The poor old M25. It rarely (actually, let’s make that “never”) hits the headlines for happy reasons. Of late it's been no different. Several times in the past week, London’s outer ring road has found itself at a semi-standstill – as demonstrators from the environmental campaign group Insulate Britain have blocked the traffic.
A waggish reader might well smirk, and ask whether anyone will be able to tell the difference from a normal day – such is the reputation of a motorway that is sometimes mocked as “the world’s biggest car park”. It’s a fair joke as well – because, even without guerrilla eco-protests, the M25 is frequently jammed in certain sections, and it is unusual to embark on a lengthy journey around it without encountering some kind of congestion.
But then, the M25 is also a fabulous feat of engineering; a 117-mile creation that ranks as Europe’s second longest orbital route (shorter by just five miles than the Berliner Ring which surrounds the German capital). It isn’t even that old. Next month will witness its 35th birthday – it was officially opened on October 29 1986, Margaret Thatcher cutting the ribbon at a ceremony held between junctions 22 and 23 in Hertfordshire. And while it may be imperfect, think how much slower a drive around our biggest city would be without it.
Better still, it can also – if you are inclined to take on such an odyssey – make for a remarkable road trip. Fringed by historic sites, willowy gardens and areas of natural beauty, the M25 can be not so much a giant bottleneck as a reason to head out across the English landscape. The following 10 sites all sit – for the sake of argument – within 10 miles of the motorway, and all are reason enough to hit the tarmac of London’s big circle.
1. Windsor Castle
Her Majesty’s main out-of-town residence needs little introduction, but its story contains many a fine fact: It is 11th century in origin, built by William the Conqueror. It is the largest occupied castle on the planet, with some 500 staff and courtiers stationed there at all times. It was seized by parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, and used as a prison for Charles I. It is home, posthumously, to some of the most fabled royal figures in our history. Henry VIII (and his third wife, Jane Seymour), Charles I and George III are not in Westminster Abbey, but are buried at Windsor Castle – in St George’s Chapel.
Details: 0303 123 7304; royalcollection.org.uk; £23.50
2. Hever Castle
The ghost of Henry VIII also lingers a little further around the M25 in Kent. Built in the 13th century, Hever Castle is best remembered as the childhood home of Bluff King Hal’s second wife Anne Boleyn – he would visit her here during their courtship. It was also, later, once the Boleyn family had fallen from grace, the home of Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves, granted to her as part of the annulment of their marriage. It remains a hugely photogenic slice of the medieval world, surrounded by a moat and leafy gardens.
Details: 01732 865 224; hevercastle.co.uk; from £19.20
A leader of a different era can be found a five-mile drive north of Hever. Chartwell was, of course, the home of Winston Churchill. It was the great man’s primary residence from 1922 until his death in 1965 – aside from during the Second World War, when it was deemed too vulnerable to Luftwaffe aggression. The house probably dates to the 16th century, but is preserved to look as it did when the former prime minister and his wife Clementine lived there. Photos and memorabilia proffer a window on his life and career.
Details: 01732 868 381; nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell; from £14
4. Surrey Hills Area Of Outstanding Beauty
A protected area since 1958, this 163-square-mile expanse of slopes and serenity is Surrey’s main contribution to the general beauty of southern England – part of a green jigsaw which also comprises Kent Downs (also an “Area Of Outstanding Beauty”) and South Downs National Park (in Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex). Here is an oasis for long hikes along winding trails – or for cycle rides against the gradient of Box Hill, which has become a lycra haven since it hosted the road races at the 2012 Olympics.
Details: 01372 220 653; surreyhills.org
5. RHS Garden Wisley
One of four enclaves run by the Royal Horticultural Society, this pastoral portion of Surrey is an ideal place to spend an autumn afternoon. Its vegetable patches, fruit fields and walled gardens are awash with rich agricultural bounty and swaying flowers, while the pivotal Glasshouse is a nest of exotic plants, tropical species and jungle verdancy.
Details: 0845 260 9000; rhs.org.uk; from £14.95
6. Waltham Abbey
Who knew that Henry VIII had such connections with the M25? England’s much-married 16th century monarch crops up again on the west edge of Essex, where Waltham Abbey – in the town of the same name – was the last great house to be closed down during the religious purge of the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”, in 1540. Happily, unlike many of its contemporaries, the structure survived, albeit in smaller form. It lives on as a parish church, still visibly a 12th century building of quiet nobility. It has a king of its own, too. Harold Godwinson, defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066, is reputedly buried here.
Details: 01992 767 897; walthamabbeychurch.co.uk
7. Copped Hall
A very short hop east of Waltham Abbey, Copped Hall is another fabulous fragment of Essex’s past. This Georgian mansion, finished in 1758, is an architectural wonder, framed by flowing grounds. Badly neglected in the 20th century – a fire caused by an electrical fault did significant damage in 1917 – it is slowly being restored in the 21st. Three-hour guided tours are held on the third Sunday of every month (except July and December). The property is visible from the M25, between junctions 26 and 27. But then, it has long been attractive to the eye. The 16th century version of the hall, demolished to make way for the existing structure in 1748, was sufficiently alluring that Elizabeth I paid it a visit in 1575.
Details: 07799 473 108; coppedhalltrust.org.uk; tours from £10
Tucked into a triangulation of crossfire between the M20, M25 and M26, Otford shrugs off the proximity of three busy motorways to be one of the loveliest villages in Kent. It revolves around St Bartholomew’s, an 11th century church whose graveyard is alive with long grass and bird song – and the ruins of Otford Palace, a stately pile that was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury until 1537, when its confiscation by Henry VIII (that man again) sparked its decline. Even the main traffic island is pretty – it boasts a duckpond at its heart – while High Street is dotted with pubs ideal for an afternoon pint.
9. Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve
Nestled on the banks of the Thames on the Essex side of the river, just outside Purfleet, Rainham Marshes is a hotspot of feathered colour, flapping wings and estuary breezes, run by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). A wonderful space of pristine grassland and marsh – it was a Ministry of Defence firing range until it was sold by the government in 2000, subsequently opening as a nature reserve in 2006 – it plays host to species including avocets, lapwings, little egrets, ringed plovers and peregrines.
Details: 01708 899 840; rspb.org.uk; £6
10. Thorpe Park
Not, perhaps, as steeped in heritage as the castles of Windsor and Hever, this zone of rollercoasters and thrills is one of the UK’s most popular theme parks. Pitched between Chertsey and Staines in Surrey, it is host to gravity-taunting rides such as Tidal Wave, Nemesis Inferno, Colossus and The Swarm – the latter reaching speeds of up to 59mph.
Details: 0871 663 1673; thorpepark.com; from £35Internet Explorer Channel Network