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.

Gentle Giants on the Chiltern Ridges

Landscape plays a huge role in determining the form and function of buildings, not least windmills and watermills. The reasons they were built may be long gone, but there are often subtle reminders of lost buildings, in street names for example or from soapwort still growing nearby (used as a natural soaping agent), some mills still command the landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements.

The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is 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, sheep to be washed or silk to be spun. Many are now only remembered in archives, others have found new purpose and functions 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.

Read about the 300-year old Lacey Green Windmill, that 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. It was left in a terrible state of repair, but since 1971 it has been restored to working order by the Chiltern Society.

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Turville Windmill

Cobstone Windmill was built around 1816 and overlooks the village of Turville – a location more famous for its infamous residents including the ‘sleeping girl of Turville” and fictional TV character the Vicar of Dibley. This smock mill, so-called as it has the shape of the farmers smock, replaced the original mill that had stood there since the 16th century.  It was a working mill, grinding cereals until 1873, but it was not until 1967, and the filming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that the mill was cosmetically restored. The cap was remoulded and a new fantail, and light wooden sails were added as was it’s place in local folklore.

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Pitstone Windmill

Pitstone Windmill is a rare and striking example of an early form of windmill, and is one of the oldest surviving windmills in Britain. It stands exposed beneath Ivinghoe Beacon and ground flour for the nearby villages for almost three hundred years, until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it badly damaged. It was later donated to the National Trust and restored by a team of local volunteers. As you walk around it, wonder at the way the mill and its machinery balance on the head of a massive wooden post. You can still see the tail pole, which the miller had to wrestle with to turn the huge structure to face the wind. The nearby Ford End Watermill at Ivinghoe was recorded in 1616, but is certainly much older, and remained in use until 1963. Restored by volunteers, and now maintained and run by Ford End Watermill Society, it retains all the atmosphere of a small farm mill of the late 1800s and has an unusual feature – a sheep-wash in the tailrace below the mill. Washing made the fleece easier to shear and increased its value. Stoneground wholemeal flour is also on sale during milling demonstrations.

Redbournbury Mill
Redbournbury Mill is once again a thriving mill

The Redbournbury Watermill is a working mill producing a range of stoneground organic flours, principally from locally grown grains. It is run by a team of dedicated volunteers, having been extensively restored following a fire in 1987. When the present owners bought the mill from the Crown, it had been unused since the 1950s. At this stage the mill was well preserved, although it did need considerable repairs, providing a unique historical record of an early Victorian watermill. However, on the night of 22nd August 1987 disaster struck. Fire broke out in the roof of the mill only a few days after restoration work had begun and destroyed most of the interior of the mill and much of the top floor of the house. The mill is well worth a visit for the fresh bread alone. Bread baked at Redbournbury boasts the lowest possible “food-miles” with the grain grown, milled and baked all within two miles of the mill.

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Cholesbury windmill, now a private home
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The lovely Pann Watermill on the river Wye at High Wycombe. Image by Vidya Crawle
Further Information:

These mills are located in or near lovely Chilterns villages and market towns, so for more ideas and inspiration for an escape to the country can be found at VisitChilterns.co.uk

For further information on the UK National Mills Weekend