Visiting England’s ports. Part 2: Southern England.
Britain has more than 19,000 miles of eclectic coastline; coastline that’s home to cliffs and castles, wildlife and beaches, harbours and cities. Sail into England’s key cruise ports and watch as ancient ruins, castles and quaint fishing villages loom into view.
This guide shows how visitors to England can make the most of their shore leave when the ships docks at a variety of destinations. As for ports in Northern England, click here.
Visiting Dover, south-east England.
The White Cliffs of Dover are one of the world’s most famous landmarks and unmissable as you cruise into port. A ten-minute cab journey from here will take you to the Visitor Centre, where you can enjoy a walk along a well-maintained and wheelchair0friendly footpath in the company of butterflies, birds and wildflowers (nationaltrust.org.uk).
There is plenty to see along the way; two ship wrecks, the Fan Bay Deep Shelter, where you can take a hard hat torch-lit tour of the Second World War tunnels, the Victorian South Foreland Lighthouse and Mrs Knott’s tea shop, a great place to relax over cream tea, home-made cake and stunning Channel views.
Dover Castle is the largest in England, the mighty medieval fortress towering over the town and harbour. A ten-minute journey by car from the cruise terminal, you will find centuries of history and secret wartime tunnels. Climb the Great Tower, experience living conditions in the World War Two underground hospital and burrow deep into the winding medieval tunnels built during the Siege of 1216 (englishheritage.org.uk).
With more time to spare, you can combine a visit to Dover Castle and Walmer Castle. Just 15 minutes by car north east of Dover, this Tudor coastal fortress built by King Henry VIII is the place to explore its cannons and battlements and lose yourself in the eight acres of manicured gardens (englishheritage.org.uk).
Leeds Castle has been described as ‘the loveliest castle in the world’. Situated on an island surround by a moat, the 900-year-old castle and 500 acres of gardens have been home to 1,000 years of royalty. Watch the free falconry displays, take a relaxing boat trip on the river and enjoy one of the many activities that take place there. Leeds Castle is 40 minutes by car north-west of Dover (leedscastle.com).
Pilgrims have made their way to Canterbury Cathedral (597AD), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since the Middle Ages, and it’s a delight to explore today.
Visit the Norman crypts and the tombs of King Henry IV and Edward The Black Prince, the site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170 and enjoy beautiful stained glass windows, peaceful cloisters and a manuscript-filled archive, including some from the 8th century. There are three guided tours every day except Sundays and audio tours in seven languages.
With longer to spend in the area, you can explore more of Canterbury than just the cathedral. Stroll around the city’s cobbled streets, timber-framed houses and ancient walls, built by the Romans. Westgate Towers, the oldest surviving medieval Gateway, offers great views of the city.
To the south is St Augustine’s Abbey, England’s first seat of learning. Take a punting tour on the River Stour or head to the 500-year-old Old Buttermarket inn for a pint of Kentish ale. Canterbury is 30 minutes by car or train from Dover Priory station.
Enchanting Rye may be small in size but its boasts some big names, including novelist Henry James and artists Paul Nash and John Ryan. An hour south of Dover by car, this arty town is one of the best preserved medieval towns in England. Explore the pretty, cobbled Mermaid Street, once the haunt of famous smugglers, the Norman church of St Mary’s, Camber Castle, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, Rye Museum and Lamb House, once the home of Henry James.
Then 30 minutes south-west by car from Rye, you come to Hastings, famous for its Norman fortress ruins and dungeon, and six miles further north, Battle. The partially ruined Benedictine abbey here is believed to be on the site of the Battle of Hastings, where William of Normandy defeated King Harold of England’s army (visit1066country.com and visitkent.co.uk).
Visiting Southampton, south England.
Spending three hours in the city of Southampton, on the south coast of England, will give you the opportunity to explore the marked walking trail around its picturesque old town, discover a Tudor House and garden, and enjoy a visit to the Solent Sky Museum. Its spitfire and Sandringham Short Flying boat are a ten-minute walk from West Quays, where cruise liners dock.
If you’re keen to go a little further afield, take the 17-minute train ride from Southampton Central station to Winchester, whose magnificent Gothic Cathedral lies at the heart of this historic city. At 557 feet, it is the longest cathedral in Europe. The cathedral you see today was founded in 1079 but its roots go back to the seventh century when England’s pagan monarchy first became Christians (winchester-cathedral.org.uk). Admire the ornately carved choir stalls, 12th-century paintings, medieval carvings, manuscripts from the Middle Ages, and the grave of famous author Jane Austen. The remains of William II, son of William the Conqueror, and many Saxon kings are buried here.
Afterwards, take a stroll along the pretty bank of the River Itchen to The Hospital of St Cross, a lovely collection of a Grade 1-listed buildings dating from 1132 and home to 25 Brothers; or explore the boutique-filled narrow paved streets (visitwinchester.co.uk).
With longer to spend in the area, you have the opportunity to explore some of England’s ancient heritage. Just under an hour east by road from Southampton, Stonehenge’s colossal 24-feet high stones are as fascinating today as they were 5,000 years ago. Pick up an audio guide from the visitor centre, learn about the stones’ religious origins and immerse yourself in a 360degree virtual experience at the prehistoric site’s visitor centre (englishheritage.org.uk).
Then drive to Salisbury, 20 minutes by car, to visit the 13th-century Gothic cathedral. Climb the 404-feet spire for great views and admire the original Magna Carta (1215 AD) in the 13th century Chapter House.
Windsor Castle, Her Majesty the Queen’s weekend residence built by William the Conqueror, is certainly worth the one-and-a-half-hour car journey. Visit the 15th-century St George’s Chapel, the elaborate State Apartments with their ornate ceilings, panelled walls and antique furniture and the ceremonial rooms, where visiting Heads of State are entertained.
Marking the Queen’s 90th birthday this year, the castle will host Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe (September 2016 – January 2017), one of three exhibitions of more than 150 of her outfits at Her Majesty’s official residences. Windsor Castle will contrast the Queen's magnificent evening gowns with the fancy dress costumes she wore for wartime family pantomimes (royalcollection.org.uk).
Feeling hungry? Pop over the road to the Duchess of Cambridge pub for a steak and McMullen Ale pie and pint of Duchess Ale from the Whole Hop Brewery. Then stroll around the town’s charming cobbled streets filled with quaint shops before heading back to port.
You can explore Southampton and then jump on a train to London; many of London’s historic attractions are situated within a short walk of Waterloo railway station, which is only 90 minutes by train from Southampton Central, and the South Bank of the River Thames.
Getting there: Southampton’s Ocean Terminal is a ten-minute taxi ride from Southampton Central station. Southampton from London: 90 minutes by train, 80 mi / 130 km by car.
Visiting Plymouth, Devon, south-west England.
Explore Plymouth’s heritage with a walk along the Barbican waterfront. Pass by Elizabethan buildings, inns, cobbled streets and the Mayflower Steps, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in 1620, before continuing on to Plymouth Hoe, with its fascinating war memorials, Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse and fabulous views over the Sound. Tuck into locally-caught fish and chips at Captain Jaspers or a Devon cream tea of warm scones and rich clotted cream (visitplymouth.co.uk).
A one-hour scenic and naval harbour cruise will take you around the Sound (a natural harbour), the naval dockyard with its warships and nuclear submarines, Plymouth Hoe, and Drakes Island (tamarcruising.com).
There are two stately homes within a short distance of Plymouth. Mount Edgcumbe House and Country Park, the former home of the Earls of Mount Edgcumbe, is set in beautiful Grade 1 Cornish Gardens and 865 acres of tranquil parkland. Ferries to the house operate from the Crymyll Quay and Admirals Hard, Storehouse, and take eight minutes (mountedgcumbe.gov.uk).
On the edge of Dartmoor National Park, ten miles north of Plymouth city centre, is Buckland Abbey, a 700-year-old gem (nationaltrust.org.uk). The last of the Cistercian monasteries to be built in medieval England and Wales, it was later sold to Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and remained in his family for around 400 years. Walk in the monks’ footsteps through the Nave Gallery, Tudor chamber and Treasurers gallery, where Drake’s drum is said to beat when England is in danger.
South Devon has some of the England's prettiest villages, so it’s worth getting out into this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Newton Ferrers and its neighbour, Noss Mayo, on the Yealm river, are 20 minutes south-east of the city by car (visitsouthdevon.co.uk).
Surrounded by ancient woodland and wildlife, Newton Ferrers was recorded in the Doomsday book and boasts attractive thatched cottages and the cosy Dolphin Inn, complete with log fire and excellent pub grub including seafood pie, fish and chips and venison. Walk off the meal along the South West Coastal Path and sheltered Yealm estuary, its four-mile trail looping around the headland from Noss Mayo.
For Michelin-starred food, book a table at the Treby Arms in Sparkwell, ten miles east of Plymouth. TV’s MasterChef winner, Anton Piotrowski, serves up masterful creations such as dill-crusted duck hearts and roast cocoa venison.
Getting there: Plymouth cruise terminal is a 20-minute walk/ten-minute taxi journey from the town centre. Plymouth from London: 3h30 by train, 240 mi / 385 km by car.
Visiting Falmouth, Cornwall, south-west England
Falmouth’s picturesque Fal Estuary is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a delight for both boat and bird lovers. Ride the waves on an exciting Orca sea safari and, if you are lucky, you will spot dolphins, seals, whales and basking sharks. Discover 450 years of history at Pendents Castle, one of King Henry VIII’s coastal fortresses, before taking the ferry over to St Mawes, where you can enjoy a tour of its sister castle (falriver.co.uk and visitfalmouth.com).
Cornwall’s maritime heritage is portrayed through the stories of local people and a collection of 120 small and unusual boats at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall on Falmouth’s Discovery Quay (nnmc.co.uk). Then head to picturesque St Michael’s Mount, a 45-minute drive by car. The 12th-century castle complete with Great Hall and Library and 14th-century Benedictine priory is only accessible at low tide or by boat so you will need to time your crossings carefully (stmichaelsmount.co.uk).
The south coast of Cornwall is brimming with picturesque villages and quaint harbours. Two of the prettiest are Fowey and Polperro. Fowey (pronounced Foy) has a charming harbour and winding streets of lovely shops and traditional pubs, an hour’s drive northeast of Falmouth.
Fifteen minutes further north, you come to Polperro, once a haven for maritime smugglers and now a fishing village with narrow, winding streets, craft shops, cafés and a thriving arts scene. Pop into a bakery or pub and try a traditional Cornish pasty – these meat and potato pastry-covered pies are delicious served piping hot.
For rugged countryside, dramatic cliffs and wonderful walks along the South West Coastal Path, head to the Lizard Peninsula, 50 minutes south of Falmouth by car. These spectacular cliffs in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are home to several of Britain’s most rare plants. The coastal path from Church Cove to Cadgwith is a pleasant walk with lovely views (southwestcoastpath.org.uk).
This gives you time to head to the westernmost point in England, Land’s End – 36 miles south west of Falmouth – where you can take the perfect Instagrammable shot by the famous signpost that shows how far it is to New York and other destinations from Land’s End. Admire stunning views of the Cornish coastline before shopping for souvenirs at the West Country Shopping Village’s quirky shops.
Picture-postcard St Ives is a must-see on any itinerary. Once a fishing village that has attracted artists since the 19th century, it’s now home to the Tate St Ives, a gallery dedicated to contemporary art. Tour the studios and crafts shops for a locally-made souvenir and explore the winding cobbled streets (visitstives.org.uk).
Getting there: It’s a ten-minute walk from the Port of Falmouth to the town centre, or you can take the complimentary shuttle bus.Falmouth from Plymouth: 2h by train, 66 mi / 107 km by car.
Visiting Bristol, south-west England.
It takes an hour to complete the Bristol Harbour Walk, longer if you stop off at attractions along the way. They include the M Shed free history museum of the city’s trading past, the world’s first ocean liner – Brunel’s SS Great Britain – and the Arnolfini centre of contemporary arts.
Or you can always linger over a coffee at one of the lively waterfront cafés and bars. A bus tour will take you to the dramatic Avon Gorge, Clifton Suspension Bridge and Clifton Village, packed with elegant independent shops. It takes around 90 minutes, longer if you hop on and off (visitbristol.co.uk, ssgreatbritain.org, arnolfini.org.uk, and bristolmuseums.org.uk)
Head to Bristol Temple Meads station and, after a 12minute journey, you’ll arrive in the city of Bath. It’s renowned for its elegant 18th-century Georgian architecture and hot springs, and a visit to the Roman Baths is a must. Admire the restored bathing facilities and Roman and Celtic objects found locally (romanbaths.co.uk).
Dine at the 18th-century Pump Room, or soak in Britain’s only naturally warm mineral waters and open-air rooftop pool of the Thermae Bath Spa (thermaebathspa.com) before admiring the magnificent Royal Crescent and Circus, with their sweeping crescents of Grade 1-listed townhouses.
Enjoy a cream tea at the luxurious Royal Crescent Hotel and visit the Jane Austen Centre to discover the effect the city had on her writing, before taking a stroll around the narrow alleyways of the city centre and browse quaint shops for souvenirs (visitbath.co.uk).
Experience mysterious caves and spectacular cathedrals near Bristol. Plunge the depths of Wookey Hole, one of Britain’s most impressive cave systems near Wells, Somerset (less than an hour’s drive from Bristol). Listen to Christian and pagan tales and legends during a tour of the Witch’s Kitchen and Witch’s Parlour, two spectacular limestone caves (wookey.co.uk).
Dine out at one of the bistros in the medieval city of Wells, three miles from Wookey Hole, before visiting the moated Bishop’s Palace and the 12th-century Cathedral with its impressive Chapter House, Cloisters, Scissor Arches and medieval 24-hour clock figures that ring a bell every 15 minutes (wellssomerset.com).
Head back to Bristol via Cheddar Gorge, whose audio guide reveals how the stalactite caves were formed. An open-top bus tour explores the dramatic 450-feet cliffs and gorge (cheddargorge.co.uk).
Getting there: Bristol Cruise Terminal is a half -hour taxi ride to the city centre and Bristol Temple Meads train station. Bristol from London: 2h by train, 120 mi / 190 km by car.
Read also the guide to Britain's Islands.
Source: Adapted from Visit Britain's guide "Britain’s waterways. Cruise ports, canals, lakes and islands", 2016.