Tring in Spring

Tring Park is a vast green space that merges comfortably with the market town of Tring, in the northern Chilterns.

I am regular visitor to Tring Park where I take Leo and meet with friends to walk. This spring, I have been exploring new routes around the 260 acres, and have discovered paths tucked away through gates and shady copses.

I have focused, not on the big statement avenues of trees and follies, but on the smaller, more intricate detail of the parkland.

Tring Park paths
The primroses lead the way

Making regular appearances in the history books, the town and surrounding land are recorded as having been handed on from one monarch to another, to their wives, to a Groom of the Bedchamber or a Clerk of the Treasury. Throw in a couple of Royal mistresses, and you’ll be thoroughly confused.

Innovation

We pick up the story when the space was formally landscaped in the 1720’s by Charles Bridgeman, who helped pioneer the naturalistic landscape style. If like me, you haven’t heard of him, it’ll be because innovations in English landscape architecture have been eclipsed by the work of his more famous successor, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. He was responsible for landscaping the nearby Ashridge House estate and the statement ‘golden valley’ amongst other impressive projects.

There are neat piles of miscellaneous stones, discarded bricks, and tumbled down walls that are sinking slowly back into the hillside.

Tring park boundary walls
Flint and bricks crumble and decay, ivy lazes on the top like a giant boa.

What Bridgeman did was mix and successfully merge the formal woodland layout (and their follies), with the more free-flow chalk downland and broad open landscape. The feature that is most striking is the steep ridge that runs like a spine along the southern edge of the park, along which the Ridgeway National Trail traverses. Passing through the park, the Ridgeway follows the King Charles’ Ride, this broad avenue is one of my favourite places to walk, with wonderful views over Tring and across the Vale of Aylesbury to Ivinghoe Beacon and Mentmore Towers. All beneath a canopy of stately trees.

Past Lives

All over the park, you’ll find signs of past lives and purpose. From wobbly walls and names of landscape features, to the two most prominent: Nell Gwyn’s’ Obelisk that commends the centre of the woodland and just further up the trail, you will see the remains of a summer house. The latter was full of chalk praise for Donald Trump when I walked past!

King Charles’ Ride
Like a penny farthing bicycle stuck in the mud

The avenue of lime trees welcome most visitors from the town as you cross the intrusive A41 on the footbridge from the National History Museum car park. This is the best way in fact to access the park.

The A41 cuts through Tring Park
Tring Park school for the Performing Arts sits over the road, to the north of the park

Zebra’s and kiwis

When the Rothschilds bought the Tring estate in 1872, they transformed the mansion house, but left the park largely unaltered. Apart from the exotic animals that were added! This dynasty has left its mark across the region in homes, landscapes, heritage and the arts.

Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937) was an avid collector of animals. At its largest, the Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, over 2 million butterflies, 30,000 beetles as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles and fishes. Revolting. But at that time, travelling to hunt and collect specimens was fairly common. He formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual. He found time to found the nearby National History Museum, just to house his growing zoological collection, including circus fleas and a polar bear. It’s a charming museum, that has retained most of its quirky Victorian displays.

A trail in Tring Park
Was this such a good idea?

His interest in animals saw imported cassowary’s, zebras and kangaroos roaming free in the park. Whilst in the park, his father’s patience was sorely tested when a cassowary chased him. I wonder what the locals made of it all?

Now you’ll likely encounter a herd of cows who munch their way from one end of the park to the other, leaving behind nothing but nutritious pats.

Spring shadows in Tring park
The shadows are long, and the grass wet with a light frost, the air cold in the shadow of the beech trees

Tring Park is a well used and popular green space for the community. Busy with dog walkers, runners, gossip and events, best of all is the King Charles’ Ride for the sheer joy of it, the far-reaching views and a place to sit and think.

Each time I go, this microcosm of the Chilterns has something new to share; an opening vista in the autumn, horses trotting along the Ridgeway, tiny wildflowers, sledging in the winter or the call of the song thrush in April.

Spring flowers in Tring park
Primroses, lesser celandine and blackthorn

Further information

There are several trails to follow, information on the notice boards at the various entrances to the park, or you can simply wander and see where the paths take you. Woodland Trust

Not just a pretty face, Tring has a lovely high street full of independent shops and refreshment stops.

Lodged now at the British Museum, the story of the Tring Tiles is frustratingly brief. Not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England.

Directly accessible from the park is the hilltop village of Wigginton, with thirst-quenching pub and village shop selling homemade cakes and supplies.

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One Year On

A reflection on the past year and on the affect the Covid-19 pandemic has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.

March is the space between winter and spring. It’s the month where we crave an end to the cold winter winds and are eager to welcome the warm spring days. It can make us impatient and above all, dissatisfield. It can be a ‘nothing month’, but not this year, nor was it, in 2020. 

One year on, a reflection on the past year and affect the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.
After the storm

Winter storms leave their mark in the forest. On a recent walk in Ashridge, I heard a loud crack! It was the splitting and toppling of a massive old tree. Many other trees had already wobbled and crashed, some violently, knee-capped almost – as if a child had been let loose with a chopper. But a reminder of the natural cycle of growth, decline and renewal that stands in stark contrast to the awful pounding the Chilterns has taken in the past year.

Vandalism, graffiti, fires, trespass, wild poohing, fly tipping and good old fashioned ‘can’t be arsed to take litter home’ just don’t belong in our beautiful countryside.

What have we lost?

It has been a tough and terrible year. Sadly over 126,000 deaths recorded, exhausted healthcare workers, lives turned upside down, family members in the wrong places unable to meet up, borders closed, tourism and hospitality businesses in turmoil.

March 16th was the technical start of the 2020 lockdown, but it is 23rd March that rests in the popular memory. When the lockdown screws were well and truly tightened and we all had to stay at home. Exercising for one hour a day.

The seasons don’t stop

The sun shone on the empty roads, the footpaths were eerily quiet. I kept up my dog walking, revisiting overlooked local tracks. I recorded my lockdown micro walks, 18 in all. Spring didn’t stop though, and it was a joy to watch up close as leaves unfurled, nesting got underway, the warmth of the sunshine hardened the mud. Awkward greetings and new walking etiquette was quickly learnt as we danced around one another on the narrower paths! All helped counter the repressive pandemic restrictions.

The mask slipped

The impact of our release from lockdown is well documented. With the easing of restrictions, like a catapult, the pent up demand to get out and about, suddenly filled our communities. The police became a regular feature as the local quarry became a hotspot for campers, bikers and party-goers with cars parked three-deep everywhere. The result of not being able to visit family, participate in sport, watch football matches, go shopping, visit the high street, meet friends in pubs and restaurants, or take the family to museums and outdoor attractions. It quickly became an angry and confused mess.

Many visitors were new to the countryside, weren’t familiar and didn’t know what to expect. The countryside does have a reputation after all. Farmers battled with trespass and walkers trying to socially distance on muddy narrow footpaths this past winter meant they encroached on fields and crops. But what were people supposed to do?

Outdated messaging

The temptation to waggle a stern finger at transgresses never works. And that is all to often our default position: put together a three-word slogan and assume the bossy voice to counter the wave of visitors trying in their own way, to have some leisure space and time.

Following a review, an updated Countryside Code is due out any day. I hope it will have vast amounts of marketing money to share an improved, more inclusive messaging that encourages positive behaviour and a love of the countryside.

Recovery

We’re not through this yet. Driving around the Chalfonts last week, my car scratched from the awkward branches sticking out along the busy lanes, stopping to try and avoid both potholes and passing vans. So many Hs2 trucks! I was struck at how dirty the countryside is; verges everywhere littered with bottles, bags, wrappers, fast food boxes, bags adorning the trees and fly-tipping. It was horrible.

As April beckons, so the leaf cover will swallow up much of this mess, and things will look and feel better. There is hope now that we have the Covid-19 vaccine. I really hope too, that from now onwards, countryside visitor management will not be done on the cheap, with extra resources to communicate, clean up and better care for our beautiful Chilterns.

Let’s leave the host communities with happy memories too

Facilities will be open, which will relieve some of the pressure, but I expect the Chilterns countryside will be busy again this Easter and into the summer. What sort of welcome will visitors receive? How will they be feeling if the international borders remain shut? Willing or defiant?

To all those new countryside and market town converts, we welcome you. Plan and book, so you can really enjoy your visit. Please spend time with our local businesses, take your litter home, and be considerate of others. Thank you.

Further information

We have so many wonderful stories about the people and places that make our region so special. Whilst you plan your next visit, you can read about them here.

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The joy of small things

Ashridge Forest, Paused

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

Staying local

It’s the New Year, and months of continued uncertainty stretch ahead. I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual”.

A popular destination, Ashridge Forest draws visitors from far and wide. Covid-19 has made the great outdoors more appealing to locals and visitors, but it has put new pressures on our environment that organisations like the National Trust are still grappling with. Visitors tend to converge at the visitor centre or around Ivinghoe Beacon, but the forest is vast, so I can slip away down a muddy trail with Leo, the sounds of the forest and occasional walker to share my space.

Ashridge Forest Trails
The trails are quiet

Sounds are louder in winter; voices carry surprisingly far, as do dogs barking, bicycles swooshing through the grit and mud and the occasional shriek of a child as they climb and balance on fallen tree trunks.

I look for open spaces as I am getting wet walking under the bigger beech trees drip dripping with moisture. 

A hazy winter forestscape

Birdsong is louder too, accompanied by a flash of movement as bluejays, magpies and blackbirds flash up from the undergrowth, noticeable against the bare trees. The robins are already guarding their territories, singing their little hearts out. 

The sun is low, but still warm in sheltered places where I can enjoy the sparking rain drops clinging onto leaf buds. I image some hardy insects having a sauna in the steam slowly rising from a log.

Bare trees in the winter sunshine
Winter sunshine finds its way through the trees

Signs of spring

At first sight, the forest floor is predominantly shades of bracken brown. However, taking an involuntary closer look, after an entanglement with some robust tree roots, turns out there are green shoots – some bluebells I expect, are early signs of spring. 

Now Ashridge forest is laid bare, it looks untidy, branches tangled, huge boughs drooping, as though the trees have been turned upside down and the mass of roots are now visible – inverted. The decay of autumn trodden in and will soon fade as new growth takes hold.  

Ashridge Forest
A tangle of trees

The impassable becomes passable

As I walk beneath tree boughs that are normally thick with foliage and difficult to get through, the impassable becomes passable. The smaller tracks will become chocked with stinging nettles and brambles, others smothered in foliage.

The mud is something else! Thick, deep and sticky enough to loose your boots in. I have walked these trails many times, but each time is different; berries in various stages of growth or decay, views that open or close depending if the leaves are on the trees or under your feet. When the bracken is green, it blends in perfectly with the trees, and can be quite visually suffocating. 

A beautiful view opens up
Only available in winter

A re-purposed saw pit

An old saw pit has filled up with wood and algae floating amongst grasses, mysterious air bubbles popping to the surface. It’s too cold for frogs, so what could it be? Gas from decaying organic matter? 

A quiet winter pond in Ashridge Forest in the great outdoors
A quiet winter pond

I spot an elder tree with the peculiar ‘jelly ear’ (or wood ear) growing along a branch. Found in most places, this edible species of Auriculariales fungus is distinguished by its noticeably ear-like shape and colouration.

Jelly Ear fungus growing in Ashridge

Its specific epithet is derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree; the common name “Judas’s ear” was largely eclipsed by the corruption “Jew’s ear”, while today “wood ear”, “jelly ear” and other names are preferred.

Green moss covers the lower tree trunks in the great outdoors
Winter socks for the trees

It gets cold quickly, and I head home before my fingers are numb. Most walks show me something new, or it’s that I have simply noticed new things. I know that when next I visit, the forest will have changed again; new sounds, more birds, more early, optimistic Chilterns growth. There is however, the potential for snow and ice, which will make the forest even quieter and fun to explore.

Stay safe!

Further Information

I have written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the great outdoors that surrounds this beautiful region.

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 once Flourishing Ashridge Trade.

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.

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.

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2021 Chilterns Calendar
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The Grand Union Canal

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

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

Arms and Legs

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

Grand Union Canal
Resting up at Cow Roast

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

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

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

The Canal Duke

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

The Canal Duke
Bridgewater Monument

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

Nuts and Bolts

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

A Roadway Paved with Water

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

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
Leo lockside

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

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

Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts

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

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

For further Chilterns inspiration and celebration of all things quirky.

My micro adventure during Lockdown along the Grand Union Canal

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

Messing about in Marlow

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer of 2020, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on our beautiful River Thames, slowly.

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.

2020 is the year where everything has been turned on its head. Inside out in fact. In such a short space of time, our lives are unrecognisable as we look for strategies to adapt and adjust to this strange world of Covid-19 social protocols and stressful living. 

Keen to keep on exploring my local area, and having to do things in a socially distanced and slower pace, has me taking to the water on a stand up paddle board (SUP) – an offshoot of surfing that originated in Hawaii no less. Ever the trail-blazer, my friend Annette suggested this, as our times require new thinking and a new mode of slow travel.

Whilst Marlow is a long way from Hawaii, an SUP is the go-to way to travel in the Chilterns

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, market towns of Henley and Marlow and so much in between, leaving the Chilterns behind at Cliveden and Taplow as it winds its way into London.

We were headed down to Bisham Abbey, near the pretty market town of Marlow that straddles the Thames. I have seen Bisham Abbey from afar, but it’s the first time I have been onsite.

Bisham Manor House
A Grade I listed manor house, the name taken from the now lost monastery which stood alongside.

This impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings, now one of three National Sports Centres run on behalf of Sport England and is used as a residential training camp base for athletes and teams. It is also the location for messing about in boats.

The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations in later centuries is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry.

In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. She had been captured on the Isle of Rathlin during the Scottish Wars of Succession, and was placed in the charge of the King’s Yeoman, John Bentley, for two years, until removed to Windsor.

Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. Queen Elizabeth I was a regular visitor.

Two swans on the Thames river bank
The waterside is the domain of waterfowl

A swoop of swallows

After our safety briefing and securing of camera’s and car keys, we headed out, determined not to land in the river too many times! It was surprisingly quick before we were balanced, and settled into a gentle paddling rhythm as we struck out for Temple Island to the west. The busy towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with hot locals, their feet in the water, or feeding the swans. Kites drifting overhead. A swoop of feeding swallows, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames.  Impressive balustrades marking the boundaries of enormous waterside homes, ornamental gardens reaching to the riverbank, in contrast to the simple wooden cabins beneath shady trees. My kind of waterside home.  

There is something about being on the water that relaxes and lifts the mood. The thrill of the unfamiliar, soft contours and ceaseless movement, wind scudding across the surface – all in stark contrast to the hard edges we are used to. 

All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower alongside the river thames and pleasure boat
All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower

We paddled past All Saints Bisham, which with surrounding village, has been known by various names down the centuries, was recorded in Domesday with its villagers, cottagers, slaves, vines and meadowland. A church was also recorded there, no doubt on the beautiful Thames riverside site of the present building. 

With horizon’s lowered

From the SUP, looking east towards Marlow on the River Thames, with boats at anchor
A different view of All Saints Marlow

Puffed up storm clouds building on the horizon. The wind scudding on the water, making my feet ache as I braced and focused on staying upright. Pleasure boats putted up and down, the sightseers offering suggestions and encouragement as they passed by, generating wakes that needed to be navigated if I wasn’t to disgrace myself and fall in. Which I did. Three times!

There is something about being close to water that relaxes and lifts the mood. You are absorbed into that space, becoming part of it. Like walking, you notice, you listen and smell what is around you; preening swans balancing their big feet on a submerged tree trunk, duckings, a family of goslings, coots, enormous blue dragon flies, weird algae beneath the surface, and when you fall in, the mud is soft and yielding. We stopped a few times to savour the moment, to relax and enjoy it all. We loved it!

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer of 2020, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on our beautiful River Thames, slowly. Annette was right, SUP’s fit the bill.

Messing about in boats on the River Thames
The ubiquitous copper beech

Further Information

I recorded my local lockdown meanderings along new and familiar footpaths to see how spring unfolded: It’s a lockdown

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

A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic pensioners, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging picnic hampers in evidence. We are gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers

Established in 1991 the Bisham Abbey School is a RYA recognised training centre. SUP and canoe here from Moose Canoe and SUP Hire.

The Thames Path National Trail follows England’s best known river for 184 miles (294 Km) as it meanders from its source in the Cotswolds through several rural counties, including the Chilterns before heading on into the heart of London.

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 in the beautiful Barton Hills
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. Brain says: “The day job is supplying the two household food giants, Warburtons and Weetabix with vital ingredients for our tables.”

Brian and Whizz in the Barton Hills
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 across the Barton Hills 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 tasted in the beautiful Baron Hills
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 beautiful nature in the Barton Hills, in 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.

Former gravestones in the churchyard in Barton Hills
Recycled paving slabs

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. 

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts on our associated website: ChilternsGifts.co.uk

People Watching in Purple

Not just for old ladies, these fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone.

This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns. In existence since at least the eighth century, Hitchin is one of the oldest towns in the county of Hertfordshire. Much sought after as a cure-all for anything from the plague to migraines, cultivation and production of lavender put Hitchin on the map. Successfully exploiting the crop since the 15th century, sadly only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.

The scene reminded me of tea pickers on the plantations in Sri Lanka.

The farm is open from June to October, peak season is July, when the 30 acres are in full bloom. Busy by the time I arrived, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! You have to tune your ear into the drone of countless bees working around your legs, otherwise drowned out by the giggles and squeals of delight.

A quintessential English experience 

This newsreel below is from Norfolk, but the techniques would have been the same as those in Hitchin.

1949 newsreel: lavender harvest

Back to the present day. Once we had negotiated the oncoming cars and traffic cones to secure a brown paper bag and scissors to cut and curate our flowers, we could enjoy an English seasonal experience.

I wandered slowly up an empty aisle, keeping an eye out for the millions of painted lady butterflies that are supposed to be heading our way this summer. I spotted one. Perhaps this was the straggler and they had all been and gone? I disturbed three birds that shot out from the undergrowth, but apart from the bees, there was precious little wildlife or incidental wildflowers. It was all perfect and planned.

Experience counts!

There was a wedding party, couples, pensioners, families with small children whooping their way up the slope, posing ladies in straw hats and white dresses, a coach-load of sunhat-wearing tourists equipped with enormous lenses, a sea of expansive selfie sticks and a fascinating array of selfie poses. I think many had done this before.

My friends are going to love this picture.

The aim is to walk up the slope, proclaim loudly your deftness at hill walking, before laying out your picnic and then returning, satisfied to your car. There are plenty of places where you can part with your money to buy lavender-themed or infused goodies, plus a small museum with interesting, if underwhelming displays about the farm and former industry.

It’s a fun thing to do, everyone in a holiday mood, enjoying themselves and no doubt Instagram will be awash with the days’ adventures. I wonder though, how many knew they were in the Chilterns?

Hitchin lavender customers
It has to be perfect

Further Information

Just as the production of watercress in the Chess Valley has been decimated, with only one producer remaining, Cadwell farm is keeping a Chilterns tradition alive by welcoming visitors to wander the 30 acres to pick flowers and take endless selfies.

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dusty and dated interiors, are to be treasured. We have our fair share here in the Chilterns; most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain. ‘One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys’ tells the understated story of English education in the British Schools museum in Hitchin.

For further Chilterns adventures and excitement, head over to VisitChilterns.co.uk

Wildflowers border the fields of lavender
Common knapweed, ladies bedstraw and cornflowers border the lavender.

Almshouses: a social history

Almshouses are a fascinating curiosity left over from an age when the poor and destitute would typically fall through the gaps as universal care as we know it, did not exist.

You will find almshouses in the centre of busy towns, on high streets, beside churches or tucked away in the corner of a field, remnants of former communities and their social needs. Typically Georgian in style, there are some Tudor, one Strawberry Hill Gothic. Others have had a Victorian makeover, but still include interesting features, like elaborate chimneys, often with pretty cottage gardens or courtyards the perfect location for the residents to spend time in.

By definition, an almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people to remain in their own particular community.

A Safe Passage for Souls

Originally formed as an extension of the church system, benefactors were not exclusive to this order however, and some where established primarily to ensure safe passage for the benefactors’ souls to make it to heaven.

They are often targeted at the poor, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. 

Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating around 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses and for those established for the benefit of the founder of their family, usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

Residents no longer have to wear special items of clothing, emblems or badges that would signify where they lived, or to remind others of their benefactors’ largesse. Dwellings too, have been modernised which has meant that in some instances, fewer residents can be housed with the addition of indoor plumbing for example. An impressive 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated across the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people. They are a much sought after housing solution for retired men and women.

The Chilterns has a wonderful collection of these buildings that are still functioning as charitable associations, housing those in need and below are some that I have visited, and will add to this as I encounter more. Suggestions most welcome!

Aylesbury Old Town

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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street

Aylesbury old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline. Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need; an aim broadly in line with almshouse charity foundations across the country.

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Church Street Aylesbury

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age surrounded by multiple terraced houses or apartments now providing accommodation for small numbers of residents.

Ewelme

William and Alice de la Pole were benefactors of the almshouses and school built in 1442. The almshouses were to consist of twelve old men, bachelors, poor and in reduced circumstances, but not from the lowest class of life. Over them was set the thirteenth man, who was to be of a ‘superior type’, a kind of head-brother to the twelve. All were to wear a habit consisting of black tabards or gowns of wool with a red cross upon the breast. Closely incorporated with the church through whose west door leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents now live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex, complete with their very own Grande Dame of Ewelme.

Medieval Alms Houses
The Almshouses in Ewelme

Lady Dodd’s cottages Ellesborough

A Grade II Listed block of four almshouses in Ellesborough, that were formerly eight, date from 1746. Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women, but is unclear what her connection with the Ellesborough area was.  Over the road form the church, these cottages are now a private home with one of the loveliest of Chilterns views. Lady Dodd made similar bequests in Little Budworth in Cheshire.

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St Peter & St Paul church with Dodds cottages in the foreground

Weedon Almshouse Gardens Chesham

A Grade II Listed building, founded in 1624 by the bequest of Thomas Weedon of Pednor, Weedon Almshouses were rebuilt in the late nineteenth century of flint rubble and red brick quoins. The four almshouses with their gables, barge-boards and chimneystacks are difficult to see as they sit obscured behind a high flint wall, so an image is not readily available.

Sir William Drake’s Almshouse Amersham

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The dwellings are typically set around the communal courtyard

A Grade II listed property, the Drake’s almshouses were a gift to the market town of  Amersham by local bigwig, Sir William Drake who built them in 1657 ‘for the relief of 6 poor widows of good repute in the parish’. Originally six dwellings, they were converted in 1997 to provide increased accommodation and modern conveniences for four residents given them greater comfort including indoor plumbing.

There is a tablet to the rear of the buildings commemorating John and Alice Day, who used to run the Swan Inn.  Their daughter Harriet built these almshouses in 1875 for six poor women of good character.  Men are now permitted to live here – how times have changed!

Amersham Museum garden
The John and Alice Day almshouses are visible from the Museum garden.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

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Located on the high street in Berkhamsted,  John Sayer, chief cook to Charles II,  bequeathed £1000 in trust “for the building of an almshouse and the purchasing of lands for the relief of the poor widows in Berkhamsted St Peter”. The inscription reads: “The Guift of John Sayer Esq 1684”. They are noticeable for their simple, compact structure, along a high street messy with renovations and clutter.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on the original Roman road, Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum. They were built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town and wider Chilterns. This lovely row of tudoresque-styled almshouses was designed by William Huckvale and are quite a local feature, with Nos. 1-5 dated ‘1893’ and Nos. 6-8 dated ‘1901’.

Further Information

Adventures and further inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns, including museums, the famous and infamous past residents.

To find out more about Almshouses, the Almshouse Association has a useful website.

Chilterns Gifts

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

Framed Chilterns Posters
A Year in the Chilterns at home on your wall.