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
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

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 

Some had barely got out of their cars and were already taking pictures. 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.

National History at its Victorian Best

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The historic market town of Tring is a busy, growing commuter town within easy reach of London and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Located on the original Akeman Street – a major Roman road in England that linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Tring is in auspicious company. Built in 1889 to house one of the finest zoological collections in private hands, this in a museum frozen in time.

Just across the street are the picturesque Louisa Cottages Alms Houses on Akeman Street, built in 1893.

Inside the NHM Tring is a veritable feast of the exotic, elusive, exquisite, extinct and downright delightful exhibits from another age of museum-going. With not a gadget in sight, the slightly surreal setting of sturdy, floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases, drawers and fine cabinets that house thousands of stuffed exhibits that continue to entrance generations of local residents.

Circus fleas

The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. You don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter. We saw the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; delighted at the fruits of a busy mother’s labours as she sat up late at night dressing the fleas her children had caught from their pets, are on display next to exquisite moths and butterflies, to marvel at the 128-year old tortoise that lived with an assortment of animals (including kangaroos and an Emu), in nearby Tring Park.

On display is more than just stuffed animals though. It is a whole other value system in which our relationship with wild and domestic creatures was clearly very different: witness the display case of stuffed domestic dogs, a dodo and the famous Tring polar bear. We accept them as the animals were captured, slain and stuffed long ago, but I was surprised to see some dogs ‘donated’ as late as 1970. Perhaps not such a lost art after all?

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The museum founder, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937), second Baron Rothschild belonged to a rich and powerful family that influenced and shaped the local landscape (and seems once owned much of it), was a keen naturalist from an early age and collected all manor of exotic creatures which he brought back to his private museum in Tring. Famous for riding around town in a carriage pulled by a zebra, local response is not, unfortunately recorded, but I do wonder what they made of it all.

Natural History Museum, Tring
Armadillo, Natural History Museum, Tring

My son wanted to show me the Galapagos tortoise that Lord Rothschild once road upon, but I was too distracted by the dust on top of the display case to appreciate the size of the animal…I really must stop doing that. That said, this is no fusty-musty museum, some of the galleries have been overhauled to improve presentation and durability of the exhibits without detracting too much from what I really enjoy; a museum that is not trying to hard, knows its core product, doesn’t smell of fried food, nor does it break the budget – it’s free! What’s not to like?

Ideas for local places to visit and explore

For further information on visiting NHM Tring which is open all year round except from December 24 – 26th, there is also a regular programme of events and wildlife photography exhibitions.

The story of the Tring Tiles is so terribly brief, as not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England, or in France.

For information on what else to explore and enjoy in the Chilterns