On a quiet August afternoon, camera in hand, I took to the back streets of West Wycombe village. Away from the busy thoroughfare, apart from the TV aerials amongst the chimney pots, not much has changed.
This tiny village, that hugs the hillside looks just like a film set; steep lanes, wobbly windows festooned with impressive cobwebs, doorways for tiny residents and unexpected passageways. All authentic, medieval properties, re-purposed for 21st century life. How come there are no ghastly 1960’s office blocks, betting shops or parking garages along this delightful high street?
Luckily for us, through a chain of events that started in New York with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, West Wycombe village, in its entirety was sold by the Dashwood family to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist.
This was once an important stop for weary travellers heading too and from London by stagecoach, along pitted and muddy roads. The street was packed with hospitality options, although chances are you’d have had to share your noisy, scratchy bed with a stranger. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village, and today you can stop to enjoy a pint or glass of something local in the one of the tea shops or pubs. At least that hasn’t changed!
Take in all attractions; the caves, St Lawrence and the mausoleum, down to the high street for a wander and then over the road into the National Trust Park. During the summer, the house is open, so set aside one day. Do the place justice!
The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree, just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter! The West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.
West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.
There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.
We like to celebrate our quirky residents, past and present and for another grand design, visit the National Trust at Stowe, near Buckingham.
Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.
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
Some had barely got out of their cars and were already taking pictures. 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.
It was from a tweet shared by the Jordans Village Estate from HM Queen congratulating them on their centenary 1919 – 2019, that I knew I just had to visit.
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.
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw and Drunken Bottom are some of the place names that surround beautiful Nuffield. A place rich in character and Chilterns history, and where we were to ‘Meet the Makers’ during the Chilterns Walking Festival.
I have written throughout this blog of the joy of discovering new places, weird place names, coming upon a vista opening up through the foliage, unexpected flavours and meeting new people happy to share their stories. In equal measure, the joy of of discovering yet more links that join together and add layers to the wonderful tapestry that is the story of A Year in the Chilterns.
Meeting the Makers
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw and Drunken Bottom are some of the place names that surround beautiful Nuffield, a small South Oxfordshire village, just over 4 miles east of the picturesque market town of Wallingford. A place rich in character and Chilterns history where we were to ‘Meet the Makers’ during the fifth Chilterns Walking Festival. We set off from Holy Trinity Church Nuffield on a circular walk to visit two business owners; master blacksmith David Gregory and cabinet maker Gordon Kent. Our guide once again, my good friend Annette, who had by good fortune, spent many happy years living nearby, with a field of sheep and shepherds hut in which to play.
The weather couldn’t have been better: jackets discarded, the coolness of a late spring that will soon give way to summer heat, but for the moment, the landscape is lush, full and fresh. The bluebells have left the stage, their place taken by path-hugging cow parsley, nettles, beech and oak boughs laden, blocking out the sunlight, keeping the path cool. In places, crunchy underfoot with last years beechnuts that the squirrels had overlooked. The smell of wild garlic absent from this woodland, but the bird song more than makes up for it. We cross a section of a Grims Ditch, impressive saw pits, evidence of earlier activity from those who harvested the wood to make furniture, amongst other items.
Shaken, not stirred
What Annette doesn’t know about this special place, frankly isn’t worth knowing; details of who owns what, who makes the best cheese, the friendliest pubs and why it’s important to have the services of four-wheel drive in winter. Annette spoke about the 2,300 acre Nettlebed Estate, consisting of woodland, farmland and common land stretching between Nuffield and Greys Court to the south. The Estate is owned and managed by descendents of Robert Fleming, a Scottish banker who bought the Estate in 1903. Fleming’s grandson was the renowned travel writer Peter Fleming whose younger brother was the celebrated spy novelist Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books as well as the children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – with another Chilterns connection at Turville in the Hambleden Valley.
The family still manage the Estate, the rich milk from their organic herd used for the delicious Nettlebed Creamery cheeses that we sampled en route. Something Annette does well; sharing all manner of locally brewed, baked or bottled treats to sustain the walkers!
The pasture around English Farm is ablaze with buttercups, which always makes a pretty picture. There is not much plant variation however, so butterflies in these fields were limited.
“Blacksmiths are good problem solvers”
Prior to the industrial revolution, a village smithy was a staple of every town. Now, a rarity, a visit is a treat! “A problem is never too great that can’t be beaten out with a hammer” claims David Gregory, master blacksmith at Cobalt Blacksmiths at English Farm.
“Blacksmiths are good problem solvers” he adds, “as we have the right tools.” David, Billy and Tom are working on amongst other commissions, a new stair rail for the Ashmolean museum, and a set of new gates for the Waddesdon Estate Treasury, a portal into what must undoubtably be a treasure trove.
David talks with great passion about the organic nature of his craft, of the fluidity of the metal, the skill needed to work with the materials to shape it as the commissions require; tools, weapons, decorative and functional pieces that I imagine will enhance the place they will be used. That’s the magic of this ancient craft, transforming nondescript organic materials into things of beauty.
Resin and vinegar
We continued our walk through the spring countryside to meet with Gordon Kent and his team of expert cabinet makers at tucked-away Homer Farm. Furniture-making is a Chilterns tradition with the popular Windsor chairs exported all over the world and Gordon Kent continues to make beautiful furniture. Just as David and his team, Gordon’s team read their materials, they speak with such knowledge and a passion borne of years of hard work and synergy with their craft. Resins, steel wool and vinegar combine to make a fine wood stainer for the beautiful pieces crafted in ‘catspaw’ oak, walnut, cherry, maple and ash in their workshop. Their attention to detail evident in the pieces they showed us in the workshop.
We giggled about the naked walkers they see passing through the farm in the winter months, to avoid contact with the stringing nettles I imagine!
The greatest pleasures are so often the re-discovery and interaction with what and who is around us. We had ventured out to make connections, meet new friends, enjoy new flavours and are thankful for where we live and how it makes us feel. Helped in large doses by the tea and delicious scones baked by Gordon’t mum. Thank you very much, we’ll be back!
Goblins Glen, Deadman’s Lane, Rotmoor Shaw, Drunken Bottom, Homer Green and English Farm – new place names in my Chilterns lexicon.
The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place in the spring and autumn at locations across the Chilterns. Find your walk here.
The Meet the Makers’ walks have one purpose; to share the experience of visiting some of our skilled craftspeople, who work in studios and locations that are often inaccessible to visitors, yet are keen to establish links to help us promote the Arts and Crafts produced in our region.
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. Read about an earlier ‘Meet the Makers’ festival walk.
Lord Nuffield was buried at Holy Trinity Parish Church in the village, a plain, modest grave, much like the great name himself. Read his story here.
If you were asked to name the places that Ian Fleming is most closely associated, you might put Goldeneye, Fleming’s home in Jamaica where he wrote all the Bond books, on the top of your list. You might include his post-war office at Mitre Court, or you might include Nettlebed, neighbour to Nuffield. Take a tour around Ian Fleming’s Oxfordshire
Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the nearby 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.
Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.
My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?
“Not for ages” “Is that the one near the station..?” “I can’t remember” “Where is it?”
Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Anglo-Saxon backwater Norman Invasion Oppression Royal entitlement Civil war Invasion Royal prison Decline Vandalism Near destruction Declared ancient monument Forlorn visitor attraction
Ring of Steel
William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.
The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.
The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.
Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law. We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.
I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.
Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!
Rediscovering our Chilterns castles
Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.
To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.
Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here
How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.
The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
Ashridge gardens are a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Humphry Repton and an acorn from a queen.
Each time I visit Ashridge, I am inspired by the stories I uncover: religious relics, sunken lanes, a landscape of contrasts, abandoned masonry, animal trails, a vineyard, the wild and the managed. All within a glorious 5,000 acres of Chilterns woodland.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
Inside one of the two living beech houses that overlook the restored herb garden
A mason’s paradise
Ashridge Gardens extend an impressive 190 acres across a reasonably flat site in an otherwise undulating and hilly landscape. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the northern and eastern part of the gardens and famous Golden Valley. It is the gardens south of the house, originally designed by Humphry Repton (1752 -1818), in the early 19th century, that we were here to explore. In good company, Repton, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown share the honour of being the three most famous 18th century landscape designers and gardeners.
From 1808 to 1813 the architect James Wyatt crafted, from local Totternhoe ‘soft’ stone and lashings of flint, an Ashridge House to claim the high-point above the undulating Golden Valley and surrounding forest.
The grounds to the rear of the house are dominated by the extensive lawn leading onto avenues of trees inviting you to explore further, with the promise of tantalising views of the surrounding area.
On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, which have been the focus for Mick Thompson and his team. Working on the restoration of the Rosary, an Armorial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Flower Garden that have retained strong links with their designer and visionary, Repton.
The county line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire runs right through the garden, and is now marked by a puddingstone no less. Once disputed, with Buckinghamshire laying claim to more than their due, this conglomerate rock (that could be the icon of Hertfordshire), has symbolically won the day!
You can see the puddingstone’s tumbled about the entrance to the grotto and souterrein tunnel that have been constructed using this very hard conglomerate. The estate has the largest collection of puddingstone’s, possibility the largest supply in the world! How and when they are formed is a mystery, but Hertfordshire folk have never been in doubt ̶ it grows, and then gives birth to new stones. This is because stones appear out of the ground, which has given rise to the names “Growing Stone” and “Breeding Stone”.
A fitting addition to this garden.
The Italian Garden and the arbour for the Rose Garden (now framed with laburnum trees), have been restored to their original design.
What made it for me was the magnificent oak, dominating the lawn, its massive trunk and spreading limbs are just perfect. I stood and stared. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my garden when I was a child. This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to Ashridge. How will it be commemorated in 2023? I took an acorn home for my son.
Ashridge is a compelling story, made up of the majestic and the mundane. I just know I am going to go on following those loose threads and blemishes to see what they reveal.
My visit was on a Repton Garden Tour, an event in the excellent Heritage Open Days programme organised by Jenny Sherwood of the Berkhamsted Local Historical & Museum Society and led by the charming and knowledgeabe Mick Thompson, head gardener at Ashridge House. Thank you both.
I must confess that after this delightful garden tour, I still can’t remember many plant, shrub nor tree names! Apart from the oak, that really caught my eye. But that says more about me than it does Mick.
Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here:
Book a table for lunch at the popular Alford Arms in nearby Frithsden.The first gin distillery in Hertfordshire, named after the iconic stone, can be found at Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring.
Take a walk around the medieval stone quarry at Totternhoe, seven miles from Ashridge.
And if that’s not enough, further Chilterns inspiration and itineraries can be found here.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted
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
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’.
Nooks, brick tiles and a fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Seen mostly from commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is just no longer noticed. A scheduled ancient monument, the castle had a lucky escape – not from French siege engines, but from those bringing a new prosperity to the Chilterns countryside.
My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness too, when asked when was the last time they had visited Berkhamsted castle?
“Not for ages”
“Where is it?”
Situated alongside the canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and it’s features seem only to emerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty spring flowers, the scene so benign. The elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants.
Nooks, brick tiles and fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Norman Invasion & Oppression
Royal entitlement & civil war
Invasion & royal prison
Decline & Vandalism
Near destruction and declaration as ancient monument
William the Conqueror
This is where William the Conqueror received the submission of the English after the Battle of Hastings and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trade routes and ensuring successful subjugation of the locals.
The castle saw action in the Middle Ages; invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times as royal residence, but slid into a slow decline of unsuitability and by default became unfashionable.The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle which, when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, stone was taken and reused to build houses and buildings in the town, greatly affected by this change in its status and prosperity. It was a long wait until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century before the locals enjoyed a revival.
Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle making it the first such property to be protected by law. We have not always so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners once believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing so much mindless destruction, MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.
Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress. Or in the case of spite, as was the story of the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, one-time owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare, then in an extraordinary fit of spite, demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!
I think we need to reclaim and treasure our Chilterns’s castles; visit them, explore them, take a picnic, take your family to play dungeons and dragons, take your dog. Watch as they reflect the changing seasons through the windows of your train, and celebrate the spaces and possibilities those heritage weirdos have left for us.
A local pharmaceutical firm has donated three acres (1.2 hectares) to the new Berkhamsted Castle Trust, plus £25,000 to maintain this “national asset”, with work to “make it a coherent site again” underway. Read more here