Scorched Earth is the Summer Look

We seem to have lost a month, August feels like September, then parched landscape offering up wild berries ready to pick, and the barley bales dot-dash-dotting the fields.

We seem to have lost a month, August feels like September, the parched landscape offering up an early feast of wild berries ready to feast on, and harvested barley bales dot-dot-dashing across the fields.

So neat and tidy
So neat and tidy, not a bale out of place

In years to come, we’ll be saying “oh it’s never as hot as ’18” in reference to the benchmark that once beat all heatwave benchmarks – the summer of ’76. Even that infamous summer heatwave has been trounced. I am used to the looks of pity, once I confess to not having shared this great cultural experience.

Records Tumble

Well, this year has really strained those weather conversations to the absolute limit. We’ve had the icy ‘beast from the east’ and are just stumbling and sweating our way through the hottest summer. Ever. Scorched earth is the new summer look; shades of brown, yellow, dead (apart from the weeds), hard baked, cracked earth. Whatever happened to those green fields that visitors flock from all the world to admire? Did they imagine the Chiltern prairies as their planes touched down at the start of their English country holiday?

Ivinghoe Beacon through the rain
The Chilterns prairies

We don’t show off our best side in the heat, and the national obsession has been taken to new levels; replacing the low-level grumbling that ‘it’s too wet, not wet enough, too cold, spring is too early, too late, there’s been no spring, and it’s definitely far too hot’….you get the gist.

Across the northern hemisphere, people and the land have been baking in this prolonged and extreme 2018 summer season. Minds far greater than mine will be calculating if this is what climate change looks like, with temperature extremes that bring wild fires, drought, storms, infrastructure pressures and failures, even death.

Cooling off corgi
Cooling off

The effect on the parched landscape has been dramatic. Some rivers and chalk streams have continued to flow following the long wet winter, but enough impact that has seen Crestyl Watercress farm at Sarratt closed since early June for over two months. Even the duckpond at Albury is bone dry.

The duckpond is bone dry
The duckpond at Aldbury is bone dry

The seasonal wildflowers came and went through their spring and summer palette far too quickly, with Queen Anne’s lace left to pretty much carry the can, while the rest finished up and went home early. None of those hardy slugs either, such a summer feature that do a sterling job cleaning up the countryside (and each other), are nowhere to be seen.

An early bounty

We seem to have lost a month, August feels like September, the parched landscape offering up wild berries ready to pick, and the barley bales dot-dot-dashing across the fields. In the past few weeks the emergence of the end of summer berry-bounty that festoons the hedgerows and along the pathways with blackberries, sloes, hawthorn, rose hips and elderberries ripe for picking. The blackberries are lovely, although a bit undersized. I’ll cope.

Blackberries, Sloe berries and elderberries
Blackberries, sloes and elderberries make an early show

2018 really is the summer that just keeps on giving…but I suspect we would secretly prefer those middling damp summers, green countryside and wet picnics, that means we can gently moan that a few days of summer sunshine wouldn’t go amiss!

What will the autumn have in store?

Further Information

For further inspiration on what to see and do in the naturally outstanding Chilterns or to read more summer tales, plus the wonderful story ‘A Reason to Love the Rain, which tells of what some wet weather really can do.

A Runway Runs Through It

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

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The planes at the bottom of the garden

The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!

I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.

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Luton Airport

Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.

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Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.

Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.

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Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?

The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.

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A veritable feast for the senses

Some of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.

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A thing of beauty

I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all press in on this space. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.

I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.

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I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.

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Further Information:

Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.

Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

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

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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.

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!

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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.

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter, mists, and wisps of soft cloud contrasts with the hard shapes emerging.

Beneath a full moon, a pink mist tumbles and rolls, blanketing the contours, icy grass and spectral trees.

The chalk track is greasy and slick underfoot, catching the unwary walker. The early morning autumn sun is very low and shining straight into my face so I can’t see what’s ahead; camouflaged dog turds amongst the decaying, but still colourful leaf mush underfoot. What a transition this is; full of surprises, unexpected warmth, indecision, heart-stopping vistas, big weather, colours, smells and rapid change.

Berries looking bright, exposed bramble thorns sharp and strong, contrast with the limp leaves left clinging before the next autumnal storm barrels on through. The leaf canopy begins to open up the landscape, earthworks, structures and forms hidden over the summer, emerge once again. Smears of decaying russet lie beneath the bare trees.

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The wind alternates between still-warm southerlies to a sharp poke in the ribs when gusting from the north. This temperature jolt, necessitates wardrobe changes from the open-toed to the practical and waterproof; we will all look the same for the next six months. Told apart by our dogs perhaps?

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter, mists, and wisps of soft cloud contrasts with the hard shapes emerging. Overhead, the vapour trails become visible as the temperature drops. The number of red or blue-tupped sheep on the hills has increased, as does the wet slurry of their daily routine sloped onto the paths and animal tracks. Rutting deer on the move.

The sun still feels warm –  just, but if you walk through a dip, it can get noticeably very cold. Puddles of icy water already formed, but too thin to bother cracking with my boot.

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The early bird gets the sunrise

Waves of noisy geese, sometimes so low I can hear the beat of their wings, flying east to west and back again every morning at dawn and then at sunset (sometimes by the light of the full moon), their scraggly formations getting larger and neater as their departure date gets closer. Heading off to somewhere warmer than here. Winter visitors have arrived; waxwings, redwings, bramblings and fieldfares.

In the low light I notice for the first time, countless silk threads attached to individual blades of grass, the juvenile spiders long blown away in the wind. Across the heath, illuminated by car lights and flashing dog collars, the chill and early darkness set in.

Tools of the Trade

Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.

As one of the last producers of watercress in the Chilterns, the weight of history is upon Jon Tyler’s broad shoulders.

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Lush and fiery, watercress is not for the feint-hearted!

Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.

I have written about and described this valley in a number of blogs including; The Charming Chess Valley and Tastes of the Chess Valley.

Once enjoyed in sandwiches, at breakfast and high-tea, munched on in the streets, this harbinger of spring was sold in huge quantities to Victorian city-dwellers. Tired of their winter fare of meat and root vegetables, were only to glad to eat daily bunches of ‘blood-cleaning’ cress that had been brought in overnight by train and sold in the famous Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. Jon recalls as a child, being placed in a whicker basket to play alongside the cress, before his family would take the crop on the train from nearby Chorleywood into London to sell  in the market. Their stand, run by Elizabeth, Jon’s grandmother, is what Jon reckons kept the business going when farms begun closing in the valley.

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Elizabeth Tyler centre with husband Alf and son Fred c.1920 at Sarratt

A prominent figure in the London watercress industry was one Eliza James, who came to dominate the industry with a near trade monopoly and was nicknamed the ‘Watercress Queen.’ Jon is keen however, for his grandmother Elizabeth – who put the ‘E’ in E. Tyler & Son’s, to be put forward as another Watercress Queen: Elizabeth Tyler, Chilterns Watercress Queen! I like that very much.

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Using techniques unchanged for centuries, the roots are immersed in water

Established in 1886, when there were 19 cress farmers in the valley, Jon’s great grandfather Alfred Tyler, rented the land from the Duke of Bedford (sometime owners of Covent Garden). Frank Tyler bought the land in the 1950’s, which then passed to Jon’s father Terry and for the past two years, Jon has farmed with the help of his sister Sarah and nephew Henry, who helps out at the weekends. Jon is very aware of the weight of culinary history and Chilterns heritage that sits upon his shoulders as the River Chess comes under increasing environmental pressure from an expanding local economy. In fact, as a direct consequence of a major sewerage discharge into the river, he has to expend precious resources on pumping water from another source that enables him to continue farming, but the plants are not so keen on the water temperature and nor is he keen on the bills!

Recorded by the ancient Greeks, watercress is one of the oldest cultivated plants with  many websites and food columns filled with information on it’s health-giving properties.  Easy to buy from the supermarket, but now I have tasted what watercress should taste like, there’s no comparison; chalk steam-fed crisp forest-green leaves with long firm stems, pack a fiery after burn that hits your throat after a good chew. Like eating English mustard – it blows all the cobwebs away!

Unlike the major commercial varieties that dominate the supermarket shelves, Jon’s crop is harvested and bunched by hand with a bone-handled knife, kept in the pocket of his jeans. In fact three generations of Tyler-owned Sheffield Steel are featured in the image at the top of this article.

This heritage crop is grown using the same low-tech methods; grown from seed in gravel beds fed by a constant supply of water (which also gets rid of pests), then raked over to root and produce more plants, this plant grows rapidly to produce an abundant year-round crop.

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Self-service is a quite a novelty these days! £2 for watercress and Beechdean ice-cream from the shack that sees hungry and thirsty walkers empty their pockets. And that’s important, as Metroland visitors seek space, fresh air and local food to savour and take home with sticky fingers and ideas for how to eat their countryside spoils.

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Jon and his family are integral to a healthy and vibrant visitor economy as the heritage crop they produce enhances and adds to the distinctive visitor offer that sets the Chilterns; somewhere worth spending time and money, somewhere quite different. Somewhere where local businesses thrive. You will find Jon’s farm at Sarratt Bottom, Moor Lane, WD3 6BZ, and accessible on the Chess Valley walk below.

The only other Chilterns watercress producer are the fifth generation Sansom family who grow cress in Whitwell, Hitchin.

Sadly Jon has had to make the hard decision to cease production, due to variable quality of the water he needs to grow this crop. He is however, going to open a Bed and Breakfast later this year and we will post a link once he has opened this new venture. We are sorry to see you go Jon, but glad you are not leaving the Chess Valley.

Further Information:

The beautiful Chess Valley has other producers and businesses for your to visit and support. Discover other flavours of the Chess here and a taste of it’s remarkable history here.

To find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns and to download a walk that will take you right past the farm.

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.

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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

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.

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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:
If not already ringed with individual identification numbers, the Queen’s Swan Warden, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology will do so, before releasing back into the Thames. www.royalswan.co.uk 
For more Chilterns summertime inspiration or head over to VisitChilterns.co.uk for ideas for days out in Marlow.
Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames is worth packing a picnic for.
Swan Upping begins on Monday July 16th 2018.