A Runway Runs Through It

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

An EasyJet view
An EasyJet View

The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!

I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.

Luton runway at the end of the field
Luton Airport control tower

Luton Airport

Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.

Fancy brick work
Striking brick work

Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.

Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.

Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?

The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.

Delightful details

Much of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.

Ruined stairwell
Stairway to the stars

This is no castle set in aspic

I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

A working landscape

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all pressed in. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.

I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.

A deceptively serene scene

I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.

Wildflowers alongside the runway

Further Information

Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.

Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; beautiful Barton Hills National Nature Reserve, adjacent to 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 further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Scenic view
Beautiful views from Barton Hills

One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

One master, three books, 300 boys and 30 monitors. This is the inspirational story of one man’s vision to provide basic education for the children of Hitchin.

Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar and unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

Blissfully unaware of its existence until recently, the British Schools Museum in Hitchin is one such place; the last surviving example in the world, packed with wonderful stories and eye-popping facts about English education.

This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns, and was once a national centre for lavender-production having grown and successfully exploited the crop since the 15th century. Now only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.

Hitchin Town Centre
Hitchin market place with St Mary’s

The British Schools Museum is located on Queen street in the town centre, within the former Edwardian and Victorian school premises, in a number of buildings set close together. Near the site of former slums, whose young occupants would surely have attended the school, their dwellings in stark contrast with the outsized St Mary’s church, on the opposite banks of the river Hicca – a bold statement from a town doing well on wool. The pretty cobbled marketplace is surrounded by a mix of more traditional buildings, some medieval, jostling for prominence now amongst more forceful contemporary chain stores.  Slightly further out of town however, Tudor and Georgian buildings that surround the town go some way in redeeming the local vernacular.

The ‘font of Hitchin information’ Andy Gibbs, was our guide through the history of British schools, delighting in our discovery of many lovely stories and a museum collection made up of personal memories of former pupils or those who worked here and include incredible feats to trace former pupils: Andy showed us a plaque commemorating a soldier who died during WW1 that was heading for the dump following a house clearance, but it was sent to the school by someone who thought there was a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!

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Don’t break the rules!

The founder of the school, Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker and a maverick at odds with his peers about how children could be educated. In a time when universal education did not exist, but a belief that education could damage the ‘natural social order’ did, children as young as six were sent to factories, workshops or into domestic service in the vague hope that they would one day be able to support themselves and future dependents. In 1837 Joseph Lancaster introduced a system that meant cheap, basic education could be delivered to large numbers of children, describing his system as to produce a “Christian Education” and “train children in the practice of such moral habits as are conducive to the welfare of society.”

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Excerpt from Moral Songs – 
`But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding, who taught me betimes to love working and reading.’

The Monitorial schoolroom was built in 1837 and though only partly restored, has both preserved and presented this forgotten world very well. I had never seen anything like it. The masters desk is the focal point with the sand tray where students would be practising and learning their handwriting, right under his nose. The three books were dispersed and their pages shared at the monitorial teaching stations around the room.

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One master to teach 300 boys assisted by 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method in the only known complete example of a monitorial classroom to survive in the world. The boys sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular teaching stations around the walls. The room looks as it was in 1837,  minus the radiators! Built to Lancaster’s specifications with clerestory windows and pillared side aisles. The floor originally sloped to give the master a good view of all his pupils – essential in such an enormous schoolroom full of children to maintain discipline.

By 1900, 700 children were packed into the school, and three more classrooms were added. The desks, displays and teaching implements vaguely familiar to me from a time before wipe boards and Chromebook’s. Sitting at the now tight-fitting wooden desks brought much mirth to our group who recalled days sat in similar rooms trying to master mathematical theorems or the anatomy of a frog! Inside each desk are thoughtful displays of reading books, drawings, photographs and games from the Edwardian era.

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Andy Gibbs in the Edwardian classroom

The school closed it’s doors in 1969, and the period between its closing and the opening of the museum was not without drama too, Andy told us it almost didn’t happen. But that’s a story for another day!

There is nothing manufactured about this place, it’s genuine, a gem in fact, rooted in the local area, but so important to our collective national memories. But don’t take my word for it, experience this amazing space for yourself. Take your children, they’ll be as amazed as you.

Further Information:

The museum is open at the following times:
Fridays 10am – 4pm
Saturdays 10am – 1pm
During July, August and September open 10 am – 4pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm – 5pm

For further information on another delightful and unique Chilterns museum, the Natural History Museum in Tring is just how museums used to be, dressed fleas included.

Further Chilterns inspiration here

Countryside around Hitchin
Countryside around Hitchin

The Wormsley Library

On a private tour of the Wormsley Library, we had 15 minutes. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. Discretion is the watchword

I have previously written about the Wormsley Estate, so typical of the Chilterns: slightly bonkers, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably unknowingly walked past many times. All 2,500 acres flow between a deer park, ornamental lakes, the “Sir Paul Getty’s cricket Ground” and mock Tudor pavillion, an opera house, Wormsley Library and private castle; each notable in their own right, but all together on one estate? I am not worthy.

The late Sir Paul Getty’s first love was cricket, but high up on his list must surely have been rare books and manuscripts as he filled his Wormsley library with amongst many others: 12 – 15th century illuminated medieval manuscripts, the first edition of Caxton’s Canterbury Tales, Anne Boleyn’s Psalter and the first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, no less. I really like the library, as it has a lived-in, welcoming feel, which is unexpected for somewhere that houses a collection of this importance. The chairs around the fire have the previous occupants’ impressions left behind and I wondered if they had sat fireside, and leafed through a precious volume with a familiar title, but we would most likely never see an original copy?

Invited on a private tour, with a robust schedule, we were ushered past the opera house with instructions not to photograph the private residence, nor further aggravate the already aggravated dogs who were going mad on the other side of the fence, so we tiptoed along roped-off pathways, stealing sideways  glances whenever we could.

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We had 15 minutes in the library. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents.

A Pistol Book 1627
Hidden Treasure

Why is it that some books of such staggering historical and cultural significance can sometimes look like something picked up for a tenner at a car boot sale? The only indication they are rare is that they are in fact included on the bookshelves with this collection, and those with their pages open, delicate gold-flecked images and painful writing on display that the saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ really starts to take on meaning.

You can see images of Anne Boleyn’s beautiful Psalter at the Morgan Library & Museum New York.  This tiny book measures a mere 5-by-3 1/2 inches and bears Anne’s coat of arms and monogram combined with that of Henry Vlll. The 275 vellum leaves were written and illustrated in France between 1529 and 1532, and this is a French translation from Hebrew of the biblical Psalms. Takes your breath away.

fullsizeoutput_34faAnother gem is the first edition of the Canterbury Tales, the greatest work in Middle England printed by William Caxton in Westminster between 1476-77 is only one of seven complete or substantially complete copies, and the only one if private hands. Would you take that out and read by the fire? Perhaps not.

Located between Stokenchurch and Watlington, Wormsley Park operates as an organic farm and many red kites can be seen in the vicinity. Once extinct in England and Scotland, the birds were reintroduced into England in 1989 with Windsor Great Park being the release site. All did not go to plan and without the intervention of Sir Paul, who offered Wormsley Park instead, the project would have been lost, and along with it, what is now considered to be the icon of the Chilterns – the magnificent red kite.

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. I recommend signing up for a twitter account if you don’t already have one, that way you are bound to be in the know.

The Library is only available for a limited number of dates each year, as it is part of the family’s home. Wormsley’s knowledgeable librarians can host up to 25 guests at a time for tours of the collection. More information here,

Further Information:

Another local library that will knock your socks off, is the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration.

The Sweetest Stretch of the River

  ..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river.”  Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.

Itching to get away from my desk and take a walk to enjoy a warm autumnal afternoon, it was a tweet that spurred me into action to head over to Cliveden Reach, between Cookham and Boulter’s locks, the fabled stretch along the River Thames.

I have visited the formal gardens at Cliveden, but that is only a small part of the vast 375-acre estate on the banks of the River Thames. I struck out from the Woodland car park and was soon enjoying the magnificent lime-treed avenue that leads to Cliveden House, an ornate mansion that crowns an outlying Chilterns ridge by the hilltop village of Taplow, near the busy market town of Marlow. 40 metres above the river, Cliveden means “valley among cliffs” and refers to the dene (valley) which cuts through part of the estate, east of the house.  The site has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. And a particular scandal.

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Lime tree avenue

The woodlands were first laid out by Lord Orkney in the eighteenth century on what had been barren cliff-top; they were later much restocked by Bill Astor but suffered badly in the Great Storm of 1987, the same year a section of a California redwood was installed in the woods. At a modest 5.03 m across, it is the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea in the country.

The woodland is quiet, with paths leading off into the trees so I headed downhill towards the river along a steep footpath that had seen much use and repair over the years. I had to stop to enjoy the expansive views across the river to Berkshire, opening up each week as the leaf cover falls away.

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Looking west towards Berkshire

The river is busy with geese, swans, ducks and all manner of little birds, darting about in the foliage, the riverside path shady with overhanging trees, leaves drifting into the soft river mud.

 

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  ..”unbroken lovelines, this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river Thames.”  Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome.

I passed the infamous Spring cottage, awarded Grade ll listed status in 1986 and in 1997 the hotel company which leased Cliveden House from the National Trust also acquired the lease to the cottage. A small fortune was spent restoring and refurbishing the dilapidated building before it reopened in 1998 as a self-contained luxury let. Luxurious it may be, but it is hardly private with the path passing within feet of the building, hampers and cottage life visible through the windows. One of four structures that was built in 1813, it saw many uses by the family and their guests, until in 1957, the cottage was leased by Stephen Ward for use as a weekend retreat and party house. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis stayed here, with a chance encounter in 1961 between Christine Keeler and John Profumo at the now infamous Cliveden swimming pool, led to the so-called Profumo Affair that almost brought down a government.

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The path then opens up onto a sunny riverside lawn, with another cottage, boathouse, small jetty and 171 steps up to the Parterre in front of the house. No dogs allowed! I don’t mind, it’s more informal here, in fact a good place to spread out and relax on the lawn. The Victorian boathouse has undergone extensive repairs, and you can see recorded on the brick wall a the entrance, historical flood levels. Choose to cool off in the river, on the Thames or alongside.

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If it hadn’t been for this couple quietly enjoying the sweetest Thames view from their bench, I would have missed the best view of all!

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Further Information:

Visit the beautiful Rose Garden at Cliveden, although I expect it’s much changed from when I visited.

Autumn is my favourite time in the Chilterns, here are my suggestions for other places to explore in the Chilterns

For further information on what to see and do in the lovely Chilterns VisitChilterns.co.uk or to spend time on the water at Cliveden.

Short break escapes: relax and stay by the river at Ferry Cottage.

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter, mists, and wisps of soft cloud contrasts with the hard shapes emerging.

Beneath a full moon, a pink mist tumbles and rolls, blanketing the contours, icy grass and spectral trees.

The chalk track is greasy and slick underfoot, catching the unwary walker. The early morning autumn sun is very low and shining straight into my face so I can’t see what’s ahead; camouflaged dog turds amongst the decaying, but still colourful leaf mush underfoot. What a transition this is; full of surprises, unexpected warmth, indecision, heart-stopping vistas, big weather, colours, smells and rapid change.

Berries looking bright, exposed bramble thorns sharp and strong, contrast with the limp leaves left clinging before the next autumnal storm barrels on through. The leaf canopy begins to open up the landscape, earthworks, structures and forms hidden over the summer, emerge once again. Smears of decaying russet lie beneath the bare trees.

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The wind alternates between still-warm southerlies to a sharp poke in the ribs when gusting from the north. This temperature jolt, necessitates wardrobe changes from the open-toed to the practical and waterproof; we will all look the same for the next six months. Told apart by our dogs perhaps?

Autumn offers up the landscape to winter, mists, and wisps of soft cloud contrasts with the hard shapes emerging. Overhead, the vapour trails become visible as the temperature drops. The number of red or blue-tupped sheep on the hills has increased, as does the wet slurry of their daily routine sloped onto the paths and animal tracks. Rutting deer on the move.

The sun still feels warm –  just, but if you walk through a dip, it can get noticeably very cold. Puddles of icy water already formed, but too thin to bother cracking with my boot.

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The early bird gets the sunrise

Waves of noisy geese, sometimes so low I can hear the beat of their wings, flying east to west and back again every morning at dawn and then at sunset (sometimes by the light of the full moon), their scraggly formations getting larger and neater as their departure date gets closer. Heading off to somewhere warmer than here. Winter visitors have arrived; waxwings, redwings, bramblings and fieldfares.

In the low light I notice for the first time, countless silk threads attached to individual blades of grass, the juvenile spiders long blown away in the wind. Across the heath, illuminated by car lights and flashing dog collars, the chill and early darkness set in.

The Holy Trinity

Hugely enjoyable and a privilege being invited in to peek into their lives, the earl waved us off with an instruction to visit the nearby local parish church of Holy Trinity, Penn, where the family’s long influence on the village is evident, sharing another #Chilterns story and its sense of place.

I love the rain, but as the water-soaked overhanging branches slapped the car roof, I edged alone Mop End Lane, wishing I’d left earlier. I couldn’t be late for the guided tour of Penn House conducted by Earl and Countess Howe no less. Prior booking essential!

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A pair of wooden panels salvaged from the Nile were brought home to grace the entrance.

Penn House is a typical red-brick Chilterns manor house; not usually open to the public, located down winding lanes leading to somewhere you are not entirely sure where, and bound to be full of surprises. Today all three conditions were fulfilled, and because the rain slowed my progress, I fortunately spotted two large misshapen wooden gates, sagging sadly across a gap in the boundary wall. I knew I was in a for treat, the sort of treat that only the Chilterns can provide.

Heritage Open Days

Every year in September, Heritage Open Days encourages thousands of venues up and down the land to throw open their doors so visitors can inspect spaces and objects normally kept from view, or to enjoy a guided tour from passionate locals, all for free.

It was apparent early on into this very personal tour, that Earl Howe had spent many happy hours learning more about the contents of the house and the links they represent to him and his family. By his own admission, the present house itself is ‘nothing special’: dating from 1760, and having undergone extensive re-building and enlarging since the former Tudor house was pulled down in the 16th century. Very little remains apart from a staircase and the roundel with the confusing date of 1536 that sits on the recent facade.

Penn or Penn?

There is a lot of understandable confusion around this Penn family and the other famous local family of William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania in the United States. They are not related, and this Penn family were the original lords of Penn Manor who married into the Curzon family. The Rt. Hon. The Earl Howe PC, to give his full title, was once known simply as Frederick Curzon, until he inherited the title and estate from his cousin in 1984. He has since made this his family home with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.

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Penn House from a wet garden

The tour included a number of fascinating family treasures that link to specific points in English history, each room having either a literary, social, military or religious object. Top of the earl’s list were treasures that his 18th century ancestor Admiral Lord Howe (who was triumphant at the 1794 naval battle of the Glorious First of June), had amassed during his career: many letters, journals, ceremonial swords and his personal well-stocked medicine chest as the alternative to a cup of wine dispensed by the ships surgeon to those unfortunate enough to be ill or injured in battle. In contrast, Sybil Penn was the royal wet nurse in the court of King Henry Vlll and is said to haunt Hampton Court Palace, as she looks for a string of pearls given her by the king; but she will never find them as the present countess Howe was wearing them! She did leave behind a cap worn by the infant Edward Vl. I discovered too that the above mentioned ‘gates’ were found floating on the Nile and brought home by an ancestor! Not your usual Egyptian souvenir.

Assheton Curzon was a considerable figure, and was responsible for most of the renovations at Penn House. He sat as Member of Parliament for Clitheroe in Lancashire for nearly 40 years until 1790, and in recognition of his public service was elevated to the House of Lords in 1794. There is a large portrait of him in his parliamentary finery in the music room and Earl Howe took delight in taking him down a peg-or-two as he drew our attention to full head of blonde hair on his 94-year-old portrait!

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Penn House: from top left, sticks for every occasion, summer house, Admiral Howe’s medicine chest and from the tennis court

In 1880 visits by the then Prince and Princess of Wales prompted the third earl to enlarge the house considerably by adding new wings and a new frontage, thereby enabling him to accommodate sizeable and prestigious house parties. The walls are adorned with many paintings of naval battles and ancestors, that I don’t think have been forgotten, we just didn’t have enough time to discover who they were. There were a few comments from the group about family resemblances down the generations that I think pleased the earl. The ruling classes are well connected after all.

Chilterns Grand Prix

The final main addition came in the 1930’s when the fifth earl Howe, who was a prominent motor racing driver, built the mile-long drive to the house, suitably banked, for his personal enjoyment and convenience. This legacy is still celebrated each June with the Penn House Gravity Grand Prix. A treasure from his time is the trophy that was presented by Benito Mussolini on behalf of the Ministry for Tourism after a race he won a prestigious and very dangerous road race.

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Vll Corsa Mille Miglia. Dona Del R. Commissariato per Il Turismo

Hugely enjoyable and a privilege being invited in to peek into their lives, the earl waved us off with an instruction to visit the nearby local parish church of Holy Trinity, Penn, where the family’s long influence on the village is evident, the two properties sharing a story and sense of place.

Further Information:

Do visit the nearby Holy Trinity Church in Penn which is a part of the Penn House and family story

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

For further information on another manorial delight Chenies Manor

Tools of the Trade

Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.

As one of the last producers of watercress in the Chilterns, the weight of history is upon Jon Tyler’s broad shoulders.

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Lush and fiery, watercress is not for the feint-hearted!

Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.

I have written about and described this valley in a number of blogs including; The Charming Chess Valley and Tastes of the Chess Valley.

Harbinger of Spring

Once enjoyed in sandwiches, at breakfast and high-tea, munched on in the streets, this harbinger of spring was sold in huge quantities to Victorian city-dwellers. Tired of their winter fare of meat and root vegetables, were only to glad to eat daily bunches of ‘blood-cleaning’ cress that had been brought in overnight by train and sold in the famous Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. Jon recalls as a child, being placed in a whicker basket to play alongside the cress, before his family would take the crop on the train from nearby Chorleywood into London to sell  in the market. Their stand, run by Elizabeth, Jon’s grandmother, is what Jon reckons kept the business going when farms begun closing in the valley.

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Elizabeth Tyler centre with husband Alf and son Fred c.1920 at Sarratt

A prominent figure in the London watercress industry was one Eliza James, who came to dominate the industry with a near trade monopoly and was nicknamed the ‘Watercress Queen.’ Jon is keen however, for his grandmother Elizabeth – who put the ‘E’ in E. Tyler & Son’s, to be put forward as another Watercress Queen: Elizabeth Tyler, Chilterns Watercress Queen! I like that very much.

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Using techniques unchanged for centuries, the roots are immersed in water

London Connections

Established in 1886, when there were 19 cress farmers in the valley, Jon’s great grandfather Alfred Tyler, rented the land from the Duke of Bedford (sometime owners of Covent Garden). Frank Tyler bought the land in the 1950’s, which then passed to Jon’s father Terry and for the past two years, Jon has farmed with the help of his sister Sarah and nephew Henry, who helps out at the weekends. Jon is very aware of the weight of culinary history and Chilterns heritage that sits upon his shoulders as the River Chess comes under increasing environmental pressure from an expanding local economy. As a direct consequence of a major sewerage discharge into the river, he has to expend precious resources on pumping water from another source that enables him to continue farming, but the plants are not so keen on the water temperature and nor is he keen on the bills!

Recorded by the ancient Greeks, watercress is one of the oldest cultivated plants with  many websites and food columns filled with information on it’s health-giving properties.  Easy to buy from the supermarket, but now I have tasted what watercress should taste like, there’s no comparison; chalk steam-fed crisp forest-green leaves with long firm stems, pack a fiery after burn that hits your throat after a good chew. Like eating English mustard – it blows all the cobwebs away!

Tendered by Hand

Unlike the major commercial varieties that dominate the supermarket shelves, Jon’s crop is harvested and bunched by hand with a bone-handled knife, kept in the pocket of his jeans. In fact three generations of Tyler-owned Sheffield Steel are featured in the image at the top of this article.

This heritage crop is grown using the same low-tech methods; grown from seed in gravel beds fed by a constant supply of water (which also gets rid of pests), then raked over to root and produce more plants, this plant grows rapidly to produce an abundant year-round crop.

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Self-service is a quite a novelty these days! £2 for watercress and Beechdean ice-cream from the shack that sees hungry and thirsty walkers empty their pockets. And that’s important, as Metroland visitors seek space, fresh air and local food to savour and take home with sticky fingers and ideas for how to eat their countryside spoils.

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Ice creams and ‘cress for sale!

Jon and his family are integral to a healthy and vibrant visitor economy as the heritage crop they produce enhances and adds to the distinctive visitor offer that sets the Chilterns; somewhere worth spending time and money, somewhere quite different. Somewhere where local businesses thrive. From April, open at weekends only, you will find Jon’s farm at Sarratt Bottom, Moor Lane, WD3 6BZ, and accessible on the Chess Valley walk below.

The only other Chilterns watercress producer are the fifth generation Sansom family who grow cress in Whitwell, Hitchin.

Further Information:

The beautiful Chess Valley has other producers and businesses for your to visit and support. Discover other flavours of the Chess here and a taste of it’s remarkable history here.

To find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns and to download a walk that will take you right past the farm.

Charming Chess Valley

Even in this tiny corner of England, the scene could not be further from the rugged South African veld, vernacular and culture, yet, likes threads in a well-worn carpet, our stories are interwoven right across the world and far back into our history, which for me spans both England and South Africa.

A story of battles fought and lost in a far-off land and a horse’s heart buried in Latimer.

A beautiful morning as we set off on our walk along the banks of the River Chess in the Chess Valley, 23 miles north west of London in the beautiful Chiltern Hills. Trees a-flame in their autumnal Sunday best, the scenery captivating. This historic valley has been impacted by human settlement for thousands of years; from the Iron Age, to the first century AD when the Romans began farming arable crops in the valley, to medieval settlements and abandoned churches, to the more obvious manor houses, miscellaneous ruined structures, monuments, tombs and the historic (altered) landscape are evidence of the many human endeavours.

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The Chess valley with the trout pools in the distance
Latimer House

We started our walk at Latimer House, the view across the valley framed by the grazing sheep, the trout beds below us and clouds drifting in from the east. This serene valley and its river, link Rickmansworth and Chesham, in the heart of the Chilterns with the river falling 60 metres along its 11-mile length. The fishery forms two lakes stocked with rainbow trout, while the indigenous brown trout grow large on a ready supply of natural food. We were hoping to see either trout or the famed voles, recently released back into the wild.

Latimer House was once home to the Cavendish family who became baron’s of Chesham, and the 3rd Baron Chesham features further on in this story. The original Elizabethan house, where King Charles I was imprisoned in 1647 and King Charles II took refuge before he fled abroad, was badly damaged in the early 18th century. The red brick-style Tudor mansion is now a hotel, and was re-built in 1838. The house is true to the Chilterns tradition of red-brick country mansions that suit the landscape well, neither dominating or being dominated by it.

Latimer House commands the hill
Latimer House
The Three Rivers

The river is shallow and the gravel bed can be clearly seen with watercress still growing along stretches of the river, but commercial production of this fiery crop has unfortunately now ceased. The River Chess is a chalk stream which springs at Chesham, which along with the Colne and Gade, gives rise to the name of the district of Three Rivers, where it forms its confluence with the Colne at Rickmansworth. They are not raging torrents, nor do they offer picturesque waterfalls or dramatic twist or turns; what makes them so special is that their languid flow cannot be taken for granted at all. They rise from the chalk aquifers, deep underground, where the chalk is like a big sponge, absorbing and storing the water and whose levels are dependent on rainfall and have in fact run dry in recent memory.

Harvesting a cress snack
Fresh and sharp. The tastiest!

The walk continues to the next hamlet at Chenies, where the semi-fortified brick manor house of Chenies Manor and Bedford Arms pub are located.

William Liberty

Adjacent to the Chess Valley footpath between Latimer and Mill Farm, is the tomb of William Liberty who died in 1777. A relative of the family of Liberty’s of Regent Street London, and former residents of the village Lee, who left a substantial legacy for the Chilterns, wished to be buried alone and near his mansion on the hill (of which nothing remains). It stuck me as an odd place to be buried, as it is not near any obvious landmarks. Only upon looking around, I could see it was in fact near the spot where the church of St Mary Magdalene once stood. Nothing remains except some raised banks, and ivy-clad walls in amongst the trees, and it’s easily missed, but it was his wish to buried outside of the consecrated church grounds.

‘Sacred to the memory of Mr. William Liberty of Chorleywood Brickmaker (sic) who was by his own desire buried in a vault in this part of his estate. He died 21st. April 1777 aged 52 years. Here also lieth the body of Alice Liberty widower of the above named William Liberty who died 29th. May 1809 aged 72 years’.

Inscribed on the Liberty Tomb
Horses graze in the Chess Valley
A horses heart buried in Latimer

We stop to tickle the horses’ noses and listen to the birdsong along the valley, before returning to the chocolate box hamlet of Latimer. It is here you will find the extraordinary Boer War memorials on the tiny green, that hints of battles fought and lost in a far-off land and a horse’s heart buried in Latimer.

Anglo Boer War

Nols Nieman writing in the South African ‘Die Volksblad’ in 2001 described what he imaged the burial of General de Villebois-Mareuil to have looked like:

“It was a striking scene: moonlight bathed the limestone walls and cypress trees of the cemetery in Boshof as a group of English soldiers solemnly buried a “French general” with full military honours. The man in question was Count Georges de Villebois-Mareuil, the brave warrior who fought like a Boer general in the Anglo Boer War.” Read the article here.

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The village green at Latimer

The general’s horse was transported to Britain by Lord Chesham, where it lived until February 1911. Its heart and ceremonial trappings were buried on the village green in Latimer, adjacent to the memorial commemorating those Chilterns-men who had served in South Africa.

‘The horse ridden by
General Georges de Villebois-Mareuil
At the battle of Boshof South Africa
5th April 1900 in which the general was killed
And the horse wounded.’

Even in this tiny corner of England, the scene could not be further from the ruggered South African veld, vernacular and culture. Yet, like threads in a well-worn carpet, our stories are interwoven right across the world and far back into our history, which for me spans both England and South Africa.

Further Information

The walk is way-marked with historical and natural history interpretation, pubs a-plenty for walkers to quench their thirst!  Download the route guide here:

To find out more about what to do in this lovely area VisitChilterns.co.uk and to visit the pretty gardens at Chenies Manor.

Enjoy the Chilterns throughout the year; spring, summer, autumn and winter.