Sunday 17 May 2020
Chilterns volunteer Joe Stewart moved to Reading for work last year and has been busy exploring the Chilterns ever since! He works as a bid writer in Henley and spends his weekends exploring the hills, rivers and pubs (sadly closed at the moment) that surround his new home. Join Joe on his 35 mile adventure which takes you right to the door (or hatch!) of several local producers. Although they are offering a reduced service at the moment due to Covid-19 (ie no tours or tastings), they are still open for take-away or click-and-collect so you can buy some foodie treats along the way.
About the route
A 35 mile circular route starting from Reading and heading into the southern Chilterns, through beech woodlands and rolling farmland, with some stunning open views. The route is mainly on-road, along country lanes, with some steep climbs. There is one stretch of well-surfaced bridleway. SEE HERE for the route.
The Chilterns’ southernmost countryside, bordered by a winding stretch of the River Thames and the Henley to Wallingford road, may be less well known than the classic English scenery of the Hambleden valley or the dramatic vistas over the Vale of Aylesbury from the Chilterns escarpment. However, this rural region of rolling hills, wooded commons and historic estates boasts some of the finest produce grown, brewed or crafted anywhere in England. Even better, it’s all easily accessible from the major centre of Reading (with its excellent rail links) and Henley via the Chilterns Cycleway and a network of quiet roads.
Starting at Caversham Bridge, head up Peppard Road to pick up the Chilterns Cycleway and you’ll soon find yourself in Dunsden Green. Despite its proximity to the hustle and bustle of Reading, it’s a quiet, peaceful spot overlooking the Thames valley, retaining a strong association with the war poet Wilfred Owen who helped run the school. A blue plaque can be found on the building, now the Eye & Dunsden Village Hall, commemorating the poet’s time there. Just on the edge of Dunsden Green, adjacent to the Chiltern’s Cycleway, you’ll find the much-loved Loddon Brewery, named after the nearby River Loddon. The brewery is situated on a working farm and produces a range of traditional bitters and golden ales that celebrate English hops and malts, with a growing side-line in American-inspired beers such as a quadruple-hopped session IPA. The brewery shop is still open during lockdown and they are also offering a delivery service within a 10-mile radius of the brewery. Once lockdown has been fully lifted, you can return for a brewery tour or to enjoy the tap room where you can try their range of beers.
Follow the Chilterns Cycleway north-west out of Dunsden Green to reach the triangle-shaped Oxfordshire village of Sonning Common. As its name suggests, the village is located in an area of former common land, much of which survives in the adjacent civil parish of Rotherfield Peppard. An historic feature of the Chilterns landscape, commons are rich in wildlife and can be explored freely on foot, allowing you to catch a glimpse of the rare plants and animals that call them home.
As a hub for the smaller, surrounding settlements, Sonning Common offers a range of amenities. Carl Wood’s Butchers, a long-established family business, is well-known for its high-quality local meat, including Oxfordshire lamb and the all-important Christmas turkey or goose, sourced from Peach Croft Farm near Abingdon. Carl Wood’s continues to operate through the lockdown, offering both delivery and socially-distanced collection. The shop is still open, but customers will be served from the shop entrance only, one at a time. Just south of the village is the Sonning Common Herb Farm. This unique (and fragrant) garden centre specialises in herb cultivation and offers one of the country’s largest ranges of specimens – including over 25 different lavenders – for the kitchen or the garden. The Herb Farm has just re-opened Wed to Saturday (check website for details).
Swapping Sonning Common for Gallowstree Common, take a right up Wyfold Road. You will soon find yourself surrounded by deep woods. The ancient track gradually rises to bring you to Stoke Row, deep in the Chiltern hills. At the heart of this linear village sits the charming Stoke Row Store, a shop-cum-café which keeps this rural community and its visitors fed, caffeinated and stocked up with locally-sourced essentials including fresh produce, Honeys of Henley honey, and wines from the area’s vineyards. The shop and café are open, so make time to pop in before paying a visit to the Maharajah’s Well, a spectacular and highly unusual Victorian well paid for by the Maharajah of Benares after hearing about water shortages in the Chilterns from a local squire, Edward Reade.
It is well worth taking a detour from the Chiltern Cycleway via the B481 to visit Nettlebed, passing through the shady beech woodlands of Nettlebed Common en-route. As well as its commons, Nettlebed is known for its centuries-long history as a brick and tile-making centre, a history that is set in stone (or brick) in the form of the last remaining lime burning kiln, sited just off the village green.
While it may not have 14th century origins, Nettlebed Creamery has grown quickly since it started in 2015, winning a plethora of awards for its three-strong range of farmhouse cheeses. This range includes Witheridge, a semi-hard cheese aged (unusually) in hay, which won three stars at the Great Taste Awards in 2019. Visitors can buy cheese direct from the Creamery’s ‘Cheese Hatch’ during the week or from local farm and community shops (including both Stoke Row Store and our next destination, if you’d like to avoid the detour!). The Cheese Hatch continues to be open select hours during lockdown for collection, and local home delivery is available. Nationwide stockists include Waitrose and Riverford.
Leaving Nettlebed behind on the A4130, follow Timbers Lane through Nuffield (and navigate Three Corner Common) to rejoin the Chilterns Cycleway on Garsons Lane. The lane leads to the remote village of Ipsden, around which the landscape takes on a much more open aspect as the hills and woodlands are replaced by large, arable fields sloping down towards the Thames.
About a third of the way down the lane, keep your eyes peeled for the Keepers Cottage sign. The cottage is home to Blue Tin Produce, a free-range farm specialising in rare breed meats including Dexter beef and Gloucester Old Spot pork. Blue Tin Produce focuses on raising its animals ‘naturally, slowly and traditionally’, meaning high welfare and excellent taste. The enterprise also offers seasonal vegetables and eggs, as well as a host of other products – most sourced from within 5 miles – in their rustic on-site farmshop. During lockdown, Blue Tin Produce is taking orders for home delivery by email. The Blue Tin cafe is a popular pitstop for cyclists and walkers, definitely somewhere to visit once lockdown is fully lifted.
Enjoy the wide-open space and far-reaching views over our neighbouring AONB, the North Wessex Downs, as you cross the A4074 and cycle through the fields to South Stoke. This atmospheric village straddles both the Reading-Oxford railway line and the Ridgeway, an ancient rack often called ‘Britain’s oldest road’.
The latter provides the inspiration for South Stoke’s Ridgeway Brewing. The brewery’s range showcases its traditional foundation through bitters, IPAs and stouts, coupled with a knack for bringing older styles into the 21st-century, such as a unique ‘modern brown ale’. The brewery places a strong emphasis on sustainability, sharing equipment and water with two other breweries in a co-operative and distributing its spent grain to farmers. Ridgeway’s beers can be purchased nearby at the diminutive South Stoke Community Shop, situated on the village recreation ground, which also sells take-away coffees – perfect for tired cyclists! Orders can also be made online through Beers of Europe.
From South Stoke, the Thames winds its way south past the pretty riverside villages of Goring and Pangbourne, at which point it turns east towards Reading. On its way there, the river passes by the Hardwick Estate, comprising 900 acres of farmland and woodland, an Elizabethan manor house and, more unusually, a community of organic farming enterprises that reflect the ecological and local ethos of the Estate. One of the Estate’s longest-term tenants is Tolhurst Organic, a market garden which supplies vegetables and fruit to the people of Reading, Oxford and the Chilterns via a well-loved weekly box delivery scheme and a self-service ‘VegShed’ located just outside the Estate’s gates to the east of Whitchurch-on-Thames. Their produce changes in line with the seasons, meaning a vastly reduced carbon footprint and much greater freshness, with most items harvested the day of delivery or sale.
To reach the VegShed from South Stoke, follow the river south through Goring. Leave the village via Gatehampton Road, making your way towards Whitchurch Hill via single-track roads with views over the river valley. Follow the B471 south to Whitchurch-on-Thames and take the Hardwick Road to the Estate gates. The VegShed remains open for self-service during lockdown.
Now hopefully sporting a full stomach and bag of fine food and drink, it’s time to muster up the last of your energy and return to your starting point. To get back to Caversham Bridge, take the public bridleway through the Hardwick Estate to Mapledurham. At the end of the bridleway, turn left and ride uphill through Trench Green, returning to Caversham Bridge via the genteel, leafy streets of Caversham Heights.
Latest Government advice means we can now spend more time outdoors. But please see our guidance on how to get the best out of your visit while protecting yourselves, other people and our precious wildlife and landscape. In particular, if you are planning a visit to the Chilterns, please plan carefully, respect the countryside and others around you, take care to follow social distancing rules, and have consideration for the farmers and other land managers who care for this special landscape.