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Planning has begun for 2 weeks in the South of England

Found a seat sale to Gatwick and so we're off to England in September for 2 weeks. The initial plan was a week in London and a week somewhere else. But now, we're throwing around the idea of avoiding London and it's crowds and touring the south of England. I have no problem renting a car, but I'm wondering if I can avoid a car for some of the trip-perhaps a week with a car and a week by train? Based on our very preliminary list of places we'd like to see, I'm not sure how practical that will be.

In no particular order here is our our initial list with no thought yet of what needs to be cut. Keep in mind that our travel style is balls to the wall. We're typically out the door at 7am and back in our room by 10pm.

  • Soccer (football game). Thinking Southampton or Brighton as it seems tickets may be easier to get than one of the big clubs in London.
  • Castles. I love castles. Arundel and Leeds have caught my eye. I'd be perfectly willing to do a castle a day but that may be a bit much...
  • Highclere Castle-thanks to watching Downton Abbey, plus my Mom would enjoy me visiting it because her travelling days are behind her, and she enjoys vacationing vicariously through me.
  • Canterbury and Salisbury Cathedrals
  • Winchester-Just because I'm a fan of the Last Kingdom book and TV series.
  • Dover
  • Hastings
  • HMS Victory in Portsmouth (edited to correct my initial post that put it in Southampton).
  • Rye-based on 1 photo I saw in a travel guide.
  • Stonehenge. In a perfect world I'd find a sunrise tour. Not sure yet if that is a thing.

Next step will be to block the locations into areas to figure out an itinerary and determine if there would be a way to possibly travel by train for a week and then by car for a week for those harder-to-get-to locations. Also haven't determined yet how many home bases we need and where they should be.

Any thoughts, tips, suggestions, hidden gems will be appreciated.

Posted by
220 posts

I really would recommend a car---- its sooo much easier to see more (esp if you are a balls to the wall person). South England can be slow to get from one place to the next otherwise (with the exception of Brighton from London). If I was going to do this route myself, I would probably do a circle type of route with bases along the way near the places you truly want to see.

I can comment on some of the regions I've visited (for reference I've been to England 3x now and driven all over)

Cathedrals--- a total must! You have to go see them!

Stonehenge- getting there when they open should be a priority -- it gets packed with the tourists but you can avoid if you do the earliest tour and get in and out - they've opened up a nice museum if you are into that sort of thing. You can do a self-guided tour if you'd like, or read up ahead of time then get there when the sunrises if your sunrise tour is not running. This is really the one thing that is a bit out of the way from the other places on your list but prob still do-able.

Highclare is ok--- the bookings to see it sell out months in advance and they have very odd days that they are open (since sometimes they are filming things there). The place itself is much smaller than you imagine.

South England in general is not as "castled" like other parts of England (such as Wales) BUT that being said there are a few to check out- I think this will help guide you castle journey-

I think driving in South England is fun, but can be challenging if you get into the "cornwall" zone- but I don't think you are headed to the southwest based on that list above. I say this because they have very exciting hedge mazes and you don't really want to be driving at night in a hedge maze with no lights. The other areas are fine, just take the normal precautions like you do at home.

Brighton is snoozeworthy (FYI) my friend and I LOVE castles and history and Brighton was.... quite lame to us. The Brighton Palace is nice to look at on the outside, but inside is really much emptier than I imagined and I felt like we wasted a day. They do have a decent amount of hotels though so it could be good for a pit stop.

Posted by
14067 posts

One of the highly rated guides for Stonehenge is Pat Shelley. I've not done Stonehenge with him but did a Salisbury city tour several years ago and he was marvelous. It does not look like he does sunrise tours but does special access tours in the afternoons.

If you are staying in Salisbury it is very easy to take the local shuttle bus out to the stones. They pick up from the train station and City Centre locations, go out to the stones, the driver hops off and gets your entry tickets, then you pick up the shuttle in the same place when you are ready to return. It comes back via Old Sarum so allow time to walk around here as well. The shuttle name is Stonehenge Tour but it is not really a tour. It's a shuttle run by the Salisbury Reds bus company. I obviously haven't been since Covid but the bus schedule looks similar to what it was before the pandemic.

In Salisbury and Canterbury I encourage you to do the Choral Evensong. It looks like from the Salisbury Cathedral site that they are back with daily Choral Evensong and no reservations are necessary. Of course you would check again closer to your time.

I've stayed in the Cathedral View B&B several times and enjoyed the hospitality from Steve and Wenda. It looks like they are still open as their website and FB pages are up and running. I've also stayed at several other locations in Salisbury on various tours (Rick Steves and Road Scholar) if you want a bigger facility. Cathedral View is walkable from the train station. No need to have a car here.

The Salisbury Museum is quite good. I've been to a couple of special exhibitions there including one with pictures from John Constable which was excellent.

If the Salisbury Visitor Center is still offering walking tours that is worth taking. I'd never have found my way in to St Thomas Church to see the medieval Doom Painting without taking the tour! This was the church that was built for the people who worked on the cathedral and the Doom Painting is really unusual.

If you add in Portsmouth to your plan, I found the HMS Victory and Mary Rose really interesting at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Plan to spend most of a day here.

Well, it looks like I need to apply for a job with the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce, lolol!! OR I need to go back!

Posted by
4196 posts

I love all this (ok, maybe not the soccer….). :)

Dover Castle for sure. So impressive with layers of history.
Loved Leeds. I will say a car would probably make it possible to do more castles in this area. But I was there in January, which makes it different.
Hastings? It’s on my “hopefully” list for November, thanks to my love for Foyles War.
I am considering Winchester as a base for a few nights as part of that same Nov. trip, so I will be interested in what you wind up with. Checking out The Last Kingdom…… :)

Others will know far more than me. I based in Canterbury and Salisbury for 3 nights each one trip, moving by train only. It’s perfectly doable (going back through London for a change), but does take a bit of time. Lots of advice I researched here advised train over car for getting between these 2 points due to traffic, even though the distance appears to be shorter to drive. And for me, evensong in all the cathedrals is always top of my list. If you wind up with your last night near Heathrow in Windsor (again if the timing is right), I loved evensong at St George’s Chapel best of 3 (that trip).

Go for Stonehenge. I know what some say, but it truly is impressive. A car in this part, along with Highclere if your timing is right, isn’t essential but definitely is convenient. I have done it both ways. I haven’t made it to Lacock yet but maybe next time?

Posted by
5307 posts

HMS Victory in Southampton

A very incendiary thing to state given the rivalry between Southampton and Portsmouth!

HMS Victory is in the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth where it's been for the last 100 years situated in Drydock No. 2 which itself is a listed building given that it's 250 years old. The Dockyard also hosts HMS Warrior, The Mary Rose in its excellent new display centre, The Royal Navy museum and various other sites of interest. All attractions can be visited on one ticket and it's a fantastic day's visit.

If you were to travel around by train then Portsmouth Harbour station is a few minutes walk from the dockyard entrance. Alternatively it does have a multi-storey car park about five minutes walk away.

Posted by
15285 posts

Let me underline a few places mentioned earlier in this thread:

Portsmouth--the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. This area includes not only the HMS Victory and the Mary Rose but much more. Expect to spend at least half a day if not longer. (As you probably now realize, the HMS Victory is here and not in Southhampton.)

Dover Castle--don't miss this. The history is not just from hundreds of years ago but also up to and including it's use in WWII.

Stonehenge--this surprised me. I thought it would just be a packed tourist site. But I was wrong. It was very interesting. Make sure you go into the museum. There is a wall of quotes about Stonehenge. One is from a fictional charachter. See if you can find it.

Posted by
6621 posts

If you do decide to drive, consider stopping at Churchill’s house at Chartwell and Ightham Mote en route to Canterbury. Ightham Mote Is an old manor house surrounded by a mote. Another vote for the historic dockyard in Portsmouth. It’s pricey to enter but worth every penny. After the HMS Victory, I most enjoyed seeing all the old ships’ figureheads. Rye is pretty small and won’t take all that long to see.

Posted by
1456 posts

You will find these 2 sites helpful in planning your trip: and They list Passes for Overseas Visitors that save with the cost of Admissions. English Heritage has an Overseas Visitor Pass. National Trust had a similar Overseas Visitor Pass which they call a Touring Pass.

Posted by
6568 posts

I haven't tried to figure out what a train trip would look like, but it seems to me that trying one week by train and one by car would have you covering a lot of the same ground twice. Some of your destinations have good rail service, but others have little or none, and neither type is geographically concentrated. If you're up to left-side driving, I suggest doing this whole trip (apart from London) by car. You'll find crowded roads and parking hassles in some places, but you won't be tied to train schedules. For me the flexibility would be worth it (and I'm not a good left-side driver).

Posted by
4156 posts

Thanks to all for the correction about the ships in Portsmouth and not Southampton. I knew that but I had Southampton on the brain.

Checking out The Last Kingdom…… :)

I love the show and the books. My wife didn't like the books; too much testosterone for her. She liked the TV show because Uhtred is so pretty😍 , but I read the books first and he not supposed to be pretty. It really bothers me when watching the show because the book Uhtred is how I identify him.

I do love museums and English history so we'll be checking out the museum at Stonehenge.

Posted by
3907 posts

I can only comment on Dover. The castle and WWII connection is very interesting. We also had really fabulous fish n chips there at a restaurant on the beach. I’m sorry I can’t remember the name but it was the only one there.

Posted by
226 posts

I like driving through English countryside, but not so much in cities or traffic. It's fairly efficient to get to Brighton or Portsmouth from Gatwick Airport by train. Also, Hastings has fairly efficient trains via Brighton.

From Portsmouth, easy to get to Southhampton (football match), Winchester, and Salisbury by train or bus.

A car for Stonehenge and Highclere might be easier and provide more flexibility, but I know there are tours to Stonehenge from Salisbury or Southhampton. Might be similar tours for Highclere.

To get from Gatwick to Canterbury or Dover, it's more efficient to connect in London. But, you can get to Hastings from Gatwick or Portsmouth via Brighton...and then connect to Rye/Dover/Canterbury by train or bus.

One idea would be to use one of Portsmouth/Southampton/Winchester as your home base to visit that area, and rent a car for Stonehenge and Highclere (more rental options from Southampton?). If you have the car, Arundel Castle is easy from Portsmouth and New Forest National Park is also right near Southampton.

Then, train to Hastings for a night or two en route to Canterbury as your next home base to visit the Cathedral and Dover. Stopover in Rye, if desired, between Hastings and Canterbury or Dover.

Or, you could train to Windsor Castle from Winchester/Southampton if you don't mind a couple of transfers (may be a night over)....then, train to Canterbury via London connection. Finish with Hastings after Canterbury/Dover on the way back to Gatwick.

Posted by
4156 posts

Has a anyone stayed in Portsmouth near the Historic Dockyards? One idea based on what I've read in the past day is to take the train there from Gatwick,
stay in Portsmouth for 4 or 5 days and include some daytrips via train to Stonehenge, Salisbury and Winchester. After that, I'll get a car for the remainder of the trip and slowly make my way to Canterbury before dropping the car off at Gatwick.

Posted by
5307 posts

The Holiday Inn at Gunwharf, Premier Inn at the Dockyard and The Ship Leopard boutique hotel are all minutes walk from the dockyard and the train/bus station. I haven't stayed at any of them for obvious reasons however I haven't heard anything bad about them.

You could fit in a footall match at Fratton Park (we were once in the Premiership). It's a small ground but has a reputation for the loudest fans and one of the most intimidating grounds for an away player. Tickets will be cheap and easily available compared to one of the top flight clubs. Southampton has always had a boring atmosphere other than when they're playing Pompey!

From Portsmouth you can easily take the train to Arudel, Winchester, Brighton, Hastings and Salisbury. Dover Castle would requre a change in London and can be a long journey so a journey covering the southern coast from Hastings to Salisbury by train would be esay. The other sights would best be covered by car which would also allow you to visit all the small towns and villages that are just as comparable to the Cotswolds but without all the tourists.

Posted by
112 posts

"Winchester-Just because I'm a fan of the Last Kingdom book and TV series."
Me too! I went to Winchester before watching the show and now that I've seen it I want to go back! Unfortunately Winchester was burnt to the ground by Vikings in the 800s (among other things) so the anatomy of the city is not the same, however the Last Kingdom and the city of Winchester are both personal favourites.

Posted by
4156 posts

You could fit in a footall match at Fratton Park (we were once in the
Premiership). It's a small ground but has a reputation for the loudest
fans and one of the most intimidating grounds for an away player.

In all honesty, that's probably more important to me than an actual Premiere level game. I want to experience the atmosphere of a different sport and different country. Thanks for the tip.

Posted by
4156 posts

however the Last Kingdom and the city of Winchester are both personal

I just read of a series of 90 minute walking tours of Winchester for only 10 pounds per person. I'll have to look into that. The Winchester tourist site also mentions tours that "walk in the footsteps of Alfred." I'm all-in on that one.

Posted by
545 posts

Just a few thoughts: On the car vs. public transit issue, I agree that some of the more remote spots are easier by car, but train and coach transportation will get you just about anywhere you'd want to go in southern England. Driving on the left with a standard transmission on unfamiliar roads is tiring. Check out the National Rail website for discounts such as the 2for1 tickets.

Dover Castle is definitely worth a visit. Plan to spend some time there so you can access all the parts open to the public.

Canterbury is easily reached by train or coach. Once in the town, everything is walkable and there are a variety of places to eat. I recommend staying at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge on the grounds of the Cathedral. The rooms are comfortable and the breakfast is excellent. Plus, as a guest you are entitled to unlimited visits to the Cathedral which means you can drop in and out for evensong, tours, and various scheduled docent presentations. Take a walk out of the town to St. Martin's, the oldest continuously used church in England.

We actually took two days to explore the Portsmouth Naval Museum. Arriving by rail, it was kind of impressive to walk out of the train station and find the HMS Warrior in front of us. There are multiple places to stay and eat within walking distance of the Museum. Walking along sections of the waterfront you can see remains of old defensive structures.

I enjoyed Hastings and would suggest renting the audioguide. Just be aware that the battle was a long time ago and there are no battlefield "remnants" like you'd find at Normandy or Gettysburg. We combined the visit to Hastings with a brief "beach" holiday by renting an apartment in a nearby beach town. It was a nice change of pace from sightseeing (and it gave us a chance to do some mid-trip laundry in the apartment washing machine).

Stonehenge to me was an ok one-time visit. There are less well-known stone circles, dolmens, menhirs, etc., that I found equally interesting, probably because there weren't so many tourists.

Happy travels.

Posted by
453 posts

Re Winchester. I had a day trip there with London Walks some years ago. It was a terrific day out.

They basically had 3 main sites they visited. After arriving at the station, we walked maybe 10 minutes towards the main centre stopping at (1) the Great Hall (remains of Winchester Castle) which has supposedly the King Arthur Round Table. After this we walked a bit further down to (2) the Cathedral - not maybe as good looking outside as Salisbury, but I thought waaay more interesting inside - there are medieval floor tiles at the back, just amazing to think that you can walk on something from the 13th century, and so much else besides. Then after late lunch we went to (3) Winchester College, a boys school, they do guided tours - really worth a visit.

Posted by
3799 posts

"stay in Portsmouth for 4 or 5 days and include some day trips via train to Stonehenge, Salisbury and Winchester."

I would not do this. I would enjoy Portsmouth and the museum, (and maybe a game) then move on, checking out of your hotel, going to Winchester.
Travel to Salisbury, check into a hotel for a couple of nights.
I am not convinced that having a "base" and traveling back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to that base is efficient. It wastes time.
(There are some exceptions to this, but not in this case, I don't believe.)
Each town or city has enough to keep you busy, so why run back each night to Portsmouth?
To me that is a lot more trouble than grabbing your suitcase and moving hotels.

Perhaps it is more efficient to see everything you wish to see in one town, be done with it, move on to the next place on your itinerary. Check into a new hotel, see everything in that town, check out, move on to the next place on your itinerary.
Portsmouth--2 to 3 nights.
Winchester--1 to 2 nights.
Salisbury--2 to 4 nights; remember that you will be taking the Stonehenge Bus out to the site from Salisbury. Your ticket includes a return to Salisbury. This will take most of one day, especially if you stop and explore Old Sarum on the way back.(The bus stops there and it is included in your Stonehenge ticket.)

I urge you to read again Pam's excellent post above.
Lots to do in Salisbury, and it would be my choice over Portsmouth for several nights stay, hands down. No contest. No offense to Portsmouth, none meant at all; just a matter of personal preference.

Winchester and Salisbury have many medieval and historic buildings, many good restaurants, cafes, and pubs, many in medieval buildings.

Posted by
4156 posts

Portsmouth--2 to 3 nights. Winchester--1 to 2 nights. Salisbury--2 to
4 nights;

Nothing set in stone yet. One of the reasons I thought of Portsmouth is because we love to have an active nightlife with pubs and restaurants close to our hotel. I haven't looked into Salisbury or Winchester yet except for the sites, are these places large enough that things don't shut down at dusk?

Posted by
3799 posts

Yes, these towns have pubs and restaurants close to the hotels.
Yes, there are excellent pubs in each that stay open until midnight or one AM, if that qualifies.
No, the streets, shops, pubs and restaurants aren't closed up at dark or anything.
If you want night clubs staying open late or all night, a casino, or dancing they don't have that.

Posted by
4380 posts

Salisbury is great without a car-very walkable. I'm another fan of the Salisbury Museum. I also have Wells on my bucket list. I loved Dover Castle-a real defensive fortification, not just a palace. Canterbury Cathedral didn't do much for me-and I love Cathedrals! If you change your mind about London and haven't been to Cambridge in the past, you might want to consider it-it's easy to get there from London. If you've never been to London, I don't see how you can miss Westminster Abbey. Can you tell that I love London? So much to see in England-and life is so short!

Posted by
4380 posts

Salisbury is great without a car-very walkable. I'm another fan of the Salisbury Museum. I also have Wells on my bucket list. I loved Dover Castle-a real defensive fortification, not just a palace. Leeds Castle is lovely. The Tower of London really is the iconic castle, however. You can also easily see two castles from Cardiff, and it's an easy trip from London. Canterbury Cathedral didn't do much for me-and I love cathedrals! So much to see in England-and life is so short!

Posted by
4055 posts

I once took the self-guided tour of Victory with a friend who is a professional guide to international military sites. We both agreed that the audio commentary was one of the most informative we had enjoyed. As above answers indicate, the naval docks and harbour walls are good for a whole day's exploration.