Finding Serenity in Southeast England

Sometimes, amid the sturm und drang of our lives today, it’s easy to  forget what vacations are really all about: the subtle shifts in perspective gained that linger and change the way that you look at your own little world at home long after the trip.  In August, 2006, our family slipped into London Heathrow to start our vacation just hours before airports locked down worldwide after authorities discovered a terrorist plot to blow up eight planes over the Atlantic. But, aside from a brief glimpse of a Sky TV live news update, with a reporter breathlessly covering the story on the scene at Heathrow, and a stop at a newsstand with racks of papers and their screaming headlines (“Up Yours!” clearly aimed at the would-be terrorists, was my favorite), we were oblivious.

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The News Stand

As flights canceled and lines were forming at airports around  the world, we were touring the town of Windsor, where our guide complained bitterly about the damage to the royal farms wrought by Oliver Cromwell as if it were yesterday. Destruction wrought (or sought) in the name of someone’s version of God is apparently nothing new.

While government authorities combed the woods outside High Wycombe for evidence against the accused terrorists, we were walking six miles southwest in the little village of Hambledon, past flint-and-brick homes and a pub clustered along paths meandering around a 14th-century church. It’s such a quaint “village that time forgot” place, that it’s been used for movie scenes in “Pride and Prejudice” and “101 Dalmatians.”

Just a mile up the road is Fingest, another unbelievably sweet little village tempting you to sell out and drop out in the quiet English countryside. On a hilltop overlooking the tiny town, stands the windmill that was used as the home of Caractacus Potts and his children in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Fingest is also famous for its church, which dates back to the 1400s.

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Caractacus Potts’ Windmill

The marvel of all this is the way these small villages are set like diamonds on twisting, hedge-lined roads that seem to wind endlessly through farm fields and wooded hills. There’s no time to worry about terrorists when your family’s lives seem on the line those first few hours of driving on the left on narrow roads filled with blind curves and one-way bridges — not to mention the question of whether or not your marriage can survive the experience of you as navigator and your husband as driver. And it’s all a mere 45 minutes from London (depending on who’s driving).

These are the Chiltern Hills, officially designated “An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” a perfect spot for anyone looking for a two-day escape just minutes from Heathrow, London, and the world in general. It’s an area packed with pubs, footpaths, and history. The road to Hambledon passes Danesfield House, the country mansion that housed some of Winston Churchill’s war department during World War II. Now it’s the luxurious Danesfield Hotel and Spa.

In and around the Chiltern Hills are other places that have seen the beginning or the resolution of several major crises. There’s Clivedon, the country house that was the setting for the party at which British cabinet minister John Profumo met a showgirl named Christine Keeler, who also had a fling with a military attaché from the Soviet Embassy. The scandal of sexual liaisons crossing political lines (who says the Iron Curtain was completely impenetrable?) brought down Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s already struggling government. The National Trust now operates Clivedon, a must-see for those looking for a good starting point for a sexual peccadilloes tour. (Anyone for a RoyalRomps itinerary?)

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Us at Windsor

Nearby is Blenheim Palace, now a World Heritage Site and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. According to my favorite version of the story, this is where Churchill’s irrepressible mother, Jenny, gave birth to him in a pile of fur coats as she rushed — not quite in time — from one of her famed parties. The palace itself is a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture. Right now it’s also the setting of an exhibit entitled “Churchill’s Destiny: The Story of Two Great War Leaders,” covering the military achievements of John and Winston Churchill — and how Winston was inspired by his famous ancestor.

The Chiltern Hills have quintessentially understated English sensibility. Their hills and valleys have a modest beauty that doesn’t explode on your senses but instead quietly and gently nestles within you. They are no less beautiful than any other part of the world whose dramatic panoramas can make you gasp, but they are much more serene.  Hambledon, Fingest and all those winding byways linger in the back of my mind, beckoning to me and offering an antidote my typically hectic daily life. Someday, I’ll go back.

For more information about the Chiltern Hills, visit http://www.chilternsaonb.org; the Countryside Agency at http://www.countryside.gov.uk; the Chiltern Society at http://www.chilternsociety.org.uk; East of England Tourist Information at http://www.visiteastofengland.com; and South East Tourist Information at http://www.visitsoutheastengland.com.

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