The Chilterns has its fair share of ghosts; headless horsemen, a ghost who packs guests’ suitcases, others who like a drink at the bar, another who will pinch your bum, green men, shadowy figures loitering in places unexpected, a mummified hand, a request for help from a disembodied voice are all enough to get you heading for the hills this halloween!
The eve of All Saints’ Day
Love it, or loathe it, Halloween has a long history. Despite the horrors of what has recently been imported from across the pond, Halloween is believed to have originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, when ghosts and spirits are abroad.
I have braved the paranormal to share my top 10 Halloween Chilterns creepies.
There are traces of the English Civil War across the Chilterns, and in the car park at the Royal Standard pub in Beaconsfield, the sound of a beating drum is heard. It is the drummer boy, who in 1643 was one of 12 cavaliers executed outside the pub.
According to legend, pasqueflowers spring from the blood of Viking Warriors and grow upon their graves.
A monk is said to walk the very spooky Roman Road that leads up the hill away from Frithsden, skirting the former boundary of Ashridge House, once a monastery and reliquary of relics.
This list has to include a bishop, but not one perhaps that is dressed as a gamekeeper! He approaches people in the graveyard of St Bartholomew Fingest, to ask for ‘a favour’ and then vanishes.
A mummified hand that possessed powerful healing properties, performing miracle cures throughout the twelfth century is kept in a glass box at St Peter’s Church in Marlow. Found sealed in a wall, this relic is believed to be the hand of the Apostle James, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, who was martyred in AD44 by King Herod.
In a sleepy English village, you might discover the Dinton Hermit, a heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, and royal executioner.
Stand and deliver, your money or your life!
A small white headstone makes the approximate place of the last execution of a highwayman, Robert Snooks in 1802. The headstone can be seen from the busy A41 at Boxmoor. It is thought that thousands flocked to see the hanging. It must have been quite an event, especially when his body was dug up the following day, placed in a coffin (provided by the generous residents of Hemel Hempstead), and unceremoniously re-interred on the moor.
Sticking with highway bandits, Katherine Ferrers led a double life as heiress and all round gentlewomen. She was also known as the ‘wicked lady”, who terrorised the county of Hertfordshire in the 17th century with her partner Ralph Chaplin. She died from gunshots wounds sustained during a botched robbery but made it home to Markyate Cell, where she died. Today, you’ll find her abroad in the manor and local village of Markyate.
Hellfire and damnation
The intrepid journalist, poet and broadcaster, John Betjeman ventured deep into the Chiltern Hills to evoke the ghosts of satanic monks. The legendary Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hellfire Club, are the focus of this charming edition of the 26-part 19 1955 ‘Discovering Britain with John Betjeman’.
In a town with so many old houses, Amersham ghost stories are rife. Reputed hauntings range from Raans Farm over to Woodrow and spread out along the A413 from The Chequers Inn to Shardeloes. But perhaps the most poignant is the story of a group of Amersham townsfolk that were burnt at the stake for holding unorthodox religious beliefs. For centuries afterwards it was said that nothing would grow on the site of the fire. Take a walk up the hill to visit the memorial.
No Halloween is complete without a witch’s curse. There is massive ancient beech on Whipsnade Heath with a connection to the infamous Dunstable Witch, Elizabeth Pratt. Or so the legend goes. She was accused in 1667 of bewitching two children, who upon seeing her, became ill with a ‘strange distemper’, and died, screaming that they had been murdered. Elizabeth was tried as a witch and burned at the stake, her fate immortalised in a poem by Alfred Wire.
“Thus the churchyard goes to ruin Graves and fences getting worse: Everyone devoutly wishing Not to free the bottled curse.”
The Bottled Curse by Alfred Wire.
There’s plenty more where these came from, but perhaps you have met some of these characters, or have your own stories to tell?
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 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.
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!
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.
It was from a tweet shared by the Jordans Village Estate from HM Queen congratulating them on their centenary 1919 – 2019, that I knew I just had to visit.
There’s something about the Chilterns that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met and worshiped in secret. Amongst the beech trees and woodland many would go on to make their mark on the nations history. This post is a celebration of the Chalfont Quakers, a community celebrating its centenary, but with a history going back to the early 17th century.
You won’t come upon Jordans village, you have to set out to find it. Tucked away down higgledy-piggledy lanes east of the busy market town of Beaconsfield, Jordans village is everything its neighbour is not: compact, unexpected and peaceful, with neat cottages and terraces nestled around the village green. So English, so Chilterns!
This unassuming village is unique, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.
‘Jordans is the Quaker Westminster Abbey’.
Simon Jenkins author “England ’s Thousand Best Churches”
From the mid 17th century, Chalfont Quakers had been meeting in the woods and up the road in the nearby Jordans Farm, whose owner William Russell was himself a Quaker. Known today as Old Jordans, this collection of buildings is said to have been constructed with some of the beams and a cabin door of the Mayflower, the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of the future colony of Virginia in 1620. Old Jordans was also used during World War I as a training centre for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and sold by the Quakers In 2006.
William Russel, (whose daughter was the first to be buried here), bought a piece of land in a clearing beside the Beaconsfield Road in 1671 because the Chalfont Quaker’s needed a burial site. Jordans Friends Meeting House was built in just three months by local craftsmen in 1688. This was shortly after the King James ll Declaration of Indulgence that allowed Quaker and other non-conformist groups to worship lawfully for the first time.
It is also the burial place of William Penn (1645 – 1718), founder and first governor of Pennsylvania. His first wife Guilielma, his second wife Hannah, and nine of his children are buried close by. Other early Quakers who worshipped here and are buried in the grounds include Isaac Penington and his wife Mary Springett, Thomas Ellwood (poet and friend of John Bunyan and John Milton) and Joseph Rule. Despite William Penn leaving his name to a new American state that he wanted to call ‘Sylvania’, it was Charles II who ordered that the family name Penn (in honour of William’s late father) be added.
Beside his grave, pebbles are left by visitors from North America, two of whom had to be stopped from attempting to exhume his remains as they wished them to be reinterred in the state capital!
The simple bare-walled meeting room retains most of its original uneven locally-fired bare brick floor, glass, dark wood panelling and some well-worn benches. It suffered a serious fire in 2005, when the modern extension was virtually destroyed and the roof of the original 17th-century meeting room severely damaged. The interior of the original meeting room escaped relatively unscathed, but suffered some water and smoke damage. A lucky escape! The viscous glass is removed and turned upside down each year, to retain an even thickness.
‘Some of the things that they would do included; not going to church, refusing to swear an oath, refusal to pay church rates, opening their shops on Sundays, travelling on Sundays and teaching without a Bishop’s license… the 1960’s had nothing on them!’
A mini henge
The burial ground reflects the Meeting House seating, where there is no formal service and people sit quietly and wait for inspiration and guidance, and from those gathered “heeding the love and truth in the heart”. 400 quakers are buried here, but few have headstones – they were deemed too flashy and worldly.
In 1916 a group of Quaker’s met in London to establish a community partnership and three years later, the first stone was laid. This social and industrial experiment, where land was owned communally and craftsmen’s work to be sold cooperatively, grew around the village green, with Fred Rowntree the architect. The homes are uniform in style, not grand or fussy with the village shop open since 1922. Whilst there is no permanent pub, a pop-up pub called the Jolly Quaker quenches the locals’ thirst.
The accommodation waiting list is long, and the village has seen its share of famous residents; King Zog of Albania who, with his legendary chests of gold, (he lived at St Katherine’s Parmoor during the World War II). With author Fredrick Forsyth and musicians Ozzie and Sharon Osborne goes to show you don’t need to be a Quaker to live here!
This is a typical Chilterns story set in a place you’ve probably never heard of, about people and events you will most certainly have heard of, shaping and influencing events across the nation and across the pond!
Further Information & Inspiration
This walk was organised as part of the twice-yearly Chilterns Walking Festival that includes a spring and autumn programme of fabulous walks that take you to the places other walks just don’t reach.
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw and Drunken Bottom are some of the place names that surround beautiful Nuffield. A place rich in character and Chilterns history, and where we were to ‘Meet the Makers’ during the Chilterns Walking Festival.
I have written throughout this blog of the joy of discovering new places, weird place names, coming upon a vista opening up through the foliage, unexpected flavours and meeting new people happy to share their stories. In equal measure, the joy of of discovering yet more links that join together and add layers to the wonderful tapestry that is the story of A Year in the Chilterns.
Meeting the Makers
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw and Drunken Bottom are some of the place names that surround beautiful Nuffield, a small South Oxfordshire village, just over 4 miles east of the picturesque market town of Wallingford. A place rich in character and Chilterns history where we were to ‘Meet the Makers’ during the fifth Chilterns Walking Festival. We set off from Holy Trinity Church Nuffield on a circular walk to visit two business owners; master blacksmith David Gregory and cabinet maker Gordon Kent. Our guide once again, my good friend Annette, who had by good fortune, spent many happy years living nearby, with a field of sheep and shepherds hut in which to play.
The weather couldn’t have been better: jackets discarded, the coolness of a late spring that will soon give way to summer heat, but for the moment, the landscape is lush, full and fresh. The bluebells have left the stage, their place taken by path-hugging cow parsley, nettles, beech and oak boughs laden, blocking out the sunlight, keeping the path cool. In places, crunchy underfoot with last years beechnuts that the squirrels had overlooked. The smell of wild garlic absent from this woodland, but the bird song more than makes up for it. We cross a section of a Grims Ditch, impressive saw pits, evidence of earlier activity from those who harvested the wood to make furniture, amongst other items.
Shaken, not stirred
What Annette doesn’t know about this special place, frankly isn’t worth knowing; details of who owns what, who makes the best cheese, the friendliest pubs and why it’s important to have the services of four-wheel drive in winter. Annette spoke about the 2,300 acre Nettlebed Estate, consisting of woodland, farmland and common land stretching between Nuffield and Greys Court to the south. The Estate is owned and managed by descendents of Robert Fleming, a Scottish banker who bought the Estate in 1903. Fleming’s grandson was the renowned travel writer Peter Fleming whose younger brother was the celebrated spy novelist Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books as well as the children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – with another Chilterns connection at Turville in the Hambleden Valley.
The family still manage the Estate, the rich milk from their organic herd used for the delicious Nettlebed Creamery cheeses that we sampled en route. Something Annette does well; sharing all manner of locally brewed, baked or bottled treats to sustain the walkers!
The pasture around English Farm is ablaze with buttercups, which always makes a pretty picture. There is not much plant variation however, so butterflies in these fields were limited.
“Blacksmiths are good problem solvers”
Prior to the industrial revolution, a village smithy was a staple of every town. Now, a rarity, a visit is a treat! “A problem is never too great that can’t be beaten out with a hammer” claims David Gregory, master blacksmith at Cobalt Blacksmiths at English Farm.
“Blacksmiths are good problem solvers” he adds, “as we have the right tools.” David, Billy and Tom are working on amongst other commissions, a new stair rail for the Ashmolean museum, and a set of new gates for the Waddesdon Estate Treasury, a portal into what must undoubtably be a treasure trove.
David talks with great passion about the organic nature of his craft, of the fluidity of the metal, the skill needed to work with the materials to shape it as the commissions require; tools, weapons, decorative and functional pieces that I imagine will enhance the place they will be used. That’s the magic of this ancient craft, transforming nondescript organic materials into things of beauty.
Resin and vinegar
We continued our walk through the spring countryside to meet with Gordon Kent and his team of expert cabinet makers at tucked-away Homer Farm. Furniture-making is a Chilterns tradition with the popular Windsor chairs exported all over the world and Gordon Kent continues to make beautiful furniture. Just as David and his team, Gordon’s team read their materials, they speak with such knowledge and a passion borne of years of hard work and synergy with their craft. Resins, steel wool and vinegar combine to make a fine wood stainer for the beautiful pieces crafted in ‘catspaw’ oak, walnut, cherry, maple and ash in their workshop. Their attention to detail evident in the pieces they showed us in the workshop.
We giggled about the naked walkers they see passing through the farm in the winter months, to avoid contact with the stringing nettles I imagine!
The greatest pleasures are so often the re-discovery and interaction with what and who is around us. We had ventured out to make connections, meet new friends, enjoy new flavours and are thankful for where we live and how it makes us feel. Helped in large doses by the tea and delicious scones baked by Gordon’t mum. Thank you very much, we’ll be back!
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw, Drunken Bottom, Homer Green and English Farm – new place names in my Chilterns lexicon.
The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place in the spring and autumn at locations across the Chilterns. Find your walk here.
The Meet the Makers’ walks have one purpose; to share the experience of visiting some of our skilled craftspeople, who work in studios and locations that are often inaccessible to visitors, yet are keen to establish links to help us promote the Arts and Crafts produced in our region.
Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we set off from nearby Christmas Common to walk through the quiet autumnal beech woodland. Once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking only what had fallen to the ground. Read about an earlier ‘Meet the Makers’ festival walk.
Lord Nuffield was buried at Holy Trinity Parish Church in the village, a plain, modest grave, much like the great name himself. Read his story here.
If you were asked to name the places that Ian Fleming is most closely associated, you might put Goldeneye, Fleming’s home in Jamaica where he wrote all the Bond books, on the top of your list. You might include his post-war office at Mitre Court, or you might include Nettlebed, neighbour to Nuffield. Take a tour around Ian Fleming’s Oxfordshire
Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the nearby restored Maharajah’s Well in Stoke Row and discover why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.
It took a visit to West Wycombe Park to be reminded why the Chilterns is such a distinctive, compelling place to be.
When I started writing this blog, I was uncertain how I would maintain momentum, focused as I am, on one region. Would I struggle to find enough to write about, or would my inspiration dwindle?
Three miles west of High Wycombe, tucked away in the Wye valley, is a unique 18th century Italian-inspired Chilterns landscape, built to impress and entertain. Beside which is clustered a tiny village of the most lovely cottages creeping up the hill towards the biggest show-off structure in the region; an 18th century mausoleum to perhaps one of the most notorious and eccentric men in English history.
A loveliness of ladybirds
I have not lost my enthusiasm, is because each time I head out, despite sometimes being unsure of the nature of what I will encounter (whether Leo is allowed in too), or perhaps the write up was simply overblown hype! Without exception, I’m always delighted with what I find, discovering ever-more strands and layers to the wonderful, if slightly bonkers Chilterns story. I also pick up lots of incidental information…a loveliness of ladybirds for instance…who knew?
A dash of history
Sir Francis Dashwood, (1658 – 1724) was a successful London merchant who made his fortune trading in the East Indies. He used his great wealth to buy the manor of West Wycombe.
Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet embarked on a series of Grand Tours and liked the villas of the Italian renaissance so much, wanted to emulate and transform his fathers more modest Buckinghamshire Manor House. Work began in about 1735, but the great design project took so long, that over the 40 years, Palladianism had been replaced by Neoclassicism. This has left some quirks to the house, that I can explore when it opens to visitors in the summer months.
A more natural landscape
Sir Francis transformed the formal garden into a playground of Italian-inspired temples, water features and follies, arranged around an ornamental lake, with broad avenues with far-reaching views down the valley or across to the Dashwood Mausoleum. There are plenty of places to read a book, admire the views, watch the swans, or to daydream.
Similar in style to Stowe, the Capability Brown-designed National Trust landscape garden in Buckingham, this Humphrey Repton-inspired space will also transform through the seasons. The structures sit well with the landscape, complimenting, rather than competing, or imposing.
There are two symmetrical lodge houses at the north-east corner of the park that mark the entrance to the old drive up to the house. Kitty’s lodge is named after Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan who was possibly the first celebrity ‘famous for not being famous’. Named too, in that popular nursery rhyme, and quite probably, lady friend of Sir Francis, 2nd Baronet.
“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; But ne’er a penny was there in’t Except the binding round it.”
The Temple of Venus stands on a small mound and takes the form of a rotunda enclosing a copy of the Venus de Milo. The parlour is a grotto beneath the mound, entered through an oval opening flanked by curving screen walls. Specifically designed to represent ‘the opening through which we all enter into this world’. It was intended as the central focal point of the park when viewed from the house.
Saved by the Crash
West Wycombe village was sold by the Dashwood family to raise funds following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was bought in its entirety by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist. It’s worth walking, and if you take the cars away, not much has changed.
Increasingly I am given greater access to properties, places and people across our region. Made possible by many individuals who I have acknowledged. I would like to thank the National Trust for supporting my work and giving me access to so much of the great swathes of land and historic properties across the Chilterns that they manage. Their support will enable me to share even more of these wonderful stories.
Speaking of wonderful stories, there are plenty more colourful Chilterns characters where this one came from!
The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree, just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter! The West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.
West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.
There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.
Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 bySir 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.
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.
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.
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.
Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.
My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?
“Not for ages” “Is that the one near the station..?” “I can’t remember” “Where is it?”
Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Anglo-Saxon backwater Norman Invasion Oppression Royal entitlement Civil war Invasion Royal prison Decline Vandalism Near destruction Declared ancient monument Forlorn visitor attraction
Ring of Steel
William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.
The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.
The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.
Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by 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. We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.
I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.
Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!
Rediscovering our Chilterns castles
Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.
To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.
Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here
How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.
The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.
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.
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. ”
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.
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.
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.
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.