The Chilterns; great country pubs and stately homes

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Chilterns: the Cherry Tree Inn

The Cherry Tree Inn in Stoke Row

Surely one of the best things about the UK is that even if you’re in the middle of nowhere, more often than not you’ll come across a fabulous pub or two, when you least expect it. Touring the exceedingly scenically pleasing Chiltern Hills on a sunny weekend in early autumn, I was spoilt for choice in terms of places to stop for drinks or excellent pub grub, ranging from good solid British pub classics to innovative gastro fare. Elegant stately homes further enhanced the easy-on-the-eye landscape, making this a weekend away to remember.

Ever heard of the small village of Stoke Row? You’d be forgiven if you haven’t – it’s rather off the beaten track, some six miles west of Henley-on-Thames, deep in the wooded hills of the Chilterns. It is, however, home to one of the cosiest pubs in the southeast, The Cherry Tree Inn, the kind of pub where you just want to settle in and make yourself at home. Luckily this is not a problem – The Cherry Tree Inn lives up to its name (the “inn” part anyway) and was to serve as an overnight base for my weekend explorations. This really is the place to get away from it all, and I do mean literally – there is little Wi-Fi and mobile signals are erratic at best, but seriously, who’d come here to work? The Cherry Tree, dating back a good few hundred years, is way better suited to relaxing, sitting in the garden if the weather permits, or enjoying the open fire indoors, if it’s a bit nippy. Food is another great draw and my lunchtime special of bouillabaisse eaten al fresco was positively delicious.

Grey's Court

Grey’s Court –  a James Bond location perhaps?

Curbing the urge to indulge in a post-lunch siesta, I instead set off for Greys Court, a country manor surrounded by extensive grounds, near Pissen Wood, also in the Chilterns. This National Trust property has a fascinating history, parts of it date all the way back to the 12th century and many rooms in the main building are open to the public. There is an unusual, well-preserved Tudor donkey wheel in the old well house and, in terms of more recent history, James Bond fans might be interested to know that Ian Fleming’s mother, Evelyn Fleming, actually lived here for a few years in the mid-1930s. The Brunners, the last family in residence before the National Trust took over, created much of the current gardens, with the exception of the splendid Wisteria Walk, planted back in 1890. There are rose and cherry gardens, as well as a children’s maze and the White Garden, with only white-flowering plants, proved a peaceful place for contemplation in the autumn sunshine.

I always aim to strike a balance between contemplation and exploration on my journeys, but on this one navel-gazing had to take a definite backseat – there was just too much to discover. Driving about half an hour northeast of Greys Court through pristine woodlands, another stately home beckoned, this one a privately-owned, 850-year old family mansion. Stonor Park, built in the 1190s, has remained a Catholic family home since the very beginning – quite a feat when you consider the Reformation and all that followed. The 63-room red-brick mansion lies surrounded by beautiful grounds, that include a 4,000-year old standing stone circle and the peaceful chapel adjacent to the house was built in the late 13th century. It’s open to the public for Mass every Sunday at 10.30 a.m. and many of the rooms inside the building are also open to visitors.

Stonor Park

Stonor Park

If you’re lucky, you might meet the lord and lady of the house, the Camoys. Unfortunately I didn’t realise they might be about and was busy adjusting my belt and hitching up my trousers when Lord Camoys suddenly appeared, to greet me. He looked unnervingly like a shorter version of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, but was very affable and friendly. His wife later kindly pointed me in the direction of the walled garden, perhaps thinking I might need a bit of privacy for any further adjustments. I gratefully escaped to enjoy the fine views, while mournfully accepting that my trousers had “shrunk” after lunch.

Shrinkage notwithstanding, the day was coming to an end and after a hard day’s stately home-seeing, it was definitely time to find another pub. Luckily there was one only staggering distance from where I was staying the night, and I don’t mean the one next door to my room. The Unicorn in Kingwood Common is about a mile and a half from the Cherry Tree Inn and although just as cosy as its Stoke Row neighbour, the Unicorn has an even more laidback vibe. It was busy with locals enjoying a drink and a chat when I made my way into the bar area in the early evening. I confess I couldn’t resist their Sunday dinner menu, a mix of British pub classics including beef burgers and steaks, and more innovative dishes such as king scallops with butternut squash purée. It turned into a night of stuffing of the face, followed by sleeping like a log.

The Cherry Tree Inn was shrouded in a beautiful, if slightly chilly, autumnal mist when I emerged fully rested the following morning. Birds were chirping in the trees, there were no cars, no phones, no noise in this blissfully tranquil spot, apart from the gentle sounds of breakfast-making coming from the pub kitchen. A bacon butty and a generous pot of tea set me up for the morning and I ambled my way into Henley-on-Thames, for a quick jaunt on the river. Henley might be the biggest place in these parts, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a metropolis – there are only some 10,000 inhabitants here.

riverside views near Henley-on-Thames

riverside views near Henley-on-Thames

It’s pleasant, historic and positively obsessed by the river and all that goes on there, to the point where you almost get a feeling it lives for the summer season, particularly the regatta in early July. Boating is big here and you get the very best views of this medieval town from the water. I spent a scenic morning cruising the river with Hobbs of Henley, feeling slightly nostalgic for summer days.

In a hub like Henley you have many pubs to choose from and one of the grooviest is The Little Angel, set near the main bridge across the Thames. Actually it’s anything but little and out of the pubs I’d visited this was by far the most spacious, with the most innovative and exciting décor, including Indian lanterns and funky artwork. Not so much a country pub, but something of a cooler cousin, if equally welcoming and friendly. The menu was satisfyingly versatile and the wine list also, certainly an excellent place to while away the hours over an extended lunch.

Surely there was no need to head back home yet?

 

For more information about the towns and villages along the River Thames, click here. 

For general information about the area, click here.

For information about Great Country Pubs, click here.

 

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

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