Shapeshifters

Like sardines, starlings are iridescent, shapeshifting units. These seasonal aerial displays, or murmurations are just like the vast migrating families of fish.

I don’t usually write about birds, as they are not something I know much about. Other than to enjoy the spectacle they present and to encourage nesting in my garden, (which blackbirds and robins oblige), I simply admire them from afar.

Along with blackbirds, magpies, sparrows, robins, blue jays, song thrush and the twice daily overflight from a red kite, starlings are very much part of the community. Noisy and gregarious, they feed on the verges and lawns, the flock swooping and chattering from the aerials and rooftops every day. Far from being dull, they show-off iridescent colours that change as they move about.

Starlings who used to roost in vast numbers in London’s Leicester Square, but no more. Discouraged by birds of prey and bright lights they are typical of species that is in decline.

It’s not just the starlings putting on a good show this autumn
They are birds that get noticed

I first heard of murmurations from a wildlife programme and friend who lives near Brighton Pier where they are a fairly regular sight. I don’t know where this unusual name comes from. Is it the sound their wings make on their fly-pasts? More of a whooshing sound than a murmur. As they settle in to roost, they made a huge racket, so I’m not convinced it’s their sound. More to do with the movement? The ebb and flow?

Shapeshifters

The sight of their displays is special. Like sardines they are also iridescent, acting as shapeshifting units, but some of them are changing direction, or deciding that it’s time to enter the roost. They are like the vast families of sardines.

Then last autumn, during the year of lockdown, when I was spending time locally – as you would have been, retracing my steps along tracks I had forgotten, I saw my first display. Quite small, but I knew immediately what it was. I watched as the birds worked their magic over water near College Lake in Hertfordshire before disappearing into the trees.

What is a murmuration?

A murmuration is the collection noun for starlings and describes their aerial displays before these groups roost for the night.

I am not aware of other British species that do this, but please do set me right if this is not the case. These large gatherings happen in the autumn and gather pace as more birds migrate from central Europe to the milder winter climate here, peaking in December and January. The groups get larger and larger as smaller groups are absorbed with latecomers, but all roosting together. It seems a sensible way for the birds to nestle up and keep warm together during the long winter nights. Makes me wonder how a single robin keeps warm on a cold night?

Starlings, the sardines of the sky

You may have heard of the Sardine Run? The annual spectacle of millions of migrating sardines that swim north along the east coast of South Africa each winter, attracts all sorts of visitors, predators and chancers who jostle for the best spots to feed or to follow. This is what I am reminded of, in the sky but not that well attended.

Gathering on rooftops, chattering and hopping about before taking off and slowly making their way back and forth, back and forth in the direction of the roosting site. That was when I spotted them, some distance away, but I recognised a murmuration in the making. Leo and I legged it!

The making of a murmuration

Untidy and at height, three sizeable groups slowing growing in size as they absorbed stragglers, circling above my head. Each bird is flying quickly, like synchronised swimmers. The closer they get to the roosting site, the tighter the circles and those tell-tale murmurations emerge; long, tapered, chunky, a cloud, flat, a ball, untidy as some are wanting to go in a different direction.

They hang in the air

Their wings shimmering as they change direction, appearing to contact and expand, undulating as they fly overhead. I can hear them chattering. One group follows the other, chasing it, darting behind, their wings rushing as they fly overhead. Merging for an instant then two separate groups. Does each bird know which group it’s in?

The spectacle begins

Alive. In no hurry to rush to their roost. It is as if they are enjoying gathering and circling many times to then suddenly drop. As if sucked out of the sky, falling like rain into the reeds.

And they are done

The reeds are alive with unseen birds, their jostling and chatter whilst settling in causing waves across the vegetation. Two smaller groups join, one after the other, as do some late stragglers, who just fly straight in. Magnificent!

The sun was gone and it was getting cold. I left them still chattering and jostling, thinking about what the take off at sunrise would look like.

Further information

There’s plenty more to enjoy in the season of colour across the Chilterns. “Wrap up warm” the hardy types say; “put on wellies, a good coat and pack a thermos”. Let me unpack that for you: wellies don’t keep your feet warm, jeans turn to ice when it’s wet and cold, and yes, a thermos is a very good idea. Take a look at the autumn page for ideas.

Explore the northern Chilterns, they offer a different experience to the busy southern and central regions.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts including; Christmas cards, china mugs, tea-towels, 2022 A4 wall calendar amongst other popular items.

Chiltens souvenirs
The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

Marlow Mash-up

A withered hand, swans, Edwardian villas and tales of scandal and woe are what Marlow is exceptionally good at. Go and find your quirky Marlow.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.

All Saints Marlow
All Saints Marlow from the bridge

Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?

Cheerful bunting on the high street
Marlow high street full of independent shops

Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches. 

Cosy pubs in Marlow
Cosy pubs

The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank. 

Messing about in Marlow
Thames Path views

Bisham Abbey

Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations 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. King 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. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.

Bisham Abbey
The pretty Manor House at Bisham

The Hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics. 

The Queen’s Swan Marker

The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.

Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line.  www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.

Swan Upping on the Thames
Mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.    

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.

A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings  

It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents.  ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com

Mary does Marlow
Join a walking tour of Marlow with Mary.

Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.

Chilterns gifts
Pitstone Windmill A4 photographic print

The Hampdens

Classic Chilterns countryside awaits; dappled beechwoods and open, undulating fields in an historic, beautiful landscape.

Not the Hamptons, but a tucked-away Buckinghamshire parish about three miles south east of Princes Risborough. It incorporates the villages of Great Hampden and Little Hampden and hamlets of Green Valley and Hampden Row.

Due to difficult geography, no major roads or rail links ripped through this countryside.

You’ll find instead deer, the tips of hares, countless butterflies, dozing horses and dappled footpaths through beech woods in an historic landscape. Churches, farms, a manor house and memorials to old family names and their legends.

Classic Chilterns

Setting off from the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross on the hillside above Princes Risborough, we followed one of the very good National Trust countryside Trails that leads from the familiar into the pleasing unfamiliar.

Above Princes Risborough, Whiteleaf is where the walk to Little Hampden starts
The view from Whiteleaf towards Bledlow.

Leaving an overgrown Whiteleaf Cross at the WW1 trenches, apart from some dog walkers, we had the route to ourselves. A beautiful August day, we passed through Kingsfield Wood and walked parallel to a Grim’s Ditch Iron Age earthwork. A feature of the Chilterns, I’ve heard many theories about who it was meant to keep in or out: cattle or the Danes?

A style to nowhere
Would this have kept the Danes out?
Hampden House

The 400-year old cedar tree hinted at our approach to Hampden House. The Gothic-style battlements and arch windows resemble an overblown wedding cake. Perhaps an influencing factor when the current owners bought the house from the family in 1985 to market as a wedding venue. They refurbished a structure that had seen wear and tear as a girls school and latterly as the location for the Hammer film company who churned out horror films and TV series in the 1980’s. An extraordinary sight in this quiet valley.

Gothic revival Hampden House

Once home to the Hampdens (later the Earls of Buckinghamshire), who lived here continuously from before the Normans right up until 1938. Imagine that!

A famous son of this valley (who has a statue in Aylesbury), is commemorated across the county, is John Hampden. Notorious for his refusal to pay 20 shillings for the dodgy ship-money tax, brought in by a near bankrupt King Charles 1 in 1637. This indirectly led to the Civil War and his death at Chalgrove Field near Thame. St Mary Magdalene church doubtless has a rich heritage inside, but is still under Covid-restricted opening hours and was closed.

Hampden family church
The 13th century church of St Mary Magdalene, probable burial site for John ‘the patriot’ Hampden is adjacent to the Manor House.

We continued our walk down an avenue of lime, plane and horse chestnut trees that must have shaded many a visitor over the years. We did as instructed and pushed the button on the large gate and turned to cross the hot fields, alive with butterflies and the scraping of crickets. I love that high summer sound.

Hampden House from Queens Gap
Hampden House from the grassy ‘Queens Gap’ avenue

We spotted deer jumping over the wheat, making it look so easy. Rabbits and probably hares too as we climbed up through Warren wood towards the isolated hamlet of Little Hampden and our second local family.

Little Hampden Church

This gem of a church is tiny, and looks quite fragile. Yet it has survived the rigours of the Reformation and a Victorian make-over. The church is of course locked, and access has to be arranged to see the medieval wall paintings and alter stone.

The church at Little Hampden
Little Hampden church

The 15th century porch has two storeys, the upper one housing a bell, cast in 1791 that is once again working, the locals vying for the privilege of ringing it across the valley.

The Gingers

Not only is the building spectacular, the graveyard is too. Surprisingly large, with an uneven surface, evidence of long-forgotten burials. I was drawn to a headstone, tucked away at the boundary and noticed the unusual surname.

Headstone in the church at Little Hampden
In memory of Ann, wife of John Ginger

“The Yeomanry family of Ginger constantly resident here, during more than two hundred years; as the principal tenants and occupiers of the land, have obtained some celebrity, on account of the great age to which some of them attained, ….that the head of each of four generations, had arrived at the age of upwards of ninety years.” [The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, by George Lipscomb, 1847].

I found further evidence of the Ginger generations on the Ancestry genealogy website, including an incident of stock theft and a funeral. I wonder if there are Gingers still living in the area?

What a walk! Eight miles packed with nuanced history, places, people, outlandish buildings and beautiful scenery. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, this really is classic, unexpected Chilterns.

Further Information

There are several circular walks from Whiteleaf, including a spell on the Ridgeway National Trail.

You’ll find another link with the Civil War in the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Dinton. A heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

There are plenty of other delightful Chilterns churches to visit across the seasons.

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

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic Chilterns prints

Mongewell Park

A place of contrasts with a dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy landscape. The little chancel amidst the weeds and decay made this an unexpected delight.

It was too good an opportunity to pass up. An unplanned visit to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, on route, discovering another quite unexpected, but creepy, derelict estate in Mongewell Park.

With a name that rhymes with sponge-well, Mongewell is a mere mile from Wallingford, sandwiched between the Winterbrook bridge, the busy B4009 and River Thames to the west.

Finding your way there is the first challenge. Down a country lane, along a footpath, past large unfriendly signs advising visitors to keep out, unless heading to St John the Baptist church. Don’t be put off.

A horror film set

The site has had a colourful past – from an ancient Grims Ditch, the Normans, a bishops estate, WW1 convalescent home and RAF station, to groundbreaking Jewish boarding school, Carmel College that closed in 1997. Although earmarked for housing, the extensive site is derelict.

On past peeling portakabins with boarded up windows and verandas sinking into dense vegetation, that you walk by to get to the church. The school added several buildings, including its synagogue and the Julius Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse. An intriguing, creepy place. I could see why it has been a popular film location – great for horror movies!

Carmel College Mongewell Park
The Modernist synagogue is just visible through the trees

Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?

A jigsaw puzzle
The exterior of St Johns Mongewell
Roofless with an assortment of brick and flint

Partly taped off, in case the roof tiles continue their downward slide, you skirt the headstones beneath the east wall of the apse to enter. It reminded me of Someries Castle near Luton in size and decay. Minus the vandalism. Hemmed in by dark vegetation, the atmosphere was just ever-so menacing. This is not a romantic ruin!

A dandelion in the nave of St John the Baptist
Red campion and dandelions grow on the walls and floor of the nave.

Come away make no delay

The inscription on the now lost church bell 1760

When the nave lost its roof in the 1940’s, the arch to the apse was blocked up. Unsure if the heavy door would yield, it took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.

A surprise awaits

The floor may be dusty, but tucked away behind a Churches Conservation Trust poster, is a pile of neatly folded clothes and a bucket and mop. It is looked after, this tiny uncluttered space, with interesting stone monuments, a large, but damaged Victorian font and pretty stained glass window behind the alter. The wrought iron chandelier was added in the 1880’s and hangs from the reconstructed 14th century wooden roof.

A simple interior at Mongewell St Johns
An uncluttered interior with distinctive zig-zag pattern around the Norman arch.

Following repairs and the placing of monuments and the font from the nave into the apse, it is hard to imagine this lovely space was once derelict.

Sunlight through the open door at Mongewell church
With the sunlight streaming through the open door, it was calm and peaceful.
What movie set could this be from?

It got suddenly dark inside the chancel, huge storm clouds quickly fluffing up overhead. It was time to go! I closed the door, making sure it wouldn’t blow open and picked my way through the weeds and out across the nave into the deserted Mongewell Park.

Storm clouds over St johns Mongewell
Derelict and with no congregation, St John the Baptist was vested to the Churches Conservation Trust in 1985

A place of contrasts and a big dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy surrounds, made this a highlight for me. Such an unexpected delight, the little chancel amidst the weeds and decay. A deserved inclusion in this blog!

The chancel was unlocked, which was a surprise as there was no one around. It may be locked when you visit. If all you can experience is the exterior ruin and surrounds, you won’t be disappointed.

Further information

Mongewell was once a strip parish – these were thin strips of land extending from the Thames and into part of Stoke Row, up in the Chiltern Hills. There is lovely story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to Stoke Row, far away in England. The land of endless rain ironically.

The Ridgeway National Trail skirts the site and a quick visit to the church is recommended.

Take the big skies and rolling Chiltern hills home with our new range of gifts and souvenirs from Chilterns Gifts.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Simple Orchids. Simply Beautiful

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

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

The footpath glistens underfoot as it cuts through the drooping wild grasses, my wet boots and trouser legs a magnet for seed dispersal. The daisy petals are splayed under the relentless June rain, which would explain the lack of butterflies and birdsong. Even the ubiquitous slugs are sheltering.

The orchids however, shrug off the rain, the vivid pyramidal purple orchid easy to spot in the rain-rinsed meadow.

The pyramidal orchid

These delicate, yet ruggered Chilterns’ varieties are so small, they can be difficult to spot. But once you know where to look, you will see them everywhere. The lilacs, browns, pinks, white and purple plants can be solitary or growing in busy clusters of up to 30-or more plants.

According to the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, chalk grassland develops on shallow, lime-rich soils that are poor in nutrients. Some of these grasslands now cover once thriving Chilterns’ quarries, the chalk by-products destined for London’s building trade as mortar and cement. In spring and summer these special habitats come to life, as swathes of amazing wild flowers and orchids, attract hordes of insects and tiny butterflies including the chalkhill blue, small blue and common blue amongst others – need a zoom lens to capture those!

Bee orchid in the disused quarry
Bee Orchid

Sadly too many councils and highways agencies are determined to keep mowing verges, so wildflowers and orchids don’t stand a chance. There is a vocal and growing campaign to keep verges as wild as is practical. I know I’d rather see flowers, not live in a manicured, sterile neighbourhood.

Further Information

To find out more about exploring the naturally outstanding Chilterns, or if like me, you need help identifying the local fauna and flora.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts, including mugs, tea-towels and our Chilterns A – Z field guide.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Mind the Swan Uppers!

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!

England is full of quaint customs, some funny and others frankly bizarre.

Some with origins lost or simply re-invigorated to suit modern tastes and bank holidays. Swan Upping is neither. Firmly routed in the 12th century, it is both necessary for conservation of mute swans and acts as a gentle reminder of just who owns them.

Marlow riverside for swan upping
Marlow Riverside

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 make their way upriver on their five-day journey from Sunbury to Abingdon Bridge in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. They are here to record the swan population on the River Thames.

Mind the Swan uppers at Marlow
Moody Marlow
Mute Swans

This historic ceremony dates from the twelfth century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans – especially the cygnets,  a prized dish at banquets and feasts. As with the deer from the great parks and forests, punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging. No longer eaten, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water. The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Traditional swan upping regalia
Traditional Regalia

All Up!

The Queen’s Swan Uppers wear traditional scarlet uniforms and each boat flies their flags and pennants.  On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”. With a cry of “All up!” the signal is given for the boats to get into position. Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury commonly caused by fishing hooks and line.

Swans at Marlow
Swans are not afraid to peck, so not sure I’d be that keen to bundle this lot into a boat.

A traditionalist at heart, I love seeing ceremonies re-purposed to chime with contemporary life. Never mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

This year Swan Upping starts on Tuesday 20th July from Eton Bridge, Berkshire and will finish on Thursday 22nd July at Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Provided there are no Government restrictions in place in respect of Covid-19. The website has information on times and the best places to view the ceremony

For more Chilterns summertime inspiration including walks, nosing around country churches or Manor Houses.

VisitChilterns.co.uk has further information about accommodation, transport links and our fabulous market towns.

Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s Locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames is worth packing a picnic for.

Further Marlow tales 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.

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.