All in for the outskirts

Steve McKenna escapes the fast pace of London not once but five times on day trips that recharge the traveller.

Dare to moan to a Londoner that you've grown tired of their city and there's a fair chance they'll hit you with

Samuel Johnson's oft-quoted riposte: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

Then they'll usually admit that, yes, there are times when all the hustle and bustle becomes too much, even for them. My friends pointed me in the direction of five escapes that are within easy reach of the Big Smoke and, in midweek at least, are relatively free of the clamour that can overwhelm the capital.

As a bonus, getting from A to B and back can be super cheap. Booking online in advance - at thetrainline.com - meant I never spent more than £10 ($16.50) on rail travel for each trip.

Richmond

Look closely at a map of the London Underground and you'll see Richmond at the end of the District line.

It's rare that foreign visitors venture this far out, unless it's to watch a game of rugby at nearby Twickenham. Big mistake - this is one of the loveliest parts of England.

The town has been a favourite retreat for royalty since Norman times and King Henry VII was so enamoured of the place that he changed its name, from Sheen, after his home in Yorkshire.

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While the high street looks pretty much like any another in Britain, behind it lies Richmond Green, a gorgeous area edged with towering broadleaf trees, beautiful old mansions, picturesque townhouses and characteristically English pubs.

In summer, cricket matches are played on the green - a tradition that stretches back more than 300 years - although jousting contests, popular here in the 15th and 16th centuries, have been consigned to the history books.

Richmond is on the River Thames and there are some delightful walks alongside the waterway - with a sprinkling of pubs helping to break up the journey.

Don't miss Richmond Park, Europe's largest urban green space, which abounds with gentle rolling hills, lakes, woodland and hordes of rambling wild deer.

While it's hard to believe you're so close to the city, from certain points in the park the unmistakable spokes of the London Eye loom in the distance.

DETAILS visitrichmond.co.uk.

GETTING THERE The District line Tube goes to Richmond but it's quicker to go overland from London Waterloo. Day return £6.20.

JOURNEY TIME 16-25 minutes, one way.

Brighton

The irony about Britain's favourite seaside city - nicknamed "London-on-Sea" - is that it has one of the worst beaches you could ever wish to lie on.

Hardy Brits - and, increasingly, Aussie backpackers and expats - make the most of it, though, splaying their towels down on the bumpy, pebble-strewn stretch and occasionally even braving a dip in the chilly, grey waters of the English Channel.

But there's still something endlessly alluring about Brighton's seafront. I loved wandering past the brightly painted beach cabins lining the promenade, tucking into some tasty fish and chips, nipping into the amusement arcades, then strolling to the end of the iconic, wind- and wave-lashed Palace Pier and trying to glimpse the French mainland through a pair of binoculars. Inland, Brighton's town has oodles of trendy fashion shops and plenty of funky cafes, bars and restaurants (many of them super gay-friendly). It feels a bit like London, minus the hustle and bustle.

Brighton can arguably lay claim to Britain's most bizarre-looking building: the Royal Pavilion, an incredibly lavish, Taj Mahal-inspired palace built for the rather eccentric 19th-century Prince George (a future monarch). Expect to see Brighton in all its glory when the new film version of Graham Greene's classic novel Brighton Rock - starring Dame Helen Mirren - appears in cinemas this year.

DETAILS visitbrighton.com.

GETTING THERE Singles from £5. Trains leave from London Victoria station.

JOURNEY TIME About 55 minutes, one way.

Oxford

Most tourists flock straight for the honey-hued buildings and colleges that form one of the world's most prestigious universities - whose alumni include Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Hawking, Bill Clinton and Bob Hawke.

Ambling around the university's mediaeval cobbled alleyways, hidden courtyards and atmospheric chapels is a treat but Oxford is far from being a stuffy old relic.

Case in point, the Ashmolean, Britain's (and, some claim, the world's) oldest public museum, which has recently undergone a sleek £61 million makeover.

Admission is free and the museum hosts artistic and archaeological treasures from all over the world, plus such quirks as the lantern used by Guy Fawkes in his doomed bid to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. The Ashmolean's rooftop cafe offers terrific views of the city's famous spires. Among the raft of chic gastro-pubs, bars and restaurants that has emerged in Oxford in recent years are celebrity television chef Jamie Oliver's latest venture, Jamie's Italian. Another fashionable haunt is the Malmaison, a swanky hotel-bar-eatery converted from a former prison. Pop in for locally sourced organic beers and top-notch cocktails, or rest your head in the luxurious bedrooms, which have been crafted in formerly grotty old prison cells.

Some of Oxford's best places are just outside the historic centre, including Jericho, a bohemian zone lined with smashing places to eat and drink, including Freud, a trendy joint housed in a striking 19th-century Greek Revival Church. A little further out is Cowley Road, where the city's multicultural melting pot really bubbles, as Chinese, Thai and Indian restaurants rub shoulders with Turkish kebab shops and Moroccan-tinged bars.

DETAILS www.visitoxford.org.

GETTING THERE Singles from £4. Trains leave from London Paddington.

JOURNEY TIME One hour, one way.

Windsor

If you have a burning desire to see the Queen, head to Windsor either on a Saturday or a Sunday. The monarch spends most weekends at Windsor Castle and there's a chance you'll see her and the Duke of Edinburgh walking the corgis.

But if you'd like to keep your sanity and avoid the suffocating presence of tour groups, it's better to go during the week.

Members of the public can have a nose around the castle's sprawling grounds for £16. Said to be the oldest and largest occupied fortress in the world, it was once home to William the Conqueror, who became King of England after thrashing King Harold in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Over the years, the castle has been extended and refurbished, often reflecting the architectural styles of the day, with Norman, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque trimmings evident. The state apartments are a picture of opulence, with pristine antique furniture and art from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Peter Paul Rubens. Inside St George's Chapel is a mausoleum containing the tombs of many a royal, including the Queen Mother.

Facing Windsor Castle, across the bridge over the Thames, is the village of Eton, which is famed for its elite college, where many former British prime ministers and several royals, including Prince William, were students.

Windsor is a short bus ride away from the bucolic village of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215.

The village's Magna Carta Tea Rooms are a fine place to enjoy that most English of traditions - afternoon cream tea.

DETAILS windsor.gov.uk.

GETTING THERE Day return from £8.50. Trains leave either from London Paddington or Waterloo.

JOURNEY TIME About 30 minutes, one way.

St Albans

Although most Londoners consider it a bog-standard commuter town, there are few places in Britain with a greater Roman heritage than St Albans, or Verulamium, as it was known when Emperor Claudius's generals invaded around AD43.

Ancient Roman relics are still evident - notably some near 2000-year-old flint walls - while the excellent Verulamium Museum offers an insight into what life was like after the conquest, with a series of interactive exhibits and eye-catching displays, including some of the finest Roman mosaics you'll see outside the Mediterranean.

Things are hammed up on the second weekend of each month, when burly men dressed as Roman soldiers stampede through the museum and demonstrate how the imperial army would keep everyone in check.

After the Romans scarpered, Verulamium was mined of its bricks and the new town of St Albans was created.

It was named after a pagan who had converted to Christianity, only to be beheaded for his crime, and according to legend the town's beautiful mediaeval abbey and cathedral were built upon the exact spot where he was martyred.

St Albans' centre is very photogenic - especially the area around the marketplace and 15th-century clock tower - and it has been used as a backdrop for several films, including the 2001 flick Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman as a Russian mail-order bride.

Incidentally, Stanley Kubrick - who directed Kidman in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut - lived in the St Albans area for more than 30 years before his death in 1999.

A haven for beer drinkers, St Albans is said to contain more pubs a square mile than anywhere else in Britain and can boast on its roster one of the country's oldest ale houses, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.

DETAILS stalbans.gov.uk.

GETTING THERE Day return from £10. Trains leave from London St Pancras.

JOURNEY TIME About 25 minutes, one way.

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