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London Weekenders: Olympic Escapes

So, you are already in London or planning to be there later this summer ?

There will be one thing and one thing only on everybody’s minds, of course: the 2012 Olympics. But just suppose you want to do a spot of sightseeing before and after your London visit? Or if you feel like escaping Olympic mania for a few days?

England in the summer is idyllic – pretty villages, gardens in full bloom, lush green countryside, plus it stays light until very late at night, so there is no excuse for not exploring the countryside and the historic cities that all lie within a comfortable radius of London.

The historic university towns of Oxford and Cambridge are both wonderful towns to visit, with a wealth of tradition, academia and a long-standing rivalry to discover.  These two premier university towns have been friendly rivals for the last – oh, roughly 800 years.

Amazingly for two rivals – or perhaps not – both Oxford and Cambridge are about equidistant from London – a convenient 60-odd kilometers.  You can easily drive or take a train or bus, but don’t try and visit both towns in one day – that will be too hectic and will leave you no time for exploring.

Of the two, Cambridge is the more immediately accessible to visitors, in that many of the historic colleges back onto the River Cam, so you can wander along the banks of the river, or, better still, take a punt (boat), and see years of history unfold as you learn a new skill. 

Punting is one of those quintessential Oxbridge summer activities, but a quick word of advice.  There is an Oxford end of the punt and a Cambridge end, and you must make sure you are punting appropriately.

Ah, you may ask – which end is which?   And is it important?

In Cambridge you stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while in Oxford you stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward.

And as for the importance of the Oxford vs Cambridge end - it would never do to re-kindle 800 year-old rivalries, now, would it ?

Another wonderful excursion from London is to Shakespeare country.

Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, is one of those places that you feel you already know well, even if you are visiting the pretty English town for the first time.  It must be all those years of studying Shakespeare at school that somehow makes everything seem so familiar.

There are streets lined with pretty black and white gabled Elizabethan houses, of which five have special historic significance, since they all relate to Shakespeare's life.

If you have the time, try and visit these historic homes, as they are all an intrinsic part of Shakespeare’s life and times. Three houses are in Stratford proper and you can easily walk from one to the other – Hall's Croft used to be the home of Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah; Nash's House, which was the Bard’s final home, and New Place, where Shakespeare died.

Just a short drive out of the town are Mary Arden's House, the family home of Shakespeare’s mother, and the iconic Anne Hathaway's Cottage, which must be the most photographed cottage on the planet. With its thatched roof and pretty garden in full summer bloom, it is a little jewel.

There are abbeys and stately homes galore in England, ruined monasteries, elegant palaces and gardens.  There are historic towns such as York and Exeter, both a little further afield.  There are moors to wander, parks to explore…

…but, of course, there is also London.  And the Olympic Games.

So a few quick day-trips to Oxford, another to Cambridge, and then a day exploring Shakespeare’s world are the ideal breathers.  You can see a totally different part of England, but be back in London within an hour or so.

Happy escaping!

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