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.

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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.

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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

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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.