Beautiful Barton Hills

Just when you think you’ve enjoyed most of the beauty that the Chilterns has to offer, two special locations come along in the same week. The Amaravati Buddhist monastery and Barton Hills National Nature Reserve (NNR). 

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, adjacent Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!

Often overlooked, the north at times takes a back seat to the central and southern Chilterns. Firmly on the tourist trail in what is perceived as more accessible and picture-postcard English countryside.

Barton Hills National Nature Reserve
Time to challenge that!

Duck eggs and ferrets

The pretty village of Barton-Le-Clay is situated in the busy Bedfordshire triangle of Dunstable, Luton and Bedford and since the 11th century, has had its fair share of incidents and celebrations. In 1894 a row broke out between the Rector and the village over the rights to use Barton Hills which lay in the Rector’s glebe. Freaks of nature saw a captured white sparrow with eyes resembling a ferret and a duck egg which when opened, contained another egg inside. To more pressing matters of a bountiful potato harvest in 1905, to when the King passed through the village in 1909, his car travelling at a walking pace, the ‘High Street gaily decorated, reminding one of the Coronation festivities’.

St Nicolas church tower with peace clock
The 1919 peace clock on the church tower

And then in 1949, the Chiltern Hills surrounding Barton were classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. The site was recognised as an outstanding example of chalk downland and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985, recognising the outstanding habitat, wildlife and geology. The chalk grassland supports pasqueflowers, field fleawort and a small ancient beech woodland.

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

Barton Hills National Nature Reserve

We were joining another ranger-led walk with Steph, reserve manager, volunteers and local farmer Brian Shaw and his daughter Whizz Middleton, producer of Mrs Middleton’s Bedfordshire rapeseed oils and condiments.

My expectations were high: autumnal sunshine, a cold wind making the air clear and the light superb. The view across the valley to Sharpenhoe Clappers was just the start. The ascent up the steep, slippery path, opened up to reveal deep dry valleys and the typical rounded hills, a hallmark of the Chilterns. The countryside around dotted with wooded hilltops, a water tower and in the distance, wind turbines. Behind the NNR, a field of winter oilseed and barley shoots poking through the soil on Barton Hill Farm.

Climate change

Steph skilfully guided us through 100 million years of evolution; from a warm tropical sea, dramatic climate events leading to the Ice Age, the wildwood and arrival of settlers more than 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. We had travelled from a time of giant marine lizards, sharks, woolly mammoths, wolves and bears to Dartmoor ponies. Yes, five inquisitive, friendly ponies, with burrs in their manes, spreading the wildflowers whilst keeping the grass in check.

Coming through!

Brian and Whizz explained how they are keeping Barton Hills Farm on a sustainable footing that encourages amongst others, nesting birds and wildlife corridors. The day job is supplying the two household food giants, Warburtons and Weetabix with vital ingredients for our tables.

Warmer winters and climate change are already impacting the crops that are grown

As we returned to the village, a dramatic rainstorm whipped up a gust and threatened to sweep in and drench us. It headed instead, north and off up the valley, leaving in its wake a beautiful rainbow!

The view from Barton Hills Nature Reserve
We escaped the storm!

Local heroes

Those of you who follow this blog will know I make a point of including local craftspeople and food producers wherever possible. They are what makes the Chilterns so special. Once again, friend and colleague Annette came up trumps with a fabulous spread of that rare beast, the Bedfordshire Clanger with a side of crackers and Wobbly Bottom Cheese. There’s a joke in there somewhere….

The Bedfordshire Clanger, or ‘Trowley Dumpling’ is similar to the Cornish pasty, baked for consumption by field workers, as the Cornish pasty was for the miners. Traditionally from boiled suet dumpling, modern alternatives use baked pastry thank goodness! Once common in Bedfordshire and adjoining counties, this 19th creation comes crimped at the edges to keep the contents in; at one end savoury and the other, sweet. The ends are told apart by two wee holes for savoury, and three for the sweet. Clangers are available from the local bakery and selected shops in the nearby towns, but outside the area, is not widely known. Enjoyable for being novel, the flavour needed lifting however, and that’s what Mrs Middleton’s mayonnaise could certainly do!

Freshly baked Bedfordshire clangers
The Bedfordshire Clanger, or ‘Trowley Dumpling’

Thank you the St Nicholas Church community group who baked all the delicious cakes, you knew we would be hungry!

Another fabulous day, another fabulous Chilterns Walking Festival concluded. Knowledgeable guides, superb autumnal scenery and sweeping views across the Bedfordshire Chiltern hills and valleys. The unexpected pleasure of Dartmoor ponies, insights into the devastating effects of climate change on arable farming, tasty heritage treats and a rainbow for dessert!

Further Information

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; Someries Castle with its very own runway, Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies! 

For delicious recipes and rapeseed oil-inspired meals, check out Mrs Middleton’s website.

Crafted next door in Hitchin, the delicious Wobbly Bottom artisan cheeses are available in deli’s across the Chilterns.

Just in time for Christmas, another local producer is baking delicious homemade Christmas puddings.

For further ideas and Chilterns food inspiration, bookmark https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk/foodanddrink.html

The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place twice a year in May and October. Bookmark the page and be sure to check the website for future Bedfordshire walks and adventures. 

Former gravestones in the churchyard
Recycled paving slabs

Of Buddhists’ and Beechwoods

In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.

I had joined a mindfulness walk during our Chilterns Walking Festival that would take us from the surprisingly peaceful Gade Valley behind Ashridge, along dappled woodland paths, past a manor house, down tiny sunken lanes, into a church yard with an impressive puddingstone and tombstones (one declaring the contents were once ‘a gent’ from 1740), and out again through a pretty hamlet. We stopped often to enjoy the views across the valley, discuss the dire condition of the chalk streams, realise there would never be a shortage of flint, search for berries and listen to the autumn birdsong. 

So far, so typical of the Chilterns

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. 

The Amaravati temple dominates the site
The temple dominates the site

The Valley of Nettles

When Nettleden became a parish, the hamlet of St Margaret’s, (weirdly, once belonging to the parish of Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire), was connected to Nettleden. At this place Henry de Blois bishop of Winchester founded the nunnery St Margaret’s de Bosco. After the Dissolution in 1539, St Margaret’s came into private hands. During the Second World War the St Margaret’s Camp was a London County Council Senior Boys School for evacuees from London. The school closed one week after the end of the war in Europe, when all the boys were returned back to their homes. Since 1984 it has been home to the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.

A Bonshō Buddhist temple bell
Bonshō are are used to mark the passage of time and to call the monks to liturgical services

The configuration of several large huts has remained largely unchanged, and gives the site the look and feel of somewhere in Scandinavia . The addition of a purpose-built temple that was officially opened on 4 July 1999 by Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of the King of Thailand is quite the feature. The monastery’s founder and abbot was Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s foremost disciple in the West. In Autumn 2010 he handed over to the English monk Ajahn Amaro, who for the past 15 years had been co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Its aims are the training and support of a resident monastic community, and the facilitation for monastic and lay people alike for the practice of the Buddha’s teachings.

In the Pali language ‘Amaravati’ means ‘deathless realm’

It is appropriate perhaps that we visited in the autumn, the month when life slows and foliage burns bright before falling to rot beneath the beechwoods.

An extract from a Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro: “When the Buddha said that ‘… the mindful do not die’, he did not mean that the body of a mindful person is never going to stop breathing and rot away. No. The Buddha’s body died, just like anyone else’s. When he said that the mindful never die, it meant that when the mind is awake it is not identified with the born and the dying….outside of the realm of time, individuality and space; not definable in terms of time, personality, location: ‘There is neither a coming nor a going, nor a standing still. Neither progress, nor degeneration. Neither this world, nor the other world.” Something to ponder? Although I think to truly understand mindfulness, I would need to book a weekend retreat at the monastery. 

This is a special place. Join those who visit from all over the world, who come to spend a few hours or for a day, others staying for the weekend. You won’t be disappointed!

Further Information:

Both the monastery and retreat centre are run entirely on donations. In accordance with the tradition established by the Buddha, the monastic community has relied for its material well-being on unsolicited offerings of food and other requisites from the lay community. To find out more about weekend retreats and events at the monastery.

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. Growing Stones links to the nearby Ashridge House.

The Chilterns are full of fun, quirks and inspiration. Find yours here.

The Chilterns Walking Festival takes place twice a year, during May and October across the naturally outstanding Chilterns. Find your walk here

The unnavigable River Gade rises at nearby Dagnall and flows through Hemel Hempstead, Kings Langley, then along the west side of Watford through Cassiobury Park, passing Croxley Green until it reaches Rickmansworth, where it joins the River Colne.

People Watching in Purple

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 scene reminded me of tea pickers on the plantations in Sri Lanka.

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.

Experience counts!

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.

My friends are going to love this picture.

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?

Hitchin lavender customers
It has to be perfect

Further Information

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.

For further Chilterns adventures and excitement, head over to VisitChilterns.co.uk

Wildflowers border the fields of lavender
Common knapweed, ladies bedstraw and cornflowers border the lavender.

A Social Experiment

It was from a tweet shared by the Jordans Village Estate from HM Queen congratulating them on their centenary 1919 – 2019, that I knew I just had to visit.

There’s something about the Chilterns that over the centuries, attracted both political dissenters and religious non-conformers who met and worshiped in secret. Amongst the beech trees and woodland many would go on to make their mark on the nations history. This post is a celebration of the Chalfont Quakers, a community celebrating its centenary, but with a history going back to the early 17th century.

cottages in Jordans Village
So English, so Chilterns!

You won’t come upon Jordans village, you have to set out to find it. Tucked away down higgledy-piggledy lanes east of the busy market town of Beaconsfield, Jordans village is everything its neighbour is not: compact, unexpected and peaceful, with neat cottages and terraces nestled around the village green. So English, so Chilterns! 

This unassuming village is unique, with deep local roots and influence that still reaches far-off places. It owes this accolade to its Society of Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest in the country.

‘Jordans is the Quaker Westminster Abbey’.

Simon Jenkins author “England ’s Thousand Best Churches”

American connections

From the mid 17th century, Chalfont Quakers had been meeting in the woods and up the road in the nearby Jordans Farm, whose owner William Russell was himself a Quaker. Known today as Old Jordans, this collection of buildings is said to have been constructed with some of the beams and a cabin door of the Mayflower, the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of the future colony of Virginia in 1620. Old Jordans was also used during World War I as a training centre for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and sold by the Quakers In 2006.

William Russel, (whose daughter was the first to be buried here), bought a piece of land in a clearing beside the Beaconsfield Road in 1671 because the Chalfont Quaker’s needed a burial site. Jordans Friends Meeting House was built in just three months by local craftsmen in 1688. This was shortly after the King James ll Declaration of Indulgence that allowed Quaker and other non-conformist groups to worship lawfully for the first time.

The Jordans Meeting House
Looking today as it did then, this elegant Grade I listed William and Mary wisteria-clad redbrick house, would not have been an unfamiliar style across the American colonies.

Sylvania

It is also the burial place of William Penn (1645 – 1718), founder and first governor of Pennsylvania. His first wife Guilielma, his second wife Hannah, and nine of his children are buried close by. Other early Quakers who worshipped here and are buried in the grounds include Isaac Penington and his wife Mary Springett, Thomas Ellwood (poet and friend of John Bunyan and John Milton) and Joseph Rule. Despite William Penn leaving his name to a new American state that he wanted to call ‘Sylvania’, it was Charles II who ordered that the family name Penn (in honour of William’s late father) be added.

Headstones at Jordans Meeting House
Important people. Simple headstones.

Beside his grave, pebbles are left by visitors from North America, two of whom had to be stopped from attempting to exhume his remains as they wished them to be reinterred in the state capital! 

Inside the Quaker Meeting House
Nina introduces the group to the Meeting House story

The simple bare-walled meeting room retains most of its original uneven locally-fired bare brick floor, glass, dark wood panelling and some well-worn benches. It suffered a serious fire in 2005, when the modern extension was virtually destroyed and the roof of the original 17th-century meeting room severely damaged. The interior of the original meeting room escaped relatively unscathed, but suffered some water and smoke damage. A lucky escape! The viscous glass is removed and turned upside down each year, to retain an even thickness.

‘Some of the things that they would do included; not going to church, refusing to swear an oath, refusal to pay church rates, opening their shops on Sundays, travelling on Sundays and teaching without a Bishop’s license… the 1960’s had nothing on them!’

Mary Bellamy
The book of Christian discipline
Those attending the Meeting are listening to one another and to ‘the still small voice’ within. Anyone present may feel moved to speak from their own spiritual experience.

A mini henge

The burial ground reflects the Meeting House seating, where there is no formal service and people sit quietly and wait for inspiration and guidance, and from those gathered “heeding the love and truth in the heart”. 400 quakers are buried here, but few have headstones – they were deemed too flashy and worldly.

The burial ground at the Jordans Quaker Meeting House
Arranged to reflect the meeting house seating, the headstones remind me of henge.

In 1916 a group of Quaker’s met in London to establish a community partnership and three years later, the first stone was laid. This social and industrial experiment, where land was owned communally and craftsmen’s work to be sold cooperatively, grew around the village green, with Fred Rowntree the architect. The homes are uniform in style, not grand or fussy with the village shop open since 1922. Whilst there is no permanent pub, a pop-up pub called the Jolly Quaker quenches the locals’ thirst. 

The accommodation waiting list is long, and the village has seen its share of famous residents; King Zog of Albania who, with his legendary chests of gold, (he lived at St Katherine’s Parmoor during the World War II).  With author Fredrick Forsyth and musicians Ozzie and Sharon Osborne goes to show you don’t need to be a Quaker to live here! 

Jordans Village Green
Waiting for the children to come out from school

This is a typical Chilterns story set in a place you’ve probably never heard of, about people and events you will most certainly have heard of, shaping and influencing events across the nation and across the pond!

Further Information & Inspiration

This walk was organised as part of the twice-yearly Chilterns Walking Festival that includes a spring and autumn programme of fabulous walks that take you to the places other walks just don’t reach.

Jordans Village and information on the community.

Jordans Quaker Meeting House and Centre offers Quaker meeting for worship every Sunday morning at 10.30, with a simultaneous children’s meeting – to which all are welcome.

Stay at the nearby Jordans self-catering YHA or stay with Norma and John, wonderful hosts at their comfortable guesthouse Sprindrift

Whilst in the area, explore the Chilterns in miniature at Bekonscott Model Village.

The Penn families are well connected with the Chilterns. Read more about what else they were up to.

A is for Amersham

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.

Metroland

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. 

Metroland poster
Served by the Metropolitan Railway, Metroland was the name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London.

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.”

Amersham Martyrs memorial
The Amersham Martyrs were called Lollards, who demanded to read the bible in English.

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.

the village of Little Missenden
Little Missenden

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. 

Pen and quills
Dear HS2…

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.

Amersham Museum garden
The view from the museum garden

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.

The River Misbourne flows gently through the town

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.

Brewery Tudor

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 houses of the most important people in town: the coopers house, and to the right, the brewery managers house.

Past lives

The Market Hall, a Grade II listed building that was built in 1682 by Sir 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.

Commit no nuisance
The coldest room in the coldest corner of the market awaited those who fell foul of the law.

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.

Grave stones
Wool sacks as gravestones in the local church

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.

Houses off the high street
Through the back gate and over the Misbourne

Further Information

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.

You can explore the Misbourne Valley and the village of Little Missenden.

Discover more about Amersham, the surrounding countryside and other Chilterns market towns, take a look at VisitChilterns.co.uk

Evolving Landscapes

No previous Instagram nor Facebook posts have raised as many comments recently following a post that included the countryside around Little Missenden. The comments referred to the impending High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project will rip through this pretty Chilterns valley.

Evolving landscapes 

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 our government who think that spending upwards of £56b 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 about to happen.

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.

Misbourne Valley 

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.

Views back towards Little Missenden
A break in the boundary

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.

Shardeloes equine centre
Horses are king in this meadow

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 is 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
Shardeloes is a sprawling 18th century country house, the current structure replacing an earlier building

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.

One of the two Shardeloes gatehouses
Shardeloes gatehouse

Expectations

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 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.

Further information

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.

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.

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.

A reason to love the rain

In which a rain storm saved from destruction, a rare 15th century ‘doom’ painting that was left out in the rain. #Chilterns

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

The Doom painting is placed high above the alter
Look up!

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.

14th century Penn floor tiles in the Lady Chapel
14th century Penn floor tiles in the Lady Chapel

Dooms Day

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!

The doom painting saved from the rain
Looking as bright as the day it was painted over 500 years ago

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.

Further Information:

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.

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Penn House

There are plenty more to explore, and do please let me know if you have other Chilterns churches to recommend.

For further inspiration on what to see and do in the naturally outstanding Chilterns