It might not be far from central London but a trip to Berkshire and Oxford is to take step backwards to an unspoilt rural landscape that?s unmistakably English. Pimms, straw boaters, striped blazers and deck shoes all take their place alongside the river that separates the two counties. At weekends, city dwellers can leave the memory of the office to mess around on the river.

And whilst the surrounding landscape is ideal for a carefully sculpted few holes, almost nowhere are those messing around likely to get cracked on the head by a golf ball. The exception is Wallingford Springs, where Brian Huggett designed an interesting track in the grounds of a hotel near the river, with a mixture of open ground, natural wetlands and water hazards. The river itself is out of bounds but certainly in range of a savage duck-hook off the 15th tee.

For quality of golf, Berkshire comes highly recommended. Its share of the sandy heath and woodland known as the Surrey Heath is home to some most prestigious clubs in Britain. And top of this illustrious list is Sunningdale, whose members enjoy an immaculate but seriously challenging layout. Finish with the same ball you started with and you won?t be far off the prizes.

Like Sunningdale, where loyalties are divided between Old and New Courses, The Berkshire has 36 quality holes. There?s even less to choose between these two tracks: our advice is simple ? play both either side lunch and make the most of your day out. Swinley Forest is another exclusive members? club to play if the chance arises.

Beyond Reading, Berkshire?s downs are racehorse country. Unfortunately, nags rule this area but the West Berks, a long and often windswept new course near Lambourn, is worth visit. So too is Newbury and Crookham, a hilly course at Greenham Common that celebrates its 130th birthday this year.

There are plenty of top courses around Henley, but our favourite is Huntercombe, where members and their dogs enjoy a grand view over the Oxford plain from the landing area of a decent drive on number two. On the open ground you can lap up the site of Wittenham Clumps against a background of pylons and Didcot Power Station before you head back to the seclusion of the woods to refocus on the golfing challenges ahead.

For nearly a century Oxfordshire?s most prestigious club has been Frilford Heath. Frilford has three good courses: a long one (red), a short one (green), and a new one (blue) with water. The differences of character are interesting but we loved the idea of one of the three courses always reserved for two-ball matches. Basically, you?ll find a pace to suit you at Frilford however fast you play so you?ll get the most from your day here.

Frilford set the county standard for years but its supremacy came under threat a decade ago with the creation of the Oxfordshire near Thame. Japanese money and American vision produced a big layout in a sort of England meets America championship fusion. Stadium mounds, multi-tiered greens, split fairways and great tracts of water make this a very different experience to Frilford. The Oxfordshire made its? name by hosting B&H and Ladies Opens and its length will really test the average amateur. The Oxfordshire?s Japanese owners have since sold up, but the clubhouse retains its excellent Japanese restaurant and Ofuru baths. Is there is a better treatment for ropey golf?

Accommodation


For the ultimate in gourmet golf, dine and stay at Raymond Blanc?s Le Manoir aux Quat? Saisons at Great Milton (01844 278881; near J7 of the M40), and work off the damage at The Oxfordshire next day. The Spread Eagle at Thame (01844 213661) is an attractive red brick coaching inn, also well placed for the Oxfordshire.

In Oxford, The Randolph (0870 400 8200) is the traditional place to put up, but has been knocked off its perch by the stylish Old Bank Hotel (01865 799599) on the High Street. The Old Parsonage (01865 310 210) is good value, has a car park and is well located for exploring Oxford on foot.

Golf-friendly options outside Oxford include The Lamb Inn at Burford (01993 823155), The Dog House Hotel at Frilford Heath (01865 390830), Westwood Country Hotel at Boars Hill (01865 735408), Otmoor Lodge at Horton Cum Studley (01865 351235; golf at nearby Studley Wood) and The Springs (01491 836687) at North Stoke, near Wallingford, a black and white timbered house with golf, fishing and walking on site. The guitar shaped pool is a reminder of former owner Ian Gillan, of Deep Purple.

Sunninghill has two excellent hotels to use as a base for Ascot and nearby courses: The Royal Berkshire (01344 623322) and Berystede (01344 623311), both with putting green. Sir Christopher Wren?s House (01753 861354) is an elegant town house hotel at the foot of the walls of Windsor Castle, with a limousine service to Heathrow.

Eating Out


Heston Blumethal?s The Fat Duck (01628 580 111) at Bray and Raymond Blanc?s Le Manoir aux Quat? Saisons (01844 278881) in Great Milton are gastronomic pilgrimages, and worthy settings for landmark birthday, a hole in one or breaking a hundred. The Riverside Brasserie (01628 7805 530) at Bray Marina offers the chance to sample Blumenthal?s revolutionary style of cooking on a less exorbitant budget.

The Cherwell Boathouse (01865 552 746), on the Cherwell at Summertown, north Oxford, is ideal for good eating before or after a boat trip. Good riverside pubs include The Barley Mow, Clifton Hampden; The Perch at Binsey, and the Trout at Godstow, both on the Thames Path and reachable on foot from Oxford; The Victoria Arms on the Cherwell at Old Marston ? a popular punting pit stop; and the Angel at Henley.

Off course


Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, north of Oxford (01993 811 325) was built by the Duke of Marlborough after his win at Blenheim in 1704 on a suitably triumphalist scale. Winston Churchill was born there and is buried in the churchyard at nearby Bladon.

An Oxford tour should include a selection of the beautiful colleges ? Christ Church, Magdalen, New College and Merton; the cluster of great buildings at the heart of the University ? the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library and the Covered Market.

Burford is the best looking small town in the Cotswolds, and a good place for antiques ? Manfred Schotten specialises in sporting collectables. Antiques lovers should continue north to Stow on the Wold.

Motor launches of varying size can be hired from many villages and towns along the Thames: Henley, Wallingford or Abingdon (among other places); or you can join a cruise at Oxford (Folly Bridge) or Henley. Oxford does most of its punting on the Cherwell, although the Thames (here known as the Isis) is also shallow enough. Punts are hired from Magdalen Bridge, at the southern end of the High Street, or the Cherwell Boathouse on Bardwell Rd, Summertown (01865 515978). Remember, Oxford punts from the stern, and don?t forget to take a paddle, in case you get separated from the punt pole.