Chilterns Chalk

A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.

Ninety million years ago, a great ooze was accumulating at the bottom of a sea. Microscopic creatures, coccoliths, their shells made of calcite extracted from the rich seawater were contributing to the ooze.  As they died, and their minute shells and skeletons settled onto the seabed of a tropical sea, a substantial layer gradually built up over millions of years until it all eventually consolidated into rock. Chalk. This geological layer can be followed right across Western Europe where evidence of mining and quarrying both above and beneath the ground can be found.

Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite

Not only is chalk a part of our national conscious, the dramatic and iconic white cliffs of Dover shown in times of national crisis, it also acts as a natural reservoir, releasing water slowly into another feature of the Chilterns – the chalk streams. Givers of life. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The seam of chalk emerges to the south east, along the English Channel

From hard industry to site of special scientific interest

The Chilterns and our story, are in fact all about chalk; it is the geological formation that defines our landscape, industry, people, wildlife and wildflowers. But it’s not all a chocolate box image; quarrying for cement saw numerous sites across the region busy with extraction during the last century. Some still remain, others are filled with waste water and submerged cables, making them an ideal haven for birdlife and illegal parties! One successful transformation from working quarry to wildlife sanctuary that you can visit, is College Lake near Tring, home to migratory birds and bird enthusiasts.

These microscopic bits of shells and dissolved skeletons, layer into white cliffs and layers of London…and in the space that is left behind, layers of abundance across the year.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Late summer blooms

To wander around my local quarry, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had always contained wildflowers, badgers, butterflies and skylarks, yet this former cement quarry has been transformed into a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was once part of much larger cement works ‘Castle Cement’, with large silo’s and 350ft chimney’s that became a local landmark. The quarry operated from 1937 until closure in 1991 and the chimney’s demolished in 1998, before a large housing development took shape on part of this brownfield site. The remainder has been left to nature.

An image of the former excavations at Castle Cement
The excavation of a tropical seabed

All around are scattered industrial archeology: rail tracks, cables, coils, metalwork embedded in the chalk, rubble, rotten sleepers, fence posts, bleached signs, signposts, mysterious shafts, ruts and excavations.

I am reminded every day of the special qualities that bring such an abundance of life to what should be sterile space. Most noticeable being the countless butterflies that rise up and dance around my legs as I walk along the narrow chalk pathway in the summer; chalk hill blues, an adonis blue, small skippers, small coppers and more marble whites than I have ever seen. These are adapted to the chalk grassland and the myriad of wildflowers that keep them in nectar throughout the summer. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Butterflies on the wild marjoram

And of course there are the fabulous orchids; the common spotted-orchid, common fragrant-orchid, incredible bee orchid, lady orchid, pyramidal and military orchids. At their best in early June, competing with the carpets of oxeye daisies to be star of the wildflower show.

Common spotted orchids
Common spotted orchids

If you want to see the Chilterns, ask a dog walker

Throughout the seasons, there is activity here. Heavy snowfall brings the children out to sledge down the steep slopes, their shrieking voices carrying across the quarry. When the winter and early spring have been very wet, the water table, not far beneath the surface, rises and floods any depressions and gulley’s, gravity ensures the overflow finds its way to the lower lying ground, flooding badger sets and rabbit warrens. The wind is cold, the chalk slippery underfoot. The skylarks arrive in late winter, announcing the start of the breeding season with their distinctive overhead song.

The soft mists of spring can be eerie, but they are another sign of the advancing seasons. After years of dog walking, I now know what signs to expect as the quarry slowly emerges after winter. March can seem an impatient month before the trees and shrubs get going in waves of vivid green, pale yellow and white blossom. Wildflowers across the quarry floor, bloom in waves of yellow, white, purple, sprays of white and more yellow, before everything at ground level is claimed by the wild grasses. Now grown tall in the late summer, each scratchy in shades of khaki, before the farmer comes in to mow in late autumn. Sweet-tasting summer goodness for his cattle long into the depths of winter. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
The quarry cliff-edge too step to hold the snowfall

A virtuous circle

That something so ancient, and yet so simple, could have so many uses across the ages is humbling. What comes from an ancient tropical seabed has a place in our national psyche, as well as a place in the story of the Chilterns. And now, as we seek an escape from our busy lives, these transformed spaces take us back to nature. Back to our own story. A virtuous circle: life became rock that supported our lives, literally, and has once again become abundant life. 

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Common century, or bloodwort

Further Information

Enjoy Tring reservoirs, College Lake and Grand Union Canal on this 13km circular walk.

Forget M&S orchids, manicured to within an inch of their pampered lives and head instead to the nearest Chilterns summer meadow to indulge yourself with our own exotic orchids.

Here are more ideas and places to enjoy the Chilterns in the Summer.

A Chilterns story that is a mere 90 millions years in the making.
Mists of white

The Chilterns at Halloween

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

A tangle of trees
A tangle of trees

The eve of All Saints’ Day

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

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

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

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

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

A haunted Holloway on Halloween in the Chilterns
A haunted Holloway on Halloween

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

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

A mummified hand that possessed powerful healing properties, performing miracle cures throughout the twelfth century is kept in a glass box at St Peter’s Church in Marlow. Found sealed in a wall, this relic is believed to be the hand of the Apostle James, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, who was martyred in AD44 by King Herod.

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

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

Stand and deliver, your money or your life!

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

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

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

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

Hellfire and damnation

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottled Curse by Alfred Wire. 

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

Cobwebs cover the hedgerows during Halloween
Halloween is the time of mist and cobweb-strewn hedgerows