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.
Tring Park is a vast green space that merges comfortably with the market town of Tring, in the northern Chilterns.
I am regular visitor to Tring Park where I take Leo and meet with friends to walk. This spring, I have been exploring new routes around the 260 acres, and have discovered paths tucked away through gates and shady copses.
I have focused, not on the big statement avenues of trees and follies, but on the smaller, more intricate detail of the parkland.
Making regular appearances in the history books, the town and surrounding land are recorded as having been handed on from one monarch to another, to their wives, to a Groom of the Bedchamber or a Clerk of the Treasury. Throw in a couple of Royal mistresses, and you’ll be thoroughly confused.
We pick up the story when the space was formally landscaped in the 1720’s by Charles Bridgeman, who helped pioneer the naturalistic landscape style. If like me, you haven’t heard of him, it’ll be because innovations in English landscape architecture have been eclipsed by the work of his more famous successor, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. He was responsible for landscaping the nearby Ashridge House estate and the statement ‘golden valley’ amongst other impressive projects.
There are neat piles of miscellaneous stones, discarded bricks, and tumbled down walls that are sinking slowly back into the hillside.
What Bridgeman did was mix and successfully merge the formal woodland layout (and their follies), with the more free-flow chalk downland and broad open landscape. The feature that is most striking is the steep ridge that runs like a spine along the southern edge of the park, along which the Ridgeway National Trail traverses. Passing through the park, the Ridgeway follows the King Charles’ Ride, this broad avenue is one of my favourite places to walk, with wonderful views over Tring and across the Vale of Aylesbury to Ivinghoe Beacon and Mentmore Towers. All beneath a canopy of stately trees.
All over the park, you’ll find signs of past lives and purpose. From wobbly walls and names of landscape features, to the two most prominent: Nell Gwyn’s’ Obelisk that commends the centre of the woodland and just further up the trail, you will see the remains of a summer house. The latter was full of chalk praise for Donald Trump when I walked past!
The avenue of lime trees welcome most visitors from the town as you cross the intrusive A41 on the footbridge from the National History Museum car park. This is the best way in fact to access the park.
Zebra’s and kiwis
When the Rothschilds bought the Tring estate in 1872, they transformed the mansion house, but left the park largely unaltered. Apart from the exotic animals that were added! This dynasty has left its mark across the region in homes, landscapes, heritage and the arts.
Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937) was an avid collector of animals. At its largest, the Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, over 2 million butterflies, 30,000 beetles as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles and fishes. Revolting. But at that time, travelling to hunt and collect specimens was fairly common. He formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual. He found time to found the nearby National History Museum, just to house his growing zoological collection, including circus fleas and a polar bear. It’s a charming museum, that has retained most of its quirky Victorian displays.
His interest in animals saw imported cassowary’s, zebras and kangaroos roaming free in the park. Whilst in the park, his father’s patience was sorely tested when a cassowary chased him. I wonder what the locals made of it all?
Now you’ll likely encounter a herd of cows who munch their way from one end of the park to the other, leaving behind nothing but nutritious pats.
Tring Park is a well used and popular green space for the community. Busy with dog walkers, runners, gossip and events, best of all is the King Charles’ Ride for the sheer joy of it, the far-reaching views and a place to sit and think.
Each time I go, this microcosm of the Chilterns has something new to share; an opening vista in the autumn, horses trotting along the Ridgeway, tiny wildflowers, sledging in the winter or the call of the song thrush in April.
There are several trails to follow, information on the notice boards at the various entrances to the park, or you can simply wander and see where the paths take you. Woodland Trust
Not just a pretty face, Tring has a lovely high street full of independent shops and refreshment stops.
Lodged now at the British Museum, the story of the Tring Tiles is frustratingly brief. Not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England.
Directly accessible from the park is the hilltop village of Wigginton, with thirst-quenching pub and village shop selling homemade cakes and supplies.
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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.
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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.
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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.
The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.
Often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous River Thames, the inland waterways and Grand Union Canal are without a doubt, the workhorse threading its way though the Chilterns countryside.
Arms and Legs
The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system, a series of inland waterways starting in London and ending 137 miles further north in Birmingham. With 166 locks and unknown number (to me), of bridges, it also has ‘arms’ to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.
The canal network as we know it, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The so-called “narrow” canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London, was the result.
In our region, the Grand Union Canal links Watford, Kings Langley, the paper mill at Hemel Hempstead, former lumber yards at Berkhamsted, up over the Tring heights and on to Leighton Buzzard and northwards.
Whilst I am ducking the laden overhanging branches, full of damsons and rose hips, making sure to not miss-step into buckets of fish bait or decaying towpath, I wonder what the traffic system would have been like for the horses hauling the barges?
The Canal Duke
Ever looking for a Chilterns link, I found it in none other than the ‘father of inland navigation’, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). A pioneer of canal construction, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal— said to be the first true canal in Britain, and the modern world.
The Canal Duke is commemorated in a number of locations around the country. Closer to home, his remains lie in the vault in the Bridgewater chapel in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. A loosely translated Latin inscription on his memorial reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his field”. Two miles west In the adjoining Ashridge Estate, you will find a local landmark – the unusual Bridgewater Monument erected in 1832. I am sure it is modelled on the Monument to the Great Fire in London. In the summer, you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. Perhaps count at least five surrounding counties?
Nuts and Bolts
The softer surrounding Chilterns landscape is in stark contrast to these manufactured stamps and implements needed for safe navigation. These remnants of the industrial past are everywhere; unexpected holes, distance markers – that all seem to lead to Braunston, so many numbers and date-stamps on lock gates, at the waterline. Everything in its place and in its place, everything. And most still in use today.
A Roadway Paved with Water
Towpaths, moorings and waterways are the domain of leisure users. On bicycles, on foot, on the water, in the water, touring or living in canal boats. Some have made their permanent moorings into cosy homes with small garden plots alongside, with flowers, furniture and trinkets that could only adorn a static boat. Plenty of cooling off opportunities too!
And still there are fatter and lazier stretches where nothing much happens. Until you hear the splash of a rising fish, or fishing heron or the dart of a kingfisher. Occasionally you can hear the trains rushing to and from London and Birmingham, but otherwise you are alone.
Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts
There are no smooth edges here, apart from on the water itself. The brickwork, bridges and bolts are testament to the enginners, designers, carpenters, bricklayers and ‘navvies’ – a term shortened from the original ’navigators’ that the labourers were called. The Canal Duke was able to call on miners from his Worsley colliery to dig his canal. These men made a good living as they developed new skills that enabled them to earn far better wages than ordinary labourers. Some worked with their wives too, who supported a multitude of trades. Not such a man’s world after all!
A fine reminder of our industrial past, and attracting a slower pace of life. The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.
I have been once again exploring what is close to where I live and this post forms part of the Messing about the Thames feature during the summer of 2020.
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.
The Ashridge monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read all about a Flourishing Trade.
A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
A Great Ooze
Ninety million years ago, a great ooze was accumulating at the bottom of a sea. Microscopic creatures, coccoliths, their shells made of calcite extracted from the rich seawater were contributing to the ooze. As they died, and their minute shells and skeletons settled onto the seabed of a tropical sea, a substantial layer gradually built up over millions of years until it all eventually consolidated into rock. Chalk. This geological layer can be followed right across Western Europe where evidence of mining and quarrying both above and beneath the ground can be found.
Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite
Not only is chalk a part of our national conscious, the dramatic and iconic white cliffs of Dover shown in times of national crisis, it also acts as a natural reservoir, releasing water slowly into another feature of the Chilterns – the chalk streams. Givers of life.
From hard industry to site of special scientific interest
The Chilterns and our story, are in fact all about chalk; it is the geological formation that defines our landscape, industry, people, wildlife and wildflowers. But it’s not all a chocolate box image; quarrying for cement saw numerous sites across the region busy with extraction during the last century. Some still remain, others are filled with waste water and submerged cables, making them an ideal haven for birdlife and illegal parties! One successful transformation from working quarry to wildlife sanctuary that you can visit, is College Lake near Tring, home to migratory birds and bird enthusiasts.
These microscopic bits of shells and dissolved skeletons, layer into white cliffs and layers of London…and in the space that is left behind, layers of abundance across the year.
To wander around my local quarry, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had always contained wildflowers, badgers, butterflies and skylarks, yet this former cement quarry has been transformed into a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was once part of much larger cement works ‘Castle Cement’, with large silo’s and 350ft chimney’s that became a local landmark. The quarry operated from 1937 until closure in 1991 and the chimney’s demolished in 1998, before a large housing development took shape on part of this brownfield site. The remainder has been left to nature.
All around are scattered industrial archeology: rail tracks, cables, coils, metalwork embedded in the chalk, rubble, rotten sleepers, fence posts, bleached signs, signposts, mysterious shafts, ruts and excavations.
Chalk Hill Blues
I am reminded every day of the special qualities that bring such an abundance of life to what should be sterile space. Most noticeable being the countless butterflies that rise up and dance around my legs as I walk along the narrow chalk pathway in the summer; chalk hill blues, an adonis blue, small skippers, small coppers and more marble whites than I have ever seen. These are adapted to the chalk grassland and the myriad of wildflowers that keep them in nectar throughout the summer.
And of course there are the fabulous orchids; the common spotted-orchid, common fragrant-orchid, incredible bee orchid, lady orchid, pyramidal and military orchids. At their best in early June, competing with the carpets of oxeye daisies to be star of the wildflower show.
If you want to see the Chilterns, ask a dog walker
Throughout the seasons, there is activity here. Heavy snowfall brings the children out to sledge down the steep slopes, their shrieking voices carrying across the quarry. When the winter and early spring have been very wet, the water table, not far beneath the surface, rises and floods any depressions and gulley’s, gravity ensures the overflow finds its way to the lower lying ground, flooding badger sets and rabbit warrens. The wind is cold, the chalk slippery underfoot. The skylarks arrive in late winter, announcing the start of the breeding season with their distinctive overhead song.
The soft mists of spring can be eerie, but they are another sign of the advancing seasons. After years of dog walking, I now know what signs to expect as the quarry slowly emerges after winter. March can seem an impatient month before the trees and shrubs get going in waves of vivid green, pale yellow and white blossom. Wildflowers across the quarry floor, bloom in waves of yellow, white, purple, sprays of white and more yellow, before everything at ground level is claimed by the wild grasses. Now grown tall in the late summer, each scratchy in shades of khaki, before the farmer comes in to mow in late autumn. Sweet-tasting summer goodness for his cattle long into the depths of winter.
A virtuous circle
That something so ancient, and yet so simple, could have so many uses across the ages is humbling. What comes from an ancient tropical seabed has a place in our national psyche, as well as a place in the story of the Chilterns. And now, as we seek an escape from our busy lives, these transformed spaces take us back to nature. Back to our own story. A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life.
Enjoy Tring reservoirs, College Lake and Grand Union Canal on this 13km circular walk.
Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow to indulge yourself with our own exotic orchids.