A is for Amersham

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at unhelpful heights and a red lion above a lintel where a pub used to be.

Amersham is a modern Chilterns market town once again under pressure from the onward march of progress and development. 

Renowned for its Christian martyrs burned for their beliefs, successful black lace industry and perhaps on a more frivolous note, a perfumery, this is a town of two halves: the modern town on the hill and its medieval twin in the valley below.

Metroland

The Misbourne Valley in the central Chilterns is a delight. Dotted with woodlands, pretty villages and market towns, this once quiet corner of the Roman Empire is now a busy Metroland corridor, linking London highways with Chilterns byways. A mere 25 minutes from London on the Met line, Amersham offers train-to-trail countryside escapes, and space to breath. 

Metroland poster
Served by the Metropolitan Railway, Metroland was the name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London.

Once the centre for black lace production, 16th century craftswomen specialised in fine silk veils and wide flounces of black lace that were used to decorate white dresses. In fact the industry continued late into the 19th century because almost everyone, from kings to babies at one time, wore lace on their clothing! Another industry synonymous with the town was the Goya perfume factory, that supplied large qualities of fragrances and perfumes to women after the Second World War. I wonder what the town smelt like?

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument, seven Protestants were burned to death at the stake. They died for principles of religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to their consciences.”

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, who demanded to read the bible in English.

In the face of protest

There are two parts to this pretty town; medieval Amersham with its unusually spacious high street, and the new town and railway station. This came about because the town fathers didn’t want a railway mucking up their medieval streets in the 1890’s, and insisted it be routed 20 minutes away up the hill. And now, 130 years later, the town is once again facing pressure and change from another huge railway project; this time from HS2, that will thunder right through this peaceful valley, changing it in ways we don’t yet know. I have written about it in another article called Evolving Landscapes.

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

On the poor side of the street

Go with a guide! You simply turn up at the museum to join a tour at 2.30pm on a Sunday. As I waited, numbers grew to include a couple from London on a weekend break, the leader of the Amersham Band and a couple who were mysteriously ‘just passing through’. My companions on this town tour with Euan, volunteer guide and purveyor of intriguing Amersham insights and stories. 

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

We began our tour in the museum garden, filled with herbs and plants our medieval ancestors would be familiar with, to help them get through life without a GP, or symptoms to Google. Being on the poor side of the high street, this garden would have been considered small. The houses to the other side of the high street in comparison, still have substantial plots. This garden is bordered on one side by typical knapped Chilterns flint and brick almshouses, and a discreet long-drop privy overhanging the river Misbourne.

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

The museum itself is situated within a 15th century structure that has over the centuries, undergone many changes. It charts the towns story through the voices of past residents who lived and worked in the many industries and local trades, the great and the not-so, including those mentioned above. Thanks to a substantial restoration project, the beautiful medieval and Tudor floors and wobbly beams (made from green oak) are revealed. If I’d have had more time, I’d be trying on all those Tudor dresses!

A missing stream

A typical Chilterns chalk stream, the Misbourne (missing stream), meanders through the centre of town, behind houses, through a meadow and under a lot of bridges. The current low water level attests to the temperament of this stream, following as it does, the variations in the annual rainfall. It is still known to flood however, with memories fresh after the last sandbag event, despite the river being confined to a narrow channel.

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

Open plan living

You may be familiar with the Kings Arms hotel, a former posting inn, made famous by the 1994 British romantic comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It served as the place to change horses on the London to Oxford route, and perhaps give the weary travellers some respite after 25 bumpy miles from London, with quite possibly another 30 miles onwards to Oxford to endure. It looks quaint and olde-worlde, but the majority of the facade is in fact ‘Brewery Tudor’ added by the local brewery about 100 years ago to cover up an unsightly earlier facade. It seems there was a lot of this about with false frontages been added by successive owners to modernise their old fashioned structures. So common was the practice it’s difficult to know where medieval stops and Georgian begins.

Brewery Tudor

It is the equivalent today of stripping out the kitchen to make way for ‘open plan’ living. 

There are several notable examples of grand houses built with a former industry in mind, but now repurposed for other lives. Many of them have tell-tale features and locations, and the guess-work is fun.

The houses of the most important people in town: the coopers house, and to the right, the brewery managers house.

Past lives

The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 by Sir William Drake as a gift for the town, is not hard to miss. Commanding the most prominent spot on the high street, it was intended for the upper floor to be used for meetings for traders’ guilds, and the ground floor as a market and lock-up for miscreants.

Commit no nuisance
The coldest room in the coldest corner of the market awaited those who fell foul of the law.

All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, despite this never being a wool town, St Mary’s resplendent in excavated flints from the new railway, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at varying unhelpful heights in the building that was the water mill, a red lion above a lintel, where a pub used to be, the maltings, a stable for the brewery dray horses and a parapet blocking out light to the servants’ rooms following some fashionable structural updates.

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

There is great hope in Amersham for facing down disruption and continued changes to their way of life. A thoroughly modern town doing things their way, which bodes well for residents and businesses to thrive and continue to be an example of how towns adapt, yet still retain their historical roots and proud Chilterns heritage.

Houses off the high street
Through the back gate and over the Misbourne

Further Information

This article doesn’t do the town justice; visit and enjoy the independent shops, restaurants and pubs along the high street with not a chain store in sight. But do start with a browse around the exhibits at the wonderful Amersham Museum, join a town or martyrs walking tour available on Sunday afternoons from April to September.

Amersham has a number of Alms Houses that add to the great variety across the Chilterns. Not least of all the Drake Houses on the high street, originally built to house six local widows.

You will find the martyrs memorial either along a footpath leading from St. Mary’s Church, or from an overgrown footpath from Station Road.

You can explore the Misbourne Valley and the village of Little Missenden.

Discover more about Amersham, the surrounding countryside and other Chilterns market towns, take a look at VisitChilterns.co.uk

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.

An EasyJet view
An EasyJet View

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.

Luton runway at the end of the field
Luton Airport control tower

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.

Fancy brick work
Striking brick work

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.

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.

Delightful details

Much 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.

Ruined stairwell
Stairway to the stars

This is no castle set in aspic

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.

A working landscape

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all pressed in. 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.

A deceptively serene scene

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.

Wildflowers alongside the runway

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.

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; beautiful Barton Hills National Nature Reserve, adjacent to Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Scenic view
Beautiful views from Barton Hills

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.

One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

One master, three books, 300 boys and 30 monitors. This is the inspirational story of one man’s vision to provide basic education for the children of Hitchin.

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar and unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

Blissfully unaware of its existence until recently, the British Schools Museum in Hitchin is one such place; the last surviving example in the world, packed with wonderful stories and eye-popping facts about English education.

This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns, and was once a national centre for lavender-production having grown and successfully exploited the crop since the 15th century. Now only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.

Hitchin Town Centre
Hitchin market place with St Mary’s

The British Schools Museum is located on Queen street in the town centre, within the former Edwardian and Victorian school premises, in a number of buildings set close together. Near the site of former slums, whose young occupants would surely have attended the school, their dwellings in stark contrast with the outsized St Mary’s church, on the opposite banks of the river Hicca – a bold statement from a town doing well on wool. The pretty cobbled marketplace is surrounded by a mix of more traditional buildings, some medieval, jostling for prominence now amongst more forceful contemporary chain stores.  Slightly further out of town however, Tudor and Georgian buildings that surround the town go some way in redeeming the local vernacular.

The ‘font of Hitchin information’ Andy Gibbs, was our guide through the history of British schools, delighting in our discovery of many lovely stories and a museum collection made up of personal memories of former pupils or those who worked here and include incredible feats to trace former pupils: Andy showed us a plaque commemorating a soldier who died during WW1 that was heading for the dump following a house clearance, but it was sent to the school by someone who thought there was a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!

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Don’t break the rules!

The founder of the school, Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker and a maverick at odds with his peers about how children could be educated. In a time when universal education did not exist, but a belief that education could damage the ‘natural social order’ did, children as young as six were sent to factories, workshops or into domestic service in the vague hope that they would one day be able to support themselves and future dependents. In 1837 Joseph Lancaster introduced a system that meant cheap, basic education could be delivered to large numbers of children, describing his system as to produce a “Christian Education” and “train children in the practice of such moral habits as are conducive to the welfare of society.”

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Excerpt from Moral Songs – 
`But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding, who taught me betimes to love working and reading.’

The Monitorial schoolroom was built in 1837 and though only partly restored, has both preserved and presented this forgotten world very well. I had never seen anything like it. The masters desk is the focal point with the sand tray where students would be practising and learning their handwriting, right under his nose. The three books were dispersed and their pages shared at the monitorial teaching stations around the room.

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One master to teach 300 boys assisted by 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method in the only known complete example of a monitorial classroom to survive in the world. The boys sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular teaching stations around the walls. The room looks as it was in 1837,  minus the radiators! Built to Lancaster’s specifications with clerestory windows and pillared side aisles. The floor originally sloped to give the master a good view of all his pupils – essential in such an enormous schoolroom full of children to maintain discipline.

By 1900, 700 children were packed into the school, and three more classrooms were added. The desks, displays and teaching implements vaguely familiar to me from a time before wipe boards and Chromebook’s. Sitting at the now tight-fitting wooden desks brought much mirth to our group who recalled days sat in similar rooms trying to master mathematical theorems or the anatomy of a frog! Inside each desk are thoughtful displays of reading books, drawings, photographs and games from the Edwardian era.

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Andy Gibbs in the Edwardian classroom

The school closed it’s doors in 1969, and the period between its closing and the opening of the museum was not without drama too, Andy told us it almost didn’t happen. But that’s a story for another day!

There is nothing manufactured about this place, it’s genuine, a gem in fact, rooted in the local area, but so important to our collective national memories. But don’t take my word for it, experience this amazing space for yourself. Take your children, they’ll be as amazed as you.

Further Information:

The museum is open at the following times:
Fridays 10am – 4pm
Saturdays 10am – 1pm
During July, August and September open 10 am – 4pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm – 5pm

For further information on another delightful and unique Chilterns museum, the Natural History Museum in Tring is just how museums used to be, dressed fleas included.

Further Chilterns inspiration here

Countryside around Hitchin
Countryside around Hitchin

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.

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.

Chenies Manor

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns.

An ode to the humble Chilterns brick.

It is the landscape that ultimately determines what is built or cultivated nearby, which industries thrive or die, or how secure a settlement is. The positioning of windmills to capture the prevailing wind and watermills to harness the power of the water are obvious examples. Not so obvious is the location of the more humble brick kiln, essential to the successful outcome of any building project. The presence of sand, clay, spring water, nearby woodland, a major road or canal all determined whether or not brick kilns were built. Even a hill made the difference with a downhill delivery of the bricks to their destination.

Chenies Manor House

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns: quietly understated, yet certain of its place in English history and tucked away down a winding country road in a place you’ve probably never heard of. It is here visitors will find several unusual architectural features including; stepped gables, a sunken Tudor garden and an unusual recreation of a turf maze popular in the medieval and Tudor period. It may have been the window taxes that have resulted in an odd south-facing south wing, which you’d have expected to look out onto the glorious garden with enormous sun-seeking windows, instead it is almost windowless.

Widespread throughout the Chilterns, brick and flint are the local vernacular building materials of choice. Whilst at Chenies, the flint is absent, the colour of the small bricks varies from lightish red, to blue and purple, to blocks of enduring deeper red, interrupted by uneven lines of grey or white mortar. Quite unlike the extravagant and fussy shapes that form the 23 striking spiral twisted trademark Tudor chimney stacks.

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In 1676, Dr Robert Plot wrote in his Natural History of Oxfordshire: ‘About Nettlebed (in the Chilterns), they make a sort of brick so very strong that whereas at most places they are unloaded by hand, I have seen these shot out of carts after a manner of stone to mend highways and yet none of these broke’. 

Further Information:

The last brick kiln in the village
An incongruous setting for the last remaining Nettlebed brick kiln.

There is one remaining 18th century brick bottle-kiln at Nettlebed.

The charming Chess valley is a wonderful place to explore the river chess, visit a pub or sample local food and drink: tastes of the Chess Valley with the last remaining watercress producer.

To enjoy another cracking example of the landscape determining the form and function of an industry, I recommend ‘Meet the Vintner with Rocks in his Pockets’.

For further information on exploring the naturally outstanding Chilterns For further information on visiting Chenies Manor