Ready and Roam / English Countryside
Where & Why?
My husband Nick is from the tiny village of Frieth in Buckinghamshire County, England. Frieth sits in the English countryside enveloped by the Chiltern Hills, which are known and protected as an “area of outstanding natural beauty.” It’s a picturesque area to visit when you’re ready to leave the big city of London and see a quieter side of England. You could do a day trip from London, or spend a few days, depending on your desires and schedule. The sleepy village and surrounding towns offer a glimpse into a lavish, but quiet, English lifestyle with modern pub fare to Michelin rated restaurants and extraordinary views. A great alternative to the big city, with only a 30-40 minute train ride from central london. We’ve taken dozens of friends and family to Frieth over the years and everyone keeps returning two, three, and even four times. I’ve often asked myself what it is about Frieth that everyone loves and returns for. For me, it’s a reminder of a little bit of childhood that’s never been lost -- of simpler times where we slow down, take a walk, feel safe, and explore nature. It also allows for a peek inside a romanticized lifestyle through food, shopping, castles like Windsor, and world-renowned universities like Oxford.
A quick answer to ‘Where are The Chilterns?’ is to simply say, between London and Oxford. That gives you the idea it’s to the west and north-west of London.
You may not know this, but you’ve likely already been transported to Frieth and the surrounding villages through television and the movies. From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and 101 Dalmations to Bridget Jones' Baby; from Band of Brothers to The Monuments Men - the area is so breathtaking and picturesque they tend to film a lot of movies and tv here, especially historical period films and series. Since the hills are classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, it is protected in a way which conserves and enhance its natural beauty. Meaning, all the homes and pubs look like you’ve stepped into a Jane Austen film (minus the ball gowns and pithy quotes).
Best time to GO: Now, when the dollar is strong because of Brexit but really anytime is a good time to visit, especially if you’re planning a trip to London and want to adventure a little further. Short answer, Spring & Fall.
Overall, there isn’t too much extreme in weather. It’s easy to embrace the rainy days with shopping/restaurants or day trips into nearby Oxford, Henley, Marlow, or Windsor. That being said, if you’d like to enjoy long hikes or pub crawls through the countryside, the Spring (late March to early June) and autumn (September to November) are the best times for that. A visit in May will give you a chance to catch a glimpse of the beautiful bluebell flowers in Adam’s Wood Forest. If it snows in the winter, the villages shut down (they are not equipped like Minnesota), but it is oh-so-charming.
We fly into London Heathrow direct on Delta from Minneapolis and rent a car at Heathrow (or have family pick us up (my mother-in-law lives in Frieth)). I don’t recommend renting a car at the airport your first day if you’ve never driven in England. You’ll arrive early, jet lagged and your first instincts will be to drive on the wrong side of the road. You could pre-arrange a taxi to drive you directly into the Chiltern Hills or you could spend a few days enjoying London to find your sea legs first. If you are already in central London and ready to get out of the city for a few days, you take the train to the High Wycombe Station in the English Countryside (it’s about a 30-40 minute train ride depending on nonstop or peak hours). You’ll need to rent a car when you arrive in High Wycombe as taxis are pre-booked and they do not have uber/lyft. Depending on where you’re staying, all of the towns listed below are a 15 minute drive from train station. This may be a more forgiving place to test out your driving skills. However, be warned that there are many single-track roads, which are less than half the size of the state size roads.
See our two day London Itinerary
A great tradition of the British public is something that they refer to as a “ramble”. This is when they head out for a long walk via public footpaths known as “right of ways” that traverse through the woods, the valleys, and the glorious Chiltern Hills that make up the area. These rambles often involve stops from village to village with rest at each village’s iconic pub. Each pub caters specifically to these ramblers in some respects. A good sign of an excellent walking pub is counting the numbers of muddy boots just outside the pubs entrance. Pub hours are quite unique so most walks happen between the hours of 11 - 3PM to coincide with the typical lunch time hours. Keep in mind, country pubs are notoriously quiet on Monday and Tuesday as well. You can find rambles, very clearly identified in a book called Pub Walks in The Chilterns by Alan Charles, which would be available in most of the local book shops. You can also purchase a book online, The Chilterns - 40 favourite walks, by John & Annie Fergusson. My husband Nick has also put together an example of one you can find linked here.
“Rambles are known well in English culture. They are like a less structured pub crawl.”
We always stay at my mother-in-laws in Frieth, however, my American family & friends have enjoyed staying above nearby pubs when visiting, most are in close proximity to each other:
The Frog Inn at Skirmett / check reviews and availability on TripAdvisor
Stay above the pub at The Frog in Skirmett to get more of a local feel. (If you don’t stay here, book a night for dinner, order their fish and chips, and give the pub dog a pat on the head by the roaring fire). This place is also a great pub ramble addition.
The Stag & The Huntsman, Hambleden Valley / best rates on booking.com
There is an old-world charm about this pub, with its cozy spaces, quaint garden, and original structure. Rooms here are traditional each with a TV and an ensuite bath. Another good ramble spot with range of ales and a menu of pub favorites made from fresh local produce.
Frieth is a truly sleepy picturesque village with a population of about 500. If you blink you may undoubtedly miss it - so slow down and take in the area. Many looking for hotel or inn property stay in nearby Marlow, with stunning views of the Thames River. Marlow is about a 10 minute drive through a single track tree-covered road into Frieth.
The Hand and Flowers, Marlow / check reviews and availability on TripAdvisor
The Hand and The Flowers is Chef Tom Kerridge’s Michelin Starred Restaurant, found inside the most charming pub. While the food is refined, it also feels very familiar. The establishment offers eleven individually designed bedrooms, in three different cottages around Marlow. The rooms are more sizable than you’d expect and of course a stay there includes breakfast.
Dansfield House, Marlow / Book direct on Expedia
For romance or a spa splurge this is the place. We stayed at Dansifled for our wedding night (and folks like George and Amal Clooney have had their wedding celebrations here). It is over the top, so if this is not your style or price point, visit for high tea or a spa morning instead. Be sure to dedicate some time to walk through the 65 acres of formal gardens and take in the view of the River Thames.
The Compleat Angler, Marlow / best rates on booking.com
The hotel takes its name from the text on the art of fishing ‘The Compleat Angler, Or The Contemplative Man's Recreation’, written by Isaak Walton in 1653.It’s a famous and historic hotel on the banks of the River Thames, dating from 1640. The hotel offers stunning views of the River Thames, and is the perfect place from which to enjoy the gentle meanderings of boats passing by.
If you are looking for a private rental, you are not going to find a bad VRBO in this area. As a rule of thumb we look for a minimum of 5 great reviews. Here are a couple suggestions:
The Dog and Badger, Marlow / VRBO booking
This quintessential English cottage sits adjacent to The Dog & Badger Pub. The former ale house offers six fairly modern guest rooms with impressive refurbished bathrooms in an inn like setting. Some rooms have restricted ceiling height as the age of the property dates back to 1550 and breakfast is available at an additional fee.
The Boathouse, Henley / HomeAway booking
Right on the water, the location and amenities of this boathouse are incredible. Very close to the regatta course, grocery store and restaurants and walkable distance to the train station. This property does have a kitchen and balcony, but only sleeps two people.
Hike the Chiltern Hills
If you’re planning a day of hiking (or mountain biking) there are so many great options and different public footpaths around the Chiltern Hills. The area covers around 324 square miles of countryside, and The Chilterns go across four English counties: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The All Trails app. GPS will still work if you don’t have internet as long as you download the map before you go.
You’ll definitley want to take in the hills from the overlook at the top of Tobbagan Hill. Be sure not to miss the tiny village of Hambleden which is so charming. You can shop the village store for small and local. There is also Turville, where you can hit up The Barn at Turville Heath - this hidden cafe is the ideal rest stop for walkers, cyclists, and horseback riders enjoying the beauty of the Chilterns. It’s Turville where the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang still stands today.
Rtip: Find time to wander Gray’s Court’s cobblestone paths, specifically intended to keep fallen petals fresh under your feet. You can "free flow” tour the interior of this classic tutor and gardens near Henley when you want to pretend you are British Royalty.
Half-Day English Villages
Henley is the town of George Harrison and Friar Park, and the home to the Henley Royal Regatta — not to miss if you're a rower, or the place to avoid in July if you’re not. Whatever your motivation, head to Henley to take in a unique English afternoon enjoying a Pimms at The Angel on The Bridge on the River Thames. There is also some great shops on “high street” in Henley.
Marlow is the town for shopping, eating and drinking your way along “high street.” Walk towards the Marlow bridge (which is a small replica of the The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, spanning the River Danube in Budapest). Have lunch or tea at the Compleate Angler and watch the boats pass by.
The English Countryside is a lifestyle, so go for some long walks, slow down, eat some good food, drink some good beer, and take it all in.
Day trip to Oxford
Oxford is a wonderful day trip only 25 minutes along the M40. Alternatively there are bus routes from the High Wycombe station. Oxford is famed as an educational institution with incredible architectural beauty. The Bodleian Library is no doubt a symbol of the city and the iconic Radcliffe Camera is the most photographed building in all of Oxford. While not much happens inside, I suggest skipping the library altogether and heading to St. Mary’s Church. This University Church has a long and rich story and is open to visitors throughout the year. There are often guides on hand to answer questions and you can climb the tower for the highest viewpoint in Oxford, including the legendary ‘ivory towers’ and ‘dreaming spires’ that epitomize this stunning city.
Oxford is filled with cafes, bookstores (Waterstones is my favorite), and college examination buildings to revel at — all the buildings, and the city itself, seems to bleed history. It’s lovely to just walk the grounds and take in the magnificent history. There are walking tours available, many led by college students.
Rtip: Be sure to look for Alice's Shop across the road from Christ Church College. This is where the real Alice bought her sweets 150 years ago according to Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass.
The Trout Inn is a good dining spot right on the river, and The Turf Tavern is quaint well hidden pub worth seeking out. If it’s sunny grab “take away” sandwiches (Pret A Manger is on their high street) and go punting. There is a rental place called Oxford Punting, at the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse. You can also hire a chauffeured punting service if you don’t want to go it alone.
Some folks will make time to visit Windsor Castle (20 miles in the opposite direction as Oxford, from Frieth) for the changing of the guards, but we find it short lived. It’s entirely unique, but over in ten minutes and the castle is expensive unless you have the London Pass. If you decide to go, lunch at Browns is good and so is the shopping around Windsor — but stay away from the gimmicky stores closer to the castle and explore further down the hill instead.
“If I had to choose between Oxford and Windsor, I’d choose Oxford every time.”
John Lewis is a high-end department store located near the train station in High Wycombe with clothing, beauty, home goods and restaurants inside. I tend to buy a lot of good British coats here.
A lot of great things come out of England (The Beatles, Shakespeare, The Royal Family, David Beckham) but food is not exactly what they’re known for. However, this is NOT the case in London, and it is definitely not the case in Buckinghamshire or the surrounding counties. This area is a magnet for Michelin stars and truly good pub fare. Do your research and book some evenings out because there are so many great places to eat. Also, be sure to embrace the English lifestyle and secure your reservations for later in the evening — you’re in Europe after all, where most meals start around 8 or 9pm. Many inns will serve breakfast, most likely, bubble and squeak or a toad in the hole so I’ll keep my suggestions to afternoon and evening fare.
The Chequers Inn, Hambleden valley
The Chequers pub is a well-regarded retreat by the locals and the garden is the best kept secret in the valley. The atmosphere is cozy the food comforting and they offer live music occasionally at night.
Le Manoir Aux Quat’saisons, Great Milton, Oxford
For a truly, TRULY special occasions, go to Michelin Starred French Chef’s Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat'saisons (you can also rent rooms here, or take a cookery and/or pastry class!). We’ve been once, for lunch (which is a more reasonable option) for a truly special day. Don’t forget to walk around their gardens afterwards.
Owned by Chef Tom Kerridge, who also owns the Michelin Starred Restaurant The Hand and Flowers down the street, The Coach in Marlow is a chic but relaxed gastropub. With a rotisserie of the day and crispy pig head on the menu you’ll be surprised to learn they have a lot of fantastic no meat options too.
The Frog in Skirmett, Henley-on-Thames
We had our groom’s dinner here a decade ago. This lively public house dates back over 300 years, their food never disappoints and their fire is always roaring (housed with a pub dog if you're missing your pup at home).
Rtip: When eating out most do not tip, like in America. The country leans towards paying their workers what they’re worth, rather than leaving it in the hands of paying customers.
You can always opt to eat at home in your VRBO or AirBNB. If you want to cook for yourself you can pick up ingredients at the Waitross Supermarket in Henley or Marlow. Alternatively, ordering from a curry house in England is a must. For this I suggest, Osbourne Spice in the countryside of Lane End, High Wycombe. If all else fails, the Frog in Skirmett does a great “take away” fish and chips.
Their menus are a safe bet and they make a good Gin & Tonic. Plus their wine list is impressive to say the least, with 67 wines, 32 of them by the glass They also feature four local cask conditioned ales, with beers from Rebellion Brewery Marlow, Chiltern Brewery and West Berkshire Brewery on tap, and plenty of craft ales by the bottle. Drink up!
Even if you aren’t planning to eat at this highly rated restaurant you should go there for cocktails. The English like their Gin and this is a great place for some. In the morning they offer “Morning Snifters” in the from of a Bloody Mary and a Bucks Fizz.
You’re in England after all, so you should experience “High Tea.” The Danesfield House offers a traditional one and it comes with the WOW factor of experiencing the Hotel if you are not staying there. The Compleat Angler in Marlow also offers the opportunity to experience this great British tradition.
“As far as coffee goes, Costa Coffee is their version of Starbucks and there is a location in Marlow.”
There are many great pubs to stop in for lunch and a pint depending on where your ramble takes you. Start with the pubs mentioned where you should ‘Stay’ above, as well as The Chequers Inn (listed under ‘Devour’). Additionally you can consider the quintessential English pubs Bull & Butcher, in Turville or The Crown in Radnage.
PUBS: (a little bit about the beer) There are two types of pubs, one which is owned by the brewery and one that isn’t. The brewery owned pub requires the landlord to serve its own beer, in addition to some wine and makes most of its money from food. In essence, is a vehicle for the brewery to get it’s product out to the market. The freehold pub a/k/a a ‘freehouse,’ is allowed to sell whatever it wants and the landlord is often the owner outright. These pubs are free to offer a mixture of different beers, often all from the local area, and makes most of its money from food as well. You’ll know what type of pub you’re in as the name of the brewery will be on the traditional pub sign. The main brewery in the local area is Brakespears. Although now it’s owned by the big guys, the original brewery is now a hotel in Henley called Hotel Du Vin.
In recent times one of the dominate microbreweries in the area, Rebellion Brewery, has shaken up the market becoming a major player serving their beer all over the south of England. It’s one of my husbands first stops when we’re in Marlow and they offers specials to the public on the first Tuesday’s of every month.
Be sure to bring a raincoat and/or a warm English jumper (sweater). It’s a wet cold in England, which requires everything (a) to be warm, and (b) to be waterproof. You’ll also want a good pair of hiking boots or Wellies. A daypack, a convoy pack and a small coin purse (for all the British coins you get back in change). The coin pouch featured below is a bit oversized and features a clear exterior sleeve for reciepts.
Make sure you go for a long hike! The Chiltern hills are beautiful.
Click to see everywhere Marie & Nick suggest in My Maps