When was the last time you had a holiday close to home? If you live in the UK, you’re blessed with little towns dotted about the place, all offering somewhere to go and something to see; just without the cost of flights or the need to change your currency. Hey, did that rhyme?
Over the summer, our mini break of choice was Berkhamsted (Berko to the locals): a gorgeous little town less than an hour away from the capital. If you’re looking for places to visit outside of London where you can experience ‘Little England’, Berkhamsted is a great choice.
Here’s what a weekend in Berkhamsted has got to offer (spoiler alert: it’s a lot for such a little town).
A lovely little log cabin
Dear Airbnb. Oh how I love you. Not only have you given me a home from home in Valencia, and a fabulous city centre apartment in Cambridge, but now you have given me the most interesting and beautiful place I have ever stayed.
This log cabin was built from scratch by a carpenter in his back garden, but it’s secluded from the main family house by a well-positioned hedge. Walk out the back and you’re in a forest; Walk through the door and you’re in your own little paradise.
It’s got everything you need: bed, mini kitchen, bathroom and shower, living room with plush sofas and blankets, TV, a great DVD collection and a log fire that you can’t actually use, but that makes you feel all warm and cosy just by looking at it. We had to drag ourselves out each day (which is very unusual for us) and thus the sign of a good place. Check out the Airbnb website for more info.
The Rex Cinema
The Rex is a glorious Art Deco cinema converted from a theatre. It’s only got one screen cinema and therein lays its charm. Downstairs in the ‘VIP’ area, you can slurp wine, eat cheese and lay back in luxurious seats around romantic tables that seat four – it feels a bit like a cabaret. Upstairs, you’re in a more traditional cinema setting with rows of seats pitched behind a balcony overlooking the stage and screen. No matter where you sit, you’ll feel as though you’re somewhere special. The owner even gives a speech before every screening as a quirky little intro to the film.
The Rex shows its fair share of blockbusters (Finding Dory was on when we were there) but also prides itself on its offering of classics and films you just wouldn’t see anywhere else. With only two showings a day, the choice can be limited and tickets sell out quickly with bookings available the month before on The Rex Cinema website.
Though certainly not the most well-kept or beautiful castle in England, Berkhamsted’s Norman example has one of the most interesting stories. After being passed between and confiscated by various kings, the castle fell into the possession of Ranulf, King Henry I’s Chancellor. On his way to visit the castle for the first time, Ranulf got too excited at the view of his castle, fell off his horse and died. It’s hard to believe when you look at it now though – there’s not much left.
The majority of its walls are in ruins, so it does take some imagination to see the king entertaining his guests. You can take a wander around the bailey and then climb the mott to be treated with great views out over the town. After becoming highly unfashionable, it fell into ruin with parts of the walls distributed and stolen by residents to make their own houses. It was almost completely destroyed with the construction of the railway, and every now and then, a train will rocket past to remind you. Visit the English Heritage website for more information about the castle and how to get there yourself.
The food scene in Berko
Unlike our home town of Reading (where TripAdvisor’s top restaurant is an ice cream parlour), Berkhamsted is home to a huge number of boutique, independent and multi-national places to eat. We were determined to try a few out while we were there:
- The Olive Tree – As the name suggests, this restaurant is typically Greek. We were given the most wonderful welcome – the Australian/Greek owner grabbed us in for a kiss even though we’d never met her! The food was a-mazing – my tummy is grumbling at the thought of the must-try feta in filo with honey, but you can give the house white wine a miss. The restaurant itself is warm, cosy and very very loud, but in a good way.
- Fat Buddha – This restaurant serves up traditional Indian fair where the portion sizes are huge and the taste divine. We opted for takeaway to enjoy back at our cabin but it looks just as good as a sit down restaurant. My tummy has just started rumbling again…
- Here – Here is a great place for breakfast or lunch or brunch or drunch(?) in the the town centre. It’s one of those modern hipster type places, serving sour dough bread and falafel as part of a Full (veggie) English. There aren’t that many tables, but it’s worth the wait if you can bear it. The sausage sandwich also comes highly recommended, says Tim
Berko is a quick zip up the A41 from London if you’re driving, or half an hour on the train from London Euston for £15 return. It really couldn’t be easier to get to, and because you’re outside the M25, you’re treated to slightly lower prices than in the big smoke. A quick Google will tell you how to get to the town from wherever you are.
Other things to see and do in the area
Don’t feel you need to be confined to Berkhamsted. It’s a great base from which to explore Hertfordshire and many other tourist attractions while you’re in the area. Now, I have to admit I haven’t been to all of these places, so I can’t vouch for whether they’re any good. If you go, you’ll have to tell me what they’re like in the comments!
- Warner Bros. Studio Tour: the making of Harry Potter – I’m told this is a must visit for muggle fans of the Harry Potter franchise (sorry I’m just not one of them!) Its only 20 minutes away for visitors to Berko
- Bletchley Park – the WW2 Allied code breaking HQ and birthplace of the computer (thanks Tim) is 20 miles away from Berkhamsted in nearby Milton Keynes. If you like historical sights and learning about our past, you’d enjoy the short hop up the motorway to visit.
- ZSL Whipsnade – Sister zoo to ZSL London zoo, Whipsnade claims to be the UK’s biggest zoo. How many times can I say zoo? I haven’t been, so you’ll have to tell me if that’s true. It’s home to lions, tigers, lemurs, sea lions, elephants, and quite a few other species too. If animals are your thing, you’re in for a treat at Whipsnade.
- Woburn Safari Park – they seem to like animals in this part of the world, and this is a place I have been to. It’s your typical British safari park where you drive past slightly cold looking lions and walk past slightly warm looking penguins. Of course it’s much better to see animals in the wild, but when Safari Parks like Woburn are doing so much for conservation and endangered population growth, they’re alright by me. I’ve got a separate post coming soon about my day trip here.
I found Berko to be a lovely little town that I can see myself returning to again and again, if only to tick off the things on this list! I’d thoroughly recommend at least spending a weekend here if you want somewhere that’s easy to get to from London, but feels a million miles away.
Have you ever been to Berkhamsted? Where do you like to go that’s close to home or outside of London?