On a quiet August afternoon, camera in hand, I took to the back streets of West Wycombe village. Away from the busy thoroughfare, apart from the TV aerials amongst the chimney pots, not much has changed.
This tiny village, that hugs the hillside looks just like a film set; steep lanes, wobbly windows festooned with impressive cobwebs, doorways for tiny residents and unexpected passageways. All authentic, medieval properties, re-purposed for 21st century life. How come there are no ghastly 1960’s office blocks, betting shops or parking garages along this delightful high street?
Luckily for us, through a chain of events that started in New York with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, West Wycombe village, in its entirety was sold by the Dashwood family to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist.
This was once an important stop for weary travellers heading too and from London by stagecoach, along pitted and muddy roads. The street was packed with hospitality options, although chances are you’d have had to share your noisy, scratchy bed with a stranger. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village, and today you can stop to enjoy a pint or glass of something local in the one of the tea shops or pubs. At least that hasn’t changed!
Take in all attractions; the caves, St Lawrence and the mausoleum, down to the high street for a wander and then over the road into the National Trust Park. During the summer, the house is open, so set aside one day. Do the place justice!
The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that 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 West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.
West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.
There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.
We like to celebrate our quirky residents, past and present and for another grand design, visit the National Trust at Stowe, near Buckingham.
Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.
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.
Christopher points out Brightwell Barrow
Brightwell Barrow from the Clumps
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?
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.
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.
The magnificent alter
Under the flagstones
The People’s Chapel
The wedding guests
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!
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.
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.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
Ashridge gardens are a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Humphry Repton and an acorn from a queen.
Each time I visit Ashridge, I am inspired by the stories I uncover: religious relics, sunken lanes, a landscape of contrasts, abandoned masonry, animal trails, a vineyard, the wild and the managed. All within a glorious 5,000 acres of Chilterns woodland.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
Inside one of the two living beech houses that overlook the restored herb garden
A mason’s paradise
Ashridge Gardens extend an impressive 190 acres across a reasonably flat site in an otherwise undulating and hilly landscape. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the northern and eastern part of the gardens and famous Golden Valley. It is the gardens south of the house, originally designed by Humphry Repton (1752 -1818), in the early 19th century, that we were here to explore. In good company, Repton, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown share the honour of being the three most famous 18th century landscape designers and gardeners.
From 1808 to 1813 the architect James Wyatt crafted, from local Totternhoe ‘soft’ stone and lashings of flint, an Ashridge House to claim the high-point above the undulating Golden Valley and surrounding forest.
The grounds to the rear of the house are dominated by the extensive lawn leading onto avenues of trees inviting you to explore further, with the promise of tantalising views of the surrounding area.
On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, which have been the focus for Mick Thompson and his team. Working on the restoration of the Rosary, an Armorial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Flower Garden that have retained strong links with their designer and visionary, Repton.
The county line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire runs right through the garden, and is now marked by a puddingstone no less. Once disputed, with Buckinghamshire laying claim to more than their due, this conglomerate rock (that could be the icon of Hertfordshire), has symbolically won the day!
You can see the puddingstone’s tumbled about the entrance to the grotto and souterrein tunnel that have been constructed using this very hard conglomerate. The estate has the largest collection of puddingstone’s, possibility the largest supply in the world! How and when they are formed is a mystery, but Hertfordshire folk have never been in doubt ̶ it grows, and then gives birth to new stones. This is because stones appear out of the ground, which has given rise to the names “Growing Stone” and “Breeding Stone”.
A fitting addition to this garden.
The Italian Garden and the arbour for the Rose Garden (now framed with laburnum trees), have been restored to their original design.
What made it for me was the magnificent oak, dominating the lawn, its massive trunk and spreading limbs are just perfect. I stood and stared. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my garden when I was a child. This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to Ashridge. How will it be commemorated in 2023? I took an acorn home for my son.
Ashridge is a compelling story, made up of the majestic and the mundane. I just know I am going to go on following those loose threads and blemishes to see what they reveal.
My visit was on a Repton Garden Tour, an event in the excellent Heritage Open Days programme organised by Jenny Sherwood of the Berkhamsted Local Historical & Museum Society and led by the charming and knowledgeabe Mick Thompson, head gardener at Ashridge House. Thank you both.
I must confess that after this delightful garden tour, I still can’t remember many plant, shrub nor tree names! Apart from the oak, that really caught my eye. But that says more about me than it does Mick.
Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here:
Book a table for lunch at the popular Alford Arms in nearby Frithsden.The first gin distillery in Hertfordshire, named after the iconic stone, can be found at Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring.
Take a walk around the medieval stone quarry at Totternhoe, seven miles from Ashridge.
And if that’s not enough, further Chilterns inspiration and itineraries can be found here.
In which a ‘doomed’ 15th century painting is saved by the rain.
On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties. I was content however, to nose around indoors, on the lookout for the famous ‘doom’ painting; the main reason this church is of such cultural and historical significance.
Nothing beats local knowledge
I got the strong impression this church is still a vital community hub, with feverish wedding preparations underway and so tried not to get in the way of the florist and a busy vacuum cleaner. In the capable hands of local guide Helen, who modestly professed to not knowing much about the history of the building, then proceeded to dazzle with her huge knowledge; brass rubbings, the Penn family crypt, lozenges adorning the walls, medieval Penn tiles in the lady chapel, the doom painting of course, church extensions and renovations and not forgetting those buried in the graveyard.
Now set high on the east wall, the 15th century ‘doom’ painting is still looking as bright and fresh as the day it was painted. One of only five surviving wooden tympanums in the country, it would have been purposefully positioned for worshippers as they faced the alter. A “dooms day painting” is a traditional English term for an image of the Last Judgment when Christ judges souls to send them to either Heaven or Hell. A crude but effective part of the eclesastical warning system to illiterate congregations, to toe the line or face judgement on the day. This one not only survived the English Reformation, it survived being tossed into the skip!
During renovations in the 1930’s, the now whitewashed wooden panels, were stripped and placed outside, destined for the bin. By good fortune it rained overnight and when the vicar returned the next morning, he saw faces peering out at him through the whitewash. Their cry for help answered? That is surely a reason to love the rain! Now safely re-instated inside the church, looking as bright as the day it was painted 500 years ago.
Memorials and brass rubbings
At the entrance, there is an inscribed vault stone to mark where Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, who was allowed to build a large vault beneath the church nave for himself, his brother and four of his children who were interred between 1753 and 1766. The Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania however, is buried at the nearby Jordans Quaker Meeting House with his first wife, Guilielma, his second wife, Hannah, and nine of his children. Despite the many offers to have him moved to Pennsylvania, he remains in the quiet Chilterns churchyard.
As Helen waved goodbye, she pointed to the one hand on the clock tower and told me that during the 17th century a one-handed clock was all a villager needed, minutes where simply too much information! On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties including; Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Greater London, Bedfordshire, Northants and Surrey. I’ll have to return to see the view for myself.
This is what I love about parish churches, they are an essential part of not only our local Chilterns story, but the nation’s story too. Unlike a museum, they are stuffed full of treasures, but none kept behind glass, or in spaces filled with tour groups, these are a snapshot of history, watched over by individuals keen to generously share.
I recommend that during the Heritage Open Days event in September, to visit the nearby Penn House which is the other half of the Holy Trinity story in the Chilterns.
There are plenty more to explore, and do please let me know if you have other Chilterns churches to recommend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.
Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.
The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!
I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.
Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.
Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.
Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.
Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?
The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.
Some of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.
I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.
This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.
This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all press in on this space. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.
I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.
I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.
Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.
Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL
How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village? The village of Ewelme fits the bill.
On the Swyncombe road about a mile outside the village of Ewelme is where I stopped to take a deep breath and familiarise myself with the lay of the land. The last time I was here was to visit St Botolph’s, three miles up the lane in the direction two casually-peddling Lycra-free cyclists were heading. It’s a good sign!
I picked my along the path before settling on a rotten tree trunk that offered respite from the sticky mud. A rabbit dart beneath the hedgerow, it must have seen the two lazily circling kites overhead. A weedy line of smoke from a farmhouse rises from a small fire further up the valley and only a low-flying aeroplane just taking off from nearby RAF Benson is competing with the spring birdsong.
The English countryside: managed or manicured, everything in it’s place, but that’s not to say without beauty, it’s how you see it that counts. Symmetry, patterns, parallel lines, even the turn of the plough creates its own pattern picked out by the sunlight. Little dabs of lime green growth in the hedgerows contrasts with the emerald green of the field behind. Even the vapour trails add their dotted and dashed pattern to the perfect blue sky. I am buzzed by an enormous bumblebee, circling my muddy shoes.
Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.
Ewelme is located north east of the market town of Wallingford, nestled in a green dip, with narrow lanes and pretty cottages tumbling down the hillside to congregate along now defunct watercress beds fed by the Ewelme Brook, that eventually makes its meandering way to the River Thames. Production has sadly ceased (cress can still be bought and enjoyed in the Chess Valley), but now these beds are owned and managed by the Chiltern Society who organise events here in the reserve.
If you like medieval villages, there is plenty to satisfy you here: lots of typical Chilterns brick and flint and crooked doorways, well-tendered gardens bursting with flowers, the 15th century cloistered almshouses and modest school; but the real gem is the lovely church of St Mary the Virgin that commands the village heights with a 14th century tower that can be seen from almost anywhere above walls and rooftops.
Much has been written about this church, it’s memorials, tombs and occupants that can still be seen today thanks to some quick thinking by local Civil War army commander Colonel Francis Martyn, who refused to give up the key to the church and the Roundheads who surprisingly obeyed, left the church unscathed.
How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village?
The must-have tomb
The reason everyone visits is to gaze at the rather splendid tomb of Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church who died in 1475 aged 71. We remember her not only for her status, wealth, influence, three husbands, family connections and rare recipient of the Order of the Garter, but because she and her husband gave Ewelme its (rebuilt) church, new superior grammar school and almshouses. She also happened to be the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and her father, Thomas Chaucer was lord of the Manor of Ewelme and governor of Wallingford Castle. The side chapel where she is buried has a curious array of church furnishings that include the original medieval floor tiles, a gaudy turn-of-the-century alter piece adorned with English saints, the sole surviving medieval seat and fabulous IHS monogrammed walls. The tomb dominates the space in a style and manner usually reserved for a Knight and his Lady. She is buried alone as her third husband suffered a ghastly traitors fate and is buried in Suffolk, so she had to make do with adoring cherubs instead. Arranged over three levels, from the most elaborate and celebratory at the top to the realistic effigy of the occupant in her funeral shroud at the bottom.
Too many village churches are nothing but disappointment and dust, sanitised by the Victorians who liked to clean up the mess and paint over the unsightly to better suit their view of the world. But here you have a medieval complex that has seen continuous use for about 600 years, from childhood through to death, and I am certain, watched over by the community who take great pride in their heritage, it will cope with the pressures and fancies of the next 600 years.
Out through the west door, leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex. The school has outgrown the red brick building and has extended it’s classrooms discreetly behind another brick wall to the rear.
In the village store, opposite Kings Pool, I enjoyed coffee and a tasty sandwich and chatted with a bloke who had an interesting collection of old-school camera’s, and wondered if there was any truth to the legend that a lady-in-waiting had in fact pushed King Henry Vlll in!
As for the ghost stories, we’ll save those for another day, as you’ll hear tell of fairies and a witches curse too. Please leave your car in the car park at the entrance to the village and explore on foot.
In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.
I love the wide open winter vistas that reveal unexpected views and spaces, the shadows long, and a raw winter wind causes the bare tree tops to clatter and scratch against one another, loud on the otherwise still hillside.
What looked like the aftermath of a great disturbance with piles of flint, up-ended trees, mounds of excavated chalk and the biggest wall of roots I’d ever seen awaited us as we headed off-piste to follow the animal trails that branch off the well-trodden Ashridge Forest Sunday paths. The Ashridge estate is huge, with over 5,000 acres of woodlands and the many visitors tending to huddle near the toilets, cafe and carpark, the chances are always good you’ll have the other 4,999 acres pretty much to yourself.
Heading downhill through the trees, it’s only as the track became even narrower and I have to watch where I am walking, that I notice the toppled trees interspersed with tightly-packed new growth, enjoying a few years of space before they are muscled out. These upended beeches, all pointing uphill, whilst the oaks, needing space have jumped the fence and taken root in the field alongside.
This scene of furious activity by nature’s hand, not human, looks surreal; big pieces of scattered flint, stones, numerous piles of chalk excavated by badgers as they enlarge their extensive hillside homes, even trees turning to dust. The leaf litter is still thick, and covers ankle-twisting holes and rocks, and still the barely visible track leads on along the edge of the tree line, very straight, there is no mistaking the intention of this boundary. In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.
Wide open winter vistas revealing the unexpected view back down the valley rising up to Wiggington and Wendover. This seasonal sight will close up, like a theatre curtain draws over the view as the trees spring back into life. A crow hangs lazily on the wind.
The dog is spooked by something, so scrambles onto a log, growling and begins to bark. Having dull senses, I cannot hear nor smell as he can, when suddenly, the hillside comes alive as a small herd of deer crash through the trees, in flight from an excited barking dog, The deer however, have the upper hand, they know all the tracks and escape routes and they sweep past us, twice. I bet they know this is a Sunday morning, their least favourite day of the week!
Next up on the weirdness scale, a wall of roots and stones, at least 10 foot in circumference, that shields a well-trampled clearing, a good spot for the deer? What forces were at work to upend such a large tree, revealing this stoney underworld apron?
The aerated soil is crunchy underfoot, a mix of pebbles, beechnuts, and twigs. We pass a large saw pit, criss-crossed with bike tracks as we follow a well-used single track uphill. The vegetation on this sunny slope quickly changes from the stark to timid signs of the first primroses and what will be another grand display of bluebells in April or May, as their tiny leaves break through the leaf cover.
Do trees only fall uphill? From my unscientific study, I’d say yes they do. However, I was delighted to see that here and there, rebel trees had thrown themselves onto the fence downhill, in some places crushing it flat beneath their weight. Result!
Voices carry on the wind and I know it’s time to head home.