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 Wormsley Library

On a private tour of the Wormsley Library, we had 15 minutes. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. Discretion is the watchword

I have previously written about the Wormsley Estate, so typical of the Chilterns: slightly bonkers, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably unknowingly walked past many times. All 2,500 acres flow between a deer park, ornamental lakes, the “Sir Paul Getty’s cricket Ground” and mock Tudor pavillion, an opera house, Wormsley Library and private castle; each notable in their own right, but all together on one estate? I am not worthy.

The late Sir Paul Getty’s first love was cricket, but high up on his list must surely have been rare books and manuscripts as he filled his Wormsley library with amongst many others: 12 – 15th century illuminated medieval manuscripts, the first edition of Caxton’s Canterbury Tales, Anne Boleyn’s Psalter and the first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, no less. I really like the library, as it has a lived-in, welcoming feel, which is unexpected for somewhere that houses a collection of this importance. The chairs around the fire have the previous occupants’ impressions left behind and I wondered if they had sat fireside, and leafed through a precious volume with a familiar title, but we would most likely never see an original copy?

Invited on a private tour, with a robust schedule, we were ushered past the opera house with instructions not to photograph the private residence, nor further aggravate the already aggravated dogs who were going mad on the other side of the fence, so we tiptoed along roped-off pathways, stealing sideways  glances whenever we could.

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We had 15 minutes in the library. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents.

A Pistol Book 1627
Hidden Treasure

Why is it that some books of such staggering historical and cultural significance can sometimes look like something picked up for a tenner at a car boot sale? The only indication they are rare is that they are in fact included on the bookshelves with this collection, and those with their pages open, delicate gold-flecked images and painful writing on display that the saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ really starts to take on meaning.

You can see images of Anne Boleyn’s beautiful Psalter at the Morgan Library & Museum New York.  This tiny book measures a mere 5-by-3 1/2 inches and bears Anne’s coat of arms and monogram combined with that of Henry Vlll. The 275 vellum leaves were written and illustrated in France between 1529 and 1532, and this is a French translation from Hebrew of the biblical Psalms. Takes your breath away.

fullsizeoutput_34faAnother gem is the first edition of the Canterbury Tales, the greatest work in Middle England printed by William Caxton in Westminster between 1476-77 is only one of seven complete or substantially complete copies, and the only one if private hands. Would you take that out and read by the fire? Perhaps not.

Located between Stokenchurch and Watlington, Wormsley Park operates as an organic farm and many red kites can be seen in the vicinity. Once extinct in England and Scotland, the birds were reintroduced into England in 1989 with Windsor Great Park being the release site. All did not go to plan and without the intervention of Sir Paul, who offered Wormsley Park instead, the project would have been lost, and along with it, what is now considered to be the icon of the Chilterns – the magnificent red kite.

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. I recommend signing up for a twitter account if you don’t already have one, that way you are bound to be in the know.

The Library is only available for a limited number of dates each year, as it is part of the family’s home. Wormsley’s knowledgeable librarians can host up to 25 guests at a time for tours of the collection. More information here,

Further Information:

Another local library that will knock your socks off, is the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration.

National History at its Victorian Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for local places to visit and explore

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

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

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