Devotees of the ITV drama series Midsomer Murders will already have a good idea of what Buckinghamshire looks like – all the major outdoor locations lie within the county with the impossibly picturesque villages of Quainton, Waddesdon and Long Crendon featuring frequently.
The south of the county, with the River Thames as its southern boundary, lies almost entirely within the chalk range of the Chiltern Hills, most of which is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The county town since the 18th century has been Aylesbury, the market centre for the attractive Vale of Aylesbury, which runs from the Chilterns in the south to Buckingham in the north. Here, the visitor will discover a rural patchwork of secluded countryside, woodland and valleys, waterways, charming villages and busy market towns. A thousand miles of footpaths include the ancient Ridgeway, and the quiet country lanes and gentle undulations make cycling a real pleasure; the Vale is at the heart of the new National Cycle Network. The area around the former county town of Buckingham is perhaps the least discovered part of Buckinghamshire, still chiefly rural, with a wealth of attractive villages and a number of fine houses, including Ascott House, a former Rothschild residence; Claydon House, where Florence Nightingale was a frequent visitor; Winslow Hall, designed by Wren; and Stowe, with its marvellous deer park. In this area are also two outstanding churches, the Saxon Church of All Saints at Wing and St Michael’s Church at Stewkley, one of the finest Norman churches in the whole country. The northern region of the county is dominated by the new town of Milton Keynes, developed in the 1960s but incorporating several much older villages.
Among the various ancient buildings of interest in this archetypal English village there is an Elizabethan mansion, The Vache, which was the home of friends of Captain Cook. In the grounds is a monument to the famous seafarer. However, by far the most famous building in Chalfont St Giles is Milton’s Cottage. John Milton moved to this 16th- century cottage, found for him by his former pupil Thomas Ellwood, in 1665 to escape the plague in London. Though Milton moved back to London in 1666, he wrote Paradise Lost and began work on its sequel, Paradise Regained, while taking refuge in the village. The only house lived in by the poet to have survived, the cottage and its garden have been preserved as they were at the time Milton was resident. The building is now home to a museum that includes collections of important first editions of Milton’s works and a portrait of the poet by Sir Godfrey Kneller.
Another fascinating and unusual place to visit in the village is the Chiltern Open Air Museum (see panel opposite), which rescues buildings of historic or architectural importance due to be demolished from across the Chilterns region and re-erects them on its 45-acre site. The 30-odd buildings rescued by the museum are used to house and display artefacts and implements that are appropriate to the building’s original use and history. Also on the museum site is a series of fields farmed using medieval methods where, among the historic crops, organic woad is grown, from which indigo dye is extracted for use in dyeing demonstrations.
Madame Tussaud, famous for her exhibitions in London, started her waxworks here in the village, and another well-known resident was Bertram Mills the circus owner. His tomb stands beside the war memorial in the churchyard of St Giles.