I have intentionally focused this post on West Berkshire as I will in due course write a separate post about East Berkshire including Windsor Castle, Cliveden, and some of the lovely Thames villages. But for now then, here are my picks within the 15 mile radius of where I live in West Berkshire where I get to spend a lot of time in an idyllic rural village setting, in a former coach house when I’m not in London.
1.Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)
Highclere Castle (the lead photo on this post) is in real life every bit as lovely as in the BBC series Downton Abbey though the rooms will strike you as smaller than the wide angled camera lens magic used in the drama. The days it is open to the public are erratic so check them before planning your visit at https://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/public-opening-times-and-prices. When I went the wife and children of the current Earl were showing the guests around! If you don’t want to visit on a normal viewing day, you could attend one of the public events listed on the website such as the country agricultural fair (aimed at families) in the Summer or a recital concert at the Newbury Spring Festival (see below) which needs to be reserved on the first day booking opens.
What a lot of people don’t know (and why I get to call this a secret of West Berkshire!) is that one of the previous Earls of Highclere was the Lord Canarvon who funded Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt and there is a very interesting special museum dedicated to this, complete with replicas of some of the finds. Lady Carnarvon has written a short and gripping book about the discovery which I came across when I was in Egypt and highly recommend.The full title is “Carnarvon and Carter-the story of two Englishmen who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun”. You can also read all about Highclere, Downton Abbey, past generations of Carnarvons and Tutankhamun on Lady Carnarvon’s personal website: https://www.ladycarnarvon.com.
if you don’t have a car you can do it as a day trip by train from London Paddington to Newbury from where you would take a taxi to Highclere. Alternatively there are organised coach tours. For Downton Abbey fanatics you can spend 160 pounds on a Downton themed tour from London with stories about the making of Downton and all the places used as sets including Highclere itself and the village of Brampton. You’ll even see episodes on the bus. https://britmovietours.com/bookings/downton-abbey-tour/. It sounds expensive but going under your own steam by train won’t be cheap (40 pounds return train fare, 20 pounds return taxi form the station and 15 pounds entry fee) so if you are over here on holiday it is worth considering.
2.Antique hunting and canal walk in Hungerford
Visiting Berkshire by car is great fun as there are so many places to visit and pretty twisting country roads to drive along. But one of the benefits of Hungerford is that it is on a direct train line from London’s Paddington station (about an hour) and if you are visiting London and want to experience an un-touristy and pretty market town, this would make a lovely day trip.
It dates back to the 12th century though its name derives from an earlier Saxon name meaning “Hanging wooden ford”. Today it is very lived in town with gorgeous houses and shops some of which are on the Kennet and Avon canal that runs through the town.
The pretty canal boat is the “Rose of Hungerford” and you can organise a 1-2.5 hour trip calling +44 1380 721279 or visiting katrust.org.uk. I haven’t been on this boat but I have done some canal boat holidays over the years and it is a lovely way to slow travel and live in the moment rather than hurrying on to the next venue which is what we so often do these days.
Top mistake to avoid: the photo below is the Town hall – not the church!
This very lived in town has a wonderful bookshop which is clearly (from its selection and display) run by people who love books. It has a cooking shop to die for, formerly run by a friend in my village who is the best ever country cook. I’ve bought several things there and rushed home keen to try out some new baking recipe. One of my favourite wine shops is here: the Naked Grape.
I set up a bimonthly pop up pub in my village close to Hungerford (which we’ve since called pop up drinks as it is really just a party in someone’s home covered by donations) and it was supplied by the lovely Barnaby from the Naked Grape who made it his mission to ensure we had a party to be proud of. The volume of chatter from the 60 people that came was a fantastic measure of the success and it still continues today slightly reinvented each time by the new host and always great fun to attend.
If you are hungry try the vegan (everything looks amazing even to a non vegetarian!) main meals or cakes at Eliane or stop at the traditional tea room (adorably called the Tutti Pole) by the bridge.
Just outside Hungerford is a fantastic farmshop called Cobbs I visit often.
If you are planning some meals in or have access to a freezer do make sure to buy their vegetable quiche (the best I’ve ever had anywhere any time), their frozen plain croissants (leave them out overnight and like magic they will have grown (from the yeast activity) to four times the size ready for you to heat in the morning). In the summer, their home made jam which you’ll find in their fridge is just delicious – friends have sent me there to buy more for them and take it back to London. Last year it wasn’t clear if they’d lost the person that makes it so I’m not sure if it will be relegated to my dreams. The jam maker also caters for the Royal family (no wonder its so good! Though having said that I was once lucky enough to go to a garden party at Buckingham palace and I swear the swiss roll seemed like something bought in from somewhere like Marks and Spencer’s. Cobbs have giant freezers of frozen produce from their farm (blackcurrants, broad beans etc) and a wonderful butcher (buy their peppered sausages that replace the Marlborough sausages they used to stock till the nearby butcher packed his bags and left the area to everyone’s upset). Another favourite is the best fudge ever – Marsden vanilla fudge (the other flavours are nice but the vanilla is the best by far!). It is made locally not far from where I live. The café does traditional English dishes like Shepherds pie and treacle pudding and has a good range of home made cakes.
Hungerford is brimming with antique stores – lots of high quality ones.
There are several pubs, as every self respecting market town should have! The Bear is the most famous pub and hotel but before you plan to have your main meal of the day here, I would also recommend the lovely 3 mile walk along the canal to one of my favourite gastro pubs called the Red House at the village of Marsh Benham. You could either get a bus or taxi back to Hungerfordor could get a taxi directly to Newbury station (which is closer) and return by train to London from there.
Another option for the afternoon is that you could get a taxi from Hungerford to Littlecote, an Elizabethan manor and roman villa (below) for about 10 pounds and after taking in the history you could make inexpensive use some of its very English facilities like croquet.
If you are in the area at Christmas time the you absolutely must visit the Victoriana fair. Every Hungerford building twinkles with a lit up christmas tree (I’ve never seen so many- and all so tasteful) and The Victoriana theme (rides, chestnuts, stalls) is straight out of a Dickens film and more magical than any lighting I have ever seen in London or even Germany. (Check out the dates on http://www.hungerford.co.uk/)
3. Elizabethan stately home and Roman villa near Hungerford
Littlecote House is a lovely Elizabethan Manor that was first built in the 13th century but deemed Elizabethan following the significant additions made in the 16th century. It also has magnificent grounds and a walled garden from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today it is operated by Warner holidays but they are happy for people to visit and doing so is even free and you will find yourselves on your own much of the time – a welcome change from most tourist attractions. Inside the house you can see a small exhibition of Worldwar II, a marvellous organ I long to hear played in the lovely little chapel. You can also pace up and down the Elizabethan long room (which the women of the house used for exercise) and can see the so called haunted bedroom. The public areas you can make yourselves at home in include the grand hall, a beautiful library and a lounge.You can have a drink or afternoon tea for a very modest price in any of these sitting next to a roaring fire. There is also a restaurant but it always feels a bit dark and I would recommend the Vineyard or one of the gastro pubs over that. (One tip: whatever you do, even if you can get in (which I don’t think non guests can), don’t go the “buffet” restaurant – I passed it once and it smelled worse than the worst ever school food I can remember). Littlecote is an odd blend of grandeur and character with…..an all inclusive Warner holiday – which don’t make for obvious bedfellows. I wouldn’t want to stay there but the old house and its facilities are wonderful and definitely worth a few hours.
Another thing worth noting is that Littlecote opens its leisure facilities to outside adult guests (strictly no children). For just 10 pounds per day you can make unlimited use of the tennis courts, swimming pool, rifles, archery and croquet per day – or you could rent a bicycle form them for 20 pounds per day. You can email them on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve taken house guests there a couple of times and we had fun afternoon there. They also have a tonne of boardgames you can ask to borrow on a wet afternoon.
The magnificent and vast Littlecote grounds are also home to the remains of a Roman villa with well preserved mosaic floors that are well worth a quick a 20 minute detour if you are in the area. There are no queues or tickets and you may well be alone as you wander around which is a rare luxury these days.
Near Littlecote are a few very small pretty villages that are fun to drive through (though there is not as much to see or do as in the ones I’ve highlighted below to get out of the car at to walk around). For example you could set your sat nav to drive through Ramsbury or Milton Hill, all the villages and country roads are pretty. One tip is to turn the sat nav off the motorway onto scenic drives – it will take you down the most gorgeous and most unlikely little roads. I’ve had endless fun being lost on such roads in my little silver Audi TT with the hood down in summer!
4. Crofton steam engines
If you have a car you might like to visit Crofton (just over the county border in Wiltshire but only 15 minutes drive from Hungerford) where you can see the world’s oldest steam engines working to fill a part of the Kennet and Avon canal with water. It is only open some days so you need to call ahead or check the website http://www.croftonbeamengines.org. The cafe is small and characterful and has nice looking cakes and there is an outdoor seating area for summer.
5. Brewery tour at Yattendon and lunch at the Pot Kiln
I haven’t actually done the brewery tour but hear it is a lot of fun. (website http://www.wbbrew.com/tours/).
I’ve been several times to the nearby Pot Kiln (website http://www.potkiln.org) which is known for its game and is in pretty spot with nice country walks nearby. It made it into the 2017 top 100 British Restaurants but is charmingly rustic rather than trying to be a city restaurant in the country. The pub serves a limited menu so make sure to advance book for the actual restaurant.
A nice itinerary would be lunch at the Pot Kiln followed by a walk and culminating in a cup of tea at The Royal Oak, in Yattendon. (website http://www.royaloakyattendon.co.uk)
6. Magical fields of snowdrops at Welford Park
The first time I thought about the name of Snowdrop flowers was when I visited Welford Park famed for its snowdrops. I’ve never seen anything like it. Fields upon fields (not just these woods) of snowdrops extend as far as the eye can see and the fields look like they are covered in snow. It is the most extraordinary and beautiful sight.
The house and grounds are lived in and only open in the snowdrop season but if you are in the area at this time, then I highly recommend it. Here are some pictures of them out of snowdrop season.
There is also a small tea room serving traditional afternoon scones and tea and a farm shop selling their delicious homemade jams and marmalade among other things, and some plants too.
All the photos here of Welford are reproduced by kind written consent of the manager as my visits pre-dated my blog and I don’t have any photos from them.
I’m sure you’ll agree it is a must if you are in the area at this time of year.
7. My pick of pretty villages and poetry near where I live
In a little cluster East of Wantage, North of Newbury and just above the M4 motorway, between Junction 13 and 14 on the M4 Motorway (an hour from London) lie six of my favourite villages: Eastleigh, East Garston, Farnborough, Brightwalton, Winterbourne and East Hendred. You need a car to see these but I’ve picked them as once there they warrant walking around and most have something interesting to see, while they are all close to one of my favourite pubs in the area making it a nice day out.
i. Eastbury and the church’s Edward Thomas memorial window by Whistler
The village is very pretty with a stream and lots of period and thatched cottages though the church (St James the Greater, built in 1853) is slightly hidden from the road so you may need to get out on foot and cross the stream before it properly comes into view.
I went looking for the village because my friend John had shown me a marvellous book of glass engravings by Laurence Whistler (1910 – 2005). At first while he was speaking I thought this was the American 1920s portrait painter I knew of so well from New York but then I realised it was an entirely different person – it transpired this Whistler was England’s first holder of the King’s Gold medal for poetry in 1935 and the first president of the British Guild of glass engravers. The detailed drawings he was able to engrave on the glass defy belief and are en entirely different art form to stained glass. The book piqued my interest and I drove to Eastleigh to see his engraved window and then went to the glass collection at London’s Victoria and Albert museum to see more examples of the height of glass engraving.
The Wistler window in the Eastleigh church is a memorial to another poet, Edward Thomas (1878-1917) who was killed in action in the First World War. Edward left behind his wife Helen and 3 children in poverty but determined to commemorate him. HIs wife published a (by all accounts very frank) biography and his daughter Myfanwy (Welsh name as Edward was Welsh), commissioned the memorial window. It was unveiled by another famous poet Ted Hughes who said Edward had been a father to them all. Edward is also one of the 16 war poets commemorated in Poets corner at Westminster Abbey.
Back to the window then. Whistler drew a landscape and engraved quotes from Edward Thomas’ poems.
The left panel shows a tall tree with the initials and lifespan of Edward (ET 1878-1917) and and his wife (HT 1872-1967) carved into the bark of the trunk of the tree. Of the quotes on the this panel the one I like the most is “But what if I in them as they in me Nourished what has great value and no price”.
The centre panel is in celebration of the lives of Edward and his wife and shows the spire of a church in a nearby village and the sea visible between distant hills. the quote i like here is “But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die And I had what I most desired”
The right panel “World without end” shows three thatched cottages the family had lived in, and a leafless tree draped with an army belt and helmet. The quote I most like is “There I find my rest and through the dusk air flies what yet live in me. Beauty is here”
ii.East Garston with its pretty houses, stream and a favourite pub
The first thing you’ll see in East Garston on the road is the lovely Queens Head pub reviewed by me here which is one of my favourites in the area and well worth a stop for a drink or (excellent) meal. Set back by hundreds of meters is the village. Don’t miss it. There is a stream and lots of quaint period thatched houses. It is worth a 10-20 minute walk.
iii.Farnborough with its beautiful house of former poet Sir John Betjeman and church
8. Character country pubs and michelin restaurants
All the places listed in this post are within a 5-30 minute drive of one of my favourite country pubs I’ve put together for you in a related post. I chose them for the combination of rustic ambience and food.
In terms of michelin restaurants, the Vineyard (see below under hotels) is excellent and there is also a less well known one called the Harrow in Little Bedwyn that has very good value set lunches. I’ve only been once but the meal was excellent and some friends recently reminded me about it having just been there for what they said was a very successful birthday celebration. The Harrow is small and quaint inside and has pretty al fresco dining in the summer. This is a reminder the Welsh can cook! And they have a wonderful wine list. Book well in advance on +44 1672 870871.
9. Very special theatre and music venues
Charming art-house Watermill Theatre
The Watermill is a gem of a wooden theatre with the mill of its name preserved and visible on the inside. The theatre seats just 200 people. To the left is a pond and ducks and the there is a lovely bar and restaurant so you can make an evening of it. To book go to https://www.watermill.org.uk Productions can be mixed in quality as they are put on by a wide range of companies. One of the best plays I’ve ever seen anywhere was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men where the quality of the acting and the small stage took you into the drama as if you had entered a time capsule. Recently I saw an excellent production of part one of Faust with very clever multi-media effects. Pay attention to what you book though as a wide range of amateur and professional theatre companies use the theatre and so production quality is highly variable.
The Newbury Spring festival (Music)
Every May Newbury hosts a wonderful classical music festival – it gets some top performers and the best events (including the one at Highclere castle (Downton Abbey) sell out on the day of booking – so make sure you are on the mailing list and book as soon as it comes out.
10. Horse Racing at Newbury and open day at Lambourn’s racing stables
Newbury racecourse has meets most days from March onwards and is a great outing for the family http://newburyracecourse.co.uk/racing/racedays-tickets.
The nearby village of Lambourn is famous for the concentration of racing stables, hence the slogan “Lambourn, valley of the racehorse”. It is a much bigger village than my favourite 6 but has some pockets of beauty especially close to the church as well so is worth wandering around.
In most years some of the country’s winning horses of the big events will come from one of the Lambourn stables. They offer an open day once a year on Good Friday to nearly 30 stables and it is one of the most fun things I’ve done in the area. http://www.lambournopenday.com. I’ve long since lost the photos of the year I went but you’ll get the idea if you visit the website. The horses are of course absolutely beautiful and the stables huge and immaculate. They’ll also parade some of the winning horses of major races like the Cheltenham cup at set points during the day.
Gallops (mile long paths where the race horses are exercised) are to be found all over the county. There are some near me in Brightwalton and several near Lambourn. You’ll find them on any country walk you do and it is great seeing the racehorse in the early morning if you are out early.
Where to stay in West Berkshire
A friend who works at Vodafone’s headquarters in Newbury has stayed at many of the hotels in the area and has told me repeatedly that the Vineyard at Stockcross is her firm favourite. I’ve been for lunch (Michelin dining) which is always a treat though the building is not as old-world as some of the country house hotels in neighbouring Wiltshire so I haven’t been there that often. The accommodation prices sometimes fall to a bargain level of 100-200 pounds on discount sites (or even on the hotel’s own “last minute offers” on their website). I’ve had one or two breakfast meetings there over the years for work – and the breakfasts are delicious as you’d expect given lunch and dinner get michelin stars. You simply must try the whisky porridge! Decadently dangerous! Oh and that amazing green lit picture above? That’s their wine cellar! Well I presume that is the modern artistic high tech interpretation of a green vineyard? If it was in a gallery we’d all be saying how inspired it was – I love it.
My second choice would be the Crab at Chieveley which though better known as gastro pub has lovely character bedrooms too. The gastro pubs aren’t cheap though so it is worth comparing the price price of the Vineyard before booking them.
You can use this link to check train times and book.
Golfers might like one of the hotels like Donnington Park that have their own golf course.
Families might like to try the Newbury rainforest (I haven’t been but imagine it is for quite young children).
There are other attractions but the ones I’ve given you above are my favourite picks I enjoy and that I take visiting friends to see.
Over the coming months keep your eyes peeled (or sign up for email updates) as I will be writing additional posts on adjacent areas to West Berkshire. These are likely to include: East Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and the Cotswolds (the last of these in fact spans several counties but is within a half hour drive of West Berkshire and only just over an hour from London).