Amersham Memorial Gardens pic © Helen Matthews

All in Good Time

21st June 2019

Jill Glenn reviews 'Slow Travel: The Chilterns & the Thames Valley', by Helen and Neil Matthews

You might recognise the name Neil Matthews as an occasional travel contributor to Optima Magazine. When Neil is not heading off on exotic foreign trips (Ukraine… North Korea… the Trans-Siberian Express… and, soon to feature, Minsk and Kaliningrad) he and his wife Helen spend their time out and about closer to home, near High Wycombe.

The results of their local explorations over many years were published in book form this spring. Slow Travel: The Chilterns & the Thames Valley covers a distinctive section of England – a huge swathe of land cutting across the counties of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. About half is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty… the skylark flourishes, as does the lapwing and the red kite. Chalk grasslands, beech woods, streams and wooded valleys provide a perfect landscape for walking and are easily accessible, preferably (in keeping with the slow travel ethos) on foot or on bicycle.

Divided into six loose geographical sections, the guide is useful to have to hand while strolling through the area, but is also a fascinating read in its own right. It’s warmly written, unsurprisingly affectionate towards its contents (Helen Matthews is Chilterns-born and -bred, while Neil has lived here for close on 30 years), and very, very thorough.

Everything you could possibly wish to know is covered, either in the main body, or in inset panels. History springs to life from its pages; the homes and haunts of eminent writers are highlighted; the nature notes (supplied by Tony Marshall) are a joy. Walks are described in manageable detail; public transport links are, of course, well identified.

There’s a pleasing emphasis on local produce, and plenty of suggestions for eating and accommodation. The Nag’s Head (an Optima favourite) at Great Missenden gets a mention for both, and across the area eating ideas range from simple cafés to several Michelin-starred establishments. No-one need go hungry in the Chilterns. In true slow travel spirit, Neil and Helen also highlight places where it’s easy to picnic.
You don’t even need to head very far afield to get the best out of the Chilterns: just on the edge of the Optima area you can find plenty to fill a day – a walk from Chenies to Sarratt, for example; a trip to Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St Giles, and then, just down the road, Chiltern Open Air Museum for what Neil and Helen call ‘a walk-through experience with a difference’, and the opportunity to see the past very much alive.

From Windsor Castle to Whipsnade Zoo, from Britain’s oldest road (The Ridgeway) to National Trust properties such as Cliveden and Waddesdon Manor, from the Henley Regatta to the Grand Union Canal, the Chilterns and the Thames Valley contain a wonderful mixture of world-famous sites and lesser-known attractions full of character and quiet style, which, say publishers Bradt, will repay the visitor’s interest and attention many times over. Who could argue with that?

‘It’s our pleasure, privilege and challenge to introduce the Chilterns to you, and show you how much there is to discover here…’ say Neil and Helen. I think they’ve risen to the challenge admirably. Slow Travel: The Chilterns & the Thames Valley is a delightful and entertaining addition to the rucksack (or glovebox) of any intrepid or not-so-intrepid wanderer. If it’s worth seeing, it’s in this book. Don’t leave home without it.

Bradt Travel Guides is offering readers of Optima Magazine a special 25% discount on copies of Slow Travel: The Chilterns and the Thames Valley. Purchase the book at and enter code OPTIMA25 at checkout. Valid until 31 December 2019.

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