During the COVID-19 crisis, micro walks are the perfect excuse to discover my sense of place here in the naturally outstanding Chilterns. My home.
During this unprecedented global event and resulting nationwide lockdown, we can’t venture far for our daily exercise. It means we have to stay local, go out with family or maximum of two, and to not use our cars.
It is the perfect excuse to take a look at my local area with new eyes – eyes down.
Bird song has quickly filled the space where once cars, planes and trains dominated. When there is silence, it is eerie. But this new normal quickly grows on me as my ears become attuned to the sounds that must always have been there. Unnoticed as I travelled about in my car, sealed from the outside world. Not now in the mindset for seeking the big sky view, or what’s over the next hill, I am forced to retrace my steps along familiar dog-walking paths; noticing now how much growth can be achieved in a few sunny days, way-markers and oddball signs, a mantrap on a church wall, the source of our local river gurgling loudly in the corner of a field, learning the names of flourishing woodland plants, a vocal robin claiming territory, tracks in the mud, blackbirds at dawn, skylarks at midday or a yellowhammer in the evening. All of them are what makes the Chilterns unique.
I have recorded most of my walks in the glorious spring sunshine and have included where I can, sound. All on my iPhone. I can’t capture animals however, they move!
Each walk is in and around Ivinghoe and surrounding Chilterns countryside.
What an absolute pleasure this is. It gives my walks new purpose and a chance to capture the minutia, the detail that makes a place special. I have shared these with my friends and family who I hope have enjoyed seeing their neighbourhood afresh. To encourage them to look out for some of what I have enjoyed. They have all commented on how loud the birdsong is: “have I used special equipment? Have I got really close to the birds..?” No I haven’t. The birds need no amplification, not least of all as it’s peak breeding season, so they are busy protecting territory and feeding their young. We only need ears to hear them and to listen to their calls. And a phone with a microphone.
Try it, you won’t be disappointed!
Of huge concern are my friends and colleagues in the tourism industry who together face huge uncertainty and potential mass business closure. To date, there is no end in sight for when we will all be able to move and travel in the way we were accustomed. Indeed, we may have to find new ways of travelling and visiting destinations. What we shouldn’t forget, is what is on our doorsteps and the sheer joy walking out into the naturally outstanding Chilterns countryside can bring.
Just when you think you’ve enjoyed most of the beauty that the Chilterns has to offer, two special locations come along in the same week. The Amaravati Buddhist monastery and Barton Hills National Nature Reserve (NNR).
My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, adjacent Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!
Often overlooked, the north at times takes a back seat to the central and southern Chilterns. Firmly on the tourist trail in what is perceived as more accessible and picture-postcard English countryside.
Duck eggs and ferrets
The pretty village of Barton-Le-Clay is situated in the busy Bedfordshire triangle of Dunstable, Luton and Bedford and since the 11th century, has had its fair share of incidents and celebrations. In 1894 a row broke out between the Rector and the village over the rights to use Barton Hills which lay in the Rector’s glebe. Freaks of nature saw a captured white sparrow with eyes resembling a ferret and a duck egg which when opened, contained another egg inside. To more pressing matters of a bountiful potato harvest in 1905, to when the King passed through the village in 1909, his car travelling at a walking pace, the ‘High Street gaily decorated, reminding one of the Coronation festivities’.
And then in 1949, the Chiltern Hills surrounding Barton were classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. The site was recognised as an outstanding example of chalk downland and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985, recognising the outstanding habitat, wildlife and geology. The chalk grassland supports pasqueflowers, field fleawort and a small ancient beech woodland.
According to legend, pasqueflowers spring from the blood of Viking warriors and grow upon their graves.
Barton Hills National Nature Reserve
We were joining another ranger-led walk with Steph, reserve manager, volunteers and local farmer Brian Shaw and his daughter Whizz Middleton, producer of Mrs Middleton’s Bedfordshire rapeseed oils and condiments.
My expectations were high: autumnal sunshine, a cold wind making the air clear and the light superb. The view across the valley to Sharpenhoe Clappers was just the start. The ascent up the steep, slippery path, opened up to reveal deep dry valleys and the typical rounded hills, a hallmark of the Chilterns. The countryside around dotted with wooded hilltops, a water tower and in the distance, wind turbines. Behind the NNR, a field of winter oilseed and barley shoots poking through the soil on Barton Hill Farm.
Steph skilfully guided us through 100 million years of evolution; from a warm tropical sea, dramatic climate events leading to the Ice Age, the wildwood and arrival of settlers more than 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. We had travelled from a time of giant marine lizards, sharks, woolly mammoths, wolves and bears to Dartmoor ponies. Yes, five inquisitive, friendly ponies, with burrs in their manes, spreading the wildflowers whilst keeping the grass in check.
Brian and Whizz explained how they are keeping Barton Hills Farm on a sustainable footing that encourages amongst others, nesting birds and wildlife corridors. Brain says: “The day job is supplying the two household food giants, Warburtons and Weetabix with vital ingredients for our tables.”
As we returned to the village, a dramatic rainstorm whipped up a gust and threatened to sweep in across the Barton Hills and drench us. It headed instead, north and off up the valley, leaving in its wake a beautiful rainbow!
Those of you who follow this blog will know I make a point of including local craftspeople and food producers wherever possible. They are what makes the Chilterns so special. Once again, friend and colleague Annette came up trumps with a fabulous spread of that rare beast, the Bedfordshire Clanger with a side of crackers and Wobbly Bottom Cheese. There’s a joke in there somewhere….
The Bedfordshire Clanger, or ‘Trowley Dumpling’ is similar to the Cornish pasty, baked for consumption by field workers, as the Cornish pasty was for the miners. Traditionally from boiled suet dumpling, modern alternatives use baked pastry thank goodness! Once common in Bedfordshire and adjoining counties, this 19th creation comes crimped at the edges to keep the contents in; at one end savoury and the other, sweet. The ends are told apart by two wee holes for savoury, and three for the sweet. Clangers are available from the local bakery and selected shops in the nearby towns, but outside the area, is not widely known. Enjoyable for being novel, the flavour needed lifting however, and that’s what Mrs Middleton’s mayonnaise could certainly do!
Thank you the St Nicholas Church community group who baked all the delicious cakes, you knew we would be hungry!
Another fabulous day, another fabulous Chilterns Walking Festival concluded. Knowledgeable guides, superb autumnal scenery and sweeping views across the Bedfordshire Chiltern hills and valleys. The unexpected pleasure of Dartmoor ponies, insights into the devastating effects of climate change on arable farming, tasty heritage treats and a rainbow for dessert!
My exploration of the beautiful nature in the Barton Hills, in the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!
For delicious recipes and rapeseed oil-inspired meals, check out Mrs Middleton’s website.
Crafted next door in Hitchin, the delicious Wobbly Bottom artisan cheeses are available in deli’s across the Chilterns.
Just in time for Christmas, another local producer is baking delicious homemade Christmas puddings.
Not just for old ladies, these fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone.
This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns. In existence since at least the eighth century, Hitchin is one of the oldest towns in the county of Hertfordshire. Much sought after as a cure-all for anything from the plague to migraines, cultivation and production of lavender put Hitchin on the map. Successfully exploiting the crop since the 15th century, sadly only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.
The farm is open from June to October, peak season is July, when the 30 acres are in full bloom. Busy by the time I arrived, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! You have to tune your ear into the drone of countless bees working around your legs, otherwise drowned out by the giggles and squeals of delight.
A quintessential English experience
This newsreel below is from Norfolk, but the techniques would have been the same as those in Hitchin.
Back to the present day. Once we had negotiated the oncoming cars and traffic cones to secure a brown paper bag and scissors to cut and curate our flowers, we could enjoy an English seasonal experience.
I wandered slowly up an empty aisle, keeping an eye out for the millions of painted lady butterflies that are supposed to be heading our way this summer. I spotted one. Perhaps this was the straggler and they had all been and gone? I disturbed three birds that shot out from the undergrowth, but apart from the bees, there was precious little wildlife or incidental wildflowers. It was all perfect and planned.
There was a wedding party, couples, pensioners, families with small children whooping their way up the slope, posing ladies in straw hats and white dresses, a coach-load of sunhat-wearing tourists equipped with enormous lenses, a sea of expansive selfie sticks and a fascinating array of selfie poses. I think many had done this before.
The aim is to walk up the slope, proclaim loudly your deftness at hill walking, before laying out your picnic and then returning, satisfied to your car. There are plenty of places where you can part with your money to buy lavender-themed or infused goodies, plus a small museum with interesting, if underwhelming displays about the farm and former industry.
It’s a fun thing to do, everyone in a holiday mood, enjoying themselves and no doubt Instagram will be awash with the days’ adventures. I wonder though, how many knew they were in the Chilterns?
Just as the production of watercress in the Chess Valley has been decimated, with only one producer remaining, Cadwell farm is keeping a Chilterns tradition alive by welcoming visitors to wander the 30 acres to pick flowers and take endless selfies.
Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dusty and dated interiors, are to be treasured. We have our fair share here in the Chilterns; most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain. ‘One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys’ tells the understated story of English education in the British Schools museum in Hitchin.
It took a visit to West Wycombe Park to be reminded why the Chilterns is such a distinctive, compelling place to be.
When I started writing this blog, I was uncertain how I would maintain momentum, focused as I am, on one region. Would I struggle to find enough to write about, or would my inspiration dwindle?
Three miles west of High Wycombe, tucked away in the Wye valley, is a unique 18th century Italian-inspired Chilterns landscape, built to impress and entertain. Beside which is clustered a tiny village of the most lovely cottages creeping up the hill towards the biggest show-off structure in the region; an 18th century mausoleum to perhaps one of the most notorious and eccentric men in English history.
A loveliness of ladybirds
I have not lost my enthusiasm, is because each time I head out, despite sometimes being unsure of the nature of what I will encounter (whether Leo is allowed in too), or perhaps the write up was simply overblown hype! Without exception, I’m always delighted with what I find, discovering ever-more strands and layers to the wonderful, if slightly bonkers Chilterns story. I also pick up lots of incidental information…a loveliness of ladybirds for instance…who knew?
A dash of history
Sir Francis Dashwood, (1658 – 1724) was a successful London merchant who made his fortune trading in the East Indies. He used his great wealth to buy the manor of West Wycombe.
Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet embarked on a series of Grand Tours and liked the villas of the Italian renaissance so much, wanted to emulate and transform his fathers more modest Buckinghamshire Manor House. Work began in about 1735, but the great design project took so long, that over the 40 years, Palladianism had been replaced by Neoclassicism. This has left some quirks to the house, that I can explore when it opens to visitors in the summer months.
A more natural landscape
Sir Francis transformed the formal garden into a playground of Italian-inspired temples, water features and follies, arranged around an ornamental lake, with broad avenues with far-reaching views down the valley or across to the Dashwood Mausoleum. There are plenty of places to read a book, admire the views, watch the swans, or to daydream.
Similar in style to Stowe, the Capability Brown-designed National Trust landscape garden in Buckingham, this Humphrey Repton-inspired space will also transform through the seasons. The structures sit well with the landscape, complimenting, rather than competing, or imposing.
There are two symmetrical lodge houses at the north-east corner of the park that mark the entrance to the old drive up to the house. Kitty’s lodge is named after Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan who was possibly the first celebrity ‘famous for not being famous’. Named too, in that popular nursery rhyme, and quite probably, lady friend of Sir Francis, 2nd Baronet.
“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; But ne’er a penny was there in’t Except the binding round it.”
The Temple of Venus stands on a small mound and takes the form of a rotunda enclosing a copy of the Venus de Milo. The parlour is a grotto beneath the mound, entered through an oval opening flanked by curving screen walls. Specifically designed to represent ‘the opening through which we all enter into this world’. It was intended as the central focal point of the park when viewed from the house.
Saved by the Crash
West Wycombe village was sold by the Dashwood family to raise funds following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was bought in its entirety by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist. It’s worth walking, and if you take the cars away, not much has changed.
Increasingly I am given greater access to properties, places and people across our region. Made possible by many individuals who I have acknowledged. I would like to thank the National Trust for supporting my work and giving me access to so much of the great swathes of land and historic properties across the Chilterns that they manage. Their support will enable me to share even more of these wonderful stories.
Speaking of wonderful stories, there are plenty more colourful Chilterns characters where this one came from!
The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree, just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter! The West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.
West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.
There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.
Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.
This post is my celebration of some of the many Chilterns trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see.
It is tempting to go for the big hitters in the forests, the sentinel trees, the obviously ancient, even those that have starred in Harry Potter movies.
The Chilterns are synonymous with ancient woodlands, acres of forest, avenues of stately trees, big trees, growing trees, intriguing trees, memorial trees, even fallen trees.
This post is my celebration of some of the many trees I have encountered on my travels. Trees that have left an impression on me. Some I enjoy frequently as I go about my day, others not as much. More I am hoping to see.
If you have any favourites, please let me know where they are and why I need to see them for myself.
In no particular order, here are my 10 favourites
“My name is Morus nigra, and I am very old. Please do not climb on me”. Silk worms eat the soft leaves of Morus alba but have no appetite for the leathery leaves of Morus nigra, the variety that produces such delicious black mulberries. So delicious in fact, visitors to Cliveden swear they have been nowhere near the tree through lips smeared with its delicious crimson juices.
I often pass these entwined trees on a walk near Pitstone Hill. They have grown together so gracefully, their embrace quickens the heart.
Location: Off the Ridgeway near Pitstone Hill
I stood and stared at a tree that just knows how special it is, with outstretched boughs that dominate the expanse of Ashridge House lawn. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my childhood garden? This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to the estate. I took an acorn home for my son.
This is a view familiar to those living within at least 10 miles of Ivinghoe Beacon with the lone tree on the steep north western slope. It’s a ‘watch tree’ with enviable views across the Vale and surrounding countryside, and a symbol for the Iron Age hill fort that once stood atop this hill. I see it almost every day.
Location: the end of the Ridgeway
This lone hilltop barrow is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon, naturally. I understand why Paul Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it today.
The seasonal spectacle that are the spring bluebells draw locals and visitors to the woods each April or May. It is easy to avoid the busy spots and sea of selfie-sticks to find a quiet woodland, which is where I noticed these unusual patterns on the exposed tree bark.
This is a statement tree. It stands out on the general slopes of Tring Park and I will confess to this tree being my favourite (I have included it in my logo). I visit often with Leo, he lifts his leg at the base and I stand back and enjoy the swoosh and colour blur of the leaves in the wind!
Location: Tring Park
As ragged and cold as that day was, the skeletal trees dotted between me, Pitstone Windmill and Ivinghoe Beacon in the distance, define the contours and add interest to what would otherwise be a bleak view.
The Chilterns does grand tree-lined avenues very well. The lime avenue in Tring park, the lime avenue at Cliveden and this formal avenue of beech and oak trees link the Bridgewater Monument and Ashridge House. This popular avenue looks splendid throughout the year, and when there is not quite so much mud, quiet time with your back to a knobbly tree trunk is a pleasant way to waste away an hour or two.
The pretty village of Clifton Hampden is stuffed with thatched cottages, a pretty riverside with an impressive bridge, and a church with this graceful 152-year old cedar tree, grown from seed by the local vicar. The day I visited, the cyclamen were putting on a good show. I expect the same spot dazzles with snowdrops in the spring.