Arching around the peripheries of London, beyond the orbital M25, the “Home Counties” of England form London’s commuter belt. Beyond the suburban sprawl, however, there is plenty to entice. The northwestern Home Counties – Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire – are at their most appealing amidst the Chiltern Hills, a picturesque band of chalk uplands whose wooded ridges rise near Luton, beside the M1, and stretch southwest. The hills provide an exclusive setting for many of the capital’s wealthiest commuters, but for the casual visitor the obvious target is Henley-on-Thames, an attractive old town famous for its Regatta; it’s a handy base for further explorations, with the village of Cookham – and its Stanley Spencer gallery – leading the way.
Striking west from the Chilterns across the North Wessex Downs is the 85-mile-long Ridgeway, a prehistoric track – and now a national trail possessing a string of prehistoric sites, the most extraordinary being the gigantic chalk horse that gives the Vale of White Horse its name. The Vale is dotted with pleasant little villages, though the star is the nearby university city of Oxford, with its superb architecture, museums and lively student population. Nearby is Woodstock, the handsome little town abutting one of England’s most imposing country homes, Blenheim Palace.
Beyond Oxford lie the rolling hills and ridges of the Cotswolds. Covering much of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, this picture-postcard region is dotted with glorious honey-coloured villages, old churches and handsome stone mansions, and features some nice walking on the Cotswolds Way. Highlights include the engaging market town of Chipping Campden, the delightful village of Northleach and bustling Cirencester. To the west is Cheltenham, an appealing Regency spa town famous for its horse racing. It’s a good base for visits to Gloucester, with its superb cathedral and rejuvenated docks area.
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