A freewheeler’s guide to the Chilterns
When my wife and I got engaged we decided that we were going to try to grow vegetables and have chickens. By pure luck we ended up in Buckinghamshire, in Medmenham – a place whose name we couldn’t even pronounce – and we’ve been here for 18 years. We rented a cottage up in the woods before we bought our home on the river; we went from living like Badger in The Wind in the Willows to being like Ratty. There’s a lovely beach with gentle sand into the river, and my three daughters learned to swim in the Thames. At the top of the hill in Medmenham there’s an old 17th-century hunting lodge – in those days it was a half-day’s journey from London and it was on the trail to Bristol and Oxford.
The Chilterns are a great area for cycling. With my daughters I’ll ride away from the river along the top of the hills to Hambleden. People like to pedal as fast as they can up and down the main roads but you really want to get off those and into the Chilterns, where it’s single-track roads and there’s so much wildlife. It’s amazing how well-preserved the countryside is.
From Medmenham we have Henley on one side and Marlow on the other – Henley tends to be more old-school and Marlow more trendy. At the former, you definitely want to rent a boat from Hobbs of Henley and go chugging down the Thames. To do something really wild, go to Wargrave, pick up a canoe or a paddle board and paddle down to Henley. Have lunch there at The Angel on the Bridge pub, right on the river, and then keep on going all the way down to Marlow. If you’re really clever you’ll find a secret backwater route to return you to Wargrave – I won’t reveal where it is because you’ve got to discover it for yourself.
It’s 45 minutes from London by rail, but if you need to stay in Henley, stay at the Hotel du Vin, which is solid as a rock. In Marlow, it sounds really naff but you should stay at the Premier Inn; it’s a lovely old inn that used to be a proper pub. Then you can spoil yourself with dinner at the Compleat Angler for fine dining on the river, or at Malik’s for a Heston Blumenthal-approved curry. There’s a lot of excitement about Tom Kerridge in Marlow, where he has his Hand & Flowers gastropub, but I would go to his other outfit, The Coach, which is bloody good, for small plates from head chef Sarah Hayward. If I’m in trouble with Mrs B-A, it’s a bottle of wine and The Coach. You can’t book so on a Tuesday night you just turn up, you might wait 10 minutes and then you get a table. Or there’s our local, The Dog & Badger in Medmenham, which is more than 600 years old and does food and rooms. For something a bit quirky, you can go up behind Henley to the Nettlebed Creamery. The Cheese Shed there is a massive barn where you sit on bales of hay. The ice cream is off the charts and the cakes are amazing.
This summer we had all the festivals and regattas again. For me, Henley Festival is the best: this year we had Craig David one night and Tom Jones the next. I don’t think I’m the only person to go to the Regatta who isn’t that interested in rowing – the afterparty seems to be bigger than the regatta itself. It’s like Venice with sailing boats, rowing boats, twinkling lights, everyone with bottles of wine – and occasionally an enormous motorised rubber duck. When autumn sets in, Kenton Theatre in Henley is an independent gem. It’s one of the oldest working theatres in the country, with only about 250 seats, and it does fantastic tiny performances. For something really special, my friend Mark flies the Virgin hot-air balloons out of Henley. He’s a sensational pilot but the fun is that you don’t really know where you’re going to end up. Mark is a great entertainer who knows every single field.
People often think they need to go miles away to have an amazing experience. But here you can stick two Bromptons on a train or in the back of the car and make a weekend of it. You’ll come back feeling like you’ve been away for a week.
The Brompton: Engineering For Change by Will Butler-Adams and Dan Davies is published by Profile Books at £22