A reason to love the rain

In which a rain storm saved from destruction, a rare 15th century ‘doom’ painting that was left out in the rain. #Chilterns

In which a ‘doomed’ 15th century painting is saved by the rain.

On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties. I was content however, to nose around indoors, on the lookout for the famous ‘doom’ painting; the main reason this church is of such cultural and historical significance.

Nothing beats local knowledge
The Doom painting is placed high above the alter
Look up!

I got the strong impression this church is still a vital community hub, with feverish wedding preparations underway and so tried not to get in the way of the florist and a busy vacuum cleaner. In the capable hands of local guide Helen, who modestly professed to not knowing much about the history of the building, then proceeded to dazzle with her huge knowledge; brass rubbings, the Penn family crypt, lozenges adorning the walls, medieval Penn tiles in the lady chapel, the doom painting of course, church extensions and renovations and not forgetting those buried in the graveyard.

14th century Penn floor tiles in the Lady Chapel
14th century Penn floor tiles in the Lady Chapel
Dooms Day

Now set high on the east wall, the 15th century ‘doom’ painting is still looking as bright and fresh as the day it was painted. One of only five surviving wooden tympanums in the country, it would have been purposefully positioned for worshippers as they faced the alter. A “dooms day painting” is a traditional English term for an image of the Last Judgment when Christ judges souls to send them to either Heaven or Hell. A crude but effective part of the eclesastical warning system to illiterate congregations, to toe the line or face judgement on the day. This one not only survived the English Reformation, it survived being tossed into the skip!

The doom painting saved from the rain
Looking as bright as the day it was painted over 500 years ago

During renovations in the 1930’s, the now whitewashed wooden panels, were stripped and placed outside, destined for the bin. By good fortune it rained overnight and when the vicar returned the next morning, he saw faces peering out at him through the whitewash. Their cry for help answered? That is surely a reason to love the rain! Now safely re-instated inside the church, looking as bright as the day it was painted 500 years ago.

Memorials and brass rubbings

At the entrance, there is an inscribed vault stone to mark where Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, who was allowed to build a large vault beneath the church nave for himself, his brother and four of his children who were interred between 1753 and 1766. The Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania however, is buried at the nearby Jordans Quaker Meeting House with his first wife, Guilielma, his second wife, Hannah, and nine of his children. Despite the many offers to have him moved to Pennsylvania, he remains in the quiet Chilterns churchyard.

As Helen waved goodbye, she pointed to the one hand on the clock tower and told me that during the 17th century a one-handed clock was all a villager needed, minutes where simply too much information! On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties including; Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Greater London, Bedfordshire, Northants and Surrey. I’ll have to return to see the view for myself.

This is what I love about parish churches, they are an essential part of not only our local Chilterns story, but the nation’s story too. Unlike a museum, they are stuffed full of treasures, but none kept behind glass, or in spaces filled with tour groups, these are a snapshot of history, watched over by individuals keen to generously share.

Further Information:

I recommend that during the Heritage Open Days event in September, to visit the nearby Penn House which is the other half of the Holy Trinity story in the Chilterns.

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Penn House

There are plenty more to explore, and do please let me know if you have other Chilterns churches to recommend.

For further inspiration on what to see and do in the naturally outstanding Chilterns

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.

An EasyJet view
An EasyJet View

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.

Luton runway at the end of the field
Luton Airport control tower

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.

Fancy brick work
Striking brick work

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.

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.

Delightful details

Much 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.

Ruined stairwell
Stairway to the stars

This is no castle set in aspic

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.

A working landscape

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all pressed in. 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.

A deceptively serene scene

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.

Wildflowers alongside the runway

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.

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; beautiful Barton Hills National Nature Reserve, adjacent to Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Scenic view
Beautiful views from Barton Hills

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.

A journey into a Chilterns desert

Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom, and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.

Poking around in unassuming, tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there.

February is the time to satisfy seasonal cravings for warmth, sunshine or a dash of colour in an otherwise challenging month. Carpets of aconites and snowdrops start off the race to spring, hellebores and daffodils in hot pursuit, with the ultimate spectacle of the iconic bluebells that light up the woodlands from April to May that will herald long overdue summer days.

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Carpets of Swyncombe churchyard aconites

Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing with seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.

Travelling north to south and back again is easy to do, the challenge is crossing from west to east as there is no direct route. Therein lies the joy of Chilterns travel: unhurried, with the slight edge of not really knowing where you are, glimpses of the road ahead not really helpful as their unfamiliarity only confirms my sense of trepidation, when all of sudden, the bare tree canopy opens up revealing wonderful views down the valley as I watched an approaching rain shower racing towards me.

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A rain shower races up the valley

I followed a succession of narrow windy lanes, thick mud and leaf litter piled up on either side, making me glad I was visiting mid-week, so wouldn’t have to negotiate these mires with other road users travelling in the opposite direction. I now understood why this area has been called the ‘desert of the Chilterns’, it is remote, despite being so close to London and nearby market towns of Wallingford and Henley on Thames.

I turned off the track, following signs for the Norman parish church, and apart from a photographer with an enormous zoom lense, there wasn’t anyone about. I was underwhelmed with the snowdrop display, the aconites were much prettier and were working hard to cheer up a gloomy corner of the graveyard. The church itself is small, unassuming and gives no hint at what is inside.

Poking around in tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there. This church is a Norman Pilgrim Church, a reference to it’s place on a Pilgrims route, a once popular undertaking.

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Botwulf of Thorney

St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. A Saxon noble who lived in the 7th century, he spent time abroad and upon his return was given, by King Anna, a grant of land near either Aldeburgh in Suffolk, or Boston in Lincolnshire to build a monastery. Two centuries later in around 870, it was destroyed by Danish invaders and the saint’s remains were divided into three parts and taken from the ruins to be housed in Ely and Westminster Abbey. It is likely, given the flourishing trade in relics at the time, that the parts were conveyed from place to place and so his name became synonymous with wayfarers and travellers. Over 70 Churches, along with five towns and villages are dedicated to him, and although he has no place in the Prayer Book Calendar, his feast day is June 17.

Not many parish churches are open to the casual visitor, so I am never sure if the sturdy doors will yield when pushed. This one did, and opened into the warm and colourful interior that far surpassed the seasonal exterior. Some hikers were eating their sandwiches in the back pews and returned to their murmurings beside the font. Although extensively restored in 1850, much of the original Norman church is recognisable, with the font that possibly predates even this.

The ceiling has been restored and is painted a summer blue with a more brooding red reserved for the Norman apse, off set by simple white walls and red floor tiles, some looked medieval. The rood screen and loft date from the early 20th century. The refurbished wall paintings behind the alter are impressive and make for a cheerful and pleasant space. The wall plaques commemorating former vicars, wardens and parishioners remind me that I am in England, not in some far off exotic place.

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No sign of any relics, but I am delighted that this special place, tucked away in this ‘green desert’ that involves a purposeful journey is named after the English patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. It means even more to me now.

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Swyncombe is derived from Swin for wild boar and combe for valley or hollow

For further Chilterns travel inspiration and lovely local walks

The Chilterns in Miniature

This gem shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature!

In 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors, and the rest as they say, is history.

If you could take some of the wonderful buildings that make up the Chilterns, and placed them in a reasonably-sized garden in Beaconsfield, to be enjoyed at your leisure in an afternoon, you’d have all the ingredients for a magical model village called Bekonscot.

Bekonscot’s rural idyll harks back to the bucolic days of the 1930’s, when the green fields of England were just one glass of warm beer and fuzzy summer days on the village green, playing cricket. And that is the time warp in which the village has made its home.

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The Chilterns in Miniature

Model villages are popular with many British towns boasting an assortment of model buildings with their transport options, with perhaps the nearby Legoland at Windsor miniature Europe a particular treat. Model villages and model train sets, the two are destined to be alongside one another; in fact a model village without a model railway, is just not cricket! The narrow gauge railway at Bekonscott has played a key role in the construction, development and seems to have no shortage of eager passengers.

Created in the 1920’s by local resident Roland Callingham (1881–1961), with the help of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur, he created a world of what was local and familiar to him, which he named Bekonscot, after Beaconsfield and Ascot, where he had previously lived.

It started small, but when in 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech which suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did, the model railway moved outdoors. It was never intended as a commercial visitor attraction, more a hobby to entertain Roland and his guests, who were by all accounts, very taken with it. Who wouldn’t be? It was only after 1930 that it really caught the wider public’s imagination, fed by Pathé newsreels, international and national newspaper coverage, and a Royal visitor or two, that ensured a steady stream of visitors.

Princess Elizabeth visits Bekonscott in 1938
Princess Elizabeth tries out the houses for size when she visited Bekonscott in 1938

Ask a local, any local, and they will nod and say “ah yes, I visited as a child, you should go”. We did, and I could quickly see why its fan base is so loyal. The attention to detail is remarkable; each building, figure and vehicle, all in their place and looking as fresh as when they were first placed there, over 70 years ago in some cases. There is a working coal mine, Enid Blyton on a park bench, pubs, a windmill, a Waitrose (of course), a circus, penguin pool, lovers stealing a kiss and no end to model trucks, cars, trains, wagons and airplanes.

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A train, a plane, a carriage or cart madam?

The quirky sense of humour, says ‘we don’t take ourselves too seriously”, evident on the various shop fronts including; Argue & Twist Solicitors, Alfred Kings’ cakes, the Barbers Strop and my favourite, McBull’s China Shop.

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Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and donates large amounts of money to charity. With over 15 million visitors since 1929 and endless rave reviews, this Chilterns gem has carved a niche that is timeless, innocent, and fun. And not just for small people either. In fact it was hard to tell ahem, who was having the most fun when we visited!

I think it shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature!

Further Information:

Find out more about visiting the world’s oldest model village Bekonscot

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas 

The Dinton Hermit

In a sleepy English village, you’ll discover the heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

The Dinton Hermit is heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

Just off the A418, once the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury, is the small village of Dinton in the Vale of Aylesbury. As with so many ‘if you blink you’ll miss them’ English villages and hamlets, I was delighted that I had stopped to explore the pretty village and its castle, and was intrigued by what I saw, not realising at the time, the historical significance and surprising stories of a royal executioner, a ghost and a hermit with his leather shoes.

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Dinton Hall

A Grade 2 Listed Folly

I almost missed Dinton Castle, a Grade 2 listed folly, located just before the turn off into the village, Although the structure itself is not accessible, the footpath is close enough to take a look. Typical of follies, it was positioned to be seen for miles around and was built by Sir John Vanhatten, former owner of Dinton Hall in 1769, who used the castle to store his collection of fossils. The octagonal two-storied structure, with circular towers east and west, has some lovely features including unusually large ammonites set into the the exterior walls, most likely found in local quarries. On the site of a Saxon burial, it comes with its own ghost too, according to the estate agents sales patter, when the place was put up for auction in 2012.

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Dinton Castle, best seen in the winter

The Regicide

Local legend says the folly is haunted by the ghost of Simon Mayne, 17th century regicide of King Charles. In January 1649, Simon Mayne magistrate and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, was also a judge of the High Court of Justice at the King’s trial, and 40th of 59 signatories on the Royal death warrant, which ultimately sealed his fate. After the Restoration in 1660, he was tried as a regicide and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died in 1661. His body was returned to Dinton and is buried in the church.

Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns are closely associated with the English Civil War, with John Hampden, of Great Hampden, the most notable of English politicians involved in challenging the authority of King Charles in the build-up to the Civil War.

The Execution of Charles I of England
The Execution of King Charles I of England, 30th January 1649

Things then take a weird turn with a handmade shoe on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that once belonged to John Bigg, the ‘Dinton Hermit’ (1629 – 1696). A man of reasonable means and former clerk to the afore-mentioned Simon Mayne, legend has it that Bigg may have been one of the hooded executioners of the king – one of the men who wielded the axe!

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John Biggs leather shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery

About the time of Simon Mayne’s death, John Bigg became a hermit, living in an underground cave at Dinton Hall for 35 years until his death in 1649. As with any self-respecting local legend, there are many versions of the truth, with some believing that Bigg feared retribution for his involvement in the royal execution, whilst others suggest it was due to the tremendous remorse he felt. Either way, he was a survivor, and resourceful soul who only asked for one thing from his community – leather, which he would immediately nail to his clothes.

A heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

The 18th century illustration shows his strange horned cloak and the three bottles that hung from his girdle for strong and small beer as well as for milk. His shoes are particularly large and made from over 1,000 pieces of leather, one piece hammered on top of the other as they become worn. One shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery on the Lower Ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum, whilst the companion to this shoe is still housed at Dinton Hall.

John Bigg
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

His remarkable story and illustration was included in the wonderful ‘Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II : collected from the most authentic accounts extant. Author: James Caulfield 1764-1826.

Further Information:

Dinton Hall is a private residence, and nothing remains of John’s cave, and in January 2017, planning permission was granted by Aylesbury Vale District Council for the castle to be renovated into a two-bedroomed dwelling (building work is now well underway), but that shouldn’t stop you having a wander around the village.

There are lots more quirky Chilterns stories, including the story of the Tring Tiles, Peter the Wild Boy and Growing Stones.

Find your own Chilterns castle and for further Chilterns inspiration, head over to VistChilterns.co.uk

Grand Designs

Wednesday September 19th at 21.00 GMT, the folly will feature in the Channel Four Grand Designs programme with Kevin McCloud.

One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

One master, three books, 300 boys and 30 monitors. This is the inspirational story of one man’s vision to provide basic education for the children of Hitchin.

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar and unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

Blissfully unaware of its existence until recently, the British Schools Museum in Hitchin is one such place; the last surviving example in the world, packed with wonderful stories and eye-popping facts about English education.

This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns, and was once a national centre for lavender-production having grown and successfully exploited the crop since the 15th century. Now only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.

Hitchin Town Centre
Hitchin market place with St Mary’s

The British Schools Museum is located on Queen street in the town centre, within the former Edwardian and Victorian school premises, in a number of buildings set close together. Near the site of former slums, whose young occupants would surely have attended the school, their dwellings in stark contrast with the outsized St Mary’s church, on the opposite banks of the river Hicca – a bold statement from a town doing well on wool. The pretty cobbled marketplace is surrounded by a mix of more traditional buildings, some medieval, jostling for prominence now amongst more forceful contemporary chain stores.  Slightly further out of town however, Tudor and Georgian buildings that surround the town go some way in redeeming the local vernacular.

The ‘font of Hitchin information’ Andy Gibbs, was our guide through the history of British schools, delighting in our discovery of many lovely stories and a museum collection made up of personal memories of former pupils or those who worked here and include incredible feats to trace former pupils: Andy showed us a plaque commemorating a soldier who died during WW1 that was heading for the dump following a house clearance, but it was sent to the school by someone who thought there was a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!

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Don’t break the rules!

The founder of the school, Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker and a maverick at odds with his peers about how children could be educated. In a time when universal education did not exist, but a belief that education could damage the ‘natural social order’ did, children as young as six were sent to factories, workshops or into domestic service in the vague hope that they would one day be able to support themselves and future dependents. In 1837 Joseph Lancaster introduced a system that meant cheap, basic education could be delivered to large numbers of children, describing his system as to produce a “Christian Education” and “train children in the practice of such moral habits as are conducive to the welfare of society.”

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Excerpt from Moral Songs – 
`But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding, who taught me betimes to love working and reading.’

The Monitorial schoolroom was built in 1837 and though only partly restored, has both preserved and presented this forgotten world very well. I had never seen anything like it. The masters desk is the focal point with the sand tray where students would be practising and learning their handwriting, right under his nose. The three books were dispersed and their pages shared at the monitorial teaching stations around the room.

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One master to teach 300 boys assisted by 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method in the only known complete example of a monitorial classroom to survive in the world. The boys sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular teaching stations around the walls. The room looks as it was in 1837,  minus the radiators! Built to Lancaster’s specifications with clerestory windows and pillared side aisles. The floor originally sloped to give the master a good view of all his pupils – essential in such an enormous schoolroom full of children to maintain discipline.

By 1900, 700 children were packed into the school, and three more classrooms were added. The desks, displays and teaching implements vaguely familiar to me from a time before wipe boards and Chromebook’s. Sitting at the now tight-fitting wooden desks brought much mirth to our group who recalled days sat in similar rooms trying to master mathematical theorems or the anatomy of a frog! Inside each desk are thoughtful displays of reading books, drawings, photographs and games from the Edwardian era.

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Andy Gibbs in the Edwardian classroom

The school closed it’s doors in 1969, and the period between its closing and the opening of the museum was not without drama too, Andy told us it almost didn’t happen. But that’s a story for another day!

There is nothing manufactured about this place, it’s genuine, a gem in fact, rooted in the local area, but so important to our collective national memories. But don’t take my word for it, experience this amazing space for yourself. Take your children, they’ll be as amazed as you.

Further Information:

The museum is open at the following times:
Fridays 10am – 4pm
Saturdays 10am – 1pm
During July, August and September open 10 am – 4pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm – 5pm

For further information on another delightful and unique Chilterns museum, the Natural History Museum in Tring is just how museums used to be, dressed fleas included.

Further Chilterns inspiration here

Countryside around Hitchin
Countryside around Hitchin

Please sir, may we have some more?

We were treated to a beautiful dawn with streaks of pink slowly turning orange above the white Chiltern hills heralding a new day, and because we’d all been so good, the most brilliant of skies offset by the corduroy fields.

We’ve had some early, unexpected snow.

Herald difficult journey’s that, in spite of reading boastful council social media posts about the mountains of grit and new snow machinery, ready for what the winter will bring, the roads were eerily absent of both.

Snow is lovely, if you’ve nowhere in particular to get too and for a change, a very slow train journey out of London back home was rather pleasant. I watched as shopping centres, houses, roads, railings, trees, fields, cars and a castle, slipped from view as the landscape rapidly turned to black and white. Magical!

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Berkhamsted Castle

When I did finally get out into the great white outdoors, the familiar landscape was now filed with unfamiliar shapes, or no shapes at all. Ground meeting the sky meant a readjustment of senses; touch, sound and smell working hard. Boots crunching  underfoot, lungfuls of cold air, tingling fingers and a bad choice in socks.

One excited dog!

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The trees transformed play tricks and the deer and dog are aware of one another before I am, thankfully too far down the slope so no chance of a furious chase. A hungry blackbird pecks away beneath a tree in the gap between trunk and snow. Are frozen worms easy to detect? Little dollops of frozen snow and ice attached like cotton balls dotted on the bushes. Three red kites shooting the winter breeze.

Pitstone Windmill
Pitstone Windmill in a corduroy field

We were treated to a beautiful dawn with streaks of pink slowly turning orange above the white Chiltern hills heralding a new day, and because we’d all been so good, the most brilliant of sunset skies offset by the corduroy fields.

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Just before the rain came and washed it all away, the fields were full of footprints, lines and tracks, domestic and wild, like a battlefield of furious activity. The forlorn remains of melting snowmen, faces and buttons slipped off and lying on the ground. Dinner for a hungry deer?

For four intense days, the changed vista’s, opportunities to scream your lungs out as you fly down a snowy slope, fingers and toes frozen, dramatic skies and excited children remind me it’s so good to be alive!

Please sir, may we have some more?

Further Information:

For further Chilterns inspiration and adventures