Evolving Landscapes

Today comes the confirmation that the HS2 rail project will continue to rip through our naturally outstanding #Chilterns.

The HS2 rail project, was today confirmed. Confirmed it will rip through our naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Evolving landscapes 

We tend to look at a landscape and imagine how things were, or to enjoy the temporary transformation through the year (the focus of this blog); less so perhaps on how things might be. The Chilterns are a living, evolving landscape, shaped by its people, industries and natural resources. After all, nothing stands still, or is set is aspic.

It is a moment for me to recognise the importance of capturing some of this huge change. 

HS2 is something I have ignored.

This vast, expensive and disruptive engineering project is the brainchild of a government, who think that spending upwards of £100b (and counting), is worth the minutes shaved off the London to Birmingham rail journey is well worth it. Perhaps that should be the national priority, but it is above my pay grade to know for sure. There has been much written, much revised and many cross words exchanged however, but for me, HS2 is something I have ignored, until I walked in the Misbourne valley and appreciated the scale of what is happening.

The route through the Chilterns

I have included a web link below, but to briefly summarise the route through the Chilterns; from London Euston, the route will enter a tunnel until West Ruislip, where trains emerge to run on the surface. From here the line crosses the Colne Valley on a major viaduct, and passes through a 9.8-mile (15.8 km) tunnel under the Chiltern Hills to emerge near South Heath, north-west of Amersham. The route will run roughly parallel to the existing A413 (through the Misbourne Valley), passing to the west of Wendover in what HS2 call a ‘green cut-and-cover tunnel’. After passing west of Aylesbury, the route will run north westwards through North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and into the West Midlands.

Misbourne Valley 

The River Misbourne rises above the lovely market town of Great Missenden and flows south east for 17 miles (27km) through the village of Little Missenden, onto Amersham and the Chalfonts to Denham, where it meets the River Colne. 

This valley and its river are no stranger to controversy and has suffered damage to its natural and built resources; most recently the natural chalk stream was rescued by a successful campaign to stop the abstraction of valuable drinking water and further down the valley, Shardeloes mansion, ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family was saved from demolition by the formidable Amersham Society. 

I was drawn to the valley when I read a piece about rare medieval wall paintings uncovered by accident (aren’t all the best things?), in 1931 that had been hidden behind lime wash and plaster and are now restored inside this wonderful 1,000 year-old church. Still a valuable community hub inside a building designed, built and tinkered with by the Romans, Saxons, Normans and Tudors. I expect the Victorians had a hand in there too.

My walk took me from the parish church, through the village, up the hill to Mop End and down through the woods to Shardeloes, just outside Amersham and back to Little Missenden along the South Bucks Way. Details and maps are below.

Views back towards Little Missenden
A break in the boundary

Fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigated the twists and high speed turns

It was a beautiful still January morning, relatively quiet, with only bird chatter in the hedgerows for company. Leo and I crossed the field behind the village and joined the leaf-strewn sunken path, with helpful winter breaks along a familiar tree-lined boundary to enjoy far-reaching views back across the valley towards Great Missenden. Our guides, a couple of fighter-pilot blackbirds, skilfully navigating the twists and high speed turns upwards along the path. We passed an enormous pile of gently smoking, freshly dumped manure, ready to spread across these busy fields. There are a few isolated cottages with their lovely gardens, views and one sporting a tennis court! Not too many ‘gerroff my land” signs tacked to the trees either, which is always reassuring.

Our way downhill towards Amersham is cleared by the squirrels, their grey tails catching the sunlight as they race across the woodland floor, over logs, along a decaying fence and up the nearest tree, as fast as their little legs will take them. The vista then opens up and you can appreciate the sense of space and place as the landscape turns from natural, to managed and designed.

Shardeloes equine centre
Horses are king in this meadow

Enter landscape designer, Humphry Repton who was commissioned to lay out the grounds in the classical English landscape fashion, in the lee of the hill upon which the Shardeloes mansion stands, damming the River Misbourne to form a pretty lake.

Shardeloes is the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London
Shardeloes is a sprawling 18th century country house, the current structure replacing an earlier building

Shardeloes was the ancestral home to the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until the Second World War, when the house was requisitioned as a maternity hospital for pregnant women from London, saw some 3,000 children born there. Amazing! Following the War the house seemed destined to become one of the thousands of country houses being demolished, until the formidable Amersham Society, assisted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England fought a prolonged battle to save the house. Subsequently purchased in the early 1970’s by a local property developer who converted the house and outbuildings into a complex of private flats, with nearby equine centre and cricket club.

One of the two Shardeloes gatehouses
Shardeloes gatehouse

Expectations

I am reminded of another great regional railway project that saw Victorian railway designers, who sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the Norman Berkhamsted castle, but was saved by strong local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.

There is an expectation that the HS2 archaeology will be rich and varied; grasping at straws perhaps, but I am hoping there will be access and tours available so we can see for ourselves what is happening. From the conversations I have had, both professionally and in my personal capacity, the locals are now resigned to the railway, and will make every effort to minimise disruption to their businesses and lives.

What of the future?

What is the Misbourne Valley going to look and sound like in the next decades? I will be back to find out as I will seek to harness and record the passions that these projects evoke with many more Instagram, Facebook and blog posts that encourage discussions and comments. You are welcome to comment below.

Further information

This website has interesting plans and maps so you can see where the route is and where the tunnels are – not too technical either.

There are three lovely walks to be enjoyed along the Misbourne valley, information can be downloaded here.

“The best church I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)” enthuses A Simms, from Paris who visited the lovely church of St John the Baptist Little Missenden. Their website and visitor interpretation are excellent, the wall paintings astonishing and is well worth your support. I believe they serve a mean cream tea in the summer!

Explore the neighbouring market town of Amersham, with its enviable history of black lace, perfume and beer.

Read about another fine Chilterns Doom painting that was saved by the Chilterns summer rain.

The local market towns of Great Missenden and Amersham are worth a visit, not least of all to see the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre and the Amersham museum.

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. 

Artists’ websites include

Alice Nuttgens Saddlers 

Jane White Ceramics 

Charming Chess Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latimer House commands the hill
Latimer House
The Three Rivers

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

Harvesting a cress snack
Fresh and sharp. The tastiest!

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

William Liberty

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

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

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

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

Anglo Boer War

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

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

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The village green at Latimer

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

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

Hellfire on a Hill

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to West Wycombe hill that day, as Brad Pitt had been spotted in the area; the giveaway was a film set that included a downed WW2 airplane stuck nose-first into the side of the hill. Cue a Twitter frenzy followed by crushing disappointment as of course mere mortals were not allowed anywhere near!

The view towards West Wycombe house
Across the valley towards West Wycombe Park

Screen attraction

This distinctive landmark makes for a perfect scene-setter: West Wycombe Park is a place that has swirled with rumour, innuendo, and antics of the famous and infamous that would have put any Hollywood star to shame.  Located three miles west of High Wycombe, west of London, this fascinating place is home to a medieval high street, country seat, St Lawrence church, a mausoleum and Hell-Fire Caves attraction, all dominating the landscape by virtue of reputation and location atop the excavated, yet impressive Chilterns chalk outcrop.

All the legacy of the Dashwood family, whose Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708 – 1781) was an English rake and politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, along with the Earl of Sandwich, are alleged to have met at the George and Vulture Inn, (located in the City of London), throughout the 1730s before moving the club to Medmenham Abbey, a short distance from West Wycombe on the River Thames and then into the caves. The club was notorious for orgies and black magic, but had disbanded by 1763 (according to church records) with the caves falling into disuse.

Pagan Worship

Sir Francis was a very busy man; building roads, a fine country house, church, mausoleum, an elaborate cave system where he entertained, all using local materials hewn from the hillside (by the locals at a shilling a day), that legend has it has been inhabited since…well, forever. The church was named St Lawrence; a commonplace name for churches that supersede places of pagan worship. Retaining elements of its ‘sense of place’ as it includes a golden ball that rises above the tower with space for six Georgian party-goers inside. Saying their prayers?

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St Lawrence and the infamous golden ball atop the church tower.

The church is typically open on Sunday afternoons from March from 12.30 – 5.00pm until the end of September and is worth visiting. The churchyard is bursting with gravestones, many at strange angles as if the inhabitants have been moving around inside, some impressive columns to the fallen of the First and Second World Wars, and local families including the Joynson’s. They have prominent burials with one poignant inscription to their 16 year-old son William, who drowned whilst swimming in the Seine in Paris in 1865. The imaged journey home from Paris to West Wycombe in 1865 has stayed with me since my visit.

What does steal the show however, is the mausoleum that straddles the hilltop, still dominating the landscape after 250 years. Based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome, this unroofed structure is unlike anything else in the country. Built using excavated flints from deep inside the hill, still in the family ownership (unlike the rest of the estate that had to sold following the Wall Street Crash of ’29), this memorial to Sir Francis and his friends is in remarkable condition. Unlike the surrounds, which looked much used and abused; the fire provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Inside the Mausoleum

Founding Fathers

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America who helped to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was a great friend of Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park and spent much time there in the early 1770s. He is reputed to have taken part in sessions of the notorious Hellfire Club and clearly found the surroundings of the house and park much to his liking as he wrote many times to his son. I do wonder what he took from this time here to contribute to co-writing the Declaration of Independence?

West Wycombe countryside
Surrounding Chilterns Countryside

Further information

Sir Francis transformed the formal garden at West Wycombe Park into a playground of Italian-inspired temples, water features and follies, arranged around an ornamental lake, with broad avenues with far-reaching views down the valley or across to the Dashwood Mausoleum. There are plenty of places to read a book, admire the views, watch the swans, or to daydream.

The great, the good and the not-so-good have all made their homes in the Chilterns. Many of their finest houses are now in the care of the National Trust. Make your own selection to plan your Grand Tour, with more than its fair share of opulence, interest and intrigue.

For further Chilterns eccentricity, read more stories here.

West Wycombe Village

National History at its Victorian Best

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The historic market town of Tring is a busy, growing commuter town within easy reach of London and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Located on the original Akeman Street – a major Roman road in England that linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Tring is in auspicious company. Built in 1889 to house one of the finest zoological collections in private hands, this in a museum frozen in time.

Just across the street are the picturesque Louisa Cottages Alms Houses on Akeman Street, built in 1893.

Inside the NHM Tring is a veritable feast of the exotic, elusive, exquisite, extinct and downright delightful exhibits from another age of museum-going. With not a gadget in sight, the slightly surreal setting of sturdy, floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases, drawers and fine cabinets that house thousands of stuffed exhibits that continue to entrance generations of local residents.

Circus fleas

The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. You don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter. We saw the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; delighted at the fruits of a busy mother’s labours as she sat up late at night dressing the fleas her children had caught from their pets, are on display next to exquisite moths and butterflies, to marvel at the 128-year old tortoise that lived with an assortment of animals (including kangaroos and an Emu), in nearby Tring Park.

On display is more than just stuffed animals though. It is a whole other value system in which our relationship with wild and domestic creatures was clearly very different: witness the display case of stuffed domestic dogs, a dodo and the famous Tring polar bear. We accept them as the animals were captured, slain and stuffed long ago, but I was surprised to see some dogs ‘donated’ as late as 1970. Perhaps not such a lost art after all?

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The museum founder, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937), second Baron Rothschild belonged to a rich and powerful family that influenced and shaped the local landscape (and seems once owned much of it), was a keen naturalist from an early age and collected all manor of exotic creatures which he brought back to his private museum in Tring. Famous for riding around town in a carriage pulled by a zebra, local response is not, unfortunately recorded, but I do wonder what they made of it all.

Natural History Museum, Tring
Armadillo, Natural History Museum, Tring

My son wanted to show me the Galapagos tortoise that Lord Rothschild once road upon, but I was too distracted by the dust on top of the display case to appreciate the size of the animal…I really must stop doing that. That said, this is no fusty-musty museum, some of the galleries have been overhauled to improve presentation and durability of the exhibits without detracting too much from what I really enjoy; a museum that is not trying to hard, knows its core product, doesn’t smell of fried food, nor does it break the budget – it’s free! What’s not to like?

Ideas for local places to visit and explore

For further information on visiting NHM Tring which is open all year round except from December 24 – 26th, there is also a regular programme of events and wildlife photography exhibitions.

The story of the Tring Tiles is so terribly brief, as not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England, or in France.

For information on what else to explore and enjoy in the Chilterns