Beautiful Barton Hills

Just when you think you’ve enjoyed most of the beauty that the Chilterns has to offer, two special locations come along in the same week. The Amaravati Buddhist monastery and Barton Hills National Nature Reserve (NNR). 

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, adjacent 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!

Often overlooked, the north at times takes a back seat to the central and southern Chilterns. Firmly on the tourist trail in what is perceived as more accessible and picture-postcard English countryside.

Barton Hills National Nature Reserve
Time to challenge that!

Duck eggs and ferrets

The pretty village of Barton-Le-Clay is situated in the busy Bedfordshire triangle of Dunstable, Luton and Bedford and since the 11th century, has had its fair share of incidents and celebrations. In 1894 a row broke out between the Rector and the village over the rights to use Barton Hills which lay in the Rector’s glebe. Freaks of nature saw a captured white sparrow with eyes resembling a ferret and a duck egg which when opened, contained another egg inside. To more pressing matters of a bountiful potato harvest in 1905, to when the King passed through the village in 1909, his car travelling at a walking pace, the ‘High Street gaily decorated, reminding one of the Coronation festivities’.

St Nicolas church tower with peace clock
The 1919 peace clock on the church tower

And then in 1949, the Chiltern Hills surrounding Barton were classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. The site was recognised as an outstanding example of chalk downland and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985, recognising the outstanding habitat, wildlife and geology. The chalk grassland supports pasqueflowers, field fleawort and a small ancient beech woodland.

According to legend, pasqueflowers spring from the blood of Viking warriors and grow upon their graves.

Barton Hills National Nature Reserve

We were joining another ranger-led walk with Steph, reserve manager, volunteers and local farmer Brian Shaw and his daughter Whizz Middleton, producer of Mrs Middleton’s Bedfordshire rapeseed oils and condiments.

My expectations were high: autumnal sunshine, a cold wind making the air clear and the light superb. The view across the valley to Sharpenhoe Clappers was just the start. The ascent up the steep, slippery path, opened up to reveal deep dry valleys and the typical rounded hills, a hallmark of the Chilterns. The countryside around dotted with wooded hilltops, a water tower and in the distance, wind turbines. Behind the NNR, a field of winter oilseed and barley shoots poking through the soil on Barton Hill Farm.

Climate change

Steph skilfully guided us through 100 million years of evolution; from a warm tropical sea, dramatic climate events leading to the Ice Age, the wildwood and arrival of settlers more than 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. We had travelled from a time of giant marine lizards, sharks, woolly mammoths, wolves and bears to Dartmoor ponies. Yes, five inquisitive, friendly ponies, with burrs in their manes, spreading the wildflowers whilst keeping the grass in check.

Coming through!

Brian and Whizz explained how they are keeping Barton Hills Farm on a sustainable footing that encourages amongst others, nesting birds and wildlife corridors. The day job is supplying the two household food giants, Warburtons and Weetabix with vital ingredients for our tables.

Warmer winters and climate change are already impacting the crops that are grown

As we returned to the village, a dramatic rainstorm whipped up a gust and threatened to sweep in and drench us. It headed instead, north and off up the valley, leaving in its wake a beautiful rainbow!

The view from Barton Hills Nature Reserve
We escaped the storm!

Local heroes

Those of you who follow this blog will know I make a point of including local craftspeople and food producers wherever possible. They are what makes the Chilterns so special. Once again, friend and colleague Annette came up trumps with a fabulous spread of that rare beast, the Bedfordshire Clanger with a side of crackers and Wobbly Bottom Cheese. There’s a joke in there somewhere….

The Bedfordshire Clanger, or ‘Trowley Dumpling’ is similar to the Cornish pasty, baked for consumption by field workers, as the Cornish pasty was for the miners. Traditionally from boiled suet dumpling, modern alternatives use baked pastry thank goodness! Once common in Bedfordshire and adjoining counties, this 19th creation comes crimped at the edges to keep the contents in; at one end savoury and the other, sweet. The ends are told apart by two wee holes for savoury, and three for the sweet. Clangers are available from the local bakery and selected shops in the nearby towns, but outside the area, is not widely known. Enjoyable for being novel, the flavour needed lifting however, and that’s what Mrs Middleton’s mayonnaise could certainly do!

Freshly baked Bedfordshire clangers
The Bedfordshire Clanger, or ‘Trowley Dumpling’

Thank you the St Nicholas Church community group who baked all the delicious cakes, you knew we would be hungry!

Another fabulous day, another fabulous Chilterns Walking Festival concluded. Knowledgeable guides, superb autumnal scenery and sweeping views across the Bedfordshire Chiltern hills and valleys. The unexpected pleasure of Dartmoor ponies, insights into the devastating effects of climate change on arable farming, tasty heritage treats and a rainbow for dessert!

Further Information

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, 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 delicious recipes and rapeseed oil-inspired meals, check out Mrs Middleton’s website.

Crafted next door in Hitchin, the delicious Wobbly Bottom artisan cheeses are available in deli’s across the Chilterns.

Just in time for Christmas, another local producer is baking delicious homemade Christmas puddings.

For further ideas and Chilterns food inspiration, bookmark https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk/foodanddrink.html

The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place twice a year in May and October. Bookmark the page and be sure to check the website for future Bedfordshire walks and adventures. 

Former gravestones in the churchyard
Recycled paving slabs

Of Buddhists’ and Beechwoods

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

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

So far, so typical of the Chilterns

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

The Amaravati temple dominates the site
The temple dominates the site

The Valley of Nettles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information:

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

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

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

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

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

A is for Amersham

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at unhelpful heights and a red lion above a lintel where a pub used to be.

Amersham is a modern Chilterns market town once again under pressure from the onward march of progress and development. 

Renowned for its Christian martyrs burned for their beliefs, successful black lace industry and perhaps on a more frivolous note, a perfumery, this is a town of two halves: the modern town on the hill and its medieval twin in the valley below.

Metroland

The Misbourne Valley in the central Chilterns is a delight. Dotted with woodlands, pretty villages and market towns, this once quiet corner of the Roman Empire is now a busy Metroland corridor, linking London highways with Chilterns byways. A mere 25 minutes from London on the Met line, Amersham offers train-to-trail countryside escapes, and space to breath. 

Metroland poster
Served by the Metropolitan Railway, Metroland was the name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London.

Once the centre for black lace production, 16th century craftswomen specialised in fine silk veils and wide flounces of black lace that were used to decorate white dresses. In fact the industry continued late into the 19th century because almost everyone, from kings to babies at one time, wore lace on their clothing! Another industry synonymous with the town was the Goya perfume factory, that supplied large qualities of fragrances and perfumes to women after the Second World War. I wonder what the town smelt like?

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument, seven Protestants were burned to death at the stake. They died for principles of religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to their consciences.”

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, who demanded to read the bible in English.

In the face of protest

There are two parts to this pretty town; medieval Amersham with its unusually spacious high street, and the new town and railway station. This came about because the town fathers didn’t want a railway mucking up their medieval streets in the 1890’s, and insisted it be routed 20 minutes away up the hill. And now, 130 years later, the town is once again facing pressure and change from another huge railway project; this time from HS2, that will thunder right through this peaceful valley, changing it in ways we don’t yet know. I have written about it in another article called Evolving Landscapes.

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

On the poor side of the street

Go with a guide! You simply turn up at the museum to join a tour at 2.30pm on a Sunday. As I waited, numbers grew to include a couple from London on a weekend break, the leader of the Amersham Band and a couple who were mysteriously ‘just passing through’. My companions on this town tour with Euan, volunteer guide and purveyor of intriguing Amersham insights and stories. 

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

We began our tour in the museum garden, filled with herbs and plants our medieval ancestors would be familiar with, to help them get through life without a GP, or symptoms to Google. Being on the poor side of the high street, this garden would have been considered small. The houses to the other side of the high street in comparison, still have substantial plots. This garden is bordered on one side by typical knapped Chilterns flint and brick almshouses, and a discreet long-drop privy overhanging the river Misbourne.

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

The museum itself is situated within a 15th century structure that has over the centuries, undergone many changes. It charts the towns story through the voices of past residents who lived and worked in the many industries and local trades, the great and the not-so, including those mentioned above. Thanks to a substantial restoration project, the beautiful medieval and Tudor floors and wobbly beams (made from green oak) are revealed. If I’d have had more time, I’d be trying on all those Tudor dresses!

A missing stream

A typical Chilterns chalk stream, the Misbourne (missing stream), meanders through the centre of town, behind houses, through a meadow and under a lot of bridges. The current low water level attests to the temperament of this stream, following as it does, the variations in the annual rainfall. It is still known to flood however, with memories fresh after the last sandbag event, despite the river being confined to a narrow channel.

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

Open plan living

You may be familiar with the Kings Arms hotel, a former posting inn, made famous by the 1994 British romantic comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It served as the place to change horses on the London to Oxford route, and perhaps give the weary travellers some respite after 25 bumpy miles from London, with quite possibly another 30 miles onwards to Oxford to endure. It looks quaint and olde-worlde, but the majority of the facade is in fact ‘Brewery Tudor’ added by the local brewery about 100 years ago to cover up an unsightly earlier facade. It seems there was a lot of this about with false frontages been added by successive owners to modernise their old fashioned structures. So common was the practice it’s difficult to know where medieval stops and Georgian begins.

Brewery Tudor

It is the equivalent today of stripping out the kitchen to make way for ‘open plan’ living. 

There are several notable examples of grand houses built with a former industry in mind, but now repurposed for other lives. Many of them have tell-tale features and locations, and the guess-work is fun.

The houses of the most important people in town: the coopers house, and to the right, the brewery managers house.

Past lives

The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 by Sir William Drake as a gift for the town, is not hard to miss. Commanding the most prominent spot on the high street, it was intended for the upper floor to be used for meetings for traders’ guilds, and the ground floor as a market and lock-up for miscreants.

Commit no nuisance
The coldest room in the coldest corner of the market awaited those who fell foul of the law.

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, despite this never being a wool town, St Mary’s resplendent in excavated flints from the new railway, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at varying unhelpful heights in the building that was the water mill, a red lion above a lintel, where a pub used to be, the maltings, a stable for the brewery dray horses and a parapet blocking out light to the servants’ rooms following some fashionable structural updates.

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

There is great hope in Amersham for facing down disruption and continued changes to their way of life. A thoroughly modern town doing things their way, which bodes well for residents and businesses to thrive and continue to be an example of how towns adapt, yet still retain their historical roots and proud Chilterns heritage.

Houses off the high street
Through the back gate and over the Misbourne

Further Information

This article doesn’t do the town justice; visit and enjoy the independent shops, restaurants and pubs along the high street with not a chain store in sight. But do start with a browse around the exhibits at the wonderful Amersham Museum, join a town or martyrs walking tour available on Sunday afternoons from April to September.

Amersham has a number of Alms Houses that add to the great variety across the Chilterns. Not least of all the Drake Houses on the high street, originally built to house six local widows.

You will find the martyrs memorial either along a footpath leading from St. Mary’s Church, or from an overgrown footpath from Station Road.

You can explore the Misbourne Valley and the village of Little Missenden.

Discover more about Amersham, the surrounding countryside and other Chilterns market towns, take a look at VisitChilterns.co.uk

Evolving Landscapes

No previous Instagram nor Facebook posts have raised as many comments recently following a post that included the countryside around Little Missenden. The comments referred to the impending High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project will rip through this pretty Chilterns valley.

Evolving landscapes 

We tend to look at a landscape and imagine how things were, or to enjoy the temporary transformation through the year (the focus of this blog); less so perhaps on how things might be. The Chilterns are a living, evolving landscape, shaped by its people, industries and natural resources. After all, nothing stands still, or is set is aspic.

It is a moment for me to recognise the importance of capturing some of this huge change. 

HS2 is something I have ignored.

This vast, expensive and disruptive engineering project is the brainchild of our government who think that spending upwards of £56b is worth the minutes shaved off the London to Birmingham rail journey is well worth it. Perhaps that should be the national priority, but it is above my pay grade to know for sure. There has been much written, much revised and many cross words exchanged however, but for me, HS2 is something I have ignored, until I walked in the Misbourne valley and appreciated the scale of what is about to happen.

The route through the Chilterns

I have included a web link below, but to briefly summarise the route through the Chilterns; from London Euston, the route will enter a tunnel until West Ruislip, where trains emerge to run on the surface. From here the line crosses the Colne Valley on a major viaduct, and passes through a 9.8-mile (15.8 km) tunnel under the Chiltern Hills to emerge near South Heath, north-west of Amersham. The route will run roughly parallel to the existing A413 (through the Misbourne Valley), passing to the west of Wendover in what HS2 call a ‘green cut-and-cover tunnel’. After passing west of Aylesbury, the route will run north westwards through North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the West Midlands.

Misbourne Valley 

The River Misbourne rises above the lovely market town of Great Missenden and flows south east for 17 miles (27km) through the village of Little Missenden, onto Amersham and the Chalfonts to Denham, where it meets the River Colne. 

This valley and its river are no stranger to controversy and has suffered damage to its natural and built resources; most recently the natural chalk stream was rescued by a successful campaign to stop the abstraction of valuable drinking water and further down the valley, Shardeloes mansion, ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family was saved from demolition by the formidable Amersham Society. 

I was drawn to the valley when I read a piece about rare medieval wall paintings uncovered by accident (aren’t all the best things?), in 1931 that had been hidden behind lime wash and plaster and are now restored inside this wonderful 1,000 year-old church. Still a valuable community hub inside a building designed, built and tinkered with by the Romans, Saxons, Normans and Tudors. I expect the Victorians had a hand in there too.

My walk took me from the parish church, through the village, up the hill to Mop End and down through the woods to Shardeloes, just outside Amersham and back to Little Missenden along the South Bucks Way. Details and maps are below.

Views back towards Little Missenden
A break in the boundary

Fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigated the twists and high speed turns

It was a beautiful still January morning, relatively quiet, with only bird chatter in the hedgerows for company. Leo and I crossed the field behind the village and joined the leaf-strewn sunken path, with helpful winter breaks along a familiar tree-lined boundary to enjoy far-reaching views back across the valley towards Great Missenden. Our guides, a couple of fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigating the twists and high speed turns upwards along the path. We passed an enormous pile of gently smoking, freshly dumped manure, ready to spread across these busy fields. There are a few isolated cottages with their lovely gardens, views and one sporting a tennis court! Not too many ‘gerroff my land” signs tacked to the trees either, which is always reassuring.

Our way downhill towards Amersham is cleared by the squirrels, their grey tails catching the sunlight as they race across the woodland floor, over logs, along a decaying fence and up the nearest tree, as fast as their little legs will take them. The vista then opens up and you can appreciate the sense of space and place as the landscape turns from natural, to managed and designed.

Shardeloes equine centre
Horses are king in this meadow

Enter landscape designer, Humphry Repton who was commissioned to lay out the grounds in the classical English landscape fashion, in the lee of the hill upon which the Shardeloes mansion stands, damming the River Misbourne to form a pretty lake.

Shardeloes is the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London
Shardeloes is a sprawling 18th century country house, the current structure replacing an earlier building

Shardeloes was the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London, saw some 3,000 children born there. Amazing! Following the War the house seemed destined to become one of the thousands of country houses being demolished, until the formidable Amersham Society, assisted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England fought a prolonged battle to save the house. Subsequently purchased in the early 1970’s by a local property developer who converted the house and outbuildings into a complex of private flats, with nearby equine centre and cricket club.

One of the two Shardeloes gatehouses
Shardeloes gatehouse

Expectations

I am reminded of another great regional railway project that saw Victorian railway designers, who sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the Norman Berkhamsted castle, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.

There is an expectation that the HS2 archaeology will be rich and varied; grasping at straws perhaps, but I am hoping there will be access and tours available so we can see for ourselves what is happening. From the conversations I have had, both professionally and in my personal capacity, the locals are now resigned to the railway, and will make every effort to minimise disruption to their businesses and lives.

What is the Misbourne Valley going to look and sound like in the next decades? I will be back to find out as I will seek to harness and record the passions that these projects evoke with many more Instagram, Facebook and blog posts that encourage discussions and comments. You are welcome to comment below.

Further information

This website has interesting plans and maps so you can see where the route is and where the tunnels are – not too technical either.

There are three lovely walks to be enjoyed along the Misbourne valley, information can be downloaded here.

“The best church I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)” enthuses A Simms, from Paris who visited the lovely church of St John the Baptist Little Missenden. Their website and visitor interpretation are excellent, the wall paintings astonishing and is well worth your support. I believe they serve a mean cream tea in the summer!

Explore the neighbouring market town of Amersham, with its enviable history of black lace, perfume and beer.

Read about another fine Chilterns Doom painting that was saved by the Chilterns summer rain.

The local market towns of Great Missenden and Amersham are worth a visit, not least of all to see the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and the Amersham museum.