Chilterns Chalk

A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.

Ninety million years ago, a great ooze was accumulating at the bottom of a sea. Microscopic creatures, coccoliths, their shells made of calcite extracted from the rich seawater were contributing to the ooze.  As they died, and their minute shells and skeletons settled onto the seabed of a tropical sea, a substantial layer gradually built up over millions of years until it all eventually consolidated into rock. Chalk. This geological layer can be followed right across Western Europe where evidence of mining and quarrying both above and beneath the ground can be found.

Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite

Not only is chalk a part of our national conscious, the dramatic and iconic white cliffs of Dover shown in times of national crisis, it also acts as a natural reservoir, releasing water slowly into another feature of the Chilterns – the chalk streams. Givers of life. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The seam of chalk emerges to the south east, along the English Channel

From hard industry to site of special scientific interest

The Chilterns and our story, are in fact all about chalk; it is the geological formation that defines our landscape, industry, people, wildlife and wildflowers. But it’s not all a chocolate box image; quarrying for cement saw numerous sites across the region busy with extraction during the last century. Some still remain, others are filled with waste water and submerged cables, making them an ideal haven for birdlife and illegal parties! One successful transformation from working quarry to wildlife sanctuary that you can visit, is College Lake near Tring, home to migratory birds and bird enthusiasts.

These microscopic bits of shells and dissolved skeletons, layer into white cliffs and layers of London…and in the space that is left behind, layers of abundance across the year.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Late summer blooms

To wander around my local quarry, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had always contained wildflowers, badgers, butterflies and skylarks, yet this former cement quarry has been transformed into a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was once part of much larger cement works ‘Castle Cement’, with large silo’s and 350ft chimney’s that became a local landmark. The quarry operated from 1937 until closure in 1991 and the chimney’s demolished in 1998, before a large housing development took shape on part of this brownfield site. The remainder has been left to nature.

An image of the former excavations at Castle Cement
The excavation of a tropical seabed

All around are scattered industrial archeology: rail tracks, cables, coils, metalwork embedded in the chalk, rubble, rotten sleepers, fence posts, bleached signs, signposts, mysterious shafts, ruts and excavations.

I am reminded every day of the special qualities that bring such an abundance of life to what should be sterile space. Most noticeable being the countless butterflies that rise up and dance around my legs as I walk along the narrow chalk pathway in the summer; chalk hill blues, an adonis blue, small skippers, small coppers and more marble whites than I have ever seen. These are adapted to the chalk grassland and the myriad of wildflowers that keep them in nectar throughout the summer. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Butterflies on the wild marjoram

And of course there are the fabulous orchids; the common spotted-orchid, common fragrant-orchid, incredible bee orchid, lady orchid, pyramidal and military orchids. At their best in early June, competing with the carpets of oxeye daisies to be star of the wildflower show.

Common spotted orchids
Common spotted orchids

If you want to see the Chilterns, ask a dog walker

Throughout the seasons, there is activity here. Heavy snowfall brings the children out to sledge down the steep slopes, their shrieking voices carrying across the quarry. When the winter and early spring have been very wet, the water table, not far beneath the surface, rises and floods any depressions and gulley’s, gravity ensures the overflow finds its way to the lower lying ground, flooding badger sets and rabbit warrens. The wind is cold, the chalk slippery underfoot. The skylarks arrive in late winter, announcing the start of the breeding season with their distinctive overhead song.

The soft mists of spring can be eerie, but they are another sign of the advancing seasons. After years of dog walking, I now know what signs to expect as the quarry slowly emerges after winter. March can seem an impatient month before the trees and shrubs get going in waves of vivid green, pale yellow and white blossom. Wildflowers across the quarry floor, bloom in waves of yellow, white, purple, sprays of white and more yellow, before everything at ground level is claimed by the wild grasses. Now grown tall in the late summer, each scratchy in shades of khaki, before the farmer comes in to mow in late autumn. Sweet-tasting summer goodness for his cattle long into the depths of winter. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The quarry cliff-edge too step to hold the snowfall

A virtuous circle

That something so ancient, and yet so simple, could have so many uses across the ages is humbling. What comes from an ancient tropical seabed has a place in our national psyche, as well as a place in the story of the Chilterns. And now, as we seek an escape from our busy lives, these transformed spaces take us back to nature. Back to our own story. A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Common century, or bloodwort

Further Information

Enjoy Tring reservoirs, College Lake and Grand Union Canal on this 13km circular walk.

Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow to indulge yourself with our own exotic orchids.

Here are more ideas and places to enjoy the Chilterns in the Summer.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Mists of white

It’s a lockdown!

During the COVID-19 crisis, micro walks are the perfect excuse to discover my sense of place here in the naturally outstanding Chilterns. My home.

During this unprecedented global event and resulting nationwide lockdown, we can’t venture far for our daily exercise. It means we have to stay local, go out with family or maximum of two, and to not use our cars.

It is the perfect excuse to take a look at my local area with new eyes – eyes down.

Bird song has quickly filled the space where once cars, planes and trains dominated. When there is silence, it is eerie. But this new normal quickly grows on me as my ears become attuned to the sounds that must always have been there. Unnoticed as I travelled about in my car, sealed from the outside world. Not now in the mindset for seeking the big sky view, or what’s over the next hill, I am forced to retrace my steps along familiar dog-walking paths; noticing now how much growth can be achieved in a few sunny days, way-markers and oddball signs, a mantrap on a church wall, the source of our local river gurgling loudly in the corner of a field, learning the names of flourishing woodland plants, a vocal robin claiming territory, tracks in the mud, blackbirds at dawn, skylarks at midday or a yellowhammer in the evening. All of them are what makes the Chilterns unique.

I have recorded most of my walks in the glorious spring sunshine and have included where I can, sound. All on my iPhone. I can’t capture animals however, they move!

Each walk is in and around Ivinghoe and surrounding Chilterns countryside.

Day 17: Beautiful blossoms and part of the Ridgeway National Trail
Day 14: A walk around the disused quarry ponds.
Day 13: As spring gains hold, the cloudscape becomes more visual and interesting.
Day 12: For such a delicate bird, they have a nightly song!
Day 10: Love tokens in the woods
Day Eight: It’s a lockdown!
Day Six: Spring takes hold
Day Five: Leo has a stalker.
Day Three: Spring into the Chilterns
Day Two: Tractors, Toads and Mantraps.
Day One: what can I expect?
Day Zero

What an absolute pleasure this is. It gives my walks new purpose and a chance to capture the minutia, the detail that makes a place special. I have shared these with my friends and family who I hope have enjoyed seeing their neighbourhood afresh. To encourage them to look out for some of what I have enjoyed. They have all commented on how loud the birdsong is: “have I used special equipment? Have I got really close to the birds..?” No I haven’t. The birds need no amplification, not least of all as it’s peak breeding season, so they are busy protecting territory and feeding their young. We only need ears to hear them and to listen to their calls. And a phone with a microphone.

Try it, you won’t be disappointed!

Business Recovery

Of huge concern are my friends and colleagues in the tourism industry who together face huge uncertainty and potential mass business closure. To date, there is no end in sight for when we will all be able to move and travel in the way we were accustomed. Indeed, we may have to find new ways of travelling and visiting destinations. What we shouldn’t forget, is what is on our doorsteps and the sheer joy walking out into the naturally outstanding Chilterns countryside can bring.

Further Information

There are plenty of other Chiltern adventures to enjoy once the lockdown is lifted including; the Castle that Time Forgot, Buddhists’ and Beechwoods and Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade.

Goring and Streatley

The #Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides.

Like twins, the villages of Goring and Streatley, face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted it.

The Chilterns is not short of pretty villages surrounded by beautiful undulating countryside. Add far-reaching views and the Goring Gap, a stone’s throw from Reading, must rank near the top. 

I recommend starting your visit from the National Trust car park at Lardon Chase, above Streatley. The views are glorious, the walk down into Streatley easy, although steep. It’s from up here that you can enjoy the dramatic backdrop of two villages clustered around the Goring lock and weir, the playing fields, leisure boats and island; to then cross over the Thames and wander through Goring village on the other shore and into the patchwork of the Chiltern Hills beyond.

The view from Lardon Chase, above Streatley
From the top looking down

I can see as far as Pangbourne to the north east and know that the views from Hartslock reserve on the hillside opposite, looking back to the Gap are just as dramatic. 

Naturally Outstanding

The villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides. Right in the centre of two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: to the south west, the north Wessex Downs in Berkshire, to the north east, the Oxfordshire Chilterns.

The prettiest of places

Not always good neighbours, their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Streatley was once the larger and more important village because it was on the turnpike road to Reading. The Bull Inn at the top of the high street was a 15th century coaching inn and I expect a welcome sight on the dusty road. With the arrival of the railway in 1840, Goring reasserted itself having more usable land for the many new homes. The geography has however, contained much of the growth.

Along the river, you get a real sense of space, somewhere to pause, listen and enjoy this special place. There are plenty of eateries to tempt you to do just that; the Bull Inn at Streatley, the Swan at Streatley, Pierreponts Cafe, the Miller of Mansfield and Catherine Wheel pub in Goring. Wander down the high street, there are many businesses that have a long association with the area.

Goring and Streatley
The Miller of Mansfield, Goring

National Treasures & Trails

The weirs still control the level of water for navigation, water supply, and land drainage. It’s not hard to image the bustle of boats, traders, soldiers and drovers, who used the three ancient trade routes that span southern England from Dorset to East Anglia. All converging at this lovely spot; the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails and Icknield Way, could easily tempt you off the road and onto the trail.

Like twins, these two villages face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted Goring mill and church.

Goring Mill and Church c.1806-7 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate Britain released under Creative Commons. London 2015 CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02704

The villages are very walkable, and I recommend downloading the local heritage trail. This easy circular walk and takes you past such gems as St Mary’s church in Streatley where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll used to preach. Back over the bridge to stop and savour the lovely views. You’ll pass Goring Mill where rare old paddles and posts are still used to control the flow of water. The tower of St Thomas’ Church is visible, renowned for a fine peal of eight bells and dedicated team of ringers. Inside you’ll find one of Englands oldest bells, dating back an impressive 800 years.

I’m your man!

The village is not short of famous residents and visitors. At the end of Ferry Lane is the original river crossing and Ferry house, where Oscar Wilde stayed during the summer of 1893 and began work on ‘An Ideal Husband’. Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, lived here for 30 years. He is buried locally and his birthday and funeral, were marked by a RAF fly-past! George Michael fans still make the trip.

The former home of George Michael

Walking back up the hill and turning once more to enjoy the view, now more familiar as I have explored both villages. I make a mental note to return in July for the Goring Gap Boat Club regatta, with a mere 600 competing rowers!

Lardon Chase, National Trust at Streatley
Back up the hill to Lardon Chase

Further Information

For information on the wider Chilterns area, accommodation, places to eat and drink, bookmark VisitChilterns

The Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails meet on the bridge. The Thames Path follows the river for 184 miles, from source to sea and the Ridgeway runs 85 miles from near Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. Here are three shorter walks to try.

The local Goring & Streatley village website has more local information.

Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.

It’s the skylarks, snowdrops and then bluebells that increases the heart rate and knowledge that spring is not far off. Spring in the Chiltern hills is the season when the world is renewed and we shake off the winter gloom. Spring into the Chilterns!

Spend time in another of pretty Chilterns villages, Amersham that is also accessible by train.

Rectory Gardens Goring and Streatley
Rectory Gardens

The Chilterns at Halloween

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! 

A tangle of trees
A tangle of trees

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.

A haunted Holloway on Halloween in the Chilterns
A haunted Holloway on Halloween

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 ghost of a bishop surprises visitors in the churchyard
The distinctive Norman tower has unusual twin gables and ghost

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.

The dinton hermit, John Bigg is said to haunt the village.
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

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.

The wanted poster for Robert Snooks, highwayman
The ‘wanted poster’ for Robert Snooks

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.

Portrait of Katherine Ferrers, wicked lady of Markyate Cell
Katherine Ferrers, a wicked lady?

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.

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English in the 1300s. Their main demand was to read the bible in English.

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?

Cobwebs cover the hedgerows during Halloween
Halloween is the time of mist and cobweb-strewn hedgerows

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.

Waddesdon in a Room

All of this valuable Rothschild treasure is reassuringly safe behind the pair of stout, boldly designed treasury gates.

Tucked away down a long corridor, up two spiral flights you will find the quiet lobby and entrance to the new Rothschild Treasury, Waddesdon Manor. A treasure trove in what was once described as a ‘maids bedroom’ no less.

So far so understated

The tiny lobby is dimly backlit with a display of textiles that would have once adorned a grand space. As I peered past the busts of Jacob and James Rothschild, it was obvious there was dazzling treasure within.

A small box inlaid with glorious mother of pearl.
Inlaid with complex shades of mother-of-pearl

This new permanent collection is in the tradition of a schatzkammer, or treasure room, such as those formed by Baron Ferdinand’s Renaissance museum. These particular objects include a remarkable cameo from the ancient world, personal objects that have been on display in the house (but just not seen), intricate clocks, toys, snuff boxes, a Faberge Paperknife (available on eBay at a snip £149k plus £50 postage), plenty of Baroque bling, Baroness Edmunds personal seals and a tiara or two.

A box full of personal seals
Baroness Edmunds seals that she would have carried with her – each conveyed a specific meaning to the recipient

A family affair

Small items that belonged to various members of the Rothschild family
All with a personal connection to the family

“This is Waddesdon in a room” is how Mia Jackson, curator of Decorative Arts described the tiny space as she guided us expertly through the collection of 323 exquisite items. All have a story from the Rothschild’s European history, significant events brought together in a feast for the senses.

A pair of sliver gilt claret jugs
Claret jugs 1881-1882 silver gilt, garnet Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear

Her challenge had been to whittle down the original 600 items to the 323 on display here. I expect if time allowed, Mia would have shared plenty more delicious stories about each object.

Curator Mia Jackson shows us the highlights
Skilfully curated by Mia Jackson

Blacksmiths are good problem solvers

All of this valuable Rothschild treasure is reassuringly safe behind the pair of stout, boldly designed treasury gates.

Designed by Charles Marsden-Smedley, following this brief from Lord Rothschild: “I have a few objects to display..’ work got underway to transform the tight space and craft the gates. They include an unusual gilded RR motif inspired by a motif on a porcelain plate in the collection, instead of the usual five Rothschild arrows.

Understated security at the Rothschild Treasury
Understated security

It was master blacksmith David Gregory and his team who crafted the Treasury gates at his Cobalt Blacksmiths forge at English Farm in the central Chilterns. I visited him earlier in the year and he was very proud of this commission, which he showed us as his work in progress. 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. And in this instance, understated but necessary security.

A work in progress at the blacksmiths forge
The creative process

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” exclaims David.

Three men working on the new treasury gates
Nothing flash about this transformation

I had imagined the gates to be used in an external space (thinking garden gates!). It was thrilling to see them in such a grand house as Waddesdon Manor, guarding the Rothschild treasures in such an intimate space. Thrilling too that they were commissioned locally, and add another wonderful thread to the Chilterns story and proud arts and craft heritage. 

Further information

Download the new Smartify app, which I used whilst browsing the Treasury. It not only gives information on the exhibits, but enables you to store your own selection to reference later.

An 18th century glass beaker in the Waddesdon Treasury
18th century glass beakers from Bohemia

I was recently invited to an evening of classical music at the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon. This new archive at Windmill Hill, which houses the personal archives of the Rothschilds is open throughout the year and has another wonderful art collection to enjoy.

To visit Waddesdon, or find out more about the vast collection here.

Explore the Chilterns this autumn, my favourite season. 

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.

Find a selection of Chilterns arts and crafts ….your chance to take home a little slice of the Chilterns!

The Chilterns is a living, working area of beautiful countryside whose character has been shaped by agriculture, industry and the arts & crafts people who have lived and worked here over the centuries. The abundant beech woodlands made the Chilterns a centre of the furniture making industry in the 19th century and was once a thriving industrial hub for straw plaiting, lace and hat making. These defunct industries left a powerful legacy, and gap in our collective memories, but that’s now being replenished with new industries and artists, taking their inspiration from the beauty of the Chilterns landscape. Find out more.

Saved by the Crash!

Just how did the Wall Street Crash of 1929 save a tiny Chilterns village?

On a quiet August afternoon, camera in hand, I took to the back streets of West Wycombe village. Away from the busy thoroughfare, apart from the TV aerials amongst the chimney pots, not much has changed. 

The St Lawrence golden ball and Dashwood mausoleum survey their village

This tiny village, that hugs the hillside looks just like a film set; steep lanes, wobbly windows festooned with impressive cobwebs, doorways for tiny residents and unexpected passageways. All authentic, medieval properties, re-purposed for 21st century life. How come there are no ghastly 1960’s office blocks, betting shops or parking garages along this delightful high street? 

Wall Street

Luckily for us, through a chain of events that started in New York with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, West Wycombe village, in its entirety was sold by the Dashwood family to 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.

I have village hall envy

This was once an important stop for weary travellers heading too and from London by stagecoach, along pitted and muddy roads. The street was packed with hospitality options, although chances are you’d have had to share your noisy, scratchy bed with a stranger. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village, and today you can stop to enjoy a pint or glass of something local in the one of the tea shops or pubs. At least that hasn’t changed!

Wobby windows and doors for tiny people.
Wobbly walls and windows with doors for tiny people

Take in all attractions; the caves, St Lawrence and the mausoleum, down to the high street for a wander and then over the road into the National Trust Park. During the summer, the house is open, so set aside one day. Do the place justice!

West Wycombe House doesn’t try and dominate the landscape; it sits comfortably in its surrounds.
A familiar exterior that has been the star in many films, including ‘The Importance of Being Ernest.’

Further information:

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 formal gardens in West Wycombe park, just acres of lakes, trees and follies.
The ripples caused by energetic trout that fling themselves through the air, somersaulting and mid-air twists hardly a challenge.

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.

We like to celebrate our quirky residents, past and present and for another grand design, visit the National Trust at Stowe, near Buckingham.

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.

The steep lanes leading down the West Wycombe high street
Chilterns country cottages