The unexpected beauty spots in London’s Green Belt

In 1914, a certain Aston Webb told the London Society that he had a vision of the capital in 100 years’ time. He envisaged “a beautiful line of woodland practically encircling London”, with “a certain amount of open space, pleasure grounds” protected by “town plans”. He described this vision as a “green belt”.

It turns out Webb was on the right track. In the 1930s, efforts to protect the British countryside from unbridled urban sprawl began, and today there are 14 green belt areas in the country, an area that covers more than a tenth (12.4 per cent) of all British land and is home to more than 30 million people.

There are green belts around Oxford, Birmingham, Newcastle, York and many other urban centres, but the largest and best known is the 486,000 hectare expanse of land that runs from the M25 to the outskirts of London.

The capital’s Green Belt is particularly popular with commuters (Guildford, Sevenoaks and St Albans fall within its boundaries), but it also contains a number of beautiful spots that you might not expect to find near the capital, many of which form the basis for a great weekend away.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Buckinghamshire

Walking trail to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns

The view of Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns – Graham Custance Photography

Ivinghoe Beacon is set in an area of ​​wildflower meadows and ancient woodland. It is the bulbous starting point for The Ridgeway, a national walking trail that runs through the Chiltern Hills.

During your visit, you’ll share the hill with dog walkers and the odd model airplane enthusiast (it’s a great spot for “slope soaring”, thanks to the lift generated by the wind blowing up the hill), but people have been here for many years. Archaeological evidence shows activity dating back to the Bronze Age, including burial mounds, and there’s the faint outline of an Iron Age hillfort on the summit.

Join the 10-mile circular walk and you might just spot one of the area’s rare species of butterfly, or even a red kite or glowworm. But for many, the biggest thrill will be that Ivinghoe Beacon has been used as a film location in a number of Harry Potter films. Perhaps the most famous scene is in The cup of fire when Harry and his friends march to the top of the hill to find an old boot (a viavia) that will take them to the Quidditch World Cup.

How to get there

The nearest train stations are at Tring and Dunstable, where you will need to take a bus or taxi to Ivinghoe Beacon. If you are travelling by car, type “Ivinghoe Beacon Circular Walk Car Park” into Google Maps.

Stay here

Consider the Kings Arms Hotel in Berkhamsted, less than 20 minutes’ drive away. Our expert reviewer describes it as: “A coaching inn revival in the heart of Berkhamsted town centre, which is once again a vibrant hub of food, drink and accommodation. Expect a ‘passionate pubbiness’ vibe, plus a decent restaurant and a set of comfortable rooms.”

The Devil’s Punch Bowl, Surrey

The Devil's Punch BowlThe Devil's Punch Bowl

The Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey resembles a giant natural amphitheatre – Alamy

What a name for a leafy corner of the Home Counties. Legend has it that the devil scooped up great handfuls of earth and threw it at the god Thor, creating the great natural amphitheatre that stands there today (the name of the local village of Thursley means “Thor’s place”). Whether this is true – or whether it is indeed the result of millennia of spring water erosion beneath the sandstone causing the topsoil to collapse – the site offers a breath of fresh air from the capital.

The Devil’s Punch Bowl has become infinitely more pleasant since 2011, when the heavily congested single-lane section of the A3 that ran along the edge of the site was rerouted via the new Hindhead Tunnel, which now rumbles below. The old section of road is now signed as a footpath within the park.

For the full experience, take the 4.5-mile (7.2-kilometer) hike that takes you around the top of the punchbowl (winter, when there are no trees, offers the best views of the dramatic landscape). Be sure to leave time to dive into the hollow, with its shady woodland and babbling brooks.

How to visit

Haslemere Station (with links to London) is three miles away, where you can catch a bus that will drop you off a few hundred yards away. The Devil’s Punch Bowl National Trust car park (GU26 6AB) costs £4, or is free for National Trust members.

Stay here

Try the Merry Harriers Hotel in Hambledon, a 20-minute drive away. Our reviewer says: “It’s all about roaring fires and modern bedrooms, wellies and muddy paws at this 16th-century village inn. Guests can also take a llama trek through the scenic Surrey Hills, safe in the knowledge that a warm return awaits them.”

The Villages of Essex

St Andrew's Church in Greensted-juxta-OngarSt Andrew's Church in Greensted-juxta-Ongar

St Andrew’s Church in Greensted-juxta-Ongar is the oldest wooden church in the world – Ian Goodrick/Alamy

The eastern part of London’s green belt is dotted with delightful villages, not least tiny Greensted-juxta-Ongar, home to the oldest wooden church not only in Britain but in the world. The 51 planks that form the nave of St Andrew’s Church were carved from English oak around 1060, six years before William the Conqueror arrived on British soil.

You wouldn’t guess it, but nearby Ongar was once the terminus of a branch line off the Central Line. This line closed in 1994, but has now been revived as the Epping Ongar Railway (£7.50 for adult tickets).

There are many other pretty villages in the Essex countryside that lie outside the green belt, including Finchingfield (a picture postcard picture, with its village green and duck pond), Thaxted (famous for its Morris Men) and Dedham (set in the National Landscape made famous by John Constable).

How to visit

Connections to London are from Epping, where you can catch the aforementioned train to Ongar. Otherwise you are a stone’s throw from the M25, making it easy to reach the villages by car.

Stay here

There are plenty of pubs with rooms nearby (this Telegraph listing is a good place to start). For something a little different, book a spot at the luxury retreat Colemans Farm , which has a treehouse (The Old Oak; from £250) and a glass-roofed pyramid-shaped room called The Trap (from £155).

Denbies Vineyard, Surrey

Denbies Wine EstateDenbies Wine Estate

Denbies Wine Estate is one of the largest vineyards in the country – Chris Harris/Alamy

If you’ve never visited a British vineyard, Denbies should be high on your list. Set against the backdrop of the North Downs, this is one of the largest vineyards in the country, with seven miles of public footpaths to explore across 650 acres. Ask in the gift shop and they can provide you with a map for the little ones.

Denbies is also the location of the Bacchus Wine Half Marathon & 10k event (inspired by the famous Marathon du Médoc in Bordeaux) which takes place every September. Runners, many in costume, stop regularly to sample English wines along the way. A treat whether you take part or watch.

How to visit

Denbies is a pleasant 15 minute walk from both Dorking and Box Hill and Westhumble stations, both of which offer easy access to London. If you are driving, leave the M25 at junction 9 and follow the A24 south towards Dorking.

Stay here

Denbies has its own Vineyard Hotel, with 17 en suite bedrooms and a new restaurant and bar area. Or dine out in Beaverbrook, just around the corner, for a tantalising glimpse into British high society, with its original artwork and landscaped gardens.

Hitchin Lavender Fields, Hertfordshire

Hitchen Lavender FieldsHitchen Lavender Fields

Hitchen Lavender Fields has become incredibly popular over the past decade since it first hit Instagram – Wild Vanilla/Moment RF

No, that’s not a picture of Provence. It’s the Hitchin Lavender Fields, 11 miles from Luton Airport.

The farm has been in the Hunter family for five generations and is primarily devoted to growing lavender for oil, but its popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade thanks to the rise of social media photo-sharing apps such as Instagram. Entry costs £7, with a further £4 to fill a lavender bag (on a ‘bring your own scissors’ basis).

“It used to be that locals would come along for a walk and a little bunch of flowers to take home – maybe some older people. But now it’s people from all over the world and all ages. It’s got a real mass appeal,” said farm owner Tim Hunter. The Telegraph from 2019.

How to visit

Direct trains from London to Hitchin take just over half an hour. Otherwise join the A1 and follow signs to Ickleford.

Stay here

Look no further than The Fox at Willian, set in a picturesque village. Our reviewer writes: “The Fox does pretty much everything a local country pub should do well, serving excellent food but still being an inviting place to stop for a pint on the village green. In short, it’s a friendly place to stay in the countryside that’s within easy reach of London – and it’s dog-friendly too.”

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