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