As the summer looms in from over the horizon, churches and schools, children’s and youth groups, special interest societies and all manner of other organisations start planning ahead. Yes, the (hopefully) warm season is approaching! It’s nearly time for another round of exciting days out and short trips away from home to relax with friends in a convivial atmosphere. Our regular contributor, Eric Thorn was recently asked for helpful suggestions of suitable places to visit in the south of England. In this feature, he takes the opportunity to share his thoughts with our readership in the hope that many will discover new places for memorable adventures.
“Best places in the soft South?” Somebody shouted at me across a crowded room. As a minor delegate attending a short, just one day, conference I genuinely did not realise that my fellow delegate was addressing me, until she wandered over and repeated herself directly to me. “Best places in the soft South?”
Is this a hypothetical question? I asked myself. Or possibly I may have missed something from the just finished introductory session. In any event, I was certain that I had not met this lady before.
Whilst I continued to sip my glass of Scottish mineral water, allegedly filtered through the Highlands for more years than I care to imagine, Felicity explained. She indicated that she was looking for possible venues in the soft South, by which she was referring to the south and south-east of the United Kingdom, suitable for her church and Sunday school, for an enjoyable day out during the summer. As a secondary consideration, she was interested in discovering places for a weekend away that were suitable for an informal church conference.
Felicity’s church is in Bedfordshire. She has been organising days out rather than short conferences for a number of years. Some churches in her area are believed to have days out to more or less the same venues every year, but Felicity is of the opinion that a number of people may find it boring to go to the same place annually. Because of her considerations, she prefers to arrange visits to different places.
Day trips would essentially need to be to places that could be completed by coach travel. Last year they went, for a change, to Bournemouth. It was the furthest day out that Felicity had ever arranged and although this meant leaving early in the morning and returning during the late evening, a good time was reportedly had by all.
But what was all this about the “Soft South” and why had Felicity approached me to enquire about venue suggestions?
Felicity explained: the “Soft South” is what she has always known as a kind of nick name for what she understands is the part of England that boasts the warmest climate. As far as approaching me, well, it seems that Felicity had made it to known during a conversation with one of the conference organisers that she was seeking suggestions of places to visit in the south-east. The organiser in question knew me and my former association with the south coast, so suggested that Felicity might have a chat with me and pick my brains on the topic.
Felicity went on to explain that although many of her outings were to seaside towns, she had often been disappointed with the inclement weather. She was happy to consider inland attractions with covered places in case of rain. For instance, they had sometimes been to properties such as those managed by the National Trust and English Heritage that included café facilities. For some unknown reason, Felicity was interested in the East Grinstead area which, indeed, I was able to advise her on.
I was able to advise Felicity about a choice of venues that I could personally recommend in and around the East Grinstead area that are suitable for all manner of groups to visit; some that are particularly suited for children and some that are suitable for visitors of all ages. Of course, I did that from memory at the time, but on reflection I now have even more suggestions which I am delighted to pass on here.
Time stands still
Many tourist attractions have a historical background or setting. Local museums probably head the list being, as they are, showcases for intriguing relics and activities of ages long since past. If planned carefully, coach parties can easily take in two or even three short visits in one day, though I suggest two is probably enough, with a lunch break in between.
Travelling to the south from the midlands, the West Sussex town of East Grinstead borders the counties of both East Sussex and Surrey. It is easily reached via either the A22 or M23. Recorded in the Doomsday Book 1086, it is certainly a place where time stands still.
Located in Cantelupe Road, the purpose built East Grinstead Museum (www.eastgrinsteadmuseum.org.uk) is a record of things past including the story of pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe. It is a good starting point for those wishing to explore. The town itself borders Felbridge, which has an interesting link with Dick Whittington who served four times as Lord Mayor of London.
East Grinstead was also home to the late Dr Richard Beeching, who was tasked by the Government to close unprofitable railways in the 1960s. The East Grinstead line was one that suffered and a section of it is now the town centre bypass, affectionately named Beeching Way. Fortunately, another section of the old East Grinstead line was preserved to become the now famous Bluebell Railway running from East Grinstead, through Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, all the way to Sheffield Park. Coach parking is available at the Sheffield Park station.
Felicity had mentioned the National Trust and I suspect that she may be a member because her eyes lit up when I informed her that just outside East Grinstead town, in West Hoathly Road, will be found Standen House and Garden filled with Morris textiles and furnishings. Standen was the former home of the Beale family and certainly exudes the idyllic spirit of a 1920s family residence.
The National Trust instituted a major restoration of the beautiful gardens. These, and the adjoining ancient woods, are a joy to explore. The on-site Barn Café serves a menu of tempting seasonal dishes, many using food grown in the adjoining Kitchen Garden.
Tea at Pooh Corner
Fans of Christopher Robin Milne and his childhood toys should drive south from East Grinstead along the A22 towards Eastbourne. Just a few miles from East Grinstead, pass through the village of Forest Row to the villages of Hartfield and Upper Hartfield, both of which nestle in the Ashdown Forest, also known affectionately as the Hundred Acre Wood.
At Hartfield, almost impossible to miss, is Pooh Corner. When the Milne family lived in Hartfield, and Christopher Robin had virtually free reign of the Hundred Acre Wood, the cottage shop was the village candy store where Christopher bought sweets with his pocket money. Not surprisingly, considering the tourist popularity of the area brought about through A. A. Milne’s books, Pooh Corner is now a world famous monument to Christopher Robin, Pooh Bear, and the others! It is still a shop, but today it also houses the amazing Pooh Museum (the Pooh’seum!) and Piglet’s Tea Room which I am led to believe always has Pooh’s Honey Cream Tea on the menu. So visitors really can enjoy tea at Pooh Corner!
Pooh Corner is an enchanting venue. Visitors come from all over the world for a surprising taste of their childhood idol. A short distance from Pooh Corner is Poohsticks Bridge which was rebuilt to its original style in 1979 for the benefit of the thousands of visitors who cannot resist a game or two of Poohsticks.
Those who wish to enjoy a walk through the Hundred Acre Wood may follow one or more of the Pooh Walks, retracing the steps taken by Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore. A map is available from Pooh Corner which you may not need, but makes a nice souvenir.
Whether or not you are a fan of Christopher Robin and his bear, I believe Pooh Corner is a great place to visit for all ages. A delightful venue providing a unique glimpse of the world of Christopher Robin Milne.
Many churches and other organisations have members who are avid gardeners. In my experience, it is sometimes overlooked that garden venues can often prove suitable for a great day out. I have participated in group trips to such places, and have been pleasantly surprised at how much these venues have been appreciated by young and old alike.
Indeed, I recall at least one such coach journey to visit two beautiful gardens in one day, although quite often it is better to visit just one: those with green fingers generally spend a lot of time inspecting the flora and fauna and taking photographs of the views. Following the outing, it came to light that some people had been bitten with the green finger bug; they set to work tidying up their own gardens! And some children managed to persuade their parents/guardians to let them have a small patch to cultivate.
An outing to a garden can also do wonders for school teachers and also those who volunteer to be a member of their church flower ministry team. Teachers, especially primary school teachers, can often note ideas for nature projects and activities for their classes in the school garden. For churches and other organisations, gardens can be a source of bright ideas for unusual floral displays, possibly incorporating a welcome departure from the norm.
Wakehurst is part of the popular Kew Gardens. Not only does it boast beautiful gardens, it also houses the Millennium Seed Bank. Wakehurst is located just outside of East Grinstead, in Ardingly Road, near Turners Hill.
Other gardens local to East Grinstead include the National Trust Sheffield Park and Garden close to the Bluebell Railway Sheffield Park station.
Group Travel Organiser
In this article I have intentionally only mentioned places to visit in the East Grinstead area of the “Soft South” because not only have I passed on information briefly given verbally to Felicity, but also it would be impossible to suggest venues covering the whole of the United Kingdom, bearing in mind that this journal is distributed nationally.
It is my hope, however, that I have been able, however briefly, to provide some new thinking to most, if not all, of our readers. No way would I expect readers who are not within a reasonable travel distance from the south of England to consider the East Grinstead area unless plans are afoot for a residential stay away for a few days! Especially for those outside of the relevant catchment area, I recommend the Group Travel Organiser magazine.
This dedicated journal for group travel professionals is available free of charge or may be read online. It provides the latest comprehensive details of places to visit on day trips and short breaks throughout the UK, so it is suitable for everybody!
Each edition of Group Travel Organiser magazine announces the latest information about places well worth visiting. This includes changes and updates pertinent to well-established venues, alongside announcements about new venues and when they expect to be open.
Useful diary items include dates and information regarding what’s on. Promotional events are also listed. These latter events are usually free, although advance registration is recommended. They include local exhibitions and shows around the country, where exhibitors from a wide range of venues showcase their facilities and have representatives on hand to answer queries.
Enjoy your day out!
Eric A. Thorn