A Runway Runs Through It

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

An EasyJet view
An EasyJet View

The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!

I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.

Luton runway at the end of the field
Luton Airport control tower

Luton Airport

Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.

Fancy brick work
Striking brick work

Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.

Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.

Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?

The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.

Delightful details

Much of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.

Ruined stairwell
Stairway to the stars

This is no castle set in aspic

I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

A working landscape

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all pressed in. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.

I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.

A deceptively serene scene

I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.

Wildflowers alongside the runway

Further Information

Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.

Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; beautiful Barton Hills National Nature Reserve, adjacent to 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 further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Scenic view
Beautiful views from Barton Hills

The Wormsley Library

On a private tour of the Wormsley Library, we had 15 minutes. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. Discretion is the watchword

I have previously written about the Wormsley Estate, so typical of the Chilterns: slightly bonkers, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably unknowingly walked past many times. All 2,500 acres flow between a deer park, ornamental lakes, the “Sir Paul Getty’s cricket Ground” and mock Tudor pavillion, an opera house, Wormsley Library and private castle; each notable in their own right, but all together on one estate? I am not worthy.

The late Sir Paul Getty’s first love was cricket, but high up on his list must surely have been rare books and manuscripts as he filled his Wormsley library with amongst many others: 12 – 15th century illuminated medieval manuscripts, the first edition of Caxton’s Canterbury Tales, Anne Boleyn’s Psalter and the first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, no less. I really like the library, as it has a lived-in, welcoming feel, which is unexpected for somewhere that houses a collection of this importance. The chairs around the fire have the previous occupants’ impressions left behind and I wondered if they had sat fireside, and leafed through a precious volume with a familiar title, but we would most likely never see an original copy?

Invited on a private tour, with a robust schedule, we were ushered past the opera house with instructions not to photograph the private residence, nor further aggravate the already aggravated dogs who were going mad on the other side of the fence, so we tiptoed along roped-off pathways, stealing sideways  glances whenever we could.

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We had 15 minutes in the library. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents.

A Pistol Book 1627
Hidden Treasure

Why is it that some books of such staggering historical and cultural significance can sometimes look like something picked up for a tenner at a car boot sale? The only indication they are rare is that they are in fact included on the bookshelves with this collection, and those with their pages open, delicate gold-flecked images and painful writing on display that the saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ really starts to take on meaning.

You can see images of Anne Boleyn’s beautiful Psalter at the Morgan Library & Museum New York.  This tiny book measures a mere 5-by-3 1/2 inches and bears Anne’s coat of arms and monogram combined with that of Henry Vlll. The 275 vellum leaves were written and illustrated in France between 1529 and 1532, and this is a French translation from Hebrew of the biblical Psalms. Takes your breath away.

fullsizeoutput_34faAnother gem is the first edition of the Canterbury Tales, the greatest work in Middle England printed by William Caxton in Westminster between 1476-77 is only one of seven complete or substantially complete copies, and the only one if private hands. Would you take that out and read by the fire? Perhaps not.

Located between Stokenchurch and Watlington, Wormsley Park operates as an organic farm and many red kites can be seen in the vicinity. Once extinct in England and Scotland, the birds were reintroduced into England in 1989 with Windsor Great Park being the release site. All did not go to plan and without the intervention of Sir Paul, who offered Wormsley Park instead, the project would have been lost, and along with it, what is now considered to be the icon of the Chilterns – the magnificent red kite.

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. I recommend signing up for a twitter account if you don’t already have one, that way you are bound to be in the know.

The Library is only available for a limited number of dates each year, as it is part of the family’s home. Wormsley’s knowledgeable librarians can host up to 25 guests at a time for tours of the collection. More information here,

Further Information:

Another local library that will knock your socks off, is the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration.