakfast. Staying in Kent, Romney Marsh is known for producing a particularly delicious salty lamb. Moving west into Sussex, we find a county that has produced eight unique cheeses, among them Sussex Slipcote, Flower Marie and Lord of the Hundreds. Hampshire is not associated with any particular dishes (though its game, freshwater trout, watercress and, above all, its sausages, are highly regarded) but it is known for variety and quality.
At the dessert end of the spectrum, perhaps the most famous southern dish is Eton Mess. Hailing from the eponymous college in Berkshire, this simple summer delight is a mix of strawberries, meringue and cream, and is not dissimilar to a much softer version of a pavlova. Back in Sussex, we come across the Sussex Pond Pudding, which is a whole lemon encased in suet pastry and lots of butter and sugar before being steamed - not one for the weight-consciousǃ Over the sea in the Isle of Wight, the sweet of choice is the doughnut, and it is plums, rather than jam, which fill the centre. It is claimed that the Isle of Wight produced the earliest form of the doughnut, but that later versions evolved separately in continental Europe and the United States.
Almost every town in the South East is served by touring farmers' markets several times a year. These can be great places to pick up some local produce - at a dearer price than the average street market. The annual Hampshire Food Festival takes place every Summer at locations all over the county and is among the largest in Britain.
Restaurants in the region owned by renowned chefs include Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, which has three Michelin Stars and a title of "best restaurant in the world" to its name and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, a hotel and restaurant with two Michelin Stars in Oxford.
Follow this link for a list of the best restaurants in the South East, according to the Great British Chefs website.
Much like anywhere else in Britain, there is a strong pub culture in the South East. Big name breweries that operate in the South East include Shepherd Neame from Kent, Harveys from Lewes, Fosters from Reading (the Australian part of town, obviouslyǃ) and Fullers London Pride from, well, London. But there are also a multitude of real ale producers all over the region. To sample good local beers, pay a visit to any pub which advertises real ale. The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) have produced a great bit of software that acts as a real ale pub search engine, called What Pub. Alternatively, many off-licences (specialist liquor stores) sell a range of local and national real ale brands in bottle form.
“The question is no longer about whether English Sparkling Wine can rival Champagne, but whether Champagne can keep up with English Sparkling Wine.” - Simon Bladon, English winemaker from Bentley, Hampshire
While it has to be said that England is most definitely a beer country, there are a surprisingly large number of commercial vineyards all over, and it is the South East which has by far the most, with well in excess of 200 listed on the English Wine Producers website. Most of these produce English sparkling wine, as the soil and climate of southern England is said to be similar to that of the Champagne regions in France. Despite its formerly shocking reputation (English wine was once considered undrinkable, not least by the English themselvesǃ), the wine industry in southern England seems to be doing rather well of late, enjoying both growing commercial success and awards with some of the latter even championing English sparkling wine over its Gallic cousins. Unfortunately, supermarkets and restaurants still largely favour overseas wines, so it is often necessary to buy straight from the producer. But with an increasing number of wineries appearing, especially in Kent and Sussex, there's never been a better time to pay a visit to an English vineyard.
South East England is generally a very safe region and there is no specific threat posed to tourists. You should however take all the usual precautions when travelling abroad, by making sure you have your mobile phone with you, by avoiding travelling alone late at night et cetera. Despite the constant announcements on the railway network suggesting otherwise, the threat of terrorism on public transport is not especially high, and is indeed considerably lower than many parts of the world.
As with everywhere else in the United Kingdom, the emergency number is 999 for all services. You can also dial the Europe-wide 112.
111 is the number to dial if you need to contact the police non-urgently, while 101 will get you non-emergency and impartial medical advice from the National Health Service.
- London - The capital is practically on your doorstep when you're in South East England, so it is an obvious choice for a day trip or longer.
- Bath - From Roman antiquity to Regency resort town, Bath's two-thousand years of history are very accessible from most parts of the South East.
- The Cotswolds - If you're in Oxfordshire, you're already in the Cotswolds, so it's worth exploring further the parts that are in neighbouring regions.
- Go west - Explore the delights of the south western peninsula, from dinosaurs in Dorset to surfing in Cornwall.
- Stonehenge - This neolithic icon is just over the regional boundary in Wiltshire.
- Go Abroad - The South East is the closest part of the UK to the European mainland (the English Channel is just 20 miles (32 km) across at its narrowest), and with Channel Tunnel journey times from Kent to Calais as short as 35 minutes, day trips to northern France, Belgium and beyond are highly feasible and attractive. Just make sure you have your passport as the UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement. Non-EU citizens will probably not be entitled to enter other European countries with just a UK visa; you should contact the relevant authorities in those countries for permission to travel.