Mongewell Park

A place of contrasts with a dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy landscape. The little chancel amidst the weeds and decay made this an unexpected delight.

It was too good an opportunity to pass up. An unplanned visit to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, on route, discovering another quite unexpected, but creepy, derelict estate in Mongewell Park.

With a name that rhymes with sponge-well, Mongewell is a mere mile from Wallingford, sandwiched between the Winterbrook bridge, the busy B4009 and River Thames to the west.

Finding your way there is the first challenge. Down a country lane, along a footpath, past large unfriendly signs advising visitors to keep out, unless heading to St John the Baptist church. Don’t be put off.

A horror film set

The site has had a colourful past – from an ancient Grims Ditch, the Normans, a bishops estate, WW1 convalescent home and RAF station, to groundbreaking Jewish boarding school, Carmel College that closed in 1997. Although earmarked for housing, the extensive site is derelict.

On past peeling portakabins with boarded up windows and verandas sinking into dense vegetation, that you walk by to get to the church. The school added several buildings, including its synagogue and the Julius Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse. An intriguing, creepy place. I could see why it has been a popular film location – great for horror movies!

Carmel College Mongewell Park
The Modernist synagogue is just visible through the trees

Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?

A jigsaw puzzle
The exterior of St Johns Mongewell
Roofless with an assortment of brick and flint

Partly taped off, in case the roof tiles continue their downward slide, you skirt the headstones beneath the east wall of the apse to enter. It reminded me of Someries Castle near Luton in size and decay. Minus the vandalism. Hemmed in by dark vegetation, the atmosphere was just ever-so menacing. This is not a romantic ruin!

A dandelion in the nave of St John the Baptist
Red campion and dandelions grow on the walls and floor of the nave.

Come away make no delay

The inscription on the now lost church bell 1760

When the nave lost its roof in the 1940’s, the arch to the apse was blocked up. Unsure if the heavy door would yield, it took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.

A surprise awaits

The floor may be dusty, but tucked away behind a Churches Conservation Trust poster, is a pile of neatly folded clothes and a bucket and mop. It is looked after, this tiny uncluttered space, with interesting stone monuments, a large, but damaged Victorian font and pretty stained glass window behind the alter. The wrought iron chandelier was added in the 1880’s and hangs from the reconstructed 14th century wooden roof.

A simple interior at Mongewell St Johns
An uncluttered interior with distinctive zig-zag pattern around the Norman arch.

Following repairs and the placing of monuments and the font from the nave into the apse, it is hard to imagine this lovely space was once derelict.

Sunlight through the open door at Mongewell church
With the sunlight streaming through the open door, it was calm and peaceful.
What movie set could this be from?

It got suddenly dark inside the chancel, huge storm clouds quickly fluffing up overhead. It was time to go! I closed the door, making sure it wouldn’t blow open and picked my way through the weeds and out across the nave into the deserted Mongewell Park.

Storm clouds over St johns Mongewell
Derelict and with no congregation, St John the Baptist was vested to the Churches Conservation Trust in 1985

A place of contrasts and a big dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy surrounds, made this a highlight for me. Such an unexpected delight, the little chancel amidst the weeds and decay. A deserved inclusion in this blog!

The chancel was unlocked, which was a surprise as there was no one around. It may be locked when you visit. If all you can experience is the exterior ruin and surrounds, you won’t be disappointed.

Further information

Mongewell was once a strip parish – these were thin strips of land extending from the Thames and into part of Stoke Row, up in the Chiltern Hills. There is lovely story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to Stoke Row, far away in England. The land of endless rain ironically.

The Ridgeway National Trail skirts the site and a quick visit to the church is recommended.

Take the big skies and rolling Chiltern hills home with our new range of gifts and souvenirs from Chilterns Gifts.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Tring in Spring

Tring Park is a vast green space that merges comfortably with the market town of Tring, in the northern Chilterns.

I am regular visitor to Tring Park where I take Leo and meet with friends to walk. This spring, I have been exploring new routes around the 260 acres, and have discovered paths tucked away through gates and shady copses.

I have focused, not on the big statement avenues of trees and follies, but on the smaller, more intricate detail of the parkland.

Tring Park paths
The primroses lead the way

Making regular appearances in the history books, the town and surrounding land are recorded as having been handed on from one monarch to another, to their wives, to a Groom of the Bedchamber or a Clerk of the Treasury. Throw in a couple of Royal mistresses, and you’ll be thoroughly confused.

Innovation

We pick up the story when the space was formally landscaped in the 1720’s by Charles Bridgeman, who helped pioneer the naturalistic landscape style. If like me, you haven’t heard of him, it’ll be because innovations in English landscape architecture have been eclipsed by the work of his more famous successor, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. He was responsible for landscaping the nearby Ashridge House estate and the statement ‘golden valley’ amongst other impressive projects.

There are neat piles of miscellaneous stones, discarded bricks, and tumbled down walls that are sinking slowly back into the hillside.

Tring park boundary walls
Flint and bricks crumble and decay, ivy lazes on the top like a giant boa.

What Bridgeman did was mix and successfully merge the formal woodland layout (and their follies), with the more free-flow chalk downland and broad open landscape. The feature that is most striking is the steep ridge that runs like a spine along the southern edge of the park, along which the Ridgeway National Trail traverses. Passing through the park, the Ridgeway follows the King Charles’ Ride, this broad avenue is one of my favourite places to walk, with wonderful views over Tring and across the Vale of Aylesbury to Ivinghoe Beacon and Mentmore Towers. All beneath a canopy of stately trees.

Copper beeches get dressed

Past Lives

All over the park, you’ll find signs of past lives and purpose. From wobbly walls and names of landscape features, to the two most prominent: Nell Gwyn’s’ Obelisk that commends the centre of the woodland and just further up the trail, you will see the remains of a summer house. The latter was full of chalk praise for Donald Trump when I walked past!

King Charles’ Ride
Like a penny farthing bicycle stuck in the mud

The avenue of lime trees welcome most visitors from the town as you cross the intrusive A41 on the footbridge from the National History Museum car park. This is the best way in fact to access the park.

The A41 cuts through Tring Park
Tring Park school for the Performing Arts sits over the road, to the north of the park

Zebra’s and kiwis

When the Rothschilds bought the Tring estate in 1872, they transformed the mansion house, but left the park largely unaltered. Apart from the exotic animals that were added! This dynasty has left its mark across the region in homes, landscapes, heritage and the arts.

Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937) was an avid collector of animals. At its largest, the Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, over 2 million butterflies, 30,000 beetles as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles and fishes. Revolting. But at that time, travelling to hunt and collect specimens was fairly common. He formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual. He found time to found the nearby National History Museum, just to house his growing zoological collection, including circus fleas and a polar bear. It’s a charming museum, that has retained most of its quirky Victorian displays.

A trail in Tring Park
Was this such a good idea?

His interest in animals saw imported cassowary’s, zebras and kangaroos roaming free in the park. Whilst in the park, his father’s patience was sorely tested when a cassowary chased him. I wonder what the locals made of it all?

Now you’ll likely encounter a herd of cows who munch their way from one end of the park to the other, leaving behind nothing but nutritious pats.

Spring shadows in Tring park
The shadows are long, and the grass wet with a light frost, the air cold in the shadow of the beech trees

Tring Park is a well used and popular green space for the community. Busy with dog walkers, runners, gossip and events, best of all is the King Charles’ Ride for the sheer joy of it, the far-reaching views and a place to sit and think.

Each time I go, this microcosm of the Chilterns has something new to share; an opening vista in the autumn, horses trotting along the Ridgeway, tiny wildflowers, sledging in the winter or the call of the song thrush in April.

Spring flowers in Tring park
Primroses, lesser celandine and blackthorn

Further information

There are several trails to follow, information on the notice boards at the various entrances to the park, or you can simply wander and see where the paths take you. Woodland Trust

Not just a pretty face, Tring has a lovely high street full of independent shops and refreshment stops.

Lodged now at the British Museum, the story of the Tring Tiles is frustratingly brief. Not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England.

Directly accessible from the park is the hilltop village of Wigginton, with thirst-quenching pub and village shop selling homemade cakes and supplies.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and unique souvenirs from Chilterns Gifts.

Chilterns gifts
Beautiful new Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

One Year On

A reflection on the past year and on the affect the Covid-19 pandemic has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.

March is the space between winter and spring. It’s the month where we crave an end to the cold winter winds and are eager to welcome the warm spring days. It can make us impatient and above all, dissatisfield. It can be a ‘nothing month’, but not this year, nor was it, in 2020. 

One year on, a reflection on the past year and affect the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has had, here in the Chiltern Hills.
After the storm

Winter storms leave their mark in the forest. On a recent walk in Ashridge, I heard a loud crack! It was the splitting and toppling of a massive old tree. Many other trees had already wobbled and crashed, some violently, knee-capped almost – as if a child had been let loose with a chopper. But a reminder of the natural cycle of growth, decline and renewal that stands in stark contrast to the awful pounding the Chilterns has taken in the past year.

Vandalism, graffiti, fires, trespass, wild poohing, fly tipping and good old fashioned ‘can’t be arsed to take litter home’ just don’t belong in our beautiful countryside.

What have we lost?

It has been a tough and terrible year. Sadly over 126,000 deaths recorded, exhausted healthcare workers, lives turned upside down, family members in the wrong places unable to meet up, borders closed, tourism and hospitality businesses in turmoil.

March 16th was the technical start of the 2020 lockdown, but it is 23rd March that rests in the popular memory. When the lockdown screws were well and truly tightened and we all had to stay at home. Exercising for one hour a day.

The seasons don’t stop

The sun shone on the empty roads, the footpaths were eerily quiet. I kept up my dog walking, revisiting overlooked local tracks. I recorded my lockdown micro walks, 18 in all. Spring didn’t stop though, and it was a joy to watch up close as leaves unfurled, nesting got underway, the warmth of the sunshine hardened the mud. Awkward greetings and new walking etiquette was quickly learnt as we danced around one another on the narrower paths! All helped counter the repressive pandemic restrictions.

The mask slipped

The impact of our release from lockdown is well documented. With the easing of restrictions, like a catapult, the pent up demand to get out and about, suddenly filled our communities. The police became a regular feature as the local quarry became a hotspot for campers, bikers and party-goers with cars parked three-deep everywhere. The result of not being able to visit family, participate in sport, watch football matches, go shopping, visit the high street, meet friends in pubs and restaurants, or take the family to museums and outdoor attractions. It quickly became an angry and confused mess.

Many visitors were new to the countryside, weren’t familiar and didn’t know what to expect. The countryside does have a reputation after all. Farmers battled with trespass and walkers trying to socially distance on muddy narrow footpaths this past winter meant they encroached on fields and crops. But what were people supposed to do?

Outdated messaging

The temptation to waggle a stern finger at transgresses never works. And that is all to often our default position: put together a three-word slogan and assume the bossy voice to counter the wave of visitors trying in their own way, to have some leisure space and time.

Following a review, an updated Countryside Code is due out any day. I hope it will have vast amounts of marketing money to share an improved, more inclusive messaging that encourages positive behaviour and a love of the countryside.

Recovery

We’re not through this yet. Driving around the Chalfonts last week, my car scratched from the awkward branches sticking out along the busy lanes, stopping to try and avoid both potholes and passing vans. So many Hs2 trucks! I was struck at how dirty the countryside is; verges everywhere littered with bottles, bags, wrappers, fast food boxes, bags adorning the trees and fly-tipping. It was horrible.

As April beckons, so the leaf cover will swallow up much of this mess, and things will look and feel better. There is hope now that we have the Covid-19 vaccine. I really hope too, that from now onwards, countryside visitor management will not be done on the cheap, with extra resources to communicate, clean up and better care for our beautiful Chilterns.

Let’s leave the host communities with happy memories too

Facilities will be open, which will relieve some of the pressure, but I expect the Chilterns countryside will be busy again this Easter and into the summer. What sort of welcome will visitors receive? How will they be feeling if the international borders remain shut? Willing or defiant?

To all those new countryside and market town converts, we welcome you. Plan and book, so you can really enjoy your visit. Please spend time with our local businesses, take your litter home, and be considerate of others. Thank you.

Further information

We have so many wonderful stories about the people and places that make our region so special. Whilst you plan your next visit, you can read about them here.

Share the seasons in the Chilterns with our new range of locally inspired Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs

The joy of small things

Keach’s Meeting House

Beneath the chocolate box exteriors, beats the heart of dissent and nonconformity.

Midway between Aylesbury and Buckingham, on an elevated piece of land overlooking the Buckinghamshire flats, you will come upon the pretty market town of Winslow. Up and over the hill onto Sheep Street, you drive past lovely thatched cottages and the once grand, but now faded Winslow Hall, before turning into the picturesque high street.

Sheep street in Winslow
Looking back down Sheep Street.

Making up another piece of the jigsaw I am piecing together, this visit to the remarkable Keach’s Meeting House continues the story of the strong nonconformist tradition so typical of our region.

Meeting Midway

There’s something about Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns, that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met or worshiped in secret. Some wanted to do things differently, to go against the grain. Amongst the beech trees and farmland, many would make their mark on the nations history.

Our guide for the hot, late summer afternoon was local historian and keeper of Winslow’s stories, Dr David Noy. In keeping with the times, he was sporting a Covid visor and we socially distanced in Bell Alley outside the Meeting House.

Houses on then Walk, Winslow
The abundance of clay and lack of stone really is a local feature

David grew up in the town and has a wonderful grasp of even the tiniest detail told in an engaging and slightly dry manner. The story of Winslow is in fact the story of many towns across Bucks and the Chilterns; mysterious burial mounds, obscure Saxon heritage, rapid growth, Royal favour, dissent and disaster is reflected in the rise and fall of local family fortunes.

Burning Books

In English church history, a nonconformist was a Protestant who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the established Church of England.

Winslow has a strong nonconformist tradition going back to the 17th century, and in 1660, Benjamin Keach (1640 – 1704), was chosen pastor for the little Baptist chapel.

Benjamin Keach was a powerful preacher, a prodigious writer, poet, and composer of the long hymns he was keen his congregation sang – every verse! In 1664, he published a book for children, called The Child’s Instructor, which saw him arrested and charged with publishing a book that contradicted the teaching of the Church of England. Fined £20 and sentenced to several hellish months in goal. He also had to stand upon the pillory at Aylesbury and a few days later to do the same in Winslow market where his books were burnt in front of him by the common hangman.

Keach continued his ministry at Winslow until 1668, but being harassed by the civil powers, he moved to London. Chosen as pastor of a small congregation in Tooley St. Southwark, he remained there until his death in 1704.

A Modest Structure

Disputed dates Winslow
Disputed dates

Tucked away on Bell Walk, the Meeting House is one of the oldest buildings of its type in Bucks. There is some debate when it was built – 1625 or 1695. David pointed out how the 2 and 9 in the image above, have been ‘adapted’.

Easily missed behind a wall and overhung with large trees, a small graveyard at the front. It’s tiny! This modest structure, no bigger than a garage, would have provided shelter but not a lot of comfort for the congregation – the benches look like they were designed to keep the worshipper awake! Especially as Baptist worship at this time included long prayers and longer sermons. There is a lot of charming detail; small leaded windows, wooden spindles in the porch, hat pegs, early C18 century tomb flags in the floor, against the east wall, beneath the narrow gallery, are hinged desk tops and four lead ink-wells, for use of the Sunday-school which started in 1824. 

Our Stories

I came away from Winslow feeling that all is not what is seems. You think you know somewhere, or are familiar with village life (I live in a Chilterns village), but David’s tour really opened my eyes to changing fortunes, vernacular and provincial town fashion. But most of all, I was reminded that it’s not the structures that determine a location, a place in the landscape. Underneath the Buckinghamshire skies and in the Chilterns beechwoods, it is people who continue to make and tell the stories.

And always go with a guide. Thank you David!

Further Information

The Winslow history website has lots of interesting photographs.

Explore Jordan’s, the unassuming village, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.

Another strand of religious heritage are the many pilgrim routes that criss-cross the fields and towns. Read about ancient relics and medieval wall paintings over in Hertfordshire.

Along sheep street in Winslow
Be careful the conkers don’t drop on your head

A new range of Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

Framed Chilterns Posters
A Year in the Chilterns on your wall. Prints and gifts on sale

Evolving Landscapes

Today comes the confirmation that the HS2 rail project will continue to rip through our naturally outstanding #Chilterns.

The HS2 rail project, was today confirmed. Confirmed it will rip through our naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Evolving landscapes 

We tend to look at a landscape and imagine how things were, or to enjoy the temporary transformation through the year (the focus of this blog); less so perhaps on how things might be. The Chilterns are a living, evolving landscape, shaped by its people, industries and natural resources. After all, nothing stands still, or is set is aspic.

It is a moment for me to recognise the importance of capturing some of this huge change. 

HS2 is something I have ignored.

This vast, expensive and disruptive engineering project is the brainchild of a government, who think that spending upwards of £100b (and counting), is worth the minutes shaved off the London to Birmingham rail journey is well worth it. Perhaps that should be the national priority, but it is above my pay grade to know for sure. There has been much written, much revised and many cross words exchanged however, but for me, HS2 is something I have ignored, until I walked in the Misbourne valley and appreciated the scale of what is happening.

The route through the Chilterns

I have included a web link below, but to briefly summarise the route through the Chilterns; from London Euston, the route will enter a tunnel until West Ruislip, where trains emerge to run on the surface. From here the line crosses the Colne Valley on a major viaduct, and passes through a 9.8-mile (15.8 km) tunnel under the Chiltern Hills to emerge near South Heath, north-west of Amersham. The route will run roughly parallel to the existing A413 (through the Misbourne Valley), passing to the west of Wendover in what HS2 call a ‘green cut-and-cover tunnel’. After passing west of Aylesbury, the route will run north westwards through North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the West Midlands.

Misbourne Valley 

The River Misbourne rises above the lovely market town of Great Missenden and flows south east for 17 miles (27km) through the village of Little Missenden, onto Amersham and the Chalfonts to Denham, where it meets the River Colne. 

This valley and its river are no stranger to controversy and has suffered damage to its natural and built resources; most recently the natural chalk stream was rescued by a successful campaign to stop the abstraction of valuable drinking water and further down the valley, Shardeloes mansion, ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family was saved from demolition by the formidable Amersham Society. 

I was drawn to the valley when I read a piece about rare medieval wall paintings uncovered by accident (aren’t all the best things?), in 1931 that had been hidden behind lime wash and plaster and are now restored inside this wonderful 1,000 year-old church. Still a valuable community hub inside a building designed, built and tinkered with by the Romans, Saxons, Normans and Tudors. I expect the Victorians had a hand in there too.

My walk took me from the parish church, through the village, up the hill to Mop End and down through the woods to Shardeloes, just outside Amersham and back to Little Missenden along the South Bucks Way. Details and maps are below.

Views back towards Little Missenden
A break in the boundary

Fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigated the twists and high speed turns

It was a beautiful still January morning, relatively quiet, with only bird chatter in the hedgerows for company. Leo and I crossed the field behind the village and joined the leaf-strewn sunken path, with helpful winter breaks along a familiar tree-lined boundary to enjoy far-reaching views back across the valley towards Great Missenden. Our guides, a couple of fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigating the twists and high speed turns upwards along the path. We passed an enormous pile of gently smoking, freshly dumped manure, ready to spread across these busy fields. There are a few isolated cottages with their lovely gardens, views and one sporting a tennis court! Not too many ‘gerroff my land” signs tacked to the trees either, which is always reassuring.

Our way downhill towards Amersham is cleared by the squirrels, their grey tails catching the sunlight as they race across the woodland floor, over logs, along a decaying fence and up the nearest tree, as fast as their little legs will take them. The vista then opens up and you can appreciate the sense of space and place as the landscape turns from natural, to managed and designed.

Shardeloes equine centre
Horses are king in this meadow

Enter landscape designer, Humphry Repton who was commissioned to lay out the grounds in the classical English landscape fashion, in the lee of the hill upon which the Shardeloes mansion stands, damming the River Misbourne to form a pretty lake.

Shardeloes is the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London
Shardeloes is a sprawling 18th century country house, the current structure replacing an earlier building

Shardeloes was the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London, saw some 3,000 children born there. Amazing! Following the War the house seemed destined to become one of the thousands of country houses being demolished, until the formidable Amersham Society, assisted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England fought a prolonged battle to save the house. Subsequently purchased in the early 1970’s by a local property developer who converted the house and outbuildings into a complex of private flats, with nearby equine centre and cricket club.

One of the two Shardeloes gatehouses
Shardeloes gatehouse

Expectations

I am reminded of another great regional railway project that saw Victorian railway designers, who sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the Norman Berkhamsted castle, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.

There is an expectation that the HS2 archaeology will be rich and varied; grasping at straws perhaps, but I am hoping there will be access and tours available so we can see for ourselves what is happening. From the conversations I have had, both professionally and in my personal capacity, the locals are now resigned to the railway, and will make every effort to minimise disruption to their businesses and lives.

What of the future?

What is the Misbourne Valley going to look and sound like in the next decades? I will be back to find out as I will seek to harness and record the passions that these projects evoke with many more Instagram, Facebook and blog posts that encourage discussions and comments. You are welcome to comment below.

Further information

This website has interesting plans and maps so you can see where the route is and where the tunnels are – not too technical either.

There are three lovely walks to be enjoyed along the Misbourne valley, information can be downloaded here.

“The best church I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)” enthuses A Simms, from Paris who visited the lovely church of St John the Baptist Little Missenden. Their website and visitor interpretation are excellent, the wall paintings astonishing and is well worth your support. I believe they serve a mean cream tea in the summer!

Explore the neighbouring market town of Amersham, with its enviable history of black lace, perfume and beer.

Read about another fine Chilterns Doom painting that was saved by the Chilterns summer rain.

The local market towns of Great Missenden and Amersham are worth a visit, not least of all to see the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and the Amersham museum.

The Chilterns in Miniature

This gem shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature!

In 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors, and the rest as they say, is history.

A magical model village

If you could take some of the wonderful buildings that make up the Chilterns, and placed them in a reasonably-sized garden in Beaconsfield, to be enjoyed at your leisure in an afternoon, you’d have all the ingredients for a magical model village called Bekonscot.

Bekonscot’s rural idyll harks back to the bucolic days of the 1930’s, when the green fields of England were just one glass of warm beer and fuzzy summer days on the village green, playing cricket. And that is the time warp in which the village has made its home.

Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors
The Chilterns in Miniature

Model villages are popular with many British towns boasting an assortment of model buildings with their transport options, with perhaps the nearby Legoland at Windsor miniature Europe a particular treat. Model villages and model train sets, the two are destined to be alongside one another; in fact a model village without a model railway, is just not cricket! The narrow gauge railway at Bekonscott has played a key role in the construction, development and seems to have no shortage of eager passengers.

A gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur

Created in the 1920’s by local resident Roland Callingham (1881–1961), with the help of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur, he created a world of what was local and familiar to him, which he named Bekonscot, after Beaconsfield and Ascot, where he had previously lived.

It started small, but when in 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech which suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did, the model railway moved outdoors. It was never intended as a commercial visitor attraction, more a hobby to entertain Roland and his guests, who were by all accounts, very taken with it. Who wouldn’t be? It was only after 1930 that it really caught the wider public’s imagination, fed by Pathé newsreels, international and national newspaper coverage, and a Royal visitor or two, that ensured a steady stream of visitors.

Princess Elizabeth visits Bekonscott in 1938
Princess Elizabeth tries out the houses for size when she visited Bekonscott in 1938

Ask a local, any local, and they will nod and say “ah yes, I visited as a child, you should go”. We did, and I could quickly see why its fan base is so loyal. The attention to detail is remarkable; each building, figure and vehicle, all in their place and looking as fresh as when they were first placed there, over 70 years ago in some cases. There is a working coal mine, Enid Blyton on a park bench, pubs, a windmill, a Waitrose (of course), a circus, penguin pool, lovers stealing a kiss and no end to model trucks, cars, trains, wagons and airplanes.

Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors
A train, a plane, a carriage or cart madam?

McBull’s China Shop

The quirky sense of humour, says ‘we don’t take ourselves too seriously”, evident on the various shop fronts including; Argue & Twist Solicitors, Alfred Kings’ cakes, the Barbers Strop and my favourite, McBull’s China Shop.

Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors

Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and donates large amounts of money to charity. With over 15 million visitors since 1929 and endless rave reviews, this Chilterns gem has carved a niche that is timeless, innocent, and fun. And not just for small people either. In fact it was hard to tell ahem, who was having the most fun when we visited!

I think it shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature! Support them this summer and book your tickets.

Further Information

Find out more about visiting the world’s oldest model village Bekonscot.

Just how did the Wall Street Crash of 1929 save a tiny Chilterns village?

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas 

Take a look at the River Thames from a new perspective.

Marlow riverside for swan upping
The River Thames at Marlow

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.

A brief history of English education

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
The pretty cobbled Hitchin market place with St Mary’s church

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.

Saved from the dump!

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. Following a house clearance, this plaque was destination for the dump, but it was sent instead to the school as it was though there could be a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!

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Don’t break the rules!

A maverick

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 1798. 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.

Low tech writing aids
Low tech writing aids – a strip of sand

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 as schoolchildren. 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.

Not just for old ladies, the nearby fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone. Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products in Hitchin.

Further Chilterns inspiration here

Countryside around Hitchin
Big skies surround Hitchin

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.

Circus fleas

The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. You don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter. We saw the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; 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?

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

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