The Grande Dame of Ewelme

Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village? The village of Ewelme fits the bill.

On the Swyncombe road about a mile outside the village of Ewelme is where I stopped to take a deep breath and familiarise myself with the lay of the land. The last time I was here was to visit St Botolph’s, three miles up the lane in the direction two casually-peddling Lycra-free cyclists were heading. It’s a good sign!

fullsizeoutput_26ad
The winding road to Swyncombe

I picked my along the path before settling on a rotten tree trunk that offered respite from the sticky mud. A rabbit dart beneath the hedgerow, it must have seen the two lazily circling kites overhead. A weedy line of smoke from a farmhouse rises from a small fire further up the valley and only a low-flying aeroplane just taking off from nearby RAF Benson is competing with the spring birdsong.

The English countryside: managed or manicured, everything in it’s place, but that’s not to say without beauty, it’s how you see it that counts. Symmetry, patterns, parallel lines, even the turn of the plough creates its own pattern picked out by the sunlight. Little dabs of lime green growth in the hedgerows contrasts with the emerald green of the field behind. Even the vapour trails add their dotted and dashed pattern to the perfect blue sky. I am buzzed by an enormous bumblebee, circling my  muddy shoes.

fullsizeoutput_2665

Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

Ewelme is located north east of the market town of Wallingford, nestled in a green dip, with narrow lanes and pretty cottages tumbling down the hillside to congregate along now defunct watercress beds fed by the Ewelme Brook, that eventually makes its meandering way to the River Thames. Production has sadly ceased (cress can still be bought and enjoyed in the Chess Valley), but now these beds are owned and managed by the Chiltern Society who organise events here in the reserve.

DSC_7894
The old ‘cress beds

If you like medieval villages, there is plenty to satisfy you here: lots of typical Chilterns brick and flint and crooked doorways, well-tendered gardens bursting with flowers, the 15th century cloistered almshouses and modest school; but the real gem is the lovely church of St Mary the Virgin that commands the village heights with a 14th century tower that can be seen from almost anywhere above walls and rooftops.

DSC_7904

Much has been written about this church, it’s memorials, tombs and occupants that can still be seen today thanks to some quick thinking by local Civil War army commander Colonel Francis Martyn, who refused to give up the key to the church and the  Roundheads who surprisingly obeyed, left the church unscathed.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village?

fullsizeoutput_2668
Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church
The must-have tomb

The reason everyone visits is to gaze at the rather splendid tomb of Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church who died in 1475 aged 71. We remember her not only for her status, wealth, influence, three husbands, family connections and rare recipient of the Order of the Garter, but because she and her husband gave Ewelme its (rebuilt) church, new superior grammar school and almshouses. She also happened to be the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and her father, Thomas Chaucer was lord of the Manor of Ewelme and governor of Wallingford Castle. The side chapel where she is buried has a curious array of church furnishings that include the original medieval floor tiles, a gaudy turn-of-the-century alter piece adorned with English saints, the sole surviving medieval seat and fabulous IHS monogrammed walls. The tomb dominates the space in a style and manner usually reserved for a Knight and his Lady. She is buried alone as her third husband suffered a ghastly traitors fate and is buried in Suffolk, so she had to make do with adoring cherubs instead. Arranged over three levels, from the most elaborate and celebratory at the top to the realistic effigy of the occupant in her funeral shroud at the bottom.

Too many village churches are nothing but disappointment and dust, sanitised by the Victorians who liked to clean up the mess and paint over the unsightly to better suit their view of the world. But here you have a medieval complex that has seen continuous use for about 600 years, from childhood through to death, and I am certain, watched over by the community who take great pride in their heritage, it will cope with the pressures and fancies of the next 600 years.

Out through the west door, leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex. The school has outgrown the red brick building and has extended it’s classrooms discreetly behind another brick wall to the rear.

In the village store, opposite Kings Pool, I enjoyed coffee and a tasty sandwich and chatted with a bloke who had an interesting collection of old-school camera’s, and wondered if there was any truth to the legend that a lady-in-waiting had in fact pushed King Henry Vlll in!

fullsizeoutput_265d
Ewelme Store

As for the ghost stories, we’ll save those for another day, as you’ll hear tell of fairies and a witches curse too. Please leave your car in the car park at the entrance to the village and explore on foot.

DSC_7923

For more Chilterns inspiration and ideas

Chilterns A to Z

Get to know the ghosts, they all have a story to tell.

Get to know the ghosts, they have a story to tell.

Up and down the land, there are ‘something for everyone’ high streets, towns, heritage parks, historic houses, districts and destinations.

What if you could tell your community and networks the story of your local area? As interpreted by you? Seen through your eyes? The only rules are the celebration of the magnificent and mundane, remembering that what is incidental detail to you, will be new and refreshing to someone else. It’s what sets a place apart from all the rest, it helps customers make decisions about where to visit as your location becomes distinctive and intriguing.

I have put together my first A to Z of the Chilterns, which wasn’t easy, there is simply too much information to include.

A is for Amersham Museum, Aldbury Nowers and the Adonis Blue..

B is for bodgers, bluebells and Bledlow Cross…

C is for Chenies Manor, chalk, castles and Chequers

Image 22-02-2018 at 15.57

This will, without a doubt, change and evolve, as I add more columns, fill it with images and the names of things still to be discovered.

I have plans for posters.

Why not give it a go? If you do, please let me know as would love to share it.

A Brief History of…

In which eight rare medieval wall tiles are bought for £17 and are now priceless.

The Tring Tiles.

Tucked away on a side wall in the Medieval Galleries in the behemoth that is the British Museum, hang the enchanting Tring Tiles. Remarkable then, that despite such an immense archive spanning thousands of years, these eight tiles have been on a world tour and are now on permanent display.

The history 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.

They have been described as a ceramic religious comic strip of the life of a young Christ, almost like a 14th century Springfield cartoon. The yellow characters tell apocryphal tales about the childhood of Christ in a raw comic strip full of odd and unfamiliar images; Christ killing a school mate who has annoyed him, in another scene, a man dies because he spoilt a pool that Jesus made and he is brought back to life and simply walks away! I don’t recall being told these stories as a child.

Fashions come and go, and that extends to things ecclesiastical. During an early 18th century make-over of the Tring Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, the tiles were covered up and then stripped out in the early 1880’s, only to be offered for sale in the Dickensian-sounding local Curiosity Shop. The owner refused to say how he came by them. Happy to sell them on however, to a Rev Owen, who upon his death in Chelmsford in 1922, the tiles were disposed off amongst his personal and household items. They were bought by an antiques dealer for £17, and he sold them to the British Museum.

So much could have gone wrong through all of these transactions! And then another two tiles turned up in Tring and were gifted to the V&A. Will any more turn up one day…I hope the residents of Tring are thoroughly examining their cellars and garden walls.

Although not a common English method, I like to think they could have been made in the nearby Penn potteries, an important centre for decorative tiles that were destined for great houses and buildings across London and the South East.

Just like the Holy Trinity Penn ‘Doom’ painting that was very nearly lost if it weren’t for the rain, so too would these remarkable treasures have also been lost. Thank goodness for eagle-eyed folk and purveyors of all things curious!

Tring Tiles
“Eight tiles of lead-glazed red earthenware with decoration representing incidents from the apocryphal accounts of the infancy of Christ. Executed by scratching through and cutting away a white slip under a yellow clear glaze.’  British Museum
Artist: unknown
Maker: unknown
Origin: England. or France
Made: late Medieval, circa 13th century
The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Tring
Saint Peter & Saint Paul Tring
Further ideas on things to visit and places to explore in Tring

For more information on what to see and do locally in Tring and the Chilterns.

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…” claimed the precocious founder of the Natural History Museum in Tring!

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.

fullsizeoutput_305b
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.

fullsizeoutput_3061
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.

DSC_4628
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.

fullsizeoutput_3068
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.

DSC_4679

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’.

DSC_4690

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.

fullsizeoutput_305d
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.

Inspired Chilterns’ Landscapes at National Trust Cliveden

“The Rose Garden was described by designer Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as a vegetable form, like a cabbage, with each bed intended to envelop the visitor and draw them deeper into the garden,” explained Cliveden head gardener Andrew Mudge.

Much like the entire National Trust estate at Cliveden, drawing you in up the drive as you quickly begin to get a feeling for the scale and complex textures of this beautifully landscaped garden. Cliveden means “valley among cliffs” and refers to the dene (valley) which cuts through part of the estate just east of the house. Perched on an impressive 130 feet above the river Thames, it has always been intended as a statement house for the succession of owners and high-class tenants who have the good fortune to live there in such idyllic Chilterns’ surroundings, with wonderful views south across the river since the first house was built in 1666.

I was there to see the restored Rose Garden, with it’s 900 blooms showing off their palette of soft sunrise pinks, bold oranges to yellows and deep sunset reds, inspired in part by the abstract painter Paul Klee. It’s a friendly space, with children kicking off their shoes to run on the wonderfully soft lawn and benches to pause and enjoy the spectacle.

A Wounded Amazon, Resting Satyr and Venus marble statutes watch over the assorted blooms, and help to give the garden a sense-of-place as they are all closely associated with the Astor family. This garden was, after all specially created for Lord Astor as a special place to relax after a busy day in the office.

A resting Satyr leans on a stump amidst the 9,000 blooms in the restored Rose Garden at Cliveden
A resting Satyr leans on a stump amidst the 900 blooms in the restored Rose Garden at Cliveden

What could be more English than a rose garden in bloom on a warm summers day? Why a cup of rose tea or rose-infused lemonade, accompanied by lashings of Cliveden rose cake – a real treat.

Dotted around the formal gardens are a number of mulberry trees that bare plenty of fruit, rarely seen in the shops, which is probably why visitors like to tuck in. The staff are too polite to comment on their red-stained hands! The mulberry has royal associations dating back to Tudor times and has a spreading habit and becomes crooked and gnarled with time, making an organic architectural feature.

My name if Morus Nigra 'black mulberry' and I'm very old. Please be gentle.
My name is Morus Nigra ‘black mulberry’ and I’m very old. Please be gentle.

Cliveden has enjoyed significant growth in recent years following a number of what I can only describe as intriguing non-National Trust initiatives – installing a giant stainless steel slide which is more water park than historic property, being the most impressive. The visitors love it, including the oldest who at 92-years of age, is inspiration for anyone feeling they are perhaps showing their age. A bit like the South Terrace, at over 350 years old, which is why the slide is there; to raise awareness and funds to complete a complex and fascinating conservation project that doesn’t only include the fabric of the building, but rare species of bats, snails, lichen and hotel guests. Cliveden House has always been dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, power and politics, so it’s no surprise it has been a successful luxury hotel since 1985. Hotel guests have free-rein of the house, visitors to the gardens are able to take a peek inside on the twice weekly tours.

The views across the Parterre – a formal garden laid out on a level surface – are breath-taking. I mean that quite literally. The south-east of England is such a busy place, stuffed full of people, cars, planes and trains – noise. To just stand somewhere that offers space and wide vista’s in this environment is really special.

What a fabulous place this is. Not trussed up like a Victorian lady, but somewhere that is bustling with activity and promise – from the newly restored Rose Garden to the being restored South Terrace. And I haven’t even explored the Thames Riverside yet. That’s for next time.

Glorious Gazania's make a statement in the Long Garden
Glorious Gazania’s make a statement in the Long Garden

For further information on National Trust Cliveden opening times, events and tours: For ideas and inspiration on what to explore in the Naturally Outstanding Chilterns: 

Mind the Swan Uppers!

A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic pensioners, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging picnic hampers in evidence. We are gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers!

England is full of quaint customs, some funny and others frankly bizarre.

Some with origins lost or simply re-invigorated to suit modern tastes and bank holidays. Swan Upping is neither. Firmly routed in the 12th century, it is both necessary for conservation of mute swans and acts as a gentle reminder of just who owns them.

Marlow riverside for swan upping
Marlow Riverside

A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic pensioners, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging picnic hampers in evidence. We are gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers make their way upriver on their five-day journey from Sunbury to Abingdon Bridge in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire to record the swan population on the River Thames.

Image
Moody Marlow
Mute Swans

This historic ceremony dates from the twelfth century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans – especially the cygnets,  a prized dish at banquets and feasts. As with the deer from the great parks and forests, punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging. No longer eaten, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Traditional swan upping regalia
Traditional Regalia

All Up!

The Queen’s Swan Uppers wear traditional scarlet uniforms and each boat flies their flags and pennants.  On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”. With a cry of “All up!” the signal is given for the boats to get into position. Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury commonly caused by fishing hooks and line.

fullsizeoutput_2c52
Swans are not afraid to peck, so not sure I’d be that keen to bundle this lot into a boat.

A traditionalist at heart, I love seeing ceremonies re-purposed to chime with contemporary life. Never mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

Swan upping has already begun and can be enjoyed until Friday July 19th 2019. Further information here

For more Chilterns summertime inspiration including walks, nosing around country churches or Manor Houses.

VisitChilterns.co.uk has further information about accommodation, transport links and our fabulous market towns.

Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s Locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames is worth packing a picnic for.

Further Marlow tales 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.