Get to know the ghosts, they have a story to tell.
Up and down the land, there are ‘something for everyone’ high streets, towns, heritage parks, historic houses, districts and destinations.
What if you could tell your community and networks the story of your local area? As interpreted by you? Seen through your eyes? The only rules are the celebration of the magnificent and mundane, remembering that what is incidental detail to you, will be new and refreshing to someone else. It’s what sets a place apart from all the rest, it helps customers make decisions about where to visit as your location becomes distinctive and intriguing.
I have put together my first A to Z of the Chilterns, which wasn’t easy, there is simply too much information to include.
A is for Amersham Museum, Aldbury Nowers and the Adonis Blue..
B is for bodgers, bluebells and Bledlow Cross…
C is for Chenies Manor, chalk, castles and Chequers
This will, without a doubt, change and evolve, as I add more columns, fill it with images and the names of things still to be discovered.
I have plans for posters.
Why not give it a go? If you do, please let me know as would love to share it.
Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom, and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.
Poking around in unassuming, tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there.
February is the time to satisfy seasonal cravings for warmth, sunshine or a dash of colour in an otherwise challenging month. Carpets of aconites and snowdrops start off the race to spring, hellebores and daffodils in hot pursuit, with the ultimate spectacle of the iconic bluebells that light up the woodlands from April to May that will herald long overdue summer days.
Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing with seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.
Travelling north to south and back again is easy to do, the challenge is crossing from west to east as there is no direct route. Therein lies the joy of Chilterns travel: unhurried, with the slight edge of not really knowing where you are, glimpses of the road ahead not really helpful as their unfamiliarity only confirms my sense of trepidation, when all of sudden, the bare tree canopy opens up revealing wonderful views down the valley as I watched an approaching rain shower racing towards me.
I followed a succession of narrow windy lanes, thick mud and leaf litter piled up on either side, making me glad I was visiting mid-week, so wouldn’t have to negotiate these mires with other road users travelling in the opposite direction. I now understood why this area has been called the ‘desert of the Chilterns’, it is remote, despite being so close to London and nearby market towns of Wallingford and Henley on Thames.
I turned off the track, following signs for the Norman parish church, and apart from a photographer with an enormous zoom lense, there wasn’t anyone about. I was underwhelmed with the snowdrop display, the aconites were much prettier and were working hard to cheer up a gloomy corner of the graveyard. The church itself is small, unassuming and gives no hint at what is inside.
Poking around in tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there. This church is a Norman Pilgrim Church, a reference to it’s place on a Pilgrims route, a once popular undertaking.
St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. A Saxon noble who lived in the 7th century, he spent time abroad and upon his return was given, by King Anna, a grant of land near either Aldeburgh in Suffolk, or Boston in Lincolnshire to build a monastery. Two centuries later in around 870, it was destroyed by Danish invaders and the saint’s remains were divided into three parts and taken from the ruins to be housed in Ely and Westminster Abbey. It is likely, given the flourishing trade in relics at the time, that the parts were conveyed from place to place and so his name became synonymous with wayfarers and travellers. Over 70 Churches, along with five towns and villages are dedicated to him, and although he has no place in the Prayer Book Calendar, his feast day is June 17.
Not many parish churches are open to the casual visitor, so I am never sure if the sturdy doors will yield when pushed. This one did, and opened into the warm and colourful interior that far surpassed the seasonal exterior. Some hikers were eating their sandwiches in the back pews and returned to their murmurings beside the font. Although extensively restored in 1850, much of the original Norman church is recognisable, with the font that possibly predates even this.
The ceiling has been restored and is painted a summer blue with a more brooding red reserved for the Norman apse, off set by simple white walls and red floor tiles, some looked medieval. The rood screen and loft date from the early 20th century. The refurbished wall paintings behind the alter are impressive and make for a cheerful and pleasant space. The wall plaques commemorating former vicars, wardens and parishioners remind me that I am in England, not in some far off exotic place.
No sign of any relics, but I am delighted that this special place, tucked away in this ‘green desert’ that involves a purposeful journey is named after the English patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. It means even more to me now.
We were treated to a beautiful dawn with streaks of pink slowly turning orange above the white Chiltern hills heralding a new day, and because we’d all been so good, the most brilliant of skies offset by the corduroy fields.
Herald difficult journey’s that, in spite of reading boastful council social media posts about the mountains of grit and new snow machinery, ready for what the winter will bring, the roads were eerily absent of both.
Snow is lovely, if you’ve nowhere in particular to get too and for a change, a very slow train journey out of London back home was rather pleasant. I watched as shopping centres, houses, roads, railings, trees, fields, cars and a castle, slipped from view as the landscape rapidly turned to black and white. Magical!
When I did finally get out into the great white outdoors, the familiar landscape was now filed with unfamiliar shapes, or no shapes at all. Ground meeting the sky meant a readjustment of senses; touch, sound and smell working hard. Boots crunching underfoot, lungfuls of cold air, tingling fingers and a bad choice in socks.
One excited dog!
The trees transformed play tricks and the deer and dog are aware of one another before I am, thankfully too far down the slope so no chance of a furious chase. A hungry blackbird pecks away beneath a tree in the gap between trunk and snow. Are frozen worms easy to detect? Little dollops of frozen snow and ice attached like cotton balls dotted on the bushes. Three red kites shooting the winter breeze.
We were treated to a beautiful dawn with streaks of pink slowly turning orange above the white Chiltern hills heralding a new day, and because we’d all been so good, the most brilliant of sunset skies offset by the corduroy fields.
Just before the rain came and washed it all away, the fields were full of footprints, lines and tracks, domestic and wild, like a battlefield of furious activity. The forlorn remains of melting snowmen, faces and buttons slipped off and lying on the ground. Dinner for a hungry deer?
For four intense days, the changed vista’s, opportunities to scream your lungs out as you fly down a snowy slope, fingers and toes frozen, dramatic skies and excited children remind me it’s so good to be alive!
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.
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.
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.
Another 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.
Which rare to choose?
A Map of the Estate
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,
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.
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.
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.
..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river Thames.” Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.
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
Beneath a full moon, a pink mist tumbles and rolls, blanketing the contours, icy grass and spectral trees.
The chalk track is greasy and slick underfoot, catching the unwary walker. The early morning autumn sun is very low and shining straight into my face so I can’t see what’s ahead; camouflaged dog turds amongst the decaying, but still colourful leaf mush underfoot. What a transition this is; full of surprises, unexpected warmth, indecision, heart-stopping vistas, big weather, colours, smells and rapid change.
Berries looking bright, exposed bramble thorns sharp and strong, contrast with the limp leaves left clinging before the next autumnal storm barrels on through. The leaf canopy begins to open up the landscape, earthworks, structures and forms hidden over the summer, emerge once again. Smears of decaying russet lie beneath the bare trees.
The wind alternates between still-warm southerlies to a sharp poke in the ribs when gusting from the north. This temperature jolt, necessitates wardrobe changes from the open-toed to the practical and waterproof; we will all look the same for the next six months. Told apart by our dogs perhaps?
Autumn offers up the landscape to winter, mists, and wisps of soft cloud contrasts with the hard shapes emerging. Overhead, the vapour trails become visible as the temperature drops. The number of red or blue-tupped sheep on the hills has increased, as does the wet slurry of their daily routine sloped onto the paths and animal tracks. Rutting deer on the move.
The sun still feels warm – just, but if you walk through a dip, it can get noticeably very cold. Puddles of icy water already formed, but too thin to bother cracking with my boot.
Waves of noisy geese, sometimes so low I can hear the beat of their wings, flying east to west and back again every morning at dawn and then at sunset (sometimes by the light of the full moon), their scraggly formations getting larger and neater as their departure date gets closer. Heading off to somewhere warmer than here. Winter visitors have arrived; waxwings, redwings, bramblings and fieldfares.
In the low light I notice for the first time, countless silk threads attached to individual blades of grass, the juvenile spiders long blown away in the wind. Across the heath, illuminated by car lights and flashing dog collars, the chill and early darkness set in.
Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.
As one of the last producers of watercress in the Chilterns, the weight of history is upon Jon Tyler’s broad shoulders.
Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.
Once enjoyed in sandwiches, at breakfast and high-tea, munched on in the streets, this harbinger of spring was sold in huge quantities to Victorian city-dwellers. Tired of their winter fare of meat and root vegetables, were only to glad to eat daily bunches of ‘blood-cleaning’ cress that had been brought in overnight by train and sold in the famous Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. Jon recalls as a child, being placed in a whicker basket to play alongside the cress, before his family would take the crop on the train from nearby Chorleywood into London to sell in the market. Their stand, run by Elizabeth, Jon’s grandmother, is what Jon reckons kept the business going when farms begun closing in the valley.
A prominent figure in the London watercress industry was one Eliza James, who came to dominate the industry with a near trade monopoly and was nicknamed the ‘Watercress Queen.’ Jon is keen however, for his grandmother Elizabeth – who put the ‘E’ in E. Tyler & Son’s, to be put forward as another Watercress Queen: Elizabeth Tyler, Chilterns Watercress Queen! I like that very much.
Established in 1886, when there were 19 cress farmers in the valley, Jon’s great grandfather Alfred Tyler, rented the land from the Duke of Bedford (sometime owners of Covent Garden). Frank Tyler bought the land in the 1950’s, which then passed to Jon’s father Terry and for the past two years, Jon has farmed with the help of his sister Sarah and nephew Henry, who helps out at the weekends. Jon is very aware of the weight of culinary history and Chilterns heritage that sits upon his shoulders as the River Chess comes under increasing environmental pressure from an expanding local economy. As a direct consequence of a major sewerage discharge into the river, he has to expend precious resources on pumping water from another source that enables him to continue farming, but the plants are not so keen on the water temperature and nor is he keen on the bills!
Recorded by the ancient Greeks, watercress is one of the oldest cultivated plants with many websites and food columns filled with information on it’s health-giving properties. Easy to buy from the supermarket, but now I have tasted what watercress should taste like, there’s no comparison; chalk steam-fed crisp forest-green leaves with long firm stems, pack a fiery after burn that hits your throat after a good chew. Like eating English mustard – it blows all the cobwebs away!
Tendered by Hand
Unlike the major commercial varieties that dominate the supermarket shelves, Jon’s crop is harvested and bunched by hand with a bone-handled knife, kept in the pocket of his jeans. In fact three generations of Tyler-owned Sheffield Steel are featured in the image at the top of this article.
This heritage crop is grown using the same low-tech methods; grown from seed in gravel beds fed by a constant supply of water (which also gets rid of pests), then raked over to root and produce more plants, this plant grows rapidly to produce an abundant year-round crop.
Self-service is a quite a novelty these days! £2 for watercress and Beechdean ice-cream from the shack that sees hungry and thirsty walkers empty their pockets. And that’s important, as Metroland visitors seek space, fresh air and local food to savour and take home with sticky fingers and ideas for how to eat their countryside spoils.
Jon and his family are integral to a healthy and vibrant visitor economy as the heritage crop they produce enhances and adds to the distinctive visitor offer that sets the Chilterns; somewhere worth spending time and money, somewhere quite different. Somewhere where local businesses thrive. From April, open at weekends only, you will find Jon’s farm at Sarratt Bottom, Moor Lane, WD3 6BZ, and accessible on the Chess Valley walk below.
The only other Chilterns watercress producer are the fifth generation Sansom family who grow cress in Whitwell, Hitchin.
A day to discover what lies beneath, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter, as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of Pigotts Wood, an ancient Chilterns woodland.
Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the woodland course on time, would have found many distractions along the way. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road, which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.
The Flying Scotsman
We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, infamous sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed one of the most famous British typefaces, Gill Sans, used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by British Railways, most famously perhaps as it was the typeface adopted by GNER for their flagship ‘Flying Scotsman’.
Now home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years, it was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring Cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by casual design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?
Yellow bird nests and a pillow mound
I could instantly tell that, set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project, lead us off into the woods.
John was determined we would master the names of woodland flowers including; Yellow Birdsnest, Coralroot Bittercress and Green Hellebore, to recognise the manmade features – sometimes with their give-way mossy mantle, but to the untrained eye, largely unrecognisable; property boundaries, iron slag and sites where charcoal was once made. John also showed us a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a special feature of the Chilterns woods and forests – a saw pit. The story goes that once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog.
Within the wood, you can look out for the crucifix that Eric Gill designed which was carved by Donald Potter. It was nailed to a small beech tree in the Wood which Gill owned. He is said to have taken his daily constitutional to the Crucifix Tree where he read his rosary. Was that redemption he was seeking?
I was struck too, how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at the backdoor, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made, as there weren’t many retailers to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you got on without it.
A day to discover what lies beneath the woodland floor, turned into more than just looking at the obvious plants and animals. It was a morning filled with stories, unexpected historical links and folklore, all from such an unassuming hillside location. We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season. The weather being so warm, and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup and stories waiting for us, including the infamous tale of the black bath . But that is a story for another time.
This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is a hidden gem, and my walks in the woods made more enjoyable as I test out my new-found wood-lore!
I was fortunate to attend an archeology event in the woodland, but Pigotts Wood is private and I ask that you respect the privacy of the homeowners here, as there is no public access to the wood nor from the track itself.
Why should you explore the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with impressive churches and pretty villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find out here.
I visited Pigotts Wood in the spring, but the Chilterns have stories to share at any time of the year; winter, summer and autumn.