Messing about in Marlow

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer of 2020, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on our beautiful River Thames, slowly.

Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.

2020 is the year where everything has been turned on its head. Inside out in fact. In such a short space of time, our lives are unrecognisable as we look for strategies to adapt and adjust to this strange world of Covid-19 social protocols and stressful living. 

Keen to keep on exploring my local area, and having to do things in a socially distanced and slower pace, has me taking to the water on a stand up paddle board (SUP) – an offshoot of surfing that originated in Hawaii no less. Ever the trail-blazer, my friend Annette suggested this, as our times require new thinking and a new mode of slow travel.

Whilst Marlow is a long way from Hawaii, an SUP is the go-to way to travel in the Chilterns

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, market towns of Henley and Marlow and so much in between, leaving the Chilterns behind at Cliveden and Taplow as it winds its way into London.

We were headed down to Bisham Abbey, near the pretty market town of Marlow that straddles the Thames. I have seen Bisham Abbey from afar, but it’s the first time I have been onsite.

Bisham Manor House
A Grade I listed manor house, the name taken from the now lost monastery which stood alongside.

This impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings, now one of three National Sports Centres run on behalf of Sport England and is used as a residential training camp base for athletes and teams. It is also the location for messing about in boats.

The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations in later centuries is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry.

In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. She had been captured on the Isle of Rathlin during the Scottish Wars of Succession, and was placed in the charge of the King’s Yeoman, John Bentley, for two years, until removed to Windsor.

Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. Queen Elizabeth I was a regular visitor.

Two swans on the Thames river bank
The waterside is the domain of waterfowl

A swoop of swallows

After our safety briefing and securing of camera’s and car keys, we headed out, determined not to land in the river too many times! It was surprisingly quick before we were balanced, and settled into a gentle paddling rhythm as we struck out for Temple Island to the west. The busy towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with hot locals, their feet in the water, or feeding the swans. Kites drifting overhead. A swoop of feeding swallows, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames.  Impressive balustrades marking the boundaries of enormous waterside homes, ornamental gardens reaching to the riverbank, in contrast to the simple wooden cabins beneath shady trees. My kind of waterside home.  

There is something about being on the water that relaxes and lifts the mood. The thrill of the unfamiliar, soft contours and ceaseless movement, wind scudding across the surface – all in stark contrast to the hard edges we are used to. 

All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower alongside the river thames and pleasure boat
All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower

We paddled past All Saints Bisham, which with surrounding village, has been known by various names down the centuries, was recorded in Domesday with its villagers, cottagers, slaves, vines and meadowland. A church was also recorded there, no doubt on the beautiful Thames riverside site of the present building. 

With horizon’s lowered

From the SUP, looking east towards Marlow on the River Thames, with boats at anchor
A different view of All Saints Marlow

Puffed up storm clouds building on the horizon. The wind scudding on the water, making my feet ache as I braced and focused on staying upright. Pleasure boats putted up and down, the sightseers offering suggestions and encouragement as they passed by, generating wakes that needed to be navigated if I wasn’t to disgrace myself and fall in. Which I did. Three times!

There is something about being close to water that relaxes and lifts the mood. You are absorbed into that space, becoming part of it. Like walking, you notice, you listen and smell what is around you; preening swans balancing their big feet on a submerged tree trunk, duckings, a family of goslings, coots, enormous blue dragon flies, weird algae beneath the surface, and when you fall in, the mud is soft and yielding. We stopped a few times to savour the moment, to relax and enjoy it all. We loved it!

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer of 2020, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on our beautiful River Thames, slowly. Annette was right, SUP’s fit the bill.

Messing about in boats on the River Thames
The ubiquitous copper beech

Further Information

I recorded my local lockdown meanderings along new and familiar footpaths to see how spring unfolded: It’s a lockdown

Read the sad tale, full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd, of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ George Alexander Gratton, bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.

A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic pensioners, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging picnic hampers in evidence. We are gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers

Established in 1991 the Bisham Abbey School is a RYA recognised training centre. SUP and canoe here from Moose Canoe and SUP Hire.

The Thames Path National Trail follows England’s best known river for 184 miles (294 Km) as it meanders from its source in the Cotswolds through several rural counties, including the Chilterns before heading on into the heart of London.

It’s a lockdown!

During the COVID-19 crisis, micro walks are the perfect excuse to discover my sense of place here in the naturally outstanding Chilterns. My home.

During this unprecedented global event and resulting nationwide lockdown, we can’t venture far for our daily exercise. It means we have to stay local, go out with family or maximum of two, and to not use our cars.

It is the perfect excuse to take a look at my local area with new eyes – eyes down.

Bird song has quickly filled the space where once cars, planes and trains dominated. When there is silence, it is eerie. But this new normal quickly grows on me as my ears become attuned to the sounds that must always have been there. Unnoticed as I travelled about in my car, sealed from the outside world. Not now in the mindset for seeking the big sky view, or what’s over the next hill, I am forced to retrace my steps along familiar dog-walking paths; noticing now how much growth can be achieved in a few sunny days, way-markers and oddball signs, a mantrap on a church wall, the source of our local river gurgling loudly in the corner of a field, learning the names of flourishing woodland plants, a vocal robin claiming territory, tracks in the mud, blackbirds at dawn, skylarks at midday or a yellowhammer in the evening. All of them are what makes the Chilterns unique.

I have recorded most of my walks in the glorious spring sunshine and have included where I can, sound. All on my iPhone. I can’t capture animals however, they move!

Each walk is in and around Ivinghoe and surrounding Chilterns countryside.

Day 17: Beautiful blossoms and part of the Ridgeway National Trail
Day 14: A walk around the disused quarry ponds.
Day 13: As spring gains hold, the cloudscape becomes more visual and interesting.
Day 12: For such a delicate bird, they have a nightly song!
Day 10: Love tokens in the woods
Day Eight: It’s a lockdown!
Day Six: Spring takes hold
Day Five: Leo has a stalker.
Day Three: Spring into the Chilterns
Day Two: Tractors, Toads and Mantraps.
Day One: what can I expect?
Day Zero

What an absolute pleasure this is. It gives my walks new purpose and a chance to capture the minutia, the detail that makes a place special. I have shared these with my friends and family who I hope have enjoyed seeing their neighbourhood afresh. To encourage them to look out for some of what I have enjoyed. They have all commented on how loud the birdsong is: “have I used special equipment? Have I got really close to the birds..?” No I haven’t. The birds need no amplification, not least of all as it’s peak breeding season, so they are busy protecting territory and feeding their young. We only need ears to hear them and to listen to their calls. And a phone with a microphone.

Try it, you won’t be disappointed!

Business Recovery

Of huge concern are my friends and colleagues in the tourism industry who together face huge uncertainty and potential mass business closure. To date, there is no end in sight for when we will all be able to move and travel in the way we were accustomed. Indeed, we may have to find new ways of travelling and visiting destinations. What we shouldn’t forget, is what is on our doorsteps and the sheer joy walking out into the naturally outstanding Chilterns countryside can bring.

Further Information

There are plenty of other Chiltern adventures to enjoy once the lockdown is lifted including; the Castle that Time Forgot, Buddhists’ and Beechwoods and Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade.

Goring and Streatley

The #Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides.

Like twins, the villages of Goring and Streatley, face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted it.

The Chilterns is not short of pretty villages surrounded by beautiful undulating countryside. Add far-reaching views and the Goring Gap, a stone’s throw from Reading, must rank near the top. 

I recommend starting your visit from the National Trust car park at Lardon Chase, above Streatley. The views are glorious, the walk down into Streatley easy, although steep. It’s from up here that you can enjoy the dramatic backdrop of two villages clustered around the Goring lock and weir, the playing fields, leisure boats and island; to then cross over the Thames and wander through Goring village on the other shore and into the patchwork of the Chiltern Hills beyond.

The view from Lardon Chase, above Streatley
From the top looking down

I can see as far as Pangbourne to the north east and know that the views from Hartslock reserve on the hillside opposite, looking back to the Gap are just as dramatic. 

Naturally Outstanding

The villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides. Right in the centre of two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: to the south west, the north Wessex Downs in Berkshire, to the north east, the Oxfordshire Chilterns.

The prettiest of places

Not always good neighbours, their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Streatley was once the larger and more important village because it was on the turnpike road to Reading. The Bull Inn at the top of the high street was a 15th century coaching inn and I expect a welcome sight on the dusty road. With the arrival of the railway in 1840, Goring reasserted itself having more usable land for the many new homes. The geography has however, contained much of the growth.

Along the river, you get a real sense of space, somewhere to pause, listen and enjoy this special place. There are plenty of eateries to tempt you to do just that; the Bull Inn at Streatley, the Swan at Streatley, Pierreponts Cafe, the Miller of Mansfield and Catherine Wheel pub in Goring. Wander down the high street, there are many businesses that have a long association with the area.

Goring and Streatley
The Miller of Mansfield, Goring

National Treasures & Trails

The weirs still control the level of water for navigation, water supply, and land drainage. It’s not hard to image the bustle of boats, traders, soldiers and drovers, who used the three ancient trade routes that span southern England from Dorset to East Anglia. All converging at this lovely spot; the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails and Icknield Way, could easily tempt you off the road and onto the trail.

Like twins, these two villages face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted Goring mill and church.

Goring Mill and Church c.1806-7 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate Britain released under Creative Commons. London 2015 CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02704

The villages are very walkable, and I recommend downloading the local heritage trail. This easy circular walk and takes you past such gems as St Mary’s church in Streatley where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll used to preach. Back over the bridge to stop and savour the lovely views. You’ll pass Goring Mill where rare old paddles and posts are still used to control the flow of water. The tower of St Thomas’ Church is visible, renowned for a fine peal of eight bells and dedicated team of ringers. Inside you’ll find one of Englands oldest bells, dating back an impressive 800 years.

I’m your man!

The village is not short of famous residents and visitors. At the end of Ferry Lane is the original river crossing and Ferry house, where Oscar Wilde stayed during the summer of 1893 and began work on ‘An Ideal Husband’. Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, lived here for 30 years. He is buried locally and his birthday and funeral, were marked by a RAF fly-past! George Michael fans still make the trip.

The former home of George Michael

Walking back up the hill and turning once more to enjoy the view, now more familiar as I have explored both villages. I make a mental note to return in July for the Goring Gap Boat Club regatta, with a mere 600 competing rowers!

Lardon Chase, National Trust at Streatley
Back up the hill to Lardon Chase

Further Information

For information on the wider Chilterns area, accommodation, places to eat and drink, bookmark VisitChilterns

The Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails meet on the bridge. The Thames Path follows the river for 184 miles, from source to sea and the Ridgeway runs 85 miles from near Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. Here are three shorter walks to try.

The local Goring & Streatley village website has more local information.

Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.

It’s the skylarks, snowdrops and then bluebells that increases the heart rate and knowledge that spring is not far off. Spring in the Chiltern hills is the season when the world is renewed and we shake off the winter gloom. Spring into the Chilterns!

Spend time in another of pretty Chilterns villages, Amersham that is also accessible by train.

Rectory Gardens Goring and Streatley
Rectory Gardens

Sharpenhoe Clappers: what’s in a name?

Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.

I wonder how many of the declarations of love carved on the beechwood tree trunks, still hold true today?

Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.

The landscape of the northern Chilterns is not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word: dramatic yes, tenacious even, as it stands out amidst intense agricultural activity, flight paths to and from Luton, intrusive road infrastructure, a burgeoning population in the crowded South East – yet ironically it was so quiet, I could hear a jet-washer being used in the hamlet below.

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Looking south towards London

Sharpenhoe Clappers is located in Bedfordshire to the north of London, in the parish of Streatley, sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable, Luton and alongside the MI motorway. It is an oasis of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm.

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Orange-tipped butterfly

Classic Chilterns chalk escarpment, you could not find a better example. Protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument for its prehistoric and medieval features,  that this would not however, be obvious if you visited; no interpretation and only a concrete obelisk to commemorate a local family and their sons who died in the First World War. There are numerous way-marked medium and long-distance trails criss-crossing the site, but they offer no clues either. Yet, such a prime topographical site could not have gone unused by the locals? The clues then, are in the name: Sharpenhoe Clappers.

Sharpenhoe means “sharp spur of land” which is an accurate description of the site and Clappers refer to the medieval rabbit warrens consisted of an enclosure surrounding one or more purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or buries.

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Looking north, where the spur can be seen to the right

As I approached the site from the carpark, full of wagging tails and expectation, I decided to walk away from the hilltop and approach from the other side to get a sense of the lay of the land. To the south, the view of the hillfort is not as dramatic as the northern side where you can really appreciate the strategic position of this Iron Age promontory hillfort, now fringed by a ring of beechwoods, like a pudding-bowl haircut. Of the Clappers, I found no evidence.

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Avenue of beech trees

A mature beech wood, established in the 1840’s, now covers what would have been the interior of the fort, with gnarled and worn roots and beechnuts crunched underfoot. Around the fringes, lie decaying moss-covered tree-trunks and stumps, whilst the Dogs Mercury alongside, has colonised the floor of the ancient woodland.

The entire hilltop must be a favourite spot to declare your love by carving your initials into the tree trunks. I wonder how many of the locals have carved their names on the beechwood trunks? The initials indecipherable, but the years they declared their love are still visible; 1969, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984.

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With so many trunks to choose from, it’s no surprise they are all concentrated along the side where the view is not obscured by foliage on the slope below. I noticed too, offerings suspend from branches, like a ‘wishing tree’.

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Local legend tells of Cassivellaunus, the Celtic chieftain, who ruled the territory north of the River Thames, and led the native British tribes in opposition to Julius Caesar on his second expedition in 54 BC, haunts the site by cloaking the hilltop in cloud. Why the association with this location, is unclear, but I rather hoped he was there today as the show of clouds – not menacing nor dark – but light and playful against the backdrop of rapeseed, where impressive.

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Rapeseed under a Celtic sky

I have visited a number of Chiltern hill forts over the years  and have found each has a distinctive feel, not always immediately obvious; some broody, some with easy-to-spot landscape features and others needing a more active imagination to bring them alive. Sharpenhoe Clappers has the best name and still feels lived-in and loved by the locals.

Further Information:

I am proud that we have such wonderful links back to the past when our ancestors began colonising this area, and look forward to the outcomes of a new hill forts project that the Chilterns Conservation Board is undertaking that promises to reveal what lies beneath the benign Chilterns woodlands. The image below was shared in August 2018.

Chilterns Conversation Board's Hill forts project
Sharpenhoe Clappers, half in and half out of 1m res EA LiDAR. “It may be a hillfort, and it may not be – we hope the subtleties revealed by a 25cm survey, coupled with some further investigation and debate, may resolve the issue!” Dr Wendy Morrison. Photo credit: Environment Agency August 2018.

To find out more about visiting the Chilterns

In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life. Do trees fall uphill?

Here is a link to  three circular walks all local, with connections by train and car.

Explore the nearby beautiful Barton Hills

National History at its Victorian Best

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The historic market town of Tring is a busy, growing commuter town within easy reach of London and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Located on the original Akeman Street – a major Roman road in England that linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Tring is in auspicious company. Built in 1889 to house one of the finest zoological collections in private hands, this in a museum frozen in time.

Just across the street are the picturesque Louisa Cottages Alms Houses on Akeman Street, built in 1893.

Inside the NHM Tring is a veritable feast of the exotic, elusive, exquisite, extinct and downright delightful exhibits from another age of museum-going. With not a gadget in sight, the slightly surreal setting of sturdy, floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases, drawers and fine cabinets that house thousands of stuffed exhibits that continue to entrance generations of local residents.

Circus fleas

The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. You don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter. We saw the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; delighted at the fruits of a busy mother’s labours as she sat up late at night dressing the fleas her children had caught from their pets, are on display next to exquisite moths and butterflies, to marvel at the 128-year old tortoise that lived with an assortment of animals (including kangaroos and an Emu), in nearby Tring Park.

On display is more than just stuffed animals though. It is a whole other value system in which our relationship with wild and domestic creatures was clearly very different: witness the display case of stuffed domestic dogs, a dodo and the famous Tring polar bear. We accept them as the animals were captured, slain and stuffed long ago, but I was surprised to see some dogs ‘donated’ as late as 1970. Perhaps not such a lost art after all?

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The museum founder, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937), second Baron Rothschild belonged to a rich and powerful family that influenced and shaped the local landscape (and seems once owned much of it), was a keen naturalist from an early age and collected all manor of exotic creatures which he brought back to his private museum in Tring. Famous for riding around town in a carriage pulled by a zebra, local response is not, unfortunately recorded, but I do wonder what they made of it all.

Natural History Museum, Tring
Armadillo, Natural History Museum, Tring

My son wanted to show me the Galapagos tortoise that Lord Rothschild once road upon, but I was too distracted by the dust on top of the display case to appreciate the size of the animal…I really must stop doing that. That said, this is no fusty-musty museum, some of the galleries have been overhauled to improve presentation and durability of the exhibits without detracting too much from what I really enjoy; a museum that is not trying to hard, knows its core product, doesn’t smell of fried food, nor does it break the budget – it’s free! What’s not to like?

Ideas for local places to visit and explore

For further information on visiting NHM Tring which is open all year round except from December 24 – 26th, there is also a regular programme of events and wildlife photography exhibitions.

The story of the Tring Tiles is so terribly brief, as not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England, or in France.

For information on what else to explore and enjoy in the Chilterns