Craig Roberts takes you on a stately tour of the Royal Regatta at Henley and Windsor Castle before heading into the Chiltern Hills.
The Chilterns are an often-overlooked beauty spot in the English countryside, sitting north of the M4 and dissected by the newer M40, which if nothing else makes them easily accessible. These chalk downlands offer wonderful views over the prevailing land often crowned with woodland, which sets them apart from the similar South Downs. The River Thames meanders away from the capital to the south of the Chilterns, offering a combination of countryside to explore as well as see the ancient towns that scatter the area along a wonderful part of the river.
Following the route of the Thames towards London you come across some the most picturesque parts of the river, especially so at Henley-on-Thames. This former medieval market town, strategically placed at a river crossing, is most famous for its Regatta on the river, held on the first week of July. The event dates back to 1839, becoming the Royal Regatta with the patronage of Prince Albert in 1851 and each year the small town is inundated by international oarsman and visitors alike.
Inspired by the history and flamboyancy of this part of the Thames, I visited the modern looking River and Rowing Museum. Inside are galleries devoted to the River Thames and the international sport of rowing, as well as portraying the regatta’s history and the general significance of rowing on this part of the river. The museum also includes a newly added Wind in the Willows exhibition, which brings to life Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved tale. If you wanted, you could leave the van parked at Henley and take a boat trip up river from the museum’s own jetty, a fantastic way to get a different view of the Thames.
Just north of Henley, as well as on the north side of the Thames is the village of Hambleden, one of the prettiest in Buckinghamshire. The town is centred around the Church of St Mary, which dates back to Norman times, as well as the manor house, where Lord Cardigan (of Light Brigade fame) was born. Back to the river and I found the Hambleden Mill with its weir, set in a stunning location, a scene that has no doubt graced many a calendar. The Chiltern Valley Winery and Brewery is also nearby, where they produce fine wines and Old Luxtors Ale. Although there is no regular tour of the brewery, there is a fine cellar gift shop, which offers try-before-you-buy and is an ideal place for any wine connoisseurs amongst you.
Further along the course of the river and I reached the town of Marlow and parked up near its suspension bridge. The bridge was built in 1832 and designed by William Tierney Clarke, who also built a similar bridge over the River Danube in Budapest, after it was spotted by a Hungarian Count whilst touring Europe. The town itself has many literary connections, especially along West Street, where Mary Shelly (who wrote Frankenstein) stayed for a year and where both the poet T.S. Eliot and author Thomas Love Peacock, also lived for a short time.
Windsor was the last town on my route along the course of the river, however you may also like to stop off at Cliveden if you have time. This house sits high on a hill above the Thames and was built in 1851 by Sir Charles Barry, who was chief architect on the Houses of Parliament. Built for the Duke of Sutherland, it is now a hotel, but the only one in Britain to also be a stately home and is owned by the National Trust. It features landscaped gardens by ‘Capability’ Brown and in 1963 was at the centre of the Perfumo affair, that rocked the government.
Windsor castle is predominantly visible as you approach the historic, royal town from the motorway. Built for William the Conqueror over 900 years ago, it dominates the town that was built around it. It has been the official residence for many kings and queens over the centuries and the town’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the monarchy’s interest in the castle. The town also has many interesting streets and buildings including the crooked Market Cross House and the Guildhall, built by Christopher Wren. Then of course, just over the bridge that crosses the Thames, is Eton with its famous college.
Heading down the High Street on this side of the river, you are bound to bump into Etonians, the collegers, dressed in their traditional coat tails and striped trousers and look out for the charming Cockpit Restaurant, that dates back to 1420. Frequented by King Charles II, it was once the setting for cock fighting. Outside the front is an ancient set of stocks and to the side is a rare Victorian post box.
I said my farewell to the Thames and headed north into Buckinghamshire with my first stop at Chalfont St Giles. It’s a small, but very historic village, famous for its connections with the poet John Milton, who lived here whilst fleeing from the Plague of London. His cottage is open to the public and it was here that he completed "Paradise Lost" and its sequel "Paradise Regained". Many people will also recognise the village as ‘Walmington-on-Sea’ from the Dad’s Army film.
If you get time take a detour to the Open Air Museum, just a few miles east, whose theme is buildings through the ages. It’s a most unusual museum, containing a wide variety of buildings of relevance to the Chilterns, many of which were dismantled and re-erected for the museum.
Amersham Old Town is popular both with visitors and locals alike. It has a wide sweeping High Street, half-timbered buildings, picturesque period cottages and a wonderful selection of exclusive designer and craft shops. The Old Town attractions include, the award winning Amersham Museum, housed in a building dating from the mid 15th century, The Market Hall, which dates from 1682 and St. Mary's Parish Church. The town also has a plentiful supply of fine restaurants and coaching inns including The Kings Arms and The Crown Hotel, both used as locations for the hit movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Heading on, I next reached the picturesque town of Beaconsfield, which like Amersham is divided into two separate and distinct parts – the old and the new. Former coaching inns as well as many other old buildings flank the attractive old town. Despite modern traffic, Beaconsfield still retains a village atmosphere and there is a bustling market held every Tuesday. It was also home to Enid Blyton, who wrote many of her books whilst living at ‘Green Hedges’ in the town.
The new town is home to Bekonscot Model Village, the oldest model village in the world, dating back to 1929. Here you can wander through six villages, each with their own miniature population going about their daily routines and featuring many famous landmarks such as Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Hampton Court maze.
Another large town I decided to stop off at is High Wycombe, the largest town in Buckinghamshire. It grew during the 18th and 19th centuries around the furniture industry, and was once known as ‘the furniture capital of England’. Its wide, typically Georgian High Street, is dominated at its western end by the Little Market House, built by Robert Adam and known affectionately as ‘The Pepperpot’.
Just next-door is West Wycombe, synonymous with the Hellfire Club founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, who originally held its meetings at Medmenham Abbey. The club, whose members included the Cabinet, artists and even royalty, indulged in scurrilous antics that soon became a nationwide scandal and so, eventually the caves at West Wycombe became the new meeting place, ideal as it was away from prying eyes. These unique natural caves that they used are well worth a visit and contain scenes from the Hellfire Club. Also sitting above them on the hillside is the fine Church of St Lawrence, with its golden ball, serving as a landmark for miles around.
Heading back into the countryside, I came across Turville, a beautiful, sleepy, English village with some famous on screen appearances. The church here was used in the popular television programme The Vicar of Dibley, whilst the windmill, high up on hill featured in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Quite an accolade for such a small village. The churchyard is also of particular interest. Apparently there is a tomb which was the final resting place of a 13th century priest, but when opened in later years the priest was gone and instead it contained the body of a woman who had been shot! Then there is the tale of the ‘Sleeping Girl of Turville’, who in the 19th century, slept for nine years, fed only on port wine and sugar by her mother. On waking however, she amazingly lived a normal life and married with kids. Not so much a quiet village after all!
And so I drove on into the Chilterns, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Coombe Hill was my first stop, which is topped with a monument dedicated to the men who died in the Boer War. The hill is 850ft high and the highest point in the Chilterns and well worth a visit for the fantastic views, which includes Chequers, the Prime Ministers country home. The road leads up to the large car park at the top of this hill, so there is no long climb to the top, but it still makes a good place to get out and stretch your legs.
Nearby Ellesborough is an attractive village with a pretty church, although one local told me that it’s meant to be haunted. Opposite the church is Beacon Hill, which unlike Coombe Hill requires a walk up to enjoy the views, including the fine view back to the church. If you are one who enjoys walking, then you will find many footpaths providing delightful walks all around this area, especially through the many bluebells woods Buckinghamshire is famous for, that are transformed into a breathtaking display of colour during late spring. There are many to recommend visiting including Phillips, Cowlease and Adams Wood. I explored the one at Ipsden Heath and was quite taken a back with the carpet of colour that filled the wood.
The last major town on the trip was Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire and it’s a lively market town steeped in history. Located at the foot of the Chiltern Hills on the north side, it’s at the heart of the rich agricultural Vale of Aylesbury. The town was a focal point in the English Civil War in the 17th century. Today the town spreads out from the Market Square, which is overlooked by the impressive County Hall, built to a design approved by Sir John Vanbrugh.
I fully recommend you make a visit to Waddesdon Manor, a stunning looking house resembling a French chateau, which was built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and designed by a French architect, as were the gardens. The Baron wanted it to impress his friends and have somewhere to display his art works, having fallen in love with the surrounding views. He entertained many distinguished guests here including the Prince of Wales and even Queen Victoria. There are 45 rooms on view with fine furniture and walls decorated with Dutch Old Masters. The Victorian gardens are some of the finest in Britain and it’s famous for its Parterre. The Old Kitchen and Servants’ Hall now serves as the Manor Restaurant, offering a menu of traditional, seasonal, European and British dishes.
The windmill at Brill sits right near the border where Buckinghamshire meets Oxfordshire and was built in 1668 and is the last survivor of three mills in the village. It is also the ideal place, as I did, to finish your tour. Sitting high on the common with panoramic views of Oxfordshire and the Vale of Aylesbury, cup of tea in hand, I reflected back on my last few days around the area.
The Chiltern Hills actually reach further north into Hertfordshire and this part of the area would also be worth exploring on a longer trip, or as part of a separate tour, as I plan to do at a later date. For now though, I was happy I had seen much of what the area has to offer with the added bonus of a journey along the Thames, which combined to make it one of the most enjoyable tours I have made for a while.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2006