Need to get out of London, but can't face a weekend in a bland chain hotel? Like London itself, the area surrounding the capital is home to all manner of themed and quirky hotels, rooms and accommodation, from Ziggy Stardust bedrooms to lighthouses — plus outlandish rooms kids will love.
1. Knight's Glamping at Leeds Castle, Kent
Knight's Glamping is a group of eight striped 'pavilions' — tents, basically, but rather fancy one. Each contains a four poster bed, solid flooring, electric lighting and even wi-fi, with a fire pit and barbecue area nearby (though you can eat in the Castle View Restaurant if you don't fancy DIY-ing). Included in the cost of your booking is access to the castle grounds during your stay. Kids can come too — they're provided with a camping bed and sleeping bag.
Take a look inside a 'pavilion' to get a feel for the place.
Knight's Glamping, Leeds Castle, Kent. Open April-September every year.
Getting there: Driving is your best bet: Leeds Castle is about 35 minutes from Junction 3 of the M25.
2. Hotel Pelirocco, Brighton, East Sussex
Planning a weekend in Brighton but fancy staying somewhere with pizzazz? Hotel Pelirocco is a rock 'n' roll themed boutique hotel, with 19 individually designed rooms.
Many of the bedrooms are dedicated to musicians. There's the Rebel Rebel, an homage to David Bowie, with murals of him on the wall, as well as replica of the street scene on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Dollywould is, naturally, a Dolly Parton-themed space, styled like a country cabin with plenty of gingham and tweed, and a library of books about the lady herself. It's also a shrine to all things Americana — think US flags everywhere, including in the bathroom tiles.
It's not just musicians though — boxing star Muhammad Ali has a room, as does performance artist Leigh Bowery, Star Wars baddie Darth Vader and Brighton-based crochet artist Kate Jenkins. Throw in a couple of, erm, romantic rooms (including the Nookii Room, and the Koibito, a modern take on a Japanese 'love hotel') and there really is something for everyone. Browse all of the rooms before making your choice.
It's located on Regency Square, the grand cream exterior belying nothing of what lies inside, a 15-minute walk from the pier and most of the Brighton action.
Pelirocco Hotel, 10 Regency Square, Brighton, BN1 2FG.
Getting there: It's about a 20-minute walk to Brighton station, with direct trains to London taking around an hour. There is a 24-hour car park underneath Regency Square, right opposite the hotel, but parking in Brighton can be almost as expensive as parking in London.
3. Penny Rope, Margate, Kent
Depending on your personality, the phrase 'private room in a cave' either sets alarms bells ringing, or teases your sense of adventure. If it's the latter, head to Margate on the Kent coast, where you can bed down in a two-person, prison cell-themed cave for the night.
It's part of The Booth, a house-turned-creative-space on a residential street. Penny Rope is located in the old cold store in the basement, accessible via its own private entrance. Inside, the white-washed brick walls form a small, tunnel-shaped space, about 5ft x 7ft, with bunk beds on one side, and wooden shelving on the other. Themed touches include an 'exercise yard' sign in the small outside space at the entrance, and jailer-style keys hanging in the doorway — though you're free to come and go as you please.
Penny Rope bed chamber, 12 Caroline Square, Margate, CT9 1SS. Accommodation available April-October — book on AirBnB. It's not the only thing going on underground in Margate — the magnificent and mysterious Shell Grotto is just around the corner.
Getting there: It's a 20-minute walk to Margate station, with direct trains to St Pancras in about 90 minutes, and direct trains to London Victoria taking a little longer.
4. Belle Tout Lighthouse, Eastbourne, East Sussex
If you're heard of Belle Tout Lighthouse at Beachy Head, chances are it's because of the epic engineering project which moved the whole building 17 metres back from the cliff edge in the late 1990s. These days, Belle Tout functions as a B&B, with various nautically-themed rooms on the way up the tower, including the Captain's Cabin, a cosy galley-style en-suite, and the Keeper's Loft (you'll need to climb a ladder to get into bed in that one).
While you're there, make use of the Lantern Room, a lounge at the top of the lighthouse tower, furnished with sofas and offering panoramic views along the Sussex coast, and towards the iconic red and white tower of Beachy Head Lighthouse. You can even venture outside onto the external walkway in good weather — now that's something you don't get at the local Travelodge.
It's fairly remote, so great for walking holidays, and the stargazing is reportedly fairly decent around these parts too.
Belle Tout Lighthouse, Beachy Head, Eastbourne, East Sussex, BN20 0AE.
Getting there: The nearest station is Eastbourne, some five miles away — you'll be needing a taxi if you take this option. Otherwise, you're looking at 75 minutes + driving from J6 of the M25.
See also: If this has fired up your beacon, you can also stay at North Foreland Lighthouse in Broadstairs, Kent — though accommodation is in the cottages rather than the lighthouse tower itself.
5. The Victorian B&B, St Leonards, East Sussex
Less a B&B, more a carefully curated home that opens to the public, The Victorian B&B is the work of its owners, Paul and Stephen, who have lovingly restored its decor to reflect the building's Victorian heritage. It's one for fans of period decor and antiques.
There are five rooms available to rent, each styled as if part of a Victorian family home. Mr Parry's Room would have been used by the parents of the family, while The Old Nursery is decorated as a child's bedroom of the 1880s, though is fitted out with a double bed for modern guests. The School Room too is decorated as a children's bedroom, with Victorian alphabet wallpaper and twin beds.
The Victorian B&B, 81 Pevensey Road, St Leonards, East Sussex, TN38 0LR.
Getting there: It's a few minutes' walk from both West St Leonards at St Leonards Warrior Square stations, which have direct trains to London Bridge and Charing Cross in around 90 minutes.
6. Aviator, Farnborough, Hampshire
The theming is subtle at the Aviator, which takes its cue from Farnborough Airport, next door. Many of the rear rooms offer views over the runway, though you don't need to book in for that treat — we've had afternoon tea here and been distracted from our food by the light aircraft constantly landing and taking off right outside.
Rooms — sleek, sophisticated — have the occasional nod to the hotel's namesake, in the form of black and white photos of vintage aircraft, the odd aeronautical ornament, and coffee table books with photos taken from the air. As a whole, the hotel feels more space-age than golden age of flight; the building is a curvaceous metallic thing, the reception area a cavernous, modern atrium, and the Sky Bar a sophisticated drinking space — though that low-level coloured lighting does put us in mind of the emergency aisle lighting on a passenger jet.
Aviator, 55 Farnborough Road, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 6EL.
Getting there: it's out of the town centre, so best driven to — you're looking at about 30 minutes from J12 of the M25. Otherwise, Fanrborough station is about 30 minutes walk away.
7. Harper's, Haslemere, Surrey
Harper's is best-known as a steakhouse mini-chain with bedrooms, and the Haslemere branch takes its inspiration from Haslemere station, located directly opposite.
Again, the theme isn't completely in-your-face, more a subtle nod to the golden age of steam of the 1920s. Each room has a large, train-themed artwork above the headboard, including photos of the famous Waterloo station clock, and images of historic steam engines crossing viaducts.
Harper's, 33 Lower Street, Haslemere, GU27 2PD.
Getting there: Harper's does have a free car park for guests, but why would you when Haslemere station is right across the road, with direct trains to Waterloo in under an hour. Otherwise you're looking at a 40-minute drive from J10 of the M25.
8. Legoland Castle Hotel, Windsor, Berkshire
One to book if you've got the kids in tow, Legoland Castle Hotel is located alongside the Legoland Resort, with its theme park, rides and bricky models. In the hotel too, they've committed to both the bricks and the castle theme, hard. Choose between a Knight's Room or a Wizard's Room — both come with an in-room treasure hunt, and a PS4 in the room. Dine in the Tournament Tavern, and get access to a Lego pirate-themed indoor water play area and swimming pool, evening entertainment, and free tickets to the theme park. It's not the cheapest option for a family weekend away, but it's one they'll remember.
Legoland Castle Hotel, Windsor.
Getting there: It's about a 20-minute drive from J13 of the M25. By train, there is a shuttle bus service to Legoland Resort from both Windsor & Eton Central and Windsor & Eton Riverside stations, with trains direct from Waterloo to both stations.
See also: Thorpe Shark Cabins an Thorpe Park — family-friendly, shark-themed rooms in the theme park, though perhaps aimed at slightly older kids than Legoland.
9. Giraffe Lodge at Port Lympne, Kent
Wildlife reserve Port Lympne must have as many humans sleeping there every night as it does animals these days, judging by the many and varied accommodation options it offers, from forest hideaways to a luxury hotel.
For us though, it's got to be Giraffe Lodge, a group of luxury glamping tents pitched on the side of a hill — we were as fascinated by the views all the way down to the Kent coast as we were by the exotic wildlife just a few metres away. It's high end glamping — think four poster, sleigh, or twin beds, en-suites and the like, not a sleeping bag in sight.
The tents are perched right by the watering hole on Port Lympne's version of a safari plain, where giraffe, zebra, rhino, ostrich, wildebeest and various species of hoofstock roam (separated from guests by a very sturdy fence — we checked). Of course, there's no guarantee that the animals will wander past during your stay, but we woke up to a rhino outside which is not something we ever thought we'd say in the Kent countryside.
The experience begins with an evening safari drive led by one of Port Lympne's rangers, followed by an African-inspired braai for dinner and drinks in the safari lodge. Breakfast the next morning is also included, as is entry to both Port Lympne, and its sister site Howletts, about half an hour's drive away.
Giraffe Lodge, Port Lympne Reserve, Aldington Road, Hythe, CT21 4LR.
Getting there: It's about an hour's drive from J1 of the M25. Otherwise, take a train to Ashford International (about an hour from London Bridge) and take a local bus or taxi to Port Lympne.
See also: wildlife-themed accommodation has become very popular in recent years. Other options near London include:
- Safari Resort Hotel, Chessington World of Adventures
- Overnight Safari Stays at The Big Cat Sanctuary in Headcorn, Kent
- Lookout Lodge at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire (as well as Gir Lion Lodges at ZSL London Zoo)
10. St James' Church, Cooling, Kent
How about sleeping in a church that inspired Charles Dickens? The churchyard of St James' apparently shaped his opening chapter of Great Expectations. These days, the church itself is redundant as a place of Anglican worship, instead used for 'champing', an increasingly popular act of camping in churches, which raises money towards the upkeep of the building. Camp beds, chairs, tea and coffee making facilities and access to a toilet are included in the cost of your stay, and you won't be sharing the church with any strangers.
St James' Church, Main Road, Rochester, Kent, ME3 8DG.
Getting there: This one's fairly remote. Nearest station is Higham, a 90+ minute walk away. It's around a 30-minute drive from J2 of the M25.
There are champing sites all over the country. Others near London include:
- St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich, Kent
- St Mary the Virgin, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex
- St Nicholas in Berden, Essex
- St Mary's Church, Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire
11. The PitStop, Bishop Stortford, Essex
'A motoring flavour' is how The PitStop describes its theme, with a particular focus on Morgan sports cars — they even have a couple available for hire. It's not all in-your-face engines and exhausts though, as each of the bedrooms takes its lead from a different model or period of vehicle; The Super Sports is decidedly art deco, while the Drop Head Coupe lends its exotic nature to a room inspired by the days of the Raj of India. There's a retro-style American diner on-site too (and we do love a diner), but it's only open to hotel guests.
The PitStop, The Morgan Garage, Little Hallingbury, Bishop's Stortford, Herfordshire, CM22 7RA.
Getting there: As you'd expect, this is really one for the driver — the nearest station (Sawbridgeworth) is a couple of miles away.
12. Harry's House and Hagrid's Hut, Watford, Hertfordshire
Ever wanted to shower on Platform 9 3/4? No, us neither, now we think about it, but you absolutely can at Harry's House, an AirBnB rental with a Harry Potter theme, located about four miles from the Warner Bros Studio Tour. Themed decor includes cushions with Hogwarts house crests, candles levitating above the dining table, a broomstick mounted above the fireplace, and a replica of the Platform 9 3/4 brick wall just next to the shower. Oh, and if you're thinking that what the place is missing is Robbie Coltrane, stay at Hagrid's Hut instead — it's another Potter-themed Airbnb property, also close to Warner Bros, with a life-size cut-out of Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid waiting to greet you at the bottom of the stairs. Bet that's scared a few people in its time.