The best things to do in the South East of England

    south east of england
    The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent. Credit: National Trust Images/Solent News and Photography Agency

    Here are some of the places that should be top of your list of things to do in the beautiful South East of England

    The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent

    south east of england
    The White Cliffs of Dover

    ‘There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover’ is a wartime lyric that virtually every Briton over a certain age can recite. A symbol of home for many during the First and Second World Wars, which also played a vital role in Britain’s defence, these magnificent cliffs on Kent’s southeast coast hold a special place in the nation’s history, and in its heart. Reminders of their significance can be found along the cliffs, such as at the Fan Bay Deep Shelter; a complex of hidden WWII tunnels underneath the cliffs, which are open for visitors. 

    Above ground, there are far-reaching views towards the French coast, and a walk along the coastal path towards South Foreland Lighthouse is the best way to experience these iconic natural wonders, made of soft layers of limestone built up over millions of years. There is plenty of wildlife to be spotted too, including the chalkhill butterfly.

    Whitstable, Kent

    south east of england
    Wheelers Oyster Bar, Whitstable. Credit: Alex Hare

    World famous for its oysters, this pretty pocket-sized town in the south east of England, on Kent’s north coast is well worth your time, shellfish fan or not. Native oysters have been harvested here since Roman times, and the Whitstable Oyster Festival takes place in the town every September to honour this delicious delicacy. Make sure to stop at the pastel-pink Wheeler’s Oyster Bar – Whitstable’s oldest restaurant – serving fresh oysters and seafood in a delightfully small and offbeat setting.

    You’ll discover an array of stylish independent shops, cafés and restaurants as you wander around Whitstable’s attractive warren of streets, which all lead down to the harbour, where you’ll find rows of multicoloured beach huts and miles of sandy beach to explore. The Old Neptune is a charming Victorian pub right on the beach – perfect for a seaside pint or some fish and chips, whatever the weather. 

    Petworth House, West Sussex

    south east of england
    The North Gallery at Petworth House. Credit: National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

    Built in 1688 by the 6th Duke of Somerset on land that has been in the same family for over 900 years, Petworth House is one of the grandest, and most beautiful spots in the south east of England. 

    Set in a glorious Capability Brown-designed 700-acre deer park, the Grade II-listed neoclassical house has an air of Pemberley about it, as if Mr Darcy might gallantly appear around almost every corner. It is also home to one of the finest art collections in the National Trust’s ownership, including several works by Turner, who often visited Petworth and was greatly inspired by its beauty. 

    The town of Petworth is also one of the prettiest in all of West Sussex, and is worth exploring while you’re here. A haven of charming cobbled streets and lovely Georgian architecture, it is known for its excellent antique shops and has a fine array of cosy pubs, and excellent restaurants too.

    Leeds Castle, Kent

    south east of england
    Leeds Castle. Credit: Valery Egorov / Alamy

    Picture-perfect Leeds Castle has often been called the ‘loveliest castle in all of England’, and it’s not hard to see why. Nestled in the south east of England’s North Kent Downs, this moated castle, which actually dates back to Norman times, was a favourite of Henry VIII, who once brought along his entire court to stay here while on the way to his Field of the Cloth of Gold Tournament in France in 1520. 

    In the 20th century the castle came into the ownership of Anglo-American heiress, Lady Baillie, who had the vision of transforming Leeds back into the medieval fortress it once was, with a few glamorous additions. With the help of the best architects of the day, Lady Baillie created her very own fairytale fantasy which became a playground for the rich and famous, including the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson. When Lady Baillie died in 1974 she left the castle to the newly founded Leeds Castle Foundation, with the aim of leaving this beautiful castle for future generations to enjoy.

    Battle Abbey, East Sussex

    south east of england
    Battle Abbey. Credit: English Heritage Trust/Jim holden

    In October 1066, just a few miles outside Hastings in the south east of England, England’s history changed forever. In the village of Battle, so named because of the battle – the most famous in English history – that took place here, lie the ruins of Battle Abbey, which today stands as a memorial to the seismic events that took place at the Battle of Hastings almost 1,000 years ago. 

    You can read more about the Battle of Hastings here.

    Founded by William the Conqueror after his invasion of England in 1066, Battle Abbey was built on the site of the actual battlefield where the Norman invaders defeated the Anglo-Saxons, led by King Harold. The centre of the Saxon line of defence lies under the abbey buildings, and it is said that the new King William I requested the high altar was placed precisely on the spot where King Harold was killed, supposedly by an arrow to the eye. At the visitor centre you can immerse yourself in the story of the bloody battle and better understand the events that led to that fateful day, before admiring the stonework of the ruined Norman Abbey and taking a guided tour of the battlefield itself.

    Painshill Park, Surrey

    south east of england
    Painshill Park

    It’s not every day you can visit a garden that was designed to be a ‘living painting.’ Painshill Park landscape garden was created between 1738 and 1773 by the Honourable Charles Hamilton who returned from his Grand Tour of Europe with a collection of beautiful statues and paintings, and a bold vision of creating a magical, new-style landscape garden, inspired by the beauty and culture he had seen on his travels. 

    Combining his passion for plants, and this artistic vision, Hamilton created Painshill with the hope that his visitors would experience the emotions that he had felt on his Grand Tour. He carefully designed the paths with theses emotions in mind – visitors would walk through a real-life Claude Lorrain painting around the Serpentine Lake, or explore the wild, untamed woods that evoke the work of Salvator Rosa. With its dramatic follies, calming waters and stunning views, visitors today can still experience this masterpiece of garden design, just as Hamilton envisaged 200 years ago. This is certainly one of the south east of England’s most beautiful spots.

    Seven Sisters, East Sussex

    the south east of england
    The Seven Sisters cliffs

    These chalk cliffs stretch between Seaford and Birling Gap and are one of the south east of England’s most iconic and impressive sights. The scenic eight-mile walk is part of the 100-mile South Downs Way, which also takes in Beachy Head.

    Read the full feature in the Jun/Jul issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from Friday 3 May, here.

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