The Oxfordshire Chilterns

The Chiltern Hills are a chalk escarpment that stretch 47 miles from Goring and Whitchurch on the River Thames north-west to close to Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Several South Oxfordshire villages are within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The scarp slope (the steep slope) of the Oxfordshire Chilterns is above the villages of Watlington, Lewknor and Chinnor, and from high in the hills above these villages there are panoramic views towards the Oxfordshire Plain and the distant hills. From its highest points the Chilterns fall gently south towards the Thames at Goring, Whitchurch and Mapledurham, and east also towards Henley-on-Thames.

The Chilterns have been heavily wooded for hundreds of years, mainly with beechwoods, but ash, cherry and oak are also widespread. The Chilterns used to support a wide range of woodland industries including chair-making. Now though the amenity, recreation and wildlife value of the woods are equally important. Unfortunately the beech woods are aging and there is little replanting, perhaps because of the decline in the chair-making industry.

Where the landscape is not wooded agriculture makes a major contribution to the appearance of the Chilterns landscape. Agriculture accounts for about 75% of the total area of the AONB and much of the area is devoted to arable crops. On much of the steep scarp slope however there is grazing and increasingly nowadays that means sheep rather than cattle. In many parts of the scarp slope bushes and trees have colonised and changed the appearance of the landscape.

Chalk streams are an attractive feature of the Chilterns and are an important habitat for wildlife and they support a massive range of plants and animals. Globally chalk streams are rare, there being only 200 or so in the world. Interestingly over 160 of these streams are to be found in England!

Wherever you are in the Chilterns and many of the surrounding areas you are likely to see (and hear) red kites. By the end of the nineteenth century red kites were persecuted to extinction in England although a small population survived in Wales. However between 1989 and 1994 the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) imported and released red kites from Spain into the Chilterns and now they are widespread again over much of Oxfordshire and beyond. The kites started breeding in the Chilterns in 1992 and it is thought that there could now be over 600 breeding pairs in the area. Chicks have now been taken from the Chilterns to reintroduction sites in other parts of the country.

The use of local materials in older buildings give Chilterns villages a distinctive character. Bricks and tiles were produced from clay dug out of the fields and woods. Flint was quarried from the chalk of the hills and the overlying clay. It was frequently used in walls and many cottages and churches built with flints can be found all over the area.

For convenience the Chilterns villages below are categorised as being either in the hills, along the foot of the scarp slope, or beside the Thames.

Villages in the hills:

The Assendons

Middle AssendonThe hamlets of Lower and Middle Assendon are in the low-lying Stonor Valley on the B480 which leads to Watlington. Lower Assendon, in particular, has some attractive old cottages. The names were first recorded in 800 AD as Assundene which was thought to derive from the Saxon word "denu", meaning a long, narrow, winding valley, and "assa", meaning an ass; together this was translated as the Valley of the Wild Ass. Assundene changed to Afsington and then to Assendene. This was the name of the hamlets until the early 20th century, when the modern name of Assendon came into use.

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Binfield Heath

Binfield HeathBinfield Heath is midway between Henley-on-Thames and Caversham, just over a mile from the River Thames almost on the county boundary. Most of the houses are near the two village shops and recreation ground. Prominently at the centre of the crossroads is a fine chestnut tree, which has always been a well known local rendezvous.

An interesting feature of Binfield Heath is an unusual covered well, called Keeps Well. This has recently been completely rebuilt exactly as before as the original was completely demolished a few years ago in a motoring accident. Next to the well one of the village ponds has been restored too and this is known as Green Pond. This area of the village was formerly known as Shiplake Common.

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BixByxe Brand was a Saxon settlement situated in the area around the ruins of the ancient parish church of St James at Bix Bottom, now a delightfully quiet area well off the beaten track along a road which leads to the Warburg Nature Reserve. The church was originally a tiny Norman Church and was built on a Saxon site. The ruins of the old church can still be seen and remain as consecrated grounds.

The small village of 'modern' Bix is just off the busy A4130 trunk road between Henley-on-Thames and Wallingford and is close to the location of Saxon settlements known as Byxe/Bixa Gibwin/Gibwyn. There appears now to be little evidence of historic Bix and the village now comprises mainly up-market houses spread around three sides of an open grassed common and out along the roads to Lower and Middle Assendon. The 'new' parish church of St James was built in the centre of the village in 1875.

An interesting feature in the village is a restored victorian brick-lined open water tank which was constructed c.1895.

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CheckendonCheckendon is a pleasant rambling Chilterns village between Woodcote and Stoke Row, north of the A4074 between Wallingford and Reading. It is surrounded by beech woods, with bluebells in the spring, and the rich colour of the autumn leaves. The older part of the village is centred around the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The area around Checkendon Court and St. Peter's and St. Paul's Church is a conservation area.

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Cookley Green

Cookley GreenThe hamlet of Cookley Green is high in the Chilterns about half way between Nettlebed and Watlington along the B481. There are only a score or so of attractive houses and cottages but they are set neatly around a small green with the main road running through the centre. The road is lined on both sides by attractive, mature trees and the overall effect is very pleasing!

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Gallowstree Common

Gallowstree CommonGallowstree Common is named after on oak tree in the village that was used, as its name implies, as a gallows. It is thought that the last hanging was in 1825 for sheep stealing. The tree no longer stands and its stump was removed at the time of the village enclosure.

Gallowstree Common has an interesting well. The wellhouse has low red brick and flint-panelled walls and is a listed building. One side of the wellhouse is completely open for access to the well and its iron winding gear.

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HarpsdenThe village of Harpsden is a mile or so south of Henley-on-Thames and a mile and a half from the River Thames and the county boundary. As well as the small village of Harpsden the parish includes several nearby hamlets including Harpsden Bottom. Between and to the south of Harpsden and Harpsden Bottom is an area of open-access woodland known as Harpsden Woods.

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HighmoorHighmoor is a small village on the B481 about a mile south of Nettlebed and about 4 miles west of Henley-on-Thames. Highmoor consists of a few large houses which are sited away from the road, but most of the village is centred on Highmoor Cross, about half a mile to the south of Highmoor, where there aremore houses and cottages and also the village church, St. Paul's, which was built in 1859 as a chapel of ease. St. Paul's Church is now closed and has been declared redundant.

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IpsdenIpsden is a small village with a few isolated groups of older houses and cottages in a small valley in the open countryside of the western Chiltern Hills roughly half way between Reading and Oxford. A small 20th century estate runs down the hillside towards the village centre which is probably around the village store.

The medieval village church is about a quarter of a mile to the north of the village. It is thought to have originally been an upland chapel for the adjoining parish of North Stoke and was enlarged and repaired in the 12th century using stone from an earlier church.

Outside the church is a well that was presented to the community in 1865 by Rajah Sir Deonarayun Singh, K.C.S.I., who followed the example of the Maharajah of Benares who presented a well to the nearby village of Stoke Row.

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Kidmore End

Kidmore EndKidmore End is a pleasant village with most of its houses grouped around the church and the crossroads. The parish church is the Church of St. John The Baptist - a Victorian church with a high dome above the alter. In the graveyard are the obligatory yews, and here they are magnificant. Those over the gateway in particular! Adjacent to the church is the village school, which was established in 1862.

A landmark in the village is the late C19 well with its pyramidal wood shingle roof standing in the centre of the road junction outside the church. Although it is no longer used it is in extremely good condition having more than once in its lifetime been saved from demolition.

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MaidensgroveMaidensgrove is a small hamlet which lies along a narrow lane between the hamlets of Russell's Water and Stonor, on the edge of the large area of common land known as Russell's Water and Maidensgrove Common. You could easily miss the hamlet as the houses of Maidensgrove are all away from the road, mostly along a narrow winding lane which ends eventually at a farm and an entrance to the Warburg Nature Reserve.

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NettlebedNettlebed is in attractive wooded countryside on high land on the A4130 between Wallingford and Henley-on-Thames. The village is surrounded by large areas of common land and is the highest in the South Chilterns.

Clay suitable for pottery and brick making was found locally and, as a result, Nettlebed was the most important brick and tile making centre in the Chilterns from the mid-14th century onwards. A disused lime kiln is prominent in the centre of the village which was in use until 1938 and was restored in 1972-4.

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Sandford-on-ThamesNuffield is a small village half a mile south of the A4130 Wallingford to Henly road, about two miles west of Nettlebed in the heart of the Oxfordshire Chilterns. The village has an attractive common which is home to a golf club.

On the north side of the main road, opposite the golf course, is Nuffield Place, the former home of William Morris, Lord Nuffield. Built in 1914, Nuffield Place is a good example of a complete, upper-middle class home of the 1930s. It contains an interesting collection of Nuffield memorabilia and is furnished and equipped precisely as it was when Lord Nuffield died in 1963.

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Rotherfield Greys

Rotherfield GreysRotherfield Greys is a small village about 2 miles west of Henly-on-Thames and a mile or so east of Rotherfield Peppard. The village has a heavily restored Norman village church. The little housing the village has is near the church and the village pub. Nearby is the attractive Greys Green with its cricket pavilion and the village hall and where the wide grass verges to the road are lined with trees.

Half a mile from Greys Green is Shepherd's Green with its large and attractive houses circled around the village green.

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Rotherfield Peppard

Sandford-on-ThamesRotherfield Peppard (known also just as 'Peppard') is just north of Sonning Common on the B481 road which links Caversham and Nettlebed. It is situated on an old overland pack route from Henley to Goring which can still be traced, partly on footpaths and partly on modern roads. The pack route is thought to be the origin of pub names such as the Pack Horse and the Pack Saddle which, although not in the village, are not far away.

In the centre of the village is Peppard Common and the village spreads out around two-and-a-bit sides of the common, with the main road passing through the middle. All Saints' Church is at the end of a residential lane leading from the common. There is also a primary school in the centre of the village.

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Russell's Water

Russells WaterA large pond, complete with ducks, gives the hamlet of Russell's Water its particular character, and is quite unusual for a village so high in the Chilterns. Russell's Water is on the edge of the large area of common land known as Russell's Water and Maidensgrove Common.

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Sonning Common

Sonning CommonSonning Common is a large village on the B481 road between Reading to the south and Nettlebed to the north. Once it was apparently a community of scattered cottages, farms and beerhouses. Local pastures were used for grazing and pigs were allowed to feed on beech mast in the woods.

The settlement was originally mainly on the road that leads to Kidmore End. However in the first half of the last century housing began to spread southwards along the road towards Caversham with the result that now Sonning Common is a dormitory village.

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Stoke Row

Stoke RowStoke Row is at one of the highest points of the southern Chiltern hills between the Wallingford to Reading and the Wallingford to Henley roads, about 3 miles NW of Sonning Common.

In the centre is a village store and a garage and an attractive Indian-style well and a cherry orchard. The 365 feet deep well is known as the Maharaja's Well and was dug in the C19 entirely by hand as a gift from the Maharajah of Benares due to his friendship with a prominent local landowner.

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StonorStonor is a small community consisting of just a few houses and cottages and a farm and which spreads for a short distance along a typical Chilterns valley on a road from Henly-on-Thames towards Watlington, passing through Lower and Middle Assendon on the way.

Overlooking the hamlet is Stonor Park, a landscaped deer park, and Stonor House which has been the home of the Stonor family for more than eight centuries. The earliest part of the house dates from the 12th century, whilst most of the house was built in the 14th century.

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SwyncombeThe Swyncombe settlement, which comprises Swyncombe House and its cluster of farm and other estate buildings, dates from at least Saxon times and in its secluded valley the Manor, church and farm formed an enclosed medieval community. The present manor house at Swyncombe is a 19th-century rebuild of a fine Elizabethan house but the manor of Swyncombe was originally part of the manor of Ewelme and there has been a manor house here for hundreds of years.

The small Norman Church of St Botolph, which was probably constructed in the 11th century, is of flint and stone and has been largely untouched over the centuries. It has traces of early wall-paintings which include some thought to have been painted by medieval knights leaving for the Crusades. February sees masses of snowdrops and aconites which are planted in drifts around the church and people come from miles around each year to see the display.

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WoodcoteWoodcote is at one of the highest points in the South Chilterns. It is a large, some would say rather characterless, South Chilterns village situated about three miles west of Goring and a mile south of the A4074 road from Wallingford to Caversham. A green, a village hall, a couple of modern shops, a couple of churches and schools and lots of houses!. The village is rather a dormitary village and many people enjoy living there. Most of the population probably commutes to Reading and other towns.

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Villages along the foot of the scarp slope:

Aston Rowant

Aston RowantAston Rowant is a pretty little brick and flint village lying at the foot of the Chilterns just off the B4009, although there has been some ribbon development along the main road.

The 12th century church of St Peter and St Paul is in the oldest part of the village. The church is surrounded by trees and in spring daffodils and blossom make the bank of the churchyard a pretty sight. The road winds through the village towards the village green. The green is dotted with trees and also has attractive daffodils in the spring. Around the green is a farmhouse and cottages, which were mainly built in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Britwell Salome

Britwell SalomeBritwell Salome is at the foot of the steep slope of the Chilterns, about a mile south-west of Watlington along the B4009. From the main road it appears to be little more than a few houses, a pub and a farm and it actually is a very small village. Off the main road on either side however are more houses, the main, and older, part of the village being to the south with a few newish houses to the north.

To the north-east of the village, next to the site of Britwell Priory and down a short lane, is the parish church of St. Nicholas which dates from the 13th century. On the site of Britwell Priory there is now an C18 farmhouse. Adjacent to the church is the Old Rectory which dates from the 17th century.

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EwelmeEwelme is an interesting and attractive village and is a delight to visit. It lies in a small valley just south of the B4009 Benson to Watlington road about 5 miles east of Benson. The name means (place at) the river-source - the river being the small chalk stream, the Ewelme Brook.

The Ewelme Brook was at one time used extensively for the cultivation of water cress. However during the last quarter of the 1900s, regulations prevented the sale of watercress from Ewelme and this, together with greater competition from other areas and countries, led to the industry's demise and production ceased in 1988. The Ewelme water cress beds are now owned and managed by the Chiltern Society as a local nature reserve. They run the whole length of the village and are accessible from the road in places.

In the centre of the village is the source of the Ewelme Brook and an attractive pond. Beside this a small development of late 20th century houses blends almost perfectly with the older village properties in the High Street.

At the west end of the village on slightly higher ground is the large and attractive parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. From the west door of the church is a covered passage that leads to the Cloister - a square courtyard surrounded by thirteen red brick almshouses which were established in 1437. The almshouses are the oldest brick buildings in this part of the country. Next to the Cloister is Ewelme school which was founded originally as a superior grammar school. Now the school is a state primary school and is the oldest school building in the country still in use as a state primary school.

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ChinnorChinnor is a large village at the base of the Chilterns approximately four miles south of Thame on the B4009. Originally the village appears to have been mainly around the four roads Station Road, Church Road, High Street and Lower Road. However the village has now grown considerably, especially to the west.

Industries based in and around Chinnor have included lacemaking, chair-making and agriculture and, until 1999, a cement works whose tall chimney was a well-known local landmark.

High above the village on Chinnor Hill is Chinnor Hill Nature Reserve which is run by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

Chinnor is the terminus of the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway, which was part of the old Great Western Railway line between Watlington and Princes Risborough but was closed to passengers by BR in 1957. The section between Chinnor and Princes Risborough then carried a freight-only service until 1990 but is now a heritage line.

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CrowellCrowell is a tiny spring-line village at the foot of the Chilterns just outside Kingston Blount a mile or so south west of Chinnor. The name is thought to be derived from a well or spring where crows gather! Unlike neighbouring Kingston Blount, and despite being such a tiny village, Crowell has a parish church, the church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although largely reconstructed in about 1880, parts of the church date from the 13th century.

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Kingston Blount

Kingston BlountKingston Blount is a spring-line village at the foot of the Chilterns a mile or so south west of Chinnor on the B4009. There are a few cottages on the main road, also the village pub, but much of the village is actually way from the main road.

In the 19th century Kingston Blount had a number of pubs, a draper, grocers, wine merchants, a smithy, corn merchant, butcher, baker, post office and a school and was considered to be a large and respectable town. Now, like in many villages, the shops have all closed and there now remains just one pub.

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LewknorThe village of Lewknor is a quiet village at the junction of the M40 motorway and the B4009 right at the foot of the Chilterns where the motorway passes through the Stokenchurch cutting. Since the construction of the motorway the B4009 has become a bypass for the village and the motorway has blocked the direct road from the village to Aston Rowant meaning there is now little through traffic through the village.

Many of the cottages in Lewknor are built using flints and some of the newer construction has been sympathetically built in a similar style using the same materials. At the centre of the village is the remnant of Town Pond which at one time was used for watercress growing. The cress was sent to London by train from the nearby halt on the Watlington to Princes Risborough branch line (now no longer there).

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ShirburnThe tiny village of Shirburn straddles the B4009, but don't blink or you might miss it as you concentrate on the sharp bends in the road at that point! Off the main road there are a few houses and on the main road there are even fewer!

The main interest in this village is Shirburn castle, a fortified manor house built in 1378 with four towers and a gatehouse and surrounded by a moat. Unfortunately the castle is now empty and in need of substantial repair.

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WatlingtonsWatlington is an ancient market town and it claims to be reputedly the smallest town in England. But, Watlington is not listed on the South Oxfordshire District Council's websites as a town, so I feel justified in including Watlington here as one of Oxfordshire's villages. Watlington has lots of character and it would have been a real pity to have excluded it.

The village's position at the foot of the Chilterns and on the edge of the Vale of Oxford adds to its character, for here we start to see some Chilterns-style flint buildings as well as timber framed and thatched cottages although most of the buildings are built of brick. With its fine selection of small shops, the dominating 17th century town hall and many historic buildings dating back to that period, and before, in all Watlington is a very attractive village. Unfortunately though, Watlington's narrow streets were just not designed to cope with modern traffic, hence it has to suffer an awful lot of congestion.

High on the scarp slope above the village is Watlington Hill Nature Reserve which is owned by the National Trust.

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Thames-side villages:

Crowmarsh Gifford

Crowmarsh GiffordCrowmarsh Gifford is on the eastern bank of the River Thames opposite the historic town of Wallingford, the two being connected by Wallingford Bridge. Since 1987 the village has been bypassed by the busy A4074 Reading to Oxford road and now the Wallingford bypass also bypasses the village, so there is now less through traffic.

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GoringIt is probable that everyone who has heard of Goring associates it with the attractive gap between the Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns known as the Goring Gap. Here the Oxfordshire village of Goring and the Berkshire village of Streatley stand on opposite sides of the River Thames, linked by a fine bridge which was built in 1923. The beautiful riverside setting and the attractive views of the hills on either side make Goring an extremely attractive village.

The river was first forded by the Romans who built a causeway. The first bridge over the river, a toll bridge, was built upstream of the ferry in 1837. This lasted until the present bridge was built in 1923 and from it you can look down on Goring lock and the weir. The present lock was built in 1921 and was then unusual in that it had an extra pair of lock gates, creating two chambers.This enabled boats to travel faster through the lock and use less water each time the lock was used.

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MapledurhamMapledurham is a small estate village on the north side of the Thames a few miles west of Caversham. Facing Mapledurham on the opposite bank of the river is the Berkshire village of Purley-on-Thames which is effectively a suburb of Reading.

Visitors to Mapledurham are attracted mainly by Mapledurham House and Water Mill. Mapledurham House is a Grade I Country House c.1585 with C19 alterations and extensions. Most of the village is a conservation area and there are 33 listed buildings in and around the small village, including farmhouses, barns, stables, houses, cottages, statues, etc.

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North Stoke

North StokeNorth Stoke is a delightful small Thames-side village lying just off the Goring to Crowmarsh road. The village itself is on a sleepy backwater, but most people will perhaps know the village as the home of The Springs Hotel and Golf Club which is on the "main road".

The parish church is the Church of St. Mary, which is almost entirely medieval, and still has wall paintings, ancient oak pews and a brick floor.

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ShiplakeShiplake is south of Henley-on-Thames on the A4155 road which leads to Caversham and Reading. Both the old village of Shiplake and the newer settlement of Lower Shiplake spread away from the road towards the River Thames.

The village originated near where the C12 Church of St Peter and St Paul can still be found. This is where the manor house (now known as Shiplake Court) was situated on a beautiful site overlooking the river. The Manor house was rebuilt in 1894 and is now a boys public school. However on the building of the railway in 1858 and the station, about a mile away from what had been the centre, a new settlement grew around the ancient settlement of Lashbrook which is mentioned in Domesday Book, along with its mill. The mill was where Shiplake lock is now and existed until 1908.

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South Stoke

South StokeSouth Stoke is another delightful village, sandwiched between the River Thames and the main railway line from Paddington to Oxford and the south-west. Access to the village from the Goring to Crowmarsh road is by way of one of three arched bridges, whilst a fourth way through the railway embankment, known locally as the Bogey Hole, enables a footpath to the hamlet of Little Stoke.

Unlike the railway, which is very evident, you may not realise the river was there unless you looked at a map or wandered down the track to the old ferry crossing to Moulsford! Perhaps though the Perch and Pike pub gives the closeness of the river away, both by its name and its display of record catches of fish from the river!

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Whitchurch-on-ThamesWhitchurch-on-Thames is an attractive Thames-side village about half way between Goring and Reading. On the opposite side of the river, and linked to Whitchurch-on-Thames by Whitchurch Bridge is the Berkshire village of Pangbourne. Approaching Whitchurch-on-Thames by road from the north the road drops down from the Chilterns into the villlage, much of which is squeezed into a flat plain about half a mile wide. Before you realise it you have reached a toll bridge across the river to Pangbourne.

The village has several attractive flint cottages, Edwardian villas and Georgian town houses. There is also a mill which has now been converted and is no longer in use.

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