Forget Cheltenham: It makes sense to bet on Surrey for a short break
With a perfect mix of rolling countryside, racecourses and theme parks, Surrey's an undiscovered treasure.
CHELTENHAM wouldn't be the same without the Irish invasion - but it's not the only place to enjoy a flutter over a weekend away.
Surrey's a handy short hop from Ireland - nearby Gatwick Airport is well served from here, making the small county south of London an ideal break.
Surrey is to London what Wicklow is to Dublin - but even posher. Part of the famous Stockbroker Belt, it's a well-heeled part of the country, a rural idyll within short commuting distance of the big smoke.
It's also well placed for two major racecourses - Epsom and Ascot - so it should be on the map for any avid racegoer.
I stayed in the heart of the rolling countryside, in the tiny village of Mickleham. Mentioned in the Medieval Domesday book, this is oh-so English: the church of St Michael's, with its graves from World War I and World War II, dates back to Saxon times.
There's the village post office and the local pub, the Running Horses, where I stayed. Dating back to the 16th century, in bygone days it served as a staging post for London to Brighton coaches in an era of highwaymen.
Nowadays, it plays host to cyclists and hikers, and the restaurant attracts day trippers from the capital and surrounding areas.
The food is superb and at much better prices than dining out in the city, with Sunday lunch a favourite. With its timber frames, roaring fire and beams, and tables out front to catch the sun on warmer days, it's a lively spot in a sleepy area.
A great location for race-goers, it's like Midsomer without the murders (the vicar's parish board just concerns itself with the odd burglary or litter lout, thankfully).
The pub/restaurant only has five rooms, so it's easy to get to know the locals when you nip downstairs for a pint.
All named after racecourses, given the area's horsey links, you've a choice of Ascot and Epsom, which both have roll top baths and luxury rain showers, or Cheltenham, Windsor and Sandown which are similarly old world luxury in style, but without the baths.
And while you're there, if you fancy visiting London, without paying sky-high London prices, it's a good base, combining the best of the countryside with decent rail links to Waterloo or Victoria stations.
Five things to do:
1. Go to the races
Mickleham is just 15 minutes' drive from Epsom Downs racecourse, or further afield, Ascot is 40 minutes away. Both have swanky occasions, like early June's Investec Derby Day, or Royal Ascot in mid June.
Expect to see British royalty and celebrity royalty, with the likes of Dawn O'Porter, Laura Whitmore and Liz Hurley all regular racegoers on the big days out. See epsom.thejockeyclub.co.uk or ascot.co.uk for race times and packages.
2. Meet the wild animals
Chessington World of Adventures is one of Britain's biggest theme parks, it's a land of rollercoasters and safaris rolled into one.
The big thrill rides, like the hanging Vampire coaster, reopen in the middle of this month, and it also has a Sea Life centre and Zufari, where kids can travel African-style in jeeps to see zebras, giraffes and rhinos. Family deals online at chessington.com.
3. Take a hike
The area's excellent for cyclists, but if you're on foot, it's a nice part of England to see the great outdoors.
Leith Hill is reputed to be the highest point in south-east England (higher up than the Shard skyscraper), with views from Leith Hill tower of the city skyline and, if you're lucky, boats to-ing and fro-ing from France on the English Channel. It's got a garden designed by Charles Darwin's sister and is a popular walking and picnic spot.
The Surrey Hills are one of England's best-kept secrets and Box Hill is one of the best vantage points for the rolling countryside. Despite being so close to London, it's full of nature and is home to one of the country's biggest concentrations of butterflies.
Check out nationaltrust.org/leithhill and nationaltrust.org.uk/box-hill.
4. Sample English wine
Surrey's a lot closer to France than it is to Birmingham, so it's probably not surprising that it's got a bit of Gallic flair.
Denbies is England's biggest single vineyard estate and 50 minute outdoor train tours are good value at only £6 per adult and half that for children aged up to 17. For under a tenner, it's got a range of tasting tours and if wine isn't your thing, it's also got its own brewery onsite. See denbies.co.uk.
5. Hit the town
No, not London but the Galway-sized Guildford. Quaint and historic, it's got a buzzing arts scene and, unusually for an English town, great pubs.
The White House is an arty gastro pub, with lovely al fresco drinking and cheap dining on the banks of the River Wey, while the nearby Britannia is something special. A friendly 'local', if you're lucky you'll catch a night when crowds descend on it armed with ukuleles and embarking on mass jam sessions.
And their version of Blur's 'Girls And Boys' is incredible.
See whitehouseguildford.co.uk and sherpherdneame.co.uk.