Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade

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.

Holy relics were once big business.

I am astonished at how many found their way into the Chilterns that resulted in prestigious buildings, churches, woodland and more humble structures being built. Ashridge is the most prestigious amongst them.

Another hot July week goes by, and an early morning walk in the forest is the coolest place to be. The dusty summer paths are criss-crossed with cracks and gnarled roots, even the stubborn patches of winter mire look benign and safe to cross. The bees are winning as they are all I can hear. The compelling natural geometrical shapes of the six-foot high bracken is punctured only by the crests of foxglove pink, just past their best. The exposed felled trees of winter now swallowed up by verdant vegetation from which a variety of animals burst forth ahead of me on the path.

Fox glove in the Chilterns

The pretty, but toxic foxglove

Ashridge Forest is one of the more popular Chilterns destinations, but as visitors tend to stick to the tearoom and toilets at the visitor centre, there is more than enough space for the horses, cyclists, runners and ramblers to be swallowed up by the 5,000-or-so woodland acres. In fact, the two are closely linked along Prince’s Riding, a glorious avenue of trees linking Ashridge House with the Bridgewater Monument.

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That’s the Bridgewater Monument in the distance.

This much-visited estate, grew up around the medieval Ashridge priory that was founded in 1283 by the crusader knight, Edmund of Cornwall (a nephew of Henry III who was himself a collector of relics). Ashridge priory was created to house a phial of Christ’s blood that had been brought back from the Holy Land. These relics of the ‘Holy Blood’ were portions of the blood of Christ’s passion, preserved supposedly from the time of the Crucifixion and displayed as objects of wonder and veneration in the churches across medieval Europe. A flourishing trade, pilgrims traveled from far and wide to venerate and spend their hard-earned cash in offerings to secure their place in heaven and a meal to get them through the journey.

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. The estate passed through various families until in 1800, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater demolished most of the priory, and construction began on the present house in 1808–1814.

A surviving link are the fallow deer that were introduced during the 13th century as a source of food and for the sport of kings, that still roam the vast estate.

People and their holy relics may come and go, but the surrounding woodland is still bursting with life. During summer, it’s just more colourful – pretty butterflies dance around my feet and the shrill whining of crickets in the long grass is the sound of high summer. Death-defying squirrels race through the tree canopy and so many birds, its magical. We pass little cottages dotted throughout the woods, with names like ‘private cul-de-sac’, or ‘no turning private,’ and stop too for the obligatory “is that a corgi?” conversation.

Trees in the Chilterns Ashridge Estate
A tree-lined nave

Future business leaders now attend the Ashridge Executive Education, formerly Ashridge Business School, based at the gothic revival Ashridge House who promote their services as;

“An agile business school for the global leader. Because disruption is inevitable:”

That wouldn’t go unrecognised I don’t think, by those former businessmen of the priory and palace, whose global world was turned upside down by European political and religious events far beyond their control.

So the cycle continues.

Ashridge Business School is well rooted amongst its surroundings
Well rooted

Further Information:

Read more about some of the structures built to house relics and provide shelter for their pilgrims below;

Once on the Pilgrims trail between St Albans Abbey and the monastery at Ashridge, Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.

St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. Read of a Journey into a Chilterns desert.

Growing stones, a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Repton and an acorn from a queen, read about a tour of the Repton-designed Ashridge House Gardens.

A walk in Ashridge during the quieter winter months is a completely different experience. Do trees fall uphill? Or take your pick from the selection of National Trust walks through the estate.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

A Cautionary Tale

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support

Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape; somewhere you wouldn’t even pass through as the busy Leighton Buzzard road bypasses the village. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.

Extremely rare and of national importance, these Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings, were hidden behind a sheet of course hand-woven linen until they were discovered by Arthur Lindley in 1953. Compared with many murals found mainly in local churches that were either damaged, destroyed or simply never completed, these rare, fine in situ examples, that briefly saw the light of candles for 50 years or so, before being covered up for over 500 years, are a sensation. I feel privileged to have seen them.

Piccotts End exterior
Never judge a book

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support.

Don’t smoke in bed!

Arthur Lindley’s son Alistair, picks up the story: “In 1924 my father bought these cottages and a nearby house and opened a petrol station to cater for the busy Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard traffic. He describes the buildings as ‘hovels’, this one inhabited for 78 years by a widow, whose husband had lived and died doing what he loved best; smoking in bed!” A lucky escape for the house you could say.

Olive the Scraper

Arthur Lindley invested in the serves of a lady referred to as “Olive the Scraper” who spent many many hours scraping off past layers and so helped uncover the entire panel.

The cottages were built 600 years ago as a hospice for pilgrims on their way from the Abbey of St Albans to the monastery at Ashridge. The Abbey attracted pilgrims who visited the shrine of the first English martyr, and could have taken the 13-mile journey to the nearby Monastery of the Bonhommes at Ashridge.  On the pilgrim trail to view a holy relic – a phial of the blood of Christ,  Piccotts End being mid-way between the two, would have served well as place for the pilgrims to rest and take refreshment before continuing their journey through the forest to Ashridge.

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The murals are dated from between 1470 – 1500, and could only have been on display for around 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and is most likely the reason for the damage to the faces. The fact they survived this event, is in itself remarkable. One theory is that the faces were damaged on purpose to ‘buy some time’ before they were covered up. For good. That is what makes them so rare; up and down the country, parish churches, abbey’s, monasteries and cathedrals were destroyed, or returned to the Crown, stripped of their riches and relics as King Henry Vlll became Head of the Church.

What relevance for us?

What is its meaning? To the modern eyes, it’s a jumble of symbolism and hard-to-detect imagery (including the All seeing Eye), that needs either many hours of looking at the paintings, or someone to show you the swallows (who were thought to spend the winter in holes in the ground), a dragon, a grinning cat, claw hammer, St Peter and the keys to heaven, even safety pins. I recognise those! All from a time when there was little literacy and religious symbols were a powerful influence in people’s lives.

Part of the second floor was removed to show the entire mural as it was meant to be seen. The building had no natural light, so viewing the mural would have been difficult for the pilgrims, but perhaps they had a resident storyteller and interpreter who led them through the story of the heresy of the Cathars, who believed that if God was all good, why did he create and allow evil? Pope Innocent lll called a crusade against them which resulted in the slaughter of 30,000, indistinguishable between Catholics and Cathars. I felt this account to still be raw today, as Alistair asked if any Catholics were present before he shared this piece of information. By choosing to remain silent, I know even more will be shared, unpalatable as it might be.

A Buddhist Monastery

In 1825, Sir Astley Paston Cooper founded the first cottage hospital in the country on the site of these cottages at Piccotts End. This is only part of the Piccotts End story as there are strong local connections  between St Margaret in the painting and the nearby Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at St Margarets, Great Gaddesden. This area once boasted a busy straw growing and weaving industry that linked these traditional farm house-crafts with the high streets of Luton, the mills at Tring and China. Now long gone, their traces are revealed in unusual ways; such as the providing unknowing protection for the mural at the time when the house had a second floor and where the floor boards didn’t quite meet the wall, where the bedding straw fell in between the two, provided protection for the painting.

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The landscape around Piccotts End in the Chilterns

Further Information:

Abbey Walks is dedicated to mapping long distance footpaths that monks walked from abbey to abbey in the 12th to 14th centuries and they have some lovely local routes that link into long distance paths that could take the adventurous all the way to Rome!

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, but holy relics were once a flourishing trade at Ashridge.

Find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns.