In search of Paul Nash

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work.

I got more than I bargained for when I visited the Wittenham Clumps, a favourite haunt of Paul Nash. I discovered not only inspirational countryside, but my knight in shining armour.

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars.

Much has been written about Paul Nash and his younger brother John, and it is outside my skill set to provide a narrative of his great works. What I will share with you are some of the locations that inspired him and have in turn, come to inspire me. I have no copyright permission to reproduce any of his paintings here, so have included links to websites where you can see examples of his work below.

Capturing Landscapes

Paul Nash was born in London, and grew up in Iver Heath in south Buckinghamshire. Thankfully for us, he didn’t take to figure drawing and was able to concentrate on capturing his landscapes with preferred elements of ancient history. Something Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns have in abundance including; burial mounds, barrows and brooding Iron Age hill forts. He had to travel to the coast for the glorious seascapes and Wiltshire for the standing stones at Avebury amongst other locations.

He came to my attention when I first began to write about the Chilterns and have been captivated by his painting of Ivinghoe Beacon, somewhere I have photographed many times during my walks along the now familiar chalk paths and trails.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Ridgeway
Ivinghoe Beacon and its distinctive chalk trails leading up to the site of the Iron Age hill fort

That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work. He captures these timeless landscapes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those communities who have lived and worked in and around them over the centuries.

Not that much has changed

I joined artist Christopher Baines on one of his Nash Walks to the Wittenham Clumps, the site of an iron age hill fort on the Sinodun Hills, 18 miles west of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. Chosen for security and dominance, the two Clumps are marooned in a sea of Thames Valley loveliness. Round Hill is the taller of the Clumps, and Castle Hill the site of the hill fort. Each is topped by a grove of trees, the lower of the two enclosed by an earth ditch and engineered embankment. The Clumps are surrounded by pretty villages, towers, Dorchester Abbey, manor houses, water meadows and the River Thames. Christopher told us that the Abbey contains an unusual treasure, but more of that later.

River views across to Clifton Hampden
The Church of St Michael and All Angels at Clifton Hampden

From the top, we enjoyed far-reaching views over the River Thames, towards the Chiltern Hills to the north east, westward to south Oxfordshire and south to the Berkshire downs. The view was described by Paul Nash as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”.

Dorchester Abbey
The view across to Dorchester Abbey

There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.

Round Hill
Round Hill where you will find declarations of love

A third hill, Brightwell Barrow below, is just off to the south-east. This lone hilltop barrow I think is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon I expect. I can understand why Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it too.

Nash believed that trees have their own personalities. The devastated trees he painted, that were blasted to shattered stumps, to him represented the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The trees on the Clumps are not without their stories and quirks too. Christopher showed us the initialled tree trunks on Round Hill that reminded me of the similar declarations of love on Sharpenhoe Clappers  in the northern Chilterns. Another wooded hilltop that still draws people today. I can’t help but wonder if the lovers are still in love?

From the poem tree
Robert reads a dull poem

I have commented many times throughout this blog about the extent of Victorian Vandalism, evident in so many Chilterns churches, where earlier treasures where either ripped out or covered up to suit a more modern taste. Here was another example: local man Joseph Tubb, who infamously worked over the course of two weeks in the summer of 1844, and scratched onto a beech trunk his uninspiring 20-line earthly musings. The ‘Poem Tree” as it become known, recently collapsed into a pile of decay, but sadly for us, his poem lives on in the little monument nearby. If you want to read what it says, you’ll have to climb the Clumps.

My Knight in Shining Armour

Inspired by Christopher revealing the many threads that link Nash with what I had seen, I set off on to find a knight in shining armour. On my way to Dorchester Abbey, I stopped at some of the villages I had seen from the Clumps including; Long Wittenham with its pretty cottages, Clifton Hampden which is stuffed with even more thatched cottages and a church with an impressive 152-year old cedar tree, before parking at the edge of Dorchester-upon-Thames to walk the pretty high street.

Ceder tree planted in 1866
A Ceder grown from a seed planted in 1866.

What an amazing Abbey! Unexpected, grand in scale, but not grand in nature. Busy with a large wedding, the guests waited to greet the bride’s family before flowing outside, relaxed and talkative, to wave off the bride and groom in a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce.

I was there to see the wonderful, unusually life-like effigy, one of the finest pieces of 13th century funerary sculpture in England. The pose is fluid as the Knight is ready to unsheathe (the now lost) sword. Much admired by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, John Piper and Paul Nash, who considered the effigy one of the greatest icons of Englishness – alongside Stonehenge. That’s quite something!

William de Valance
Although he cannot be identified with certainty, it seems most likely that this knight is William de Valance the Younger (died 1282)
Expect the Unexpected

Just as when I visited the Tate in 2017 to see the Paul Nash Exhibition, I got more than I bargained for on this visit to the Clumps. Not just beautiful English countryside and villages, but a sense that things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, we do things differently, but the essence of who we are hasn’t changed. Places of worship still have a role, we commemorate our dead, plant and harvest crops, have a fascination with the unexplained, are drawn to rivers and high places, leave something behind by scratching our initials (or a poem) onto trees, indulge in celebrations and capture what we see in prose and pictures. In doing so, we try to understand and make sense of our place in this enduring landscape. A trip to the Clumps could perhaps help you try and figure out some of life’s great mysteries.

Paul Nash is buried with his wife Margaret at St Mary the Virgin, Langley Marish near Slough.

Thank you to Christopher Baines for sharing his knowledge and insights into how this pioneering artist tried to make sense of the magical and mystical everyday. It was really special. Take a look at his website, which is full of information on the local area and of the great man himself.

Further information

This blog has plenty of ideas for places to discover and walks to enjoy throughout the Chilterns year, follow the tabs at the top of the page to discover more. In Chiltern Fields was published in 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Visit the model villages at the Pendon museum

Further information and to view a selection of Paul Nash paintings at the Tate Gallery.

Views of Didcot Power Station
Some of the best views of Didcot Power Station

A Runway Runs Through It

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

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

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The planes at the bottom of the garden

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

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

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Luton Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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A veritable feast for the senses

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

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A thing of beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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Further Information:

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

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

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

The Grande Dame of Ewelme

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

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

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

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The winding road to Swyncombe

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

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

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

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

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The old ‘cress beds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ewelme Store

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

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For more Chilterns inspiration and ideas

Lacey Green Windmill

The 300-year old Lacey Green Windmill stands on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough, and is possibly the most famous for being England’s oldest smock mill.

Landscape plays a huge role in determining the form and function of buildings, not least windmills. The reasons they were built may be long gone, in street names for example, or how some mills still command the landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements.

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The huge Lacey Green sails still turn
Local Landscape

The Chilterns are particularly well endowed with mills situated near inland waterways, in busy market towns or on a windy bluff that once provided particular services to local communities that farmed grains to be milled or silk to be spun. Many are now only remembered in archives, others have found new purpose and functions as homes and offices, whilst the best have been lovingly and painstakingly restored by enthusiastic volunteers and can be visited at certain times of the year, not least of all during National Mills weekend that takes place during May each year.

The 300-year old Lacey Green Windmill stands on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough, and is possibly the most famous for being England’s oldest smock mill, with wooden machinery dating from around 1650. Originally built at Chesham it was moved the 24 miles to Lacey Green in 1821 by order of the Duke of Buckingham. Why I wonder? Following years of service in the Steel, Woods and Cheshire milling families, it was used as a holiday cottage, Home Guard lookout post and finally a shop before being left to slowly crumble and fall into a perilous state.

From 1971 however, it has been restored to working order by members of the Chiltern Society. Now mills are complicated things; full of cogs, wheels, pulleys, chutes, bins, caps and sails, and there’s absolutely no point in my laboured writing trying to explain how it all works – best to visit and have someone who knows all about them tell you first hand. We enjoyed eves-dropping on those conversations, but too often of a technical nature, we were happy to marvel at the skilled workmanship that it took to design, build, work in and then restore such a engineering marvel.

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Tools and tackle left behind by those who once worked on the site
Further Information:

The mills of the Chilterns are an iconic landscape feature, and I find myself spotting them as I travel around the region; Tring, Cobstone, Pitstone and Cholesbury windmills, Redbournbury, Pann and Ford End watermill’s.

The way-marked circular 134-mile Chiltern Way trail passes through Loosley Row and Lacey Green, and takes in the nearby Whiteleaf chalk cross, mysteriously etched into the hillside above Princes Risborough. Surrounded by Stone Age Barrows, it’s a lovely spot for a picnic with far-reaching Vale of Aylesbury views to be enjoyed.

Lacey Green windmill is open only thanks to volunteers, so please check the website before planning your visit. Access is along a track beside the Whip Inn on the high street. Check out the Chilterns website too, as there is a lot else to explore nearby.

Chilterns A to Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

B is for bodgers, bluebells and Bledlow Cross…

C is for Chenies Manor, chalk, castles and Chequers

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

I have plans for posters.

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

The Dinton Hermit

In a sleepy English village, you’ll discover the heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

The Dinton Hermit is heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

Just off the A418, once the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury, is the small village of Dinton in the Vale of Aylesbury. As with so many ‘if you blink you’ll miss them’ English villages and hamlets, I was delighted that I had stopped to explore the pretty village and its castle, and was intrigued by what I saw, not realising at the time, the historical significance and surprising stories of a royal executioner, a ghost and a hermit with his leather shoes.

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Dinton Hall
A Grade 2 Listed Folly

I almost missed Dinton Castle, a Grade 2 listed folly, located just before the turn off into the village, Although the structure itself is not accessible, the footpath is close enough to take a look. Typical of follies, it was positioned to be seen for miles around and was built by Sir John Vanhatten, former owner of Dinton Hall in 1769, who used the castle to store his collection of fossils. The octagonal two-storied structure, with circular towers east and west, has some lovely features including unusually large ammonites set into the the exterior walls, most likely found in local quarries. On the site of a Saxon burial, it comes with its own ghost too, according to the estate agents sales patter, when the place was put up for auction in 2012.

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Dinton Castle, best seen in the winter
The Regicide

Local legend says the folly is haunted by the ghost of Simon Mayne, 17th century regicide of King Charles. In January 1649, Simon Mayne magistrate and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, was also a judge of the High Court of Justice at the King’s trial, and 40th of 59 signatories on the Royal death warrant, which ultimately sealed his fate. After the Restoration in 1660, he was tried as a regicide and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died in 1661. His body was returned to Dinton and is buried in the church.

Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns are closely associated with the English Civil War, with John Hampden, of Great Hampden, the most notable of English politicians involved in challenging the authority of King Charles in the build-up to the Civil War.

The Execution of Charles I of England
The Execution of King Charles I of England, 30th January 1649

Things then take a weird turn with a handmade shoe on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that once belonged to John Bigg, the ‘Dinton Hermit’ (1629 – 1696). A man of reasonable means and former clerk to the afore-mentioned Simon Mayne, legend has it that Bigg may have been one of the hooded executioners of the king – one of the men who wielded the axe!

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John Biggs leather shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery

About the time of Simon Mayne’s death, John Bigg became a hermit, living in an underground cave at Dinton Hall for 35 years until his death in 1649. As with any self-respecting local legend, there are many versions of the truth, with some believing that Bigg feared retribution for his involvement in the royal execution, whilst others suggest it was due to the tremendous remorse he felt. Either way, he was a survivor, and resourceful soul who only asked for one thing from his community – leather, which he would immediately nail to his clothes.

A heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

The 18th century illustration shows his strange horned cloak and the three bottles that hung from his girdle for strong and small beer as well as for milk. His shoes are particularly large and made from over 1,000 pieces of leather, one piece hammered on top of the other as they become worn. One shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery on the Lower Ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum, whilst the companion to this shoe is still housed at Dinton Hall.

John Bigg
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

His remarkable story and illustration was included in the wonderful ‘Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II : collected from the most authentic accounts extant. Author: James Caulfield 1764-1826.

Further Information:

Dinton Hall is a private residence, and nothing remains of John’s cave, and in January 2017, planning permission was granted by Aylesbury Vale District Council for the castle to be renovated into a two-bedroomed dwelling (building work is now well underway), but that shouldn’t stop you having a wander around the village.

There are lots more quirky Chilterns stories, including the story of the Tring Tiles, Peter the Wild Boy and Growing Stones.

Find your own Chilterns castle and for further Chilterns inspiration, head over to VistChilterns.co.uk

Grand Designs

Wednesday September 19th at 21.00 GMT, the folly will feature in the Channel Four Grand Designs programme with Kevin McCloud.

The Holy Trinity

Hugely enjoyable and a privilege being invited in to peek into their lives, the earl waved us off with an instruction to visit the nearby local parish church of Holy Trinity, Penn, where the family’s long influence on the village is evident, sharing another #Chilterns story and its sense of place.

I love the rain, but as the water-soaked overhanging branches slapped the car roof, I edged alone Mop End Lane, wishing I’d left earlier. I couldn’t be late for the guided tour of Penn House conducted by Earl and Countess Howe no less. Prior booking essential!

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A pair of wooden panels salvaged from the Nile were brought home to grace the entrance.

Penn House is a typical red-brick Chilterns manor house; not usually open to the public, located down winding lanes leading to somewhere you are not entirely sure where, and bound to be full of surprises. Today all three conditions were fulfilled, and because the rain slowed my progress, I fortunately spotted two large misshapen wooden gates, sagging sadly across a gap in the boundary wall. I knew I was in a for treat, the sort of treat that only the Chilterns can provide.

Heritage Open Days

Every year in September, Heritage Open Days encourages thousands of venues up and down the land to throw open their doors so visitors can inspect spaces and objects normally kept from view, or to enjoy a guided tour from passionate locals, all for free.

It was apparent early on into this very personal tour, that Earl Howe had spent many happy hours learning more about the contents of the house and the links they represent to him and his family. By his own admission, the present house itself is ‘nothing special’: dating from 1760, and having undergone extensive re-building and enlarging since the former Tudor house was pulled down in the 16th century. Very little remains apart from a staircase and the roundel with the confusing date of 1536 that sits on the recent facade.

Penn or Penn?

There is a lot of understandable confusion around this Penn family and the other famous local family of William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania in the United States. They are not related, and this Penn family were the original lords of Penn Manor who married into the Curzon family. The Rt. Hon. The Earl Howe PC, to give his full title, was once known simply as Frederick Curzon, until he inherited the title and estate from his cousin in 1984. He has since made this his family home with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.

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Penn House from a wet garden

The tour included a number of fascinating family treasures that link to specific points in English history, each room having either a literary, social, military or religious object. Top of the earl’s list were treasures that his 18th century ancestor Admiral Lord Howe (who was triumphant at the 1794 naval battle of the Glorious First of June), had amassed during his career: many letters, journals, ceremonial swords and his personal well-stocked medicine chest as the alternative to a cup of wine dispensed by the ships surgeon to those unfortunate enough to be ill or injured in battle. In contrast, Sybil Penn was the royal wet nurse in the court of King Henry Vlll and is said to haunt Hampton Court Palace, as she looks for a string of pearls given her by the king; but she will never find them as the present countess Howe was wearing them! She did leave behind a cap worn by the infant Edward Vl. I discovered too that the above mentioned ‘gates’ were found floating on the Nile and brought home by an ancestor! Not your usual Egyptian souvenir.

Assheton Curzon was a considerable figure, and was responsible for most of the renovations at Penn House. He sat as Member of Parliament for Clitheroe in Lancashire for nearly 40 years until 1790, and in recognition of his public service was elevated to the House of Lords in 1794. There is a large portrait of him in his parliamentary finery in the music room and Earl Howe took delight in taking him down a peg-or-two as he drew our attention to full head of blonde hair on his 94-year-old portrait!

Penn House
Penn House: from top left, sticks for every occasion, summer house, Admiral Howe’s medicine chest and from the tennis court

In 1880 visits by the then Prince and Princess of Wales prompted the third earl to enlarge the house considerably by adding new wings and a new frontage, thereby enabling him to accommodate sizeable and prestigious house parties. The walls are adorned with many paintings of naval battles and ancestors, that I don’t think have been forgotten, we just didn’t have enough time to discover who they were. There were a few comments from the group about family resemblances down the generations that I think pleased the earl. The ruling classes are well connected after all.

Chilterns Grand Prix

The final main addition came in the 1930’s when the fifth earl Howe, who was a prominent motor racing driver, built the mile-long drive to the house, suitably banked, for his personal enjoyment and convenience. This legacy is still celebrated each June with the Penn House Gravity Grand Prix. A treasure from his time is the trophy that was presented by Benito Mussolini on behalf of the Ministry for Tourism after a race he won a prestigious and very dangerous road race.

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Vll Corsa Mille Miglia. Dona Del R. Commissariato per Il Turismo

Hugely enjoyable and a privilege being invited in to peek into their lives, the earl waved us off with an instruction to visit the nearby local parish church of Holy Trinity, Penn, where the family’s long influence on the village is evident, the two properties sharing a story and sense of place.

Further Information:

Do visit the nearby Holy Trinity Church in Penn which is a part of the Penn House and family story

For further inspiration on what to see and do in the naturally outstanding Chilterns

For further information on another manorial delight Chenies Manor

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