Shapeshifters

Like sardines, starlings are iridescent, shapeshifting units. These seasonal aerial displays, or murmurations are just like the vast migrating families of fish.

I don’t usually write about birds, as they are not something I know much about. Other than to enjoy the spectacle they present and to encourage nesting in my garden, (which blackbirds and robins oblige), I simply admire them from afar.

Along with blackbirds, magpies, sparrows, robins, blue jays, song thrush and the twice daily overflight from a red kite, starlings are very much part of the community. Noisy and gregarious, they feed on the verges and lawns, the flock swooping and chattering from the aerials and rooftops every day. Far from being dull, they show-off iridescent colours that change as they move about.

Starlings who used to roost in vast numbers in London’s Leicester Square, but no more. Discouraged by birds of prey and bright lights they are typical of species that is in decline.

It’s not just the starlings putting on a good show this autumn
They are birds that get noticed

I first heard of murmurations from a wildlife programme and friend who lives near Brighton Pier where they are a fairly regular sight. I don’t know where this unusual name comes from. Is it the sound their wings make on their fly-pasts? More of a whooshing sound than a murmur. As they settle in to roost, they made a huge racket, so I’m not convinced it’s their sound. More to do with the movement? The ebb and flow?

Shapeshifters

The sight of their displays is special. Like sardines they are also iridescent, acting as shapeshifting units, but some of them are changing direction, or deciding that it’s time to enter the roost. They are like the vast families of sardines.

Then last autumn, during the year of lockdown, when I was spending time locally – as you would have been, retracing my steps along tracks I had forgotten, I saw my first display. Quite small, but I knew immediately what it was. I watched as the birds worked their magic over water near College Lake in Hertfordshire before disappearing into the trees.

What is a murmuration?

A murmuration is the collection noun for starlings and describes their aerial displays before these groups roost for the night.

I am not aware of other British species that do this, but please do set me right if this is not the case. These large gatherings happen in the autumn and gather pace as more birds migrate from central Europe to the milder winter climate here, peaking in December and January. The groups get larger and larger as smaller groups are absorbed with latecomers, but all roosting together. It seems a sensible way for the birds to nestle up and keep warm together during the long winter nights. Makes me wonder how a single robin keeps warm on a cold night?

Starlings, the sardines of the sky

You may have heard of the Sardine Run? The annual spectacle of millions of migrating sardines that swim north along the east coast of South Africa each winter, attracts all sorts of visitors, predators and chancers who jostle for the best spots to feed or to follow. This is what I am reminded of, in the sky but not that well attended.

Gathering on rooftops, chattering and hopping about before taking off and slowly making their way back and forth, back and forth in the direction of the roosting site. That was when I spotted them, some distance away, but I recognised a murmuration in the making. Leo and I legged it!

The making of a murmuration

Untidy and at height, three sizeable groups slowing growing in size as they absorbed stragglers, circling above my head. Each bird is flying quickly, like synchronised swimmers. The closer they get to the roosting site, the tighter the circles and those tell-tale murmurations emerge; long, tapered, chunky, a cloud, flat, a ball, untidy as some are wanting to go in a different direction.

They hang in the air

Their wings shimmering as they change direction, appearing to contact and expand, undulating as they fly overhead. I can hear them chattering. One group follows the other, chasing it, darting behind, their wings rushing as they fly overhead. Merging for an instant then two separate groups. Does each bird know which group it’s in?

The spectacle begins

Alive. In no hurry to rush to their roost. It is as if they are enjoying gathering and circling many times to then suddenly drop. As if sucked out of the sky, falling like rain into the reeds.

And they are done

The reeds are alive with unseen birds, their jostling and chatter whilst settling in causing waves across the vegetation. Two smaller groups join, one after the other, as do some late stragglers, who just fly straight in. Magnificent!

The sun was gone and it was getting cold. I left them still chattering and jostling, thinking about what the take off at sunrise would look like.

Further information

There’s plenty more to enjoy in the season of colour across the Chilterns. “Wrap up warm” the hardy types say; “put on wellies, a good coat and pack a thermos”. Let me unpack that for you: wellies don’t keep your feet warm, jeans turn to ice when it’s wet and cold, and yes, a thermos is a very good idea. Take a look at the autumn page for ideas.

Explore the northern Chilterns, they offer a different experience to the busy southern and central regions.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts including; Christmas cards, china mugs, tea-towels, 2022 A4 wall calendar amongst other popular items.

Chiltens souvenirs
The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

Marlow Mash-up

A withered hand, swans, Edwardian villas and tales of scandal and woe are what Marlow is exceptionally good at. Go and find your quirky Marlow.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.

All Saints Marlow
All Saints Marlow from the bridge

Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?

Cheerful bunting on the high street
Marlow high street full of independent shops

Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches. 

Cosy pubs in Marlow
Cosy pubs

The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank. 

Messing about in Marlow
Thames Path views

Bisham Abbey

Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations 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. King 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. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.

Bisham Abbey
The pretty Manor House at Bisham

The Hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics. 

The Queen’s Swan Marker

The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.

Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line.  www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.

Swan Upping on the Thames
Mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.    

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.

A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings  

It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents.  ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com

Mary does Marlow
Join a walking tour of Marlow with Mary.

Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.

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Pitstone Windmill A4 photographic print

The Hampdens

Classic Chilterns countryside awaits; dappled beechwoods and open, undulating fields in an historic, beautiful landscape.

Not the Hamptons, but a tucked-away Buckinghamshire parish about three miles south east of Princes Risborough. It incorporates the villages of Great Hampden and Little Hampden and hamlets of Green Valley and Hampden Row.

Due to difficult geography, no major roads or rail links ripped through this countryside.

You’ll find instead deer, the tips of hares, countless butterflies, dozing horses and dappled footpaths through beech woods in an historic landscape. Churches, farms, a manor house and memorials to old family names and their legends.

Classic Chilterns

Setting off from the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross on the hillside above Princes Risborough, we followed one of the very good National Trust countryside Trails that leads from the familiar into the pleasing unfamiliar.

Above Princes Risborough, Whiteleaf is where the walk to Little Hampden starts
The view from Whiteleaf towards Bledlow.

Leaving an overgrown Whiteleaf Cross at the WW1 trenches, apart from some dog walkers, we had the route to ourselves. A beautiful August day, we passed through Kingsfield Wood and walked parallel to a Grim’s Ditch Iron Age earthwork. A feature of the Chilterns, I’ve heard many theories about who it was meant to keep in or out: cattle or the Danes?

A style to nowhere
Would this have kept the Danes out?
Hampden House

The 400-year old cedar tree hinted at our approach to Hampden House. The Gothic-style battlements and arch windows resemble an overblown wedding cake. Perhaps an influencing factor when the current owners bought the house from the family in 1985 to market as a wedding venue. They refurbished a structure that had seen wear and tear as a girls school and latterly as the location for the Hammer film company who churned out horror films and TV series in the 1980’s. An extraordinary sight in this quiet valley.

Gothic revival Hampden House

Once home to the Hampdens (later the Earls of Buckinghamshire), who lived here continuously from before the Normans right up until 1938. Imagine that!

A famous son of this valley (who has a statue in Aylesbury), is commemorated across the county, is John Hampden. Notorious for his refusal to pay 20 shillings for the dodgy ship-money tax, brought in by a near bankrupt King Charles 1 in 1637. This indirectly led to the Civil War and his death at Chalgrove Field near Thame. St Mary Magdalene church doubtless has a rich heritage inside, but is still under Covid-restricted opening hours and was closed.

Hampden family church
The 13th century church of St Mary Magdalene, probable burial site for John ‘the patriot’ Hampden is adjacent to the Manor House.

We continued our walk down an avenue of lime, plane and horse chestnut trees that must have shaded many a visitor over the years. We did as instructed and pushed the button on the large gate and turned to cross the hot fields, alive with butterflies and the scraping of crickets. I love that high summer sound.

Hampden House from Queens Gap
Hampden House from the grassy ‘Queens Gap’ avenue

We spotted deer jumping over the wheat, making it look so easy. Rabbits and probably hares too as we climbed up through Warren wood towards the isolated hamlet of Little Hampden and our second local family.

Little Hampden Church

This gem of a church is tiny, and looks quite fragile. Yet it has survived the rigours of the Reformation and a Victorian make-over. The church is of course locked, and access has to be arranged to see the medieval wall paintings and alter stone.

The church at Little Hampden
Little Hampden church

The 15th century porch has two storeys, the upper one housing a bell, cast in 1791 that is once again working, the locals vying for the privilege of ringing it across the valley.

The Gingers

Not only is the building spectacular, the graveyard is too. Surprisingly large, with an uneven surface, evidence of long-forgotten burials. I was drawn to a headstone, tucked away at the boundary and noticed the unusual surname.

Headstone in the church at Little Hampden
In memory of Ann, wife of John Ginger

“The Yeomanry family of Ginger constantly resident here, during more than two hundred years; as the principal tenants and occupiers of the land, have obtained some celebrity, on account of the great age to which some of them attained, ….that the head of each of four generations, had arrived at the age of upwards of ninety years.” [The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, by George Lipscomb, 1847].

I found further evidence of the Ginger generations on the Ancestry genealogy website, including an incident of stock theft and a funeral. I wonder if there are Gingers still living in the area?

What a walk! Eight miles packed with nuanced history, places, people, outlandish buildings and beautiful scenery. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, this really is classic, unexpected Chilterns.

Further Information

There are several circular walks from Whiteleaf, including a spell on the Ridgeway National Trail.

You’ll find another link with the Civil War in the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Dinton. A heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

There are plenty of other delightful Chilterns churches to visit across the seasons.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs from Chilterns Gifts.

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic Chilterns prints

To A Manor Born

A microcosm of a Chilterns village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it.

Located about 2km west of Princes Risborough in the central Chilterns, Bledlow really is off the beaten track.

Refreshingly Wild

With the Lions of Bledlow pub at one end, wobbly brick and flint cottages either side of the shady street, the parish church described as ‘fabulously wild’, and a manor house with a secret water garden at the other end, it’s quite a place!

Bledlow is in fact derived from ‘Bled-Hlaw’ meaning Bloody Hill, from a battle between the Danes and Saxon’s – way back. Two ancient trails pass by the village; the Icknield Way and Ridgeway National Trail. It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk. Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place. Footpaths and signs for the long distance trails inviting you both up and away over the hills, or inviting you down into the village.

The Manor House and gardens
An intriguing water sculpture
Manor House and Gardens

The Manor House dates from the 17th century and has been long associated with the Carrington family. Built by the Blancks family, it was bought by the first Lord Carrington for his eldest son in the late 18th century. It has endured multiple change of function, and is once again being renovated by current owners, the seventh Lord and Lady Carrington. His father held key government posts during 1980’s and was the sixth Secretary General of NATO.

Sculpture garden
Fruit in the Sculpture Garden

Before 1950, there wasn’t a garden. What is here now was designed by landscape architect Robert Adams following destruction of a 15th century tithe barn in 1967 that necessitated a re-design.

A kitchen garden, sculpture garden, fish ponds, snail gardens and orchard now surround the house in a carpet of deep green, lilac, lots of bees and whichever shade of rose you prefer.

Situated beside the church in a deep, shaded ravine, is the the Lyde Garden. Also landscaped by Robert Adams for the sixth Lord Carrington in the 1980’s.

The ravine is full of noisy tumbling streams. They converge into clear pools marking the rising of the River Lyde, a tributary of the River Thame. No wonder it was the site of watercress beds, a once popular Chilterns crop.

Lyde Garden
That water is so clear! Perfect for watercress beds.

I could see why Bledlow is called a spring line village. This is a settlement formed around chalk springs through which water escapes between a layer of permeable rock above impermeable rock.

‘They who live and abide,

shall see Bledlow Church fall into the Lyde”

Medieval nursery rhymn

The shady gardens have a distinctive sub-tropical feel, with some leaves the circumference of tractor tires. Moody willows droop into the ponds, exotic ferns jostle with Californian trees and brightly coloured Himalayan flowers line the path. Even the duck house looks exotic!

Lyde garden duck house
Lush, full vegetation
Fabulously Wild

Holy Trinity church is described by Simon Jenkins, (author of England’s Thousand Best Churches), as ‘fabulously wild’. This largely unaltered Romanesque church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. Sadly, due to Covid restrictions, I have not yet been able to go inside. I will return.

Bledlow church
Residents past and present

A microcosm of an English village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it. The church is still standing, but who knows, in thousands of years, perhaps the nursery rhyme will come true?

Further Information

The Manor House Garden, Bledlow HP27 9PB is open to visitors by appointment.

The Lyde Garden, is on Church End and is open all year around from 9 – 5pm. No dogs please.

Explore the veritable feast that is the Central Chilterns including extensive Ashridge woodland, Dunstable downs, a Norman castle, historic market towns and the Grand Union Canal.

Discover holidays and long-distance hiking holidays along the ancient Ridgeway National Trail.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to take home with you. Chilterns Gifts are available for delivery to mainland UK addresses only.

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Gifts for friends

Shillington Village

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing place names, unusual geology and landscape history, is worth your time.

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.

From Shillington towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
The view towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
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.

From the Bunyon Trail
John Betjeman called All Saints the ‘Cathedral of the Chilterns’

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.

Ancient poo

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.

Cottages on Church Street
A gold-rush

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.

A house in the Shillington village
Shillington Village cottages

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.

Shillington church street
Looking down Church Street
Further Information

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.

Chilterns Gifts

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.

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic prints, mugs, tea-towels and stationery

The Grand Union Canal

The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

Often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous River Thames, the inland waterways and Grand Union Canal are without a doubt, the workhorse threading its way though the Chilterns countryside.

Arms and Legs

The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system, a series of inland waterways starting in London and ending 137 miles further north in Birmingham. With 166 locks and unknown number (to me), of bridges, it also has ‘arms’ to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.

Grand Union Canal
Resting up at Cow Roast

The canal network as we know it, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The so-called “narrow” canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London, was the result.

In our region, the Grand Union Canal links Watford, Kings Langley, the paper mill at Hemel Hempstead, former lumber yards at Berkhamsted, up over the Tring heights and on to Leighton Buzzard and northwards.

Whilst I am ducking the laden overhanging branches, full of damsons and rose hips, making sure to not miss-step into buckets of fish bait or decaying towpath, I wonder what the traffic system would have been like for the horses hauling the barges?

The Canal Duke

Ever looking for a Chilterns link, I found it in none other than the ‘father of inland navigation’, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). A pioneer of canal construction, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal— said to be the first true canal in Britain, and the modern world.

The Canal Duke
Bridgewater Monument

The Canal Duke is commemorated in a number of locations around the country. Closer to home, his remains lie in the vault in the Bridgewater chapel in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. A loosely translated Latin inscription on his memorial reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his field”. Two miles west In the adjoining Ashridge Estate, you will find a local landmark – the unusual Bridgewater Monument erected in 1832. I am sure it is modelled on the Monument to the Great Fire in London. In the summer, you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. Perhaps count at least five surrounding counties?

Nuts and Bolts

The softer surrounding Chilterns landscape is in stark contrast to these manufactured stamps and implements needed for safe navigation. These remnants of the industrial past are everywhere; unexpected holes, distance markers – that all seem to lead to Braunston, so many numbers and date-stamps on lock gates, at the waterline. Everything in its place and in its place, everything. And most still in use today.

A Roadway Paved with Water

Towpaths, moorings and waterways are the domain of leisure users. On bicycles, on foot, on the water, in the water, touring or living in canal boats. Some have made their permanent moorings into cosy homes with small garden plots alongside, with flowers, furniture and trinkets that could only adorn a static boat. Plenty of cooling off opportunities too!

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
Leo lockside

And still there are fatter and lazier stretches where nothing much happens. Until you hear the splash of a rising fish, or fishing heron or the dart of a kingfisher. Occasionally you can hear the trains rushing to and from London and Birmingham, but otherwise you are alone.

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
A roadway paved with water. 

Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts

There are no smooth edges here, apart from on the water itself. The brickwork, bridges and bolts are testament to the enginners, designers, carpenters, bricklayers and ‘navvies’ – a term shortened from the original ’navigators’ that the labourers were called. The Canal Duke was able to call on miners from his Worsley colliery to dig his canal. These men made a good living as they developed new skills that enabled them to earn far better wages than ordinary labourers. Some worked with their wives too, who supported a multitude of trades. Not such a man’s world after all!

A fine reminder of our industrial past, and attracting a slower pace of life. The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

The lock keepers cottage and pump house at no.38 Marsworth Lock

Further Information

I have been once again exploring what is close to where I live and this post forms part of the Messing about the Thames feature during the summer of 2020.

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.

The Ashridge monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read all about a Flourishing Trade.

For further Chilterns inspiration and celebration of all things quirky.

My micro adventure during Lockdown along the Grand Union Canal

What a year this has been! I did find pleasure in our restricted movements by exploring my local area, re-visiting footpaths and discovering many more on my daily micro-walks.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts from Chilterns Gifts.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

George Alexander Gratton

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

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp at. 

Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.

The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns. Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.

Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close

This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, where it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander. King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months. Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy. Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days. 

George Alexander coloured aquatint after Daniel Orme 1809. Subtitled: “An Extraordinary Spotted Boy” this engraving was often sold as a souvenir. Credit: Marlow Museum

The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour.  

Three murders and a ghost

One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”

Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield London.  Credit: Marlow Museum 

Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.  

Contradiction and the absurd

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy, he even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, full of pomp and circumstance. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.

Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph: 

“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye

Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,

Know that there lies beneath this humble stone

A child of colour, haply not thine own, 

His parents, born of Afric’s sunburnt race,

Tho’ white and black where blended in his face, 

To Britain brought, which made his parents free, 

And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”

Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.

George Gratton, painted by the artist Coventry that still hangs in All Saints Church. 

I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language.  I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace. 

Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.

Somewhere amongst these headstones is the grave

How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young boy, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.

Further information

Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.

Read the wonderful story of Peter the Wild Boy part one and part two

Explore the naturally outstanding Chilterns and the market town of Marlow or take a walking tour of the historic town centre.

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.

Discover more Chilterns Churches, ideas for winter wanderings and for the spring, the unique and bonkers Swan Upping ceremony that is best enjoyed from the riverside at Marlow.

Chilterns Trees

This post is my celebration of some of the many Chilterns trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see. 

It is tempting to go for the big hitters in the forests, the sentinel trees, the obviously ancient, even those that have been movie stars. 

The Chilterns are synonymous with ancient woodlands, acres of forest, avenues of stately trees, big trees, growing trees, intriguing trees, memorial trees, even fallen trees.

This post is my celebration of some of the many trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see.

If you have any favourites, please let me know where they are and why I need to see them for myself.

In no particular order, here are my 10 favourites
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My name if ‘Morus nigra’

“My name is Morus nigra, and I am very old. Please do not climb on me”. Silk worms eat the soft leaves of Morus alba but have no appetite for the leathery leaves of Morus nigra, the variety that produces such delicious black mulberries. So delicious in fact, visitors to Cliveden swear they have been nowhere near the tree through lips smeared with its delicious crimson juices.

Location: Cliveden Estate, Taplow

The two lovers entwined
The Lovers

I often pass these entwined trees on a walk near Pitstone Hill. They have grown together so gracefully, their embrace quickens the heart.

Location: Off the Ridgeway near Pitstone Hill

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The Princes Oak

I stood and stared at a tree that just knows how special it is, with outstretched boughs that dominate the expanse of Ashridge House lawn.  Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my childhood garden? This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to the estate. I took an acorn home for my son.

Location: Ashridge House

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Ivinghoe Beacon and trees of Tring Park

This is a view familiar to those living within at least 10 miles of Ivinghoe Beacon with the lone tree on the steep north western slope. It’s a ‘watch tree’ with enviable views across the Vale and surrounding countryside, and a symbol for the Iron Age hill fort that once stood atop this hill. I see it almost every day.

Location: the end of the Ridgeway

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Brightwell Barrow

This lone hilltop barrow is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon, naturally. I understand why Paul Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it today.

Location: Wittenham Clumps

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Bluebells and crazy paving

The seasonal spectacle that are the spring bluebells draw locals and visitors to the woods each April or May. It is easy to avoid the busy spots and sea of selfie-sticks to find a quiet woodland, which is where I noticed these unusual patterns on the exposed tree bark.

Location: Chilterns-wide

Copper Beech
A copper beech

This is a statement tree. It stands out on the general slopes of Tring Park and I will confess to this tree being my favourite (I have included it in my logo). I visit often with Leo, he lifts his leg at the base and I stand back and enjoy the swoosh and colour blur of the leaves in the wind!

Location: Tring Park

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Even in winter

As ragged and cold as that day was, the skeletal trees dotted between me, Pitstone Windmill and Ivinghoe Beacon in the distance, define the contours and add interest to what would otherwise be a bleak view.

Location: Ivinghoe 

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Princes’s Riding in Ashridge Forest

The Chilterns does grand tree-lined avenues very well. The lime avenue in Tring park, the lime avenue at Cliveden and this formal avenue of beech and oak trees link the Bridgewater Monument and Ashridge House. This popular avenue looks splendid throughout the year, and when there is not quite so much mud, quiet time with your back to a knobbly tree trunk is a pleasant way to waste away an hour or two.

Location: Ashridge Forest

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This Ceder  outshines an already outstanding church

The pretty village of Clifton Hampden is stuffed with thatched cottages, a pretty riverside with an impressive bridge, and a church with this graceful 152-year old cedar tree, grown from seed by the local vicar. The day I visited, the cyclamen were putting on a good show. I expect the same spot dazzles with snowdrops in the spring.

Location: Clifton Hampden

A hard choice!

Further Trees

A day to gladden the heart! Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.