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!

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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: 

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: 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 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.

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!

Thomas Hickman Almshouses Aylesbury
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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street
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.

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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 Almshouses

fullsizeoutput_2676William 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

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A Grade II Listed Block of 4 almshouses in Ellesborough, formerly eight, dated 1746  Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women.  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 and it is unclear what her connection with Ellesborough was.

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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 rarely properly enjoyed as they sit behind a high flint wall, obscured 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.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

img_2925Located on the high street in Berkhamsted, the 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”.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum, was built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town. 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’.

For further information;

Adventures and inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns

Reclaiming our Castles

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”

“Never”

“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.

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Not much use now!

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; 

Anglo-Saxon backwater

Norman Invasion & Oppression

Royal entitlement & civil war

Invasion & royal prison

Decline & Vandalism

Near destruction and declaration as ancient monument

Visitor attraction

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The moat filled with spring rain
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. 

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Lots of stones to recycle

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.

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Moody and atmospheric

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.

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Berkhamsted railway station in 1838, castle to the left and canal to the right:                           George Dodgson Callow & Edward Radclyffe (1809–1863)

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!

Arial view of the site taken in the 1940's.
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s.                                                                  Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

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

Further Information:

Admission is free to the site that is now managed by English Heritage.

For further Chilterns inspiration visit https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk

Read the astonishing story of a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest and adopted by a English king and came to live in nearby Northchurch.

Peter the Wild Boy

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.

This is a remarkable story in two parts

Just how a wild boy without a birth name, was found in a German forest, adopted by a English king and came to live in the Chilterns, is just an astonishing story.

Whilst on a hunting trip during a visit to his home, King George l, who was also ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg Hanover, came across a feral boy who got about on all fours. Of unknown age or parentage, he was said to “exhibit uncivilised behaviour’ and was unable to communicate. He had survived by scavenging what forest food he could find, and from the remains of a shirt collar around his neck, had been in the care of someone.

London

He was given the name “Peter’ and brought to London in 1726 by the King’s daughter-in-law, Caroline of Ansbach, Princes of Wales. Peter experienced minor celebrity for a while, but after the public curiosity began to subside, Caroline Princess of Wales arranged for a Dr Arbuthnot to oversee Peter’s education, however all efforts to teach him to speak, read or write failed.

Peter was then entrusted to the care of Mrs Titchbourn, a close friend of the Queen’s, along with a handsome annual pension of £35. Mrs. Titchbourn usually spent a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr James Fenn, a yeoman farmer at Axter’s End, in the parish of Northchurch, which is how he came to live in the Chilterns. After the death of James Fenn he was transferred to the care of James’s brother, Thomas, and is where Peter lived with the several successive tenants of that farm until his death in 1785.

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Detail of a court painting by William Kent in Kensington Palace

The interior designer and painter William Kent included a depiction of Peter in a large painting of King George I’s court that today hangs on the east wall of the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace in London. Peter is shown wearing a green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns in his right hand.

Moving to the Chilterns

In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew’s in Norwich and as the fire spread, the local gaol became engulfed in smoke and flames. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance and the nature of the sounds he made, which led some to describe him as an orangutan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn’s farm, and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear, should he ever stray again.

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Peter The Wild Boy born c. 1713 and died 22nd February 1785

Peter died on 22nd February 1785 and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Northchurch. The headstone is engulfed by the large bush, so look carefully directly opposite the main door to the church and you will see it. In 2013, on the advice of English Heritage, the grave was given the Grade II listing it deserves. Inside the church is a commemorative plaque.

No matter how many times I hear this story, I still find it incredible that not only was Peter the Wild Boy found by a king in Germany and given a home in another country, but that his story has survived at all. Long may we share and celebrate it.

Peter is now believed to have suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a condition identified in 1978, nearly 200 years after Peter’s death.

Part 2: Berkhamsted School

The leather and brass collar designed to identify Peter in case he should wander away from the village and inscribed “Peter the Wild Man” is preserved at Berkhamsted School. I have updated and added to this post following a visit to the school to see the archive, you can read it here.

Further Information

For further Chilterns adventures and inspiration or to explore Berkhamsted Castle.

There are plenty more astonishing stories of Chilterns residents past and present, take a look here.

A Cautionary Tale

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support

Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape; somewhere you wouldn’t even pass through as the busy Leighton Buzzard road bypasses the village. 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.

Extremely rare and of national importance, these Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings, were hidden behind a sheet of course hand-woven linen until they were discovered by Arthur Lindley in 1953. Compared with many murals found mainly in local churches that were either damaged, destroyed or simply never completed, these rare, fine in situ examples, that briefly saw the light of candles for 50 years or so, before being covered up for over 500 years, are a sensation. I feel privileged to have seen them.

Piccotts End exterior
Never judge a book

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support.

Don’t smoke in bed!

Arthur Lindley’s son Alistair, picks up the story: “In 1924 my father bought these cottages and a nearby house and opened a petrol station to cater for the busy Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard traffic. He describes the buildings as ‘hovels’, this one inhabited for 78 years by a widow, whose husband had lived and died doing what he loved best; smoking in bed!” A lucky escape for the house you could say.

Olive the Scraper

Arthur Lindley invested in the serves of a lady referred to as “Olive the Scraper” who spent many many hours scraping off past layers and so helped uncover the entire panel.

The cottages were built 600 years ago as a hospice for pilgrims on their way from the Abbey of St Albans to the monastery at Ashridge. The Abbey attracted pilgrims who visited the shrine of the first English martyr, and could have taken the 13-mile journey to the nearby Monastery of the Bonhommes at Ashridge.  On the pilgrim trail to view a holy relic – a phial of the blood of Christ,  Piccotts End being mid-way between the two, would have served well as place for the pilgrims to rest and take refreshment before continuing their journey through the forest to Ashridge.

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The murals are dated from between 1470 – 1500, and could only have been on display for around 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and is most likely the reason for the damage to the faces. The fact they survived this event, is in itself remarkable. One theory is that the faces were damaged on purpose to ‘buy some time’ before they were covered up. For good. That is what makes them so rare; up and down the country, parish churches, abbey’s, monasteries and cathedrals were destroyed, or returned to the Crown, stripped of their riches and relics as King Henry Vlll became Head of the Church.

What relevance for us?

What is its meaning? To the modern eyes, it’s a jumble of symbolism and hard-to-detect imagery (including the All seeing Eye), that needs either many hours of looking at the paintings, or someone to show you the swallows (who were thought to spend the winter in holes in the ground), a dragon, a grinning cat, claw hammer, St Peter and the keys to heaven, even safety pins. I recognise those! All from a time when there was little literacy and religious symbols were a powerful influence in people’s lives.

Part of the second floor was removed to show the entire mural as it was meant to be seen. The building had no natural light, so viewing the mural would have been difficult for the pilgrims, but perhaps they had a resident storyteller and interpreter who led them through the story of the heresy of the Cathars, who believed that if God was all good, why did he create and allow evil? Pope Innocent lll called a crusade against them which resulted in the slaughter of 30,000, indistinguishable between Catholics and Cathars. I felt this account to still be raw today, as Alistair asked if any Catholics were present before he shared this piece of information. By choosing to remain silent, I know even more will be shared, unpalatable as it might be.

A Buddhist Monastery

In 1825, Sir Astley Paston Cooper founded the first cottage hospital in the country on the site of these cottages at Piccotts End. This is only part of the Piccotts End story as there are strong local connections  between St Margaret in the painting and the nearby Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at St Margarets, Great Gaddesden. This area once boasted a busy straw growing and weaving industry that linked these traditional farm house-crafts with the high streets of Luton, the mills at Tring and China. Now long gone, their traces are revealed in unusual ways; such as the providing unknowing protection for the mural at the time when the house had a second floor and where the floor boards didn’t quite meet the wall, where the bedding straw fell in between the two, provided protection for the painting.

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The landscape around Piccotts End in the Chilterns

Further Information:

Abbey Walks is dedicated to mapping long distance footpaths that monks walked from abbey to abbey in the 12th to 14th centuries and they have some lovely local routes that link into long distance paths that could take the adventurous all the way to Rome!

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, but holy relics were once a flourishing trade at Ashridge.

Find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns.