Not just for old ladies, these fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone.
This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns. In existence since at least the eighth century, Hitchin is one of the oldest towns in the county of Hertfordshire. Much sought after as a cure-all for anything from the plague to migraines, cultivation and production of lavender put Hitchin on the map. Successfully exploiting the crop since the 15th century, sadly only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.
The farm is open from June to October, peak season is July, when the 30 acres are in full bloom. Busy by the time I arrived, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! You have to tune your ear into the drone of countless bees working around your legs, otherwise drowned out by the giggles and squeals of delight.
A quintessential English experience
This newsreel below is from Norfolk, but the techniques would have been the same as those in Hitchin.
Back to the present day. Once we had negotiated the oncoming cars and traffic cones to secure a brown paper bag and scissors to cut and curate our flowers, we could enjoy an English seasonal experience.
I wandered slowly up an empty aisle, keeping an eye out for the millions of painted lady butterflies that are supposed to be heading our way this summer. I spotted one. Perhaps this was the straggler and they had all been and gone? I disturbed three birds that shot out from the undergrowth, but apart from the bees, there was precious little wildlife or incidental wildflowers. It was all perfect and planned.
There was a wedding party, couples, pensioners, families with small children whooping their way up the slope, posing ladies in straw hats and white dresses, a coach-load of sunhat-wearing tourists equipped with enormous lenses, a sea of expansive selfie sticks and a fascinating array of selfie poses. I think many had done this before.
The aim is to walk up the slope, proclaim loudly your deftness at hill walking, before laying out your picnic and then returning, satisfied to your car. There are plenty of places where you can part with your money to buy lavender-themed or infused goodies, plus a small museum with interesting, if underwhelming displays about the farm and former industry.
It’s a fun thing to do, everyone in a holiday mood, enjoying themselves and no doubt Instagram will be awash with the days’ adventures. I wonder though, how many knew they were in the Chilterns?
Just as the production of watercress in the Chess Valley has been decimated, with only one producer remaining, Cadwell farm is keeping a Chilterns tradition alive by welcoming visitors to wander the 30 acres to pick flowers and take endless selfies.
Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dusty and dated interiors, are to be treasured. We have our fair share here in the Chilterns; most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain. ‘One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys’ tells the understated story of English education in the British Schools museum in Hitchin.
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.
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.
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.
This post is my celebration of some of the many Chilterns trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see.
It is tempting to go for the big hitters in the forests, the sentinel trees, the obviously ancient, even those that have been movie stars.
The Chilterns are synonymous with ancient woodlands, acres of forest, avenues of stately trees, big trees, growing trees, intriguing trees, memorial trees, even fallen trees.
This post is my celebration of some of the many trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see.
If you have any favourites, please let me know where they are and why I need to see them for myself.
In no particular order, here are my 10 favourites
“My name is Morus nigra, and I am very old. Please do not climb on me”. Silk worms eat the soft leaves of Morus alba but have no appetite for the leathery leaves of Morus nigra, the variety that produces such delicious black mulberries. So delicious in fact, visitors to Cliveden swear they have been nowhere near the tree through lips smeared with its delicious crimson juices.
I often pass these entwined trees on a walk near Pitstone Hill. They have grown together so gracefully, their embrace quickens the heart.
Location: Off the Ridgeway near Pitstone Hill
I stood and stared at a tree that just knows how special it is, with outstretched boughs that dominate the expanse of Ashridge House lawn. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my childhood garden? This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to the estate. I took an acorn home for my son.
This is a view familiar to those living within at least 10 miles of Ivinghoe Beacon with the lone tree on the steep north western slope. It’s a ‘watch tree’ with enviable views across the Vale and surrounding countryside, and a symbol for the Iron Age hill fort that once stood atop this hill. I see it almost every day.
Location: the end of the Ridgeway
This lone hilltop barrow is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon, naturally. I understand why Paul Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it today.
The seasonal spectacle that are the spring bluebells draw locals and visitors to the woods each April or May. It is easy to avoid the busy spots and sea of selfie-sticks to find a quiet woodland, which is where I noticed these unusual patterns on the exposed tree bark.
This is a statement tree. It stands out on the general slopes of Tring Park and I will confess to this tree being my favourite (I have included it in my logo). I visit often with Leo, he lifts his leg at the base and I stand back and enjoy the swoosh and colour blur of the leaves in the wind!
Location: Tring Park
As ragged and cold as that day was, the skeletal trees dotted between me, Pitstone Windmill and Ivinghoe Beacon in the distance, define the contours and add interest to what would otherwise be a bleak view.
The Chilterns does grand tree-lined avenues very well. The lime avenue in Tring park, the lime avenue at Cliveden and this formal avenue of beech and oak trees link the Bridgewater Monument and Ashridge House. This popular avenue looks splendid throughout the year, and when there is not quite so much mud, quiet time with your back to a knobbly tree trunk is a pleasant way to waste away an hour or two.
The pretty village of Clifton Hampden is stuffed with thatched cottages, a pretty riverside with an impressive bridge, and a church with this graceful 152-year old cedar tree, grown from seed by the local vicar. The day I visited, the cyclamen were putting on a good show. I expect the same spot dazzles with snowdrops in the spring.
That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work.
I got more than I bargained for when I visited the Wittenham Clumps, a favourite haunt of Paul Nash. I discovered not only inspirational countryside, but my knight in shining armour.
Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars.
Much has been written about Paul Nash and his younger brother John, and it is outside my skill set to provide a narrative of his great works. What I will share with you are some of the locations that inspired him and have in turn, come to inspire me. I have no copyright permission to reproduce any of his paintings here, so have included links to websites where you can see examples of his work below.
Paul Nash was born in London, and grew up in Iver Heath in south Buckinghamshire. Thankfully for us, he didn’t take to figure drawing and was able to concentrate on capturing his landscapes with preferred elements of ancient history. Something Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns have in abundance including; burial mounds, barrows and brooding Iron Age hill forts. He had to travel to the coast for the glorious seascapes and Wiltshire for the standing stones at Avebury amongst other locations.
He came to my attention when I first began to write about the Chilterns and have been captivated by his painting of Ivinghoe Beacon, somewhere I have photographed many times during my walks along the now familiar chalk paths and trails.
That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work. He captures these timeless landscapes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those communities who have lived and worked in and around them over the centuries.
Not that much has changed
I joined artist Christopher Baines on one of his Nash Walks to the Wittenham Clumps, the site of an iron age hill fort on the Sinodun Hills, 18 miles west of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. Chosen for security and dominance, the two Clumps are marooned in a sea of Thames Valley loveliness. Round Hill is the taller of the Clumps, and Castle Hill the site of the hill fort. Each is topped by a grove of trees, the lower of the two enclosed by an earth ditch and engineered embankment. The Clumps are surrounded by pretty villages, towers, Dorchester Abbey, manor houses, water meadows and the River Thames. Christopher told us that the Abbey contains an unusual treasure, but more of that later.
From the top, we enjoyed far-reaching views over the River Thames, towards the Chiltern Hills to the north east, westward to south Oxfordshire and south to the Berkshire downs. The view was described by Paul Nash as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”.
There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.
A third hill, Brightwell Barrow below, is just off to the south-east. This lone hilltop barrow I think is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon I expect. I can understand why Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it too.
Christopher points out Brightwell Barrow
Brightwell Barrow from the Clumps
Nash believed that trees have their own personalities. The devastated trees he painted, that were blasted to shattered stumps, to him represented the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The trees on the Clumps are not without their stories and quirks too. Christopher showed us the initialled tree trunks on Round Hill that reminded me of the similar declarations of love on Sharpenhoe Clappers in the northern Chilterns. Another wooded hilltop that still draws people today. I can’t help but wonder if the lovers are still in love?
I have commented many times throughout this blog about the extent of Victorian Vandalism, evident in so many Chilterns churches, where earlier treasures where either ripped out or covered up to suit a more modern taste. Here was another example: local man Joseph Tubb, who infamously worked over the course of two weeks in the summer of 1844, and scratched onto a beech trunk his uninspiring 20-line earthly musings. The ‘Poem Tree” as it become known, recently collapsed into a pile of decay, but sadly for us, his poem lives on in the little monument nearby. If you want to read what it says, you’ll have to climb the Clumps.
My Knight in Shining Armour
Inspired by Christopher revealing the many threads that link Nash with what I had seen, I set off on to find a knight in shining armour. On my way to Dorchester Abbey, I stopped at some of the villages I had seen from the Clumps including; Long Wittenham with its pretty cottages, Clifton Hampden which is stuffed with even more thatched cottages and a church with an impressive 152-year old cedar tree, before parking at the edge of Dorchester-upon-Thames to walk the pretty high street.
What an amazing Abbey! Unexpected, grand in scale, but not grand in nature. Busy with a large wedding, the guests waited to greet the bride’s family before flowing outside, relaxed and talkative, to wave off the bride and groom in a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce.
The wedding guests
Under the flagstones
The People’s Chapel
The magnificent alter
I was there to see the wonderful, unusually life-like effigy, one of the finest pieces of 13th century funerary sculpture in England. The pose is fluid as the Knight is ready to unsheathe (the now lost) sword. Much admired by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, John Piper and Paul Nash, who considered the effigy one of the greatest icons of Englishness – alongside Stonehenge. That’s quite something!
Expect the Unexpected
Just as when I visited the Tate in 2017 to see the Paul Nash Exhibition, I got more than I bargained for on this visit to the Clumps. Not just beautiful English countryside and villages, but a sense that things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, we do things differently, but the essence of who we are hasn’t changed. Places of worship still have a role, we commemorate our dead, plant and harvest crops, have a fascination with the unexplained, are drawn to rivers and high places, leave something behind by scratching our initials (or a poem) onto trees, indulge in celebrations and capture what we see in prose and pictures. In doing so, we try to understand and make sense of our place in this enduring landscape. A trip to the Clumps could perhaps help you try and figure out some of life’s great mysteries.
Paul Nash is buried with his wife Margaret at St Mary the Virgin, Langley Marish near Slough.
Thank you to Christopher Baines for sharing his knowledge and insights into how this pioneering artist tried to make sense of the magical and mystical everyday. It was really special. Take a look at his website, which is full of information on the local area and of the great man himself.
This blog has plenty of ideas for places to discover and walks to enjoy throughout the Chilterns year, follow the tabs at the top of the page to discover more. In Chiltern Fields was published in 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
I am astonished at how many found their way into the Chilterns that resulted in prestigious buildings, churches, woodland and more humble structures being built. Ashridge is the most prestigious amongst them.
Another hot July week goes by, and an early morning walk in the forest is the coolest place to be. The dusty summer paths are criss-crossed with cracks and gnarled roots, even the stubborn patches of winter mire look benign and safe to cross. The bees are winning as they are all I can hear. The compelling natural geometrical shapes of the six-foot high bracken is punctured only by the crests of foxglove pink, just past their best. The exposed felled trees of winter now swallowed up by verdant vegetation from which a variety of animals burst forth ahead of me on the path.
Ashridge Forest is one of the more popular Chilterns destinations, but as visitors tend to stick to the tearoom and toilets at the visitor centre, there is more than enough space for the horses, cyclists, runners and ramblers to be swallowed up by the 5,000-or-so woodland acres. In fact, the two are closely linked along Prince’s Riding, a glorious avenue of trees linking Ashridge House with the Bridgewater Monument.
This much-visited estate, grew up around the medieval Ashridge priory that was founded in 1283 by the crusader knight, Edmund of Cornwall (a nephew of Henry III who was himself a collector of relics). Ashridge priory was created to house a phial of Christ’s blood that had been brought back from the Holy Land. These relics of the ‘Holy Blood’ were portions of the blood of Christ’s passion, preserved supposedly from the time of the Crucifixion and displayed as objects of wonder and veneration in the churches across medieval Europe. A flourishing trade, pilgrims traveled from far and wide to venerate and spend their hard-earned cash in offerings to secure their place in heaven and a meal to get them through the journey.
Links with the Past
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. The estate passed through various families until in 1800, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater demolished most of the priory, and construction began on the present house in 1808–1814.
A surviving link are the fallow deer that were introduced during the 13th century as a source of food and for the sport of kings, that still roam the vast estate.
People and their holy relics may come and go, but the surrounding woodland is still bursting with life. During summer, it’s just more colourful – pretty butterflies dance around my feet and the shrill whining of crickets in the long grass is the sound of high summer. Death-defying squirrels race through the tree canopy and so many birds, its magical. We pass little cottages dotted throughout the woods, with names like ‘private cul-de-sac’, or ‘no turning private,’ and stop too for the obligatory “is that a corgi?” conversation.
Future business leaders now attend the Ashridge Executive Education, formerly Ashridge Business School, based at the gothic revival Ashridge House who promote their services as;
“An agile business school for the global leader. Because disruption is inevitable:”
That wouldn’t go unrecognised I don’t think, by those former businessmen of the priory and palace, whose global world was turned upside down by European political and religious events far beyond their control.
So the cycle continues.
Read more about some of the structures built to house relics and provide shelter for their pilgrims below;
Once on the Pilgrims trail between St Albans Abbey and the monastery at Ashridge, Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.
St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. Read of a Journey into a Chilterns desert.
Growing stones, a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Repton and an acorn from a queen, read about a tour of the Repton-designed Ashridge House Gardens.
A walk in Ashridge during the quieter winter months is a completely different experience. Do trees fall uphill? Or take your pick from the selection of National Trust walks through the estate.
Winslow has a strong nonconformist tradition going back to the 17th century, and in 1660, Benjamin Keach (1640 – 1704), was chosen pastor for the little Baptist chapel. The Keach Meeting House in Winslow.
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.
In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.
I love the wide open winter vistas. They reveal unexpected views and spaces, the shadows long. A raw wind causes the bare tree tops to clatter and scratch against one another, loud on the otherwise still hillside.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The Ashridge estate is huge; with over 5,000 acres of woodlands and many visitors not straying far from the toilets, cafe and carpark, the chances are always good you’ll have the other 4,999 acres pretty much to yourself.
What looked like the aftermath of a great disturbance with piles of flint, up-ended trees, mounds of excavated chalk and the biggest wall of roots I’d ever seen, awaited us as we headed off-piste to follow the animal trails that branch off the well-trodden Ashridge Forest Sunday paths.
Heading downhill through the trees, it’s only as the track became even narrower and I have to watch where I am walking, that I notice the toppled trees interspersed with tightly-packed new growth, enjoying a few years of space before they are muscled out. These upended beeches, all pointing uphill, whilst the oaks, needing space have jumped the fence and taken root in the field alongside.
Keeping everything out. Or in?
This scene of furious activity by nature’s hand, not human, looks surreal; big pieces of scattered flint, stones, numerous piles of chalk excavated by badgers as they enlarge their extensive hillside homes, even trees turning to dust. The leaf litter is still thick, and covers ankle-twisting holes and rocks, and still the barely visible track leads on along the edge of the tree line, very straight, there is no mistaking the intention of this boundary. In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.
Wide open winter vistas revealing the unexpected view back down the valley rising up to Wiggington and Wendover. This seasonal sight will close up, like a theatre curtain draws over the view as the trees spring back into life. A crow hangs lazily on the wind.
Leo is spooked by something, so scrambles onto a log, growling and begins to bark. Suddenly, the hillside comes alive as a small herd of deer crash through the trees, in flight from another excited barking dog, The deer however, have the upper hand, they know all the tracks and escape routes. They sweep past us, twice. I bet they know this is a Sunday morning, their least favourite day of the week!
Next up on the weirdness scale, a wall of roots and stones, at least 10 foot in circumference, that shields a well-trampled clearing, a good spot for the deer? What forces were at work to upend such a large tree, revealing this stoney underworld apron?
The aerated soil is crunchy underfoot, a mix of pebbles, beechnuts, and twigs. We pass a large saw pit, criss-crossed with bike tracks as we follow a well-used single track uphill. The vegetation on this sunny slope quickly changes from the stark to timid signs of the first primroses and what will be another grand display of bluebells in April or May, their tiny leaves breaking through the leaf cover.
Do trees only fall uphill? From my unscientific study, I’d say yes they do. However, I was delighted to see that here and there, rebel trees had thrown themselves onto the fence downhill, in some places crushing it flat beneath their weight. Result!
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I would say it does. And judging from the unceasing movement and change that this stretch of forest has undergone, it must be a daily occurrence and therefore could be heard.
Voices carry on the wind and I know it’s time to head home.
During the Covid-19 restrictions, please exercise locally, keeping your distance where you can.
The Ashridge estate is vast, and Ashridge House, located down the grand avenue from the visitor centre, is treasure trove of local tales and spectacular events.
We have recently launched a new online Chilterns retail service, Chilterns Gifts, selling individual gifts and souvenirs inspired by the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. Deliveries to the UK only.
Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom, and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.
Poking around in unassuming, tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there.
February is the time to satisfy seasonal cravings for warmth, sunshine or a dash of colour in an otherwise challenging month. Carpets of aconites and snowdrops start off the race to spring, hellebores and daffodils in hot pursuit, with the ultimate spectacle of the iconic bluebells that light up the woodlands from April to May that will herald long overdue summer days.
Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing with seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.
North, south, east or west?
Travelling north to south and back again is easy to do, the challenge is crossing from west to east as there is no direct route. Therein lies the joy of Chilterns travel: unhurried, with the slight edge of not really knowing where you are, glimpses of the road ahead not really helpful as their unfamiliarity only confirms my sense of trepidation, when all of sudden, the bare tree canopy opens up revealing wonderful views down the valley as I watched an approaching rain shower racing towards me.
I followed a succession of narrow windy lanes, thick mud and leaf litter piled up on either side, making me glad I was visiting mid-week, so wouldn’t have to negotiate these mires with other road users travelling in the opposite direction. I now understood why this area has been called the ‘desert of the Chilterns’, it is remote, despite being so close to London and nearby market towns of Wallingford and Henley on Thames.
I turned off the track, following signs for the Norman parish church, and apart from a photographer with an enormous zoom lense, there wasn’t anyone about. I was underwhelmed with the snowdrop display, the aconites were much prettier and were working hard to cheer up a gloomy corner of the graveyard. The church itself is small, unassuming and gives no hint at what is inside.
Poking around in tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there. This church is a Norman Pilgrim Church, a reference to it’s place on a Pilgrims route, a once popular undertaking.
St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. A Saxon noble who lived in the 7th century, he spent time abroad and upon his return was given, by King Anna, a grant of land near either Aldeburgh in Suffolk, or Boston in Lincolnshire to build a monastery. Two centuries later in around 870, it was destroyed by Danish invaders and the saint’s remains were divided into three parts and taken from the ruins to be housed in Ely and Westminster Abbey. It is likely, given the flourishing trade in relics at the time, that the parts were conveyed from place to place and so his name became synonymous with wayfarers and travellers. Over 70 Churches, along with five towns and villages are dedicated to him, and although he has no place in the Prayer Book Calendar, his feast day is June 17.
Not many parish churches are open to the casual visitor, so I am never sure if the sturdy doors will yield when pushed. This one did, and opened into the warm and colourful interior that far surpassed the seasonal exterior. Some hikers were eating their sandwiches in the back pews and returned to their murmurings beside the font. Although extensively restored in 1850, much of the original Norman church is recognisable, with the font that possibly predates even this.
The ceiling has been restored and is painted a summer blue with a more brooding red reserved for the Norman apse, off set by simple white walls and red floor tiles, some looked medieval. The rood screen and loft date from the early 20th century. The refurbished wall paintings behind the alter are impressive and make for a cheerful and pleasant space. The wall plaques commemorating former vicars, wardens and parishioners remind me that I am in England, not in some far off exotic place.
No sign of any relics, but I am delighted that this special place, tucked away in this ‘green desert’ that involves a purposeful journey is named after the English patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. It means even more to me now.
Due to Covid restrictions, the church may still be closed. Please check before you visit.