Of Buddhists’ and Beechwoods

In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.

I had joined a mindfulness walk during our Chilterns Walking Festival that would take us from the surprisingly peaceful Gade Valley behind Ashridge, along dappled woodland paths, past a manor house, down tiny sunken lanes, into a church yard with an impressive puddingstone and tombstones (one declaring the contents were once ‘a gent’ from 1740), and out again through a pretty hamlet. We stopped often to enjoy the views across the valley, discuss the dire condition of the chalk streams, realise there would never be a shortage of flint, search for berries and listen to the autumn birdsong. 

So far, so typical of the Chilterns

I have walked past the Amaravati Buddhist monastery many times, enjoying the many routes from Frithsden and Ashridge, but have never gone in. I never thought to. To sit quietly in the gardens or even visit the temple for peaceful reflection. 

The Amaravati temple dominates the site
The temple dominates the site

The Valley of Nettles

When Nettleden became a parish, the hamlet of St Margaret’s, (weirdly, once belonging to the parish of Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire), was connected to Nettleden. At this place Henry de Blois bishop of Winchester founded the nunnery St Margaret’s de Bosco. After the Dissolution in 1539, St Margaret’s came into private hands. During the Second World War the St Margaret’s Camp was a London County Council Senior Boys School for evacuees from London. The school closed one week after the end of the war in Europe, when all the boys were returned back to their homes. Since 1984 it has been home to the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.

A Bonshō Buddhist temple bell
Bonshō are are used to mark the passage of time and to call the monks to liturgical services

The configuration of several large huts has remained largely unchanged, and gives the site the look and feel of somewhere in Scandinavia . The addition of a purpose-built temple that was officially opened on 4 July 1999 by Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of the King of Thailand is quite the feature. The monastery’s founder and abbot was Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s foremost disciple in the West. In Autumn 2010 he handed over to the English monk Ajahn Amaro, who for the past 15 years had been co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Its aims are the training and support of a resident monastic community, and the facilitation for monastic and lay people alike for the practice of the Buddha’s teachings.

In the Pali language ‘Amaravati’ means ‘deathless realm’

It is appropriate perhaps that we visited in the autumn, the month when life slows and foliage burns bright before falling to rot beneath the beechwoods.

An extract from a Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro: “When the Buddha said that ‘… the mindful do not die’, he did not mean that the body of a mindful person is never going to stop breathing and rot away. No. The Buddha’s body died, just like anyone else’s. When he said that the mindful never die, it meant that when the mind is awake it is not identified with the born and the dying….outside of the realm of time, individuality and space; not definable in terms of time, personality, location: ‘There is neither a coming nor a going, nor a standing still. Neither progress, nor degeneration. Neither this world, nor the other world.” Something to ponder? Although I think to truly understand mindfulness, I would need to book a weekend retreat at the monastery. 

This is a special place. Join those who visit from all over the world, who come to spend a few hours or for a day, others staying for the weekend. You won’t be disappointed!

Further Information:

Both the monastery and retreat centre are run entirely on donations. In accordance with the tradition established by the Buddha, the monastic community has relied for its material well-being on unsolicited offerings of food and other requisites from the lay community. To find out more about weekend retreats and events at the monastery.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story. Growing Stones links to the nearby Ashridge House.

The Chilterns are full of fun, quirks and inspiration. Find yours here.

The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place twice a year, during May and October across the naturally outstanding Chilterns. Find your walk here

The unnavigable River Gade rises at nearby Dagnall and flows through Hemel Hempstead, Kings Langley, then along the west side of Watford through Cassiobury Park, passing Croxley Green until it reaches Rickmansworth, where it joins the River Colne.

Growing Stones

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story. 

Ashridge gardens are a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Humphry Repton and an acorn from a queen. 

Each time I visit Ashridge, I am inspired by the stories I uncover: religious relics, sunken lanes, a landscape of contrasts, abandoned masonry, animal trails, a vineyard, the wild and the managed. All within a glorious 5,000 acres of Chilterns woodland. 

Ashridge weather vane
Fan vaulting and tracery on the ceiling of the tower, with a dial that displays the position of the weathervane on the roof.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story. 

Garden Design

Ashridge Gardens extend an impressive 190 acres across a reasonably flat site in an otherwise undulating and hilly landscape. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the northern and eastern part of the gardens and famous Golden Valley. It is the gardens south of the house, originally designed by Humphry Repton (1752 -1818), in the early 19th century, that we were here to explore. In good company, Repton, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown share the honour of being the three most famous 18th century landscape designers and gardeners.

From 1808 to 1813 the architect James Wyatt crafted, from local Totternhoe ‘soft’ stone and lashings of flint, an Ashridge House to claim the high-point above the undulating Golden Valley and surrounding forest.

Peaceful and colourful ashridge house gardens
The peaceful gardens

The grounds to the rear of the house are dominated by the extensive lawn leading onto avenues of trees inviting you to explore further, with the promise of tantalising views of the surrounding area.

Maple tree in Ashridge House
The maple signals the change of season

On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, which have been the focus for Mick Thompson and his team. Working on the restoration of the Rosary, an Armorial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Flower Garden that have retained strong links with their designer and visionary, Repton.

Reptons' drawing of his rosary garden
Humphry Repton’s 1813 Rosary Drawing

Puddingstone’s

The county line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire runs right through the garden, and is now marked by a puddingstone no less. Once disputed, with Buckinghamshire laying claim to more than their due, this conglomerate rock (that could be the icon of Hertfordshire), has symbolically won the day!

Ashridge house southern garden
A cluster of puddingstone’s marks the Souterrein

You can see the puddingstone’s tumbled about the entrance to the grotto and souterrein tunnel that have been constructed using this very hard conglomerate. The estate has the largest collection of puddingstone’s, possibility the largest supply in the world! How and when they are formed is a mystery, but Hertfordshire folk have never been in doubt  ̶  it grows, and then gives birth to new stones. This is because stones appear out of the ground, which has given rise to the names “Growing Stone” and “Breeding Stone”.

A fitting addition to this garden. 

The restored rose garden
The view of the house from the restored rose garden

The Italian Garden and the arbour for the Rose Garden (now framed with laburnum trees), have been restored to their original design.

What made it for me was the magnificent oak, dominating the lawn, its massive trunk and spreading limbs are just perfect. I stood and stared. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my garden when I was a child. This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to Ashridge. How will it be commemorated in 2023? I took an acorn home for my son. 

Oak tree planted by princess Victoria in 1823
At a mere 195 years old, the magnificent Princess Victoria oak steals the show

Ashridge is a compelling story, made up of the majestic and the mundane.  I just know I am going to go on following those loose threads and blemishes to see what they reveal. 

My visit was on a Repton Garden Tour, an event in the excellent Heritage Open Days programme organised by Jenny Sherwood of the Berkhamsted Local Historical & Museum Society and led by the charming and knowledgeabe Mick Thompson, head gardener at Ashridge House. Thank you both. 

I must confess that after this delightful garden tour, I still can’t remember many plant, shrub nor tree names! Apart from the oak, that really caught my eye. But that says more about me than it does Mick. 

Further information

Information on tours of the house and gardens can be found here. Holy relics were once big business, read about the Ashridge relics here.

Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here: 

I have walked past the Amaravati Buddhist monastery many times, enjoying the many routes from Frithsden and Ashridge, but have never gone in. I never thought to. To sit quietly in the gardens or even visit the temple for peaceful reflection.

Book a table for lunch at the popular Alford Arms in nearby Frithsden. The first gin distillery in Hertfordshire, named after the iconic stone, can be found at Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring.

Take a walk around the medieval stone quarry at Totternhoe, seven miles from Ashridge.

And if that’s not enough, further Chilterns inspiration and itineraries can be found here.

Making Memories

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’. 

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’.

Why are some people remembered whilst countless others never will be? Is it noble birth or notoriety? Or do memories attach themselves along the often invisible threads that bind and weave together the history and stories of the Chilterns, making it the special place it is today? It is after all, the people and places who shape and are shaped by their location that determine its history.

This is the second instalment of the fascinating story of Peter, one time resident of Northchurch who lived until he was around 70 years, but the label ‘Wild Boy’ has stuck. You can read about his life in this earlier blog post, and following a visit to Berkhamsted School, what I found there warrants further telling of his story.

Typically, historical events are remembered, celebrated even, by those on the winning side, so why, I wonder is Peter still remembered? His whole life was tenuous, he had no connections, no skills, no way to communicate, no family nor children and he lived by his wits and kindness of strangers. When he was found as a boy, it is said that the only remnants of a ‘civilised’ life where the remains of his shirt collar, which ironically, it is now a collar by which he best remembered: the collar that was crafted for him to wear to ensure that if he wandered off, he would be returned to his home at Fenn Farm.

I was surprised at how small the collar is, and don’t believe it was worn by Peter as an adult. Perhaps as a man, his wondering days were behind him?

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The label on the right is roughly the size of a business card, so gives you  idea of the collars size. With permission from Berkhamsted School

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’. I believe one shilling was the reward.

By our values, this may seem cruel to put a collar on a human, but to me, it must have been an act of kindness and concern for his safekeeping, especially after his epic 100-mile solo adventure to Norwich, where after being jailed, it took some time to return him home to Northchurch. It was because of his wonderings that the king was petitioned for an increase in the £30 annual pension granted for the maintenance of Peter, in view of the expense of advertising for and organising his return when he wandered far from home. It is not recorded if the petition was successful. The Crown paid Peter’s pension until his death in 1785.

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The Petition by James Fenn c.1752.  With permission from Berkhamsted School

How the collar has even survived 233 years is also a mystery. Hanging for years on the wall of a house in Northchurch, then it was back and forth between the Bridgewater family at Ashridge House, the Northchurch Society and then to Berkhamsted school. There are many letters in the archive to document its transfer, and the cost to insure the collar was a sticking point. Insured for £1,000 by the Northchurch Society in 1981, the annual premium at £15 became too much. “There are so many dates thrown into the mix, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the reason it left the farm where Peter lived” explained Lesley, “or how long it was kept at Ashridge House and elsewhere. Time travel would be grand in my job!”

Peter was five feet two inches tall and apart from the webbing between two of his fingers, there was nothing to indicate that he suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. I love that a wax effigy was made of him that would be viewed in a wax museum on the Strand in London – pre Marie Tussaud’s as she only set up her first permanent waxworks in 1835.

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By permission of  Berkhamsted School

It is not clear exactly how the collar ended up in the school archive along with the above mentioned petition and other items, but it could have been as a result of the Brownlow family estate being broken up and the items given to the school for safe custody.

Peter’s collar returned to the Royal court for a year in 2014 when it was loaned to Kensington Palace to be included in their ‘Glorious George’s Exhibition’ and Lucy Worsley, historian, broadcaster and curator took a keen interest in Peter and visited the school and his grave site at St Mary’s church. I expect there was pressure to keep the artefact at the Palace, but am delighted it is back where it belongs, in the Chilterns.

It is thanks to those at the bottom of the pile, who should be given just as much airtime as those at the top, for it is the former upon whom the latter builds power and status, but that doesn’t make their contribution any less. This is a unique story, of a man who survived against the odds, and it was this notoriety that has ensured his memory is alive and well.  To those who still leave flowers on Peter’s grave, I salute you!

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Keeping the tradition alive! By permission of  Berkhamsted School

I would like to thank Lesley Koulouris, archivist at Berkhamsted School who was very generous with her time and vast knowledge and who gave permission to reproduce these items included above.

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Berkhamsted school is to the rear of St Peter’s Church, on Castle street, Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted school participates in the Heritage Open Days festival in September each year, and the school opens the chapel and ‘Old Hall’, both worth exploring.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas.