It was too good an opportunity to pass up. An unplanned visit to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, on route, discovering another quite unexpected, but creepy, derelict estate in Mongewell Park.
With a name that rhymes with sponge-well, Mongewell is a mere mile from Wallingford, sandwiched between the Winterbrook bridge, the busy B4009 and River Thames to the west.
Finding your way there is the first challenge. Down a country lane, along a footpath, past large unfriendly signs advising visitors to keep out, unless heading to St John the Baptist church. Don’t be put off.
A horror film set
The site has had a colourful past – from an ancient Grims Ditch, the Normans, a bishops estate, WW1 convalescent home and RAF station, to groundbreaking Jewish boarding school, Carmel College that closed in 1997. Although earmarked for housing, the extensive site is derelict.
On past peeling portakabins with boarded up windows and verandas sinking into dense vegetation, that you walk by to get to the church. The school added several buildings, including its synagogue and the Julius Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse. An intriguing, creepy place. I could see why it has been a popular film location – great for horror movies!
Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?
A jigsaw puzzle
Partly taped off, in case the roof tiles continue their downward slide, you skirt the headstones beneath the east wall of the apse to enter. It reminded me of Someries Castle near Luton in size and decay. Minus the vandalism. Hemmed in by dark vegetation, the atmosphere was just ever-so menacing. This is not a romantic ruin!
Come away make no delay
The inscription on the now lost church bell 1760
When the nave lost its roof in the 1940’s, the arch to the apse was blocked up. Unsure if the heavy door would yield, it took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
A surprise awaits
The floor may be dusty, but tucked away behind a Churches Conservation Trust poster, is a pile of neatly folded clothes and a bucket and mop. It is looked after, this tiny uncluttered space, with interesting stone monuments, a large, but damaged Victorian font and pretty stained glass window behind the alter. The wrought iron chandelier was added in the 1880’s and hangs from the reconstructed 14th century wooden roof.
Following repairs and the placing of monuments and the font from the nave into the apse, it is hard to imagine this lovely space was once derelict.
What movie set could this be from?
It got suddenly dark inside the chancel, huge storm clouds quickly fluffing up overhead. It was time to go! I closed the door, making sure it wouldn’t blow open and picked my way through the weeds and out across the nave into the deserted Mongewell Park.
A place of contrasts and a big dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy surrounds, made this a highlight for me. Such an unexpected delight, the little chancel amidst the weeds and decay. A deserved inclusion in this blog!
The chancel was unlocked, which was a surprise as there was no one around. It may be locked when you visit. If all you can experience is the exterior ruin and surrounds, you won’t be disappointed.
Mongewell was once a strip parish – these were thin strips of land extending from the Thames and into part of Stoke Row, up in the Chiltern Hills. There is lovely story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to Stoke Row, far away in England. The land of endless rain ironically.
A reflection on the past year and on the affect the Covid-19 pandemic has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.
March is the space between winter and spring. It’s the month where we crave an end to the cold winter winds and are eager to welcome the warm spring days. It can make us impatient and above all, dissatisfield. It can be a ‘nothing month’, but not this year, nor was it, in 2020.
Winter storms leave their mark in the forest. On a recent walk in Ashridge, I heard a loud crack! It was the splitting and toppling of a massive old tree. Many other trees had already wobbled and crashed, some violently, knee-capped almost – as if a child had been let loose with a chopper. But a reminder of the natural cycle of growth, decline and renewal that stands in stark contrast to the awful pounding the Chilterns has taken in the past year.
Vandalism, graffiti, fires, trespass, wild poohing, fly tipping and good old fashioned ‘can’t be arsed to take litter home’ just don’t belong in our beautiful countryside.
What have we lost?
It has been a tough and terrible year. Sadly over 126,000 deaths recorded, exhausted healthcare workers, lives turned upside down, family members in the wrong places unable to meet up, borders closed, tourism and hospitality businesses in turmoil.
March 16th was the technical start of the 2020 lockdown, but it is 23rd March that rests in the popular memory. When the lockdown screws were well and truly tightened and we all had to stay at home. Exercising for one hour a day.
The seasons don’t stop
The sun shone on the empty roads, the footpaths were eerily quiet. I kept up my dog walking, revisiting overlooked local tracks. I recorded my lockdown micro walks, 18 in all. Spring didn’t stop though, and it was a joy to watch up close as leaves unfurled, nesting got underway, the warmth of the sunshine hardened the mud. Awkward greetings and new walking etiquette was quickly learnt as we danced around one another on the narrower paths! All helped counter the repressive pandemic restrictions.
The mask slipped
The impact of our release from lockdown is well documented. With the easing of restrictions, like a catapult, the pent up demand to get out and about, suddenly filled our communities. The police became a regular feature as the local quarry became a hotspot for campers, bikers and party-goers with cars parked three-deep everywhere. The result of not being able to visit family, participate in sport, watch football matches, go shopping, visit the high street, meet friends in pubs and restaurants, or take the family to museums and outdoor attractions. It quickly became an angry and confused mess.
Many visitors were new to the countryside, weren’t familiar and didn’t know what to expect. The countryside does have a reputation after all. Farmers battled with trespass and walkers trying to socially distance on muddy narrow footpaths this past winter meant they encroached on fields and crops. But what were people supposed to do?
The temptation to waggle a stern finger at transgresses never works. And that is all to often our default position: put together a three-word slogan and assume the bossy voice to counter the wave of visitors trying in their own way, to have some leisure space and time.
Following a review, an updated Countryside Code is due out any day. I hope it will have vast amounts of marketing money to share an improved, more inclusive messaging that encourages positive behaviour and a love of the countryside.
We’re not through this yet. Driving around the Chalfonts last week, my car scratched from the awkward branches sticking out along the busy lanes, stopping to try and avoid both potholes and passing vans. So many Hs2 trucks! I was struck at how dirty the countryside is; verges everywhere littered with bottles, bags, wrappers, fast food boxes, bags adorning the trees and fly-tipping. It was horrible.
As April beckons, so the leaf cover will swallow up much of this mess, and things will look and feel better. There is hope now that we have the Covid-19 vaccine. I really hope too, that from now onwards, countryside visitor management will not be done on the cheap, with extra resources to communicate, clean up and better care for our beautiful Chilterns.
Let’s leave the host communities with happy memories too
Facilities will be open, which will relieve some of the pressure, but I expect the Chilterns countryside will be busy again this Easter and into the summer. What sort of welcome will visitors receive? How will they be feeling if the international borders remain shut? Willing or defiant?
To all those new countryside and market town converts, we welcome you. Plan and book, so you can really enjoy your visit. Please spend time with our local businesses, take your litter home, and be considerate of others. Thank you.
We have so many wonderful stories about the people and places that make our region so special. Whilst you plan your next visit, you can read about them here.
Share the seasons in the Chilterns with our new range of locally inspired Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs
On March 8th, we come together to celebrate the many achievements of women during International Women’s Day (#IWD2021 #ChooseToChallenge). This annual global event celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, past and present, from all over the world.
How can this global event be relevant to somewhere local, an ancient trackway through southern England?
The Ridgeway National Trail is a walking route in a surprisingly remote part of southern central England. Linking Wiltshire with Buckinghamshire, the route travels in a northeasterly direction for 87 miles (139 Km); from its start in the World Heritage Site of Avebury and ends at an Iron Age hill fort on Ivinghoe Beacon. As Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway still follows the same route over high ground used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers. It continues to inspire artists, writers, and historians, who between them, enable us to better interpret the collective story and appreciate this wonderful national asset.
Thanks to a group of remarkable women, who through a passion for art, archeology, history, education and farming, bring an important national asset into our communities and collective conscious, for everyone to enjoy, explore, respect and care for, for future generations.
Past and present, this is their contribution
Working at the western end of the Ridgeway, archeologist Maud Cunnington (1869 – 1951), is a woman of firsts. One of the most important excavators working in Wiltshire at the beginning of the twentieth century, Maud’s most significant contribution to the Avebury landscape was that she identified the site of the Sanctuary. Whilst William Stukeley sketched this prehistoric site in the eighteenth century, the stones had been broken up or since removed and location lost. Maud identified the site’s exact location and preserved it for future generations by purchasing the land and giving it to the nation.
In 1933, she was elected president of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the first woman to hold that position. She was also named a CBE in 1948 for services to archaeology, the first woman archaeologist to receive the honour. She bequeathed almost all her property to Devizes Museum (now Wiltshire Heritage Museum), allowing a salaried curator to be appointed for the first time.
Today the on-site curatorial team at Avebury is made up entirely of female archaeologists. Excavations and discoveries continue to be made and published as they work to form a better understanding of this intriguing landscape.
Archaeologist Molly Cotton (1902-1984), made her mark at the eastern end of the Ridgeway at Ivinghoe Beacon: the Cotton and Frere excavations of 1963 – 65 identified this important structure as Iron Age. In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology London.
Clare Leighton (1899-1989), was a leading illustrator, wood engraver, painter, author of many books, teacher, and designer for posters, ceramics and glass. It was whilst living in Monks Risborough, just off the Ridgeway in the 1930’s, she published her celebrated volume on Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts. At this time her subject matter often involved observations of the countryside and rural life, as in her books such as The Farmer’s Year: a calendar of English husbandry (1933) and Four Hedges: a gardener’s chronicle (1935), as well as evocative posters for London Transport, including Weekend Walks and The Country Now.
Fay Godwin (1931 – 2005), was a photographer of great renown, known for her black-and-white landscapes of the British countryside and coast. The Oldest Road, an account of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, with text by JRL Anderson, was an immediate success when published in 1975. She was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1990 and had a major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London in 2001. Fay also lead the Ramblers Association from 1987 to 1990, at a time when its long-running right-to-roam campaign was turned up to the full-strength pressure. Read more about her life and works here.
Archaeologist Gill Hey was involved in excavations in 2003 of the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross above Princes Risborough on the Ridgeway. Now CEO of Oxford Archaeology, Gill started her career at Reading University where active fieldwork was encouraged. Gill says, “I fell in love with the physical process of carefully unpicking what was left in the ground in combination with the mental process of puzzling out who had been there and what they were doing.” Looking back at her archaeologist predecessors on IWD21, Gill suggests, “It is now a much more equal environment and I am very pleased to say that we have as many women working for the organisation as men, although we need to do more to encourage them to progress to senior roles.”
Archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison’s research areas are Prehistoric European Archaeology and Landscape Archaeology. Closer to home, Wendy leads the Chilterns ‘Beacons of the Past’ project. Her work seeks to engage and inspire communities to discover, conserve, and enjoy what is around us and the unique Iron Age hillforts and their prehistoric chalk landscapes. The Chilterns has one of the largest collections of hillforts in the UK, yet many are poorly preserved, and little is known about them. Luckily, several of these hillforts are accessible from the Ridgeway.
A key part of Wendy’s project is the largest LiDAR survey ever flown for archaeology in this country, and one of the largest in the world! Images are captured with a laser scanner mounted on a small plane that captures information about the ground below; revealing intriguing ‘lumps and bumps’, such as hillforts, that are hidden by tree cover and other vegetation. Wendy is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Landscape painter Anna Dillon, grew up in Aston Tirrold near the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, surrounded by rolling chalk downland and big skies. Drawn to landscapes, combined with an enjoyment of long distance walking, Anna studied Illustration and Design at the Falmouth School of Art and worked as a graphic designer until she made the decision to paint full time. Anna came to see the Ridgeway as a source of artistic inspiration at an exhibition in Swindon showing work by a group of international artists. The curator Francis Kyle, had invited the group to visit the Ridgeway and portray the ‘presence of the landscape’.
During 2009, Anna walked the National Trail through the seasons with her husband, keeping a photo journal and diary. From this, she produced 24 oil paintings that were exhibited in a series of shows called A Ridgeway Journey in 2012. Since then, Anna has added further paintings to create the Ridgeway Series, which tracks the seasons from ‘snowscapes’ in Wiltshire through to autumn in the Chilterns.
Anna is portrayed in the header image.
Farmer, entomologist and ecologist, Sally-Ann Spence lives and works on her family’s farm along the Ridgeway in Ashbury, near Wayland Smithy, in Oxfordshire. Sally-Ann is a leading dung beetle expert and one of her treasures is a dry calcareous grassland valley near the Ridgeway, which she is carefully managing to provide habitat for dung beetles, as well as other flora and fauna. Over two decades, she has built up her own flock of native Wiltshire Horn sheep with stylish Belted Galloway “belties” and Dexter cattle to graze the farm’s permanent grasslands.
To further both research and education in natural history, Sally-Ann has converted her farmhouse and adjoining barn into a research centre called the Berrycroft Hub and mentors many young people. You may have heard her talking about insects on BBC Radio 4 ‘The Killing Jar’ and on the BBC Breakfast programme. She has impressive credentials as an Honorary Associate of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and fellow of both the Royal Entomological Society and The Linnean Society.
We salute you!
This impressive group is by no means exclusive. Instead, it’s the start of acknowledging and celebrating the women who have been quietly making a contribution to our Ridgeway landscape, understanding of and making our heritage accessible and culture enjoyable. Each in their own fields of expertise, are choosing the challenge perceptions and glass ceilings for those women who will follow. We thank you.
With contributions from Sarah Wright, Trail Officer Ridgeway National Trail.
There are lots of online events and exhibitions on the IWD website. #ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021 Find your Ridgeway inspiration, information and Trail itineraries here.
The Ridgeway has been portrayed by many artists, and one in particular, of great cultural importance visited the pretty villages of Goring and Streatley to paint timeless English landscapes.
Many of the images on this website are available for sale on our Chilterns Gifts website in the Kites & Clouds and A Year in the Chilterns ranges.
A day to gladden the heart!Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.
It’s the New Year, and months of continued uncertainty stretch ahead. I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual”.
A popular destination, Ashridge Forest draws visitors from far and wide. Covid-19 has made the great outdoors more appealing to locals and visitors, but it has put new pressures on our environment that organisations like the National Trust are still grappling with. Visitors tend to converge at the visitor centre or around Ivinghoe Beacon, but the forest is vast, so I can slip away down a muddy trail with Leo, the sounds of the forest and occasional walker to share my space.
Sounds are louder in winter; voices carry surprisingly far, as do dogs barking, bicycles swooshing through the grit and mud and the occasional shriek of a child as they climb and balance on fallen tree trunks.
I look for open spaces as I am getting wet walking under the bigger beech trees drip dripping with moisture.
Birdsong is louder too, accompanied by a flash of movement as bluejays, magpies and blackbirds flash up from the undergrowth, noticeable against the bare trees. The robins are already guarding their territories, singing their little hearts out.
The sun is low, but still warm in sheltered places where I can enjoy the sparking rain drops clinging onto leaf buds. I image some hardy insects having a sauna in the steam slowly rising from a log.
Signs of spring
At first sight, the forest floor is predominantly shades of bracken brown. However, taking an involuntary closer look, after an entanglement with some robust tree roots, turns out there are green shoots – some bluebells I expect, are early signs of spring.
Now Ashridge forest is laid bare, it looks untidy, branches tangled, huge boughs drooping, as though the trees have been turned upside down and the mass of roots are now visible – inverted. The decay of autumn trodden in and will soon fade as new growth takes hold.
The impassable becomes passable
As I walk beneath tree boughs that are normally thick with foliage and difficult to get through, the impassable becomes passable. The smaller tracks will become chocked with stinging nettles and brambles, others smothered in foliage.
The mud is something else! Thick, deep and sticky enough to loose your boots in. I have walked these trails many times, but each time is different; berries in various stages of growth or decay, views that open or close depending if the leaves are on the trees or under your feet. When the bracken is green, it blends in perfectly with the trees, and can be quite visually suffocating.
A re-purposed saw pit
An old saw pit has filled up with wood and algae floating amongst grasses, mysterious air bubbles popping to the surface. It’s too cold for frogs, so what could it be? Gas from decaying organic matter?
I spot an elder tree with the peculiar ‘jelly ear’ (or wood ear) growing along a branch. Found in most places, this edible species of Auriculariales fungus is distinguished by its noticeably ear-like shape and colouration.
Its specific epithet is derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree; the common name “Judas’s ear” was largely eclipsed by the corruption “Jew’s ear”, while today “wood ear”, “jelly ear” and other names are preferred.
It gets cold quickly, and I head home before my fingers are numb. Most walks show me something new, or it’s that I have simply noticed new things. I know that when next I visit, the forest will have changed again; new sounds, more birds, more early, optimistic Chilterns growth. There is however, the potential for snow and ice, which will make the forest even quieter and fun to explore.
I have written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the great outdoors that surrounds this beautiful region.
The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read about the once Flourishing Ashridge Trade.
In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
Enjoy the Chilterns at home with our NEW range of Chilterns-inspired gifts and souvenirs. UK orders only.
Midway between Aylesbury and Buckingham, on an elevated piece of land overlooking the Buckinghamshire flats, you will come upon the pretty market town of Winslow. Up and over the hill onto Sheep Street, you drive past lovely thatched cottages and the once grand, but now faded Winslow Hall, before turning into the picturesque high street.
Making up another piece of the jigsaw I am piecing together, this visit to the remarkable Keach’s Meeting House continues the story of the strong nonconformist tradition so typical of our region.
There’s something about Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns, that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met or worshiped in secret. Some wanted to do things differently, to go against the grain. Amongst the beech trees and farmland, many would make their mark on the nations history.
Our guide for the hot, late summer afternoon was local historian and keeper of Winslow’s stories, Dr David Noy. In keeping with the times, he was sporting a Covid visor and we socially distanced in Bell Alley outside the Meeting House.
David grew up in the town and has a wonderful grasp of even the tiniest detail told in an engaging and slightly dry manner. The story of Winslow is in fact the story of many towns across Bucks and the Chilterns; mysterious burial mounds, obscure Saxon heritage, rapid growth, Royal favour, dissent and disaster is reflected in the rise and fall of local family fortunes.
In English church history, a nonconformist was a Protestant who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the established Church of England.
Winslow has a strong nonconformist tradition going back to the 17th century, and in 1660, Benjamin Keach (1640 – 1704), was chosen pastor for the little Baptist chapel.
Benjamin Keach was a powerful preacher, a prodigious writer, poet, and composer of the long hymns he was keen his congregation sang – every verse! In 1664, he published a book for children, called The Child’s Instructor, which saw him arrested and charged with publishing a book that contradicted the teaching of the Church of England. Fined £20 and sentenced to several hellish months in goal. He also had to stand upon the pillory at Aylesbury and a few days later to do the same in Winslow market where his books were burnt in front of him by the common hangman.
Keach continued his ministry at Winslow until 1668, but being harassed by the civil powers, he moved to London. Chosen as pastor of a small congregation in Tooley St. Southwark, he remained there until his death in 1704.
A Modest Structure
Tucked away on Bell Walk, the Meeting House is one of the oldest buildings of its type in Bucks. There is some debate when it was built – 1625 or 1695. David pointed out how the 2 and 9 in the image above, have been ‘adapted’.
Easily missed behind a wall and overhung with large trees, a small graveyard at the front. It’s tiny! This modest structure, no bigger than a garage, would have provided shelter but not a lot of comfort for the congregation – the benches look like they were designed to keep the worshipper awake! Especially as Baptist worship at this time included long prayers and longer sermons. There is a lot of charming detail; small leaded windows, wooden spindles in the porch, hat pegs, early C18 century tomb flags in the floor, against the east wall, beneath the narrow gallery, are hinged desk tops and four lead ink-wells, for use of the Sunday-school which started in 1824.
I came away from Winslow feeling that all is not what is seems. You think you know somewhere, or are familiar with village life (I live in a Chilterns village), but David’s tour really opened my eyes to changing fortunes, vernacular and provincial town fashion. But most of all, I was reminded that it’s not the structures that determine a location, a place in the landscape. Underneath the Buckinghamshire skies and in the Chilterns beechwoods, it is people who continue to make and tell the stories.
Explore Jordan’s, the unassuming village, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.
Another strand of religious heritage are the many pilgrim routes that criss-cross the fields and towns. Read about ancient relics and medieval wall paintings over in Hertfordshire.
On a quiet August afternoon, camera in hand, I took to the back streets of West Wycombe village. Away from the busy thoroughfare, apart from the TV aerials amongst the chimney pots, not much has changed in this tiny Chilterns village.
This tiny village, that hugs the hillside looks just like a film set; steep lanes, wobbly windows festooned with impressive cobwebs, doorways for tiny residents and unexpected passageways. All authentic, medieval properties, re-purposed for 21st century life. How come there are no ghastly 1960’s office blocks, betting shops or parking garages along this delightful high street?
Luckily for us, through a chain of events that started in New York with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, West Wycombe village, in its entirety was sold by the Dashwood family to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist.
This was once an important stop for weary travellers heading too and from London by stagecoach, along pitted and muddy roads. The street was packed with hospitality options, although chances are you’d have had to share your noisy, scratchy bed with a stranger. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village, and today you can stop to enjoy a pint or glass of something local in the one of the tea shops or pubs. At least that hasn’t changed!
Take in all attractions; the caves, St Lawrence and the mausoleum, down to the high street for a wander and then over the road into the National Trust Park. During the summer, the house is open, so set aside one day. Do the place justice!
The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree, just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter! The West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.
West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.
There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.
We like to celebrate our quirky residents, past and present and for another grand design, visit the National Trust at Stowe, near Buckingham.
Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.
Celebrate the Seasons
Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and unique souvenirs including; tea towels, postcards, prints, mugs, key rings and bluebell fridge magnets. Find your gifts here.
In which a childhood tale of hardship and a beating, led to a generous royal gift to a small Chilterns community from a benefactor in a far-flung British colony.
Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the restored Maharajah’s well in Stoke Row. To understand why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make this extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community. Living as we do in country with a high rainfall.
Hang on, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Isn’t Britain usually the one dispensing largesse to the less fortunate in far-flung colonies?
Stoke Row is a fairly typical Chilterns village, situated at the southern end of the region, near Henley-on-Thames, in a cluster of villages that include Ibsden, Nuffield and Nettlebed. It’s quite hard to find, along gloomy woodland lanes, around some tight corners. It has in its foundations, chalk, flint and clay that have enabled a long history of pottery making. However, in common with Turville, there is no natural water source.
The source of this charming Chilterns story
East India Connections
The Narayan dynasty was the ruling Bhumihar family of Benares. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, the family ruled Benares as tributaries of the Nawab of Awadh and the East India Company. In 1911, Benares became a full-fledged princely state of British India, the Narayan dynasty ruled it as British vassals until they acceded to independent India in 1948. Even today, the Kashi Naresh, the titular ruler of the dynasty, is deeply revered by the people of Benares. He is the religious head and considered the incarnation of Lord Shiva.
Local Ibsden squire, Edward Anderson Reade (1807 – 1886) had worked alongside and formed a friendship with Maharajah Shri Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh Bahadur of Benares (1822-89), whilst working as administrator and Lieutenant Governor in the North West Provinces for the East India Company. The two men must have shared childhood stories which later were to inform the Maharajah’s decision to fund a new well, far away in a country he had never visited. But had a huge impact on his life and country.
101 Cherry Trees
In 1831, Edward Reade had a well sunk for a community in Azimgurgh, alongside a new mango grove. It was this generous gift and that childhood tale of dried up Chilterns village ponds, hardship and a child beaten for stealing a drink of water, that sealed the subsequent deal. In 1863, the Stoke Row well was sunk for around £40,000 in today’s money, the adjoining ‘Ishree Bagh’ was planted with 101 cherry trees and the Well Cottage built with a view to providing funds for the well’s maintenance.
I expect the village hasn’t seen anything like it, not since Queen Victoria opened the well in 1864. Until 1964 that is, when HRH the Duke of Edinburgh attended the centenary and a sample of water was drawn that can be found at the local pub apparently. Please let me know if you have any luck finding it!
The Ishree bagh, cherry orchard, feels well used as a local green space, but as an orchard, neglected. There is random planting of young cherry trees (a Chilterns heritage crop), some dead, others not sure whether to thrive or die, and some well designed childrens’ dens in amongst the trees. There are a good number of oak trees, some with legible plaques, others rusted away. Thank you Denise for the beautiful oak tree planted in your memory, the bagh is better for it.
The orchard mound is now topped with a commemorative wooden elephant ‘the Elephant & Bandstand’ to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the well.
In a neat space between the orchard and well, is the tiny brick cottage with an unfeasibly tall chimney, former home of the well keeper no less. Dwarfed by the ornate dome, a foresight as it’s visible from afar – and a nod to the Maharajah who would never see his gift, but wanting it visible all the same. Beneath the Burgundy Mughal-inspired dome, a golden elephant sits atop the shiny machinery designed and built by local agricultural engineers, Wilder of Wallingford 1863.
368 feet deep
The shaft plunges through clay, gravel, sand, chalk sand, more chalk and finally chalk and shells before reaching the sweet water, a mere 368 feet deep – twice the height of Nelson’s column. Drawing water must have been quite a chore. It took 10 minutes for the pulley to reach the bottom and another ten minutes to reach the surface. I expect they all formed a neat and orderly queue and exchanged village news whilst waiting. The well was closed in 1939.
I love this story. It has a special resonance for me, hailing as I do from the colonies. What makes this story so extraordinary is that a former colony did what Britain usually does; dispensing largesse in the form of a royal gift, to those in need, those less fortunate. But in this case, those who where in need where the masters, the mighty British Empire. Oh, the irony!
The inscription ‘Be Not Weary in Well Doing” is a fitting epitaph for Edward Reade’s gravestone, in the nearby Ibsden cemetery.
This Chilterns travel blog is only about the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns are not a place name you’d perhaps recognise, despite being located in the distinctive green space between London’s Metroland and Oxford. If quirky is your thing, we’ve a load more stories to tempt you.
At the other end of the strip parish that once linked Stoke Row to the Thames, is Mongewell Park. Site of the ruined St John the Baptist church.
Nearby is the modest home of William Morris, who lived at Nuffield Place and brought affordable motoring to Britain.
For further Chilterns ideas and inspiration, or to book a table at England’s first gastropub, the nearby Crooked Billet. Built in 1642, reputed to have been the hideout of highwayman Dick Turpin, which may have been due to a certain landlord’s daughter, Bess.
At first drive-through, this busy Buckinghamshire town is not a pretty sight. Aylesbury is town that has kept it’s historic heart well and truly hidden, marooned on a little island cut off by busy roads full of traffic rushing through on their way elsewhere.
Perhaps you are familiar with Aylesbury because of its association with ducks?
“The white Aylesbury duck is a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad, deep breast and ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. ”
Not as obvious is its historic association with the nearby Chilterns as this town played an important role in the English Civil War, very much in support of the Parliamentarians against Charles I and presents one of the most visible links with the Chilterns due to its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden: his silhouette on the emblem used by the district council and his statue prominent in the market square.
A town that has grown too quickly, concrete, traffic and ugly shopping centres are the hazards to be navigated before finding the charming Georgian old town.
A way in, is through an easy-to-miss arch that leads from Market Street into the restored 15th medieval coach inn yard of the Kings Head inn, busy serving food and beverages since around 1455 no less. Now owned by the National Trust, the popular Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site has been run by the Chiltern Brewery since 2005. Follow the cobbled passageway into the courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century when it was the original busy market square.
The enclosure of the quiet courtyard with additional stables to the one at the rear once provided stabling for nearly thirty horses, hard to imagine now.
A crowded cluster
The old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline.
Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need.
To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement!
A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age. These multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents can be found all over England, the Netherlands and Norway.
Established from the 10th century, the first recorded almshouse in England was founded in York by King Athelstan with many of the medieval almshouses established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family. As a result, most were regarded as chantries (saying prayers for the soul of the benefactor to speed their way to heaven), and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.
There have been almshouses in Aylesbury since before the 12th century and the provision for assisting the poor typically came from the church, local hospitals and various private benefactors. By the late 17th century, demand grew, due to increased migration from the countryside that continued to put pressure on the Aylesbury parish.
It was during this time, that the Thomas Hickman charity was founded, along with other new almshouses including; the Weeden almshouse in Chesham, the Drake almshouses in Amersham and Lady Dodds cottages in Ellesborough and the even older Ewelme Almshouse Charity in Ewelme amongst others (blog post follows).
These simple dwellings provided space for one person to live in a single room – normally as part of group that stipulated how many where intended for men and how many for women. All received an allowance, or pension that could be money and goods, such as kindling. The Thomas Hickman houses did not follow this pattern and you can enjoy the many sizes and styles alongside one another, that reflect that there is unusually no prescribed limit on the number of occupants, normally one per dwelling.
That such an old welfare system still survives today, is testament to it’s valued place in building communities and giving recipients independence and dignity. And to be within this stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town, is remarkable.
Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. It may be worth the effort, to explore this oasis. I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.
You can still buy Aylesbury ducks from the last breeder, Richard Waller, whose family has been breeding them since 1745.
The Thomas Hickman Charity, A Tercentenary History (author Hugh Hanley) is an interesting accompaniment to this feature.