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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Celebrate the seasons with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to remind you of your time well spent. Online order and deliveries to mainland UK only.