Everyone associates the River Thames with London, but this amazing waterway actually stretches far beyond the city.
Every visitor to Britain should get out of London. Wonderful as the capital is, a major cosmopolitan city cannot begin to unpack the diverse joys of Britain’s landscape, lifestyle, and people.
You don’t have to travel far, however, to find a great sample of English history, culture, and countryside. Just west of the city in the counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire lie the Thames Valley and Chiltern Hills waiting to be explored.
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Day 1: Let’s begin in Royal Windsor
Just west of Heathrow, Windsor is a short drive or train ride from London, with easy access directly from the airports. Every day of the year, coachloads of tourists swing into town for a programmed visit to Windsor Castle, and then quickly disappear again. Both the Queen’s home and the town repay much more.
Yes, the Royal residence for 1,000 years is massive, with so much to see. Pace yourself, but plan half a day to take in the State Apartments, sundry exhibitions (including famous Queen Mary’s Dollhouse), St. George’s Chapel and views from the terrace over the playing fields of Eton.
There are plenteous lodgings in Windsor, from classic hotels like the Harte & Garter and MacDonald Windsor hotels to budget options like Travelodge and Holiday Inn Express, and B&Bs as well. Windsor is one place, though, where you will want to book ahead.
Day 2: In the Queen’s neighborhood
You may have reserved a part of the castle for today, and hang around to witness the famous Changing of the Guard (which is much more impressive than its counterpart at Buckingham Palace).
For lunch, explore the arcade of cafes and eateries in Windsor’s old train station just across from the castle. Next door, the King Edward Court shopping center is well worth a browse even for non-shoppers.
Then, it’s time to explore the neighborhood. Across a footbridge from town, Eton College dominates the old village. Eton College Chapel and the school’s quads and museum unpack the school’s history as an incubator of the movers and shakers of English history. Riverside, there is a choice of boat rides on the beautiful River Thames, cruising upriver with the Queen’s swans for an hour or more (great fun).
For walkers, take a stretch on the Long Walk that leads from the castle into the park. It’s where the Royal family goes riding.
Windsor is a comfortable town in the evening—after the daytrippers have moved on. Wander down St. Leonard’s Road for a colorful selection of dining options and pubs. Or check out what’s playing at Windsor’s bijou Theatre Royal on High St. across from the castle ramparts.
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Day 3: Around the Great Park
There’s an easy excursion today around the perimeter of Windsor Great Park. Begin by following the river east a few miles through Old Windsor to Runnymede—the meadow where King John sealed Magna Carta 800 years ago. Follow the signposts to the ridge above the meadow to visit the Air Forces Memorial (hugely impressive, and virtually unknown to overseas visitors).
From Egham, take the A30 toward Virginia Water, and a visit to Savill Garden, a classic English landscape garden beautiful throughout the year. Then follow the A329 to Ascot. Take a circuit of the famous racecourse and the village. The A332 back to Windsor leads straight through Windsor Great Park. The 3,000-acre parkland in the Crown Estate is open to the public. Just pull up in parking areas beside the road and stroll the grounds.
Of course, if you are traveling with family, this whole itinerary may be traded for a day at nearby Legoland.
Day 4: Head for the Chilterns
It is perfectly possible to base this entire itinerary from a stay in Windsor. There is less of a commute and more serenity, though, if you move your flag north today. Country hotels and town lodging of every description are found along the A40 from Gerrard’s Cross to High Wycombe and in towns and villages along the Thames.
Following the A335 north a few miles, take a well-signed detour for the Burnham Beaches, an ancient hardwood grove worth the seeing, then perhaps check out Bekonscot Model Village. Turn west to High Wycombe and plan a visit to Hughenden Manor, the country home of Victorian statesman Benjamin Disraeli.
This National Trust site features lovely gardens and views over the Hughenden Valley, and a great perspective on this major figure in British political history. Or turn east a bit to the village of Chalfont St. Giles. Milton’s Cottage unpacks the life and times of 17th-century poet John Milton. Just down the road in Jordans, see the Quaker Meeting House of 1688 and the burial ground of William Penn and his family.
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Day 5: Adventures on the River
Perhaps the prettiest stretch of the Thames lies west as it snakes upriver toward Oxford. Head for Marlow on the A4155 and follow the river to Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Regatta and capital of British rowing. Check out the River and Rowing Museum profiled in our last issue. Henley’s broad High Street makes a great place for coffee, lunch or poking in the shops.
Fans of Midsummer Murders may want to drive the 10 miles over to Wallingford, recognizable as the setting for fictional Causton and home of Agatha Christie (see “Murder Most Midsummer,” March 2013). Or continue to follow the river, now turning south to Sonning.
It’s easy to find The Bull Inn and walk the footpath through the churchyard to picturesque locks on the river. The Bull makes a wonderful spot for refreshments (and for celebrity spotting).
Day 6: Spoiled for more as always
Today can provide an easy return to London or the airport. It’s also a short drive from Buckinghamshire up to Oxford on the M40, where the university and historic city awaits. Or drop down to the A4, where Newbury lies a dozen miles west of Reading.
In season, fans might head for Highclere Castle, the now-famous home of the Earl of Caernarvon familiar to British Heritage readers as Downton Abbey. You might carry on along the “old” road west toward Avebury and Bath. As always, we run out of time rather than fascinating places to see.
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* Originally published in Jan 2015.