It was too good an opportunity to pass up. An unplanned visit to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, on route, discovering another quite unexpected, but creepy, derelict estate in Mongewell Park.
With a name that rhymes with sponge-well, Mongewell is a mere mile from Wallingford, sandwiched between the Winterbrook bridge, the busy B4009 and River Thames to the west.
Finding your way there is the first challenge. Down a country lane, along a footpath, past large unfriendly signs advising visitors to keep out, unless heading to St John the Baptist church. Don’t be put off.
A horror film set
The site has had a colourful past – from an ancient Grims Ditch, the Normans, a bishops estate, WW1 convalescent home and RAF station, to groundbreaking Jewish boarding school, Carmel College that closed in 1997. Although earmarked for housing, the extensive site is derelict.
On past peeling portakabins with boarded up windows and verandas sinking into dense vegetation, that you walk by to get to the church. The school added several buildings, including its synagogue and the Julius Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse. An intriguing, creepy place. I could see why it has been a popular film location – great for horror movies!
Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?
A jigsaw puzzle
Partly taped off, in case the roof tiles continue their downward slide, you skirt the headstones beneath the east wall of the apse to enter. It reminded me of Someries Castle near Luton in size and decay. Minus the vandalism. Hemmed in by dark vegetation, the atmosphere was just ever-so menacing. This is not a romantic ruin!
Come away make no delay
The inscription on the now lost church bell 1760
When the nave lost its roof in the 1940’s, the arch to the apse was blocked up. Unsure if the heavy door would yield, it took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
A surprise awaits
The floor may be dusty, but tucked away behind a Churches Conservation Trust poster, is a pile of neatly folded clothes and a bucket and mop. It is looked after, this tiny uncluttered space, with interesting stone monuments, a large, but damaged Victorian font and pretty stained glass window behind the alter. The wrought iron chandelier was added in the 1880’s and hangs from the reconstructed 14th century wooden roof.
Following repairs and the placing of monuments and the font from the nave into the apse, it is hard to imagine this lovely space was once derelict.
What movie set could this be from?
It got suddenly dark inside the chancel, huge storm clouds quickly fluffing up overhead. It was time to go! I closed the door, making sure it wouldn’t blow open and picked my way through the weeds and out across the nave into the deserted Mongewell Park.
A place of contrasts and a big dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy surrounds, made this a highlight for me. Such an unexpected delight, the little chancel amidst the weeds and decay. A deserved inclusion in this blog!
The chancel was unlocked, which was a surprise as there was no one around. It may be locked when you visit. If all you can experience is the exterior ruin and surrounds, you won’t be disappointed.
Mongewell was once a strip parish – these were thin strips of land extending from the Thames and into part of Stoke Row, up in the Chiltern Hills. There is lovely story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to Stoke Row, far away in England. The land of endless rain ironically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Like twins, the villages of Goring and Streatley, face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted it.
The Chilterns is not short of pretty villages surrounded by beautiful undulating countryside. Add far-reaching views and the Goring Gap, a stone’s throw from Reading, must rank near the top.
I recommend starting your visit from the National Trust car park at Lardon Chase, above Streatley. The views are glorious, the walk down into Streatley easy, although steep. It’s from up here that you can enjoy the dramatic backdrop of two villages clustered around the Goring lock and weir, the playing fields, leisure boats and island; to then cross over the Thames and wander through Goring village on the other shore and into the patchwork of the Chiltern Hills beyond.
I can see as far as Pangbourne to the north east and know that the views from Hartslock reserve on the hillside opposite, looking back to the Gap are just as dramatic.
The villages of Goring and Streatley have a long and sweeping history (at least 10,000 years), nestled in the gap that the Thames has carved between two impressive chalk hillsides. Right in the centre of two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: to the south west, the north Wessex Downs in Berkshire, to the north east, the Oxfordshire Chilterns.
Not always good neighbours, their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Streatley was once the larger and more important village because it was on the turnpike road to Reading. The Bull Inn at the top of the high street was a 15th century coaching inn and I expect a welcome sight on the dusty road. With the arrival of the railway in 1840, Goring reasserted itself having more usable land for the many new homes. The geography has however, contained much of the growth.
Along the river, you get a real sense of space, somewhere to pause, listen and enjoy this special place. There are plenty of eateries to tempt you to do just that; the Bull Inn at Streatley, the Swan at Streatley, Pierreponts Cafe, the Miller of Mansfield and Catherine Wheel pub in Goring. Wander down the high street, there are many businesses that have a long association with the area.
National Treasures & Trails
The weirs still control the level of water for navigation, water supply, and land drainage. It’s not hard to image the bustle of boats, traders, soldiers and drovers, who used the three ancient trade routes that span southern England from Dorset to East Anglia. All converging at this lovely spot; the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails and Icknield Way, could easily tempt you off the road and onto the trail.
Like twins, these two villages face off across the River Thames, but one outdid the other, when William Turner painted Goring mill and church.
The villages are very walkable, and I recommend downloading the local heritage trail. This easy circular walk and takes you past such gems as St Mary’s church in Streatley where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll used to preach. Back over the bridge to stop and savour the lovely views. You’ll pass Goring Mill where rare old paddles and posts are still used to control the flow of water. The tower of St Thomas’ Church is visible, renowned for a fine peal of eight bells and dedicated team of ringers. Inside you’ll find one of Englands oldest bells, dating back an impressive 800 years.
I’m your man!
The village is not short of famous residents and visitors. At the end of Ferry Lane is the original river crossing and Ferry house, where Oscar Wilde stayed during the summer of 1893 and began work on ‘An Ideal Husband’. Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, lived here for 30 years. He is buried locally and his birthday and funeral, were marked by a RAF fly-past! George Michael fans still make the trip.
Walking back up the hill and turning once more to enjoy the view, now more familiar as I have explored both villages. I make a mental note to return in July for the Goring Gap Boat Club regatta, with a mere 600 competing rowers!
For information on the wider Chilterns area, accommodation, places to eat and drink, bookmark VisitChilterns
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.
It’s the skylarks, snowdrops and then bluebells that increases the heart rate and knowledge that spring is not far off. Spring in the Chiltern hills is the season when the world is renewed and we shake off the winter gloom. Spring into the Chilterns!
Spend time in another of pretty Chilterns villages, Amersham that is also accessible by train.
This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.
Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp at.
Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.
The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns. Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.
Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close
This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, where it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander. King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months. Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy. Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days.
The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour.
Three murders and a ghost
One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.
This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”
Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.
Contradiction and the absurd
Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.
This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy, he even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, full of pomp and circumstance. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.
Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph:
“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,
Know that there lies beneath this humble stone
A child of colour, haply not thine own,
His parents, born of Afric’s sunburnt race,
Tho’ white and black where blended in his face,
To Britain brought, which made his parents free,
And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”
Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.
I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language. I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace.
Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.
How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young boy, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.
Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.
That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work.
I got more than I bargained for when I visited the Wittenham Clumps, a favourite haunt of Paul Nash. I discovered not only inspirational countryside, but my knight in shining armour.
Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars.
Much has been written about Paul Nash and his younger brother John, and it is outside my skill set to provide a narrative of his great works. What I will share with you are some of the locations that inspired him and have in turn, come to inspire me. I have no copyright permission to reproduce any of his paintings here, so have included links to websites where you can see examples of his work below.
Paul Nash was born in London, and grew up in Iver Heath in south Buckinghamshire. Thankfully for us, he didn’t take to figure drawing and was able to concentrate on capturing his landscapes with preferred elements of ancient history. Something Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns have in abundance including; burial mounds, barrows and brooding Iron Age hill forts. He had to travel to the coast for the glorious seascapes and Wiltshire for the standing stones at Avebury amongst other locations.
He came to my attention when I first began to write about the Chilterns and have been captivated by his painting of Ivinghoe Beacon, somewhere I have photographed many times during my walks along the now familiar chalk paths and trails.
That Nash had a close relationship with his subject matter is clear; he paints with clarity, scenes and items that are often overlooked as ordinary. Or plain and everyday. He has revealed how a clump of trees on a hillside says so much about ourselves. But therein lies the astonishing skill and beauty in his work. He captures these timeless landscapes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those communities who have lived and worked in and around them over the centuries.
Not that much has changed
I joined artist Christopher Baines on one of his Nash Walks to the Wittenham Clumps, the site of an iron age hill fort on the Sinodun Hills, 18 miles west of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. Chosen for security and dominance, the two Clumps are marooned in a sea of Thames Valley loveliness. Round Hill is the taller of the Clumps, and Castle Hill the site of the hill fort. Each is topped by a grove of trees, the lower of the two enclosed by an earth ditch and engineered embankment. The Clumps are surrounded by pretty villages, towers, Dorchester Abbey, manor houses, water meadows and the River Thames. Christopher told us that the Abbey contains an unusual treasure, but more of that later.
From the top, we enjoyed far-reaching views over the River Thames, towards the Chiltern Hills to the north east, westward to south Oxfordshire and south to the Berkshire downs. The view was described by Paul Nash as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”.
There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.
A third hill, Brightwell Barrow below, is just off to the south-east. This lone hilltop barrow I think is a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of stories and local legends of Roman villas and disinterred graves, all under a full moon I expect. I can understand why Nash painted it as much as he did. He would still recognise it too.
Christopher points out Brightwell Barrow
Brightwell Barrow from the Clumps
Nash believed that trees have their own personalities. The devastated trees he painted, that were blasted to shattered stumps, to him represented the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The trees on the Clumps are not without their stories and quirks too. Christopher showed us the initialled tree trunks on Round Hill that reminded me of the similar declarations of love on Sharpenhoe Clappers in the northern Chilterns. Another wooded hilltop that still draws people today. I can’t help but wonder if the lovers are still in love?
I have commented many times throughout this blog about the extent of Victorian Vandalism, evident in so many Chilterns churches, where earlier treasures where either ripped out or covered up to suit a more modern taste. Here was another example: local man Joseph Tubb, who infamously worked over the course of two weeks in the summer of 1844, and scratched onto a beech trunk his uninspiring 20-line earthly musings. The ‘Poem Tree” as it become known, recently collapsed into a pile of decay, but sadly for us, his poem lives on in the little monument nearby. If you want to read what it says, you’ll have to climb the Clumps.
My Knight in Shining Armour
Inspired by Christopher revealing the many threads that link Nash with what I had seen, I set off on to find a knight in shining armour. On my way to Dorchester Abbey, I stopped at some of the villages I had seen from the Clumps including; Long Wittenham with its pretty cottages, Clifton Hampden which is stuffed with even more thatched cottages and a church with an impressive 152-year old cedar tree, before parking at the edge of Dorchester-upon-Thames to walk the pretty high street.
What an amazing Abbey! Unexpected, grand in scale, but not grand in nature. Busy with a large wedding, the guests waited to greet the bride’s family before flowing outside, relaxed and talkative, to wave off the bride and groom in a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce.
The People’s Chapel
The magnificent alter
The wedding guests
Under the flagstones
I was there to see the wonderful, unusually life-like effigy, one of the finest pieces of 13th century funerary sculpture in England. The pose is fluid as the Knight is ready to unsheathe (the now lost) sword. Much admired by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, John Piper and Paul Nash, who considered the effigy one of the greatest icons of Englishness – alongside Stonehenge. That’s quite something!
Expect the Unexpected
Just as when I visited the Tate in 2017 to see the Paul Nash Exhibition, I got more than I bargained for on this visit to the Clumps. Not just beautiful English countryside and villages, but a sense that things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, we do things differently, but the essence of who we are hasn’t changed. Places of worship still have a role, we commemorate our dead, plant and harvest crops, have a fascination with the unexplained, are drawn to rivers and high places, leave something behind by scratching our initials (or a poem) onto trees, indulge in celebrations and capture what we see in prose and pictures. In doing so, we try to understand and make sense of our place in this enduring landscape. A trip to the Clumps could perhaps help you try and figure out some of life’s great mysteries.
Paul Nash is buried with his wife Margaret at St Mary the Virgin, Langley Marish near Slough.
Thank you to Christopher Baines for sharing his knowledge and insights into how this pioneering artist tried to make sense of the magical and mystical everyday. It was really special. Take a look at his website, which is full of information on the local area and of the great man himself.
This blog has plenty of ideas for places to discover and walks to enjoy throughout the Chilterns year, follow the tabs at the top of the page to discover more. In Chiltern Fields was published in 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Itching to get away from my desk and take a walk to enjoy a warm autumnal afternoon, it was a tweet that spurred me into action to head over to Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames.
..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river Thames.”
Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.
I have visited the formal gardens at Cliveden, but that is only a small part of the vast 375-acre estate on the banks of the River Thames. I struck out from the Woodland car park and was soon enjoying the magnificent lime-treed avenue that leads to Cliveden House, an ornate mansion that crowns an outlying Chilterns ridge by the hilltop village of Taplow, near the busy market town of Marlow. 40 metres above the river, Cliveden means “valley among cliffs” and refers to the dene (valley) which cuts through part of the estate, east of the house. The site has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. And a particular scandal.
A Peaceful Woodland
The woodlands were first laid out by Lord Orkney in the eighteenth century on what had been barren cliff-top; they were later much restocked by Bill Astor but suffered badly in the Great Storm of 1987, the same year a section of a California redwood was installed in the woods. At a modest 5.03 m across, it is the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea in the country.
The woodland is quiet, with paths leading off into the trees so I headed downhill towards the river along a steep footpath that had seen much use and repair over the years. I had to stop to enjoy the expansive views across the river to Berkshire, opening up each week as the leaf cover falls away.
The river is busy with geese, swans, ducks and all manner of little birds, darting about in the foliage, the riverside path shady with overhanging trees, leaves drifting into the soft river mud.
The Profumo Affair
I passed the infamous Spring cottage, awarded Grade ll listed status in 1986 and in 1997 the hotel company which leased Cliveden House from the National Trust also acquired the lease to the cottage. A small fortune was spent restoring and refurbishing the dilapidated building before it reopened in 1998 as a self-contained luxury let. Luxurious it may be, but it is hardly private with the path passing within feet of the building, hampers and cottage life visible through the windows. One of four structures that was built in 1813, it saw many uses by the family and their guests, until in 1957, the cottage was leased by Stephen Ward for use as a weekend retreat and party house. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis stayed here, with a chance encounter in 1961 between Christine Keeler and John Profumo at the now infamous Cliveden swimming pool, led to the so-called Profumo Affair that almost brought down a government.
The path then opens up onto a sunny riverside lawn, with another cottage, boathouse, small jetty and 171 steps up to the Parterre in front of the house. No dogs allowed! I don’t mind, it’s more informal here, in fact a good place to spread out and relax on the lawn. The Victorian boathouse has undergone extensive repairs, and you can see recorded on the brick wall a the entrance, historical flood levels. Choose to cool off in the river, on the Thames or alongside.
If it hadn’t been for this couple quietly enjoying the sweetest Thames view from their bench, I would have missed the best view of all!
Visit the beautiful Rose Garden at Cliveden, although I expect it’s much changed from when I visited.
Autumn is my favourite time in the Chilterns, here are my suggestions for other places to explore in the Chilterns.
Messing about alongside or on the River Thames is a delight.
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!
England is full of quaint customs, some funny and others frankly bizarre.
Some with origins lost or simply re-invigorated to suit modern tastes and bank holidays. Swan Upping is neither. Firmly routed in the 12th century, it is both necessary for conservation of mute swans and acts as a gentle reminder of just who owns them.
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 make their way upriver on their five-day journey from Sunbury to Abingdon Bridge in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. They are here to record the swan population on the River Thames.
This historic ceremony dates from the twelfth century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans – especially the cygnets, a prized dish at banquets and feasts. As with the deer from the great parks and forests, punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging. No longer eaten, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water. 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.
The Queen’s Swan Uppers wear traditional scarlet uniforms and each boat flies their flags and pennants. On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”. With a cry of “All up!” the signal is given for the boats to get into position. Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury commonly caused by fishing hooks and line.
A traditionalist at heart, I love seeing ceremonies re-purposed to chime with contemporary life. Never mind the Swan Uppers!
This year Swan Upping starts on Tuesday 20th July from Eton Bridge, Berkshire and will finish on Thursday 22nd July at Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Provided there are no Government restrictions in place in respect of Covid-19. The website has information on times and the best places to view the ceremony
VisitChilterns.co.uk has further information about accommodation, transport links and our fabulous market towns.
Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s Locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames is worth packing a picnic for.
Further Marlow tales 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.
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.