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

Making Memories

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’. 

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’.

Why are some people remembered whilst countless others never will be? Is it noble birth or notoriety? Or do memories attach themselves along the often invisible threads that bind and weave together the history and stories of the Chilterns, making it the special place it is today? It is after all, the people and places who shape and are shaped by their location that determine its history.

This is the second instalment of the fascinating story of Peter, one time resident of Northchurch who lived until he was around 70 years, but the label ‘Wild Boy’ has stuck. You can read about his life in this earlier blog post, and following a visit to Berkhamsted School, what I found there warrants further telling of his story.

Typically, historical events are remembered, celebrated even, by those on the winning side, so why, I wonder is Peter still remembered? His whole life was tenuous, he had no connections, no skills, no way to communicate, no family nor children and he lived by his wits and kindness of strangers. When he was found as a boy, it is said that the only remnants of a ‘civilised’ life where the remains of his shirt collar, which ironically, it is now a collar by which he best remembered: the collar that was crafted for him to wear to ensure that if he wandered off, he would be returned to his home at Fenn Farm.

I was surprised at how small the collar is, and don’t believe it was worn by Peter as an adult. Perhaps as a man, his wondering days were behind him?

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The label on the right is roughly the size of a business card, so gives you  idea of the collars size. With permission from Berkhamsted School

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’. I believe one shilling was the reward.

By our values, this may seem cruel to put a collar on a human, but to me, it must have been an act of kindness and concern for his safekeeping, especially after his epic 100-mile solo adventure to Norwich, where after being jailed, it took some time to return him home to Northchurch. It was because of his wonderings that the king was petitioned for an increase in the £30 annual pension granted for the maintenance of Peter, in view of the expense of advertising for and organising his return when he wandered far from home. It is not recorded if the petition was successful. The Crown paid Peter’s pension until his death in 1785.

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The Petition by James Fenn c.1752.  With permission from Berkhamsted School

How the collar has even survived 233 years is also a mystery. Hanging for years on the wall of a house in Northchurch, then it was back and forth between the Bridgewater family at Ashridge House, the Northchurch Society and then to Berkhamsted school. There are many letters in the archive to document its transfer, and the cost to insure the collar was a sticking point. Insured for £1,000 by the Northchurch Society in 1981, the annual premium at £15 became too much. “There are so many dates thrown into the mix, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the reason it left the farm where Peter lived” explained Lesley, “or how long it was kept at Ashridge House and elsewhere. Time travel would be grand in my job!”

Peter was five feet two inches tall and apart from the webbing between two of his fingers, there was nothing to indicate that he suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. I love that a wax effigy was made of him that would be viewed in a wax museum on the Strand in London – pre Marie Tussaud’s as she only set up her first permanent waxworks in 1835.

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By permission of  Berkhamsted School

It is not clear exactly how the collar ended up in the school archive along with the above mentioned petition and other items, but it could have been as a result of the Brownlow family estate being broken up and the items given to the school for safe custody.

Peter’s collar returned to the Royal court for a year in 2014 when it was loaned to Kensington Palace to be included in their ‘Glorious George’s Exhibition’ and Lucy Worsley, historian, broadcaster and curator took a keen interest in Peter and visited the school and his grave site at St Mary’s church. I expect there was pressure to keep the artefact at the Palace, but am delighted it is back where it belongs, in the Chilterns.

It is thanks to those at the bottom of the pile, who should be given just as much airtime as those at the top, for it is the former upon whom the latter builds power and status, but that doesn’t make their contribution any less. This is a unique story, of a man who survived against the odds, and it was this notoriety that has ensured his memory is alive and well.  To those who still leave flowers on Peter’s grave, I salute you!

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Keeping the tradition alive! By permission of  Berkhamsted School

I would like to thank Lesley Koulouris, archivist at Berkhamsted School who was very generous with her time and vast knowledge and who gave permission to reproduce these items included above.

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Berkhamsted school is to the rear of St Peter’s Church, on Castle street, Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted school participates in the Heritage Open Days festival in September each year, and the school opens the chapel and ‘Old Hall’, both worth exploring.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas.

Do Trees Fall Uphill?

In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

I love the wide open winter vistas that reveal unexpected views and spaces, the shadows long, and a raw winter wind causes the bare tree tops to clatter and scratch against one another, loud on the otherwise still hillside.

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The younger trees sway about like drunk patrons, crashing into one another

What looked like the aftermath of a great disturbance with piles of flint, up-ended trees, mounds of excavated chalk and the biggest wall of roots I’d ever seen awaited us as we headed off-piste to follow the animal trails that branch off the well-trodden Ashridge Forest Sunday paths. The Ashridge estate is huge, with over 5,000 acres of woodlands and the many visitors tending to huddle near the toilets, cafe and carpark, the chances are always good you’ll have the other 4,999 acres pretty much to yourself.

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Heading downhill through the trees, it’s only as the track became even narrower and I have to watch where I am walking, that I notice the toppled trees interspersed with tightly-packed new growth, enjoying a few years of space before they are muscled out. These upended beeches, all pointing uphill, whilst the oaks, needing space have jumped the fence and taken root in the field alongside.

The oaks needs space to stretch out and breath
The oaks need space to stretch and breath

This scene of furious activity by nature’s hand, not human, looks surreal; big pieces of scattered flint, stones, numerous piles of chalk excavated by badgers as they enlarge their extensive hillside homes, even trees turning to dust. The leaf litter is still thick, and covers ankle-twisting holes and rocks, and still the barely visible track leads on along the edge of the tree line, very straight, there is no mistaking the intention of this boundary. In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

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A mound of excavated chalk, stones and flint mark the entrance to a den

Wide open winter vistas revealing the unexpected view back down the valley rising up to Wiggington and Wendover. This seasonal sight will close up, like a theatre curtain draws over the view as the trees spring back into life. A crow hangs lazily on the wind.

The dog is spooked by something, so scrambles onto a log, growling and begins to bark. Having dull senses, I cannot hear nor smell as he can, when suddenly, the hillside comes alive as a small herd of deer crash through the trees, in flight from an excited barking dog, The deer however, have the upper hand, they know all the tracks and escape routes and they sweep past us, twice. I bet they know this is a Sunday morning, their least favourite day of the week!

Next up on the weirdness scale, a wall of roots and stones, at least 10 foot in circumference, that shields a well-trampled clearing, a good spot for the deer? What forces were at work to upend such a large tree, revealing this stoney underworld apron?

The aerated soil is crunchy underfoot, a mix of pebbles, beechnuts, and twigs. We pass a large saw pit, criss-crossed with bike tracks as we follow a well-used single track uphill. The vegetation on this sunny slope quickly changes from the stark to timid signs of the first primroses and what will be another grand display of bluebells in April or May, as their tiny leaves break through the leaf cover.

Do trees only fall uphill? From my unscientific study, I’d say yes they do. However, I was delighted to see that here and there, rebel trees had thrown themselves onto the fence downhill, in some places crushing it flat beneath their weight. Result!

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The one that got away!

Voices carry on the wind and I know it’s time to head home.

Further Information:

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas and to visit the Ashridge Estate

Chilterns A to Z

Get to know the ghosts, they all have a story to tell.

Get to know the ghosts, they have a story to tell.

Up and down the land, there are ‘something for everyone’ high streets, towns, heritage parks, historic houses, districts and destinations.

What if you could tell your community and networks the story of your local area? As interpreted by you? Seen through your eyes? The only rules are the celebration of the magnificent and mundane, remembering that what is incidental detail to you, will be new and refreshing to someone else. It’s what sets a place apart from all the rest, it helps customers make decisions about where to visit as your location becomes distinctive and intriguing.

I have put together my first A to Z of the Chilterns, which wasn’t easy, there is simply too much information to include.

A is for Amersham Museum, Aldbury Nowers and the Adonis Blue..

B is for bodgers, bluebells and Bledlow Cross…

C is for Chenies Manor, chalk, castles and Chequers

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This will, without a doubt, change and evolve, as I add more columns, fill it with images and the names of things still to be discovered.

I have plans for posters.

Why not give it a go? If you do, please let me know as would love to share it.

A journey into a Chilterns desert

Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom, and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.

Poking around in unassuming, tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there.

February is the time to satisfy seasonal cravings for warmth, sunshine or a dash of colour in an otherwise challenging month. Carpets of aconites and snowdrops start off the race to spring, hellebores and daffodils in hot pursuit, with the ultimate spectacle of the iconic bluebells that light up the woodlands from April to May that will herald long overdue summer days.

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Carpets of Swyncombe churchyard aconites

Social media are the new jungle drums; informing and directing with seasonal excursions, news and sightings of what is in bloom and where. So it was that I headed off seeking the pleasure of carpets of snowdrops in the grounds of the tiny parish church of Saint Botolph at Swyncombe.

Travelling north to south and back again is easy to do, the challenge is crossing from west to east as there is no direct route. Therein lies the joy of Chilterns travel: unhurried, with the slight edge of not really knowing where you are, glimpses of the road ahead not really helpful as their unfamiliarity only confirms my sense of trepidation, when all of sudden, the bare tree canopy opens up revealing wonderful views down the valley as I watched an approaching rain shower racing towards me.

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A rain shower races up the valley

I followed a succession of narrow windy lanes, thick mud and leaf litter piled up on either side, making me glad I was visiting mid-week, so wouldn’t have to negotiate these mires with other road users travelling in the opposite direction. I now understood why this area has been called the ‘desert of the Chilterns’, it is remote, despite being so close to London and nearby market towns of Wallingford and Henley on Thames.

I turned off the track, following signs for the Norman parish church, and apart from a photographer with an enormous zoom lense, there wasn’t anyone about. I was underwhelmed with the snowdrop display, the aconites were much prettier and were working hard to cheer up a gloomy corner of the graveyard. The church itself is small, unassuming and gives no hint at what is inside.

Poking around in tucked-away local parish churches, so often reveal remarkable links with the nations story, told in place names, headstones and the tombs of those buried there. This church is a Norman Pilgrim Church, a reference to it’s place on a Pilgrims route, a once popular undertaking.

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Botwulf of Thorney

St. Botolph was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints, and became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. A Saxon noble who lived in the 7th century, he spent time abroad and upon his return was given, by King Anna, a grant of land near either Aldeburgh in Suffolk, or Boston in Lincolnshire to build a monastery. Two centuries later in around 870, it was destroyed by Danish invaders and the saint’s remains were divided into three parts and taken from the ruins to be housed in Ely and Westminster Abbey. It is likely, given the flourishing trade in relics at the time, that the parts were conveyed from place to place and so his name became synonymous with wayfarers and travellers. Over 70 Churches, along with five towns and villages are dedicated to him, and although he has no place in the Prayer Book Calendar, his feast day is June 17.

Not many parish churches are open to the casual visitor, so I am never sure if the sturdy doors will yield when pushed. This one did, and opened into the warm and colourful interior that far surpassed the seasonal exterior. Some hikers were eating their sandwiches in the back pews and returned to their murmurings beside the font. Although extensively restored in 1850, much of the original Norman church is recognisable, with the font that possibly predates even this.

The ceiling has been restored and is painted a summer blue with a more brooding red reserved for the Norman apse, off set by simple white walls and red floor tiles, some looked medieval. The rood screen and loft date from the early 20th century. The refurbished wall paintings behind the alter are impressive and make for a cheerful and pleasant space. The wall plaques commemorating former vicars, wardens and parishioners remind me that I am in England, not in some far off exotic place.

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No sign of any relics, but I am delighted that this special place, tucked away in this ‘green desert’ that involves a purposeful journey is named after the English patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. It means even more to me now.

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Swyncombe is derived from Swin for wild boar and combe for valley or hollow

For further Chilterns travel inspiration and lovely local walks

The Chilterns in Miniature

This gem shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature!

In 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech in which she suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors, and the rest as they say, is history.

If you could take some of the wonderful buildings that make up the Chilterns, and placed them in a reasonably-sized garden in Beaconsfield, to be enjoyed at your leisure in an afternoon, you’d have all the ingredients for a magical model village called Bekonscot.

Bekonscot’s rural idyll harks back to the bucolic days of the 1930’s, when the green fields of England were just one glass of warm beer and fuzzy summer days on the village green, playing cricket. And that is the time warp in which the village has made its home.

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The Chilterns in Miniature

Model villages are popular with many British towns boasting an assortment of model buildings with their transport options, with perhaps the nearby Legoland at Windsor miniature Europe a particular treat. Model villages and model train sets, the two are destined to be alongside one another; in fact a model village without a model railway, is just not cricket! The narrow gauge railway at Bekonscott has played a key role in the construction, development and seems to have no shortage of eager passengers.

Created in the 1920’s by local resident Roland Callingham (1881–1961), with the help of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur, he created a world of what was local and familiar to him, which he named Bekonscot, after Beaconsfield and Ascot, where he had previously lived.

It started small, but when in 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech which suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did, the model railway moved outdoors. It was never intended as a commercial visitor attraction, more a hobby to entertain Roland and his guests, who were by all accounts, very taken with it. Who wouldn’t be? It was only after 1930 that it really caught the wider public’s imagination, fed by Pathé newsreels, international and national newspaper coverage, and a Royal visitor or two, that ensured a steady stream of visitors.

Princess Elizabeth visits Bekonscott in 1938
Princess Elizabeth tries out the houses for size when she visited Bekonscott in 1938

Ask a local, any local, and they will nod and say “ah yes, I visited as a child, you should go”. We did, and I could quickly see why its fan base is so loyal. The attention to detail is remarkable; each building, figure and vehicle, all in their place and looking as fresh as when they were first placed there, over 70 years ago in some cases. There is a working coal mine, Enid Blyton on a park bench, pubs, a windmill, a Waitrose (of course), a circus, penguin pool, lovers stealing a kiss and no end to model trucks, cars, trains, wagons and airplanes.

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A train, a plane, a carriage or cart madam?

The quirky sense of humour, says ‘we don’t take ourselves too seriously”, evident on the various shop fronts including; Argue & Twist Solicitors, Alfred Kings’ cakes, the Barbers Strop and my favourite, McBull’s China Shop.

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Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and donates large amounts of money to charity. With over 15 million visitors since 1929 and endless rave reviews, this Chilterns gem has carved a niche that is timeless, innocent, and fun. And not just for small people either. In fact it was hard to tell ahem, who was having the most fun when we visited!

I think it shows the vision of a man clearly rooted in his local landscape – he created the Chilterns in miniature!

Further Information:

Find out more about visiting the world’s oldest model village Bekonscot

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas 

The Dinton Hermit

In a sleepy English village, you’ll discover the heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

The Dinton Hermit is heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

Just off the A418, once the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury, is the small village of Dinton in the Vale of Aylesbury. As with so many ‘if you blink you’ll miss them’ English villages and hamlets, I was delighted that I had stopped to explore the pretty village and its castle, and was intrigued by what I saw, not realising at the time, the historical significance and surprising stories of a royal executioner, a ghost and a hermit with his leather shoes.

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Dinton Hall
A Grade 2 Listed Folly

I almost missed Dinton Castle, a Grade 2 listed folly, located just before the turn off into the village, Although the structure itself is not accessible, the footpath is close enough to take a look. Typical of follies, it was positioned to be seen for miles around and was built by Sir John Vanhatten, former owner of Dinton Hall in 1769, who used the castle to store his collection of fossils. The octagonal two-storied structure, with circular towers east and west, has some lovely features including unusually large ammonites set into the the exterior walls, most likely found in local quarries. On the site of a Saxon burial, it comes with its own ghost too, according to the estate agents sales patter, when the place was put up for auction in 2012.

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Dinton Castle, best seen in the winter
The Regicide

Local legend says the folly is haunted by the ghost of Simon Mayne, 17th century regicide of King Charles. In January 1649, Simon Mayne magistrate and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, was also a judge of the High Court of Justice at the King’s trial, and 40th of 59 signatories on the Royal death warrant, which ultimately sealed his fate. After the Restoration in 1660, he was tried as a regicide and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died in 1661. His body was returned to Dinton and is buried in the church.

Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns are closely associated with the English Civil War, with John Hampden, of Great Hampden, the most notable of English politicians involved in challenging the authority of King Charles in the build-up to the Civil War.

The Execution of Charles I of England
The Execution of King Charles I of England, 30th January 1649

Things then take a weird turn with a handmade shoe on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that once belonged to John Bigg, the ‘Dinton Hermit’ (1629 – 1696). A man of reasonable means and former clerk to the afore-mentioned Simon Mayne, legend has it that Bigg may have been one of the hooded executioners of the king – one of the men who wielded the axe!

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John Biggs leather shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery

About the time of Simon Mayne’s death, John Bigg became a hermit, living in an underground cave at Dinton Hall for 35 years until his death in 1649. As with any self-respecting local legend, there are many versions of the truth, with some believing that Bigg feared retribution for his involvement in the royal execution, whilst others suggest it was due to the tremendous remorse he felt. Either way, he was a survivor, and resourceful soul who only asked for one thing from his community – leather, which he would immediately nail to his clothes.

A heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

The 18th century illustration shows his strange horned cloak and the three bottles that hung from his girdle for strong and small beer as well as for milk. His shoes are particularly large and made from over 1,000 pieces of leather, one piece hammered on top of the other as they become worn. One shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery on the Lower Ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum, whilst the companion to this shoe is still housed at Dinton Hall.

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Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

His remarkable story and illustration was included in the wonderful ‘Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II : collected from the most authentic accounts extant. Author: James Caulfield 1764-1826.

Further Information:

Dinton Hall is a private residence, and nothing remains of John’s cave, and in January 2017, planning permission was granted by Aylesbury Vale District Council for the castle to be renovated into a two-bedroomed dwelling (building work is now well underway), but that shouldn’t stop you having a wander around the village.

There are lots more quirky Chilterns stories, including the story of the Tring Tiles, Peter the Wild Boy and Growing Stones.

Find your own Chilterns castle and for further Chilterns inspiration, head over to VistChilterns.co.uk

Grand Designs

Wednesday September 19th at 21.00 GMT, the folly will feature in the Channel Four Grand Designs programme with Kevin McCloud.

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