Wanderer at Large: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire & Berkshire – Thames Valley

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area north-west of London that includes the counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire & Berkshire.

Hellfire Caves display by psmithson. CC license BY-NC 2.0

Thames Valley Drive
Berkshire & Buckinghamshire

The Thames Valley has long been a place of indulgence and insatiability. We’re talking wicked medieval monks, 18th century hellraisers, and the shocking sex and politics scandal that ushered in the Swinging 60s.

From junction 6 off the M4, find your way via the A308 to Bray. Here you will pass the famous Bray Studio where the famous Hammer films were made. They were responsible for such horror classics such as Brides of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein and the Quatermass Experiment. Practically next door is the Gothic mansion of the Oakley Court Hotel, where the 18th century Kit-Kat Club drank to excess with rude entertainments. It was also used as a film location for St. Trinian’s School and Dracula’s Castle. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee both stayed here.

In Bray village you can hear the story of the ‘swinging vicar’ and the unholy statue in his church. Further up the road in Maidenhead is the story of the chapel built without permission for pilgrims who came to visit the skull of one of St. Ursula’s 11,000 virgins. Following the Thames via the A4094, and you will pass Cliveden, where high-society was entertained and high-politics was scandalised by sex, drugs and rock & roll.

Then up through the picturesque towns of Cookham, where the artist Stanley Spencer painted his deathly masterpieces, and Marlow, where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Finally, take the A404 and A40 to visit West Wycombe Park with its infamous Hell Fire Caves. Sir Francis Dashwood was a powerful member of mid-18th century British society. He had founded the Society of the Dillettanti, patronised by the aristocracy and royalty and catering for the hard-drinking and womanising habit of wealthy rakes. Later he founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ for further aristocratic raffishness. Suspected members included the Prince of Wales, William Hogarth and Benjamin Franklin. Around 1750, Dashwood leased the 12th century Cistercian Abbey at Medmenham near his ancestral home at West Wycombe. He filled it with rude statues and above the entrance placed the motto ‘Do as thou will’.

He also arranged to have built a network of caves under West Wycombe Hill and these were used by the Hellfire Club for their meetings. An underground stream, known as the River Styx gave access to a secret room where ‘black masses’ were said to be performed. The caves were prehistoric in origin and may well have been used as a pagan worship in previous times.

For lunch, why not indulge in a little sin yourself in the foodie heavens along the route? They include Michel Roux Jr’s Waterside Inn, the only restaurant in England to hold 3 stars for over 25 years, Heston Blumenthal’s celebrity restaurant the Fat Duck, once dubbed the best in the world, and Raymond Blanc’s famous Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

A right old carry-on in the Valley of Sin!

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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