With chocolate box-pretty villages and rolling hills, Surrey – an hour or less by train or car from London – makes for a brilliant, countryside-filled staycation. It is, most people are surprised to learn, England’s most wooded county, home to ancient heathland, towering forests and world-class gardens. As well as being a hiker’s paradise – the start point for the famed 153-mile, multi-day North Downs Way National Trail begins in Farnham and runs along the chalky ridge of the North Downs, passing through the yew-filled woodland and meadows of the Surrey Hills AONB, before tracking into Kent – Surrey also boasts theme parks, vineyards, first-class restaurants and charming places to stay too. Here are my top travel picks for a Surrey stay.
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Where to walk
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Walkers are spoilt for choice. For astonishing views of the Weald, head to Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl and do the 4.5 mile walk around the rim of the ‘bowl’ – a depression said to have been created when the Devil scooped a handful of earth from the ground during a fight with Thor, the God of Thunder.
The Mole Gap Trail is a gorgeous six-mile jaunt, which starts at Leatherhead station, meanders alongside the River Mole and through picturesque countryside before ending up at Denbies vineyard for post-ramble glasses of sparkling Whitedowns Cuvee.
Try nearby Box Hill for breathtaking views of the South Downs, and discover ancient box tree woodland and a stepping stone trail.
All Scots pine and silver birch woodland, and heathland where bog asphodel flourishes, Woking’s 916-acre Horsell Common makes for a walk with an interesting literary connection – its central sandpit provided the setting for the Martian landing in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Waverley Abbey near Farnham combines a riverside stroll with the 13th-century ruins of Britain’s first Cistercian monastery.
Where to cycle
Experienced cyclists can follow in the wheel-tracks of Bradley Wiggins on the 16km Box Hill Olympic route – or book in with Rocks & Road, headed up by British Cycling-accredited coach Andrew Sudworth for a guided mountain bike ride. He offers everything from pootles through quaint Holmbury St Mary to more technical trips to Pitch Hill, a dramatic sandstone spur in Peaslake.
Gardens to visit
The Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship garden RHS Wisley is both a centre for plant research and 240 acres of sheer joy for garden enthusiasts. Highlights include the camellia and rhododendron-filled Battleston Hill, a sprawling pinetum and the exotic garden, where banana and palm trees rub up against lilies and a tinkling pineapple water feature. In 2021, a new centre for Horticultural Science and Learning and three ‘living laboratory’ gardens will open.
Winkworth Arboretum near Godalming is home to over 1,000 tree varieties, including Japanese maples, larches and redwoods, and is at its finest during autumn when the foliage turns copper, but is also known for its springtime bluebells.
The grounds at Polesdon Lacey (the 19th-century stately home is shut for now) in Great Bookham are terribly elegant; there’s the yew tree-shaded Nun’s Walk, the manicured greens of the Long Walk and a rose garden.
Over in Banstead, head to Mayfield Lavender (June-August) to stroll along its fragrant violet blooming walkways.
Timed entry ticket slots must be booked for RHS Wisley, Winkworth Arboretum and Polesdon Lacey, and Mayfield Lavender offers limited entry on a first-come first-served basis.
Where to stay
For Victorian grandeur with a modern twist, book Beaverbrook Hotel and Spa in Leatherhead. The 19th-century mansion has high-glamour rooms, a Japanese restaurant and – for gimlets and mint-mango mocktails – Sir Frank’s Bar. Sleeping-wise there are also contemporary countryside-chic cottages in the Coach House, or whimsical rooms at the Garden House. The latter also houses a restaurant where plates of pillowy burrata with beetroot are served, followed by house-poached rhubarb with cream. Beaverbrook’s 470-acre grounds are another draw, with wildflower meadows, formal gardens, a shell grotto, hidden-in-the-woods tree house and excellent spa. From £385, room-only.
Nowhere beats the Merry Harriers in Hambledon for quirk. A popular-with-the-locals traditional 16th-century coaching inn – there’s still a Saturday meat raffle – it has comfortable guest rooms and five kooky Shepherds Huts to stay in. These are a glamper’s dream, decked out with log burner, rainbow-hued alpaca throws, floral-print blinds and outdoor fire pit. In your down time, feast on burgers and Brit fare in the pub garden, hike to Hydon’s Ball or pop to the nearby Village Spirit Collective gin distillery. The best activity is hanging out with your fellow residents – a herd of spirited llamas who can be taken on guided treks through the countryside. Rooms from £125, Shepherd’s Huts from £195, B&B.
Other strong accommodation options include Dorking’s affordable White Horse Hotel (from £104, B&B), and spa hotel Pennyhill Park in Bagshot (from £405, B&B).
Where to eat and drink
After a food safari? Albury village has a cluster of artisan producers scattered around Silent Pool – a small spring-fed lake with glass-clear waters. Head to the family-run Albury Organic Vineyard for a through-the-vines tour and biodynamic wine tasting. The Surrey Hills have a similar geology to the Champagne region, meaning the sparkling wines and rosés produced here are sensational. Stop in at Mandira’s Kitchen for mango lassis and samosas, then pick up a wedge of delicious Norbury Blue at the Norbury Park Farm Cheese Co. shop. There’s also Silent Pool Distillers, famed for their citrusy gin (and its distinctive teal and gold bottle), and tours here examine Silent Pool’s eerie history and include a tasting session.
At Michelin-starred Sorrel in Dorking, helmed by Steve Drake, expect sophisticated dishes such as split pea, quail’s egg and BBQ hen of the woods on the tasting menu, while at the also Michelin-starred Clock House in Ripley, seasonal fare with a focus on British Isles ingredients takes centre stage. Ticking the box for local brews (Shere Drop ale), Sunday roasts and a cosy atmosphere – hello wooden beamed ceiling and candle lit nooks – is West Clandon’s Onslow Arms.
For culture and family thrills
Adrenaline rushes come thick and fast at Surrey’s duo of ride-packed theme parks, Chertsey’s Thorpe Park, and Chessington World of Adventures. Thorpe Park’s highlights include the 10-loop Colossus and super-soaker Tidal Wave log flume, while Chessington has the 520m-long Dragon’s Fury and a Gruffalo-themed lazy river.
Brooklands Museum in Weybridge – the site of the world’s first race track and the Brooklands Aerodrome – offers a deep-dive into the area’s motoring and aviation history. There are interactive exhibits, vintage cars, and aircraft – including Concorde – on display.
Art buffs will enjoy Woking’s The Lightbox; previous exhibitions include David Hockney and Turner in Surrey, and its galleries house a changing roster of inspiring works.
For more information and inspiration on what to see and do head to Visit Surrey.