It was too good an opportunity to pass up. An unplanned visit to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, on route, discovering another quite unexpected, but creepy, derelict estate in Mongewell Park.
With a name that rhymes with sponge-well, Mongewell is a mere mile from Wallingford, sandwiched between the Winterbrook bridge, the busy B4009 and River Thames to the west.
Finding your way there is the first challenge. Down a country lane, along a footpath, past large unfriendly signs advising visitors to keep out, unless heading to St John the Baptist church. Don’t be put off.
A horror film set
The site has had a colourful past – from an ancient Grims Ditch, the Normans, a bishops estate, WW1 convalescent home and RAF station, to groundbreaking Jewish boarding school, Carmel College that closed in 1997. Although earmarked for housing, the extensive site is derelict.
On past peeling portakabins with boarded up windows and verandas sinking into dense vegetation, that you walk by to get to the church. The school added several buildings, including its synagogue and the Julius Gottlieb Gallery and Boathouse. An intriguing, creepy place. I could see why it has been a popular film location – great for horror movies!
Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?
A jigsaw puzzle
Partly taped off, in case the roof tiles continue their downward slide, you skirt the headstones beneath the east wall of the apse to enter. It reminded me of Someries Castle near Luton in size and decay. Minus the vandalism. Hemmed in by dark vegetation, the atmosphere was just ever-so menacing. This is not a romantic ruin!
Come away make no delay
The inscription on the now lost church bell 1760
When the nave lost its roof in the 1940’s, the arch to the apse was blocked up. Unsure if the heavy door would yield, it took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
A surprise awaits
The floor may be dusty, but tucked away behind a Churches Conservation Trust poster, is a pile of neatly folded clothes and a bucket and mop. It is looked after, this tiny uncluttered space, with interesting stone monuments, a large, but damaged Victorian font and pretty stained glass window behind the alter. The wrought iron chandelier was added in the 1880’s and hangs from the reconstructed 14th century wooden roof.
Following repairs and the placing of monuments and the font from the nave into the apse, it is hard to imagine this lovely space was once derelict.
What movie set could this be from?
It got suddenly dark inside the chancel, huge storm clouds quickly fluffing up overhead. It was time to go! I closed the door, making sure it wouldn’t blow open and picked my way through the weeds and out across the nave into the deserted Mongewell Park.
A place of contrasts and a big dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy surrounds, made this a highlight for me. Such an unexpected delight, the little chancel amidst the weeds and decay. A deserved inclusion in this blog!
The chancel was unlocked, which was a surprise as there was no one around. It may be locked when you visit. If all you can experience is the exterior ruin and surrounds, you won’t be disappointed.
Mongewell was once a strip parish – these were thin strips of land extending from the Thames and into part of Stoke Row, up in the Chiltern Hills. There is lovely story of why a 19th century Maharajah felt compelled to make an extraordinary gesture to ensure a free, clean water supply to Stoke Row, far away in England. The land of endless rain ironically.
Tring Park is a vast green space that merges comfortably with the market town of Tring, in the northern Chilterns.
I am regular visitor to Tring Park where I take Leo and meet with friends to walk. This spring, I have been exploring new routes around the 260 acres, and have discovered paths tucked away through gates and shady copses.
I have focused, not on the big statement avenues of trees and follies, but on the smaller, more intricate detail of the parkland.
Making regular appearances in the history books, the town and surrounding land are recorded as having been handed on from one monarch to another, to their wives, to a Groom of the Bedchamber or a Clerk of the Treasury. Throw in a couple of Royal mistresses, and you’ll be thoroughly confused.
We pick up the story when the space was formally landscaped in the 1720’s by Charles Bridgeman, who helped pioneer the naturalistic landscape style. If like me, you haven’t heard of him, it’ll be because innovations in English landscape architecture have been eclipsed by the work of his more famous successor, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. He was responsible for landscaping the nearby Ashridge House estate and the statement ‘golden valley’ amongst other impressive projects.
There are neat piles of miscellaneous stones, discarded bricks, and tumbled down walls that are sinking slowly back into the hillside.
What Bridgeman did was mix and successfully merge the formal woodland layout (and their follies), with the more free-flow chalk downland and broad open landscape. The feature that is most striking is the steep ridge that runs like a spine along the southern edge of the park, along which the Ridgeway National Trail traverses. Passing through the park, the Ridgeway follows the King Charles’ Ride, this broad avenue is one of my favourite places to walk, with wonderful views over Tring and across the Vale of Aylesbury to Ivinghoe Beacon and Mentmore Towers. All beneath a canopy of stately trees.
All over the park, you’ll find signs of past lives and purpose. From wobbly walls and names of landscape features, to the two most prominent: Nell Gwyn’s’ Obelisk that commends the centre of the woodland and just further up the trail, you will see the remains of a summer house. The latter was full of chalk praise for Donald Trump when I walked past!
The avenue of lime trees welcome most visitors from the town as you cross the intrusive A41 on the footbridge from the National History Museum car park. This is the best way in fact to access the park.
Zebra’s and kiwis
When the Rothschilds bought the Tring estate in 1872, they transformed the mansion house, but left the park largely unaltered. Apart from the exotic animals that were added! This dynasty has left its mark across the region in homes, landscapes, heritage and the arts.
Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937) was an avid collector of animals. At its largest, the Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, over 2 million butterflies, 30,000 beetles as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles and fishes. Revolting. But at that time, travelling to hunt and collect specimens was fairly common. He formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual. He found time to found the nearby National History Museum, just to house his growing zoological collection, including circus fleas and a polar bear. It’s a charming museum, that has retained most of its quirky Victorian displays.
His interest in animals saw imported cassowary’s, zebras and kangaroos roaming free in the park. Whilst in the park, his father’s patience was sorely tested when a cassowary chased him. I wonder what the locals made of it all?
Now you’ll likely encounter a herd of cows who munch their way from one end of the park to the other, leaving behind nothing but nutritious pats.
Tring Park is a well used and popular green space for the community. Busy with dog walkers, runners, gossip and events, best of all is the King Charles’ Ride for the sheer joy of it, the far-reaching views and a place to sit and think.
Each time I go, this microcosm of the Chilterns has something new to share; an opening vista in the autumn, horses trotting along the Ridgeway, tiny wildflowers, sledging in the winter or the call of the song thrush in April.
There are several trails to follow, information on the notice boards at the various entrances to the park, or you can simply wander and see where the paths take you. Woodland Trust
Not just a pretty face, Tring has a lovely high street full of independent shops and refreshment stops.
Lodged now at the British Museum, the story of the Tring Tiles is frustratingly brief. Not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England.
Directly accessible from the park is the hilltop village of Wigginton, with thirst-quenching pub and village shop selling homemade cakes and supplies.
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On March 8th, we come together to celebrate the many achievements of women during International Women’s Day (#IWD2021 #ChooseToChallenge). This annual global event celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, past and present, from all over the world.
How can this global event be relevant to somewhere local, an ancient trackway through southern England?
The Ridgeway National Trail is a walking route in a surprisingly remote part of southern central England. Linking Wiltshire with Buckinghamshire, the route travels in a northeasterly direction for 87 miles (139 Km); from its start in the World Heritage Site of Avebury and ends at an Iron Age hill fort on Ivinghoe Beacon. As Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway still follows the same route over high ground used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers. It continues to inspire artists, writers, and historians, who between them, enable us to better interpret the collective story and appreciate this wonderful national asset.
Thanks to a group of remarkable women, who through a passion for art, archeology, history, education and farming, bring an important national asset into our communities and collective conscious, for everyone to enjoy, explore, respect and care for, for future generations.
Past and present, this is their contribution
Working at the western end of the Ridgeway, archeologist Maud Cunnington (1869 – 1951), is a woman of firsts. One of the most important excavators working in Wiltshire at the beginning of the twentieth century, Maud’s most significant contribution to the Avebury landscape was that she identified the site of the Sanctuary. Whilst William Stukeley sketched this prehistoric site in the eighteenth century, the stones had been broken up or since removed and location lost. Maud identified the site’s exact location and preserved it for future generations by purchasing the land and giving it to the nation.
In 1933, she was elected president of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the first woman to hold that position. She was also named a CBE in 1948 for services to archaeology, the first woman archaeologist to receive the honour. She bequeathed almost all her property to Devizes Museum (now Wiltshire Heritage Museum), allowing a salaried curator to be appointed for the first time.
Today the on-site curatorial team at Avebury is made up entirely of female archaeologists. Excavations and discoveries continue to be made and published as they work to form a better understanding of this intriguing landscape.
Archaeologist Molly Cotton (1902-1984), made her mark at the eastern end of the Ridgeway at Ivinghoe Beacon: the Cotton and Frere excavations of 1963 – 65 identified this important structure as Iron Age. In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology London.
Clare Leighton (1899-1989), was a leading illustrator, wood engraver, painter, author of many books, teacher, and designer for posters, ceramics and glass. It was whilst living in Monks Risborough, just off the Ridgeway in the 1930’s, she published her celebrated volume on Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts. At this time her subject matter often involved observations of the countryside and rural life, as in her books such as The Farmer’s Year: a calendar of English husbandry (1933) and Four Hedges: a gardener’s chronicle (1935), as well as evocative posters for London Transport, including Weekend Walks and The Country Now.
Fay Godwin (1931 – 2005), was a photographer of great renown, known for her black-and-white landscapes of the British countryside and coast. The Oldest Road, an account of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, with text by JRL Anderson, was an immediate success when published in 1975. She was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1990 and had a major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London in 2001. Fay also lead the Ramblers Association from 1987 to 1990, at a time when its long-running right-to-roam campaign was turned up to the full-strength pressure. Read more about her life and works here.
Archaeologist Gill Hey was involved in excavations in 2003 of the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross above Princes Risborough on the Ridgeway. Now CEO of Oxford Archaeology, Gill started her career at Reading University where active fieldwork was encouraged. Gill says, “I fell in love with the physical process of carefully unpicking what was left in the ground in combination with the mental process of puzzling out who had been there and what they were doing.” Looking back at her archaeologist predecessors on IWD21, Gill suggests, “It is now a much more equal environment and I am very pleased to say that we have as many women working for the organisation as men, although we need to do more to encourage them to progress to senior roles.”
Archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison’s research areas are Prehistoric European Archaeology and Landscape Archaeology. Closer to home, Wendy leads the Chilterns ‘Beacons of the Past’ project. Her work seeks to engage and inspire communities to discover, conserve, and enjoy what is around us and the unique Iron Age hillforts and their prehistoric chalk landscapes. The Chilterns has one of the largest collections of hillforts in the UK, yet many are poorly preserved, and little is known about them. Luckily, several of these hillforts are accessible from the Ridgeway.
A key part of Wendy’s project is the largest LiDAR survey ever flown for archaeology in this country, and one of the largest in the world! Images are captured with a laser scanner mounted on a small plane that captures information about the ground below; revealing intriguing ‘lumps and bumps’, such as hillforts, that are hidden by tree cover and other vegetation. Wendy is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Landscape painter Anna Dillon, grew up in Aston Tirrold near the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, surrounded by rolling chalk downland and big skies. Drawn to landscapes, combined with an enjoyment of long distance walking, Anna studied Illustration and Design at the Falmouth School of Art and worked as a graphic designer until she made the decision to paint full time. Anna came to see the Ridgeway as a source of artistic inspiration at an exhibition in Swindon showing work by a group of international artists. The curator Francis Kyle, had invited the group to visit the Ridgeway and portray the ‘presence of the landscape’.
During 2009, Anna walked the National Trail through the seasons with her husband, keeping a photo journal and diary. From this, she produced 24 oil paintings that were exhibited in a series of shows called A Ridgeway Journey in 2012. Since then, Anna has added further paintings to create the Ridgeway Series, which tracks the seasons from ‘snowscapes’ in Wiltshire through to autumn in the Chilterns.
Anna is portrayed in the header image.
Farmer, entomologist and ecologist, Sally-Ann Spence lives and works on her family’s farm along the Ridgeway in Ashbury, near Wayland Smithy, in Oxfordshire. Sally-Ann is a leading dung beetle expert and one of her treasures is a dry calcareous grassland valley near the Ridgeway, which she is carefully managing to provide habitat for dung beetles, as well as other flora and fauna. Over two decades, she has built up her own flock of native Wiltshire Horn sheep with stylish Belted Galloway “belties” and Dexter cattle to graze the farm’s permanent grasslands.
To further both research and education in natural history, Sally-Ann has converted her farmhouse and adjoining barn into a research centre called the Berrycroft Hub and mentors many young people. You may have heard her talking about insects on BBC Radio 4 ‘The Killing Jar’ and on the BBC Breakfast programme. She has impressive credentials as an Honorary Associate of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and fellow of both the Royal Entomological Society and The Linnean Society.
We salute you!
This impressive group is by no means exclusive. Instead, it’s the start of acknowledging and celebrating the women who have been quietly making a contribution to our Ridgeway landscape, understanding of and making our heritage accessible and culture enjoyable. Each in their own fields of expertise, are choosing the challenge perceptions and glass ceilings for those women who will follow. We thank you.
With contributions from Sarah Wright, Trail Officer Ridgeway National Trail.
There are lots of online events and exhibitions on the IWD website. #ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021 Find your Ridgeway inspiration, information and Trail itineraries here.
The Ridgeway has been portrayed by many artists, and one in particular, of great cultural importance visited the pretty villages of Goring and Streatley to paint timeless English landscapes.
Many of the images on this website are available for sale on our Chilterns Gifts website in the Kites & Clouds and A Year in the Chilterns ranges.
A day to gladden the heart!Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.
It’s the New Year, and months of continued uncertainty stretch ahead. I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual”.
A popular destination, Ashridge Forest draws visitors from far and wide. Covid-19 has made the great outdoors more appealing to locals and visitors, but it has put new pressures on our environment that organisations like the National Trust are still grappling with. Visitors tend to converge at the visitor centre or around Ivinghoe Beacon, but the forest is vast, so I can slip away down a muddy trail with Leo, the sounds of the forest and occasional walker to share my space.
Sounds are louder in winter; voices carry surprisingly far, as do dogs barking, bicycles swooshing through the grit and mud and the occasional shriek of a child as they climb and balance on fallen tree trunks.
I look for open spaces as I am getting wet walking under the bigger beech trees drip dripping with moisture.
Birdsong is louder too, accompanied by a flash of movement as bluejays, magpies and blackbirds flash up from the undergrowth, noticeable against the bare trees. The robins are already guarding their territories, singing their little hearts out.
The sun is low, but still warm in sheltered places where I can enjoy the sparking rain drops clinging onto leaf buds. I image some hardy insects having a sauna in the steam slowly rising from a log.
Signs of spring
At first sight, the forest floor is predominantly shades of bracken brown. However, taking an involuntary closer look, after an entanglement with some robust tree roots, turns out there are green shoots – some bluebells I expect, are early signs of spring.
Now Ashridge forest is laid bare, it looks untidy, branches tangled, huge boughs drooping, as though the trees have been turned upside down and the mass of roots are now visible – inverted. The decay of autumn trodden in and will soon fade as new growth takes hold.
The impassable becomes passable
As I walk beneath tree boughs that are normally thick with foliage and difficult to get through, the impassable becomes passable. The smaller tracks will become chocked with stinging nettles and brambles, others smothered in foliage.
The mud is something else! Thick, deep and sticky enough to loose your boots in. I have walked these trails many times, but each time is different; berries in various stages of growth or decay, views that open or close depending if the leaves are on the trees or under your feet. When the bracken is green, it blends in perfectly with the trees, and can be quite visually suffocating.
A re-purposed saw pit
An old saw pit has filled up with wood and algae floating amongst grasses, mysterious air bubbles popping to the surface. It’s too cold for frogs, so what could it be? Gas from decaying organic matter?
I spot an elder tree with the peculiar ‘jelly ear’ (or wood ear) growing along a branch. Found in most places, this edible species of Auriculariales fungus is distinguished by its noticeably ear-like shape and colouration.
Its specific epithet is derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree; the common name “Judas’s ear” was largely eclipsed by the corruption “Jew’s ear”, while today “wood ear”, “jelly ear” and other names are preferred.
It gets cold quickly, and I head home before my fingers are numb. Most walks show me something new, or it’s that I have simply noticed new things. I know that when next I visit, the forest will have changed again; new sounds, more birds, more early, optimistic Chilterns growth. There is however, the potential for snow and ice, which will make the forest even quieter and fun to explore.
I have written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the great outdoors that surrounds this beautiful region.
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 once Flourishing Ashridge Trade.
In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.
Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.
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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!
I picked my way along the path before settling on a rotten tree trunk that offered respite from the sticky mud. A rabbit darted 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. 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.
A Grande Dame
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 Grand Dame.
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.
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. The real gem however, 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.
Some quick thinking
Much has been written about this church, its memorials, tombs and occupants that can still be seen today, thanks to some quick thinking by local Civil War army commander Colonel Francis Martyn. He 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?
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.
Disappointment and dust
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. 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!
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.