See for yourself the spires and courtyards of Oxford’s ancient residential colleges. University college (where Bill Clinton studied), Balliol and Merton are the oldest colleges, established in the 1200s. Also visit Christ Church, which is the largest and grandest of the colleges and the location of many Harry Potter scenes. Save time to visit the Ashmolean museum, the oldest museum in Britain. And stop by the Botanic Garden, which dates back to 1621 and houses 7,000 plant specimens. Oxford Express and Oxford Tube are inexpensive bus services that make the 50-mile trip from London to Oxford every 15-30 minutes from Victoria Coach Station, Marble Arch or Baker Street (takes about 90 minutes, depending on traffic). Oxford is about 1 hour by train from Paddington Station.
A highlight of a visit to Cambridge is a punt down the Cam between the immaculate lawns of Cambridge's famous old colleges. Punting is hard work, so best hire someone to do it for you. (Enterprising students line the banks of the river on sunny days, some will even bring a picnic and gramophone so you slip back in time as you drift downstream.) Ornate medieval architecture is everywhere, notably in King's College Chapel with its fan-vaulted ceiling (the largest in the world) and intricate stained-glass windows. You’ll find a portrait of John Harvard in the chapel of Emmanuel College -- he studied there before going to the US in the 1630s to found Harvard University. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, you can see artifacts from ancient Egypt and paintings by Picasso and Titian. Cambridge is about 60 miles north of London, an hour or so by train from King's Cross.
A visit to the town of Windsor, 25 miles west of London, with its sprawling castle and royal residence, gives you a taste of old England. The 800-year-old medieval castle, with sumptuous state apartments and a grand reception hall, is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and displays a fascinating array of architectural styles, including Georgian, Victorian and Gothic. The exclusive Eton College lies across the river, where both Prince William and Prince Harry received their schooling. You can tour the facilities late March through early October. A little less grand, and certainly less pompous (and great for younger children) is Legoland Windsor, 2 miles from the castle. Take the half-hour train journey from Paddington Station (one hour from Waterloo).
Famous for its natural hot springs, mineral baths and grand Georgian terraces, Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage city and arguably one of the prettiest in England. The old Roman baths are the main attraction. But although the magnificent temple and bathing complex still flows with natural hot water, you’ll have to visit the modern Thermae Bath Spa to take a plunge into the mineral-rich water. This is the only place in Britain where you can bathe in a hot spring, and people have been doing so for 2,000 years. Also take time to encounter Bath’s famous former resident, in the Jane Austen Centre, or by taking a Jane Austen-themed walk through the city. Bath is 90 minutes by train from Paddington Station.
Playfully called London-on-Sea, Brighton attracts a fun-loving crowd. Eat fish and chips out of a newspaper while you sit on the pebble beach, or explore the cobble-stoned maze called The Lanes, which is filled with antiques shops, vintage clothes shops and quirky boutiques. The Royal Pavilion is a must-see of fantasy architecture and interior design. Inside this early 19th-century royal pleasure palace, you’ll see exquisite French, English and Chinese furniture and objects, walls adorned with gilded dragons, carved palm trees and imitation bamboo staircases. Take advantage of the late train back to London and stay to sample the nightlife in the bars along the seafront, many of which are gay-friendly. Brighton is 50 minutes by train from Victoria Station.
Other places you could explore in a day include Canterbury, Hastings and Colchester -- you could even go to Paris, it's only 2 1/2 hours away on Eurostar from St Pancras International station.
Antonia Windsor is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in travel. Her work appears in The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and various travel-related magazines. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.