The Grand Union Canal

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.

Grand Union Canal
Resting up at Cow Roast

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
Bridgewater Monument

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!

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
Leo lockside

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.

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
A roadway paved with water. 

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.

The lock keepers cottage and pump house at no.38 Marsworth Lock

Further Information

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.

For further Chilterns inspiration and celebration of all things quirky.

My micro adventure during Lockdown along the Grand Union Canal

What a year this has been! I did find pleasure in our restricted movements by exploring my local area, re-visiting footpaths and discovering many more on my daily micro-walks.

Chilterns Chalk

A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.

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. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The seam of chalk emerges to the south east, along the English Channel

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.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Late summer blooms

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.

An image of the former excavations at Castle Cement
The excavation of a tropical seabed

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.

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. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Butterflies on the wild marjoram

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.

Common spotted orchids
Common spotted orchids

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 Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The quarry cliff-edge too step to hold the snowfall

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. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Common century, or bloodwort

Further Information

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.

Here are more ideas and places to enjoy the Chilterns in the Summer.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Mists of white

Goring and Streatley

The #Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides.

Like twins, the villages of Goring and Streatley, face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted it.

The Chilterns is not short of pretty villages surrounded by beautiful undulating countryside. Add far-reaching views and the Goring Gap, a stone’s throw from Reading, must rank near the top. 

I recommend starting your visit from the National Trust car park at Lardon Chase, above Streatley. The views are glorious, the walk down into Streatley easy, although steep. It’s from up here that you can enjoy the dramatic backdrop of two villages clustered around the Goring lock and weir, the playing fields, leisure boats and island; to then cross over the Thames and wander through Goring village on the other shore and into the patchwork of the Chiltern Hills beyond.

The view from Lardon Chase, above Streatley
From the top looking down

I can see as far as Pangbourne to the north east and know that the views from Hartslock reserve on the hillside opposite, looking back to the Gap are just as dramatic. 

Naturally Outstanding

The villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides. Right in the centre of two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: to the south west, the north Wessex Downs in Berkshire, to the north east, the Oxfordshire Chilterns.

The prettiest of places

Not always good neighbours, their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Streatley was once the larger and more important village because it was on the turnpike road to Reading. The Bull Inn at the top of the high street was a 15th century coaching inn and I expect a welcome sight on the dusty road. With the arrival of the railway in 1840, Goring reasserted itself having more usable land for the many new homes. The geography has however, contained much of the growth.

Along the river, you get a real sense of space, somewhere to pause, listen and enjoy this special place. There are plenty of eateries to tempt you to do just that; the Bull Inn at Streatley, the Swan at Streatley, Pierreponts Cafe, the Miller of Mansfield and Catherine Wheel pub in Goring. Wander down the high street, there are many businesses that have a long association with the area.

Goring and Streatley
The Miller of Mansfield, Goring

National Treasures & Trails

The weirs still control the level of water for navigation, water supply, and land drainage. It’s not hard to image the bustle of boats, traders, soldiers and drovers, who used the three ancient trade routes that span southern England from Dorset to East Anglia. All converging at this lovely spot; the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails and Icknield Way, could easily tempt you off the road and onto the trail.

Like twins, these two villages face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted Goring mill and church.

Goring Mill and Church c.1806-7 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate Britain released under Creative Commons. London 2015 CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02704

The villages are very walkable, and I recommend downloading the local heritage trail. This easy circular walk and takes you past such gems as St Mary’s church in Streatley where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll used to preach. Back over the bridge to stop and savour the lovely views. You’ll pass Goring Mill where rare old paddles and posts are still used to control the flow of water. The tower of St Thomas’ Church is visible, renowned for a fine peal of eight bells and dedicated team of ringers. Inside you’ll find one of Englands oldest bells, dating back an impressive 800 years.

I’m your man!

The village is not short of famous residents and visitors. At the end of Ferry Lane is the original river crossing and Ferry house, where Oscar Wilde stayed during the summer of 1893 and began work on ‘An Ideal Husband’. Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, lived here for 30 years. He is buried locally and his birthday and funeral, were marked by a RAF fly-past! George Michael fans still make the trip.

The former home of George Michael

Walking back up the hill and turning once more to enjoy the view, now more familiar as I have explored both villages. I make a mental note to return in July for the Goring Gap Boat Club regatta, with a mere 600 competing rowers!

Lardon Chase, National Trust at Streatley
Back up the hill to Lardon Chase

Further Information

For information on the wider Chilterns area, accommodation, places to eat and drink, bookmark VisitChilterns

The Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails meet on the bridge. The Thames Path follows the river for 184 miles, from source to sea and the Ridgeway runs 85 miles from near Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. Here are three shorter walks to try.

The local Goring & Streatley village website has more local information.

Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.

It’s the skylarks, snowdrops and then bluebells that increases the heart rate and knowledge that spring is not far off. Spring in the Chiltern hills is the season when the world is renewed and we shake off the winter gloom. Spring into the Chilterns!

Spend time in another of pretty Chilterns villages, Amersham that is also accessible by train.

Rectory Gardens Goring and Streatley
Rectory Gardens

Waddesdon in a Room

All of this valuable Rothschild treasure is reassuringly safe behind the pair of stout, boldly designed treasury gates.

Tucked away down a long corridor, up two spiral flights you will find the quiet lobby and entrance to the new Rothschild Treasury, Waddesdon Manor. A treasure trove in what was once described as a ‘maids bedroom’ no less.

So far so understated

The tiny lobby is dimly backlit with a display of textiles that would have once adorned a grand space. As I peered past the busts of Jacob and James Rothschild, it was obvious there was dazzling treasure within.

A small box inlaid with glorious mother of pearl.
Inlaid with complex shades of mother-of-pearl

This new permanent collection is in the tradition of a schatzkammer, or treasure room, such as those formed by Baron Ferdinand’s Renaissance museum. These particular objects include a remarkable cameo from the ancient world, personal objects that have been on display in the house (but just not seen), intricate clocks, toys, snuff boxes, a Faberge Paperknife (available on eBay at a snip £149k plus £50 postage), plenty of Baroque bling, Baroness Edmunds personal seals and a tiara or two.

A box full of personal seals
Baroness Edmunds seals that she would have carried with her – each conveyed a specific meaning to the recipient

A family affair

Small items that belonged to various members of the Rothschild family
All with a personal connection to the family

“This is Waddesdon in a room” is how Mia Jackson, curator of Decorative Arts described the tiny space as she guided us expertly through the collection of 323 exquisite items. All have a story from the Rothschild’s European history, significant events brought together in a feast for the senses.

A pair of sliver gilt claret jugs
Claret jugs 1881-1882 silver gilt, garnet Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear

Her challenge had been to whittle down the original 600 items to the 323 on display here. I expect if time allowed, Mia would have shared plenty more delicious stories about each object.

Curator Mia Jackson shows us the highlights
Skilfully curated by Mia Jackson

Blacksmiths are good problem solvers

All of this valuable Rothschild treasure is reassuringly safe behind the pair of stout, boldly designed treasury gates.

Designed by Charles Marsden-Smedley, following this brief from Lord Rothschild: “I have a few objects to display..’ work got underway to transform the tight space and craft the gates. They include an unusual gilded RR motif inspired by a motif on a porcelain plate in the collection, instead of the usual five Rothschild arrows.

Understated security at the Rothschild Treasury
Understated security

It was master blacksmith David Gregory and his team who crafted the Treasury gates at his Cobalt Blacksmiths forge at English Farm in the central Chilterns. I visited him earlier in the year and he was very proud of this commission, which he showed us as his work in progress. 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. And in this instance, understated but necessary security.

A work in progress at the blacksmiths forge
The creative process

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” exclaims David.

Three men working on the new treasury gates
Nothing flash about this transformation

I had imagined the gates to be used in an external space (thinking garden gates!). It was thrilling to see them in such a grand house as Waddesdon Manor, guarding the Rothschild treasures in such an intimate space. Thrilling too that they were commissioned locally, and add another wonderful thread to the Chilterns story and proud arts and craft heritage. 

Further information

Download the new Smartify app, which I used whilst browsing the Treasury. It not only gives information on the exhibits, but enables you to store your own selection to reference later.

An 18th century glass beaker in the Waddesdon Treasury
18th century glass beakers from Bohemia

I was recently invited to an evening of classical music at the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon. This new archive at Windmill Hill, which houses the personal archives of the Rothschilds is open throughout the year and has another wonderful art collection to enjoy.

To visit Waddesdon, or find out more about the vast collection here.

Explore the Chilterns this autumn, my favourite season. 

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.

Find a selection of Chilterns arts and crafts ….your chance to take home a little slice of the Chilterns!

The Chilterns is a living, working area of beautiful countryside whose character has been shaped by agriculture, industry and the arts & crafts people who have lived and worked here over the centuries. The abundant beech woodlands made the Chilterns a centre of the furniture making industry in the 19th century and was once a thriving industrial hub for straw plaiting, lace and hat making. These defunct industries left a powerful legacy, and gap in our collective memories, but that’s now being replenished with new industries and artists, taking their inspiration from the beauty of the Chilterns landscape. Find out more.

People Watching in Purple

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 scene reminded me of tea pickers on the plantations in Sri Lanka.

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.

1949 newsreel: lavender harvest

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.

Experience counts!

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.

My friends are going to love this picture.

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?

Hitchin lavender customers
It has to be perfect

Further Information

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.

For further Chilterns adventures and excitement, head over to VisitChilterns.co.uk

Wildflowers border the fields of lavender
Common knapweed, ladies bedstraw and cornflowers border the lavender.

Fields of Gold

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

Chilterns Walking Festival
Towards Stoke Row

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.

Beechwood in the spring
Striking beech, a symbol of the Chilterns

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!

Fields of Gold: the view from Heycroft Shaw

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.

English Longhorn cattle
There has been pasture and farming at English Farm since the 12th century, and the longhorn cattle graze the organic pasture.

“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. 

English Farm near the village of Nuffield
English Farm, Nuffield

“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.

A chorus of anvils
The anvil chorus

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. 

Beside the forge
The Master David, and his apprentices Billy and Tom.

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.

The team of cabinet makers
Ben, Gordon and Nick.

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! 

Two walkers in a field of buttercups

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.

Further Information

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.

A is for Amersham

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at unhelpful heights and a red lion above a lintel where a pub used to be.

Amersham is a modern Chilterns market town once again under pressure from the onward march of progress and development. 

Renowned for its Christian martyrs burned for their beliefs, successful black lace industry and perhaps on a more frivolous note, a perfumery, this is a town of two halves: the modern town on the hill and its medieval twin in the valley below.

Metroland

The Misbourne Valley in the central Chilterns is a delight. Dotted with woodlands, pretty villages and market towns, this once quiet corner of the Roman Empire is now a busy Metroland corridor, linking London highways with Chilterns byways. A mere 25 minutes from London on the Met line, Amersham offers train-to-trail countryside escapes, and space to breath. 

Metroland poster
Served by the Metropolitan Railway, Metroland was the name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London.

Once the centre for black lace production, 16th century craftswomen specialised in fine silk veils and wide flounces of black lace that were used to decorate white dresses. In fact the industry continued late into the 19th century because almost everyone, from kings to babies at one time, wore lace on their clothing! Another industry synonymous with the town was the Goya perfume factory, that supplied large qualities of fragrances and perfumes to women after the Second World War. I wonder what the town smelt like?

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument, seven Protestants were burned to death at the stake. They died for principles of religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to their consciences.”

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, who demanded to read the bible in English.

In the face of protest

There are two parts to this pretty town; medieval Amersham with its unusually spacious high street, and the new town and railway station. This came about because the town fathers didn’t want a railway mucking up their medieval streets in the 1890’s, and insisted it be routed 20 minutes away up the hill. And now, 130 years later, the town is once again facing pressure and change from another huge railway project; this time from HS2, that will thunder right through this peaceful valley, changing it in ways we don’t yet know. I have written about it in another article called Evolving Landscapes.

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

On the poor side of the street

Go with a guide! You simply turn up at the museum to join a tour at 2.30pm on a Sunday. As I waited, numbers grew to include a couple from London on a weekend break, the leader of the Amersham Band and a couple who were mysteriously ‘just passing through’. My companions on this town tour with Euan, volunteer guide and purveyor of intriguing Amersham insights and stories. 

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

We began our tour in the museum garden, filled with herbs and plants our medieval ancestors would be familiar with, to help them get through life without a GP, or symptoms to Google. Being on the poor side of the high street, this garden would have been considered small. The houses to the other side of the high street in comparison, still have substantial plots. This garden is bordered on one side by typical knapped Chilterns flint and brick almshouses, and a discreet long-drop privy overhanging the river Misbourne.

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

The museum itself is situated within a 15th century structure that has over the centuries, undergone many changes. It charts the towns story through the voices of past residents who lived and worked in the many industries and local trades, the great and the not-so, including those mentioned above. Thanks to a substantial restoration project, the beautiful medieval and Tudor floors and wobbly beams (made from green oak) are revealed. If I’d have had more time, I’d be trying on all those Tudor dresses!

A missing stream

A typical Chilterns chalk stream, the Misbourne (missing stream), meanders through the centre of town, behind houses, through a meadow and under a lot of bridges. The current low water level attests to the temperament of this stream, following as it does, the variations in the annual rainfall. It is still known to flood however, with memories fresh after the last sandbag event, despite the river being confined to a narrow channel.

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

Open plan living

You may be familiar with the Kings Arms hotel, a former posting inn, made famous by the 1994 British romantic comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It served as the place to change horses on the London to Oxford route, and perhaps give the weary travellers some respite after 25 bumpy miles from London, with quite possibly another 30 miles onwards to Oxford to endure. It looks quaint and olde-worlde, but the majority of the facade is in fact ‘Brewery Tudor’ added by the local brewery about 100 years ago to cover up an unsightly earlier facade. It seems there was a lot of this about with false frontages been added by successive owners to modernise their old fashioned structures. So common was the practice it’s difficult to know where medieval stops and Georgian begins.

Brewery Tudor

It is the equivalent today of stripping out the kitchen to make way for ‘open plan’ living. 

There are several notable examples of grand houses built with a former industry in mind, but now repurposed for other lives. Many of them have tell-tale features and locations, and the guess-work is fun.

The houses of the most important people in town: the coopers house, and to the right, the brewery managers house.

Past lives

The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 by Sir William Drake as a gift for the town, is not hard to miss. Commanding the most prominent spot on the high street, it was intended for the upper floor to be used for meetings for traders’ guilds, and the ground floor as a market and lock-up for miscreants.

Commit no nuisance
The coldest room in the coldest corner of the market awaited those who fell foul of the law.

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, despite this never being a wool town, St Mary’s resplendent in excavated flints from the new railway, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at varying unhelpful heights in the building that was the water mill, a red lion above a lintel, where a pub used to be, the maltings, a stable for the brewery dray horses and a parapet blocking out light to the servants’ rooms following some fashionable structural updates.

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

There is great hope in Amersham for facing down disruption and continued changes to their way of life. A thoroughly modern town doing things their way, which bodes well for residents and businesses to thrive and continue to be an example of how towns adapt, yet still retain their historical roots and proud Chilterns heritage.

Houses off the high street
Through the back gate and over the Misbourne

Further Information

This article doesn’t do the town justice; visit and enjoy the independent shops, restaurants and pubs along the high street with not a chain store in sight. But do start with a browse around the exhibits at the wonderful Amersham Museum, join a town or martyrs walking tour available on Sunday afternoons from April to September.

Amersham has a number of Alms Houses that add to the great variety across the Chilterns. Not least of all the Drake Houses on the high street, originally built to house six local widows.

You will find the martyrs memorial either along a footpath leading from St. Mary’s Church, or from an overgrown footpath from Station Road.

You can explore the Misbourne Valley and the village of Little Missenden.

Discover more about Amersham, the surrounding countryside and other Chilterns market towns, take a look at VisitChilterns.co.uk

The castle that time forgot

Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?

“Not for ages”
“Is that the one near the station..?”
“I can’t remember”
“Where is it?”

Berkhamsted motte
Winter shadows

Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;

Anglo-Saxon backwater
Norman Invasion
Oppression
Royal entitlement
Civil war
Invasion
Royal prison
Decline
Vandalism
Near destruction
Declared ancient monument
Forlorn visitor attraction

Ring of Steel

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.

Berkhamsted motte and bailey
The Motte and Bailey

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.

The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.

Berkhamsted station
The original Berkhampstead (sic) railway station as seen in 1838

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.

Protecting our heritage

We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.

Irritating Tourists!

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

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

Rediscovering our Chilterns castles

Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.

Berkhamsted castle reflections
Reflections in the moat

Further information

The site is managed by English Heritage and is free to explore. For further information

To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.

Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here

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

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.