George Alexander Gratton

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp at. 

Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.

The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns. Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.

Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close

This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, where it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander. King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months. Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy. Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days. 

George Alexander coloured aquatint after Daniel Orme 1809. Subtitled: “An Extraordinary Spotted Boy” this engraving was often sold as a souvenir. Credit: Marlow Museum

The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour.  

Three murders and a ghost

One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”

Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield London.  Credit: Marlow Museum 

Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.  

Contradiction and the absurd

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy, he even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, full of pomp and circumstance. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.

Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph: 

“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye

Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,

Know that there lies beneath this humble stone

A child of colour, haply not thine own, 

His parents, born of Afric’s sunburnt race,

Tho’ white and black where blended in his face, 

To Britain brought, which made his parents free, 

And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”

Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.

George Gratton, painted by the artist Coventry that still hangs in All Saints Church. 

I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language.  I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace. 

Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.

Somewhere amongst these headstones is the grave

How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young boy, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.

Further information

Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.

Read the wonderful story of Peter the Wild Boy part one and part two

Explore the naturally outstanding Chilterns and the market town of Marlow or take a walking tour of the historic town centre.

Discover more Chilterns Churches, ideas for winter wanderings and for the spring, the unique and bonkers Swan Upping ceremony that is best enjoyed from the riverside at Marlow.

In search of Paul Nash

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

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

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

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

Capturing Landscapes

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

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

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

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

Not that much has changed

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

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

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

Dorchester Abbey
The view across to Dorchester Abbey

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

Round Hill
Round Hill where you will find declarations of love

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

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

From the poem tree
Robert reads a dull poem

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

My Knight in Shining Armour

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

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

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

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

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

Expect the Unexpected

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

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

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

Further information

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

Visit the model villages at the Pendon museum

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

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

Growing Stones

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. 

Ashridge weather vane
Fan vaulting and tracery on the ceiling of the tower, with a dial that displays the position of the weathervane on the roof.

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. 

Garden Design

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.

Peaceful and colourful ashridge house gardens
The peaceful gardens

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.

Maple tree in Ashridge House
The maple signals the change of season

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.

Reptons' drawing of his rosary garden
Humphry Repton’s 1813 Rosary Drawing

Puddingstone’s

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!

Ashridge house southern garden
A cluster of puddingstone’s marks the Souterrein

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 restored rose garden
The view of the house from the restored rose 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. 

Oak tree planted by princess Victoria in 1823
At a mere 195 years old, the magnificent Princess Victoria oak steals the show

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

Information on tours of the house and gardens can be found here. Holy relics were once big business, read about the Ashridge relics here.

Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here: 

I have walked past the Amaravati Buddhist monastery many times, enjoying the many routes from Frithsden and Ashridge, but have never gone in. I never thought to. To sit quietly in the gardens or even visit the temple for peaceful reflection.

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.

Be Not Weary in Well Doing

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

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

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

Indian largesse

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

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

The source of this charming Chilterns story

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

East India Connections

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

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

101 Cherry Trees

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

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

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

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

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

The Elephant & Bandstand
Trunk to Trunk

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

Well cottage and the Moghul dome
The distinctive Dome

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

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

Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll.

Holy relics were once big business.

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

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

Fox glove in the Chilterns

The pretty, but toxic foxglove

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

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That’s the Bridgewater Monument in the distance.

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

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll. The estate passed through various families until in 1800, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater demolished most of the priory, and construction began on the present house in 1808–1814.

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

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

Trees in the Chilterns Ashridge Estate
A tree-lined nave

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

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

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

So the cycle continues.

Ashridge Business School is well rooted amongst its surroundings
Well rooted

Further Information:

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

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

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

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

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

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Almshouses: a social history

Almshouses are a fascinating curiosity left over from an age when the poor and destitute would typically fall through the gaps as universal care as we know it, did not exist.

You will find almshouses in the centre of busy towns, on high streets, beside churches or tucked away in the corner of a field, the remnants of former communities and their social needs. Typically Georgian in style, there are some Tudor, one Strawberry Hill Gothic, whilst others have had a Victorian makeover, but still include interesting features, elaborate chimneys, often with pretty cottage gardens or courtyards the perfect location for the residents to spend time in.

A Safe Passage for Souls

By definition, an almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people to remain in their own particular community. They are often targeted at the poor, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. Originally formed as an extension of the church system, benefactors were not exclusive to this order however, and some where established primarily to ensure safe passage for the benefactors’ souls to make it to heaven.

Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating around 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses and for those established for the benefit of the founder of their family, usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

Residents no longer have to wear special items of clothing, emblems or badges that would signify where they lived, or to remind others of their benefactors’ largesse. Dwellings too have been modernised which has meant that in some instances, fewer residents can be housed with the addition of indoor plumbing for example. An impressive 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated across the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people.

The Chilterns has a wonderful collection of these buildings that are still functioning as charitable associations, housing those in need and below are some that I have visited, and will add to this as I encounter more. Suggestions most welcome!

Aylesbury Old Town

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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street

Aylesbury old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline. Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need; an aim broadly in line with almshouse charity foundations across the country.

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Church Street Aylesbury

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age surrounded by multiple terraced houses or apartments now providing accommodation for small numbers of residents.

Ewelme

William and Alice de la Pole were benefactors of the almshouses and school built in 1442. The almshouses were to consist of twelve old men, bachelors, poor and in reduced circumstances, but not from the lowest class of life. Over them was set the thirteenth man, who was to be of a ‘superior type’, a kind of head-brother to the twelve. All were to wear a habit consisting of black tabards or gowns of wool with a red cross upon the breast. Closely incorporated with the church through whose west door leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents now live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex, complete with their very own Grande Dame of Ewelme.

Medieval Alms Houses
The Almshouses in Ewelme

Lady Dodd’s cottages Ellesborough

A Grade II Listed block of four almshouses in Ellesborough, that were formerly eight, date from 1746. Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women, but is unclear what her connection with the Ellesborough area was.  Over the road form the church, these cottages are now a private home with one of the loveliest of Chilterns views. Lady Dodd made similar bequests in Little Budworth in Cheshire.

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St Peter & St Paul church with Dodds cottages in the foreground

Weedon Almshouse Gardens Chesham

A Grade II Listed building, founded in 1624 by the bequest of Thomas Weedon of Pednor, Weedon Almshouses were rebuilt in the late nineteenth century of flint rubble and red brick quoins. The four almshouses with their gables, barge-boards and chimneystacks are difficult to see as they sit obscured behind a high flint wall, so an image is not readily available.

Sir William Drake’s Almshouse Amersham

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The dwellings are typically set around the communal courtyard

A Grade II listed property, the Drake’s almshouses were a gift to the market town of  Amersham by local bigwig, Sir William Drake who built them in 1657 ‘for the relief of 6 poor widows of good repute in the parish’. Originally six dwellings, they were converted in 1997 to provide increased accommodation and modern conveniences for four residents given them greater comfort including indoor plumbing.

There is a tablet to the rear of the buildings commemorating John and Alice Day, who used to run the Swan Inn.  Their daughter Harriet built these almshouses in 1875 for six poor women of good character.  Men are now permitted to live here – how times have changed!

Amersham Museum garden
The John and Alice Day almshouses are visible from the Museum garden.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

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Located on the high street in Berkhamsted,  John Sayer, chief cook to Charles II,  bequeathed £1000 in trust “for the building of an almshouse and the purchasing of lands for the relief of the poor widows in Berkhamsted St Peter”. The inscription reads: “The Guift of John Sayer Esq 1684”. They are noticeable for their simple, compact structure, along a high street messy with renovations and clutter.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on the original Roman road, Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum. They were built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town and wider Chilterns. This lovely row of tudoresque-styled almshouses was designed by William Huckvale and are quite a local feature, with Nos. 1-5 dated ‘1893’ and Nos. 6-8 dated ‘1901’.

Further Information

Adventures and further inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns, including museums, the famous and infamous past residents.

To find out more about Almshouses, the Almshouse Association has a useful website.

An Appreciation of Aylesbury

At first drive-through, this busy Buckinghamshire town is not a pretty sight. Aylesbury is town that has kept it’s historic heart well and truly hidden, marooned on a little island cut off by busy roads full of traffic rushing through on their way elsewhere.

Perhaps you are familiar with Aylesbury because of its association with ducks? Not as obvious is its historic association with the nearby Chilterns as this town played an important role  in the English Civil War, very much in support of the Parliamentarians against Charles I and presents one of the most visible links with the Chilterns due to its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden: his silhouette on the emblem used by the district council and his statue prominent in the market square. 

A town that has grown too quickly, concrete, traffic and ugly shopping centres are the hazards to be navigated before finding the charming Georgian old town.

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The Kings Head Farmers Bar

A way in, is through an easy-to-miss arch that leads from Market Street into the restored 15th medieval coach inn yard of the Kings Head inn, busy serving food and beverages since around 1455 no less. Now owned by the National Trust, the popular Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site has been run by the Chiltern Brewery since 2005. Follow the cobbled passageway into the courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century when it was the original busy market square.

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The enclosure of the quiet courtyard with additional stables to the one at the rear once provided stabling for nearly thirty horses, hard to imagine now.

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St Mary the Virgin

The old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline.

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Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need.

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St Mary’s Square

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age. These multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents can be found all over England, the Netherlands and Norway. Established from the 10th century, the first recorded almshouse in England was founded in York by King Athelstan with many of the medieval almshouses established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family. As a result, most were regarded as chantries (saying prayers for the soul of the benefactor to speed their way to heaven), and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

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The rebuilt 1871 almshouses on Church Street with distinctive Neo-Tudor chimneys

There have been almshouses in Aylesbury since before the 12th century and the provision for assisting the poor typically came from the church, local hospitals and various private benefactors. By the late 17th century, demand grew, due to increased migration from the countryside that continued to put pressure on the Aylesbury parish. It was during this time, that the Thomas Hickman charity was founded, along with other new almshouses including; the Weeden almshouse in Chesham, the Drake almshouses in Amersham and Lady Dodds cottages in Ellesborough and the even older Ewelme Almshouse Charity in Ewelme amongst others (blog post follows).

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A variety of styles along Church Street

These simple dwellings provided space for one person to live in a single room – normally as part of group that stipulated how many where intended for men and how many for women, all of whom received an allowance, or pension that could be money and goods, such as kindling. The Thomas Hickman houses did not follow this pattern and you can enjoy the many sizes and styles alongside one another, that reflect that there is unusually no prescribed limit on the number of occupants, normally one per dwelling.

It is remarkable that such an old welfare system still survives today, is testament to it’s valued place in building communities and giving recipients independence and dignity with a stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town.

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No8. Church Street ‘the Chantry’.

Further Information:

Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. Worth the effort I’d say, once past all the concrete to explore this oasis and I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.

“The white Aylesbury duck is a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad, deep breast and ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. ”—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

You can still buy Aylesbury ducks from the last breeder, Richard Waller, whose family has been breeding them since 1745.

The Thomas Hickman Charity, A Tercentenary History (author Hugh Hanley) is an interesting accompaniment to this feature.

Bucks County Museum is worth a visit and is open throughout the year.

To enjoy Chiltern Brewery finest beer and ale, visit the Kings Head pub.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration VisitChilterns.co.uk

The Grande Dame of Ewelme

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.

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!

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The winding road to Swyncombe

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.

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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.

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The old ‘cress beds

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.

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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?

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Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church

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!

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Ewelme Store

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.

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For more Chilterns inspiration and ideas