Not just for old ladies, these fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone.
This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns. In existence since at least the eighth century, Hitchin is one of the oldest towns in the county of Hertfordshire. Much sought after as a cure-all for anything from the plague to migraines, cultivation and production of lavender put Hitchin on the map. Successfully exploiting the crop since the 15th century, sadly only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.
The farm is open from June to October, peak season is July, when the 30 acres are in full bloom. Busy by the time I arrived, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! You have to tune your ear into the drone of countless bees working around your legs, otherwise drowned out by the giggles and squeals of delight.
A quintessential English experience
Some had barely got out of their cars and were already taking pictures. Once we had negotiated the oncoming cars and traffic cones to secure a brown paper bag and scissors to cut and curate our flowers, we could enjoy an English seasonal experience.
I wandered slowly up an empty aisle, keeping an eye out for the millions of painted lady butterflies that are supposed to be heading our way this summer. I spotted one. Perhaps this was the straggler and they had all been and gone? I disturbed three birds that shot out from the undergrowth, but apart from the bees, there was precious little wildlife or incidental wildflowers. It was all perfect and planned.
There was a wedding party, couples, pensioners, families with small children whooping their way up the slope, posing ladies in straw hats and white dresses, a coach-load of sunhat-wearing tourists equipped with enormous lenses, a sea of expansive selfie sticks and a fascinating array of selfie poses. I think many had done this before.
The aim is to walk up the slope, proclaim loudly your deftness at hill walking, before laying out your picnic and then returning, satisfied to your car. There are plenty of places where you can part with your money to buy lavender-themed or infused goodies, plus a small museum with interesting, if underwhelming displays about the farm and former industry.
It’s a fun thing to do, everyone in a holiday mood, enjoying themselves and no doubt Instagram will be awash with the days’ adventures. I wonder though, how many knew they were in the Chilterns?
Just as the production of watercress in the Chess Valley has been decimated, with only one producer remaining, Cadwell farm is keeping a Chilterns tradition alive by welcoming visitors to wander the 30 acres to pick flowers and take endless selfies.
Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dusty and dated interiors, are to be treasured. We have our fair share here in the Chilterns; most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain. ‘One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys’ tells the understated story of English education in the British Schools museum in Hitchin.
All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at unhelpful heights and a red lion above a lintel where a pub used to be.
Amersham is a modern Chilterns market town once again under pressure from the onward march of progress and development.
Renowned for its Christian martyrs burned for their beliefs, successful black lace industry and perhaps on a more frivolous note, a perfumery, this is a town of two halves: the modern town on the hill and its medieval twin in the valley below.
The Misbourne Valley in the central Chilterns is a delight. Dotted with woodlands, pretty villages and market towns, this once quiet corner of the Roman Empire is now a busy Metroland corridor, linking London highways with Chilterns byways. A mere 25 minutes from London on the Met line, Amersham offers train-to-trail countryside escapes, and space to breath.
Once the centre for black lace production, 16th century craftswomen specialised in fine silk veils and wide flounces of black lace that were used to decorate white dresses. In fact the industry continued late into the 19th century because almost everyone, from kings to babies at one time, wore lace on their clothing! Another industry synonymous with the town was the Goya perfume factory, that supplied large qualities of fragrances and perfumes to women after the Second World War. I wonder what the town smelt like?
“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument, seven Protestants were burned to death at the stake. They died for principles of religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to their consciences.”
In the face of protest
There are two parts to this pretty town; medieval Amersham with its unusually spacious high street, and the new town and railway station. This came about because the town fathers didn’t want a railway mucking up their medieval streets in the 1890’s, and insisted it be routed 20 minutes away up the hill. And now, 130 years later, the town is once again facing pressure and change from another huge railway project; this time from HS2, that will thunder right through this peaceful valley, changing it in ways we don’t yet know. I have written about it in another article called Evolving Landscapes.
On the poor side of the street
Go with a guide! You simply turn up at the museum to join a tour at 2.30pm on a Sunday. As I waited, numbers grew to include a couple from London on a weekend break, the leader of the Amersham Band and a couple who were mysteriously ‘just passing through’. My companions on this town tour with Euan, volunteer guide and purveyor of intriguing Amersham insights and stories.
We began our tour in the museum garden, filled with herbs and plants our medieval ancestors would be familiar with, to help them get through life without a GP, or symptoms to Google. Being on the poor side of the high street, this garden would have been considered small. The houses to the other side of the high street in comparison, still have substantial plots. This garden is bordered on one side by typical knapped Chilterns flint and brick almshouses, and a discreet long-drop privy overhanging the river Misbourne.
The museum itself is situated within a 15th century structure that has over the centuries, undergone many changes. It charts the towns story through the voices of past residents who lived and worked in the many industries and local trades, the great and the not-so, including those mentioned above. Thanks to a substantial restoration project, the beautiful medieval and Tudor floors and wobbly beams (made from green oak) are revealed. If I’d have had more time, I’d be trying on all those Tudor dresses!
A missing stream
A typical Chilterns chalk stream, the Misbourne (missing stream), meanders through the centre of town, behind houses, through a meadow and under a lot of bridges. The current low water level attests to the temperament of this stream, following as it does, the variations in the annual rainfall. It is still known to flood however, with memories fresh after the last sandbag event, despite the river being confined to a narrow channel.
Open plan living
You may be familiar with the Kings Arms hotel, a former posting inn, made famous by the 1994 British romantic comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It served as the place to change horses on the London to Oxford route, and perhaps give the weary travellers some respite after 25 bumpy miles from London, with quite possibly another 30 miles onwards to Oxford to endure. It looks quaint and olde-worlde, but the majority of the facade is in fact ‘Brewery Tudor’ added by the local brewery about 100 years ago to cover up an unsightly earlier facade. It seems there was a lot of this about with false frontages been added by successive owners to modernise their old fashioned structures. So common was the practice it’s difficult to know where medieval stops and Georgian begins.
It is the equivalent today of stripping out the kitchen to make way for ‘open plan’ living.
There are several notable examples of grand houses built with a former industry in mind, but now repurposed for other lives. Many of them have tell-tale features and locations, and the guess-work is fun.
The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 bySir William Drake as a gift for the town, is not hard to miss. Commanding the most prominent spot on the high street, it was intended for the upper floor to be used for meetings for traders’ guilds, and the ground floor as a market and lock-up for miscreants.
All around are signs of past lives; graves in the shape of wool sacks, despite this never being a wool town, St Mary’s resplendent in excavated flints from the new railway, an 18th water pump (although ale was preferable), window openings at varying unhelpful heights in the building that was the water mill, a red lion above a lintel, where a pub used to be, the maltings, a stable for the brewery dray horses and a parapet blocking out light to the servants’ rooms following some fashionable structural updates.
There is great hope in Amersham for facing down disruption and continued changes to their way of life. A thoroughly modern town doing things their way, which bodes well for residents and businesses to thrive and continue to be an example of how towns adapt, yet still retain their historical roots and proud Chilterns heritage.
This article doesn’t do the town justice; visit and enjoy the independent shops, restaurants and pubs along the high street with not a chain store in sight. But do start with a browse around the exhibits at the wonderful Amersham Museum, join a town or martyrs walking tour available on Sunday afternoons from April to September.
Amersham has a number of Alms Houses that add to the great variety across the Chilterns. Not least of all the Drake Houses on the high street, originally built to house six local widows.
You will find the martyrs memorial either along a footpath leading from St. Mary’s Church, or from an overgrown footpath from Station Road.
Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.
My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?
“Not for ages” “Is that the one near the station..?” “I can’t remember” “Where is it?”
Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Anglo-Saxon backwater Norman Invasion Oppression Royal entitlement Civil war Invasion Royal prison Decline Vandalism Near destruction Declared ancient monument Forlorn visitor attraction
Ring of Steel
William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.
The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.
The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.
Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.
Protecting our heritage
We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.
Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!
Rediscovering our Chilterns castles
Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.
To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.
Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here
How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.
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 flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.
The HS2 rail project, was today confirmed. Confirmed it will rip through our naturally outstanding Chilterns.
We tend to look at a landscape and imagine how things were, or to enjoy the temporary transformation through the year (the focus of this blog); less so perhaps on how things might be. The Chilterns are a living, evolving landscape, shaped by its people, industries and natural resources. After all, nothing stands still, or is set is aspic.
It is a moment for me to recognise the importance of capturing some of this huge change.
HS2 is something I have ignored.
This vast, expensive and disruptive engineering project is the brainchild of a government, who think that spending upwards of £100b (and counting), is worth the minutes shaved off the London to Birmingham rail journey is well worth it. Perhaps that should be the national priority, but it is above my pay grade to know for sure. There has been much written, much revised and many cross words exchanged however, but for me, HS2 is something I have ignored, until I walked in the Misbourne valley and appreciated the scale of what is happening.
The route through the Chilterns
I have included a web link below, but to briefly summarise the route through the Chilterns; from London Euston, the route will enter a tunnel until West Ruislip, where trains emerge to run on the surface. From here the line crosses the Colne Valley on a major viaduct, and passes through a 9.8-mile (15.8 km) tunnel under the Chiltern Hills to emerge near South Heath, north-west of Amersham. The route will run roughly parallel to the existing A413 (through the Misbourne Valley), passing to the west of Wendover in what HS2 call a ‘green cut-and-cover tunnel’. After passing west of Aylesbury, the route will run north westwards through North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the West Midlands.
The River Misbourne rises above the lovely market town of Great Missenden and flows south east for 17 miles (27km) through the village of Little Missenden, onto Amersham and the Chalfonts to Denham, where it meets the River Colne.
This valley and its river are no stranger to controversy and has suffered damage to its natural and built resources; most recently the natural chalk stream was rescued by a successful campaign to stop the abstraction of valuable drinking water and further down the valley, Shardeloes mansion, ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family was saved from demolition by the formidable Amersham Society.
I was drawn to the valley when I read a piece about rare medieval wall paintings uncovered by accident (aren’t all the best things?), in 1931 that had been hidden behind lime wash and plaster and are now restored inside this wonderful 1,000 year-old church. Still a valuable community hub inside a building designed, built and tinkered with by the Romans, Saxons, Normans and Tudors. I expect the Victorians had a hand in there too.
My walk took me from the parish church, through the village, up the hill to Mop End and down through the woods to Shardeloes, just outside Amersham and back to Little Missenden along the South Bucks Way. Details and maps are below.
Fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigated the twists and high speed turns
It was a beautiful still January morning, relatively quiet, with only bird chatter in the hedgerows for company. Leo and I crossed the field behind the village and joined the leaf-strewn sunken path, with helpful winter breaks along a familiar tree-lined boundary to enjoy far-reaching views back across the valley towards Great Missenden. Our guides, a couple of fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigating the twists and high speed turns upwards along the path. We passed an enormous pile of gently smoking, freshly dumped manure, ready to spread across these busy fields. There are a few isolated cottages with their lovely gardens, views and one sporting a tennis court! Not too many ‘gerroff my land” signs tacked to the trees either, which is always reassuring.
Our way downhill towards Amersham is cleared by the squirrels, their grey tails catching the sunlight as they race across the woodland floor, over logs, along a decaying fence and up the nearest tree, as fast as their little legs will take them. The vista then opens up and you can appreciate the sense of space and place as the landscape turns from natural, to managed and designed.
Enter landscape designer, Humphry Repton who was commissioned to lay out the grounds in the classical English landscape fashion, in the lee of the hill upon which the Shardeloes mansion stands, damming the River Misbourne to form a pretty lake.
Shardeloes was the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London, saw some 3,000 children born there. Amazing! Following the War the house seemed destined to become one of the thousands of country houses being demolished, until the formidable Amersham Society, assisted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England fought a prolonged battle to save the house. Subsequently purchased in the early 1970’s by a local property developer who converted the house and outbuildings into a complex of private flats, with nearby equine centre and cricket club.
I am reminded of another great regional railway project that saw Victorian railway designers, who sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the Norman Berkhamsted castle, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.
There is an expectation that the HS2 archaeology will be rich and varied; grasping at straws perhaps, but I am hoping there will be access and tours available so we can see for ourselves what is happening. From the conversations I have had, both professionally and in my personal capacity, the locals are now resigned to the railway, and will make every effort to minimise disruption to their businesses and lives.
What of the future?
What is the Misbourne Valley going to look and sound like in the next decades? I will be back to find out as I will seek to harness and record the passions that these projects evoke with many more Instagram, Facebook and blog posts that encourage discussions and comments. You are welcome to comment below.
This website has interesting plans and maps so you can see where the route is and where the tunnels are – not too technical either.
There are three lovely walks to be enjoyed along the Misbourne valley, information can be downloaded here.
“The best church I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)” enthuses A Simms, from Paris who visited the lovely church of St John the Baptist Little Missenden. Their website and visitor interpretation are excellent, the wall paintings astonishing and is well worth your support. I believe they serve a mean cream tea in the summer!
Explore the neighbouring market town of Amersham, with its enviable history of black lace, perfume and beer.
Read about another fine Chilterns Doom painting that was saved by the Chilterns summer rain.
The local market towns of Great Missenden and Amersham are worth a visit, not least of all to see the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and the Amersham museum.
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.
Ashridge gardens are a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Humphry Repton and an acorn from a queen.
Each time I visit Ashridge, I am inspired by the stories I uncover: religious relics, sunken lanes, a landscape of contrasts, abandoned masonry, animal trails, a vineyard, the wild and the managed. All within a glorious 5,000 acres of Chilterns woodland.
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.
A mason’s paradise
Inside one of the two living beech houses that overlook the restored herb garden
Ashridge Gardens extend an impressive 190 acres across a reasonably flat site in an otherwise undulating and hilly landscape. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the northern and eastern part of the gardens and famous Golden Valley. It is the gardens south of the house, originally designed by Humphry Repton (1752 -1818), in the early 19th century, that we were here to explore. In good company, Repton, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown share the honour of being the three most famous 18th century landscape designers and gardeners.
From 1808 to 1813 the architect James Wyatt crafted, from local Totternhoe ‘soft’ stone and lashings of flint, an Ashridge House to claim the high-point above the undulating Golden Valley and surrounding forest.
The grounds to the rear of the house are dominated by the extensive lawn leading onto avenues of trees inviting you to explore further, with the promise of tantalising views of the surrounding area.
On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, which have been the focus for Mick Thompson and his team. Working on the restoration of the Rosary, an Armorial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Flower Garden that have retained strong links with their designer and visionary, Repton.
The county line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire runs right through the garden, and is now marked by a puddingstone no less. Once disputed, with Buckinghamshire laying claim to more than their due, this conglomerate rock (that could be the icon of Hertfordshire), has symbolically won the day!
You can see the puddingstone’s tumbled about the entrance to the grotto and souterrein tunnel that have been constructed using this very hard conglomerate. The estate has the largest collection of puddingstone’s, possibility the largest supply in the world! How and when they are formed is a mystery, but Hertfordshire folk have never been in doubt ̶ it grows, and then gives birth to new stones. This is because stones appear out of the ground, which has given rise to the names “Growing Stone” and “Breeding Stone”.
A fitting addition to this garden.
The Italian Garden and the arbour for the Rose Garden (now framed with laburnum trees), have been restored to their original design.
What made it for me was the magnificent oak, dominating the lawn, its massive trunk and spreading limbs are just perfect. I stood and stared. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my garden when I was a child. This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to Ashridge. How will it be commemorated in 2023? I took an acorn home for my son.
Ashridge is a compelling story, made up of the majestic and the mundane. I just know I am going to go on following those loose threads and blemishes to see what they reveal.
My visit was on a Repton Garden Tour, an event in the excellent Heritage Open Days programme organised by Jenny Sherwood of the Berkhamsted Local Historical & Museum Society and led by the charming and knowledgeabe Mick Thompson, head gardener at Ashridge House. Thank you both.
I must confess that after this delightful garden tour, I still can’t remember many plant, shrub nor tree names! Apart from the oak, that really caught my eye. But that says more about me than it does Mick.
Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here:
I have walked past the Amaravati Buddhist monastery many times, enjoying the many routes from Frithsden and Ashridge, but have never gone in. I never thought to. To sit quietly in the gardens or even visit the temple for peaceful reflection.
Book a table for lunch at the popular Alford Arms in nearby Frithsden.The first gin distillery in Hertfordshire, named after the iconic stone, can be found at Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring.
Take a walk around the medieval stone quarry at Totternhoe, seven miles from Ashridge.
And if that’s not enough, further Chilterns inspiration and itineraries can be found here.
In which a ‘doomed’ 15th century painting is saved by the rain.
On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties. I was content however, to nose around indoors, on the lookout for the famous ‘doom’ painting; the main reason this church is of such cultural and historical significance.
Nothing beats local knowledge
I got the strong impression this church is still a vital community hub, with feverish wedding preparations underway and so tried not to get in the way of the florist and a busy vacuum cleaner. In the capable hands of local guide Helen, who modestly professed to not knowing much about the history of the building, then proceeded to dazzle with her huge knowledge; brass rubbings, the Penn family crypt, lozenges adorning the walls, medieval Penn tiles in the lady chapel, the doom painting of course, church extensions and renovations and not forgetting those buried in the graveyard.
Now set high on the east wall, the 15th century ‘doom’ painting is still looking as bright and fresh as the day it was painted. One of only five surviving wooden tympanums in the country, it would have been purposefully positioned for worshippers as they faced the alter. A “dooms day painting” is a traditional English term for an image of the Last Judgment when Christ judges souls to send them to either Heaven or Hell. A crude but effective part of the eclesastical warning system to illiterate congregations, to toe the line or face judgement on the day. This one not only survived the English Reformation, it survived being tossed into the skip!
During renovations in the 1930’s, the now whitewashed wooden panels, were stripped and placed outside, destined for the bin. By good fortune it rained overnight and when the vicar returned the next morning, he saw faces peering out at him through the whitewash. Their cry for help answered? That is surely a reason to love the rain! Now safely re-instated inside the church, looking as bright as the day it was painted 500 years ago.
Memorials and brass rubbings
At the entrance, there is an inscribed vault stone to mark where Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, who was allowed to build a large vault beneath the church nave for himself, his brother and four of his children who were interred between 1753 and 1766. The Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania however, is buried at the nearby Jordans Quaker Meeting House with his first wife, Guilielma, his second wife, Hannah, and nine of his children. Despite the many offers to have him moved to Pennsylvania, he remains in the quiet Chilterns churchyard.
As Helen waved goodbye, she pointed to the one hand on the clock tower and told me that during the 17th century a one-handed clock was all a villager needed, minutes where simply too much information! On a dry day from the bell tower of Holy Trinity Penn, it is possible to see the seven neighbouring counties including; Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Greater London, Bedfordshire, Northants and Surrey. I’ll have to return to see the view for myself.
This is what I love about parish churches, they are an essential part of not only our local Chilterns story, but the nation’s story too. Unlike a museum, they are stuffed full of treasures, but none kept behind glass, or in spaces filled with tour groups, these are a snapshot of history, watched over by individuals keen to generously share.
I recommend that during the Heritage Open Days event in September, to visit the nearby Penn House which is the other half of the Holy Trinity story in the Chilterns.
There are plenty more to explore, and do please let me know if you have other Chilterns churches to recommend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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