Shapeshifters

Like sardines, starlings are iridescent, shapeshifting units. These seasonal aerial displays, or murmurations are just like the vast migrating families of fish.

I don’t usually write about birds, as they are not something I know much about. Other than to enjoy the spectacle they present and to encourage nesting in my garden, (which blackbirds and robins oblige), I simply admire them from afar.

Along with blackbirds, magpies, sparrows, robins, blue jays, song thrush and the twice daily overflight from a red kite, starlings are very much part of the community. Noisy and gregarious, they feed on the verges and lawns, the flock swooping and chattering from the aerials and rooftops every day. Far from being dull, they show-off iridescent colours that change as they move about.

Starlings who used to roost in vast numbers in London’s Leicester Square, but no more. Discouraged by birds of prey and bright lights they are typical of species that is in decline.

It’s not just the starlings putting on a good show this autumn
They are birds that get noticed

I first heard of murmurations from a wildlife programme and friend who lives near Brighton Pier where they are a fairly regular sight. I don’t know where this unusual name comes from. Is it the sound their wings make on their fly-pasts? More of a whooshing sound than a murmur. As they settle in to roost, they made a huge racket, so I’m not convinced it’s their sound. More to do with the movement? The ebb and flow?

Shapeshifters

The sight of their displays is special. Like sardines they are also iridescent, acting as shapeshifting units, but some of them are changing direction, or deciding that it’s time to enter the roost. They are like the vast families of sardines.

Then last autumn, during the year of lockdown, when I was spending time locally – as you would have been, retracing my steps along tracks I had forgotten, I saw my first display. Quite small, but I knew immediately what it was. I watched as the birds worked their magic over water near College Lake in Hertfordshire before disappearing into the trees.

What is a murmuration?

A murmuration is the collection noun for starlings and describes their aerial displays before these groups roost for the night.

I am not aware of other British species that do this, but please do set me right if this is not the case. These large gatherings happen in the autumn and gather pace as more birds migrate from central Europe to the milder winter climate here, peaking in December and January. The groups get larger and larger as smaller groups are absorbed with latecomers, but all roosting together. It seems a sensible way for the birds to nestle up and keep warm together during the long winter nights. Makes me wonder how a single robin keeps warm on a cold night?

Starlings, the sardines of the sky

You may have heard of the Sardine Run? The annual spectacle of millions of migrating sardines that swim north along the east coast of South Africa each winter, attracts all sorts of visitors, predators and chancers who jostle for the best spots to feed or to follow. This is what I am reminded of, in the sky but not that well attended.

Gathering on rooftops, chattering and hopping about before taking off and slowly making their way back and forth, back and forth in the direction of the roosting site. That was when I spotted them, some distance away, but I recognised a murmuration in the making. Leo and I legged it!

The making of a murmuration

Untidy and at height, three sizeable groups slowing growing in size as they absorbed stragglers, circling above my head. Each bird is flying quickly, like synchronised swimmers. The closer they get to the roosting site, the tighter the circles and those tell-tale murmurations emerge; long, tapered, chunky, a cloud, flat, a ball, untidy as some are wanting to go in a different direction.

They hang in the air

Their wings shimmering as they change direction, appearing to contact and expand, undulating as they fly overhead. I can hear them chattering. One group follows the other, chasing it, darting behind, their wings rushing as they fly overhead. Merging for an instant then two separate groups. Does each bird know which group it’s in?

The spectacle begins

Alive. In no hurry to rush to their roost. It is as if they are enjoying gathering and circling many times to then suddenly drop. As if sucked out of the sky, falling like rain into the reeds.

And they are done

The reeds are alive with unseen birds, their jostling and chatter whilst settling in causing waves across the vegetation. Two smaller groups join, one after the other, as do some late stragglers, who just fly straight in. Magnificent!

The sun was gone and it was getting cold. I left them still chattering and jostling, thinking about what the take off at sunrise would look like.

Further information

There’s plenty more to enjoy in the season of colour across the Chilterns. “Wrap up warm” the hardy types say; “put on wellies, a good coat and pack a thermos”. Let me unpack that for you: wellies don’t keep your feet warm, jeans turn to ice when it’s wet and cold, and yes, a thermos is a very good idea. Take a look at the autumn page for ideas.

Explore the northern Chilterns, they offer a different experience to the busy southern and central regions.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts including; Christmas cards, china mugs, tea-towels, 2022 A4 wall calendar amongst other popular items.

Chiltens souvenirs
The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

Marlow Mash-up

A withered hand, swans, Edwardian villas and tales of scandal and woe are what Marlow is exceptionally good at. Go and find your quirky Marlow.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.

All Saints Marlow
All Saints Marlow from the bridge

Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?

Cheerful bunting on the high street
Marlow high street full of independent shops

Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches. 

Cosy pubs in Marlow
Cosy pubs

The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank. 

Messing about in Marlow
Thames Path views

Bisham Abbey

Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations 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. King 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. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.

Bisham Abbey
The pretty Manor House at Bisham

The Hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics. 

The Queen’s Swan Marker

The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.

Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but 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.

Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line.  www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.

Swan Upping on the Thames
Mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.    

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.

A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings  

It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents.  ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com

Mary does Marlow
Join a walking tour of Marlow with Mary.

Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.

Chilterns gifts
Pitstone Windmill A4 photographic print

The Grand Union Canal

The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

Often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous River Thames, the inland waterways and Grand Union Canal are without a doubt, the workhorse threading its way though the Chilterns countryside.

Arms and Legs

The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system, a series of inland waterways starting in London and ending 137 miles further north in Birmingham. With 166 locks and unknown number (to me), of bridges, it also has ‘arms’ to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton.

Grand Union Canal
Resting up at Cow Roast

The canal network as we know it, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The so-called “narrow” canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham, as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London, was the result.

In our region, the Grand Union Canal links Watford, Kings Langley, the paper mill at Hemel Hempstead, former lumber yards at Berkhamsted, up over the Tring heights and on to Leighton Buzzard and northwards.

Whilst I am ducking the laden overhanging branches, full of damsons and rose hips, making sure to not miss-step into buckets of fish bait or decaying towpath, I wonder what the traffic system would have been like for the horses hauling the barges?

The Canal Duke

Ever looking for a Chilterns link, I found it in none other than the ‘father of inland navigation’, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). A pioneer of canal construction, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal— said to be the first true canal in Britain, and the modern world.

The Canal Duke
Bridgewater Monument

The Canal Duke is commemorated in a number of locations around the country. Closer to home, his remains lie in the vault in the Bridgewater chapel in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. A loosely translated Latin inscription on his memorial reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his field”. Two miles west In the adjoining Ashridge Estate, you will find a local landmark – the unusual Bridgewater Monument erected in 1832. I am sure it is modelled on the Monument to the Great Fire in London. In the summer, you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. Perhaps count at least five surrounding counties?

Nuts and Bolts

The softer surrounding Chilterns landscape is in stark contrast to these manufactured stamps and implements needed for safe navigation. These remnants of the industrial past are everywhere; unexpected holes, distance markers – that all seem to lead to Braunston, so many numbers and date-stamps on lock gates, at the waterline. Everything in its place and in its place, everything. And most still in use today.

A Roadway Paved with Water

Towpaths, moorings and waterways are the domain of leisure users. On bicycles, on foot, on the water, in the water, touring or living in canal boats. Some have made their permanent moorings into cosy homes with small garden plots alongside, with flowers, furniture and trinkets that could only adorn a static boat. Plenty of cooling off opportunities too!

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
Leo lockside

And still there are fatter and lazier stretches where nothing much happens. Until you hear the splash of a rising fish, or fishing heron or the dart of a kingfisher. Occasionally you can hear the trains rushing to and from London and Birmingham, but otherwise you are alone.

The inland waterways and Grand Union Canal
A roadway paved with water. 

Brickwork, Bridges and Bolts

There are no smooth edges here, apart from on the water itself. The brickwork, bridges and bolts are testament to the enginners, designers, carpenters, bricklayers and ‘navvies’ – a term shortened from the original ’navigators’ that the labourers were called. The Canal Duke was able to call on miners from his Worsley colliery to dig his canal. These men made a good living as they developed new skills that enabled them to earn far better wages than ordinary labourers. Some worked with their wives too, who supported a multitude of trades. Not such a man’s world after all!

A fine reminder of our industrial past, and attracting a slower pace of life. The inland waterways are symbolic of the Chilterns; neither shouts about achievements; both are modest, quietly getting on with ensuring livelihoods can continue and now leisure is enjoyed. Both are treasured.

The lock keepers cottage and pump house at no.38 Marsworth Lock

Further Information

I have been once again exploring what is close to where I live and this post forms part of the Messing about the Thames feature during the summer of 2020.

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.

The Ashridge monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read all about a Flourishing Trade.

For further Chilterns inspiration and celebration of all things quirky.

My micro adventure during Lockdown along the Grand Union Canal

What a year this has been! I did find pleasure in our restricted movements by exploring my local area, re-visiting footpaths and discovering many more on my daily micro-walks.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts from Chilterns Gifts.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

It’s a lockdown!

During the COVID-19 crisis, micro walks are the perfect excuse to discover my sense of place here in the naturally outstanding Chilterns. My home.

During this unprecedented global event and resulting nationwide lockdown, we can’t venture far for our daily exercise. It means we have to stay local, go out with family or maximum of two, and to not use our cars.

It is the perfect excuse to take a look at my local area with new eyes – eyes down.

Bird song has quickly filled the space where once cars, planes and trains dominated. When there is silence, it is eerie. But this new normal quickly grows on me as my ears become attuned to the sounds that must always have been there. Unnoticed as I travelled about in my car, sealed from the outside world. Not now in the mindset for seeking the big sky view, or what’s over the next hill, I am forced to retrace my steps along familiar dog-walking paths; noticing now how much growth can be achieved in a few sunny days, way-markers and oddball signs, a mantrap on a church wall, the source of our local river gurgling loudly in the corner of a field, learning the names of flourishing woodland plants, a vocal robin claiming territory, tracks in the mud, blackbirds at dawn, skylarks at midday or a yellowhammer in the evening. All of them are what makes the Chilterns unique.

I have recorded most of my walks in the glorious spring sunshine and have included where I can, sound. All on my iPhone. I can’t capture animals however, they move!

Each walk is in and around Ivinghoe and surrounding Chilterns countryside.

Day 17: Beautiful blossoms and part of the Ridgeway National Trail
Day 14: A walk around the disused quarry ponds.
Day 13: As spring gains hold, the cloudscape becomes more visual and interesting.
Day 12: For such a delicate bird, they have a nightly song!
Day 10: Love tokens in the woods
Day Eight: It’s a lockdown!
Day Six: Spring takes hold
Day Five: Leo has a stalker.
Day Three: Spring into the Chilterns
Day Two: Tractors, Toads and Mantraps.
Day One: what can I expect?
Day Zero

What an absolute pleasure this is. It gives my walks new purpose and a chance to capture the minutia, the detail that makes a place special. I have shared these with my friends and family who I hope have enjoyed seeing their neighbourhood afresh. To encourage them to look out for some of what I have enjoyed. They have all commented on how loud the birdsong is: “have I used special equipment? Have I got really close to the birds..?” No I haven’t. The birds need no amplification, not least of all as it’s peak breeding season, so they are busy protecting territory and feeding their young. We only need ears to hear them and to listen to their calls. And a phone with a microphone.

Try it, you won’t be disappointed!

Business Recovery

Of huge concern are my friends and colleagues in the tourism industry who together face huge uncertainty and potential mass business closure. To date, there is no end in sight for when we will all be able to move and travel in the way we were accustomed. Indeed, we may have to find new ways of travelling and visiting destinations. What we shouldn’t forget, is what is on our doorsteps and the sheer joy walking out into the naturally outstanding Chilterns countryside can bring.

Further Information

There are plenty of other Chiltern adventures to enjoy once the lockdown is lifted including; the Castle that Time Forgot, Buddhists’ and Beechwoods and Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade.

The Chilterns at Halloween

The Chilterns has its fair share of ghosts; headless horsemen, a ghost who packs guests’ suitcases, others who like a drink at the bar, another who will pinch your bum, green men, shadowy figures loitering in places unexpected, a mummified hand, a request for help from a disembodied voice are all enough to get you heading for the hills this halloween! 

A tangle of trees
A tangle of trees

The eve of All Saints’ Day

Love it, or loathe it, Halloween has a long history. Despite the horrors of what has recently been imported from across the pond, Halloween is believed to have originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, when ghosts and spirits are abroad.

I have braved the paranormal to share my top 10 Halloween Chilterns creepies.

Civil war

There are traces of the English Civil War across the Chilterns, and in the car park at the Royal Standard pub in Beaconsfield, the sound of a beating drum is heard. It is the drummer boy, who in 1643 was one of 12 cavaliers executed outside the pub.

According to legend, pasqueflowers spring from the blood of Viking Warriors and grow upon their graves.

A haunted Holloway

A monk is said to walk the very spooky Roman Road that leads up the hill away from Frithsden, skirting the former boundary of Ashridge House, once a monastery and reliquary of relics.

A haunted Holloway
A haunted holloway

The gamekeeper who was really a bishop

This list has to include a bishop, but not one perhaps that is dressed as a gamekeeper! He approaches people in the graveyard of St Bartholomew Fingest, to ask for ‘a favour’ and then vanishes.

A ghost of a bishop surprises visitors in the churchyard
The distinctive Norman tower of St Bartholomew at Fingest has unusual twin gables and ghost

The hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the mummified hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until 2021 when the well-travelled Hand was returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics.

The shadow of a ghost

In a sleepy English village, you might discover the Dinton Hermit, a heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, and royal executioner.

The dinton hermit, John Bigg is said to haunt the village.
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

Stand and deliver, your money or your life!

A small white headstone makes the approximate place of the last execution of a highwayman, Robert Snooks in 1802. The headstone can be seen from the busy A41 at Boxmoor. It is thought that thousands flocked to see the hanging. It must have been quite an event, especially when his body was dug up the following day, placed in a coffin (provided by the generous residents of Hemel Hempstead), and unceremoniously re-interred on the moor.

The wanted poster for Robert Snooks, highwayman
The ‘wanted poster’ for Robert Snooks

Sticking with highway bandits, Katherine Ferrers led a double life as heiress and all round gentlewomen. She was also known as the ‘wicked lady”, who terrorised the county of Hertfordshire in the 17th century with her partner Ralph Chaplin. She died from gunshots wounds sustained during a botched robbery but made it home to Markyate Cell, where she died. Today, you’ll find her abroad in the manor and local village of Markyate.

Portrait of Katherine Ferrers, wicked lady of Markyate Cell
Katherine Ferrers, a wicked lady?

Hellfire and damnation

The intrepid journalist, poet and broadcaster, John Betjeman ventured deep into the Chiltern Hills to evoke the ghosts of satanic monks. The legendary Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hellfire Club, are the focus of this charming edition of the 26-part 19 1955 ‘Discovering Britain with John Betjeman’.

In a town with so many old houses, Amersham ghost stories are rife. Reputed hauntings range from Raans Farm over to Woodrow and spread out along the A413 from The Chequers Inn to Shardeloes. But perhaps the most poignant is the story of a group of Amersham townsfolk that were burnt at the stake for holding unorthodox religious beliefs. For centuries afterwards it was said that nothing would grow on the site of the fire. Take a walk up the hill to visit the memorial.

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English in the 1300s. Their main demand was to read the bible in English.

No Halloween is complete without a witch’s curse. There is massive ancient beech on Whipsnade Heath with a connection to the infamous Dunstable Witch, Elizabeth Pratt. Or so the legend goes. She was accused in 1667 of bewitching two children, who upon seeing her, became ill with a ‘strange distemper’, and died, screaming that they had been murdered. Elizabeth was tried as a witch and burned at the stake, her fate immortalised in a poem by Alfred Wire.

“Thus the churchyard goes to ruin
Graves and fences getting worse:
Everyone devoutly wishing
Not to free the bottled curse.”

The Bottled Curse by Alfred Wire. 
Cobwebs cover the hedgerows during Halloween
Halloween is the time of mist and cobweb-strewn hedgerows

The Hampden house of horror

The Gothic-style battlements and arch windows resemble an overblown wedding cake. Perhaps an influencing factor when the current owners bought the house from the family in 1985 to market as a wedding venue. They refurbished a structure that had seen wear and tear as a girls school and latterly as the location for the Hammer film company who churned out horror films and TV series in the 1980’s. An extraordinary sight in this quiet valley.

The house of hammer horrors

There’s plenty more where these came from, but perhaps you have met some of these characters, or have your own stories to tell?

A new range of Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

On a more cheerful note, share the seasons with our NEW range of gifts and souvenirs popular with locals and visitors who want to share their memories of time well spent in these beautiful hills. Visit the online store here.

Chiltens souvenirs
The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

George Alexander Gratton

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. 

George Alexander coloured aquatint after Daniel Orme 1809. Subtitled: “An Extraordinary Spotted Boy” this engraving was often sold as a souvenir. Credit: Marlow Museum

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. ”

Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield London.  Credit: Marlow Museum 

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.

George Gratton, painted by the artist Coventry that still hangs in All Saints Church. 

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.

Somewhere amongst these headstones is the grave

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.

Further information

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.

Read the wonderful story of Peter the Wild Boy part one and part two

Explore the naturally outstanding Chilterns and the market town of Marlow or take a walking tour of the historic town centre.

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.

Discover more Chilterns Churches, ideas for winter wanderings and for the spring, the unique and bonkers Swan Upping ceremony that is best enjoyed from the riverside at Marlow.

In search of Paul Nash

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.

Capturing Landscapes

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.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Ridgeway
Ivinghoe Beacon and its distinctive chalk trails leading up to the site of the Iron Age hill fort

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.

River views across to Clifton Hampden
The Church of St Michael and All Angels at Clifton Hampden

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”.

Dorchester Abbey
The view across to Dorchester Abbey

There is a great wind up here, excellent for kites, the natural and man-made varieties, and model planes too, being flown.

Round Hill
Round Hill where you will find declarations of love

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.

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?

From the poem tree
Robert reads a dull poem

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.

Ceder tree planted in 1866
A Ceder grown from a seed planted in 1866.

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.

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!

William de Valance
Although he cannot be identified with certainty, it seems most likely that this knight is William de Valance the Younger (died 1282)

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.

Further information

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.

Visit the model villages at the Pendon museum

Further information and to view a selection of Paul Nash paintings at the Tate Gallery.

Views of Didcot Power Station
Some of the best views of Didcot Power Station

Growing Stones

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. 

Ashridge weather vane on growing stones
Fan vaulting and tracery on the ceiling of the tower, with a dial that displays the position of the weathervane on the roof.

A Chilterns Tapestry

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. 

Garden Design

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.

Peaceful and colourful ashridge house gardens
The peaceful gardens

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.

Maple tree in Ashridge House
The maple signals the change of season

On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, each 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.

Reptons' drawing of his rosary garden
Humphry Repton’s 1813 Rosary Drawing

Puddingstone’s

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!

Ashridge house southern garden
A cluster of puddingstone’s marks the Souterrein

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 restored rose garden
The view of the house from the restored rose 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. 

Oak tree planted by princess Victoria in 1823
At a mere 197 years old, the magnificent Princess Victoria oak steals the show

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. 

Heritage Open Days

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

Information on tours of the house and gardens can be found here. Holy relics were once big business, read about the Ashridge relics here.

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.

A selection of images on this website are available to purchase. Take a look at this page, and if you don’t see what you are looking for, please get in touch.

St Bartholomew’s church at Fingest is a unique Norman church