The Sweetest Stretch of the River

  ..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river.”  Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.

Itching to get away from my desk and take a walk to enjoy a warm autumnal afternoon, it was a tweet that spurred me into action to head over to Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames.

I have visited the formal gardens at Cliveden, but that is only a small part of the vast 375-acre estate on the banks of the River Thames. I struck out from the Woodland car park and was soon enjoying the magnificent lime-treed avenue that leads to Cliveden House, an ornate mansion that crowns an outlying Chilterns ridge by the hilltop village of Taplow, near the busy market town of Marlow. 40 metres above the river, Cliveden means “valley among cliffs” and refers to the dene (valley) which cuts through part of the estate, east of the house.  The site has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. And a particular scandal.

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Lime tree avenue

The woodlands were first laid out by Lord Orkney in the eighteenth century on what had been barren cliff-top; they were later much restocked by Bill Astor but suffered badly in the Great Storm of 1987, the same year a section of a California redwood was installed in the woods. At a modest 5.03 m across, it is the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea in the country.

The woodland is quiet, with paths leading off into the trees so I headed downhill towards the river along a steep footpath that had seen much use and repair over the years. I had to stop to enjoy the expansive views across the river to Berkshire, opening up each week as the leaf cover falls away.

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Looking west towards Berkshire

The river is busy with geese, swans, ducks and all manner of little birds, darting about in the foliage, the riverside path shady with overhanging trees, leaves drifting into the soft river mud.

 

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  ..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river Thames.”  Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.

I passed the infamous Spring cottage, awarded Grade ll listed status in 1986 and in 1997 the hotel company which leased Cliveden House from the National Trust also acquired the lease to the cottage. A small fortune was spent restoring and refurbishing the dilapidated building before it reopened in 1998 as a self-contained luxury let. Luxurious it may be, but it is hardly private with the path passing within feet of the building, hampers and cottage life visible through the windows. One of four structures that was built in 1813, it saw many uses by the family and their guests, until in 1957, the cottage was leased by Stephen Ward for use as a weekend retreat and party house. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis stayed here, with a chance encounter in 1961 between Christine Keeler and John Profumo at the now infamous Cliveden swimming pool, led to the so-called Profumo Affair that almost brought down a government.

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The path then opens up onto a sunny riverside lawn, with another cottage, boathouse, small jetty and 171 steps up to the Parterre in front of the house. No dogs allowed! I don’t mind, it’s more informal here, in fact a good place to spread out and relax on the lawn. The Victorian boathouse has undergone extensive repairs, and you can see recorded on the brick wall a the entrance, historical flood levels. Choose to cool off in the river, on the Thames or alongside.

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If it hadn’t been for this couple quietly enjoying the sweetest Thames view from their bench, I would have missed the best view of all!

fullsizeoutput_392aFurther Information

Further Information:

Visit the beautiful Rose Garden at Cliveden, although I expect it’s much changed from when I visited.

Autumn is my favourite time in the Chilterns, here are my suggestions for other places to explore in the Chilterns

For further information on what to see and do in the lovely Chilterns VisitChilterns.co.uk or to spend time on the water at Cliveden.

Short break escapes: relax and stay by the river at Ferry Cottage.

Sharpenhoe Clappers: what’s in a name?

Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.

I wonder how many of the declarations of love carved on the beechwood tree trunks, still hold true today?

Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.

The landscape of the northern Chilterns is not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word: dramatic yes, tenacious even, as it stands out amidst intense agricultural activity, flight paths to and from Luton, intrusive road infrastructure, a burgeoning population in the crowded South East – yet ironically it was so quiet, I could hear a jet-washer being used in the hamlet below.

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Looking south towards London

Sharpenhoe Clappers is located in Bedfordshire to the north of London, in the parish of Streatley, sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable, Luton and alongside the MI motorway. It is an oasis of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm.

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Orange-tipped butterfly

Classic Chilterns chalk escarpment, you could not find a better example. Protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument for its prehistoric and medieval features,  that this would not however, be obvious if you visited; no interpretation and only a concrete obelisk to commemorate a local family and their sons who died in the First World War. There are numerous way-marked medium and long-distance trails criss-crossing the site, but they offer no clues either. Yet, such a prime topographical site could not have gone unused by the locals? The clues then, are in the name: Sharpenhoe Clappers.

Sharpenhoe means “sharp spur of land” which is an accurate description of the site and Clappers refer to the medieval rabbit warrens consisted of an enclosure surrounding one or more purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or buries.

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Looking north, where the spur can be seen to the right

As I approached the site from the carpark, full of wagging tails and expectation, I decided to walk away from the hilltop and approach from the other side to get a sense of the lay of the land. To the south, the view of the hillfort is not as dramatic as the northern side where you can really appreciate the strategic position of this Iron Age promontory hillfort, now fringed by a ring of beechwoods, like a pudding-bowl haircut. Of the Clappers, I found no evidence.

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Avenue of beech trees

A mature beech wood, established in the 1840’s, now covers what would have been the interior of the fort, with gnarled and worn roots and beechnuts crunched underfoot. Around the fringes, lie decaying moss-covered tree-trunks and stumps, whilst the Dogs Mercury alongside, has colonised the floor of the ancient woodland.

The entire hilltop must be a favourite spot to declare your love by carving your initials into the tree trunks. I wonder how many of the locals have carved their names on the beechwood trunks? The initials indecipherable, but the years they declared their love are still visible; 1969, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984.

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With so many trunks to choose from, it’s no surprise they are all concentrated along the side where the view is not obscured by foliage on the slope below. I noticed too, offerings suspend from branches, like a ‘wishing tree’.

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Local legend tells of Cassivellaunus, the Celtic chieftain, who ruled the territory north of the River Thames, and led the native British tribes in opposition to Julius Caesar on his second expedition in 54 BC, haunts the site by cloaking the hilltop in cloud. Why the association with this location, is unclear, but I rather hoped he was there today as the show of clouds – not menacing nor dark – but light and playful against the backdrop of rapeseed, where impressive.

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Rapeseed under a Celtic sky

I have visited a number of Chiltern hill forts over the years  and have found each has a distinctive feel, not always immediately obvious; some broody, some with easy-to-spot landscape features and others needing a more active imagination to bring them alive. Sharpenhoe Clappers has the best name and still feels lived-in and loved by the locals.

Further Information:

I am proud that we have such wonderful links back to the past when our ancestors began colonising this area, and look forward to the outcomes of a new hill forts project that the Chilterns Conservation Board is undertaking that promises to reveal what lies beneath the benign Chilterns woodlands. The image below was shared in August 2018.

Chilterns Conversation Board's Hill forts project
Sharpenhoe Clappers, half in and half out of 1m res EA LiDAR. “It may be a hillfort, and it may not be – we hope the subtleties revealed by a 25cm survey, coupled with some further investigation and debate, may resolve the issue!” Dr Wendy Morrison. Photo credit: Environment Agency August 2018.

To find out more about visiting the Chilterns

Here is a link to  three circular walks all local, with connections by train and car.

Hellfire on a Hill

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to West Wycombe hill that day, as Brad Pitt had been spotted in the area; the giveaway was a film set that included a downed WW2 airplane stuck nose-first into the side of the hill. Cue a Twitter frenzy followed by crushing disappointment as of course mere mortals were not allowed anywhere near!

The view towards West Wycombe house
Across the valley towards West Wycombe Park

Screen attraction

This distinctive landmark makes for a perfect scene-setter: West Wycombe Park is a place that has swirled with rumour, innuendo, and antics of the famous and infamous that would have put any Hollywood star to shame.  Located three miles west of High Wycombe, west of London, this fascinating place is home to a medieval high street, country seat, St Lawrence church, a mausoleum and Hell-Fire Caves attraction, all dominating the landscape by virtue of reputation and location atop the excavated, yet impressive Chilterns chalk outcrop.

All the legacy of the Dashwood family, whose Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708 – 1781) was an English rake and politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, along with the Earl of Sandwich, are alleged to have met at the George and Vulture Inn, (located in the City of London), throughout the 1730s before moving the club to Medmenham Abbey, a short distance from West Wycombe on the River Thames and then into the caves. The club was notorious for orgies and black magic, but had disbanded by 1763 (according to church records) with the caves falling into disuse.

Pagan Worship

Sir Francis was a very busy man; building roads, a fine country house, church, mausoleum, an elaborate cave system where he entertained, all using local materials hewn from the hillside (by the locals at a shilling a day), that legend has it has been inhabited since…well, forever. The church was named St Lawrence; a commonplace name for churches that supersede places of pagan worship. Retaining elements of its ‘sense of place’ as it includes a golden ball that rises above the tower with space for six Georgian party-goers inside. Saying their prayers?

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St Lawrence and the infamous golden ball atop the church tower.

The church is typically open on Sunday afternoons from March from 12.30 – 5.00pm until the end of September and is worth visiting. The churchyard is bursting with gravestones, many at strange angles as if the inhabitants have been moving around inside, some impressive columns to the fallen of the First and Second World Wars, and local families including the Joynson’s. They have prominent burials with one poignant inscription to their 16 year-old son William, who drowned whilst swimming in the Seine in Paris in 1865. The imaged journey home from Paris to West Wycombe in 1865 has stayed with me since my visit.

What does steal the show however, is the mausoleum that straddles the hilltop, still dominating the landscape after 250 years. Based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome, this unroofed structure is unlike anything else in the country. Built using excavated flints from deep inside the hill, still in the family ownership (unlike the rest of the estate that had to sold following the Wall Street Crash of ’29), this memorial to Sir Francis and his friends is in remarkable condition. Unlike the surrounds, which looked much used and abused; the fire provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Inside the Mausoleum

Founding Fathers

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America who helped to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was a great friend of Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park and spent much time there in the early 1770s. He is reputed to have taken part in sessions of the notorious Hellfire Club and clearly found the surroundings of the house and park much to his liking as he wrote many times to his son. I do wonder what he took from this time here to contribute to co-writing the Declaration of Independence?

West Wycombe countryside
Surrounding Chilterns Countryside

Further information

Sir Francis transformed the formal garden at West Wycombe Park into a playground of Italian-inspired temples, water features and follies, arranged around an ornamental lake, with broad avenues with far-reaching views down the valley or across to the Dashwood Mausoleum. There are plenty of places to read a book, admire the views, watch the swans, or to daydream.

The great, the good and the not-so-good have all made their homes in the Chilterns. Many of their finest houses are now in the care of the National Trust. Make your own selection to plan your Grand Tour, with more than its fair share of opulence, interest and intrigue.

For further Chilterns eccentricity, read more stories here.

West Wycombe Village

Good shot Terry!

I was eager to visit Stowe House and Gardens near Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire in the 10th century until Aylesbury assumed the mantle early in the 18th century. It’s fairly flat country with extensive farmland – a lot of sheep with their offspring – and the vista’s are impressive. The drive up Grand Avenue towards the house is just that, grand, and the road undulates towards the Corinthian Arch that will either intimidate or impress the guests.

England went mad: with the Easter weather forecast of doom for three of the four-day weekend, today was the day to get out. And get out everyone did! Up and down the land, queues formed for just about everything.

Having just renewed my National Trust membership, I was eager to visit Stowe House and Gardens near Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire in the 10th century until Aylesbury assumed the mantle early in the 18th century. It’s fairly flat country with extensive farmland – a lot of sheep with their offspring – and the vista’s are impressive. The drive up Grand Avenue towards the house is just that, grand, and the road undulates towards the Corinthian Arch that will either intimidate or impress the guests.

Stowe Gates
Corinthian Arch

The 200 hectare 18th century site is difficult to describe as it’s vast, filled with crafted and hewn landscapes, temples, bling, statues of long-dead grandees, columns and man-made lakes. Like an 18th century Nkandla, without a fire pool or helipad, this was an estate and home where money was no object. From humble beginnings and a fortune made from sheep farming, Sir Richard Temple began building a mansion in 1677. This building is now at the core of the current mansion and had a formal terraced garden with straight walks to the south and a walled kitchen garden close by. Transformed by Capability Lancelot Brown who worked here as head gardener and clerk of works from 1741 – 1751 he designed the grand vista’s we see today.

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Temple of Ancient Virtue

As you stroll through the grounds, structures appear from behind trees, or over the brow of a hill and I was unsure whether to take a closer look. Unlike it’s financier Lord Cobham, the hidden political meanings and cultural nuances he created were just too subtle for me.

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Temple of British Worthies

It’s a strangely unfriendly place, unsure now of its identity as the school, independent Stowe House Preservation Trust, and National Trust sit cheek-by-jowl, all playing their role in education, preservation and conservation.  Apart from the golf course that has its fairway right in front of the main house, so unless you want to be knocked on the head with a golf ball, it’s best to walk elsewhere. “Good shot Terry!” rang out in the spring sunshine.

We were hungry so make our way past endless refreshment queues and headed home, past the little princes’ and skipping princesses on their way to enjoy an Easter parade.

One more stop on the way home to savour a little gem; Old Thornborough Bridge, a wonderful 14th century ‘cut waters’ bridge design that diverted debris and allowed passing places for pedestrians and is what the original London Bridge probably looked like, but on a grander scale of course. This is the rural equivalent, and sits alongside the very busy A421 and is what I love about England: just like Avebury, the best bits can be enjoyed out in the countryside, often obscured, overtaken or ignored as we rush through the landscape, hardly ever finding the time to stop and savour. I am glad we visited Stowe!

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Old Thornborough Bridge

 

I heard it on the grapevine

I heard on the grapevine that pickers were needed to help bring in the Solaris harvest at Frithsden vineyard last month. 40 or so volunteers,  including locals and “I missed it last year” regulars turned up on a beautiful autumnal morning in the tiny hamlet of Frithsden.

Once the larder for London, the Chilterns’ are enjoying a revival of food fortunes with independent producers setting up their stalls across the hills.

I heard on the grapevine that pickers were needed to help bring in the Solaris harvest at Frithsden vineyard last month. 40 or so volunteers,  including locals and “I missed it last year” regulars turned up on a beautiful autumnal morning in the tiny hamlet of Frithsden.

Located in the county of Hertfordshire, in the northern Chiltern Hills, about two miles north of Berkhamsted, the parish to which it belongs, it’s known locally as ‘Frizden’. One of my favourite Chilterns’ villages, the name is derived from the wood le Fryth first mentioned in 1291 as Frithesdene (valley of the wood). On the edge of the mighty Ashridge Estate, the road in and out is through this glorious woodland, which at this time of year is full of anxious, skittish deer liable to dash out into the road as the autumnal rut gets underway.

The Chilterns were once renowned for the extensive cultivation of cherries, and this hamlet once produced Cherry Bounce (commemorated in Cherry Bounce lane), but now this heritage fruit barely makes an impact on untended trees in nearby neglected orchards.

I have never picked grapes before, and the notion of spending the day picking in a vineyard I was familiar with, had great appeal. Before our equipment health and safety briefing from Simon – don’t leave the secateurs in the collection crates as they’ll be swallowed up by the machinery and everything will grind to an expensive halt, we tucked into calorie-enhancing breakfast of freshly backed scones and strong coffee – a breakfast worth cultivating – my feet already wet from the grass, showed me up as the harvest novice as I perused the range of stout and sensible footwear on display.

Grapes have been cultivated in England since the Romans were in town, and the chalky Chilterns soil is perfect for those brave enough to give it a go. And that’s what Simon and Natalie Tooley did when they discovered this site in 2005; the vines long gone, but that didn’t stop them planting 6,000 new ones. This story is repeated many times across the area, on smallish vineyards now producing good fizz and white wines cultivated in beautiful surroundings; nothing luxurious, just good honest wines from hard work and determination.

Brining in the autumn harvest
Bringing in the autumn harvest

It was a pleasant experience and I worked quickly up and down the rows whilst the full plastic crates were collected and taken further down the slope to be de-stalked and crushed before the juice was piped into the fermentation tanks for nature to begin working its magic. Our tally of 94 crates was a respectable one, and they will be ready in April or May next year, so will be back then to savour the fruits of my labours.

The Chilterns have also enjoyed a craft beer revival in the past five years with micro brewerers popping up in Berkhamsted, Great Missenden and Aylesbury. The joy of doing it yourself is now spreading so hopeful soon launching new Chilterns wine and beer routes.

Further Information:

For further information on what to see and enjoy locally in the Chilterns.

Nuffield Place is Typical of the Chilterns

The William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts Movement-fame casts a huge shadow on this William Morris who brought affordable motoring to Britain, and this is his story.

Nuffield Place is typical of the Chilterns: modest, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably near heard of.

The William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts Movement-fame casts a huge shadow on this William Richard Morris, Viscount Nuffield who brought affordable motoring to Britain, and this is his story.

Born in 1877 in Worcester, William Morris moved with his family to Oxfordshire where his mother had been born and raised. Due to financial pressures, he had to leave school at an early ago to become apprenticed to a local cycle repair shop. A natural mechanic and ‘ a tinkerer of things” he saved £4 over a mere nine months and opened his own business repairing bicycles from a shed in his parents garden, labelling his product with a gilt cycle wheel and The Morris.

He met his wife Elizabeth Anstey whilst both members of the local cycling club. Despite going on a tandem-cycling holiday across some vast distance, they still decided to get married! They had no children.

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Quietly understated

His stratospheric rise to the heights of motor car designer, manufacturer, wealthiest self-made industrialist of his age and philanthropist seems almost unreal as you wonder around his former home. A slightly shabby, down at heel 1930’s house, I was there for an altogether different reason: the launch of the Ridgeway Partnership that is taking a new look at how this ancient pathway is being promoted and used. Nuffield Place just happens to be en-route, tucked away in a secluded woodland above Henley-on-Thames. There is an ever-so-slightly unkempt feel here, which I love. No sharp edges, ropes and bossy signs. The gardens are full of wildflowers and so many foxgloves! A pair of kites wheeled lazily overhead, and I was tempted to get a game of croquet underway on the lawn.

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Interiors of Nuffield Place, include one very modest “BUD 650” Wolseley parked in a tiny garage.

Nuffield Place is typical of the Chilterns: modest, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably near heard of. Designed by Oswald Partridge Milne, this Arts and Crafts house was completed in 1914 and originally named Merrow Mount, which explains the ship on the weather vane. When Lord and Lady Nuffield purchased the house in 1933, they renamed it Nuffield Place after the nearby village. Refreshingly unpretentious, very personal and seems to have escaped being ‘done over’ to appeal to the historic house visitor demographic who needs tips on lifestyle enhancement and all-round heritage self-help. This is a recent acquisition by the National Trust and came very close to being sold, when at the 11th hour, Nuffield College (the college he founded), handed the house to the nation in 2011. We are grateful.

Inside Nuffield Place
Nuffield Place Interiors are surrounded by beautiful Foxgloves celebrate the gardens-edge with the surrounding woodland.

This great philanthropist who gave upwards of £600 million in today’s money to big medical research projects, also gave quite touching donations including buying a supply of wedding dresses that he kept in one of his shops, that wartime brides who, for whatever reason, could borrow to wear for their wartime wedding. There are still letters from these grateful couples who told of what would have been an otherwise drab day had been sprinkled with some much-needed glamour.

Overheard inside the house: ‘Everyone says it’s so modest…but it isn’t is it?”

Not much has changed from when they lived here and all sorts of personal touches are to be found on dressers, hangers, tables and beds; books including “Rheumatism and you – a handbook”, the ‘Book of Etiquette’ by Lady Troubridge and ‘The Scottish Terrier’ by D.A. Casperz. The ‘Cries of London’ picture series that shows the different street sellers, took me back to my childhood! I am not sure which two or three we had in our modest dining room, but am sure were only cheap prints compared to the entire wall-full of images hanging here.

The modest Wolseley parked at Nuffield Place
How refreshing!

There is no great car collection either, only a modest Wolseley in the garage, which he saw no reason to upgrade. His wife was a terrible driver, but we are not told of his driving skills, only that he didn’t much like the Morris Minor.

To the many volunteers who were working so hard in the gardens and inside the house, ready to share delightful stories, this special house would not be open without you – thank you!

Modest until the end

Morris remained in good health for a man who chain-smoked until four years before his death, but declined after the death of his wife in 1959. His ashes are buried beneath this modest stone near the door of Holy Trinity Church in Nuffield parish church, although he had almost no interest in religion. The bulk of his remaining estate, valued at over £3m in 1963 money, was given to Nuffield College.

His ashes were buried in Nuffield parish church
I almost stepped on this modest gravestone that lies near the church door of Holy Trinity Church in Nuffield.

Further Information:

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. 

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.

Naturally I recommend a visit, and if you are a NT member, the splendid Greys Court is nearby so can be enjoyed on the same day.

For information on opening times and location: and what else there is to explore and enjoy in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

If enjoying usual and memorable places is your thing, then why not try these other quirky Chilterns destinations?

The Top Dog

A walk to discover ancient #Chilterns woodland archeology, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter.

A day to discover what lies beneath, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter, as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of Pigotts Wood, an ancient Chilterns woodland.

Pigotts Wood in spring
Pigotts Wood

Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the woodland course on time, would have found many distractions along the way. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road, which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.

Inside Pigotts Wood
Inspiration on the walls

The Flying Scotsman

We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, infamous sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed one of the most famous British typefaces, Gill Sans, used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by British Railways, most famously perhaps as it was the typeface adopted by GNER for their flagship ‘Flying Scotsman’.

Now home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years, it was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring Cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by casual design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?

The courtyard at Pigotts Wood
A dazzling spring sky

Yellow bird nests and a pillow mound

I could instantly tell that, set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project, lead us off into the woods.

John was determined we would master the names of  woodland flowers including; Yellow Birdsnest, Coralroot Bittercress and Green Hellebore, to recognise the manmade features – sometimes with their give-way mossy mantle, but to the untrained eye, largely unrecognisable; property boundaries, iron slag and sites where charcoal was once made. John also showed us a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a special feature of the Chilterns woods and forests – a saw pit. The story goes that once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog.

Within the wood, you can look out for the crucifix that Eric Gill designed which was carved by Donald Potter. It was nailed to a small beech tree in the Wood which Gill owned. He is said to have taken his daily constitutional to the Crucifix Tree where he read his rosary. Was that redemption he was seeking?

I was struck too, how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at the backdoor, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made, as there weren’t many retailers to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you got on without it.

The mighty beech trees in Pigotts Wood
The mighty beeches

A day to discover what lies beneath the woodland floor, turned into more than just looking at the obvious plants and animals. It was a morning filled with stories, unexpected historical links and folklore, all from such an unassuming hillside location. We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season. The weather being so warm, and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup and stories waiting for us, including the infamous tale of the black bath . But that is a story for another time.

This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is a hidden gem, and my walks in the woods made more enjoyable as I test out my new-found wood-lore!

A view from Pigotts Wood
Up the valley

I was fortunate to attend an archeology event in the woodland, but Pigotts Wood is private and I ask that you respect the privacy of the homeowners here, as there is no public access to the wood nor from the track itself.

Further Information

Why should you explore the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with impressive churches and pretty villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find out here.

I visited Pigotts Wood in the spring, but the Chilterns have stories to share at any time of the year; winter, summer and autumn.

National History at its Victorian Best

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The historic market town of Tring is a busy, growing commuter town within easy reach of London and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Located on the original Akeman Street – a major Roman road in England that linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Tring is in auspicious company. Built in 1889 to house one of the finest zoological collections in private hands, this in a museum frozen in time.

Just across the street are the picturesque Louisa Cottages Alms Houses on Akeman Street, built in 1893.

Inside the NHM Tring is a veritable feast of the exotic, elusive, exquisite, extinct and downright delightful exhibits from another age of museum-going. With not a gadget in sight, the slightly surreal setting of sturdy, floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases, drawers and fine cabinets that house thousands of stuffed exhibits that continue to entrance generations of local residents. The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. But you don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter and see the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; to be delighted at the fruits of a busy mother’s labours as she sat up late at night dressing the fleas her children had caught from their pets, are on display next to exquisite moths and butterflies, to marvel at the 128-year old tortoise that lived with an assortment of animals (including kangaroos and an Emu), in nearby Tring Park.

On display is more than just stuffed animals though. It is a whole other value system in which our relationship with wild and domestic creatures was clearly very different: witness the display case of stuffed domestic dogs, a dodo and the famous Tring polar bear. We accept them as the animals were captured, slain and stuffed long ago, but I was surprised to see some dogs ‘donated’ as late as 1970. Perhaps not such a lost art after all?

The museum founder, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937), second Baron Rothschild belonged to a rich and powerful family that influenced and shaped the local landscape (and seems once owned much of it), was a keen naturalist from an early age and collected all manor of exotic creatures which he brought back to his private museum in Tring. Famous for riding around town in a carriage pulled by a zebra, local response is not, unfortunately recorded, but I do wonder what they made of it all.

Natural History Museum, Tring
Armadillo, Natural History Museum, Tring

My son wanted to show me the Galapagos tortoise that Lord Rothschild once road upon, but I was too distracted by the dust on top of the display case to appreciate the size of the animal…I really must stop doing that. That said, this is no fusty-musty museum, some of the galleries have been overhauled to improve presentation and durability of the exhibits without detracting too much from what I really enjoy; a museum that is not trying to hard, knows its core product, doesn’t smell of fried food, nor does it break the budget – it’s free! What’s not to like?

Ideas for local places to visit and explore

For further information on visiting NHM Tring which is open all year round except from December 24 – 26th, there is also a regular programme of events and wildlife photography exhibitions.

The story of the Tring Tiles is so terribly brief, as not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England, or in France.

For information on what else to explore and enjoy in the Chilterns