The castle that time forgot

Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?

“Not for ages”
“Is that the one near the station..?”
“I can’t remember”
“Where is it?”

Berkhamsted motte
Winter shadows

Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;

Anglo-Saxon backwater
Norman Invasion
Oppression
Royal entitlement
Civil war
Invasion
Royal prison
Decline
Vandalism
Near destruction
Declared ancient monument
Forlorn visitor attraction

Ring of Steel

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.

Berkhamsted motte and bailey
The Motte and Bailey

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.

The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.

Berkhamsted station
The original Berkhampstead (sic) railway station as seen in 1838

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by 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. We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.

Irritating Tourists!

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Ariel view of Berkhamsted castle
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s. Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

Rediscovering our Chilterns castles

Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.

Berkhamsted castle reflections
Reflections in the moat

Further information

The site is managed by English Heritage and is free to explore. For further information

To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.

Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here

How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.

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