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 (discover the prettiest), 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.
Top image © A G Baxter/Shutterstock
Around OxfordFrom Oxford, it’s a short trip west to the Cotswolds and a brief haul south to both the Vale of White Horse and the Chiltern Hills. Nearer still – a brief bus ride north – is the charming little town of Woodstock and its imperious neighbour, Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Blenheim PalaceIn 1704, as a thank-you for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim, Queen Anne gave
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough
(1650–1722) the royal estate of Woodstock, along with the promise of enough cash to build himself a gargantuan palace.
Work started promptly on Blenheim Palace with Sir John Vanbrugh, who was also responsible for Castle Howard in Yorkshire as principal architect. However, the duke’s formidable wife, Sarah Jennings, who had wanted Christopher Wren, was soon at loggerheads with Vanbrugh, while Queen Anne had second thoughts, stifling the flow of money. Construction work was halted and the house was only finished after the duke’s death at the instigation of his widow, who ended up paying most of the bills and designing much of the interior herself. The end result is the country’s grandest example of Baroque civic architecture, an Italianate palace of finely worked yellow stone that is more a monument than a house – just as Vanbrugh intended.
The interior of the main house is stuffed with paintings and tapestries, plus all manner of objets d’art, including furniture from Versailles and carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Those interested in Winston Churchill may prefer the Churchill Exhibition, which provides a brief introduction to the man, accompanied by live recordings of some of his more famous speeches. Born here at Blenheim, Churchill (1874–1965), grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, now lies buried alongside his wife in the graveyard of Bladon church just outside the estate.
Blenheim GardensBlenheim’s formal gardens, to the rear of the house, are divided into several distinct areas, including a rose garden and an arboretum, though the open parkland is more enticing, leading from the front of the house down to an artificial lake, Queen Pool. Vanbrugh’s splendid Grand Bridge crosses the lake to the Column of Victory, erected by Sarah Jennings and topped by a statue of her husband posing heroically in a toga.
WoodstockWOODSTOCK, eight miles north of Oxford, has royal associations going back to Saxon times, with a string of kings attracted by its excellent hunting. The Royalists used Woodstock as a base during the Civil War, but, after their defeat, Cromwell never got round to destroying either the town or the palace: the latter was ultimately given to (and flattened by) the Duke of Marlborough in 1704 when work started on the building you see today. Long dependent on royal and then ducal patronage, Woodstock is now both a well-heeled commuter town for Oxford and a base for visitors to Blenheim. It is also an extremely pretty little place, its handsome stone buildings gathered around the main square, at the junction of Market and High streets.
The Chiltern HillsThe Chiltern Hills extend southwest from the workaday town of Luton, beside the M1, bumping across Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire as far as the River Thames. At their best, the hills offer handsome countryside, comprising a band of forested chalk hills with steep ridges and deep valleys interrupted by easy, rolling farmland. Henley-on-Thames is the draw, a pleasant riverside town within easy striking distance of the area’s key attractions and with a reasonable range of accommodation. Nearby highlights include the village of Cookham, home to the fascinating Stanley Spencer Gallery. West of the Chilterns, the Ridgeway National Trail offers splendid hiking amongst the more open scenery of the Berkshire and Oxfordshire downs, especially in the Vale of White Horse.
Henley Royal RegattaHenley is best known for its Royal Regatta, established in 1839 and now the world’s most important amateur rowing tournament. The regatta, featuring past and potential Olympic rowers, begins on the Wednesday before the first weekend in July and runs for five days. Further information is available from the Regatta Headquarters on the east side of Henley Bridge (t 01491 572153, w hrr.co.uk).
The CotswoldsThe limestone hills that make up the Cotswolds are preposterously photogenic, dotted with a string of picture-book villages, many of them built by wealthy cloth merchants between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Largely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, which heralded the area’s commercial decline, much of the Cotswolds is technically speaking a relic, its architecture beautifully preserved. Numerous churches are decorated with beautiful carving, for which the local limestone was ideal: soft and easy to carve when first quarried, but hardening after long exposure to the sunlight.
The Cotswolds have become one of the country’s main tourist attractions, with many towns afflicted by plagues of tearooms and souvenir and antiques shops – this is Morris Dancing country. To see the Cotswolds at their best, you should visit off season or perhaps avoid the most popular towns and instead escape into the hills themselves, though even in high season the charms of towns like Chipping Campden – “Chipping” as in ceapen, the Old English for market – Burford and Northleach are evident.
As for walking, this might be a tamed landscape, but there’s good scope for exploring the byways, either in the gentler valleys that are most typical of the Cotswolds or along the dramatic escarpment that marks the boundary with the Severn Valley. The Cotswold Way national trail runs for a hundred miles along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment from Chipping Campden in the northeast to Bath in the southwest, with a number of prehistoric sites providing added interest along the route. The section around Belas Knap is particularly rewarding, offering superb views over Cheltenham and the Severn Valley to the distant Malverns.
CheltenhamPrior to the eighteenth century CHELTENHAM was like any other small-time Gloucestershire town, until the discovery of a spring in 1716 transformed it into Britain’s most popular spa. During Cheltenham’s heyday, a century or so later, the royal, the rich and the famous descended in droves to take the waters, which were said to cure anything from constipation to worms. These days, the town has a lively, bustling atmosphere, lots of good restaurants and some of England’s best-preserved Regency architecture. The town is also a thriving arts centre, famous for its festivals of folk (Feb), jazz (April/May), science (June), classical music (July) and literature (Oct) and, of course, the races.
Cheltenham RacesCheltenham racecourse, on the north side of town, a ten-minute walk from Pittville Park at the foot of Cleeve Hill, is Britain’s main steeplechasing venue. The principal event of the season, the three-day National Hunt Festival in March, attracts 40,000 people a day; it’s essential to buy tickets in advance. Other meetings take place in January, April, October, November and December: a list of fixtures is posted at the tourist office. For the cheapest but arguably the best view, pay £8 (rising to £15 during the Festival, £25 on Gold Cup Day) for entry to the Best Mate Enclosure, as the pen in the middle is known.
Chipping CampdenOn the northern edge of the Cotswolds, CHIPPING CAMPDEN gives a better idea than anywhere else in the Cotswolds as to how a prosperous wool town might have looked in the Middle Ages. The short High Street is hemmed in by ancient houses, with an undulating line of weather-beaten roofs above and twisted beams and mullioned windows below. The seventeenth-century Market Hall has survived too, an open-sided pavilion propped up on sturdy stone piers in the middle of the High Street, where farmers once gathered to sell their produce. The town also served as a crucible for the burgeoning Cotswolds Arts and Crafts movement, largely thanks to the pioneering work of C. R. Ashbee.
CirencesterSelf-styled “Capital of the Cotswolds”, the affluent town of CIRENCESTER lies on the southern fringes of the region, midway between Oxford and Bristol. As Corinium, it became a provincial capital and a centre of trade under the Romans. The town flourished for three centuries, and even had one of the largest forums north of the Alps, but the Saxons destroyed almost all of the Roman city, and the town only revived with the wool boom of the Middle Ages. Few medieval buildings other than the St John the Baptist church have survived, however, and the houses along the town’s most handsome streets – Park, Thomas and Coxwell – date mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today Cirencester’s heart is the delightful, swirling Market Place, packed with traders’ stalls on Mondays and Fridays.
NorthleachSecluded in a shallow depression some ten miles north of Cirencester, NORTHLEACH is one of the most appealing and least developed villages in the Cotswolds – a great base to explore the area. Rows of immaculate late medieval cottages cluster around the village’s Market Place with more of the same framing the adjoining Green; the most outstanding feature is the handsome church of St Peter and St Paul, erected at the height of the wool boom.
GloucesterFor centuries life was good for GLOUCESTER, just ten miles west of Cheltenham. The Romans chose this spot for a garrison to guard the River Severn, while in Saxon and Norman times the Severn developed into one of the busiest trade routes in Europe. The city became a major religious centre too, but from the fifteenth century onwards a combination of fire, plague, civil war and increasing competition from rival towns sent Gloucester into a decline from which it never recovered – even the opening of a new canal in 1827 between Gloucester and Sharpness to the south failed to revive the town’s dwindling fortunes.
Today, the canal is busy once again, though this time with pleasure boats, and the Victorian docks have undergone a facelift, offering a fascinating glimpse into the region’s industrial past. The main reason for a visit, however, remains Gloucester’s magnificent cathedral, one of the finest in the country.
The CathedralThe superb condition of Gloucester
is striking in a city that has bulldozed so much of its history. The Saxons founded an abbey here, but four centuries later, in 1089, Benedictine monks arrived intent on building their own church; work began in 1089. As a place of worship it shot to importance after the murder of King Edward II in 1327: Bristol and Malmesbury supposedly refused to take his body, but Gloucester did, and the king’s shrine became a major place of pilgrimage. The money generated helped finance the conversion of the church into the country’s first and greatest example of the
: the magnificent 225ft tower crowns the achievement.
Beneath the reconstructions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some Norman aspects remain, best seen in the nave, which is flanked by sturdy pillars and arches adorned with immaculate zigzag carvings. The choir provides the best vantage point for admiring the east window completed in around 1350 and – at almost 80ft tall – the largest medieval window in Britain, a stunning cliff face of stained glass. Beneath it, to the left (as you’re facing the east window) is the tomb of Edward II, immortalized in alabaster and marble. Below the east window lies the Lady Chapel, whose delicate carved tracery holds a staggering patchwork of windows. The innovative nature of the cathedral’s design can also be appreciated in the beautiful cloisters, completed in 1367 and featuring the first fan vaulting in the country –used to represent the corridors of Hogwart’s School in the Harry Potter films.
OxfordWhen they think of OXFORD, visitors almost always imagine its university, revered as one of the world’s great academic institutions. But, although the university dominates central Oxford both physically and mentally, the wider city has an entirely different character, its economy built on the car plants of Cowley to the south of the centre. It was here that Britain’s first mass-produced cars were produced in the 1920s and, although there have been more downs than ups in recent years, the plants are still vitally important to the area.
Oxford should be high on anyone’s itinerary, and can keep you occupied for several days. The colleges include some of England’s finest architecture, and the city also has some excellent museums and a good range of bars and restaurants.
The Bodleian LibraryThe UK’s largest after the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library stores some 11 million book stacked up along almost 120 miles of shelves and growing fast – as one of the UK’s six legal deposit libraries, the Bodleian receives a copy of every work published in Britain.
The origins of the Bodleian go back to Duke Humfrey’s Library of 1488. The Bodleian proper was founded in 1602 by Thomas Bodley, initially occupying Duke Humfrey’s original library, although it grew so rapidly that the Old Schools Quadrangle was constructed between 1613 and 1618 to house the expanding collection. The library subsequently spread steadily outwards, occupying the Clarendon Building, Radcliffe Camera and finally the New Bodleian Library on Broad Street, built in the 1930s.
Tours of the Bodleian libraryThere are a variety of tours of the library, most centred on the Old Schools Quadrangle (including the Divinity School). Sixty-minute guided tours cover the Divinity School, Duke Humfrey’s Library and other parts of the Old Schools Quad, while there are also 30min tours visiting the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library. An extended tour adds visits to the Radcliffe Camera (the only way to get into the building for non-scholars) and the small medieval library of chained books in the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Tours are very popular, so it’s a good idea to arrive early on the day to reserve. Alternatively, there’s an audioguide that covers the quad and Divinity School.
Oxford’s collegesThe origins of the university are obscure, but it seems that the reputation of Henry I, the so-called “Scholar King”, helped attract students in the early twelfth century. The first colleges, founded mostly by rich bishops, were essentially ecclesiastical institutions and this was reflected in collegiate rules and regulations – until 1877 lecturers were not allowed to marry, and women were not granted degrees until 1920. There are common architectural features among the 39 colleges, with the private student rooms and most of the communal rooms – chapels, halls (dining rooms) and libraries – arranged around quadrangles (quads). Each, however, has its own character and often a label, whether it’s the richest (St John’s), most left-wing (Wadham) or most public-school-dominated (Christ Church). Collegiate rivalries are long established, usually revolving around sports, and tension between the university and the city – “Town” and Gown” – has existed as long as the university itself.
Exploring the collegesAll the more popular colleges have restricted opening hours – and may close totally during academic functions. Most now also impose an admission charge, while some (such as University and Queens) are out of bounds to outsiders.
One nice way to get to see the university buildings (including those that are otherwise closed to outsiders) is to attend choral evensong, held during term time and offering the chance to enjoy superb music in historic surroundings for free. New College Choir is generally reckoned to be the best, while Queens College and Merton are also good. Some colleges also rent out student rooms in the vacations (see Accommodation).
Punting in OxfordPunting is a favourite summer pastime among both students and visitors, but handling a punt – a flat-bottomed boat ideal for the shallow waters of the Thames and Cherwell rivers – requires some practise. The punt is propelled and steered with a long pole, which beginners inevitably get stuck in riverbed mud. Pulling over to the banks of the water for a riverside picnic is an essential part of the experience.
There are two central boat rental places: Magdalen Bridge boathouse, beside the Cherwell at the east end of the High Street; and the Thames boat station at Folly Bridge, a short stroll south of the centre along St Aldates. In summer, the queues soon build up at both, so try to get there early – at around 10am. At both boathouses, expect to pay about £16–20 per hour for a boat plus a £30 deposit; ID may be required. Punts can take a maximum of five passengers – four sitting and one punting. Call the boathouses for opening times – which vary – or if there are any doubts about the weather. Both boathouses also rent out chauffeured punts. You’ll also find rowing boats and pedaloes for rent, although these aren’t nearly as much fun.