In search of Paul Nash

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work.

I got more than I bargained for when I visited the Wittenham Clumps, a favourite haunt of Paul Nash. I discovered not only inspirational countryside, but my knight in shining armour.

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars.

Much has been written about Paul Nash and his younger brother John, and it is outside my skill set to provide a narrative of his great works. What I will share with you are some of the locations that inspired him and have in turn, come to inspire me. I have no copyright permission to reproduce any of his paintings here, so have included links to websites where you can see examples of his work below.

Capturing Landscapes

Paul Nash was born in London, and grew up in Iver Heath in south Buckinghamshire. Thankfully for us, he didn’t take to figure drawing and was able to concentrate on capturing his landscapes with preferred elements of ancient history. Something Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns have in abundance including; burial mounds, barrows and brooding Iron Age hill forts. He had to travel to the coast for the glorious seascapes and Wiltshire for the standing stones at Avebury amongst other locations.

He came to my attention when I first began to write about the Chilterns and have been captivated by his painting of Ivinghoe Beacon, somewhere I have photographed many times during my walks along the now familiar chalk paths and trails.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Ridgeway
Ivinghoe Beacon and its distinctive chalk trails leading up to the site of the Iron Age hill fort

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work. He captures these timeless landscapes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those communities who have lived and worked in and around them over the centuries.

Not that much has changed

I joined artist Christopher Baines on one of his Nash Walks to the Wittenham Clumps, the site of an iron age hill fort on the Sinodun Hills, 18 miles west of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. Chosen for security and dominance, the two Clumps are marooned in a sea of Thames Valley loveliness. Round Hill is the taller of the Clumps, and Castle Hill the site of the hill fort. Each is topped by a grove of trees, the lower of the two enclosed by an earth ditch and engineered embankment. The Clumps are surrounded by pretty villages, towers, Dorchester Abbey, manor houses, water meadows and the River Thames. Christopher told us that the Abbey contains an unusual treasure, but more of that later.

River views across to Clifton Hampden
The Church of St Michael and All Angels at Clifton Hampden

From the top, we enjoyed far-reaching views over the River Thames, towards the Chiltern Hills to the north east, westward to south Oxfordshire and south to the Berkshire downs. The view was described by Paul Nash as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”.

Dorchester Abbey
The view across to Dorchester Abbey

There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.

Round Hill
Round Hill where you will find declarations of love

A third hill, Brightwell Barrow below, is just off to the south-east. This lone hilltop barrow I think is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon I expect. I can understand why Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it too.

Nash believed that trees have their own personalities. The devastated trees he painted, that were blasted to shattered stumps, to him represented the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The trees on the Clumps are not without their stories and quirks too. Christopher showed us the initialled tree trunks on Round Hill that reminded me of the similar declarations of love on Sharpenhoe Clappers  in the northern Chilterns. Another wooded hilltop that still draws people today. I can’t help but wonder if the lovers are still in love?

From the poem tree
Robert reads a dull poem

I have commented many times throughout this blog about the extent of Victorian Vandalism, evident in so many Chilterns churches, where earlier treasures where either ripped out or covered up to suit a more modern taste. Here was another example: local man Joseph Tubb, who infamously worked over the course of two weeks in the summer of 1844, and scratched onto a beech trunk his uninspiring 20-line earthly musings. The ‘Poem Tree” as it become known, recently collapsed into a pile of decay, but sadly for us, his poem lives on in the little monument nearby. If you want to read what it says, you’ll have to climb the Clumps.

My Knight in Shining Armour

Inspired by Christopher revealing the many threads that link Nash with what I had seen, I set off on to find a knight in shining armour. On my way to Dorchester Abbey, I stopped at some of the villages I had seen from the Clumps including; Long Wittenham with its pretty cottages, Clifton Hampden which is stuffed with even more thatched cottages and a church with an impressive 152-year old cedar tree, before parking at the edge of Dorchester-upon-Thames to walk the pretty high street.

Ceder tree planted in 1866
A Ceder grown from a seed planted in 1866.

What an amazing Abbey! Unexpected, grand in scale, but not grand in nature. Busy with a large wedding, the guests waited to greet the bride’s family before flowing outside, relaxed and talkative, to wave off the bride and groom in a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce.

I was there to see the wonderful, unusually life-like effigy, one of the finest pieces of 13th century funerary sculpture in England. The pose is fluid as the Knight is ready to unsheathe (the now lost) sword. Much admired by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, John Piper and Paul Nash, who considered the effigy one of the greatest icons of Englishness – alongside Stonehenge. That’s quite something!

William de Valance
Although he cannot be identified with certainty, it seems most likely that this knight is William de Valance the Younger (died 1282)
Expect the Unexpected

Just as when I visited the Tate in 2017 to see the Paul Nash Exhibition, I got more than I bargained for on this visit to the Clumps. Not just beautiful English countryside and villages, but a sense that things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, we do things differently, but the essence of who we are hasn’t changed. Places of worship still have a role, we commemorate our dead, plant and harvest crops, have a fascination with the unexplained, are drawn to rivers and high places, leave something behind by scratching our initials (or a poem) onto trees, indulge in celebrations and capture what we see in prose and pictures. In doing so, we try to understand and make sense of our place in this enduring landscape. A trip to the Clumps could perhaps help you try and figure out some of life’s great mysteries.

Paul Nash is buried with his wife Margaret at St Mary the Virgin, Langley Marish near Slough.

Thank you to Christopher Baines for sharing his knowledge and insights into how this pioneering artist tried to make sense of the magical and mystical everyday. It was really special. Take a look at his website, which is full of information on the local area and of the great man himself.

Further information

This blog has plenty of ideas for places to discover and walks to enjoy throughout the Chilterns year, follow the tabs at the top of the page to discover more. In Chiltern Fields was published in 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Visit the model villages at the Pendon museum

Further information and to view a selection of Paul Nash paintings at the Tate Gallery.

Views of Didcot Power Station
Some of the best views of Didcot Power Station

A Runway Runs Through It

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

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The planes at the bottom of the garden

The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!

I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.

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Luton Airport

Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.

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Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.

Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.

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Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?

The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.

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A veritable feast for the senses

Some of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.

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A thing of beauty

I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all press in on this space. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.

I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.

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I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.

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Further Information:

Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.

Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Reclaiming our Castles

Nooks, brick tiles and a fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history; 

Seen mostly from commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is just no longer noticed. A scheduled ancient monument, the castle had a lucky escape – not from French siege engines, but from those bringing a new prosperity to the Chilterns countryside.  

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness too, when asked when was the last time they had visited Berkhamsted castle? 

“Not for ages”

“Never”

“Where is it?”

Situated alongside the canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and it’s features seem only to emerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty spring flowers, the scene so benign. The elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants.

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Not much use now!

Nooks, brick tiles and fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history; 

Anglo-Saxon backwater

Norman Invasion & Oppression

Royal entitlement & civil war

Invasion & royal prison

Decline & Vandalism

Near destruction and declaration as ancient monument

Visitor attraction

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The moat filled with spring rain
William the Conqueror

This is where William the Conqueror received the submission of the English after the Battle of Hastings and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trade routes and ensuring successful subjugation of the locals. 

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Lots of stones to recycle

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages; invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times as royal residence, but slid into a slow decline of unsuitability and by default became unfashionable. The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle which, when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, stone was taken and reused to build houses and buildings in the town, greatly affected by this change in its status and prosperity. It was a long wait until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century before the locals enjoyed a revival.

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Moody and atmospheric

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle making it the first such property to be protected by law. We have not always so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners once believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing so much mindless destruction, MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

Berkhampstead_railway_station_1838
Berkhamsted railway station in 1838, castle to the left and canal to the right:                           George Dodgson Callow & Edward Radclyffe (1809–1863)

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress. Or in the case of spite, as was the story of the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, one-time owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare, then in an extraordinary fit of spite, demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Arial view of the site taken in the 1940's.
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s.                                                                  Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

I think we need to reclaim and treasure our Chilterns’s castles; visit them, explore them, take a picnic, take your family to play dungeons and dragons, take your dog. Watch as they reflect the changing seasons through the windows of your train, and celebrate the spaces and possibilities those heritage weirdos have left for us.

A local pharmaceutical firm has donated three acres (1.2 hectares) to the new Berkhamsted Castle Trust, plus £25,000 to maintain this “national asset”, with work to “make it a coherent site again” underway.  Read more here

Further Information:

Admission is free to the site that is now managed by English Heritage.

For further Chilterns inspiration visit https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk

Read the astonishing story of a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest and adopted by a English king and came to live in nearby Northchurch.

The Top Dog

A walk to discover ancient #Chilterns woodland archeology, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter.

A day to discover what lies beneath, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter, as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of Pigotts Wood, an ancient Chilterns woodland.

Pigotts Wood in spring
Pigotts Wood

Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the woodland course on time, would have found many distractions along the way. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road, which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.

Inside Pigotts Wood
Inspiration on the walls

The Flying Scotsman

We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, infamous sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed one of the most famous British typefaces, Gill Sans, used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by British Railways, most famously perhaps as it was the typeface adopted by GNER for their flagship ‘Flying Scotsman’.

Now home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years, it was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring Cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by casual design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?

The courtyard at Pigotts Wood
A dazzling spring sky

Yellow bird nests and a pillow mound

I could instantly tell that, set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project, lead us off into the woods.

John was determined we would master the names of  woodland flowers including; Yellow Birdsnest, Coralroot Bittercress and Green Hellebore, to recognise the manmade features – sometimes with their give-way mossy mantle, but to the untrained eye, largely unrecognisable; property boundaries, iron slag and sites where charcoal was once made. John also showed us a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a special feature of the Chilterns woods and forests – a saw pit. The story goes that once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog.

Within the wood, you can look out for the crucifix that Eric Gill designed which was carved by Donald Potter. It was nailed to a small beech tree in the Wood which Gill owned. He is said to have taken his daily constitutional to the Crucifix Tree where he read his rosary. Was that redemption he was seeking?

I was struck too, how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at the backdoor, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made, as there weren’t many retailers to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you got on without it.

The mighty beech trees in Pigotts Wood
The mighty beeches

A day to discover what lies beneath the woodland floor, turned into more than just looking at the obvious plants and animals. It was a morning filled with stories, unexpected historical links and folklore, all from such an unassuming hillside location. We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season. The weather being so warm, and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup and stories waiting for us, including the infamous tale of the black bath . But that is a story for another time.

This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is a hidden gem, and my walks in the woods made more enjoyable as I test out my new-found wood-lore!

A view from Pigotts Wood
Up the valley

I was fortunate to attend an archeology event in the woodland, but Pigotts Wood is private and I ask that you respect the privacy of the homeowners here, as there is no public access to the wood nor from the track itself.

Further Information

Why should you explore the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with impressive churches and pretty villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find out here.

I visited Pigotts Wood in the spring, but the Chilterns have stories to share at any time of the year; winter, summer and autumn.