South and southeast of London are the shires (counties) of Kent, Surrey, and East and West Sussex. Traditionally, this is a playground used by Londoners for quick holiday breaks, often weekend jaunts.

In Kent, Canterbury is the major highlight and makes the best base for exploring the area. Another convenient option is Dover, Britain's historic gateway to the Continent and famed for its white cliffs. Though Kent is on London's fringe, it's far removed in spirit and scenery. Since the days of the Tudors, cherry blossoms have enlivened the fertile landscape. Orchards and hop fields abound, earning Kent its title, "garden of England" -- in England, that's tough competition. Kent suffered severe destruction during World War II, as it was the alley over which the Luftwaffe flew in its Blitz of London. But despite much devastation, it's still filled with interesting old towns and castles.

In fact, Kent has some of Europe's grandest mansions. If time is limited, seek out the big four: Knole, one of the largest private houses of England, a great example of Tudor architecture; Hever Castle, dating from the end of the 13th century, a gift from Henry VIII to the "great Flanders mare," Anne of Cleves; Penshurst Place, a magnificent English Gothic mansion and one of the outstanding country houses of Britain; and lovely Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, dating from A.D. 857. Although it doesn't compare with these grand castles, Chartwell also merits a visit because of the man who used to call it home: Sir Winston Churchill. For more advice on how to tour these homes, refer to "Kent's Country Houses, Castles & Gardens," in the Attractions section.

With the continuing expansion of London's borders, it's a wonder that the tiny county of Surrey hasn't been gobbled up and turned into a sprawling suburb. Yet its countryside remains unspoiled, though many people commute from here to London (only about 45-60 min. away).

If King Harold hadn't loved Sussex so much, English history might have been changed forever. Had the brave Saxon waited longer in the north, he could have marshaled more adequate reinforcements before striking south to meet the Normans. But Duke William's soldiers were ravaging the countryside he knew so well, and Harold rushed down to counter them.

Harold's enthusiasm for Sussex is understandable. The landscape rises and falls like waves. The county is known for its woodlands, from which came the timbers to build England's mighty fleet in days gone by. The shires lie south of London and Surrey, bordering Kent in the east, Hampshire in the west, and opening directly onto the English Channel, where the coast is dotted with seaside towns.

Like other sections in the vulnerable south of England, Sussex was the setting of some of the most significant events in English history. Apart from the Norman landings at Hastings, the most life-changing transformation occurred in the 19th century, as middle-class Victorians flocked to the seashore, pumping new spirit into Brighton and even old Hastings.

The old towns and villages of Sussex, particularly Rye and Winchelsea, are far more intriguing than the seaside resorts. No Sussex village is lovelier than Alfriston (and the innkeepers know it, too); Arundel is noted for its castle; and the cathedral city of Chichester is a mecca for theater buffs. The old market town of Battle was the setting for the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Where to base yourself in Sussex? The best option is Brighton, because it has a wide choice of hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. There's more excitement here at "London by the Sea" than at Hastings. If you're seeking old-English charm and village life, head instead to Alfriston or Rye.