I am increasingly drawn to the northern Chilterns. Encircled by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire conurbations of Luton, Dunstable, Stevenage and Hitchin, this unassuming space has a rich history.
A landscape under urban pressure as the sprawl grows and grows. Pre Covid-19, Luton airport had over 100,000 annual aircraft movements, adding to the noise and pollution. This is no chocolate box English idyll. In sharp contrast to the central and southern Chilterns, you have to look harder to understand the landscape and it’s unusual sense of place.
Beauty and special landscape qualities are everywhere
Just north of the Barton Hills and within sight of the escarpment that runs from Sharpenhoe through to Knocking Hoe, Shillington village is crowded around its church. A prominent landmark atop its chalk hill, the tower is visible for miles around.
“hoh”, or “hoe” as it has become known, refers to a heel or protruding piece of land.
At nearly 1,000 years old, All Saints Church has survived the weather, natural disaster, decay, plague, pollution and a Victorian make-over. The geology has determined the vernacular with the ironstone walls, a type of Clophill sandstone commonly found in Bedfordshire. The whiter interior stone is called ‘clunch’, a soft, workable chalky limestone from the old quarry at Totternhoe in south Bedfordshire. A stone distinguishable in many local churches (and in Westminster Abbey). Mined at Totternhoe Knowles, a favourite place to walk with wildflowers, industrial archaeology and smattering of burnt-out cars.
Once a Saxon monastery, the church and region grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite. More than just fossilised dinosaur dung, this wonder substance can also include teeth, bones and claws consumed by the ‘producer’, and mineralised over millions of years.
These accumulations are in fact the remains of land animals caught as the sea levels rose over 90 million years ago. The resulting Greensand Ridge stretches over 100 miles from Tring through Bedfordshire and Cambridge and on to East Anglia.
In the 1700’s, someone discovered that once coprolites were processed, the resulting phosphate made excellent fertiliser. Seams were subsequently exposed at nearby Chibley Farm, and so began a dangerous, but lucrative trade. All across the region, people came to what must have been a mini-gold rush. Shillington’s population doubled to 2,400 thirsty men, women and children who made good use of the 12 local pubs! Everyone was cashing in; landowners, farmers, the church, publicans, bankers, brewers and mining suppliers.
Drinking was naturally a problem and the church spent time and effort trying to tackle it. After taking the pledge, one man was advised by his doctor to take ‘a glass of Porter’ to alleviate his rheumatism, he decided to be pain-free rather than devout, but lost his membership of the congregation!
From about 1890 the industry declined almost as fast as it grew. There are no landscape scars however, no rusty mining structures either. The layer of coprolite-bearing clay was handily near to the surface, and once extraction holes had been depleted, the fields could be easily restored.
Is that the time?
One local exception could be the clock in the church tower. Put in at considerable expense at the height of the boom in 1870, when £100 seemed a reasonable price?
The more visible legacy are the big houses that got bigger from the proceeds of leasing land for prospecting. Methodist chapels sprung up at the height of the boom and landowner Trinity College in Cambridge, made handsome profits.
As you explore these pretty village and country lanes with screeching summer swallows, imagine who has passed before you; hoping to make their fortune, or finding misfortune from the fossils.
An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing places, geology and history, is worth your time.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, All Saints is temporarily closed. Sunday afternoon teas and refreshments will hopefully be offered once they re-open.
The Bunyon Trail is dedicated to the memory of John Bunyan, the Puritan Evangelist and author of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, his famous work he wrote whilst in prison. The route passes through villages and scenic countryside, taking in many places of historic interest connected with him.
The nearby Crown pub serves cozy pub meals with a garden in the summer.
The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.
Often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous River Thames, the inland waterways and Grand Union Canal are without a doubt, the workhorse threading its way though the Chilterns countryside.
Arms and Legs
The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system, a series of inland waterways starting in London and ending 137 miles further north in Birmingham. With 166 locks and unknown number (to me), of bridges, it also has ‘arms’ to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.
The canal network as we know it, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The so-called “narrow” canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London, was the result.
In our region, the Grand Union Canal links Watford, Kings Langley, the paper mill at Hemel Hempstead, former lumber yards at Berkhamsted, up over the Tring heights and on to Leighton Buzzard and northwards.
Whilst I am ducking the laden overhanging branches, full of damsons and rose hips, making sure to not miss-step into buckets of fish bait or decaying towpath, I wonder what the traffic system would have been like for the horses hauling the barges?
The Canal Duke
Ever looking for a Chilterns link, I found it in none other than the ‘father of inland navigation’, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). A pioneer of canal construction, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal— said to be the first true canal in Britain, and the modern world.
The Canal Duke is commemorated in a number of locations around the country. Closer to home, his remains lie in the vault in the Bridgewater chapel in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. A loosely translated Latin inscription on his memorial reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his field”. Two miles west In the adjoining Ashridge Estate, you will find a local landmark – the unusual Bridgewater Monument erected in 1832. I am sure it is modelled on the Monument to the Great Fire in London. In the summer, you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. Perhaps count at least five surrounding counties?
Nuts and Bolts
The softer surrounding Chilterns landscape is in stark contrast to these manufactured stamps and implements needed for safe navigation. These remnants of the industrial past are everywhere; unexpected holes, distance markers – that all seem to lead to Braunston, so many numbers and date-stamps on lock gates, at the waterline. Everything in its place and in its place, everything. And most still in use today.
A Roadway Paved with Water
Towpaths, moorings and waterways are the domain of leisure users. On bicycles, on foot, on the water, in the water, touring or living in canal boats. Some have made their permanent moorings into cosy homes with small garden plots alongside, with flowers, furniture and trinkets that could only adorn a static boat. Plenty of cooling off opportunities too!
And still there are fatter and lazier stretches where nothing much happens. Until you hear the splash of a rising fish, or fishing heron or the dart of a kingfisher. Occasionally you can hear the trains rushing to and from London and Birmingham, but otherwise you are alone.
Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts
There are no smooth edges here, apart from on the water itself. The brickwork, bridges and bolts are testament to the enginners, designers, carpenters, bricklayers and ‘navvies’ – a term shortened from the original ’navigators’ that the labourers were called. The Canal Duke was able to call on miners from his Worsley colliery to dig his canal. These men made a good living as they developed new skills that enabled them to earn far better wages than ordinary labourers. Some worked with their wives too, who supported a multitude of trades. Not such a man’s world after all!
A fine reminder of our industrial past, and attracting a slower pace of life. The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.
I have been once again exploring what is close to where I live and this post forms part of the Messing about the Thames feature during the summer of 2020.
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.
The Ashridge monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read all about a Flourishing Trade.
A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
A Great Ooze
Ninety million years ago, a great ooze was accumulating at the bottom of a sea. Microscopic creatures, coccoliths, their shells made of calcite extracted from the rich seawater were contributing to the ooze. As they died, and their minute shells and skeletons settled onto the seabed of a tropical sea, a substantial layer gradually built up over millions of years until it all eventually consolidated into rock. Chalk. This geological layer can be followed right across Western Europe where evidence of mining and quarrying both above and beneath the ground can be found.
Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite
Not only is chalk a part of our national conscious, the dramatic and iconic white cliffs of Dover shown in times of national crisis, it also acts as a natural reservoir, releasing water slowly into another feature of the Chilterns – the chalk streams. Givers of life.
From hard industry to site of special scientific interest
The Chilterns and our story, are in fact all about chalk; it is the geological formation that defines our landscape, industry, people, wildlife and wildflowers. But it’s not all a chocolate box image; quarrying for cement saw numerous sites across the region busy with extraction during the last century. Some still remain, others are filled with waste water and submerged cables, making them an ideal haven for birdlife and illegal parties! One successful transformation from working quarry to wildlife sanctuary that you can visit, is College Lake near Tring, home to migratory birds and bird enthusiasts.
These microscopic bits of shells and dissolved skeletons, layer into white cliffs and layers of London…and in the space that is left behind, layers of abundance across the year.
To wander around my local quarry, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had always contained wildflowers, badgers, butterflies and skylarks, yet this former cement quarry has been transformed into a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was once part of much larger cement works ‘Castle Cement’, with large silo’s and 350ft chimney’s that became a local landmark. The quarry operated from 1937 until closure in 1991 and the chimney’s demolished in 1998, before a large housing development took shape on part of this brownfield site. The remainder has been left to nature.
All around are scattered industrial archeology: rail tracks, cables, coils, metalwork embedded in the chalk, rubble, rotten sleepers, fence posts, bleached signs, signposts, mysterious shafts, ruts and excavations.
Chalk Hill Blues
I am reminded every day of the special qualities that bring such an abundance of life to what should be sterile space. Most noticeable being the countless butterflies that rise up and dance around my legs as I walk along the narrow chalk pathway in the summer; chalk hill blues, an adonis blue, small skippers, small coppers and more marble whites than I have ever seen. These are adapted to the chalk grassland and the myriad of wildflowers that keep them in nectar throughout the summer.
And of course there are the fabulous orchids; the common spotted-orchid, common fragrant-orchid, incredible bee orchid, lady orchid, pyramidal and military orchids. At their best in early June, competing with the carpets of oxeye daisies to be star of the wildflower show.
If you want to see the Chilterns, ask a dog walker
Throughout the seasons, there is activity here. Heavy snowfall brings the children out to sledge down the steep slopes, their shrieking voices carrying across the quarry. When the winter and early spring have been very wet, the water table, not far beneath the surface, rises and floods any depressions and gulley’s, gravity ensures the overflow finds its way to the lower lying ground, flooding badger sets and rabbit warrens. The wind is cold, the chalk slippery underfoot. The skylarks arrive in late winter, announcing the start of the breeding season with their distinctive overhead song.
The soft mists of spring can be eerie, but they are another sign of the advancing seasons. After years of dog walking, I now know what signs to expect as the quarry slowly emerges after winter. March can seem an impatient month before the trees and shrubs get going in waves of vivid green, pale yellow and white blossom. Wildflowers across the quarry floor, bloom in waves of yellow, white, purple, sprays of white and more yellow, before everything at ground level is claimed by the wild grasses. Now grown tall in the late summer, each scratchy in shades of khaki, before the farmer comes in to mow in late autumn. Sweet-tasting summer goodness for his cattle long into the depths of winter.
A virtuous circle
That something so ancient, and yet so simple, could have so many uses across the ages is humbling. What comes from an ancient tropical seabed has a place in our national psyche, as well as a place in the story of the Chilterns. And now, as we seek an escape from our busy lives, these transformed spaces take us back to nature. Back to our own story. A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life.
Enjoy Tring reservoirs, College Lake and Grand Union Canal on this 13km circular walk.
Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow to indulge yourself with our own exotic orchids.
In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.
I had joined a mindfulness walk during our Chilterns Walking Festival that would take us from the surprisingly peaceful Gade Valley behind Ashridge, along dappled woodland paths, past a manor house, down tiny sunken lanes, into a church yard with an impressive puddingstone and tombstones (one declaring the contents were once ‘a gent’ from 1740), and out again through a pretty hamlet. We stopped often to enjoy the views across the valley, discuss the dire condition of the chalk streams, realise there would never be a shortage of flint, search for berries and listen to the autumn birdsong.
So far, so typical of the Chilterns
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.
The Valley of Nettles
When Nettleden became a parish, the hamlet of St Margaret’s, (weirdly, once belonging to the parish of Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire), was connected to Nettleden. At this place Henry de Blois bishop of Winchester founded the nunnery St Margaret’s de Bosco. After the Dissolution in 1539, St Margaret’s came into private hands. During the Second World War the St Margaret’s Camp was a London County Council Senior Boys School for evacuees from London. The school closed one week after the end of the war in Europe, when all the boys were returned back to their homes. Since 1984 it has been home to the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.
The configuration of several large huts has remained largely unchanged, and gives the site the look and feel of somewhere in Scandinavia . The addition of a purpose-built temple that was officially opened on 4 July 1999 by Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of the King of Thailand is quite the feature. The monastery’s founder and abbot was Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s foremost disciple in the West. In Autumn 2010 he handed over to the English monk Ajahn Amaro, who for the past 15 years had been co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Its aims are the training and support of a resident monastic community, and the facilitation for monastic and lay people alike for the practice of the Buddha’s teachings.
In the Pali language ‘Amaravati’ means ‘deathless realm’
It is appropriate perhaps that we visited in the autumn, the month when life slows and foliage burns bright before falling to rot beneath the beechwoods.
An extract from a Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro: “When the Buddha said that ‘… the mindful do not die’, he did not mean that the body of a mindful person is never going to stop breathing and rot away. No. The Buddha’s body died, just like anyone else’s. When he said that the mindful never die, it meant that when the mind is awake it is not identified with the born and the dying….outside of the realm of time, individuality and space; not definable in terms of time, personality, location: ‘There is neither a coming nor a going, nor a standing still. Neither progress, nor degeneration. Neither this world, nor the other world.” Something to ponder? Although I think to truly understand mindfulness, I would need to book a weekend retreat at the monastery.
This is a special place. Join those who visit from all over the world, who come to spend a few hours or for a day, others staying for the weekend. You won’t be disappointed!
Both the monastery and retreat centre are run entirely on donations. In accordance with the tradition established by the Buddha, the monastic community has relied for its material well-being on unsolicited offerings of food and other requisites from the lay community. To find out more about weekend retreats and events at the monastery.
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. Growing Stones links to the nearby Ashridge House.
A day to gladden the heart! Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.
Not just for old ladies, these fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone.
This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns. In existence since at least the eighth century, Hitchin is one of the oldest towns in the county of Hertfordshire. Much sought after as a cure-all for anything from the plague to migraines, cultivation and production of lavender put Hitchin on the map. Successfully exploiting the crop since the 15th century, sadly only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.
The farm is open from June to October, peak season is July, when the 30 acres are in full bloom. Busy by the time I arrived, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! You have to tune your ear into the drone of countless bees working around your legs, otherwise drowned out by the giggles and squeals of delight.
A quintessential English experience
This newsreel below is from Norfolk, but the techniques would have been the same as those in Hitchin.
Back to the present day. Once we had negotiated the oncoming cars and traffic cones to secure a brown paper bag and scissors to cut and curate our flowers, we could enjoy an English seasonal experience.
I wandered slowly up an empty aisle, keeping an eye out for the millions of painted lady butterflies that are supposed to be heading our way this summer. I spotted one. Perhaps this was the straggler and they had all been and gone? I disturbed three birds that shot out from the undergrowth, but apart from the bees, there was precious little wildlife or incidental wildflowers. It was all perfect and planned.
There was a wedding party, couples, pensioners, families with small children whooping their way up the slope, posing ladies in straw hats and white dresses, a coach-load of sunhat-wearing tourists equipped with enormous lenses, a sea of expansive selfie sticks and a fascinating array of selfie poses. I think many had done this before.
The aim is to walk up the slope, proclaim loudly your deftness at hill walking, before laying out your picnic and then returning, satisfied to your car. There are plenty of places where you can part with your money to buy lavender-themed or infused goodies, plus a small museum with interesting, if underwhelming displays about the farm and former industry.
It’s a fun thing to do, everyone in a holiday mood, enjoying themselves and no doubt Instagram will be awash with the days’ adventures. I wonder though, how many knew they were in the Chilterns?
Just as the production of watercress in the Chess Valley has been decimated, with only one producer remaining, Cadwell farm is keeping a Chilterns tradition alive by welcoming visitors to wander the 30 acres to pick flowers and take endless selfies.
Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dusty and dated interiors, are to be treasured. We have our fair share here in the Chilterns; most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain. ‘One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys’ tells the understated story of English education in the British Schools museum in Hitchin.
Beside his grave, pebbles are left by visitors from North America, two of whom had to be stopped from attempting to exhume his remains as they wished them to be reinterred in the state capital.
There’s something about the Chilterns that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met and worshiped in secret. Amongst the beech trees and woodland many would go on to make their mark on the nations history. This post is a celebration of the Chalfont Quakers, a community celebrating its centenary, but with a history going back to the early 17th century.
You won’t come upon Jordans village, you have to set out to find it. Tucked away down higgledy-piggledy lanes east of the busy market town of Beaconsfield, Jordans village is everything its neighbour is not: compact, unexpected and peaceful, with neat cottages and terraces nestled around the village green. So English, so Chilterns!
This unassuming village is unique, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.
‘Jordans is the Quaker Westminster Abbey’.
Simon Jenkins author “England ’s Thousand Best Churches”
From the mid 17th century, Chalfont Quakers had been meeting in the woods and up the road in the nearby Jordans Farm, whose owner William Russell was himself a Quaker. Known today as Old Jordans, this collection of buildings is said to have been constructed with some of the beams and a cabin door of the Mayflower, the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of the future colony of Virginia in 1620. Old Jordans was also used during World War I as a training centre for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and sold by the Quakers In 2006.
William Russel, (whose daughter was the first to be buried here), bought a piece of land in a clearing beside the Beaconsfield Road in 1671 because the Chalfont Quaker’s needed a burial site. Jordans Friends Meeting House was built in just three months by local craftsmen in 1688. This was shortly after the King James ll Declaration of Indulgence that allowed Quaker and other non-conformist groups to worship lawfully for the first time.
It is also the burial place of William Penn (1645 – 1718), founder and first governor of Pennsylvania. His first wife Guilielma, his second wife Hannah, and nine of his children are buried close by. Other early Quakers who worshipped here and are buried in the grounds include Isaac Penington and his wife Mary Springett, Thomas Ellwood (poet and friend of John Bunyan and John Milton) and Joseph Rule. Despite William Penn leaving his name to a new American state that he wanted to call ‘Sylvania’, it was Charles II who ordered that the family name Penn (in honour of William’s late father) be added.
Beside his grave, pebbles are left by visitors from North America, two of whom had to be stopped from attempting to exhume his remains as they wished them to be reinterred in the state capital!
The simple bare-walled meeting room retains most of its original uneven locally-fired bare brick floor, glass, dark wood panelling and some well-worn benches. It suffered a serious fire in 2005, when the modern extension was virtually destroyed and the roof of the original 17th-century meeting room severely damaged. The interior of the original meeting room escaped relatively unscathed, but suffered some water and smoke damage. A lucky escape! The viscous glass is removed and turned upside down each year, to retain an even thickness.
‘Some of the things that they would do included; not going to church, refusing to swear an oath, refusal to pay church rates, opening their shops on Sundays, travelling on Sundays and teaching without a Bishop’s license… the 1960’s had nothing on them!’
A mini henge
The burial ground reflects the Meeting House seating, where there is no formal service and people sit quietly and wait for inspiration and guidance, and from those gathered “heeding the love and truth in the heart”. 400 quakers are buried here, but few have headstones – they were deemed too flashy and worldly.
In 1916 a group of Quaker’s met in London to establish a community partnership and three years later, the first stone was laid. This social and industrial experiment, where land was owned communally and craftsmen’s work to be sold cooperatively, grew around the village green, with Fred Rowntree the architect. The homes are uniform in style, not grand or fussy with the village shop open since 1922. Whilst there is no permanent pub, a pop-up pub called the Jolly Quaker quenches the locals’ thirst.
The accommodation waiting list is long, and the village has seen its share of famous residents; King Zog of Albania who, with his legendary chests of gold, (he lived at St Katherine’s Parmoor during the World War II). With author Fredrick Forsyth and musicians Ozzie and Sharon Osborne goes to show you don’t need to be a Quaker to live here!
This is a typical Chilterns story set in a place you’ve probably never heard of, about people and events you will most certainly have heard of, shaping and influencing events across the nation and across the pond!
Further Information & Inspiration
This walk was organised as part of the twice-yearly Chilterns Walking Festival that includes a spring and autumn programme of fabulous walks that take you to the places other walks just don’t reach.
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.
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. ”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.