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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 bySir 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No previous Instagram nor Facebook posts have raised as many comments recently following a post that included the countryside around Little Missenden. The comments referred to the impending High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project will rip through this pretty Chilterns valley.
We tend to look at a landscape and imagine how things were, or to enjoy the temporary transformation through the year (the focus of this blog); less so perhaps on how things might be. The Chilterns are a living, evolving landscape, shaped by its people, industries and natural resources. After all, nothing stands still, or is set is aspic.
It is a moment for me to recognise the importance of capturing some of this huge change.
HS2 is something I have ignored.
This vast, expensive and disruptive engineering project is the brainchild of our government who think that spending upwards of £56b is worth the minutes shaved off the London to Birmingham rail journey is well worth it. Perhaps that should be the national priority, but it is above my pay grade to know for sure. There has been much written, much revised and many cross words exchanged however, but for me, HS2 is something I have ignored, until I walked in the Misbourne valley and appreciated the scale of what is about to happen.
The route through the Chilterns
I have included a web link below, but to briefly summarise the route through the Chilterns; from London Euston, the route will enter a tunnel until West Ruislip, where trains emerge to run on the surface. From here the line crosses the Colne Valley on a major viaduct, and passes through a 9.8-mile (15.8 km) tunnel under the Chiltern Hills to emerge near South Heath, north-west of Amersham. The route will run roughly parallel to the existing A413 (through the Misbourne Valley), passing to the west of Wendover in what HS2 call a ‘green cut-and-cover tunnel’. After passing west of Aylesbury, the route will run north westwards through North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the West Midlands.
The River Misbourne rises above the lovely market town of Great Missenden and flows south east for 17 miles (27km) through the village of Little Missenden, onto Amersham and the Chalfonts to Denham, where it meets the River Colne.
This valley and its river are no stranger to controversy and has suffered damage to its natural and built resources; most recently the natural chalk stream was rescued by a successful campaign to stop the abstraction of valuable drinking water and further down the valley, Shardeloes mansion, ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family was saved from demolition by the formidable Amersham Society.
I was drawn to the valley when I read a piece about rare medieval wall paintings uncovered by accident (aren’t all the best things?), in 1931 that had been hidden behind lime wash and plaster and are now restored inside this wonderful 1,000 year-old church. Still a valuable community hub inside a building designed, built and tinkered with by the Romans, Saxons, Normans and Tudors. I expect the Victorians had a hand in there too.
My walk took me from the parish church, through the village, up the hill to Mop End and down through the woods to Shardeloes, just outside Amersham and back to Little Missenden along the South Bucks Way. Details and maps are below.
Fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigated the twists and high speed turns
It was a beautiful still January morning, relatively quiet, with only bird chatter in the hedgerows for company. Leo and I crossed the field behind the village and joined the leaf-strewn sunken path, with helpful winter breaks along a familiar tree-lined boundary to enjoy far-reaching views back across the valley towards Great Missenden. Our guides, a couple of fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigating the twists and high speed turns upwards along the path. We passed an enormous pile of gently smoking, freshly dumped manure, ready to spread across these busy fields. There are a few isolated cottages with their lovely gardens, views and one sporting a tennis court! Not too many ‘gerroff my land” signs tacked to the trees either, which is always reassuring.
Our way downhill towards Amersham is cleared by the squirrels, their grey tails catching the sunlight as they race across the woodland floor, over logs, along a decaying fence and up the nearest tree, as fast as their little legs will take them. The vista then opens up and you can appreciate the sense of space and place as the landscape turns from natural, to managed and designed.
Enter landscape designer, Humphry Repton who was commissioned to lay out the grounds in the classical English landscape fashion, in the lee of the hill upon which the Shardeloes mansion stands, damming the River Misbourne to form a pretty lake.
Shardeloes was the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London, saw some 3,000 children born there. Amazing! Following the War the house seemed destined to become one of the thousands of country houses being demolished, until the formidable Amersham Society, assisted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England fought a prolonged battle to save the house. Subsequently purchased in the early 1970’s by a local property developer who converted the house and outbuildings into a complex of private flats, with nearby equine centre and cricket club.
I am reminded of another great regional railway project that saw Victorian railway designers, who sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the Norman Berkhamsted castle, 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.
There is an expectation that the HS2 archaeology will be rich and varied; grasping at straws perhaps, but I am hoping there will be access and tours available so we can see for ourselves what is happening. From the conversations I have had, both professionally and in my personal capacity, the locals are now resigned to the railway, and will make every effort to minimise disruption to their businesses and lives.
What is the Misbourne Valley going to look and sound like in the next decades? I will be back to find out as I will seek to harness and record the passions that these projects evoke with many more Instagram, Facebook and blog posts that encourage discussions and comments. You are welcome to comment below.
This website has interesting plans and maps so you can see where the route is and where the tunnels are – not too technical either.
There are three lovely walks to be enjoyed along the Misbourne valley, information can be downloaded here.
“The best church I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)” enthuses A Simms, from Paris who visited the lovely church of St John the Baptist Little Missenden. Their website and visitor interpretation are excellent, the wall paintings astonishing and is well worth your support. I believe they serve a mean cream tea in the summer!
Explore the neighbouring market town of Amersham, with its enviable history of black lace, perfume and beer.
Read about another fine Chilterns Doom painting that was saved by the Chilterns summer rain.
The local market towns of Great Missenden and Amersham are worth a visit, not least of all to see the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and the Amersham museum.
This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.
Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp at.
Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.
The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns. Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.
Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close
This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, where it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander. King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months. Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy. Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days.
The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour.
Three murders and a ghost
One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.
This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”
Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.
Contradiction and the absurd
Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.
This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy, he even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, full of pomp and circumstance. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.
Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph:
“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,
Know that there lies beneath this humble stone
A child of colour, haply not thine own,
His parents, born of Afric’s sunburnt race,
Tho’ white and black where blended in his face,
To Britain brought, which made his parents free,
And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”
Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.
I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language. I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace.
Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.
How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young boy, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.
Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.
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.
In which a childhood tale of hardship and a beating, led to a generous royal gift to a small Chilterns community from a benefactor in a far-flung British colony.
Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the restored Maharajah’s well in Stoke Row and discover why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.
Hang on, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Isn’t Britain usually the one dispensing largesse to the less fortunate in far-flung colonies?
Stoke Row is a fairly typical Chilterns village, situated at the southern end of the region, near Henley-on-Thames, in a cluster of villages that include Ibsden, Nuffield and Nettlebed. It’s quite hard to find, along gloomy woodland lanes, around some tight corners, that has in its foundations, chalk, flint and clay that have enabled a long history of pottery making. However, in common with Turville, there is no natural water source.
The source of this charming Chilterns story
East India Connections
The Narayan dynasty was the ruling Bhumihar family of Benares. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, the family ruled Benares as tributaries of the Nawab of Awadh and the East India Company. In 1911, Benares became a full-fledged princely state of British India, and the Narayan dynasty ruled it as British vassals until they acceded to independent India in 1948. Even today, the Kashi Naresh, the titular ruler of the dynasty, is deeply revered by the people of Benares. He is the religious head and considered the incarnation of Lord Shiva.
Local Ibsden squire, Edward Anderson Reade (1807 – 1886) had worked alongside and formed a friendship with Maharajah Shri Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh Bahadur of Benares (1822-89), whilst working as administrator and Lieutenant Governor in the North West Provinces for the East India Company. The two men must have shared childhood stories which later were to inform the Maharajah’s decision to fund a new well, far away in a country he had never visited, but had a huge impact on his life and country, Great Britain.
101 Cherry Trees
In 1831, Edward Reade had a well sunk for a community in Azimgurgh, alongside a new mango grove. It was this generous gift and that childhood tale of dried up Chilterns village ponds, hardship and a child beaten for stealing a drink of water, that sealed the subsequent deal. In 1863, the Stoke Row well was sunk for around £40,000 in today’s money, the adjoining ‘Ishree Bagh’ was planted with 101 cherry trees and the Well Cottage built with a view to providing funds for the well’s maintenance.
I expect the village hasn’t seen anything like it, not since Queen Victoria opened the well in 1864. Until 1964 that is, when HRH the Duke of Edinburgh attended the centenary and a sample of water was drawn that can be found at the local pub apparently. Please let me know if you have any luck finding it!
The Ishree bagh, cherry orchard, feels well used as a local green space, but as an orchard, neglected. There is random planting of young cherry trees (a Chilterns heritage crop), some dead, others not sure whether to thrive or die, and some well designed childrens’ dens in amongst the trees. There are a good number of oak trees, some with legible plaques, others rusted away. Thank you Denise for the beautiful oak tree planted in your memory, the bagh is better for it.
The orchard mound is now topped with a commemorative wooden elephant ‘the Elephant & Bandstand’ to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the well.
In a neat space between the orchard and well, is the tiny brick cottage with an unfeasibly tall chimney, former home of the well keeper no less. Dwarfed by the ornate dome, a foresight as it’s visible from afar – and a nod to the Maharajah who would never see his gift, but wanting it visible all the same. Beneath the Burgundy Mughal-inspired dome, a golden elephant sits atop the shiny machinery designed and built by local agricultural engineers, Wilder of Wallingford 1863.
The shaft plunges through clay, gravel, sand, chalk sand, more chalk and finally chalk and shells before reaching the sweet water, a mere 368 feet deep – twice the height of Nelson’s column. Drawing water must have been quite a chore. It took 10 minutes for the pulley to reach the bottom and another ten minutes to reach the surface. I expect they all formed a neat and orderly queue and exchanged village news whilst waiting. The well was closed in 1939.
I love this story. It has a special resonance for me, hailing as I do from the colonies. What makes this story so extraordinary is that a former colony did what Britain usually does; dispensing largesse in the form of a royal gift, to those in need, those less fortunate. But in this case, those who where in need where the masters, the mighty British Empire. Oh, the irony!
The inscription ‘Be Not Weary in Well Doing” is a fitting epitaph for Edward’s gravestone, in the nearby Ibsden cemetery.
This Chilterns travel blog is only about the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns are not a place name you’d perhaps recognise, despite being located in the distinctive green space between London’s Metroland and Oxford. If quirky is your thing, we’ve a load more stories to tempt you.
Nearby is the modest home of William Morris, who lived at Nuffield Place and brought affordable motoring to Britain.
For further Chilterns ideas and inspiration, or to book a table at England’s first gastropub, the nearby Crooked Billet. Built in 1642, reputed to have been the hideout of highwayman Dick Turpin, which may have been due to a certain landlord’s daughter, Bess.
The local village store offers coffee and freshly made light meals.