Surely the best thing that a tourist can expect from a guide to any area is an insight into how locals perceive the place in question. It is, after all, easy to get a list of all those businesses running attractions that try to relieve you of your money, just google any town and you will be bombarded with stuff. As for recommendations for hotels, restaurants, shopping and nightlife, these are best got from other visitors, through forums or review sites.
So where does this leave this guide? As someone that was born in Southeast England at the point where three counties converge, and who has made his home in a fourth, it leaves me barely able to see the wood from the trees, but well placed to scribble a highly subjective – Tourist Guide to Southeast England.
What defines southeast England?
First you must understand that London is not Southeast England. Geographically it may well appear to be in the south east, but in truth London is a special case, due to a mutual misapprehension that goes something like this: Londoners believe that London IS England, Many of those who live to the southeast of it, see London as a bit of a state all by itself. The metropolis is a cultural conglomeration of the entire country, it has its own metropolitan culture, that despite the views of Londoners is not universal to the southeast.
London is its own beast, deserving at least one node all to itself.
Those Londoners that have relocated southwards tend to hang on to the ‘m’haybe it because I’m a Lundun-ah’ viewpoint for a while, this has lead to a degree of assimilation in many areas, it is still possible to detect local differences, especially where the London habit of not talking to people that you don’t already know, hasn’t yet caught on.
Removing London leaves us a chunk of geography about 120 miles wide and 50 miles high, the geographical area bounded by the River Thames to the north (it is true that even most south Londoners view the other side of the Thames as ‘The North’), the sea (not the ocean) to the east and the south, and to the west the River Itchen (or thereabouts) in Hampshire.
This piece of land has a peculiar geological feature, a huge gouge that runs east to west across it, as though someone has dragged a huge shovel across the landscape. The floor of this gouge is the flat fertile lowland called the Weald, with a slight sandstone ridge in the centre, called the High Weald. To the north and south of this wide scoop are two escarpments of chalk, the North and South Downs, which mirror each other as the rim of the Weald. There is some mystery still regarding how this geological form came about, too far south for glacial activity and well away from any tectonic movement. Where these hilly features are cut across by the sea to the east; the north chalk escarpment reveals itself as the white cliffs of Dover, the southerly chalk escarpment becomes the white cliffs of the seven sisters near Newhaven, the low weald forming the levels and marshes around Romney, while the sandstone ridge forms the darker cliffs at Hastings and Rye.
Historically the Weald with its dense forests was a barrier to travel, leaving the south of the area distinct from the north, the invention of the railway cut through this problem, but only in a north south direction toward London, today it is still often quicker, even by car, to get 40 miles along the south coast by travelling via London 100 miles. East west travel in the southeast of England that isn’t towards London is a slow business.
Not so obvious observations
The whole region is temperate enough, gaining heat from the Gulf Stream; it combines the highest average daytime temperatures found in the British Isles with the highest sunshine averages on the British mainland. The south coastal strip below the South Downs has consistently more sunshine than inland. Very mild winters that seldom see snow for more than a day or two, and Between 25-30 inches (635-760mm) of rain fall per year result in the region being particularly rich and diverse in plant life unusual at similar latitudes or on the continental mainland.
One thing that often surprises visitors, especially those from France and many other European countries, is the amount of wildlife that is evident. Because Southern England has virtually no hunting activity, especially private individuals hunting with guns for the pot, birds and animals that would have the average Frenchman reaching for his gun, run, swim or fly around confident that they won’t be shot at. Although farmers do their best to minimise what they see as pest species, it is not unusual to see a couple of hundred rabbits, a pond full of ducks or the occasional deer even in fairly inhabited areas, in many towns it now seems that most streets have resident foxes.
If you are thinking of visiting from the USA, it might be welcome news that the southeast, like much of Britain has very few things that sting or bite, at least not in a life threatening way. There is no poison ivy of any description; though we do have stinging nettles that compared are a minor temporary discomfort. There are no spiders that bite, no fire ants and only one venomous species of snake that is very rare. There are no chiggers whatsoever, and mosquitoes are not seen in great numbers (if at all, by the coast), the native gnat is more common and is fairly innocuous and easily ignored. Of course we have wasps, and various types of bee that all sting when threatened, and you may be unlucky enough to meet a horse fly, which fly silently and bite raising a bump, I have only ever seen two of these in the region, around horses. So as a rule it is fine to sit on the bare earth, in long grass or to go walking through undergrowth without taking any precautions, other than learning what stinging nettles look like, and the natural remedy for them the Dock Leaf, which always grows alongside.
Like the rest of England, the south east is divided up into administrative Counties that are based on ancient land divisions, though this may seem irrelevant to a visitor, it is worth considering because the separate counties retain distinct variations, almost cultural differences, that make them unique. In some cases it is still possible to tell that you have crossed a county boundary by a change in building style, or land use, even though the accents that would have been spoken as recently as the 1930’s have largely disappeared. Our area contains four counties; Kent to the East, Hampshire to the West, and sandwiched between them the northerly Surrey and southerly Sussex, the borders all tracing a large irregular H across the region.
The Southeast is fairly densely populated, with short distances between towns and no real areas of wilderness, though there are many parks and forests. Despite being fairly crowded, southeast England has only six cities, and they are not distributed evenly across the region, Surrey has none, but then it is the smallest county and it is in close proximity to London, so perhaps it doesn’t need one. Sussex has two cities, one of the oldest, Chichester (Roman), and Brighton one of the newest (2000). Hampshire has three cities, two relatively recent, Southampton (1964), and Portsmouth (1926), that are so close together that they meet on opposite banks of the river Hamble, plus the ancient City of Winchester which was the capital of England until the Norman invasion. Kent has Canterbury, a walled cathedral city that should be seen to understand what most Brits tend to mean when they use the word city.
Generally the inhabitants of southeast England are friendly, helpful and chatty, despite the popularly held view in the UK to the contrary which confuses the southeast with London. Unlike many countries where the south represents a slower, more relaxed or rural way of life, the southeast of England is generally perceived to be the opposite, and in some cases it may be true. As many of the towns in the southeast are not particularly large, it is rare that there is any noticeable segregation between ethnicities or levels of income, except in the historical sense where the grander buildings were always built to the westward side of town to be upwind in summer of the smelly trades confined to the eastward downwind side of town.
It is tempting to stretch this node into a full guide to the counties in the southeast, but it would take too long and take up too much space, so I will write them up separately, if this guide gets a good reception.
For further detail on each individual county see the following nodes
Things to do and places to go in southeast England
It is easy to assume that a tourist wants to see the tourist attractions of the region that they are visiting, after all a whole industry is devoted to packaging castles, gardens, literary tours, walks, themeparks and ‘experiences’ for the typical tourist, and while these can be good fun, and there are hundreds in the region, I cant help but wonder why peoples interests seem to get suddenly enamoured by buildings and landscapes when they travel. Personally I prefer to see the differences between where I come from and the place I’m visiting, so what follows is a list in no particular order of places that I think may strike you as different to where you live. Obviously the further away you are the more different they are likely to be.
Dungeness on the south coast in Kent near the Sussex border is a truly extraordinary place that is guaranteed to be different to where you live, even if you live nearby. It isn’t exactly a town, so much as a sparse settlement of dwellings most made from early railway carriages clinging to one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world, a vast bank of it that juts out into the sea (also a National Nature Reserve and a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’, SSSI). No less than three lighthouses, two nuclear power stations and a weird miniature steam railway accompany the dwellings. There are two pubs, a small cafe-cum-waiting-room for the trains and… well nothingness. It is bleak, treeless, often windy and extraordinarily beautiful. If that wasn’t enough the whole area has a peculiar sculptural quality that seems to encourage people to construct things, strange things, huge things and small things. Collected plastic shoes from the tide arranged on twisted driftwood branches, Strange machines, flotsam and jetsam gardens, and fantastic structures all conspire to make everywhere that you look the most fascinating photo that you ever saw. In an odd reversal, you can climb the lighthouse and place your head where the lamp would be, focusing all the ambient light from the sea onto your skull, an experience bordering on the revelatory. Dungeness is a vision of how a functional post apocalyptic settlement could also be truly inspiring.
So where should you go if you just want to get a feeling for what it is really like to live in southeast England, well it depends what you want. For an un-edited 24 hour everyday suburban experience try Croydon, on the Surrey London border, it will provide you with masses of people, all vaguely fearful of each other, going about their daily and nightly business. This town doesn’t expect tourists at all, you will get the truth, but it may not be pleasant, and may be mildly risky. For a less intense and far safer version you could visit Crawley or Redhill, both in Surrey, for similar effect.
If you want to see the liberal side of southeast England, you can do no better than to stay for a while in Brighton. While most seaside resorts are a good bet if you want to see how Brits behave when they relax on holiday, Brighton is different, it has reached a critical mass, where the holiday makers are easily outnumbered by those who have chosen to live there for the lifestyle it allows, and Brighton allows more or less anything. For a start Brighton is a left wing oasis in a right leaning region, it is extremely tolerant, having a history of being a radical, non-conformist town and a location for dirty weekends. While Brighton is no longer seedy, it has retained a permissiveness that is rare amongst UK cities. People here dress differently to the rest of the country, they appear not to be self conscious, in fact seeing someone in a business suit is more rare than seeing someone naked, well there are two nudist beaches and a naked cycle ride. Brighton has the UK’s largest creative economy by population, and is a good place to go to spot movie stars and rock stars. The City is a 24-hour city, with imaginative restaurants, nightclubs, cafes and bars. Being only a couple of miles wide it can all be done on foot, you will not find Brighton dull, whatever you enjoy.
Should you wish to visit southeast England as it existed 30 years ago, it is still possible, just make your way to Portsmouth and get on the small ferry to The Isle of Wight. US visitors who feel homesick might also like to visit America while they are here.
I would suggest that you make the effort during your visit to make at least one fairly long train journey, preferably in a small stopping train, this will be interesting in several ways, firstly you will get a thorough understanding of the people of the region in all their diversity, and probably end up talking to many of them (again for US visitors the train system is used by all walks of life, all the time). Secondly you will get to see the landscape and more importantly, the intimate hidden parts of the towns that you pass through, even down to seeing inside quite a lot of houses and back-yards, as the train tracks tend to be very close to dwellings.
If, while you are here, you want to get some gifts for your loved ones back home, avoid the larger shops, after all they sell exactly the same thing as your loved ones can buy for themselves back home, globalisation has more or less stuffed any regional variance here, and the town planners have done the rest. The best fun that can be had locating those quirky little keepsakes is to go to a ‘boot fair’, most towns will hold at least one boot fair per weekend, usually in a school playing field, railway station or pub car park, or just in a farmers field. At a boot fair you can pick through the unwanted belongings of a broad range of people, and buy the things you like, usually for very little money. The goods on offer usually range from unwanted ornaments and old toys; right through to vintage jewellery and antiques, often the sale of new items is prohibited. It is still possible to buy interesting things that are unique to the region at boot fairs, and with any luck there will be a story attached.
If you decide to visit, I hope you have a good time, and while you are here why not visit NorthWest England, the West Country, Wales, Scotland, the Midlands, northeast England, or for that matter France, it is closer than London after all.