Five car-freeSummer adventuresclose to London

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Here are five fab car-free adventures that are varied and beautiful. Visit gardens, palaces, deer parks and nature reserves. Take a stroll beside the River Orwell in Ipswich or a boat trip over the Thames at Richmond. These expeditions head off in all directions to see Surrey's finest flowers at RHS Wisley, Kent's incredible Knole Park or Suffolk's Helmingham Hall. Discover oases for wildlife close to the capital; spot egrets, warblers and lapwings at the RSPB's Rainham Marshes. Take the train, bus, tube or even boat - it's all part of the adventure.

  • County: close to London
  • Great for: bird watching | boat rides | castles | deer park | gardens | nature reserves | Picnics |
  • Refreshments: pubs, cafes and more
  • Please note: researched/updated in November 2023. If anything’s changed or you have more tips to share, do get in touch:
  1. 3. RSPB Rainham Marshes, Essex

    As the River Thames heads out of London towards the sea, its wide estuary passes through the marshes near Purfleet, a strange area of wilderness on London’s eastern fringes. Rainham Marshes is a maze of boggy meadows, ponds, channels and reed beds that supports rare plants along with waders and ducks, warblers and woodpeckers. Look out for the super-cute, shy water voles too!

    What’s special about it in summer? Lots of migrating birds live on these marshes even in winter, but summer is a beautiful time to visit, with the fields and hedges full of wildflowers and insects. The pushchair-friendly paths and boardwalks are perfect for family adventures and there are often activities during the holidays like pond dipping and grasshopper safaris.

    How do I get there? Follow Good Journey’s instructions and stroll twenty minutes (mostly along the river) from Purfleet Station – or get a bus.

    How about combining it with a longer walk? If you’re up for a longer walk, you can carry on westwards along the river from Rainham Marshes, following the well-signed London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP). The LOOP runs through 150 miles of varied countryside around Greater London. The five-mile stretch along the river to Rainham station is a classic combination of rural and urban with wide marshes and uncompromising industry. The National Trust’s elegant Rainham Hall and its pretty gardens are just beyond Rainham station at the other end. On the way, you’ll pass extraordinary some concrete barges, part of the D-Day preparations.

    Where do I have lunch? RSPB Rainham Marshes has a fabulous eco-friendly café with lots of plant-based options and great views across the nature reserve and the river. It’s open from 10am until half an hour before the reserve closes, with hot food until 3pm. Think locally-made pies and soups, jacket spuds and paninis. The café grows, imports and roasts its own coffee, which is Fairtrade, organic and certified bird-friendly! If you walk to the village of Rainham, you’ll find a choice of cafés there too.

  1. 4. Helmingham Hall, Suffolk

    Helmingham Hall is a moated brick palace eight miles north of Ipswich, which makes a long, adventurous day trip from London. Plan ahead! The beautiful gardens are supervised by landscape designer Xa Tollemache, who lives in the hall, and are open to the public in summer. The park has rolling miles of oak trees, an obelisk-topped mount and huge herds of deer.

    What’s special about it in summer? Leafy gardens by a tranquil moat with a kiosk nearby selling ice creams are pretty much what summer was made for. The late summer borders are dense with elegant shades of pink, white and silver: scented meadowsweets and sprawling tobacco plants, late-flowering clematis and abundant roses. Check the opening times.

    How do I get there? Follow Good Journey’s directions. Catch the train to Ipswich. The journey from London Liverpool Street takes just over an hour and tickets are much cheaper if you book in advance. You need to be on the 10.30am (or earlier) train from London Liverpool Street to connect with the midday bus. There are regular buses between Ipswich railway and bus stations, but you can also opt to walk along the River Orwell (see map below). Catch daily bus 119 towards Framlingham from the Old Cattle Market Bus Station. Ask the driver to drop you (about twenty minutes later) at the Otley Turn in Helmingham, next to St Mary’s church. Walk through the churchyard and straight between ponds towards the hall. The bus back currently leaves about an hour after the gardens shut.

    So what do I do after the gardens close? Explore the deer park, following the way-marked public paths. If you keep the fence of Helmingham Hall’s gardens on your left, you’ll eventually come out on the road again opposite a bus shelter, where you can wait for the bus back to Ipswich.

    Where do I have lunch and tea? Helmingham has the Coach House Tea Rooms plus a little coffee and ice cream parlour. There’s also a huge choice of places in Ipswich, including a mellow pub (with a train departure board) right opposite the station.

  1. 5. Richmond, Greater London

    You don’t even need to leave the city to feel as if you’ve got away for a day. Elegant Richmond is a slice of beautiful, landscaped countryside on the fringe of the urban jungle. It’s also a highlight of the classic Thames Path, which follows the river from the middle of a field in Gloucestershire past the flood barrier in Woolwich and now beyond. You can find out more about the local sights in our guide to car-free Richmond.

    What’s special about it in summer? You can stroll through shady, wooded parks or drink in riverside pubs, take a boat trip over the Thames or cycle by the water. Ham House, a riverside stroll or bus ride away, has lots of family events to liven up the holidays. And the 17th-century garden is full of the sights and smells of summer with fragrant purple lavender, ox-eye daisies, opulent peonies and scented pelargoniums.

    How do I get there? Arrive in Richmond on the district line tube or overground train or on the regular (Southwestern) railway from Vauxhall. To reach Ham House, you can get bus 371 from Richmond Station to nearby Ham Street or you can stroll along the river (see map below).

    What are the views like on the way? The riverside walk is spectacular. Bus 371 goes over the top of Richmond Hill past a wrought iron, flowery RSPCA monument. Over the river from Ham House, via the ferry, you can visit newly-renovated Marble Hill House, a white Palladian villa belonging to English Heritage.

    Where do I have lunch? Petersham Nurseries, on the 371 route, is very popular. There are loads of other options, including riverside pubs and cafes like the vegan-friendly Tide Tables café, just under the arches of Richmond Bridge.

  • RSPB Rainham Marshes visitor centre - from our car-free summer adventures
  • Rye House Gateway - spotted on our car-free summer adventures
  • Helmingham Hall - spotted on our car-free summer adventures
  • Helmingham Hall - spotted on our car-free summer adventures
  • Boats by Richmond House - spotted on our car-free summer adventures
  • Marble Hill House - spotted on our car-free summer adventures
  • Heron - spotted on our car-free summer adventures