Filthy poplar trees and chintzy bungalows with carriage lamps lined the road, and flat fields of cabbages stretched, it seemed, all the way to Chipping Ongar. It was hard to believe that we were only 40 minutes from our holiday destination: an Essex b&b.
Our two-day break in the Home Counties was down to a discussion my girlfriend and I had had the previous week. Why, we wondered, do jaded Londoners on short breaks wrestle with crowded airports, or drive for hours to the West Country, when a perfectly acceptable alternative is to be had on the doorstep? Why do holidays have to be bizarre, exotic and far away? Why can't they be simple, unremarkable and close to home?
That was why we were heading for Essex. Our b&b turned out to be a gorgeous 14th-century mansion called Moor Hall, originally built as a monastic retreat and now a comfortable home with a working farm and a moat complete with bobbing ducks. It was tucked away down a bumpy track, on the edge of a village called Newney Green.
Our landlady, Sue, gave us a warm b&b welcome and showed us to our medieval bedroom, which was large, oak-beamed, panelled and a foot higher at one end than the other. Through the window we could see the lights of Chelmsford glowing in the sky five miles away, but there wasn't a sound.
Our sitting-room - there was no one else staying - was huge and gorgeous too, with Tudor oak panelling, crackling log fire, antique furniture, low lights, and racing prints on the wall. We curled up on the sofa and watched the late film - Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz.
With frost on the ground and the sun rising through layers of February mist over a field of turnips, the next morning was time to treat ourselves. We hit the outdoor spa before breakfast, and lay back in bubbling warm water looking up at the cloudless sky. Three farm cats wreathed in steam watched us before wandering off to chase sparrows.
Breakfast was all it should be at a b&b: slow, large and with too much coffee. The unexpected ingredients were the Mozart tape playing in the background, the 16th-century trestle table that we sat at and the mysterious, 650-year-old, crop-circle-type carvings in the wall just above the cornflakes packet.
When we said we wanted to go for a walk, Sue sketched a map for us and lent us a pair of green wellies. It took us on a three-mile circular tour of the surrounding farms. We stamped on icy puddles, threw turnips at each other, and stopped to listen to a thrush singing its heart out in the bare branches of a sycamore. Sue had told us about Ambrose, the man in the trees at the end of the lane, but all we could see as we stalked silently by was an empty tent and pots hanging out to dry.
Back in the car and off to the Essex coast and the creepy creeks around Bradwell-on-Sea. Stuck out on its own at the water's edge is a chapel that looks like a barn but is in fact one of the oldest buildings in England, established by a Lindisfarne monk called Cedd in AD654.
Yet this unprepossessing stack of stones known as St Peter's Chapel, with nothing in it except a cross and a few benches, has become a place of pilgrimage. As we walked back to the car, the wind whipped off the North Sea and it started to snow. The urban cobwebs were being well and truly blown away. In the village pub we had dreadful gravy pie and chunky chips. All around us were pilgrims and workers from the nearby nuclear- power station, but we couldn't tell which was which.
Late afternoon, we skirted round the M25 to Buckinghamshire and found our second b&b within striking distance of London - Little Parmoor, a Georgian house on the edge of the Chilterns, between the M4 and the M40. Wynard and Julia Wallace greeted us with more big smiles and questions about what we wanted to do during our stay. "Nothing really," we said. They nodded and looked pityingly at their latest batch of clapped-out Londoners.
At the Yew Tree pub in Frieth that evening, we ran into the monthly meeting of the Aston Martin club - it explained the preponderance of Alan Partridge blazers and ironed jeans. Ray, the barman leaned conspiratorially towards us and whispered: "See that chap standing by the fire? His car is worth pounds 98,000." While waiting for our supper to arrive - it turned out to be superb - we slipped round the back to the car park and gaped at the line of Aston Martins gleaming in the moonlight.
On the way home we stopped the car (a Renault) so that my friend could have her last alfresco cigarette of the day - our hosts kept a strict no-smoking regime. Clumps of grey trees were etched against the mist, and an owl hooted in the limes above us. A plane silently winked its way into Heathrow, 20 miles to the east - but London seemed light-years away.
In the room next to us, a family who had won a travel competition with the Daily Mail were jetting off early the next morning. We heard them get up at six, convinced ourselves an airport was the last place we wanted to be and snuggled deeper beneath the blankets.
In warmer months, the Wallaces serve breakfast under the vine in the garden, but not today. Wynard entered the dining room and, arching his back grandly, made an announcement: today was their wedding anniversary. He went on to tell us that, what is more, he was a descendant of the architect Inigo Jones. That explained the watercolours, done by his grandfather, which covered every inch of wall space. In fact, everything was tasteful right down to the pale green walls. B&bs, I was learning, need not be full of kitsch ornaments and pink nylon sheets - they could be just as comfortable as a hotel, but with more character and more interesting chat, all at a fraction of the price.
The Wallaces showed us the garden, which is fine enough to get them into B&B for Garden Lovers and one of the reasons guests come to stay. Little Parmoor was once lived in by the MP Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith. "I don't like that bathroom extension he built, do you?" said Wynard. "Dreadful." The Wallaces have created a water garden, a kind of miniature Generalife. There's a traditional herbaceous border, a secret garden and a wild garden, which, if guests stay for two nights, they can enjoy at their leisure.
There's something about the Chilterns that makes their gentle folds look higher than they are. They're really only bumps to the north-west of London but they are genuinely quiet, and during the week it is great to walk over the chalky grasslands and through the beech woods - truly the capital's forgotten playground.
We followed Julia's instructions to get to Christmas Common and walked along the Ridgeway footpath, medieval England's M1. Then we trundled by car around the nearby flint villages of Skirmett, Turville (the TV series The Vicar of Dibley was filmed there), Fingest and Hambleden, where, as they are supposed to, rooks floated around the church tower and the first snowdrops were coming out by the gate of the post office. A cool stream ran through manicured gardens.
The M4 and home beckoned. We passed taxis speeding to Heathrow, relieved not to be one of the hordes checking in. Our ordinary break was over and all we had to do now was slump in front of the television and get up in time for work tomorrow.
BED & BREAKFAST NEAR LONDON
Robert Nurden and friend were the guests of Sue Gemmill, Moor Hall, Newney Green, near Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3SE (tel: 01245 420814). B&b costs pounds 25 single, pounds 40 double per night, light supper costs pounds 8; dinner for large non-resident parties costs pounds 22 a head. Wynard and Julia Wallace, Little Parmoor, Parmoor Lane, Frieth, Bucks RG9 6NL (tel: 01494 881447). B&b costs pounds 25 single, pounds 40 double per night, dinner costs pounds 14 per head. The Yew Tree pub is in the village of Frieth (tel: 01494 882330).
Essex tourist office (tel: 01245 283400); High Wycombe tourist office (tel: 01494 421892).