. Berkshire is a keystone in the heartland of Southern England, with the River Thames as its northern border. The country goes from the sand and gravel and flat fertile fields of the Thames Valley, where sudden heights like Windsor rise above loops of the Thames, to the Chiltern Hills, mixed with heathland and expanding beyond Reading to chalk uplands, the Berkshire Downs and high grasslands around Lambourn.
. A range of chalk hills just south of the Thames form the northern boundary to the Vale of the White Horse.
. If the Ridgeway is the oldest track, then the winding Thames is the watery highway of Berkshire.
. The restored Kennet and Avon Canal runs from Reading through west Berkshire.
. From the north you progress to chalk hills in the west, then the edge of Cotswold country, it's ultimate English countryside, simple and pleasurable. Though it has highways rushing though it is yet veined with country roads and tiny leafy lanes, ducking and curving, gemmed with lovely settlements (notable are Boxford, Cookham, East Garston, Hurley and Sonning). in fact pretty villages are scattered throughout this still-essentially rural county providing a sight for sore eyes.
Origin of name: A wooded hill district originating from the great forest of birch trees called Bearroc, the Celtic word for 'hilly'.
Name first recorded: 860 as Beaurrucsir
READING Unprepossessing, but worth exploring along the Thames and Kennet rivers.
ABINGDON: Attractive and historic, a Thameside gem. Monday market under the old County Hall arches.
DIDCOT: Good for GWR steam enthusiasts. The power station dominates and it has open days in summer.
HARWELL: Also dominated by the Atomic Energy Research stack but retaining an olde-worlde charm with 14th-to 18th-century buildings.
HUNGERFORD: By the river, with its clustering boats and ducks, is pleasant with a clutter of antique shops.
LAMBOURN: Fine Georgian cottages and almshouses.
MAIDENHEAD: Riverside town with pub-lined towpath.
NEWBURY: Notorious by-pass. Fine almhouses, a cloth museum and horse-drawn barge trips.
WANTAGE: Has a set of almshouses and paving stones made of sheep bones. King Alfred, he of the burnt cakes, was born here.
WINDSOR: Glorious gardens - particularly in spring. Savill and Valley Gardens are both open to the public.
. Botley . Cholsey . Crowthorne . Faringdon
. Kennington . Sandhurst . Shrivenham . Sutton Courtenay . Thatcham . Wallingford
. Wokingham (historically Wiltshire detached)
Thames, Kennet, Blackwater, Lambourn,Ock, Lodden.
Wadbury Hill at 974 feet.
. Mid-July: Swan Upping, the annual recording of the
. "New lad' Nick Homby developed his love of soccer (Fever Pitch) and music (High Fidelity) in Maidenhead.
. Kenneth Graham's immortal The Wind in the Willows roves along the Thames Valley.
. Spoon-bender Uri Geller lives in a mansion in Sonning- on-Thames.
Berkshire's local government: There are five unitary districts governing the major part of Berkshire: Bracknell Forest, Newbury, Reading, Windsor & Maidenhead, Wokingham. The rest of the County of Berkshire is administered by a two-tier system provided by the Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire Districts along with Oxfordshire County Council. The two detached parts of Berkshire in Oxfordshire at Langford and Shilton come under that County Council and West Oxfordshire District Council.
ROYAL BERKSHIRE is its proud appellation, and - sure enough - it begins at the doorstep of London with Windsor, home of kings, queens and castle. In fact the grand profile of Windsor Castle is quite unmissable as you approach it off the M4, a long grey line of turrets and towers that is quite stunning. The other facet of Berkshire aside from royalty is the more olde-worlde aspects around Newbury and Thatcham with pretty villages hidden in the rolling hills of the Berkshire Downs.
As you approach Windsor, silhouetted from the motorway are the spiky spirelets of that most perfect of royal churches, St Georges Chapel. The interior is an ordered succession of delicate fan vaulting in the uniquely English late Gothic style. Within the castle walls are closes, courts, gardens, grace-and-favour houses and wide terraces looking over treetops across the river towards Eton and its college (over the border in Buckinghamshire), painted by Canaletto. There's a changing of the guard every day outside the royal apartments. (Apart from Donnington Castle, near Newbury, Windsor is the only important medieval fortress in the county.) Windsor Great Park laps the town with parkland, offering walkers and riders alike fine views of the castle. Windsor's interesting buildings include Christopher Wren's classical 17th- century town hall with its pillars that do not touch the first-floor ceiling - to prove the architect's point that his design did not need their support.
To the west and caught in a loop of the Thames is Maidenhead. Here, in a town that was once an important stop on the coach run (on which the smart and fashionable travelled to Bath), you will find the high brick spans of Brunei's rail bridge. In a riverside house the Reitlinger Bequest offers fascinating Oriental, European and African sculpture and pottery. Nearby Shottesbrooke and Warfield have fine churches, Ascot, Bracknell and Sunningdale conjure up visions of royal races, opulent suburban residences and green golf courses. Don't be put off by red-brick development around Reading. It is a very old town and had a famous abbey, until Henry VIII suppressed the religious institutions and left it in ruins. Britain's 'silicon valley' is forgotten once you've pierced the outer rim of development, for the county town has old commercial buildings, busy streets and narrow, glassed-over Victorian shopping arcades. To the west is Pangbourne, and riverside Streatley with a wonderful old cheese shop. Newbury has long held links with the wool cloth trade - it has an Old Cloth Hall, now a museum. Turn north to Abingdon, Berkshire's old capital with a fine county hall, numerous almshouses, a long, many-arched bridge over water and flat fields, and remains of a fifteenth-century abbey gateway The edge of the county is high and grassy downland dedicated to horses - for here is a set of racing studs and breeding centres around Lambourn.
The airy heights of the North Berkshire downs are notable for ancient remains - 26 Bronze Age burial sites and one Neolithic long chamber are to be found near Lambourn. Some still stand high in dramatic profile, others are slowly vanishing into the turf. but they give a distinctive mystical air to the far west of this county. The University of Reading museums have collections of rural life and Greek and Egyptian works, while the town museum has Roman pieces from excavations at nearby Silchester. Warfield's St Michael's, a gothic and Early English church, has a Green Man - a pagan figure - carved on a sedilia, a set of stone priests' seats. More visible signs of ancient art are the outlined chalk figures on the hills, including the famous White Horse at Uffington. The 85- mile Ridgeway Path, a prehistoric trade route (which ran on chalk hills to avoid marshes and low-lying forests from Devon to the North Sea) runs pass Britain's best-known chalk hill figure and site of an Iron Age hill-fort. Berkshire's royal connection goes back further than the building of Windsor Castle: the Saxon king Alfred the Great was born at Wantage in AD849 and his statue stands in the market place.