The castle that time forgot

Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?

“Not for ages”
“Is that the one near the station..?”
“I can’t remember”
“Where is it?”

Berkhamsted motte
Winter shadows

Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;

Anglo-Saxon backwater
Norman Invasion
Oppression
Royal entitlement
Civil war
Invasion
Royal prison
Decline
Vandalism
Near destruction
Declared ancient monument
Forlorn visitor attraction

Ring of Steel

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.

Berkhamsted motte and bailey
The Motte and Bailey

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.

The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.

Berkhamsted station
The original Berkhampstead (sic) railway station as seen in 1838

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by 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. We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.

Irritating Tourists!

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Ariel view of Berkhamsted castle
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s. Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

Rediscovering our Chilterns castles

Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.

Berkhamsted castle reflections
Reflections in the moat

Further information

The site is managed by English Heritage and is free to explore. For further information

To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.

Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here

How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.

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.

Coffee, Crafts, Cake and Chilterns beechwood

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we set off from nearby Christmas Common to walk through the quiet autumnal beech woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking only what had fallen to the ground.

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we walked through the quiet autumnal woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and the wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking up only what had fallen to the ground. 

The Hambleden Valley is a glorious space. It’s typical Chilterns countryside that has made it a favourite of TV and film directors, this beautiful valley synonymous with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Vicar of Dibley – but I am showing my age, as it has also appeared in the Band of Brothers and more recently, Killing Eve.

Cobstone Windmill, better known as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang windmill commands the valley and surrounding landscape

Crafty siblings

I was off to meet crafty siblings, John and Alice Nuttgens at their Idlecombe studio’s, just outside Turville along the delightful Holloway Lane – delightful only as long as you don’t have to reverse to make way for oncoming farm traffic! And then we were on to visit ceramicist Jane White, who lives and works near Christmas Common.

I had joined the ‘meet the makers’ walk, thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Chilterns Conservation Board who organise the new twice-yearly Chilterns walking festival. It is no surprise these walks have proved so popular as they are a lovely way to immerse yourself in the beautiful and bountiful Chilterns countryside. Each outing comes with a walk leader who is packing not only insights and country lore that only a local can know, but sometimes with homemade cake too! 

Down winding country lanes, only five miles north of Henley-upon-Thames, the tiny village of Turville is busy during the weekend. Busy with walkers and cyclists exploring the many trails and tracks that climb in and out of the Hambleden Valley. In contrast, weekdays are a good time to visit as it’s reasonably quiet, and it was down such a quiet lane I was to find Idlecombe Farm. Set back from the lane with low-slung sheds adorned with flowers, farming implements, chickens and enormous vegetables out front and back is where John Nuttgens  ceramist and his sister Alice Nuttgens master saddle maker and fitter were to be found.

..creative threads

John’s studio 

John puts it succinctly when he says that the creative thread that binds the many talented Chilterns craftspeople together, is the distinctive landscape in which they work and is from where they draw their inspiration; undulating countryside, chalk streams, fauna, flora, flint and the many hilltop-crowned beech woods. This can be seen in the pieces he makes that are adorned with local flowers or mirror the autumnal colours all about us.

John has been working clay since the 1970’s and came to settle in Idlecombe, in 2013 at which time he also established his studio and showroom alongside his sister Alice. Alice is a rarity; deftly using her hand-made tools, she is one of only 150-or-so saddle makers left in England. This is a craft I had never seen before and it was quickly clear why it takes seven years of training to make harnesses, bridles, belts, saddles and even bell mufflers for St Mary’s church in Turville.

Beechwood Rain

Getting to Jane’s studio meant being rained on by beechnuts as we set off from nearby Christmas Common to walk through the quiet autumnal beech woodland, once full of the smell of charcoal burners, the sounds of wood cutters, the sight of wartime tent peg-makers and the wood gathers from surrounding hamlets picking only what had fallen to the ground. Our path followed an old sheep trail once in use to move the animals to nearby Watlington and even further afield, to London. The last of the blackberries still tasted good and noticeable piles of track-side feathers meant I wasn’t the only one enjoying the woodland bounty! 

A classic Holloway

Jane and her sheepdog Binny (who was having the day off work), welcomed us to her pretty studio that once served as the old dairy, on an isolated farm deep in the Chilterns countryside. The dairy is typical Chilterns vernacular of red brick and flint, this is the location I dream of escaping to!

The Old Dairy Studio
The Old Dairy

Jane uses a technique to create her ceramics that I was also unfamiliar with; pit firing using organic materials including coffee grinds and seaweed combined with the transformative power of fire, that renders the clay into a myriad of different patterns and colours. Each piece unique. Jane explained that she is constantly striving to create forms that mirror the simplicity and balance evident all around us in the natural world, in the Chilterns. 

On the path back, we have a conversation about how much organic lamb from the adjoining fields has been sold to Tesco. A lot it seems, which creates its own tensions for local business. Local producers can face all manner of obstacles getting their goods to market; lack of awareness, too often struggling with poor connectivity and technology, marketing, capacity, profile, competition and volume producers from other locations. But I am confident that there is a bright future for skilled Chilterns craftspeople who are creating new, unique goods that are grounded and shaped by something very special. Something that cannot be bought from far-off factories. Something they find in the naturally outstanding Chilterns landscape. So please support them when you can, their details are below. 

Thank you Annette and Laura for  fortifying us with homemade cookies and apple juice

Further Information 

There are many glorious places  to visit nearby including the National Trust’s Nuffield Place and the Wormsley Estate and Getty Library.

Discover too, the Gentle Giants on Chiltern Ridges, sample the Tastes of the Chess Valley and watercress Tools of the Trade. 

10 perfect pub walks in the uncrowded alternative to the Cotswolds or  this 9.5 mile circular walk starting from the village of Hambleden, takes you past four local pubs. 

The Autumn walking festival has now finished, thank you to all those who took part, but save the date for the Spring festival – Saturday 18th May – Sunday 2nd June 2019.

Artists’ websites include

John Nuttgens Ceramics

Alice Nuttgens Saddlers 

Jane White Ceramics 

Be Not Weary in Well Doing

The story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.

In which a childhood tale of hardship and a beating, led to a generous royal gift to a small Chilterns community from a benefactor in a far-flung British colony.

Described on TripAdvisor as ‘fresh as paint’ I was interested to see the restored Maharajah’s well in Stoke Row and discover why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make such an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to a small Chilterns community.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Isn’t Britain usually the one dispensing largesse to the less fortunate in far-flung colonies?

Stoke Row is a fairly typical Chilterns village, situated at the southern end of the region, near Henley-on-Thames, in a cluster of villages that include Ibsden, Nuffield and Nettlebed. It’s quite hard to find, along gloomy woodland lanes, around some tight corners, that has in its foundations, chalk, flint and clay that have enabled a long history of pottery making. However, in common with Turville, there is no natural water source.

That is the source of this charming Chilterns story

The Maharajah of Benares
Maharajah of Benares and Suite, 1870s

East India Connections

The Narayan dynasty was the ruling Bhumihar family of Benares. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, the family ruled Benares as tributaries of the Nawab of Awadh and the East India Company. In 1911, Benares became a full-fledged princely state of British India, and the Narayan dynasty ruled it as British vassals until they acceded to independent India in 1948. Even today, the Kashi Naresh, the titular ruler of the dynasty, is deeply revered by the people of Benares. He is the religious head and considered the incarnation of Lord Shiva.

Local Ibsden squire, Edward Anderson Reade (1807 – 1886) had worked alongside and formed a friendship with Maharajah Shri Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh Bahadur of Benares (1822-89), whilst working as administrator and Lieutenant Governor in the North West Provinces for the East India Company. The two men must have shared childhood stories which later were to inform the Maharajah’s decision to fund a new well, far away in a country he had never visited, but had a huge impact on his life and country, Great Britain.

101 Cherry Trees

In 1831, Edward Reade had a well sunk for a community in Azimgurgh, alongside a new mango grove. It was this generous gift and that childhood tale of dried up Chilterns village ponds, hardship and a child beaten for stealing a drink of water, that sealed the subsequent deal. In 1863, the Stoke Row well was sunk for around £40,000 in today’s money, the adjoining ‘Ishree Bagh’ was planted with 101 cherry trees and the Well Cottage built with a view to providing funds for the well’s maintenance.

The maharajah's well Stoke Row
The well is housed beneath a Mogul-inspired dome.

I expect the village hasn’t seen anything like it, not since Queen Victoria opened the well in 1864. Until 1964 that is, when HRH the Duke of Edinburgh attended the centenary and a sample of water was drawn that can be found at the local pub apparently. Please let me know if you have any luck finding it!

Ishree bagh, cherry orchard
One of the few cherry trees in the ishree bagh.

The Ishree bagh, cherry orchard, feels well used as a local green space, but as an orchard, neglected. There is random planting of young cherry trees (a Chilterns heritage crop), some dead, others not sure whether to thrive or die, and some well designed childrens’ dens in amongst the trees. There are a good number of oak trees, some with legible plaques, others rusted away. Thank you Denise for the beautiful oak tree planted in your memory, the bagh is better for it.

The Elephant & Bandstand
Trunk to Trunk

The orchard mound is now topped with a commemorative wooden elephant ‘the Elephant & Bandstand’ to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the well.

Well cottage and the Moghul dome
The distinctive Dome

In a neat space between the orchard and well, is the tiny brick cottage with an unfeasibly tall chimney, former home of the well keeper no less. Dwarfed by the ornate dome, a foresight as it’s visible from afar – and a nod to the Maharajah who would never see his gift, but wanting it visible all the same. Beneath the Burgundy Mughal-inspired dome, a golden elephant sits atop the shiny machinery designed and built by local agricultural engineers, Wilder of Wallingford 1863.

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The shaft plunges through clay, gravel, sand, chalk sand, more chalk and finally chalk and shells before reaching the sweet water, a mere 368 feet deep – twice the height of Nelson’s column. Drawing water must have been quite a chore. It took 10 minutes for the pulley to reach the bottom and another ten minutes to reach the surface. I expect they all formed a neat and orderly queue and exchanged village news whilst waiting. The well was closed in 1939.

I love this story. It has a special resonance for me, hailing as I do from the colonies. What makes this story so extraordinary is that a former colony did what Britain usually does; dispensing largesse in the form of a royal gift, to those in need, those less fortunate. But in this case, those who where in need where the masters, the mighty British Empire. Oh, the irony!

The inscription ‘Be Not Weary in Well Doing” is a fitting epitaph for Edward’s gravestone, in the nearby Ibsden cemetery.

Further Information

This Chilterns travel blog is only about the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns are not a place name you’d perhaps recognise, despite being located in the distinctive green space between London’s Metroland and Oxford. If quirky is your thing, we’ve a load more stories to tempt you.

Nearby is the modest home of William Morris, who lived at Nuffield Place and brought affordable motoring to Britain.

For further Chilterns ideas and inspiration, or to book a table at England’s first gastropub, the nearby Crooked Billet. Built in 1642, reputed to have been the hideout of highwayman Dick Turpin, which may have been due to a certain landlord’s daughter, Bess.

The local village store offers coffee and freshly made light meals.

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.

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The planes at the bottom of the garden

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A veritable feast for the senses

Some 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.

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A thing of beauty

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.

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all press in on this space. 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.

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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.

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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.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Almshouses: a social history

Almshouses are a fascinating curiosity left over from an age when the poor and destitute would typically fall through the gaps as universal care as we know it, did not exist.

You find almshouses in the centre of busy towns, on high streets, beside churches or tucked away in the corner of a field, the remnants of former communities and their social needs. Typically Georgian in style, there are some Tudor, one Strawberry Hill Gothic, whilst others have had a Victorian makeover, but still include interesting features, elaborate chimneys, often with pretty cottage gardens or courtyards the perfect location for the residents to spend time in.

By definition, an almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people to remain in their own particular community. They are often targeted at the poor, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. Originally formed as an extension of the church system, benefactors were not exclusive to this order however, and some where established primarily to ensure safe passage for the benefactors’ souls to make it to heaven.

Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating around 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses and for those established for the benefit of the founder of their family, usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

Residents no longer have to wear special items of clothing, emblems or badges that would signify where they lived, or to remind others of their benefactors’ largesse. Dwellings too have been modernised which has meant that in some instances, fewer residents can be housed with the addition of indoor plumbing for example. An impressive 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated across the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people.

The Chilterns has a wonderful collection of these buildings that are still functioning as charitable associations, housing those in need and below are some that I have visited, and will add to this as I encounter more. Suggestions most welcome!

Thomas Hickman Almshouses Aylesbury

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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street

Aylesbury Old Town

Aylesbury old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline. Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need; an aim broadly in line with almshouse charity foundations across the country.

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Church Street Aylesbury

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age surrounded by multiple terraced houses or apartments now providing accommodation for small numbers of residents.

Ewelme Almshouses

fullsizeoutput_2676William and Alice de la Pole were benefactors of the almshouses and school built in 1442. The almshouses were to consist of twelve old men, bachelors, poor and in reduced circumstances, but not from the lowest class of life. Over them was set the thirteenth man, who was to be of a ‘superior type’, a kind of head-brother to the twelve. All were to wear a habit consisting of black tabards or gowns of wool with a red cross upon the breast. Closely incorporated with the church through whose west door leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents now live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex, complete with their very own Grande Dame of Ewelme.

Lady Dodd’s cottages Ellesborough

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A Grade II Listed Block of 4 almshouses in Ellesborough, formerly eight, dated 1746  Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women.  Over the road form the church, these cottages are now a private home with one of the loveliest of Chilterns views. Lady Dodd made similar bequests in Little Budworth in Cheshire and it is unclear what her connection with Ellesborough was.

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St Peter & St Paul church with Dodds cottages in the foreground

Weedon Almshouse Gardens Chesham

A Grade II Listed Building, founded in 1624 by the bequest of Thomas Weedon of Pednor, Weedon Almshouses were rebuilt in the late nineteenth century of flint rubble and red brick quoins. The four almshouses with their gables, barge-boards and chimneystacks are rarely properly enjoyed as they sit behind a high flint wall, obscured so an image is not readily available.

Sir William Drake’s Almshouse Amersham

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The dwellings are typically set around the communal courtyard

A Grade II listed property, the Drake’s almshouses were a gift to the market town of  Amersham by local bigwig, Sir William Drake who built them in 1657 ‘for the relief of 6 poor widows of good repute in the parish’. Originally six dwellings, they were converted in 1997 to provide increased accommodation and modern conveniences for four residents given them greater comfort.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

img_2925Located on the high street in Berkhamsted, the John Sayer, chief cook to Charles II,  bequeathed £1000 in trust “for the building of an almshouse and the purchasing of lands for the relief of the poor widows in Berkhamsted St Peter”. The inscription reads: “The Guift of John Sayer Esq 1684”.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum, was built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town. This lovely row of tudoresque-styled almshouses was designed by William Huckvale and are quite a local feature, with Nos. 1-5 dated ‘1893’ and Nos. 6-8 dated ‘1901’.

For further information;

Adventures and inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns

Reclaiming our Castles

Nooks, brick tiles and a fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history; 

Seen mostly from commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is just no longer noticed. A scheduled ancient monument, the castle had a lucky escape – not from French siege engines, but from those bringing a new prosperity to the Chilterns countryside.  

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness too, when asked when was the last time they had visited Berkhamsted castle? 

“Not for ages”

“Never”

“Where is it?”

Situated alongside the canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and it’s features seem only to emerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty spring flowers, the scene so benign. The elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants.

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Not much use now!

Nooks, brick tiles and fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history; 

Anglo-Saxon backwater

Norman Invasion & Oppression

Royal entitlement & civil war

Invasion & royal prison

Decline & Vandalism

Near destruction and declaration as ancient monument

Visitor attraction

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The moat filled with spring rain

William the Conqueror

This is where William the Conqueror received the submission of the English after the Battle of Hastings and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trade routes and ensuring successful subjugation of the locals. 

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Lots of stones to recycle

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages; invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times as royal residence, but slid into a slow decline of unsuitability and by default became unfashionable. The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle which, when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, stone was taken and reused to build houses and buildings in the town, greatly affected by this change in its status and prosperity. It was a long wait until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century before the locals enjoyed a revival.

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Moody and atmospheric

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site, 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. We have not always so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners once believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing so much mindless destruction, MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

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Berkhamsted railway station in 1838, castle to the left and canal to the right:                           George Dodgson Callow & Edward Radclyffe (1809–1863)

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress. Or in the case of spite, as was the story of the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, one-time owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare, then in an extraordinary fit of spite, demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Arial view of the site taken in the 1940's.
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s.                                                                  Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

I think we need to reclaim and treasure our Chilterns’s castles; visit them, explore them, take a picnic, take your family to play dungeons and dragons, take your dog. Watch as they reflect the changing seasons through the windows of your train, and celebrate the spaces and possibilities those heritage weirdos have left for us.

A local pharmaceutical firm has donated three acres (1.2 hectares) to the new Berkhamsted Castle Trust, plus £25,000 to maintain this “national asset”, with work to “make it a coherent site again” underway.  Read more here

Further Information:

Admission is free to the site that is now managed by English Heritage.

For further Chilterns inspiration visit https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk

Read the astonishing story of a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest and adopted by a English king and came to live in nearby Northchurch.

The Grande Dame of Ewelme

Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village? The village of Ewelme fits the bill.

On the Swyncombe road about a mile outside the village of Ewelme is where I stopped to take a deep breath and familiarise myself with the lay of the land. The last time I was here was to visit St Botolph’s, three miles up the lane in the direction two casually-peddling Lycra-free cyclists were heading. It’s a good sign!

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The winding road to Swyncombe

I picked my along the path before settling on a rotten tree trunk that offered respite from the sticky mud. A rabbit dart beneath the hedgerow, it must have seen the two lazily circling kites overhead. A weedy line of smoke from a farmhouse rises from a small fire further up the valley and only a low-flying aeroplane just taking off from nearby RAF Benson is competing with the spring birdsong.

The English countryside: managed or manicured, everything in it’s place, but that’s not to say without beauty, it’s how you see it that counts. Symmetry, patterns, parallel lines, even the turn of the plough creates its own pattern picked out by the sunlight. Little dabs of lime green growth in the hedgerows contrasts with the emerald green of the field behind. Even the vapour trails add their dotted and dashed pattern to the perfect blue sky. I am buzzed by an enormous bumblebee, circling my  muddy shoes.

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Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

Ewelme is located north east of the market town of Wallingford, nestled in a green dip, with narrow lanes and pretty cottages tumbling down the hillside to congregate along now defunct watercress beds fed by the Ewelme Brook, that eventually makes its meandering way to the River Thames. Production has sadly ceased (cress can still be bought and enjoyed in the Chess Valley), but now these beds are owned and managed by the Chiltern Society who organise events here in the reserve.

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The old ‘cress beds

If you like medieval villages, there is plenty to satisfy you here: lots of typical Chilterns brick and flint and crooked doorways, well-tendered gardens bursting with flowers, the 15th century cloistered almshouses and modest school; but the real gem is the lovely church of St Mary the Virgin that commands the village heights with a 14th century tower that can be seen from almost anywhere above walls and rooftops.

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Much has been written about this church, it’s memorials, tombs and occupants that can still be seen today thanks to some quick thinking by local Civil War army commander Colonel Francis Martyn, who refused to give up the key to the church and the  Roundheads who surprisingly obeyed, left the church unscathed.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village?

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Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church

The must-have tomb

The reason everyone visits is to gaze at the rather splendid tomb of Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church who died in 1475 aged 71. We remember her not only for her status, wealth, influence, three husbands, family connections and rare recipient of the Order of the Garter, but because she and her husband gave Ewelme its (rebuilt) church, new superior grammar school and almshouses. She also happened to be the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and her father, Thomas Chaucer was lord of the Manor of Ewelme and governor of Wallingford Castle. The side chapel where she is buried has a curious array of church furnishings that include the original medieval floor tiles, a gaudy turn-of-the-century alter piece adorned with English saints, the sole surviving medieval seat and fabulous IHS monogrammed walls. The tomb dominates the space in a style and manner usually reserved for a Knight and his Lady. She is buried alone as her third husband suffered a ghastly traitors fate and is buried in Suffolk, so she had to make do with adoring cherubs instead. Arranged over three levels, from the most elaborate and celebratory at the top to the realistic effigy of the occupant in her funeral shroud at the bottom.

Too many village churches are nothing but disappointment and dust, sanitised by the Victorians who liked to clean up the mess and paint over the unsightly to better suit their view of the world. But here you have a medieval complex that has seen continuous use for about 600 years, from childhood through to death, and I am certain, watched over by the community who take great pride in their heritage, it will cope with the pressures and fancies of the next 600 years.

Out through the west door, leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex. The school has outgrown the red brick building and has extended it’s classrooms discreetly behind another brick wall to the rear.

In the village store, opposite Kings Pool, I enjoyed coffee and a tasty sandwich and chatted with a bloke who had an interesting collection of old-school camera’s, and wondered if there was any truth to the legend that a lady-in-waiting had in fact pushed King Henry Vlll in!

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Ewelme Store

As for the ghost stories, we’ll save those for another day, as you’ll hear tell of fairies and a witches curse too. Please leave your car in the car park at the entrance to the village and explore on foot.

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For more Chilterns inspiration and ideas