The southeast corner of England was traditionally where London went on holiday. In the past, trainloads of East Enders were shuttled to the hop fields and orchards of Kent for a working break from the city; boats ferried people down the Thames to the beaches of north Kent; while everyone from royalty to cuckolding couples enjoyed the seaside at Brighton, a blot of decadence in the otherwise sedate county of Sussex. Although many of the old seaside resorts have struggled to keep their tourist custom in the face of ever more accessible foreign destinations, the region still has considerable charm, its narrow country lanes and verdant meadows appearing, in places, almost untouched by modern life.
The proximity of Kent and Sussex to the continent has dictated the history of this region, which has served as a gateway for an array of invaders. Roman remains dot the coastal area – most spectacularly at Bignor in Sussex and Lullingstone in Kent – and many roads, including the main A2 London to Dover, follow the arrow-straight tracks laid by the legionaries. When Christianity spread through Europe, it arrived in Britain on the Isle of Thanet – the northeast tip of Kent, since rejoined to the mainland by silting and subsiding sea levels. In 597 AD Augustine moved inland and established a monastery at Canterbury, still the home of the Church of England and the county’s prime historic attraction.
The last successful invasion of England took place in 1066, when the Normans overran King Harold’s army near Hastings, on a site now marked by Battle Abbey. The Normans left their mark all over this corner of the kingdom, and Kent remains unmatched in its profusion of medieval castles, among them Dover’s sprawling cliff-top fortress guarding against continental invasion and Rochester’s huge, box-like citadel, close to the old dockyards of Chatham, power base of the formerly invincible British navy.
Away from the great historic sites, you can spend unhurried days in elegant old towns such as Royal Tunbridge Wells, Rye and Lewes, or enjoy the less elevated charms of the traditional resorts, of which fashionable Brighton is by far the best, combining the buzz of a university town with a good-time atmosphere and excellent restaurants. The picturesque South Downs Way – which winds its way through the South Downs National Park – offers an expanse of rolling chalk uplands that, as much as anywhere can in the crowded southeast, gets you away from it all. Kent and Sussex also harbour some of the country’s finest gardens, ranging from the lush flowerbeds of Sissinghurst to the great landscaped estate of Petworth House.
The home of wealthy metropolitan commuters, Surrey is the least pastoral and historically significant of the three southeastern counties surrounding London. The portion of the county within and around the M25 orbital motorway has little for tourists, though beyond the ring road it takes on a more countrified aspect, with swathes of open heathland along its western borders and the sleepy market town of Farnham, home to a twelfth-century castle.