A New Town in West Sussex, Crawley’s recent fortunes have been tied to Gatwick International Airport a few miles north.
Before the middle of the 20th century Crawley was a small market town constellated by little villages that are now suburbs.
For visitors Crawley has parks crammed with facilities, and a town centre with every high street shop under the sun.
The town is on the western edge of the High Weald, a long sandstone ridge arcing down to the coast.
Much of this bucolic countryside is conserved by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that can be reached within minutes of Crawley.
You can plan short expeditions into the High Weald to fabulous gardens at Nymans and Wakehurst, looked after by the National Trust and Kew.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Crawley:
1. Tilgate Park
On Crawley’s southern border, Tilgate Park is a former country estate across more than 2,000 acres of sumptuous countryside in the High Weald.
It’s a joy to navigate the park on foot, on trails through fragrant pine forest and next to the expansive Tilgate Lake.
There, “Tilgate Park Watersports” hires out equipment for kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, dinghy sailing or simply rowing a boat.
There are traces of the old estate at the enormous Walled Garden, which has a show garden, maze, cafe and picnic area.
Another of the park’s many facilities is a pay & play course at the Tilgate Forest Golf Centre, while just beside the Walled Garden are eight craft studios, many of which are open to visitors to see decorative artists in action.
A few short miles south into the High Weald, Nymans is a National Trust property with a large but somehow snug garden surrounding the partial ruins of a Revivalist house.
The estate was bought by the German Messel family in the 1890s and the garden was planted over the next 60 years.
The house meanwhile was given a peculiar blend of Regency and Medieval-style architecture.
A fire in 1947 has left some of the mansion in ruins, while the remainder is a home for a descendent of the Messels.
The steep slope at Nymans creates a microclimate that allows hardy exotic plants to flourish, and a host of hybrids have occurred here, some planned and some by accident.
You could lose yourself for hours at Nymans, but the Wall Garden has to be your first port of call for its spring bulbs and joyful summer borders.
There’s a family flower trail in summer, craft workshops and outdoor games like skittles and giant jenga.
3. Buchan Country Park
You can de-stress in 170 acres of the High Weald, a couple of minutes from Crawley’s Town Centre.
This Green Flag-winning park has a mix of birch woodland, meadow, heath and a lake, and if you go quietly you should see lots of roe deer.
In spring you’ll hear the calls of chiff chaffs and willow warblers, which stop in the park on their migrations, and in this season the woodland is decked with bluebells and little patches of foxgloves here and there.
The park also has a sculpture trail and a countryside centre for exhibitions about the local wildlife, while there’s a mobile barista serving walkers on Fridays and Weekends.
4. Gatwick Aviation Museum
In the post war years the British aviation industry went into overdrive, with brands like Avro, Hawker and Gloster producing early jets and breaking speed records.
The Gatwick Aviation Museum documents those boom years and in 2016 opened a new building.
Outside you’ll be greeted by a propeller powered Avro Shackleton Mk3 PH3 and Percival Prince T1, as well as the jets, Hawker Hunter and Blackburn Buccaneer S1. Inside there’s a thrilling display of iconic jets from the twin-boom De Havilland Sea Vixen and Venom to a Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the very first of the Harrier jump jets.
If you’re enthused by the hardware that powered these machines, there’s an amazing lineup of Rolls-Royce, de Havilland, Bristol and Armstrong engines.
5. St Nicholas’ Church, Worth
Even though Crawley is a New Town, there are some exciting bits of history in the contingent villages.
Worth to the east features one of the oldest churches in continuous use in the UK. This is a rare opportunity to admire genuine Anglo-Saxon architecture, visible in the chancel arch (the largest Saxon chancel arch in the country) and the apse, which date to between 950 and 1050. Take a moment to appreciate the lozenge pattern in the archivolts, while close by is a later carved oak pulpit from the 16th century.
6. St Margaret’s Church, Ifield
The Ifield neighbourhood, a former village a couple of miles northwest of the town centre, has another captivating old church.
Also Grade I-listed, St Margaret’s has a chancel dating to the 1200s but at the west end is a strange-looking tower from a Victorian restoration.
In the east end of the nave, look for the wonderful 14th-century recumbent stone effigies, believed to depict Sir John of Ifield and his wife Lady Margaret.
Also check out the Norman font from the 1100s, fashioned from Wealden marble and shining for its carved stem with foliate capitals and roll mouldings.
Out in the churchyard there’s a solemn Neoclassical table tomb, from around 1800, adorned with reliefs and topped by an urn decorated with putti.
7. The Hawth
Slightly removed from Crawley’s town centre, this performing arts complex has a beautiful location in almost 40 acres of woodland.
The Hawth opened in 1992 is mostly a receiving theatre with an exceedingly diverse programme for its 855-seater main auditorium.
There’s anything from opera, classical music and ballet to musicals, sing along film screenings, classic rock artists, tribute acts and much-loved comedians.
Also popular are the Hawth’s live broadcasts from the National Theatre, Royal Opera, Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Ballet.
The Hawth has a resident theatre company, Pitchy Breath, which produces one new piece each year.
8. Tilgate Nature Centre
In the lovely confines of Tilgate Park there’s a small zoo that has separate paid entry.
Tilgate Nature Centre houses more than 100 different animal species, and participates in international breeding programmes for Asian short-clawed otters and Utila spiny-tailed Iguanas.
In 2018 a new Americas Zone opened for the park’s flock of macaws, its capybaras and the curious-looking axlotl salamanders.
For an extra fee you can take part in the Meet the Meerkats experience, during which this friendly species will clamber over you and eat out of your hand, while you find out about meerkats’ behaviour, diet and welfare from the keeper.
An almost mandatory excursion into the High Weald from Crawley, Wakehurst is a sublime Elizabethan house in more than 500 acres of botanical gardens.
The estate is managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and your time will be spent ambling through magical designed landscapes.
In the collections are native UK plants as well as exotic species; the Southern Hemisphere garden for instance has plants from South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia all arranged according to geography.
In modern structures the Millennium Seed Bank is the botanical equivalent of a gold reserve, aiming to conserve 25% of the plant species in the world by 2020. But you can’t neglect the mansion at Wakehurst, decorated with period furniture and installed with exhibitions of botanical art by Sarah Drake, John Day and brothers Franz and Ferdinand Bauer.
10. Wings Museum
There’s more aviation heritage at the Wings Museum, set in a former barn, which you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a hangar.
At the heart of the displays is the headline exhibit – the complete fuselage of a C-47 Dakota that was involved in D-Day in 1944. This was used for the filming of the HBO Series Band of Brothers.
Wings Museum is dedicated to the Second World War, and has several aircraft displayed as they were found at crash sites in eastern Russia.
In the Ghosts of the Tundra you can examine the twisted wreckage of a Soviet-operated Hawker Hurricane, Douglas A-20, Bell P-63 Kingcobra and a Japanese Nakajima B5N2 Kate.
Elsewhere there piston engines, aircraft cockpits, a simulator, uniforms, bombs and masses of other aircraft equipment.
11. Crawley Museum
Made possible by a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund the Crawley Museum only opened in July 2018 and welcomes visitors from Wednesday to Sunday.
In a complex of new and historic buildings at “The Tree” on the High Street, the museum records the history of Crawley.
Your trip through time takes you from Prehistory to the Victorian period, and then into the 20th century when Crawley burgeoned as a New Town.
Two unmissable exhibits are a Bronze Age sword and a three-wheel 1903 Rex Forecar, looking like a cross between a car and a motorcycle and donated to the town in 1907. The museum has another site at the Ifield Watermill, believed to be the only working watermill in West Sussex and dating to 1686.
12. Goffs Park
Between Crawley’s town centre and Ifield, the Green Flag Goffs Park has more than enough for an affordable summer day out.
Excavations in this 50-acre park have revealed two Iron Age furnaces, while the refined Goffs Park House is the former home of the Crawley Museum.
From spring to autumn you can play the 18-hole pitch and putt course, while there’s a lake, woodland trails, pub/restaurant and a wildlife conservation area in the park’s northwest corner.
Another summer attraction is the light railway operated by volunteer enthusiasts on Sundays from 14:00 to 17:00.
13. Tulleys Farm
Just beyond the east edge of town, Tulleys Farm is a family attraction that changes with the seasons.
Since 1998 summer has normally brought a maize maze along with a puzzle park that has head-scratching active challenges for kids to solve.
In autumn, there’s the Shocktoberfest Scream Park, which is often rated as the UK’s top Halloween attraction and involves spooky daytime fun for kids, and scarier Night Frights for teenagers and grownups.
There are nine live attractions each year, from a haunted hayride to a nightmarish scenario where you get chased around by demented clowns, all with committed actors in convincing costumes.
All year round the farm has three much-loved room escape games, ranging in difficulty and for groups of two to eight players.
14. Go Ape Crawley
In the woodland at Tilgate Park there’s a branch of Go Ape, which owns high ropes courses all over the country.
As ever, Go Ape Crawley has circuits posted high in the forest, with Tree Top Adventure, a course for adults and children over ten, and Tree Top Junior for children.
Strapped into a harness, you’ll need up to three breathless hours to complete the 737-metre Tree Top Adventure, crawling through tunnels, climbing rope nets, crossing wobbly bridges and speeding down zip-lines.
Coming to Go Ape it makes sense to wear a sturdy pair of shoes and a pair of gloves.
15. County Mall
Day to day, Crawley gets a lot of visitors as a regional shopping destination, and in 1992 the 41,800-square-metre County Mall opened next to the train station.
If you’re in search of something in particular or want to idle away a couple of hours, the County Mall has most of the shops you’d expect to find on a UK high street.
Debenhams, Primark, JD Sports, Next and River Island are all here, to name a select few.
And if you can’t find what you’re looking for at County Mall there’s no lack of shops on the neighbouring town centre streets, for the likes of Lush, H&M and Decathlon.