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.

Coffee, Crafts, Cake and Chilterns beechwood

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we set off from nearby Christmas Common to walk through the quiet autumnal beech woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking only what had fallen to the ground.

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we walked through the quiet autumnal woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and the wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking up only what had fallen to the ground. 

The Hambleden Valley is a glorious space. It’s typical Chilterns countryside that has made it a favourite of TV and film directors, this beautiful valley synonymous with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Vicar of Dibley – but I am showing my age, as it has also appeared in the Band of Brothers and more recently, Killing Eve.

Cobstone Windmill, better known as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang windmill commands the valley and surrounding landscape

Crafty siblings

I was off to meet crafty siblings, John and Alice Nuttgens at their Idlecombe studio’s, just outside Turville along the delightful Holloway Lane – delightful only as long as you don’t have to reverse to make way for oncoming farm traffic! And then we were on to visit ceramicist Jane White, who lives and works near Christmas Common.

I had joined the ‘meet the makers’ walk, thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Chilterns Conservation Board who organise the new twice-yearly Chilterns walking festival. It is no surprise these walks have proved so popular as they are a lovely way to immerse yourself in the beautiful and bountiful Chilterns countryside. Each outing comes with a walk leader who is packing not only insights and country lore that only a local can know, but sometimes with homemade cake too! 

Down winding country lanes, only five miles north of Henley-upon-Thames, the tiny village of Turville is busy during the weekend. Busy with walkers and cyclists exploring the many trails and tracks that climb in and out of the Hambleden Valley. In contrast, weekdays are a good time to visit as it’s reasonably quiet, and it was down such a quiet lane I was to find Idlecombe Farm. Set back from the lane with low-slung sheds adorned with flowers, farming implements, chickens and enormous vegetables out front and back is where John Nuttgens  ceramist and his sister Alice Nuttgens master saddle maker and fitter were to be found.

..creative threads

John’s studio 

John puts it succinctly when he says that the creative thread that binds the many talented Chilterns craftspeople together, is the distinctive landscape in which they work and is from where they draw their inspiration; undulating countryside, chalk streams, fauna, flora, flint and the many hilltop-crowned beech woods. This can be seen in the pieces he makes that are adorned with local flowers or mirror the autumnal colours all about us.

John has been working clay since the 1970’s and came to settle in Idlecombe, in 2013 at which time he also established his studio and showroom alongside his sister Alice. Alice is a rarity; deftly using her hand-made tools, she is one of only 150-or-so saddle makers left in England. This is a craft I had never seen before and it was quickly clear why it takes seven years of training to make harnesses, bridles, belts, saddles and even bell mufflers for St Mary’s church in Turville.

Beechwood Rain

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we set off from nearby Christmas Common to walk through the quiet autumnal beech woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and the wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking only what had fallen to the ground. Our path followed an old sheep trail once in use to move the animals to nearby Watlington and even further afield, to London. The last of the blackberries still tasted good and noticeable piles of track-side feathers meant I wasn’t the only one enjoying the woodland bounty! 

A classic Holloway

Jane and her sheepdog Binny (who was having the day off work), welcomed us to her pretty studio that once served as the old dairy, on an isolated farm deep in the Chilterns countryside. The dairy is typical Chilterns vernacular of red brick and flint, this is the location I dream of escaping to!

The Old Dairy Studio
The Old Dairy

Jane uses a technique to create her ceramics that I was also unfamiliar with; pit firing using organic materials including coffee grinds and seaweed combined with the transformative power of fire, that renders the clay into a myriad of different patterns and colours. Each piece unique. Jane explained that she is constantly striving to create forms that mirror the simplicity and balance evident all around us in the natural world, in the Chilterns. 

On the path back, we have a conversation about how much organic lamb from the adjoining fields has been sold to Tesco. A lot it seems, which creates its own tensions for local business. Local producers can face all manner of obstacles getting their goods to market; lack of awareness, too often struggling with poor connectivity and technology, marketing, capacity, profile, competition and volume producers from other locations. But I am confident that there is a bright future for skilled Chilterns craftspeople who are creating new, unique goods that are grounded and shaped by something very special. Something that cannot be bought from far-off factories. Something they find in the naturally outstanding Chilterns landscape. So please support them when you can, their details are below. 

Thank you Annette and Laura for  fortifying us with homemade cookies and apple juice

Further Information 

There are many glorious places  to visit nearby including the National Trust’s Nuffield Place and the Wormsley Estate and Getty Library.

Discover too, the Gentle Giants on Chiltern Ridges, sample the Tastes of the Chess Valley and watercress Tools of the Trade. 

10 perfect pub walks in the uncrowded alternative to the Cotswolds or  this 9.5 mile circular walk starting from the village of Hambleden, takes you past four local pubs. 

The Autumn walking festival has now finished, thank you to all those who took part, but save the date for the Spring festival – Saturday 18th May – Sunday 2nd June 2019.

Artists’ websites include

John Nuttgens Ceramics

Alice Nuttgens Saddlers 

Jane White Ceramics 

Flavours of the Chess Valley

Despite knowing you are out in the Chilterns countryside, I am reminded of how precious this landscape is – some would say lung – situated so close to burgeoning market towns and London. I heard mention many times of the environmental stress that the River Chess endures, from drought, increased demand for water and waterborne pollution.

Drinking before lunchtime is not without risk; needing a loo whilst out on the trail, not finding the trail, or failing to turn up for lunch on time!

The Chilterns is a living, working area of beautiful countryside whose character has been shaped by agriculture, industry and the people who have lived and worked here over the centuries. Once the larder of London, the historic market towns, tucked-away villages, pubs, chalk-fed streams, valleys and ancient woodland, hint at the tradition of growing, trading, travel and of course, enjoyment of good local food and drink.

Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink

I had the pleasure of once again visiting the charming Chess Valley to meet food producers including a start-up brewery and the last watercress farmer in the valley, with our guides Andrew Clark and local Chess Valley Lamb farmer, Paul Jennings, both of whom had organised this unique event as part of the inaugural Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink.

It was another beautiful spring morning as we set off from Chenies Manor on our walk through this beautiful valley. This historic location has been impacted by human settlement for thousands of years; from the Iron Age, to the first century AD when the Romans began farming arable crops, to medieval settlements and abandoned churches, to the more obvious manor houses, miscellaneous ruined structures, monuments, tombs and the historic (altered) landscape are evidence of the many human endeavours.

Despite knowing you are out in the Chilterns countryside, I am reminded of how precious this landscape is – some would say lung – situated so close to burgeoning market towns and London. I heard mention many times of the environmental stress that the River Chess endures, from drought, increased demand for water and waterborne pollution.

River chess looking calm
The tranquil river chess

Three Springs

Rising from three springs, the river is fed from precious groundwater beneath the Chiltern hills that hold a chalk aquifer that is the lifeblood of this region. From nearby Chesham, the river flows below parkland landscaped by Capability Brown at Latimer House, just to the north of the hamlet of Chenies, through water meadows at Frogmore and the watercress beds at Sarratt Bottom to the west of Sarratt, which was our destination.

On the way, we drank some beer!

’low hanging fruit’
‘watercress ale’
‘win-win’and ‘black friday’ awaited.

Paradigm Brewery
Watercress Ale

All new ales brewed at the Sarratt-based Paradigm Brewery, founded in 2012 and already making a tasteful noise across the Chilterns. Co-owners Neil Hodges and Rob Atkinson certainly have a passion for what they do, a quest for producing the best beer, which is no easy feat when the bigger brewers have first dibs at the hops harvest. Undaunted, their beer is flying off the shelves, much in demand from local pubs and thirsty brewery visitors. I must confess to not being very knowledgable or appreciative of all things beer, but my father used to brew his own in the garage so understand the brewers zeal. I was keen to try to watercress beer that John Tyler suggested they use to create a new flavour that would be really distinctive, something that tasted of the Chess Valley.

Strip lynchets before lunch

Andrew and Paul pointed out various landmarks and places where former industry once was, including strip lynchets, on the rise up the valley side that are thought to date from the 9th century and may have been the site of medieval vineyards! Vines love chalky soils. There is plenty of wildlife, including the rare ‘ratty’ or water vole, once again making their homes on the riverbanks. The area is busy with film crews too including; Midsomer Murders, Taboo and Mary Berry’s Everyday cookery show.

The cress beds on a winters day
Crestyl Watercress Beds

The highlight of the day was a visit to E.Tyler & Sons Crestyl Watercress beds, the last cress farmer from a once busy industry that supplied the dining tables of London. The lama’s grazing at the entrance politely ignored us as we headed down the lane to meet with John Tyler, third generation farmer and formally keeper of the cress flame.

Watercress farmer, the last of his kind
John Tyler, formally the keeper of the flame

John is a man with many stories and he stood waiting for us with his tools of the trade; an innocuous-looking knife and plastic crate into which he placed the freshly cut cress. The diverted clear waters of the Chess make for perfect growing conditions as the plants take root in the shallow beds. The farm feels timeless, the tools, the terrain and technology. And the flavour, wow! Fiery, peppery and fresh. ‘Just picked’ cliche aside, it’s true.

Chenies Manor

Andrew dragged us away as our Taste of the Chess Valley feast awaited at Chenies Manor. On the menu was Crestyl Watercress soup, Chess Valley-grazed slow cooked lamb pea&mint pie, Blackwell farmed beef and Paradigm Ale pie served with a fiery cress salad, and if there was room, Chiltern hills honey and rhubarb.

Lunch at Chenies Manor
Two happy diners

What a fabulous day; being able to enjoy a beautiful spring walk in the Chilterns, meeting inspirational food producers, hearing their stories, sometimes tinged with dark humour as they have had to overcome obstacles on the way to bring us such wonderful food and unusual drink. Now it’s your turn to enjoy it.

Further Information

Read about the last watercress producer John Tyler, who has sadly had to close this business to the varying quality of the water.

I recommend this 10-mile walk through the Chess Valley, details downloaded here.

For further information on what else there is to enjoy locally in the Chilterns and elsewhere across the summer.