Head to Hungerford for a bracing weekend of bucolic bliss, packed with country walks, hearty meals in snug pubs, and antiques shops aplenty
Just a stone’s throw from the M4, the hustle and bustle of the commuter belt soon gives way to undulating country lanes as you wend your way through west Berkshire to the market town of Hungerford. With a surfeit of antiques shops and interesting boutiques, it’s the perfect base for a long weekend of fruitful rummaging – and the proximity of the North Wessex Downs and the fertile Kennet river valley means there are countless opportunities for countryside jaunts, too.
Those with an historical bent won’t be disappointed either. The area is rich in prehistory with many barrows and ancient monuments to explore, while a visit to one of the many civilised country houses or picturesque churches in the surrounding villages will sate your hunger for the more recent past. Happily, hunger of a different kind is also well catered for, with a host of traditional country pubs dishing up delicious, wholesome food that demands an appetite.
The bustling market town of Hungerford has offered respite and refreshment to travellers for hundreds of years. Clustered around its busy main street and market arcade are plenty of antiques haunts and quirky boutiques selling everything from country casual-wear to handmade hats, tempting you in out of the cold for a nose around.
Great Grooms of Hungerford (Riverside House, Charnham Street. 01488 682314; greatgrooms.co.uk) holds everything from fine Regency mahogany dining tables to Vernon Southward paintings from the 1970s and hand-woven Kazak and Afghan carpets. Arranged over three floors, the rooms of this Queen Anne townhouse are home to 50 expert dealers, so there’s something new arriving every week.
Just a few doors down is couture milliner Jane Corbett (9 Bridge Street. 01488 686321; janecorbett.com), whose delightful boutique is like an adult’s dressing-up box. As well as her own bespoke hats, Jane also has a wealth of vintage hats, jewellery, handbags and clothing. ‘I love chatting with my customers,’ says Jane. ‘Many of them are drawn to vintage because they remember being allowed to try on their granny’s treasured items. Now they can purchase them for themselves!’
Styles Silver (12 Bridge Street. 01488 683922; styles-silver.co.uk), carries an eclectic range of antique silver, nearly all of it English. One of the few silver specialists outside London, this is a great place to pick up more modern pieces as it stocks work by post-war silversmiths including Stuart Devlin and Gerald Benney, whose sleek designs fit well with contemporary interiors.
A local landmark, the Hungerford Arcade is a Grade II listed building in the heart of the market place (26 High Street. 01488 683701). Now home to over 100 antiques and collectables dealers and the oldest established antiques centre outside London, the building dates back to 1360 and incorporates.
Armada and Trafalgar timbers. Originally a manor house, previous incarnations have seen it as a wine merchant’s, saddlery, supermarket and teashop. Churchill’s surgeon once lived here, and General Eisenhower stopped by for a cup of tea when it was a tearoom. It’s fit to burst with fascinating objets, and you could happily lose yourself in its warren of stores for an afternoon, or longer.
Further up the road, The Emporium (112 High Street. 01488 686959) is a light, bright and airy antiques shop run by Barbara and Richard Mills. ‘Our stock is diverse, to say the least,’ says Barbara. ‘With over 40 dealers, we have old garden tools and vinyl records, mahogany dining tables, vintage jewellery, china and all sorts of collectables.’
Below Stairs of Hungerford (103 High Street. 01488 682317; belowstairs.co.uk) is Hungerford’s only architectural antiques centre, where you can unearth book presses, stuffed animals, old advertising signs, and what feels like the world’s largest collection of antique door furniture. ‘If it’s English, Victorian, and good quality, I’ll sell it,’ says owner Stewart Hofgartner. ‘I think the weirdest things I’ve ever sold were glass eyeballs, but I’ve also sold a skeleton, a penny-farthing, and a stuffed duck-billed platypus, which was so rare I would have loved to have held on to it for longer.’
If your country wardrobe is letting you down, pop into Roxtons (10/11 Bridge Street. 01488 682885; roxtons.co.uk), established over 20 years ago and a cornerstone of Hungerford life. Whether you’re in need of snuggly cashmere bedsocks or a spot of tweed to help you fit in comfortably with the shooting set, Alex Crawford and his friendly team stock a selection of goodies that will have you reaching for your purse, including the latest designs from Fenn Wright Manson and MaxMara. ‘Locals with visitors up from London often drop them here for a few hours respite,’ says Roxtons’ floor manager Glennie Salt.
New kid on the block, Peppermint Cream (109 High Street. 01488 681117), is the brainchild of local girls Lesley Hall and Annie Cooper. This pretty little shop, ‘dreamed up after a couple of drinks,’ according to Annie, is filled with textiles – some handmade by the owners – vintage-chic furniture and soft furnishings. ‘If you see something you like, it’s best to buy it there and then,’ says Lesley. ‘Our stock is ever-changing, so you should snap it up while you can!’
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Surrounded by rolling hills, their grass kept short by hundreds of years of sheep grazing, Hungerford is in the middle of one of only 37 Areas of Outstanding National Beauty in the UK. This large tract of protected land encompasses the chalk slopes of The Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road, and the lush Kennet river valley and is collectively known as the North Wessex Downs. It’s laced with public footpaths, so if a romp along the 87 miles of The Ridgeway doesn’t appeal, you can still go off-road without too much effort.
Hungerford town itself is bisected by the Kennet and Avon canal, once an important transport route between Bristol and London that fell into disrepair with the opening of the Great Western Railway. Tireless restoration work by a local trust means that you can now enjoy a wander along its grassy towpath, feed the ducks from Hungerford’s bridge, or take a leisurely barge trip and maybe spot an elusive kingfisher or two.
‘Hungerford has offered respite and refreshment to travellers for hundreds of years’
All that’s left of Donnington Castle (english-heritage.org.uk) is the 14th-century gatehouse and surrounding earthworks, but its position overlooking the River Lambourn makes the quick jaunt to the top of the hill worthwhile.
Ashdown House (01494 755569; nationaltrust.org.uk), a Restoration hunting lodge near Lambourn, looks like a doll’s house and is nestled in a deer park. The grounds, with a recreated 17th-century parterre garden, are well worth a wander.
Pride and Prejudice fans will love Basildon Park (0118 984 3040; nationaltrust.org.uk), an elegant Georgian Palladian mansion set in immaculate gardens and parkland, and the location for Netherfield Park in the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel.
‘You must try Two Hoots Barkham Blue,’ says Ashley Dunbar, owner of Dunbar’s Delicatessen (128 High Street, Hungerford. 01488 684862; dunbarsdeli.co.uk), who is rightly proud of the range of cheeses, meats and preserves on offer.
The Three Swans (117 High Street, Hungerford. 01488 682721; threeswans.net) serves mouthwatering British cuisine that’s well worth a try.