Sleep next to a castle, feast on custard creams, and discover thousand year old battle fields.
Welcome to Herstmonceux Castle! This is one of the most special places in the world to me. The 15th century manor home has a colorful history and its current role as an international study center for Queen's University is what makes it feel like my second home.
I knew I wanted to do a semester abroad at "The Castle" before I even started my first day of university at Queen's and the semester I spent there in my third year was one of the best experiences of my life. It was an incredible learning experience and it sparked my lifelong love for travel. I enjoyed it so much, I spent two summers working on the property as a bartender, housekeeper, and receptionist and I used all my free time to explore East Sussex.
While I would heartily endorse a semester of study to anyone, I appreciate that's not always practical! But it is the perfect place for an extended stop on an East Sussex road trip. Here are my top recommendations for visiting The Castle and planning an East Sussex adventure.
Don't miss these "castle" must-sees
The castle itself isn't always open to the public, given its role as a study center and a popular venue for weddings and conferences. But I highly recommend calling ahead to see if you can organize a private tour of the building. I don't want to ruin any surprises, but some of my favourite places include the classroom with a dungeon and the Headless Drummer Pub (where I oncehad an encounter with a ghost!)
The castle has a fantastic legacy of nobility and drama but if your interests lean more towards science than history, you'll be happy to learn that it was once the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and that an active observatory remains on site today.
The castle grounds are home to some of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. I have spent many an hour strolling and smelling, including the day before I took my first solo backpacking trip. I was so nervous I was shaking! Spending some time in the Shakespeare and rose gardens helped to calm my nerves.
Beyond the formal gardens are lovely woodlands that are open for exploring. My favourite time to do so is in the early spring when the bluebells cause a riot of color along the shady paths. If you're lucky, you might just see some local wildlife. At the very least, keep a sharp eye for some ducks in the castle's moat. When I was there as a student, there were three white ducks that formed their own little gang and never waddled without each other's company. I christened them Lily, Radish, and Watercress... sadly I believe they all met the same fate at the jaws of a fox :-( but their many descendants live on.
Take some time for Herstmonceux village
Herstmonceux Castle is a little bit off the beaten path and there's really no accessible public transportation, making it the perfect place for a road trip stop. It's also the ideal spot to spend the night. Accommodations at the adjacent student center start at just 22GBP for a private single room and prices include full breakfast, an unbelievably good price for the region.
Before leaving the area, take the time to visit the charming stone church just beyond the student center and drive a few minutes to Herstmonceux village. You'll also want to seek out the 200 year old restored wooden windmill in the area.
The village is home to several classic English pubs but I retain a soft spot for Eastern Promises, an Indian food restaurant that was one of my first introductions to curry. As for shopping, Herstmonceux is famous for trugs, a special kind of open gardening basket that has been made in the area for hundreds of years.
Head to Hailsham for the Homely Maid
Hertmonceux village offers up just the basics of amenities but for a wider range of services you'll need to visit Hailsham, a town that predates the Roman invasion of 43 AD. And you'll definitely want to head there no matter what because it's home to my favourite bakery and tea shop in the country, The Homely Maid.
This is the number one spot I recommend to all East Sussex day trippers. I never did manage to go there for lunch but I always, always, always stopped in for some classic English baked goods, like scones. My absolute favourite though were the custard cream tarts! I know you'll love them too!
Take a gentle ramble on the South Downs
The South Downs are a beautiful collection of gentle chalk hills that are now protected by National Park status. They are the quintessential place for the classic rambling walk through the English countryside and you'll see many other hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers along the way.
The South Downs have several especially striking landmarks that are well worth seeking out. Two of my personal favourites are gigantic pictures that have been carved into the hills, the white chalk lines popping against the green. The Long Man in Wilmington dates back several centuries - and possibly even as far back as the Iron Age, while the Litlington White Horse, equally intriguing, is a more recent creation from the early 1900s.
Nowhere is the white chalk more impressive than at the Seven Sisters cliffs. Chances are you've already seen them as they are frequently seen in movies, appearing both as themselves and also standing in for the White Cliffs of Dover. Just a few minutes away from the Seven Sisters is the striking white cliffhead of Beachy Head.
This is an incredible spot for photography but the area also has a sad history as a notorious suicide spot. The caring community, including local taxi drivers, pub staff, and the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team work hard to reach out to those in need and are an inspiring example of this region's warm and welcoming nature.
"Earthly happiness" in Brighton
"In Lydia's imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness." Fans of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice will undoubtedly share Lydia's enthusiasm - and mine. I absolute adore Brighton but I'm afraid I'm a poor tour guide. With every visit I do the same things again and again!
First, I head to the water. The beaches of Brighton are fantastic places for people watching, catching a little sun and salt air, and munching on some 'rock candy.' Next, I walk up to Food For Friends, a restaurant that I could eat at every day of my life. They do incredibly succulent vegetarian food (with gluten free and vegan options) and there are decadent desserts on offer too!
Next, I spend several hours wandering the South and North Laines. These tiny, twisting alleyways (or 'lanes', as it may be) are a browser's dream. There is everything from pop up fashion boutiques to priceless antiques. Two of my favourite finds from this area include three small soapstone mice that still sit on my bathroom counter (pics coming soon!) and a soft leather bound journal. Neat fact: The original Body Shop was born here!
A peaceful "battle" site.
East Sussex is ground zero for English history. This is where William the Conqueror landed and fought his decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066. And Pevensey Castle, his first stronghold in the area, is a can't-miss destination for history lovers. I personally love visiting it late in the day, when things are quiet. You might just have the castle ruins entirely to yourself!
Virtually every town and village has a unique connection to this period of history. While Pevensey Castle is my favourite, the communities of Battle and Hastings are also not to be missed.
Tips for hitting the open road
There's nothing so nice as a leisurely road trip, but remember that driving too slow can be as dangerous as driving too fast. Safely pull over to take your photos, get your bearings, and allow local traffic to continue unhindered.
If you're coming from North America, it might feel a bit intimidating to suddenly be driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. Before you pull out of the rental lot, ask the staff for recommendations on a quiet road where you can practice your skills.
Remember that while things may feel 'opposite' at first, the most important rules of the road are universal. Never drive while under the influence of alcohol or other substances and resist the temptation to text and talk on the phone - cell phone distractions can be just as dangerous intoxicants. And last but not least, take care of yourself. Don't drive for more than 10 hours, take plenty of breaks, and share the driving duties with your car mates.
I want to hear all about your East Sussex trip!
East Sussex is one of my favourite places in the world, one where I always feel utterly at home and excited to discover new things all at the same time. I'm so glad I could share my favourite spots with you here and I can't wait to hear your favourites as well!
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