Shapeshifters

Like sardines, starlings are iridescent, shapeshifting units. These seasonal aerial displays, or murmurations are just like the vast migrating families of fish.

I don’t usually write about birds, as they are not something I know much about. Other than to enjoy the spectacle they present and to encourage nesting in my garden, (which blackbirds and robins oblige), I simply admire them from afar.

Along with blackbirds, magpies, sparrows, robins, blue jays, song thrush and the twice daily overflight from a red kite, starlings are very much part of the community. Noisy and gregarious, they feed on the verges and lawns, the flock swooping and chattering from the aerials and rooftops every day. Far from being dull, they show-off iridescent colours that change as they move about.

Starlings who used to roost in vast numbers in London’s Leicester Square, but no more. Discouraged by birds of prey and bright lights they are typical of species that is in decline.

It’s not just the starlings putting on a good show this autumn
They are birds that get noticed

I first heard of murmurations from a wildlife programme and friend who lives near Brighton Pier where they are a fairly regular sight. I don’t know where this unusual name comes from. Is it the sound their wings make on their fly-pasts? More of a whooshing sound than a murmur. As they settle in to roost, they made a huge racket, so I’m not convinced it’s their sound. More to do with the movement? The ebb and flow?

Shapeshifters

The sight of their displays is special. Like sardines they are also iridescent, acting as shapeshifting units, but some of them are changing direction, or deciding that it’s time to enter the roost. They are like the vast families of sardines.

Then last autumn, during the year of lockdown, when I was spending time locally – as you would have been, retracing my steps along tracks I had forgotten, I saw my first display. Quite small, but I knew immediately what it was. I watched as the birds worked their magic over water near College Lake in Hertfordshire before disappearing into the trees.

What is a murmuration?

A murmuration is the collection noun for starlings and describes their aerial displays before these groups roost for the night.

I am not aware of other British species that do this, but please do set me right if this is not the case. These large gatherings happen in the autumn and gather pace as more birds migrate from central Europe to the milder winter climate here, peaking in December and January. The groups get larger and larger as smaller groups are absorbed with latecomers, but all roosting together. It seems a sensible way for the birds to nestle up and keep warm together during the long winter nights. Makes me wonder how a single robin keeps warm on a cold night?

Starlings, the sardines of the sky

You may have heard of the Sardine Run? The annual spectacle of millions of migrating sardines that swim north along the east coast of South Africa each winter, attracts all sorts of visitors, predators and chancers who jostle for the best spots to feed or to follow. This is what I am reminded of, in the sky but not that well attended.

Gathering on rooftops, chattering and hopping about before taking off and slowly making their way back and forth, back and forth in the direction of the roosting site. That was when I spotted them, some distance away, but I recognised a murmuration in the making. Leo and I legged it!

The making of a murmuration

Untidy and at height, three sizeable groups slowing growing in size as they absorbed stragglers, circling above my head. Each bird is flying quickly, like synchronised swimmers. The closer they get to the roosting site, the tighter the circles and those tell-tale murmurations emerge; long, tapered, chunky, a cloud, flat, a ball, untidy as some are wanting to go in a different direction.

They hang in the air

Their wings shimmering as they change direction, appearing to contact and expand, undulating as they fly overhead. I can hear them chattering. One group follows the other, chasing it, darting behind, their wings rushing as they fly overhead. Merging for an instant then two separate groups. Does each bird know which group it’s in?

The spectacle begins

Alive. In no hurry to rush to their roost. It is as if they are enjoying gathering and circling many times to then suddenly drop. As if sucked out of the sky, falling like rain into the reeds.

And they are done

The reeds are alive with unseen birds, their jostling and chatter whilst settling in causing waves across the vegetation. Two smaller groups join, one after the other, as do some late stragglers, who just fly straight in. Magnificent!

The sun was gone and it was getting cold. I left them still chattering and jostling, thinking about what the take off at sunrise would look like.

Further information

There’s plenty more to enjoy in the season of colour across the Chilterns. “Wrap up warm” the hardy types say; “put on wellies, a good coat and pack a thermos”. Let me unpack that for you: wellies don’t keep your feet warm, jeans turn to ice when it’s wet and cold, and yes, a thermos is a very good idea. Take a look at the autumn page for ideas.

Explore the northern Chilterns, they offer a different experience to the busy southern and central regions.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts including; Christmas cards, china mugs, tea-towels, 2022 A4 wall calendar amongst other popular items.

Chiltens souvenirs
The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

Marlow Mash-up

A withered hand, swans, Edwardian villas and tales of scandal and woe are what Marlow is exceptionally good at. Go and find your quirky Marlow.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.

All Saints Marlow
All Saints Marlow from the bridge

Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?

Cheerful bunting on the high street
Marlow high street full of independent shops

Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches. 

Cosy pubs in Marlow
Cosy pubs

The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank. 

Messing about in Marlow
Thames Path views

Bisham Abbey

Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry. In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. King Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.

Bisham Abbey
The pretty Manor House at Bisham

The Hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics. 

The Queen’s Swan Marker

The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.

Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line.  www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.

Swan Upping on the Thames
Mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.    

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.

A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings  

It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents.  ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com

Mary does Marlow
Join a walking tour of Marlow with Mary.

Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.

Chilterns gifts
Pitstone Windmill A4 photographic print

The Hampdens

Classic Chilterns countryside awaits; dappled beechwoods and open, undulating fields in an historic, beautiful landscape.

Not the Hamptons, but a tucked-away Buckinghamshire parish about three miles south east of Princes Risborough. It incorporates the villages of Great Hampden and Little Hampden and hamlets of Green Valley and Hampden Row.

Due to difficult geography, no major roads or rail links ripped through this countryside.

You’ll find instead deer, the tips of hares, countless butterflies, dozing horses and dappled footpaths through beech woods in an historic landscape. Churches, farms, a manor house and memorials to old family names and their legends.

Classic Chilterns

Setting off from the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross on the hillside above Princes Risborough, we followed one of the very good National Trust countryside Trails that leads from the familiar into the pleasing unfamiliar.

Above Princes Risborough, Whiteleaf is where the walk to Little Hampden starts
The view from Whiteleaf towards Bledlow.

Leaving an overgrown Whiteleaf Cross at the WW1 trenches, apart from some dog walkers, we had the route to ourselves. A beautiful August day, we passed through Kingsfield Wood and walked parallel to a Grim’s Ditch Iron Age earthwork. A feature of the Chilterns, I’ve heard many theories about who it was meant to keep in or out: cattle or the Danes?

A style to nowhere
Would this have kept the Danes out?
Hampden House

The 400-year old cedar tree hinted at our approach to Hampden House. The Gothic-style battlements and arch windows resemble an overblown wedding cake. Perhaps an influencing factor when the current owners bought the house from the family in 1985 to market as a wedding venue. They refurbished a structure that had seen wear and tear as a girls school and latterly as the location for the Hammer film company who churned out horror films and TV series in the 1980’s. An extraordinary sight in this quiet valley.

Gothic revival Hampden House

Once home to the Hampdens (later the Earls of Buckinghamshire), who lived here continuously from before the Normans right up until 1938. Imagine that!

A famous son of this valley (who has a statue in Aylesbury), is commemorated across the county, is John Hampden. Notorious for his refusal to pay 20 shillings for the dodgy ship-money tax, brought in by a near bankrupt King Charles 1 in 1637. This indirectly led to the Civil War and his death at Chalgrove Field near Thame. St Mary Magdalene church doubtless has a rich heritage inside, but is still under Covid-restricted opening hours and was closed.

Hampden family church
The 13th century church of St Mary Magdalene, probable burial site for John ‘the patriot’ Hampden is adjacent to the Manor House.

We continued our walk down an avenue of lime, plane and horse chestnut trees that must have shaded many a visitor over the years. We did as instructed and pushed the button on the large gate and turned to cross the hot fields, alive with butterflies and the scraping of crickets. I love that high summer sound.

Hampden House from Queens Gap
Hampden House from the grassy ‘Queens Gap’ avenue

We spotted deer jumping over the wheat, making it look so easy. Rabbits and probably hares too as we climbed up through Warren wood towards the isolated hamlet of Little Hampden and our second local family.

Little Hampden Church

This gem of a church is tiny, and looks quite fragile. Yet it has survived the rigours of the Reformation and a Victorian make-over. The church is of course locked, and access has to be arranged to see the medieval wall paintings and alter stone.

The church at Little Hampden
Little Hampden church

The 15th century porch has two storeys, the upper one housing a bell, cast in 1791 that is once again working, the locals vying for the privilege of ringing it across the valley.

The Gingers

Not only is the building spectacular, the graveyard is too. Surprisingly large, with an uneven surface, evidence of long-forgotten burials. I was drawn to a headstone, tucked away at the boundary and noticed the unusual surname.

Headstone in the church at Little Hampden
In memory of Ann, wife of John Ginger

“The Yeomanry family of Ginger constantly resident here, during more than two hundred years; as the principal tenants and occupiers of the land, have obtained some celebrity, on account of the great age to which some of them attained, ….that the head of each of four generations, had arrived at the age of upwards of ninety years.” [The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, by George Lipscomb, 1847].

I found further evidence of the Ginger generations on the Ancestry genealogy website, including an incident of stock theft and a funeral. I wonder if there are Gingers still living in the area?

What a walk! Eight miles packed with nuanced history, places, people, outlandish buildings and beautiful scenery. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, this really is classic, unexpected Chilterns.

Further Information

There are several circular walks from Whiteleaf, including a spell on the Ridgeway National Trail.

You’ll find another link with the Civil War in the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Dinton. A heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

There are plenty of other delightful Chilterns churches to visit across the seasons.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs from Chilterns Gifts.

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic Chilterns prints

To A Manor Born

A microcosm of a Chilterns village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it.

Located about 2km west of Princes Risborough in the central Chilterns, Bledlow really is off the beaten track.

Refreshingly Wild

With the Lions of Bledlow pub at one end, wobbly brick and flint cottages either side of the shady street, the parish church described as ‘fabulously wild’, and a manor house with a secret water garden at the other end, it’s quite a place!

Bledlow is in fact derived from ‘Bled-Hlaw’ meaning Bloody Hill, from a battle between the Danes and Saxon’s – way back. Two ancient trails pass by the village; the Icknield Way and Ridgeway National Trail. It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk. Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place. Footpaths and signs for the long distance trails inviting you both up and away over the hills, or inviting you down into the village.

The Manor House and gardens
An intriguing water sculpture
Manor House and Gardens

The Manor House dates from the 17th century and has been long associated with the Carrington family. Built by the Blancks family, it was bought by the first Lord Carrington for his eldest son in the late 18th century. It has endured multiple change of function, and is once again being renovated by current owners, the seventh Lord and Lady Carrington. His father held key government posts during 1980’s and was the sixth Secretary General of NATO.

Sculpture garden
Fruit in the Sculpture Garden

Before 1950, there wasn’t a garden. What is here now was designed by landscape architect Robert Adams following destruction of a 15th century tithe barn in 1967 that necessitated a re-design.

A kitchen garden, sculpture garden, fish ponds, snail gardens and orchard now surround the house in a carpet of deep green, lilac, lots of bees and whichever shade of rose you prefer.

Situated beside the church in a deep, shaded ravine, is the the Lyde Garden. Also landscaped by Robert Adams for the sixth Lord Carrington in the 1980’s.

The ravine is full of noisy tumbling streams. They converge into clear pools marking the rising of the River Lyde, a tributary of the River Thame. No wonder it was the site of watercress beds, a once popular Chilterns crop.

Lyde Garden
That water is so clear! Perfect for watercress beds.

I could see why Bledlow is called a spring line village. This is a settlement formed around chalk springs through which water escapes between a layer of permeable rock above impermeable rock.

‘They who live and abide,

shall see Bledlow Church fall into the Lyde”

Medieval nursery rhymn

The shady gardens have a distinctive sub-tropical feel, with some leaves the circumference of tractor tires. Moody willows droop into the ponds, exotic ferns jostle with Californian trees and brightly coloured Himalayan flowers line the path. Even the duck house looks exotic!

Lyde garden duck house
Lush, full vegetation
Fabulously Wild

Holy Trinity church is described by Simon Jenkins, (author of England’s Thousand Best Churches), as ‘fabulously wild’. This largely unaltered Romanesque church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. Sadly, due to Covid restrictions, I have not yet been able to go inside. I will return.

Bledlow church
Residents past and present

A microcosm of an English village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it. The church is still standing, but who knows, in thousands of years, perhaps the nursery rhyme will come true?

Further Information

The Manor House Garden, Bledlow HP27 9PB is open to visitors by appointment.

The Lyde Garden, is on Church End and is open all year around from 9 – 5pm. No dogs please.

Explore the veritable feast that is the Central Chilterns including extensive Ashridge woodland, Dunstable downs, a Norman castle, historic market towns and the Grand Union Canal.

Discover holidays and long-distance hiking holidays along the ancient Ridgeway National Trail.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to take home with you. Chilterns Gifts are available for delivery to mainland UK addresses only.

Chilterns Gifts
Gifts for friends

Shillington Village

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing place names, unusual geology and landscape history, is worth your time.

I am increasingly drawn to the northern Chilterns. Encircled by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire conurbations of Luton, Dunstable, Stevenage and Hitchin, this unassuming space has a rich history.

A landscape under urban pressure as the sprawl grows and grows. Pre Covid-19, Luton airport had over 100,000 annual aircraft movements, adding to the noise and pollution. This is no chocolate box English idyll. In sharp contrast to the central and southern Chilterns, you have to look harder to understand the landscape and it’s unusual sense of place.

From Shillington towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
The view towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
Beauty and special landscape qualities are everywhere

Just north of the Barton Hills and within sight of the escarpment that runs from Sharpenhoe through to Knocking Hoe, Shillington village is crowded around its church. A prominent landmark atop its chalk hill, the tower is visible for miles around.

“hoh”, or “hoe” as it has become known, refers to a heel or protruding piece of land.

From the Bunyon Trail
John Betjeman called All Saints the ‘Cathedral of the Chilterns’

At nearly 1,000 years old, All Saints Church has survived the weather, natural disaster, decay, plague, pollution and a Victorian make-over. The geology has determined the vernacular with the ironstone walls, a type of Clophill sandstone commonly found in Bedfordshire. The whiter interior stone is called ‘clunch’, a soft, workable chalky limestone from the old quarry at Totternhoe in south Bedfordshire. A stone distinguishable in many local churches (and in Westminster Abbey). Mined at Totternhoe Knowles, a favourite place to walk with wildflowers, industrial archaeology and smattering of burnt-out cars.

Ancient poo

Once a Saxon monastery, the church and region grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite. More than just fossilised dinosaur dung, this wonder substance can also include teeth, bones and claws consumed by the ‘producer’, and mineralised over millions of years.

These accumulations are in fact the remains of land animals caught as the sea levels rose over 90 million years ago. The resulting Greensand Ridge stretches over 100 miles from Tring through Bedfordshire and Cambridge and on to East Anglia.

Cottages on Church Street
A gold-rush

In the 1700’s, someone discovered that once coprolites were processed, the resulting phosphate made excellent fertiliser. Seams were subsequently exposed at nearby Chibley Farm, and so began a dangerous, but lucrative trade. All across the region, people came to what must have been a mini-gold rush. Shillington’s population doubled to 2,400 thirsty men, women and children who made good use of the 12 local pubs! Everyone was cashing in; landowners, farmers, the church, publicans, bankers, brewers and mining suppliers.

Drinking was naturally a problem and the church spent time and effort trying to tackle it. After taking the pledge, one man was advised by his doctor to take ‘a glass of Porter’ to alleviate his rheumatism, he decided to be pain-free rather than devout, but lost his membership of the congregation!

From about 1890 the industry declined almost as fast as it grew. There are no landscape scars however, no rusty mining structures either. The layer of coprolite-bearing clay was handily near to the surface, and once extraction holes had been depleted, the fields could be easily restored.

Is that the time?

One local exception could be the clock in the church tower. Put in at considerable expense at the height of the boom in 1870, when £100 seemed a reasonable price?

The more visible legacy are the big houses that got bigger from the proceeds of leasing land for prospecting. Methodist chapels sprung up at the height of the boom and landowner Trinity College in Cambridge, made handsome profits.

A house in the Shillington village
Shillington Village cottages

As you explore these pretty village and country lanes with screeching summer swallows, imagine who has passed before you; hoping to make their fortune, or finding misfortune from the fossils.

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing places, geology and history, is worth your time.

Shillington church street
Looking down Church Street
Further Information

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, All Saints is temporarily closed. Sunday afternoon teas and refreshments will hopefully be offered once they re-open.

Explore nearby Baron Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers, all possible on the same day. Tucked away down an impossibly bumpy road, is Someries Castle, a scheduled ancient monument.

The Bunyon Trail is dedicated to the memory of John Bunyan, the Puritan Evangelist and author of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, his famous work he wrote whilst in prison. The route passes through villages and scenic countryside, taking in many places of historic interest connected with him.

The nearby Crown pub serves cozy pub meals with a garden in the summer.

Six miles away is the market town of Hitchin. I recommend the British Schools Museum and one of the last working lavender farms in the country, Hitchin Lavender.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to remind you of your time well spent. Online order and deliveries to mainland UK only.

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic prints, mugs, tea-towels and stationery

Ashridge Forest, Paused

A day to gladden the heart! Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.

Staying local

It’s the New Year, and months of continued uncertainty stretch ahead. I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual”.

A popular destination, Ashridge Forest draws visitors from far and wide. Covid-19 has made the great outdoors more appealing to locals and visitors, but it has put new pressures on our environment that organisations like the National Trust are still grappling with. Visitors tend to converge at the visitor centre or around Ivinghoe Beacon, but the forest is vast, so I can slip away down a muddy trail with Leo, the sounds of the forest and occasional walker to share my space.

Ashridge Forest Trails
The trails are quiet

Sounds are louder in winter; voices carry surprisingly far, as do dogs barking, bicycles swooshing through the grit and mud and the occasional shriek of a child as they climb and balance on fallen tree trunks.

I look for open spaces as I am getting wet walking under the bigger beech trees drip dripping with moisture. 

A hazy winter forestscape

Birdsong is louder too, accompanied by a flash of movement as bluejays, magpies and blackbirds flash up from the undergrowth, noticeable against the bare trees. The robins are already guarding their territories, singing their little hearts out. 

The sun is low, but still warm in sheltered places where I can enjoy the sparking rain drops clinging onto leaf buds. I image some hardy insects having a sauna in the steam slowly rising from a log.

Bare trees in the winter sunshine
Winter sunshine finds its way through the trees

Signs of spring

At first sight, the forest floor is predominantly shades of bracken brown. However, taking an involuntary closer look, after an entanglement with some robust tree roots, turns out there are green shoots – some bluebells I expect, are early signs of spring. 

Now Ashridge forest is laid bare, it looks untidy, branches tangled, huge boughs drooping, as though the trees have been turned upside down and the mass of roots are now visible – inverted. The decay of autumn trodden in and will soon fade as new growth takes hold.  

Ashridge Forest
A tangle of trees

The impassable becomes passable

As I walk beneath tree boughs that are normally thick with foliage and difficult to get through, the impassable becomes passable. The smaller tracks will become chocked with stinging nettles and brambles, others smothered in foliage.

The mud is something else! Thick, deep and sticky enough to loose your boots in. I have walked these trails many times, but each time is different; berries in various stages of growth or decay, views that open or close depending if the leaves are on the trees or under your feet. When the bracken is green, it blends in perfectly with the trees, and can be quite visually suffocating. 

A beautiful view opens up
Only available in winter

A re-purposed saw pit

An old saw pit has filled up with wood and algae floating amongst grasses, mysterious air bubbles popping to the surface. It’s too cold for frogs, so what could it be? Gas from decaying organic matter? 

A quiet winter pond in Ashridge Forest in the great outdoors
A quiet winter pond

I spot an elder tree with the peculiar ‘jelly ear’ (or wood ear) growing along a branch. Found in most places, this edible species of Auriculariales fungus is distinguished by its noticeably ear-like shape and colouration.

Jelly Ear fungus growing in Ashridge

Its specific epithet is derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree; the common name “Judas’s ear” was largely eclipsed by the corruption “Jew’s ear”, while today “wood ear”, “jelly ear” and other names are preferred.

Green moss covers the lower tree trunks in the great outdoors
Winter socks for the trees

It gets cold quickly, and I head home before my fingers are numb. Most walks show me something new, or it’s that I have simply noticed new things. I know that when next I visit, the forest will have changed again; new sounds, more birds, more early, optimistic Chilterns growth. There is however, the potential for snow and ice, which will make the forest even quieter and fun to explore.

Stay safe!

Further Information

I have written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the great outdoors that surrounds this beautiful region.

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 once Flourishing Ashridge Trade.

In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.

Enjoy more walks across the region on the Beyonder walks website along the Thames, woodland and churches.

Enjoy the Chilterns at home with our NEW range of Chilterns-inspired gifts and souvenirs. UK orders only.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

The Grand Union Canal

The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

Often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous River Thames, the inland waterways and Grand Union Canal are without a doubt, the workhorse threading its way though the Chilterns countryside.

Arms and Legs

The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system, a series of inland waterways starting in London and ending 137 miles further north in Birmingham. With 166 locks and unknown number (to me), of bridges, it also has ‘arms’ to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.

Grand Union Canal
Resting up at Cow Roast

The canal network as we know it, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The so-called “narrow” canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London, was the result.

In our region, the Grand Union Canal links Watford, Kings Langley, the paper mill at Hemel Hempstead, former lumber yards at Berkhamsted, up over the Tring heights and on to Leighton Buzzard and northwards.

Whilst I am ducking the laden overhanging branches, full of damsons and rose hips, making sure to not miss-step into buckets of fish bait or decaying towpath, I wonder what the traffic system would have been like for the horses hauling the barges?

The Canal Duke

Ever looking for a Chilterns link, I found it in none other than the ‘father of inland navigation’, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). A pioneer of canal construction, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal— said to be the first true canal in Britain, and the modern world.

The Canal Duke
Bridgewater Monument

The Canal Duke is commemorated in a number of locations around the country. Closer to home, his remains lie in the vault in the Bridgewater chapel in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. A loosely translated Latin inscription on his memorial reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his field”. Two miles west In the adjoining Ashridge Estate, you will find a local landmark – the unusual Bridgewater Monument erected in 1832. I am sure it is modelled on the Monument to the Great Fire in London. In the summer, you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. Perhaps count at least five surrounding counties?

Nuts and Bolts

The softer surrounding Chilterns landscape is in stark contrast to these manufactured stamps and implements needed for safe navigation. These remnants of the industrial past are everywhere; unexpected holes, distance markers – that all seem to lead to Braunston, so many numbers and date-stamps on lock gates, at the waterline. Everything in its place and in its place, everything. And most still in use today.

A Roadway Paved with Water

Towpaths, moorings and waterways are the domain of leisure users. On bicycles, on foot, on the water, in the water, touring or living in canal boats. Some have made their permanent moorings into cosy homes with small garden plots alongside, with flowers, furniture and trinkets that could only adorn a static boat. Plenty of cooling off opportunities too!

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
Leo lockside

And still there are fatter and lazier stretches where nothing much happens. Until you hear the splash of a rising fish, or fishing heron or the dart of a kingfisher. Occasionally you can hear the trains rushing to and from London and Birmingham, but otherwise you are alone.

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
A roadway paved with water. 

Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts

There are no smooth edges here, apart from on the water itself. The brickwork, bridges and bolts are testament to the enginners, designers, carpenters, bricklayers and ‘navvies’ – a term shortened from the original ’navigators’ that the labourers were called. The Canal Duke was able to call on miners from his Worsley colliery to dig his canal. These men made a good living as they developed new skills that enabled them to earn far better wages than ordinary labourers. Some worked with their wives too, who supported a multitude of trades. Not such a man’s world after all!

A fine reminder of our industrial past, and attracting a slower pace of life. The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

The lock keepers cottage and pump house at no.38 Marsworth Lock

Further Information

I have been once again exploring what is close to where I live and this post forms part of the Messing about the Thames feature during the summer of 2020.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.

The Ashridge monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read all about a Flourishing Trade.

For further Chilterns inspiration and celebration of all things quirky.

My micro adventure during Lockdown along the Grand Union Canal

What a year this has been! I did find pleasure in our restricted movements by exploring my local area, re-visiting footpaths and discovering many more on my daily micro-walks.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts from Chilterns Gifts.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Messing about in Marlow

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer of 2020, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on our beautiful River Thames, slowly.

Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.

2020 is the year where everything has been turned on its head. Inside out in fact. In such a short space of time, our lives are unrecognisable as we look for strategies to adapt and adjust to this strange world of Covid-19 social protocols and stressful living.

Socially distanced

Keen to keep on exploring my local area, and having to do things in a socially distanced and slower pace, has me taking to the water on a stand up paddle board (SUP) – an offshoot of surfing that originated in Hawaii no less. Ever the trail-blazer, my friend Annette suggested this, as our times require new thinking and a new mode of slow travel.

Whilst Marlow is a long way from Hawaii, an SUP is the go-to way to travel in the Chilterns.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, market towns of Henley and Marlow and so much in between, leaving the Chilterns behind at Cliveden and Taplow as it winds its way into London.

We were headed down to Bisham Abbey, near the pretty market town of Marlow that straddles the Thames. I have seen Bisham Abbey from afar, but it’s the first time I have been onsite.

Bisham Manor House
A Grade I listed manor house, the name taken from the now lost monastery which stood alongside.
Bisham Abbey

This impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings, now one of three National Sports Centres run on behalf of Sport England and is used as a residential training camp base for athletes and teams. It is also the location for messing about in boats.

The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations in later centuries is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry.

In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. She had been captured on the Isle of Rathlin during the Scottish Wars of Succession, and was placed in the charge of the King’s Yeoman, John Bentley, for two years, until removed to Windsor.

Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. Queen Elizabeth I was a regular visitor.

Two swans on the Thames river bank
The waterside is the domain of waterfowl
A swoop of swallows

After our safety briefing and securing of camera’s and car keys, we headed out, determined not to land in the river too many times! It was surprisingly quick before we were balanced, and settled into a gentle paddling rhythm as we struck out for Temple Island to the west.

The busy towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with hot locals, their feet in the water, or feeding the swans. Kites drifting overhead. A swoop of feeding swallows, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames.  Impressive balustrades marking the boundaries of enormous waterside homes, ornamental gardens reaching to the riverbank, in contrast to the simple wooden cabins beneath shady trees. My kind of waterside home.  

There is something about being on the water that relaxes and lifts the mood. The thrill of the unfamiliar, soft contours and ceaseless movement, wind scudding across the surface – all in stark contrast to the hard edges we are used to. 

All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower alongside the river thames and pleasure boat
All Saints Bisham with its 12th century tower

We paddled past All Saints Bisham, which with surrounding village, has been known by various names down the centuries, was recorded in Domesday with its villagers, cottagers, slaves, vines and meadowland. A church was also recorded there, no doubt on the beautiful Thames riverside site of the present building. 

From the SUP, looking east towards Marlow on the River Thames, with boats at anchor
A different view of All Saints Marlow
With lowered horizons

Puffed up storm clouds building on the horizon. The wind scudding on the water, making my feet ache as I braced and focused on staying upright. Pleasure boats putted up and down, the sightseers offering suggestions and encouragement as they passed by, generating wakes that needed to be navigated if I wasn’t to disgrace myself and fall in. Which I did. Three times!

There is something about being close to water that relaxes and lifts the mood. You are absorbed into that space, becoming part of it. Like walking, you notice, you listen and smell what is around you; preening swans balancing their big feet on a submerged tree trunk, duckings, a family of noisy goslings, coots, enormous blue dragon flies, weird algae beneath the surface, and when you fall in, the mud is soft and yielding. We stopped a few times to savour the moment, to relax and enjoy it all. We loved it!

With horizons lowered in this tumultuous summer, I am enjoying time in our naturally outstanding Chilterns, on this beautiful River, slowly. Annette was right, SUP’s fit the bill.

Messing about in boats on the River Thames
The ubiquitous copper beech
Further Information

I recorded my local lockdown meanderings along new and familiar footpaths to see how spring unfolded: It’s a lockdown

Read the sad tale, full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd, of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ George Alexander Gratton, bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.

A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic pensioners, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging picnic hampers in evidence. We are gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers

Established in 1991 the Bisham Abbey School is a RYA recognised training centre. SUP and canoe here from Moose Canoe and SUP Hire.

The Thames Path National Trail follows the river Thames for 184 miles (294 Km), on a meander east rom its source in the Cotswolds. Through several rural counties, including the Chilterns before entering the heart of London.