A is for Amersham

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at unhelpful heights and a red lion above a lintel where a pub used to be.

Amersham is a modern Chilterns market town once again under pressure from the onward march of progress and development. 

Renowned for its Christian martyrs burned for their beliefs, successful black lace industry and perhaps on a more frivolous note, a perfumery, this is a town of two halves: the modern town on the hill and its medieval twin in the valley below.

Metroland

The Misbourne Valley in the central Chilterns is a delight. Dotted with woodlands, pretty villages and market towns, this once quiet corner of the Roman Empire is now a busy Metroland corridor, linking London highways with Chilterns byways. A mere 25 minutes from London on the Met line, Amersham offers train-to-trail countryside escapes, and space to breath. 

Metroland poster
Served by the Metropolitan Railway, Metroland was the name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London.

Once the centre for black lace production, 16th century craftswomen specialised in fine silk veils and wide flounces of black lace that were used to decorate white dresses. In fact the industry continued late into the 19th century because almost everyone, from kings to babies at one time, wore lace on their clothing! Another industry synonymous with the town was the Goya perfume factory, that supplied large qualities of fragrances and perfumes to women after the Second World War. I wonder what the town smelt like?

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument, seven Protestants were burned to death at the stake. They died for principles of religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to their consciences.”

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, who demanded to read the bible in English.

In the face of protest

There are two parts to this pretty town; medieval Amersham with its unusually spacious high street, and the new town and railway station. This came about because the town fathers didn’t want a railway mucking up their medieval streets in the 1890’s, and insisted it be routed 20 minutes away up the hill. And now, 130 years later, the town is once again facing pressure and change from another huge railway project; this time from HS2, that will thunder right through this peaceful valley, changing it in ways we don’t yet know. I have written about it in another article called Evolving Landscapes.

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

On the poor side of the street

Go with a guide! You simply turn up at the museum to join a tour at 2.30pm on a Sunday. As I waited, numbers grew to include a couple from London on a weekend break, the leader of the Amersham Band and a couple who were mysteriously ‘just passing through’. My companions on this town tour with Euan, volunteer guide and purveyor of intriguing Amersham insights and stories. 

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

We began our tour in the museum garden, filled with herbs and plants our medieval ancestors would be familiar with, to help them get through life without a GP, or symptoms to Google. Being on the poor side of the high street, this garden would have been considered small. The houses to the other side of the high street in comparison, still have substantial plots. This garden is bordered on one side by typical knapped Chilterns flint and brick almshouses, and a discreet long-drop privy overhanging the river Misbourne.

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

The museum itself is situated within a 15th century structure that has over the centuries, undergone many changes. It charts the towns story through the voices of past residents who lived and worked in the many industries and local trades, the great and the not-so, including those mentioned above. Thanks to a substantial restoration project, the beautiful medieval and Tudor floors and wobbly beams (made from green oak) are revealed. If I’d have had more time, I’d be trying on all those Tudor dresses!

A missing stream

A typical Chilterns chalk stream, the Misbourne (missing stream), meanders through the centre of town, behind houses, through a meadow and under a lot of bridges. The current low water level attests to the temperament of this stream, following as it does, the variations in the annual rainfall. It is still known to flood however, with memories fresh after the last sandbag event, despite the river being confined to a narrow channel.

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

Open plan living

You may be familiar with the Kings Arms hotel, a former posting inn, made famous by the 1994 British romantic comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It served as the place to change horses on the London to Oxford route, and perhaps give the weary travellers some respite after 25 bumpy miles from London, with quite possibly another 30 miles onwards to Oxford to endure. It looks quaint and olde-worlde, but the majority of the facade is in fact ‘Brewery Tudor’ added by the local brewery about 100 years ago to cover up an unsightly earlier facade. It seems there was a lot of this about with false frontages been added by successive owners to modernise their old fashioned structures. So common was the practice it’s difficult to know where medieval stops and Georgian begins.

Brewery Tudor

It is the equivalent today of stripping out the kitchen to make way for ‘open plan’ living. 

There are several notable examples of grand houses built with a former industry in mind, but now repurposed for other lives. Many of them have tell-tale features and locations, and the guess-work is fun.

The houses of the most important people in town: the coopers house, and to the right, the brewery managers house.

Past lives

The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 by Sir William Drake as a gift for the town, is not hard to miss. Commanding the most prominent spot on the high street, it was intended for the upper floor to be used for meetings for traders’ guilds, and the ground floor as a market and lock-up for miscreants.

Commit no nuisance
The coldest room in the coldest corner of the market awaited those who fell foul of the law.

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, despite this never being a wool town, St Mary’s resplendent in excavated flints from the new railway, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at varying unhelpful heights in the building that was the water mill, a red lion above a lintel, where a pub used to be, the maltings, a stable for the brewery dray horses and a parapet blocking out light to the servants’ rooms following some fashionable structural updates.

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

There is great hope in Amersham for facing down disruption and continued changes to their way of life. A thoroughly modern town doing things their way, which bodes well for residents and businesses to thrive and continue to be an example of how towns adapt, yet still retain their historical roots and proud Chilterns heritage.

Houses off the high street
Through the back gate and over the Misbourne

Further Information

This article doesn’t do the town justice; visit and enjoy the independent shops, restaurants and pubs along the high street with not a chain store in sight. But do start with a browse around the exhibits at the wonderful Amersham Museum, join a town or martyrs walking tour available on Sunday afternoons from April to September.

Amersham has a number of Alms Houses that add to the great variety across the Chilterns. Not least of all the Drake Houses on the high street, originally built to house six local widows.

You will find the martyrs memorial either along a footpath leading from St. Mary’s Church, or from an overgrown footpath from Station Road.

You can explore the Misbourne Valley and the village of Little Missenden.

Discover more about Amersham, the surrounding countryside and other Chilterns market towns, take a look at VisitChilterns.co.uk

Almshouses: a social history

Almshouses are a fascinating curiosity left over from an age when the poor and destitute would typically fall through the gaps as universal care as we know it, did not exist.

You will find almshouses in the centre of busy towns, on high streets, beside churches or tucked away in the corner of a field, the remnants of former communities and their social needs. Typically Georgian in style, there are some Tudor, one Strawberry Hill Gothic, whilst others have had a Victorian makeover, but still include interesting features, elaborate chimneys, often with pretty cottage gardens or courtyards the perfect location for the residents to spend time in.

A Safe Passage for Souls

By definition, an almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people to remain in their own particular community. They are often targeted at the poor, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. Originally formed as an extension of the church system, benefactors were not exclusive to this order however, and some where established primarily to ensure safe passage for the benefactors’ souls to make it to heaven.

Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating around 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses and for those established for the benefit of the founder of their family, usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

Residents no longer have to wear special items of clothing, emblems or badges that would signify where they lived, or to remind others of their benefactors’ largesse. Dwellings too have been modernised which has meant that in some instances, fewer residents can be housed with the addition of indoor plumbing for example. An impressive 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated across the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people.

The Chilterns has a wonderful collection of these buildings that are still functioning as charitable associations, housing those in need and below are some that I have visited, and will add to this as I encounter more. Suggestions most welcome!

Aylesbury Old Town

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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street

Aylesbury 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; an aim broadly in line with almshouse charity foundations across the country.

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Church Street Aylesbury

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 surrounded by multiple terraced houses or apartments now providing accommodation for small numbers of residents.

Ewelme

William and Alice de la Pole were benefactors of the almshouses and school built in 1442. The almshouses were to consist of twelve old men, bachelors, poor and in reduced circumstances, but not from the lowest class of life. Over them was set the thirteenth man, who was to be of a ‘superior type’, a kind of head-brother to the twelve. All were to wear a habit consisting of black tabards or gowns of wool with a red cross upon the breast. Closely incorporated with the church through whose west door leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents now live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex, complete with their very own Grande Dame of Ewelme.

Medieval Alms Houses
The Almshouses in Ewelme

Lady Dodd’s cottages Ellesborough

A Grade II Listed block of four almshouses in Ellesborough, that were formerly eight, date from 1746. Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women, but is unclear what her connection with the Ellesborough area was.  Over the road form the church, these cottages are now a private home with one of the loveliest of Chilterns views. Lady Dodd made similar bequests in Little Budworth in Cheshire.

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St Peter & St Paul church with Dodds cottages in the foreground

Weedon Almshouse Gardens Chesham

A Grade II Listed building, founded in 1624 by the bequest of Thomas Weedon of Pednor, Weedon Almshouses were rebuilt in the late nineteenth century of flint rubble and red brick quoins. The four almshouses with their gables, barge-boards and chimneystacks are difficult to see as they sit obscured behind a high flint wall, so an image is not readily available.

Sir William Drake’s Almshouse Amersham

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The dwellings are typically set around the communal courtyard

A Grade II listed property, the Drake’s almshouses were a gift to the market town of  Amersham by local bigwig, Sir William Drake who built them in 1657 ‘for the relief of 6 poor widows of good repute in the parish’. Originally six dwellings, they were converted in 1997 to provide increased accommodation and modern conveniences for four residents given them greater comfort including indoor plumbing.

There is a tablet to the rear of the buildings commemorating John and Alice Day, who used to run the Swan Inn.  Their daughter Harriet built these almshouses in 1875 for six poor women of good character.  Men are now permitted to live here – how times have changed!

Amersham Museum garden
The John and Alice Day almshouses are visible from the Museum garden.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

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Located on the high street in Berkhamsted,  John Sayer, chief cook to Charles II,  bequeathed £1000 in trust “for the building of an almshouse and the purchasing of lands for the relief of the poor widows in Berkhamsted St Peter”. The inscription reads: “The Guift of John Sayer Esq 1684”. They are noticeable for their simple, compact structure, along a high street messy with renovations and clutter.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on the original Roman road, Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum. They were built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town and wider Chilterns. This lovely row of tudoresque-styled almshouses was designed by William Huckvale and are quite a local feature, with Nos. 1-5 dated ‘1893’ and Nos. 6-8 dated ‘1901’.

Further Information

Adventures and further inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns, including museums, the famous and infamous past residents.

To find out more about Almshouses, the Almshouse Association has a useful website.

An Appreciation of Aylesbury

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? 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.

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The Kings Head Farmers Bar

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.

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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.

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St Mary the Virgin

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.

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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.

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St Mary’s Square

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.

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The rebuilt 1871 almshouses on Church Street with distinctive Neo-Tudor chimneys

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).

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A variety of styles along Church Street

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 of whom 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.

It is remarkable 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 with a stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town.

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No8. Church Street ‘the Chantry’.

Further Information:

Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. Worth the effort I’d say, once past all the concrete to explore this oasis and I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.

“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. ”—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

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.

Bucks County Museum is worth a visit and is open throughout the year.

To enjoy Chiltern Brewery finest beer and ale, visit the Kings Head pub.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration VisitChilterns.co.uk