Shillington Village

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing place names, unusual geology and landscape history, is worth your time.

I am increasingly drawn to the northern Chilterns. Encircled by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire conurbations of Luton, Dunstable, Stevenage and Hitchin, this unassuming space has a rich history.

A landscape under urban pressure as the sprawl grows and grows. Pre Covid-19, Luton airport had over 100,000 annual aircraft movements, adding to the noise and pollution. This is no chocolate box English idyll. In sharp contrast to the central and southern Chilterns, you have to look harder to understand the landscape and it’s unusual sense of place.

From Shillington towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
The view towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
Beauty and special landscape qualities are everywhere

Just north of the Barton Hills and within sight of the escarpment that runs from Sharpenhoe through to Knocking Hoe, Shillington village is crowded around its church. A prominent landmark atop its chalk hill, the tower is visible for miles around.

“hoh”, or “hoe” as it has become known, refers to a heel or protruding piece of land.

From the Bunyon Trail
John Betjeman called All Saints the ‘Cathedral of the Chilterns’

At nearly 1,000 years old, All Saints Church has survived the weather, natural disaster, decay, plague, pollution and a Victorian make-over. The geology has determined the vernacular with the ironstone walls, a type of Clophill sandstone commonly found in Bedfordshire. The whiter interior stone is called ‘clunch’, a soft, workable chalky limestone from the old quarry at Totternhoe in south Bedfordshire. A stone distinguishable in many local churches (and in Westminster Abbey). Mined at Totternhoe Knowles, a favourite place to walk with wildflowers, industrial archaeology and smattering of burnt-out cars.

Ancient poo

Once a Saxon monastery, the church and region grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite. More than just fossilised dinosaur dung, this wonder substance can also include teeth, bones and claws consumed by the ‘producer’, and mineralised over millions of years.

These accumulations are in fact the remains of land animals caught as the sea levels rose over 90 million years ago. The resulting Greensand Ridge stretches over 100 miles from Tring through Bedfordshire and Cambridge and on to East Anglia.

Cottages on Church Street
A gold-rush

In the 1700’s, someone discovered that once coprolites were processed, the resulting phosphate made excellent fertiliser. Seams were subsequently exposed at nearby Chibley Farm, and so began a dangerous, but lucrative trade. All across the region, people came to what must have been a mini-gold rush. Shillington’s population doubled to 2,400 thirsty men, women and children who made good use of the 12 local pubs! Everyone was cashing in; landowners, farmers, the church, publicans, bankers, brewers and mining suppliers.

Drinking was naturally a problem and the church spent time and effort trying to tackle it. After taking the pledge, one man was advised by his doctor to take ‘a glass of Porter’ to alleviate his rheumatism, he decided to be pain-free rather than devout, but lost his membership of the congregation!

From about 1890 the industry declined almost as fast as it grew. There are no landscape scars however, no rusty mining structures either. The layer of coprolite-bearing clay was handily near to the surface, and once extraction holes had been depleted, the fields could be easily restored.

Is that the time?

One local exception could be the clock in the church tower. Put in at considerable expense at the height of the boom in 1870, when £100 seemed a reasonable price?

The more visible legacy are the big houses that got bigger from the proceeds of leasing land for prospecting. Methodist chapels sprung up at the height of the boom and landowner Trinity College in Cambridge, made handsome profits.

A house in the Shillington village
Shillington Village cottages

As you explore these pretty village and country lanes with screeching summer swallows, imagine who has passed before you; hoping to make their fortune, or finding misfortune from the fossils.

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing places, geology and history, is worth your time.

Shillington church street
Looking down Church Street
Further Information

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, All Saints is temporarily closed. Sunday afternoon teas and refreshments will hopefully be offered once they re-open.

Explore nearby Baron Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers, all possible on the same day. Tucked away down an impossibly bumpy road, is Someries Castle, a scheduled ancient monument.

The Bunyon Trail is dedicated to the memory of John Bunyan, the Puritan Evangelist and author of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, his famous work he wrote whilst in prison. The route passes through villages and scenic countryside, taking in many places of historic interest connected with him.

The nearby Crown pub serves cozy pub meals with a garden in the summer.

Six miles away is the market town of Hitchin. I recommend the British Schools Museum and one of the last working lavender farms in the country, Hitchin Lavender.

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Tring in Spring

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.

Tring Park paths
The primroses lead the way

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.

Innovation

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.

Tring park boundary walls
Flint and bricks crumble and decay, ivy lazes on the top like a giant boa.

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.

Copper beeches get dressed

Past Lives

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!

King Charles’ Ride
Like a penny farthing bicycle stuck in the mud

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.

The A41 cuts through Tring Park
Tring Park school for the Performing Arts sits over the road, to the north of 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.

A trail in Tring Park
Was this such a good idea?

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.

Spring shadows in Tring park
The shadows are long, and the grass wet with a light frost, the air cold in the shadow of the beech trees

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.

Spring flowers in Tring park
Primroses, lesser celandine and blackthorn

Further information

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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One Year On

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. 

One year on, a reflection on the past year and affect the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.
After the storm

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?

Outdated messaging

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.

Recovery

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.

Further information

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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The joy of small things

Simple Orchids. Simply Beautiful

Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow.

Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow.

The footpath glistens underfoot as it cuts through the drooping wild grasses, my wet boots and trouser legs a magnet for seed dispersal. The daisy petals are splayed under the relentless June rain, which would explain the lack of butterflies and birdsong. Even the ubiquitous slugs are sheltering.

The orchids however, shrug off the rain, the vivid pyramidal purple orchid easy to spot in the rain-rinsed meadow.

The pyramidal orchid

These delicate, yet ruggered Chilterns’ varieties are so small, they can be difficult to spot. But once you know where to look, you will see them everywhere. The lilacs, browns, pinks, white and purple plants can be solitary or growing in busy clusters of up to 30-or more plants.

According to the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, chalk grassland develops on shallow, lime-rich soils that are poor in nutrients. Some of these grasslands now cover once thriving Chilterns’ quarries, the chalk by-products destined for London’s building trade as mortar and cement. In spring and summer these special habitats come to life, as swathes of amazing wild flowers and orchids, attract hordes of insects and tiny butterflies including the chalkhill blue, small blue and common blue amongst others – need a zoom lens to capture those!

Bee orchid in the disused quarry
Bee Orchid

Sadly too many councils and highways agencies are determined to keep mowing verges, so wildflowers and orchids don’t stand a chance. There is a vocal and growing campaign to keep verges as wild as is practical. I know I’d rather see flowers, not live in a manicured, sterile neighbourhood.

Further Information

To find out more about exploring the naturally outstanding Chilterns, or if like me, you need help identifying the local fauna and flora.

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A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Gentle Giants on the Chiltern Ridges

Landscape plays a huge role in determining the form and function of buildings, not least windmills and watermills.

‘Sadly the opportunity for us to get inside our local wind or watermill and explore the local industrial history is still not possible at this time.
Let us hope by 2022 National Mills Weekend will once more have all mills opening their doors and owners and volunteers will be able to share their enthusiasm for these buildings.”

Mildred Cookson SPAB Mills Section Chairman

The reasons they were built may be long gone, but there are often subtle reminders of lost buildings, in street names for example or from soapwort still growing nearby (used as a natural soaping agent). Some mills still command the landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements.

The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is particularly well endowed with mills. Situated near inland waterways, in busy market towns or on a windy bluff that once provided particular services to local communities that farmed grains to be milled, sheep to be washed or silk to be spun. Many are now only remembered in archives, others have found new purpose and functions whilst the best have been lovingly and painstakingly restored by enthusiastic volunteers and can be visited at certain times of the year, not least of all during National Mills weekend.

Lacey Green Windmill

The 300-year old Lacey Green Windmill stands on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough, and is possibly the most famous for being England’s oldest smock mill, with wooden machinery dating from around 1650. It was left in a terrible state of repair, but since 1971 it has been restored to working order by the Chiltern Society.

Lacey Green Windmill
Lacey Green Windmill
Turville

Cobstone Windmill was built around 1816 and overlooks the village of Turville – a location more famous for its infamous residents including the ‘sleeping girl of Turville” and fictional TV character the Vicar of Dibley. This smock mill, so-called as it has the shape of the farmers smock, replaced the original mill that had stood there since the 16th century.  It was a working mill, grinding cereals until 1873, but it was not until 1967, and the filming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that the mill was cosmetically restored. The cap was remoulded and a new fantail, and light wooden sails were added as was it’s place in local folklore. The sails were sadly badly damaged during a storm in 2020.

Cobstone windmill at Turville has lost its sails.
Cobstone Windmill lost its sails during a storm in 2020
A milling icon

Pitstone Windmill is a rare and striking example of an early form of windmill, and is one of the oldest surviving windmills in Britain.

It stands exposed beneath Ivinghoe Beacon and ground flour for the nearby villages for almost three hundred years, until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it badly damaged. It was later donated to the National Trust and restored by a team of local volunteers. As you walk around the outside, wonder at the way the mill and its machinery balance on the head of a massive wooden post. You can still see the tail pole, which the miller had to wrestle with to turn the huge structure to face the wind.

Pitstone Windmill is a rare and striking example of a windmill
Pitstone Windmill

The nearby Ford End Watermill at Ivinghoe was recorded in 1616, but is certainly much older, and remained in use until 1963. Restored by volunteers, and now maintained and run by Ford End Watermill Society. It retains all the atmosphere of a small farm mill of the late 1800s and has an unusual feature – a sheep-wash in the tailrace below the mill. Washing made the fleece easier to shear and increased its value. Stoneground wholemeal flour is on sale during milling demonstrations.

Redbournbury Mill is a working mill in the Chiltern Hills
Redbournbury Mill is once again a thriving mill
A milling disaster overcome

The Redbournbury Watermill is a working mill producing a range of stoneground organic flours, principally from locally grown grains.

Run by a team of dedicated volunteers, having been extensively restored following a fire in 1987. When the present owners bought the mill from the Crown, it had been unused since the 1950s. At this stage the mill was well preserved, although it did need considerable repairs, providing a unique historical record of an early Victorian watermill. On the night of 22nd August 1987 disaster struck: fire broke out in the roof of the mill only a few days after restoration work had begun and destroyed most of the mill interior. 

The mill is well worth a visit for the fresh bread alone. Bread baked at Redbournbury boasts the lowest possible “food-miles” with the grain grown, milled and baked all within two miles of the mill.

Cholsbury windmill
Now a private residence at Cholsbury
Further Information:

These mills are located in or near lovely Chilterns villages and market towns, so for more ideas and inspiration for an escape to the country can be found at VisitChilterns.co.uk

For further information on the UK National Mills Weekend 

Take the Chilterns home with you!

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