The Cotswolds or the Chilterns? Despite lying less than 15 miles apart from one another in places, these two rival Areas of Outstanding National Beauty have a very different feel and attract rather different crowds of staycationers.
Well-heeled “down-from-Londoners” flock to honeypot Cotswold towns and villages like Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water, attracted by their beauty and the prospect of mingling with celebrities at Soho Farmhouse.
The chalk escarpment known as the Chilterns, on the other hand, is far less glitzy and tends to draw a hardier set of dedicated walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers.
The area is remarkably quiet – aside from when the whole of Putney and Molesey hits Henley for regatta season – and you can easily wander along many of its prettiest high streets without spying a single tourist.
Many of these villages could rival the most famous Cotswold names for their charm and the quality of their independent restaurants and shops.
What to do
Comprising 322 square miles of mostly open fields, wild flower meadows and ancient wooded valleys, the area has plenty of nice walking and cycling trails.
One of the best is the Ridgeway National Trail, said to be Britain’s oldest road. This 87-mile route starts from the World Heritage Site of Avebury (Stone Henge’s lesser known sister) running alongside Iron Age forts and the area’s famous white horses to Ivinghoe Beacon, a 233-metre incline with panoramic views.
Completing the route takes about six days on foot. For an easy one-day walk, try the three-mile circular amble from Coombe Hill Monument to Wendover and back. There are great pubs along the way and views over the Vale of Aylesbury and Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. Make sure to keep an eye out for red kites, muntjac deer and even the occasional kestrel. Full details can be found on nationaltrail.co.uk.
Other towns, villages and grand country estates are also worth a visit and lots of the loveliest ones can be found along the Chiltern Heritage Trail.
Some of the most picture postcard spots are Pangbourne and Watlington – sounding like a pair of villains straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle –the latter of which has provided backdrops for television programmes including Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse.
For visitors after a bit more bustle Wallingford is full of artisan cafes, delis and kooky antique shops.
Where to stay
For the post-Covid traveller, self-catered and private are top of the wishlist. The Chilterns View is an idyllic spot which ticks both boxes. Its six wooden lodges are each secluded within thickets of elderberry and rosehip bushes – completely invisible from each other. A gap in the hedgerows, perfectly placed in front of the hot tub, barbeque and hammock reveals acres and acres of rolling hills that feel as though they’re all your own.
With almost no artificial light around, it’s also an excellent spot for stargazing. Each lodge has its own kitchenette and a king-size bed.
For bigger parties there is a large safari tent that sleeps 10 people. A three night weekend day in one of the lodges typically costs £630.
Those looking for something a bit more upmarket should try Hartwell House, a National Trust owned hotel and spa near Aylesbury, which hosted exiled French king Louis XVIII for five years.
Or for a true taste of local life, book a room in the cosy stables at Chiltern Ridge working farm in Chesham where you can press your own apple juice.
Where to eat
There’s a good range of eateries for all budgets. The area is scattered with more Michelin-starred restaurants than the nearby Cotswolds, with some places such as Marlow and Woodspeen having two to their name.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s plenty of good pub grub about – from the Sunday roasts at The Bear & Ragged Staff in Cumnor to the Bottle & Glass Inn in Binfield Heath which is said to do the best scotch eggs this side of Birmingham.
For an excellent halfway house try Restaurant Olivier at The Red Lion pub. It’s a cosy French bistro hidden inside an old English inn, with reasonable prices to boot. The candlelight and an excellent wine list make it an ideal spot for a romantic dinner.
Dishes have a predominantly French feel but use the best local fare available. Make sure to try the Chilterns Muntjac deer in port wine sauce.
Vegetarian dishes are few and far between on the menu but don’t worry: just ask the waiter and he’ll reel off a list of mouth-watering meat-free starters and mains the chef will happily whip up. Once the parmesan arancini come out even meat eaters will wish they’d asked.
The restaurant is located in the village of Britwell Salome.
How to get there
The Chiltern hills are much more accessible than their glitzier sister nearby. You can get fast trains to Reading, Newbry, Didcot and Swindon as well as slower ones to other places. Historic Amersham on the eastern edge is the last stop on the Metropolitan line.