London’s stockbroker belt, commuter territory, Suburbia – call it what you will but the southeast of England has a lot to offer the visitor on a caravan holiday. Did you know, for example, that Surrey is the most wooded county in Great Britain with more than 22% covered by mature woodland?
And with the North Downs and the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty taking up a sizeable chunk of the county, there are plenty of places to walk the dog, take a leisurely cycle ride or, indeed, a more strenuous one following the course of the road race from the London 2012 Olympic Games. Its route took in some of Surrey’s beauty spots, including the famously steep Box Hill. A few miles south is Leith Hill, the highest point in southeast England at 965 feet, providing the best views of both central London and the south coast; you can cycle.to the top of the hill with an off-road bike.
Edging closer to London, and on the edge of the River Thames, is Runnymede, beautiful open water meadows where King John signed the Magna Carta almost 800 years ago to keep the peace and begin the first declaration of human rights. Walks along the Thames, using the Thames Path, take you to the vibrantly red brick and many chimneyed Hampton Court Palace and the deer-filled Richmond Park by which time, you’re heading towards Central London.
Surrey has its fair smattering of well-known racecourses, with the chance of a flutter being accomplished at Sandown, Kempton Park and Epsom Downs. Although if you’re in the mood for horsepower of another sort, Brooklands Museum is the birthplace of British motorsport, with the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit here and a vast display of motorsport and aviation exhibits.
In Kent, the county remains England’s garden and a major fruit-growing region. One third of Kent is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with the North Downs Way, which begins in Farnham (Surrey), finishing at the White Cliffs of Dover. This is one of the county’s – indeed the country’s – most iconic landmarks, the stretch of brilliant white chalk being the arriving and departing memory of many a seafaring traveller.
Pilgrims have been heading to Kent’s county town, Canterbury, for centuries with its magnificent cathedral drawing not just religious travellers but those in awe of its architectural stature, while others are drawn to picturesque Rochester and Chatham, filled with maritime history.
Kent’s link with Sussex (now East and West Sussex) is not just for being neighbours. Both counties produce, prolifically, some of the best English wine available with row upon row of pencil-straight vines serving up reds, whites and fizz. Many sell wines direct for that post-tour evening glass back at a campsite.
Sussex and the High Weald have a medieval landscape of gentle rolling hills matched by that most famous of Medieval battles – the 1066 Battle of Hastings. It’s a gorgeous little town worthy of a tearoom stop, followed by a visit northwest to Ashdown Forest, better known to Pooh fans as the, not so medieval, 100-Acre Wood.
But it’s the coastline of Sussex that attracts the greatest number of visitors. With Eastbourne in the, well, east and rounding the corner of Beachy Head and the chalky Seven Sisters, there’s a sandy shoreline from cosmopolitan Brighton along past Worthington and Bognor Regis all the way to Selsey and West Wittering. Its backdrop is the South Downs National Park, Britain’s newest Park created in 2009, filled with stunning coastal views and ancient market towns like Lewes, Arundel and Chichester.
The South Downs National Park covers parts of West Sussex and Hampshire. The 101-mile South Downs Way, crossing the Park, runs from Eastbourne in Sussex to Winchester, Hampshire’s county town and a former capital of England in days of old. This is Jane Austen territory, with her former home just outside Alton creeping just inside the boundaries of the National Park.
On a promontory jutting out between two giant natural harbours sits Portsmouth, with a vast naval heritage; the first warship of the Navy, Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, is ‘docked’ in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard alongside other great warships – Nelson’s HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar and HMS Warrior 1860, the world’s first iron and steam warship.
But Hampshire boasts two National Parks within its county boundaries. To the west of Southampton is the New Forest National Park. ‘New’ it is not, being created as the hunting playground for William the Conqueror, but its great swathes of ancient woodland interspersed with open heaths provide residence for over 4000 ponies, cattle and deer roaming free. You’ll see them wandering about the many campsites that dot the Park.
Lastly, divided from mainland Britain by The Solent, one of the busiest waterways in the South is the Isle of Wight. It was once the home of marauding dinosaurs, whose every footstep must have virtually covered the island in one stomp. Their footsteps are not the last, with some stunning countryside for coastal walks around Compton Bay and Alum Bay to see the island’s iconic Needles or up on Brighstone Down for coastal views.
The island became popular in Victorian times when the Queen and Prince Albert built themselves a holiday home, Osborne House at East Cowes. Thereafter, it was the place to be and pretty little seaside towns like Shanklin and Bembridge still attract visitors today. For caravan holidays, the island provides a great getaway, with that feeling that you’re really going somewhere different when boarding the ferry.
Things to do
1.Look for bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover. Take your cue from that old wartime song and spot seagulls, larks, swallows and planes during a bracing stroll along the 20 miles of these chalky icons. Owned by the National Trust, the White Cliffs Visitor Centre is a great place to begin your walk. You’ll discover the military history of the cliffs and look out for the best views of the French coast.
2.Visit a famous garden. The flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, spreading over 240 acres, RHS Wisley near Woking demonstrates the best in British gardening practices. With plant ‘trials’ fields, rose gardens and a temperate glasshouse, RHS Wisley also houses the Wisley Library, a massive collection of gardening books.
3.Top up your knowledge of British history. Take a tour of key Sussex sites, such as the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey at Battle and Michelham Priory, with its replica Iron Age Centre. Pop along to Charleston Farmhouse, rural retreat of the Bloomsbury Group writers, which included Virginia Woolf, and head to Brighton to see the architectural wonders of the Indian-inspired Royal Pavilion.
4.New Forest attractions. The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu should be on anyone’s ‘must-see’ list. Major showcases here include the Top Gear Collection of battered and modified vehicles (such as the show’s homemade motorhomes and ‘Caravan Airship’) and famous cars. Plus there’s the Caravan Club Collection, where you can view a wealth of exhibits and see how caravan holidays have changed since 1885 to the present day.
5.The Isle of Wight has many delights. The island is considered one of the best locations in the UK to search for evidence of a pre-historic world, so why not go on a dinosaur hunt here? You can join a guided fossil walk with one of the island’s dinosaur experts or take a Footprint Tour. Download the free Dinosaur Island Trail app onto your smartphone and follow a self-guided tour to various dinosaur-linked locations across the island.
When to visit
Some of England’s most prestigious and world famous sporting and arts events take place in South East England.
Horseracing is a winner and you’ll find Surrey’s Epsom Derby, classed as the ‘world’s greatest flat race’, in June, while Hampshire’s Goodwood mixes the racing of horses with cars during a summer season of events – first the Festival of Speed in July, then Glorious Goodwood for a festival of horseracing also in July, rounded off with the Goodwood Revival celebrating all things vintage in September.
Sussex is noted for the arts, with the Festival of Chichester, showcasing major West End productions and fringe performances from April to September while nearby Glyndebourne‘s opera season runs from May to August. Plus, Sussex Day is celebrated annually on the 16 June, putting the county’s rich heritage on the map.
It’s the Isle of Wight though that captures the camping scene with the Isle of Wight Festival in June (September in 2021). That’s not to take anything away, though, from the all-important Cowes Week sailing regatta in July and August, or the ever-popular Isle of Wight Walking Festival, which provides a lovely way to view the island in October.
Where to stay
Pick your spot to pitch in South East England from our annual Top 100 Sites Guide, as voted for by you.
The South East of England is one of the most accessible areas in the UK, although with that, roads can be notoriously congested particularly at peak times of travel such as weekday rush hours, and Friday and Sunday evenings.
Caravans towed by cars/MPVs are not affected by Greater London’s Low Emission Zone, although they are affected by Central London’s Congestion Charge if driving within the zone between 7am and 10pm on any day. It goes without saying, of course, that towing a caravan through the centre of London is not an especially relaxing experience and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
The M25 around London, one of those notoriously congested roads, is the natural feeder along with its arteries to access, in particular, Kent and Sussex. Most of Kent is accessible from the M20 and the M2, including Folkestone and Dover for cross-Channel services. Occasionally, when there are delays on these routes, ‘Operation Stack’ is put into place on the M20 with cars and caravans having to use the A20 instead.
There is a toll (though no weight restriction affecting caravans) on the Dartford Crossing, between Kent and Essex to the east of London, during the hours of 6am to 10pm daily. Payment must be made online, via text, on the phone or at retail outlets with Payzone.
The M23/A23 artery off the M25 takes you to Sussex. A direct route from London to Brighton, this road can become heavily congested at weekends and at the start of major holidays, because it also serves Gatwick Airport.
Hampshire is served by the M3 off the M25, but can also be accessed using the A35 from the west and the A34 from the north. A collection of A-roads run along the south coast, notably the A259 from Dover to Pevensey (east of Eastbourne), followed by the A27 to Portsmouth and the M27 to Southampton and the New Forest. The route, crossing through the South Downs National Park, is picturesque and much of it uses dual-carriageways, but there are numerous roundabouts and twisting single-carriageway sections too, particularly between Folkestone and Rye.
The A272 between Hampshire and Sussex also runs through the South Downs National Park. This single-carriageway route provides great views of the Downs, but is twisty. Minor roads in Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Hampshire are all perfectly accessible, providing your speed is appropriate to the width of the road.
Access to the Isle of Wight is via Lymington and Portsmouth using Wightlink or Southampton using Red Funnel Ferries when towing a caravan. Both companies often provide ‘ferry and campsite’, ‘caravan goes free’ or other special offers, so it is worth checking. For those pitched on campsites on the mainland wishing to take a day trip to the island, fast speed foot passenger services operate from Southampton, Portsmouth and Southsea.
Roads on the Isle of Wight are fine for towing – but watch out for a narrow and twisty section of A-road between Ventnor and Shanklin on the southeast coast. For one of the best coastal views, follow the Old Military Road (A3055) from Freshwater to Ventnor, hugging Compton and Brighstone Bays (and Isle of Wight Pearl).
If you liked this… READ THESE:
If you’ve enjoyed reading this article, why not get the latest news, reviews and features delivered direct to your door or inbox every month. Take advantage of our brilliant Practical Caravan magazine SUBSCRIBERS’ OFFER and SIGN UP TO OUR NEWSLETTER for regular weekly updates on all things caravan related.
One third of Kent is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty