A is for Amersham

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

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

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

Metroland

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

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

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

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

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

In the face of protest

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

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

On the poor side of the street

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

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

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

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

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

A missing stream

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

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

Open plan living

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

Brewery Tudor

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

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

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

Past lives

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

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

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

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

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

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

The castle that time forgot

Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?

“Not for ages”
“Is that the one near the station..?”
“I can’t remember”
“Where is it?”

Berkhamsted motte
Winter shadows

Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;

Anglo-Saxon backwater
Norman Invasion
Oppression
Royal entitlement
Civil war
Invasion
Royal prison
Decline
Vandalism
Near destruction
Declared ancient monument
Forlorn visitor attraction

Ring of Steel

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.

Berkhamsted motte and bailey
The Motte and Bailey

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.

The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.

Berkhamsted station
The original Berkhampstead (sic) railway station as seen in 1838

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law. We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.

Irritating Tourists!

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Ariel view of Berkhamsted castle
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s. Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

Rediscovering our Chilterns castles

Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.

Berkhamsted castle reflections
Reflections in the moat

Further information

The site is managed by English Heritage and is free to explore. For further information

To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.

Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here

How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.

Evolving Landscapes

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

Evolving landscapes 

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

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

HS2 is something I have ignored.

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

The route through the Chilterns

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

Misbourne Valley 

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

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

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

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

Views back towards Little Missenden
A break in the boundary

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

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

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

Shardeloes equine centre
Horses are king in this meadow

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

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

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

One of the two Shardeloes gatehouses
Shardeloes gatehouse

Expectations

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

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

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

Further information

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

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

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

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

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

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

In search of Paul Nash

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work.

I got more than I bargained for when I visited the Wittenham Clumps, a favourite haunt of Paul Nash. I discovered not only inspirational countryside, but my knight in shining armour.

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars.

Much has been written about Paul Nash and his younger brother John, and it is outside my skill set to provide a narrative of his great works. What I will share with you are some of the locations that inspired him and have in turn, come to inspire me. I have no copyright permission to reproduce any of his paintings here, so have included links to websites where you can see examples of his work below.

Capturing Landscapes

Paul Nash was born in London, and grew up in Iver Heath in south Buckinghamshire. Thankfully for us, he didn’t take to figure drawing and was able to concentrate on capturing his landscapes with preferred elements of ancient history. Something Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns have in abundance including; burial mounds, barrows and brooding Iron Age hill forts. He had to travel to the coast for the glorious seascapes and Wiltshire for the standing stones at Avebury amongst other locations.

He came to my attention when I first began to write about the Chilterns and have been captivated by his painting of Ivinghoe Beacon, somewhere I have photographed many times during my walks along the now familiar chalk paths and trails.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Ridgeway
Ivinghoe Beacon and its distinctive chalk trails leading up to the site of the Iron Age hill fort

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work. He captures these timeless landscapes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those communities who have lived and worked in and around them over the centuries.

Not that much has changed

I joined artist Christopher Baines on one of his Nash Walks to the Wittenham Clumps, the site of an iron age hill fort on the Sinodun Hills, 18 miles west of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. Chosen for security and dominance, the two Clumps are marooned in a sea of Thames Valley loveliness. Round Hill is the taller of the Clumps, and Castle Hill the site of the hill fort. Each is topped by a grove of trees, the lower of the two enclosed by an earth ditch and engineered embankment. The Clumps are surrounded by pretty villages, towers, Dorchester Abbey, manor houses, water meadows and the River Thames. Christopher told us that the Abbey contains an unusual treasure, but more of that later.

River views across to Clifton Hampden
The Church of St Michael and All Angels at Clifton Hampden

From the top, we enjoyed far-reaching views over the River Thames, towards the Chiltern Hills to the north east, westward to south Oxfordshire and south to the Berkshire downs. The view was described by Paul Nash as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”.

Dorchester Abbey
The view across to Dorchester Abbey

There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.

Round Hill
Round Hill where you will find declarations of love

A third hill, Brightwell Barrow below, is just off to the south-east. This lone hilltop barrow I think is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon I expect. I can understand why Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it too.

Nash believed that trees have their own personalities. The devastated trees he painted, that were blasted to shattered stumps, to him represented the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The trees on the Clumps are not without their stories and quirks too. Christopher showed us the initialled tree trunks on Round Hill that reminded me of the similar declarations of love on Sharpenhoe Clappers  in the northern Chilterns. Another wooded hilltop that still draws people today. I can’t help but wonder if the lovers are still in love?

From the poem tree
Robert reads a dull poem

I have commented many times throughout this blog about the extent of Victorian Vandalism, evident in so many Chilterns churches, where earlier treasures where either ripped out or covered up to suit a more modern taste. Here was another example: local man Joseph Tubb, who infamously worked over the course of two weeks in the summer of 1844, and scratched onto a beech trunk his uninspiring 20-line earthly musings. The ‘Poem Tree” as it become known, recently collapsed into a pile of decay, but sadly for us, his poem lives on in the little monument nearby. If you want to read what it says, you’ll have to climb the Clumps.

My Knight in Shining Armour

Inspired by Christopher revealing the many threads that link Nash with what I had seen, I set off on to find a knight in shining armour. On my way to Dorchester Abbey, I stopped at some of the villages I had seen from the Clumps including; Long Wittenham with its pretty cottages, Clifton Hampden which is stuffed with even more thatched cottages and a church with an impressive 152-year old cedar tree, before parking at the edge of Dorchester-upon-Thames to walk the pretty high street.

Ceder tree planted in 1866
A Ceder grown from a seed planted in 1866.

What an amazing Abbey! Unexpected, grand in scale, but not grand in nature. Busy with a large wedding, the guests waited to greet the bride’s family before flowing outside, relaxed and talkative, to wave off the bride and groom in a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce.

I was there to see the wonderful, unusually life-like effigy, one of the finest pieces of 13th century funerary sculpture in England. The pose is fluid as the Knight is ready to unsheathe (the now lost) sword. Much admired by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, John Piper and Paul Nash, who considered the effigy one of the greatest icons of Englishness – alongside Stonehenge. That’s quite something!

William de Valance
Although he cannot be identified with certainty, it seems most likely that this knight is William de Valance the Younger (died 1282)

Expect the Unexpected

Just as when I visited the Tate in 2017 to see the Paul Nash Exhibition, I got more than I bargained for on this visit to the Clumps. Not just beautiful English countryside and villages, but a sense that things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, we do things differently, but the essence of who we are hasn’t changed. Places of worship still have a role, we commemorate our dead, plant and harvest crops, have a fascination with the unexplained, are drawn to rivers and high places, leave something behind by scratching our initials (or a poem) onto trees, indulge in celebrations and capture what we see in prose and pictures. In doing so, we try to understand and make sense of our place in this enduring landscape. A trip to the Clumps could perhaps help you try and figure out some of life’s great mysteries.

Paul Nash is buried with his wife Margaret at St Mary the Virgin, Langley Marish near Slough.

Thank you to Christopher Baines for sharing his knowledge and insights into how this pioneering artist tried to make sense of the magical and mystical everyday. It was really special. Take a look at his website, which is full of information on the local area and of the great man himself.

Further information

This blog has plenty of ideas for places to discover and walks to enjoy throughout the Chilterns year, follow the tabs at the top of the page to discover more. In Chiltern Fields was published in 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Visit the model villages at the Pendon museum

Further information and to view a selection of Paul Nash paintings at the Tate Gallery.

Views of Didcot Power Station
Some of the best views of Didcot Power Station

Be Not Weary in Well Doing

The story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.

In which a childhood tale of hardship and a beating, led to a generous royal gift to a small Chilterns community from a benefactor in a far-flung British colony.

Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the restored Maharajah’s well in Stoke Row and discover why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Isn’t Britain usually the one dispensing largesse to the less fortunate in far-flung colonies?

Stoke Row is a fairly typical Chilterns village, situated at the southern end of the region, near Henley-on-Thames, in a cluster of villages that include Ibsden, Nuffield and Nettlebed. It’s quite hard to find, along gloomy woodland lanes, around some tight corners, that has in its foundations, chalk, flint and clay that have enabled a long history of pottery making. However, in common with Turville, there is no natural water source.

That is the source of this charming Chilterns story

The Maharajah of Benares
Maharajah of Benares and Suite, 1870s

East India Connections

The Narayan dynasty was the ruling Bhumihar family of Benares. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, the family ruled Benares as tributaries of the Nawab of Awadh and the East India Company. In 1911, Benares became a full-fledged princely state of British India, and the Narayan dynasty ruled it as British vassals until they acceded to independent India in 1948. Even today, the Kashi Naresh, the titular ruler of the dynasty, is deeply revered by the people of Benares. He is the religious head and considered the incarnation of Lord Shiva.

Local Ibsden squire, Edward Anderson Reade (1807 – 1886) had worked alongside and formed a friendship with Maharajah Shri Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh Bahadur of Benares (1822-89), whilst working as administrator and Lieutenant Governor in the North West Provinces for the East India Company. The two men must have shared childhood stories which later were to inform the Maharajah’s decision to fund a new well, far away in a country he had never visited, but had a huge impact on his life and country, Great Britain.

101 Cherry Trees

In 1831, Edward Reade had a well sunk for a community in Azimgurgh, alongside a new mango grove. It was this generous gift and that childhood tale of dried up Chilterns village ponds, hardship and a child beaten for stealing a drink of water, that sealed the subsequent deal. In 1863, the Stoke Row well was sunk for around £40,000 in today’s money, the adjoining ‘Ishree Bagh’ was planted with 101 cherry trees and the Well Cottage built with a view to providing funds for the well’s maintenance.

The maharajah's well Stoke Row
The well is housed beneath a Mogul-inspired dome.

I expect the village hasn’t seen anything like it, not since Queen Victoria opened the well in 1864. Until 1964 that is, when HRH the Duke of Edinburgh attended the centenary and a sample of water was drawn that can be found at the local pub apparently. Please let me know if you have any luck finding it!

Ishree bagh, cherry orchard
One of the few cherry trees in the ishree bagh.

The Ishree bagh, cherry orchard, feels well used as a local green space, but as an orchard, neglected. There is random planting of young cherry trees (a Chilterns heritage crop), some dead, others not sure whether to thrive or die, and some well designed childrens’ dens in amongst the trees. There are a good number of oak trees, some with legible plaques, others rusted away. Thank you Denise for the beautiful oak tree planted in your memory, the bagh is better for it.

The Elephant & Bandstand
Trunk to Trunk

The orchard mound is now topped with a commemorative wooden elephant ‘the Elephant & Bandstand’ to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the well.

Well cottage and the Moghul dome
The distinctive Dome

In a neat space between the orchard and well, is the tiny brick cottage with an unfeasibly tall chimney, former home of the well keeper no less. Dwarfed by the ornate dome, a foresight as it’s visible from afar – and a nod to the Maharajah who would never see his gift, but wanting it visible all the same. Beneath the Burgundy Mughal-inspired dome, a golden elephant sits atop the shiny machinery designed and built by local agricultural engineers, Wilder of Wallingford 1863.

fullsizeoutput_2f1f

The shaft plunges through clay, gravel, sand, chalk sand, more chalk and finally chalk and shells before reaching the sweet water, a mere 368 feet deep – twice the height of Nelson’s column. Drawing water must have been quite a chore. It took 10 minutes for the pulley to reach the bottom and another ten minutes to reach the surface. I expect they all formed a neat and orderly queue and exchanged village news whilst waiting. The well was closed in 1939.

I love this story. It has a special resonance for me, hailing as I do from the colonies. What makes this story so extraordinary is that a former colony did what Britain usually does; dispensing largesse in the form of a royal gift, to those in need, those less fortunate. But in this case, those who where in need where the masters, the mighty British Empire. Oh, the irony!

The inscription ‘Be Not Weary in Well Doing” is a fitting epitaph for Edward’s gravestone, in the nearby Ibsden cemetery.

Further Information

This Chilterns travel blog is only about the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns are not a place name you’d perhaps recognise, despite being located in the distinctive green space between London’s Metroland and Oxford. If quirky is your thing, we’ve a load more stories to tempt you.

Nearby is the modest home of William Morris, who lived at Nuffield Place and brought affordable motoring to Britain.

For further Chilterns ideas and inspiration, or to book a table at England’s first gastropub, the nearby Crooked Billet. Built in 1642, reputed to have been the hideout of highwayman Dick Turpin, which may have been due to a certain landlord’s daughter, Bess.

The local village store offers coffee and freshly made light meals.

Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade

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.

Holy relics were once big business.

I am astonished at how many found their way into the Chilterns that resulted in prestigious buildings, churches, woodland and more humble structures being built. Ashridge is the most prestigious amongst them.

Another hot July week goes by, and an early morning walk in the forest is the coolest place to be. The dusty summer paths are criss-crossed with cracks and gnarled roots, even the stubborn patches of winter mire look benign and safe to cross. The bees are winning as they are all I can hear. The compelling natural geometrical shapes of the six-foot high bracken is punctured only by the crests of foxglove pink, just past their best. The exposed felled trees of winter now swallowed up by verdant vegetation from which a variety of animals burst forth ahead of me on the path.

Fox glove in the Chilterns

The pretty, but toxic foxglove

Ashridge Forest is one of the more popular Chilterns destinations, but as visitors tend to stick to the tearoom and toilets at the visitor centre, there is more than enough space for the horses, cyclists, runners and ramblers to be swallowed up by the 5,000-or-so woodland acres. In fact, the two are closely linked along Prince’s Riding, a glorious avenue of trees linking Ashridge House with the Bridgewater Monument.

fullsizeoutput_2846

That’s the Bridgewater Monument in the distance.

This much-visited estate, grew up around the medieval Ashridge priory that was founded in 1283 by the crusader knight, Edmund of Cornwall (a nephew of Henry III who was himself a collector of relics). Ashridge priory was created to house a phial of Christ’s blood that had been brought back from the Holy Land. These relics of the ‘Holy Blood’ were portions of the blood of Christ’s passion, preserved supposedly from the time of the Crucifixion and displayed as objects of wonder and veneration in the churches across medieval Europe. A flourishing trade, pilgrims traveled from far and wide to venerate and spend their hard-earned cash in offerings to secure their place in heaven and a meal to get them through the journey.

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. The estate passed through various families until in 1800, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater demolished most of the priory, and construction began on the present house in 1808–1814.

A surviving link are the fallow deer that were introduced during the 13th century as a source of food and for the sport of kings, that still roam the vast estate.

People and their holy relics may come and go, but the surrounding woodland is still bursting with life. During summer, it’s just more colourful – pretty butterflies dance around my feet and the shrill whining of crickets in the long grass is the sound of high summer. Death-defying squirrels race through the tree canopy and so many birds, its magical. We pass little cottages dotted throughout the woods, with names like ‘private cul-de-sac’, or ‘no turning private,’ and stop too for the obligatory “is that a corgi?” conversation.

Trees in the Chilterns Ashridge Estate
A tree-lined nave

Future business leaders now attend the Ashridge Executive Education, formerly Ashridge Business School, based at the gothic revival Ashridge House who promote their services as;

“An agile business school for the global leader. Because disruption is inevitable:”

That wouldn’t go unrecognised I don’t think, by those former businessmen of the priory and palace, whose global world was turned upside down by European political and religious events far beyond their control.

So the cycle continues.

Ashridge Business School is well rooted amongst its surroundings
Well rooted

Further Information:

Read more about some of the structures built to house relics and provide shelter for their pilgrims below;

Once on the Pilgrims trail between St Albans Abbey and the monastery at Ashridge, Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.

St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. Read of a Journey into a Chilterns desert.

Growing stones, a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Repton and an acorn from a queen, read about a tour of the Repton-designed Ashridge House Gardens.

A walk in Ashridge during the quieter winter months is a completely different experience. Do trees fall uphill? Or take your pick from the selection of National Trust walks through the estate.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Hellfire on a Hill

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now 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 fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now 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.

Perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to West Wycombe hill that day, as Brad Pitt had been spotted in the area; the giveaway was a film set that included a downed WW2 airplane stuck nose-first into the side of the hill. Cue a Twitter frenzy followed by crushing disappointment as of course mere mortals were not allowed anywhere near!

The view towards West Wycombe house
Across the valley towards West Wycombe Park

Screen attraction

This distinctive landmark makes for a perfect scene-setter: West Wycombe Park is a place that has swirled with rumour, innuendo, and antics of the famous and infamous that would have put any Hollywood star to shame.  Located three miles west of High Wycombe, west of London, this fascinating place is home to a medieval high street, country seat, St Lawrence church, a mausoleum and Hell-Fire Caves attraction, all dominating the landscape by virtue of reputation and location atop the excavated, yet impressive Chilterns chalk outcrop.

All the legacy of the Dashwood family, whose Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708 – 1781) was an English rake and politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, along with the Earl of Sandwich, are alleged to have met at the George and Vulture Inn, (located in the City of London), throughout the 1730s before moving the club to Medmenham Abbey, a short distance from West Wycombe on the River Thames and then into the caves. The club was notorious for orgies and black magic, but had disbanded by 1763 (according to church records) with the caves falling into disuse.

Pagan Worship

Sir Francis was a very busy man; building roads, a fine country house,  church, mausoleum, an elaborate cave system where he entertained, all using local materials hewn from the hillside (by the locals at a shilling a day), that legend has it has been inhabited since…well, forever. The church was named St Lawrence, as all churches are, that supersede places of pagan worship, and seems to retain elements of its ‘sense of place’ as it includes a golden ball that rises above the tower and has space for six Georgian party-goers inside. Saying their prayers?

IMG_8590
St Lawrence and the infamous golden ball atop the church tower.

The church is typically open on Sunday afternoons from March from 12.30 – 5.00pm until the end of September and is worth visiting. The churchyard is bursting with gravestones, many at strange angles as if the inhabitants have been moving around inside, some impressive columns to the fallen  of the First and Second World Wars, and local families including the Joynson’s. They have prominent burials with one poignant inscription to their 16 year-old son William, who drowned whilst swimming in the Seine in Paris in 1865. The imaged journey home from Paris to West Wycombe in 1865 has stayed with me since my visit.

What does steal the show however, is the mausoleum that straddles the hilltop, still dominating the landscape after 250 years. Based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome, this unroofed structure is unlike anything else in the country. Built using excavated flints from deep inside the hill, still in the family ownership (unlike the rest of the estate that had to sold following the Wall Street Crash of ’29), this memorial to Sir Francis and his friends is in remarkable condition. Unlike the surrounds, which looked much used and abused; the fire provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Inside the Mausoleum

Founding Fathers

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America who helped to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was a great friend of Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park and spent much time there in the early 1770s. He is reputed to have taken part in sessions of the notorious Hellfire Club and clearly found the surroundings of the house and park much to his liking as he wrote many times to his son. I do wonder what he took from this time here to contribute to co-writing the Declaration of Independence?

West Wycombe countryside
Surrounding Chilterns Countryside

Further information

The great, the good and the not-so-good have all made their homes in the Chilterns. Many of their finest houses are now in the care of the National Trust. Make your own selection to plan your Grand Tour, with more than its fair share of opulence, interest and intrigue.

For further Chilterns eccentricity, read more stories here.

West Wycombe Village