Shapeshifters

Like sardines, starlings are iridescent, shapeshifting units. These seasonal aerial displays, or murmurations are just like the vast migrating families of fish.

I don’t usually write about birds, as they are not something I know much about. Other than to enjoy the spectacle they present and to encourage nesting in my garden, (which blackbirds and robins oblige), I simply admire them from afar.

Along with blackbirds, magpies, sparrows, robins, blue jays, song thrush and the twice daily overflight from a red kite, starlings are very much part of the community. Noisy and gregarious, they feed on the verges and lawns, the flock swooping and chattering from the aerials and rooftops every day. Far from being dull, they show-off iridescent colours that change as they move about.

Starlings who used to roost in vast numbers in London’s Leicester Square, but no more. Discouraged by birds of prey and bright lights they are typical of species that is in decline.

It’s not just the starlings putting on a good show this autumn
They are birds that get noticed

I first heard of murmurations from a wildlife programme and friend who lives near Brighton Pier where they are a fairly regular sight. I don’t know where this unusual name comes from. Is it the sound their wings make on their fly-pasts? More of a whooshing sound than a murmur. As they settle in to roost, they made a huge racket, so I’m not convinced it’s their sound. More to do with the movement? The ebb and flow?

Shapeshifters

The sight of their displays is special. Like sardines they are also iridescent, acting as shapeshifting units, but some of them are changing direction, or deciding that it’s time to enter the roost. They are like the vast families of sardines.

Then last autumn, during the year of lockdown, when I was spending time locally – as you would have been, retracing my steps along tracks I had forgotten, I saw my first display. Quite small, but I knew immediately what it was. I watched as the birds worked their magic over water near College Lake in Hertfordshire before disappearing into the trees.

What is a murmuration?

A murmuration is the collection noun for starlings and describes their aerial displays before these groups roost for the night.

I am not aware of other British species that do this, but please do set me right if this is not the case. These large gatherings happen in the autumn and gather pace as more birds migrate from central Europe to the milder winter climate here, peaking in December and January. The groups get larger and larger as smaller groups are absorbed with latecomers, but all roosting together. It seems a sensible way for the birds to nestle up and keep warm together during the long winter nights. Makes me wonder how a single robin keeps warm on a cold night?

Starlings, the sardines of the sky

You may have heard of the Sardine Run? The annual spectacle of millions of migrating sardines that swim north along the east coast of South Africa each winter, attracts all sorts of visitors, predators and chancers who jostle for the best spots to feed or to follow. This is what I am reminded of, in the sky but not that well attended.

Gathering on rooftops, chattering and hopping about before taking off and slowly making their way back and forth, back and forth in the direction of the roosting site. That was when I spotted them, some distance away, but I recognised a murmuration in the making. Leo and I legged it!

The making of a murmuration

Untidy and at height, three sizeable groups slowing growing in size as they absorbed stragglers, circling above my head. Each bird is flying quickly, like synchronised swimmers. The closer they get to the roosting site, the tighter the circles and those tell-tale murmurations emerge; long, tapered, chunky, a cloud, flat, a ball, untidy as some are wanting to go in a different direction.

They hang in the air

Their wings shimmering as they change direction, appearing to contact and expand, undulating as they fly overhead. I can hear them chattering. One group follows the other, chasing it, darting behind, their wings rushing as they fly overhead. Merging for an instant then two separate groups. Does each bird know which group it’s in?

The spectacle begins

Alive. In no hurry to rush to their roost. It is as if they are enjoying gathering and circling many times to then suddenly drop. As if sucked out of the sky, falling like rain into the reeds.

And they are done

The reeds are alive with unseen birds, their jostling and chatter whilst settling in causing waves across the vegetation. Two smaller groups join, one after the other, as do some late stragglers, who just fly straight in. Magnificent!

The sun was gone and it was getting cold. I left them still chattering and jostling, thinking about what the take off at sunrise would look like.

Further information

There’s plenty more to enjoy in the season of colour across the Chilterns. “Wrap up warm” the hardy types say; “put on wellies, a good coat and pack a thermos”. Let me unpack that for you: wellies don’t keep your feet warm, jeans turn to ice when it’s wet and cold, and yes, a thermos is a very good idea. Take a look at the autumn page for ideas.

Explore the northern Chilterns, they offer a different experience to the busy southern and central regions.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts including; Christmas cards, china mugs, tea-towels, 2022 A4 wall calendar amongst other popular items.

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The Chilterns 2022 wall calendar

Marlow Mash-up

A withered hand, swans, Edwardian villas and tales of scandal and woe are what Marlow is exceptionally good at. Go and find your quirky Marlow.

The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.

All Saints Marlow
All Saints Marlow from the bridge

Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?

Cheerful bunting on the high street
Marlow high street full of independent shops

Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches. 

Cosy pubs in Marlow
Cosy pubs

The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank. 

Messing about in Marlow
Thames Path views

Bisham Abbey

Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry. In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. King Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.

Bisham Abbey
The pretty Manor House at Bisham

The Hand of St James

The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics. 

The Queen’s Swan Marker

The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.

Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line.  www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.

Swan Upping on the Thames
Mind the Swan Uppers!

Further Information

A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.    

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.

A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings  

It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents.  ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com

Mary does Marlow
Join a walking tour of Marlow with Mary.

Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.

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Pitstone Windmill A4 photographic print

The Hampdens

Classic Chilterns countryside awaits; dappled beechwoods and open, undulating fields in an historic, beautiful landscape.

Not the Hamptons, but a tucked-away Buckinghamshire parish about three miles south east of Princes Risborough. It incorporates the villages of Great Hampden and Little Hampden and hamlets of Green Valley and Hampden Row.

Due to difficult geography, no major roads or rail links ripped through this countryside.

You’ll find instead deer, the tips of hares, countless butterflies, dozing horses and dappled footpaths through beech woods in an historic landscape. Churches, farms, a manor house and memorials to old family names and their legends.

Classic Chilterns

Setting off from the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross on the hillside above Princes Risborough, we followed one of the very good National Trust countryside Trails that leads from the familiar into the pleasing unfamiliar.

Above Princes Risborough, Whiteleaf is where the walk to Little Hampden starts
The view from Whiteleaf towards Bledlow.

Leaving an overgrown Whiteleaf Cross at the WW1 trenches, apart from some dog walkers, we had the route to ourselves. A beautiful August day, we passed through Kingsfield Wood and walked parallel to a Grim’s Ditch Iron Age earthwork. A feature of the Chilterns, I’ve heard many theories about who it was meant to keep in or out: cattle or the Danes?

A style to nowhere
Would this have kept the Danes out?
Hampden House

The 400-year old cedar tree hinted at our approach to Hampden House. The Gothic-style battlements and arch windows resemble an overblown wedding cake. Perhaps an influencing factor when the current owners bought the house from the family in 1985 to market as a wedding venue. They refurbished a structure that had seen wear and tear as a girls school and latterly as the location for the Hammer film company who churned out horror films and TV series in the 1980’s. An extraordinary sight in this quiet valley.

Gothic revival Hampden House

Once home to the Hampdens (later the Earls of Buckinghamshire), who lived here continuously from before the Normans right up until 1938. Imagine that!

A famous son of this valley (who has a statue in Aylesbury), is commemorated across the county, is John Hampden. Notorious for his refusal to pay 20 shillings for the dodgy ship-money tax, brought in by a near bankrupt King Charles 1 in 1637. This indirectly led to the Civil War and his death at Chalgrove Field near Thame. St Mary Magdalene church doubtless has a rich heritage inside, but is still under Covid-restricted opening hours and was closed.

Hampden family church
The 13th century church of St Mary Magdalene, probable burial site for John ‘the patriot’ Hampden is adjacent to the Manor House.

We continued our walk down an avenue of lime, plane and horse chestnut trees that must have shaded many a visitor over the years. We did as instructed and pushed the button on the large gate and turned to cross the hot fields, alive with butterflies and the scraping of crickets. I love that high summer sound.

Hampden House from Queens Gap
Hampden House from the grassy ‘Queens Gap’ avenue

We spotted deer jumping over the wheat, making it look so easy. Rabbits and probably hares too as we climbed up through Warren wood towards the isolated hamlet of Little Hampden and our second local family.

Little Hampden Church

This gem of a church is tiny, and looks quite fragile. Yet it has survived the rigours of the Reformation and a Victorian make-over. The church is of course locked, and access has to be arranged to see the medieval wall paintings and alter stone.

The church at Little Hampden
Little Hampden church

The 15th century porch has two storeys, the upper one housing a bell, cast in 1791 that is once again working, the locals vying for the privilege of ringing it across the valley.

The Gingers

Not only is the building spectacular, the graveyard is too. Surprisingly large, with an uneven surface, evidence of long-forgotten burials. I was drawn to a headstone, tucked away at the boundary and noticed the unusual surname.

Headstone in the church at Little Hampden
In memory of Ann, wife of John Ginger

“The Yeomanry family of Ginger constantly resident here, during more than two hundred years; as the principal tenants and occupiers of the land, have obtained some celebrity, on account of the great age to which some of them attained, ….that the head of each of four generations, had arrived at the age of upwards of ninety years.” [The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, by George Lipscomb, 1847].

I found further evidence of the Ginger generations on the Ancestry genealogy website, including an incident of stock theft and a funeral. I wonder if there are Gingers still living in the area?

What a walk! Eight miles packed with nuanced history, places, people, outlandish buildings and beautiful scenery. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, this really is classic, unexpected Chilterns.

Further Information

There are several circular walks from Whiteleaf, including a spell on the Ridgeway National Trail.

You’ll find another link with the Civil War in the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Dinton. A heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

There are plenty of other delightful Chilterns churches to visit across the seasons.

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Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic Chilterns prints

To A Manor Born

A microcosm of a Chilterns village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it.

Located about 2km west of Princes Risborough in the central Chilterns, Bledlow really is off the beaten track.

Refreshingly Wild

With the Lions of Bledlow pub at one end, wobbly brick and flint cottages either side of the shady street, the parish church described as ‘fabulously wild’, and a manor house with a secret water garden at the other end, it’s quite a place!

Bledlow is in fact derived from ‘Bled-Hlaw’ meaning Bloody Hill, from a battle between the Danes and Saxon’s – way back. Two ancient trails pass by the village; the Icknield Way and Ridgeway National Trail. It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk. Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place. Footpaths and signs for the long distance trails inviting you both up and away over the hills, or inviting you down into the village.

The Manor House and gardens
An intriguing water sculpture
Manor House and Gardens

The Manor House dates from the 17th century and has been long associated with the Carrington family. Built by the Blancks family, it was bought by the first Lord Carrington for his eldest son in the late 18th century. It has endured multiple change of function, and is once again being renovated by current owners, the seventh Lord and Lady Carrington. His father held key government posts during 1980’s and was the sixth Secretary General of NATO.

Sculpture garden
Fruit in the Sculpture Garden

Before 1950, there wasn’t a garden. What is here now was designed by landscape architect Robert Adams following destruction of a 15th century tithe barn in 1967 that necessitated a re-design.

A kitchen garden, sculpture garden, fish ponds, snail gardens and orchard now surround the house in a carpet of deep green, lilac, lots of bees and whichever shade of rose you prefer.

Situated beside the church in a deep, shaded ravine, is the the Lyde Garden. Also landscaped by Robert Adams for the sixth Lord Carrington in the 1980’s.

The ravine is full of noisy tumbling streams. They converge into clear pools marking the rising of the River Lyde, a tributary of the River Thame. No wonder it was the site of watercress beds, a once popular Chilterns crop.

Lyde Garden
That water is so clear! Perfect for watercress beds.

I could see why Bledlow is called a spring line village. This is a settlement formed around chalk springs through which water escapes between a layer of permeable rock above impermeable rock.

‘They who live and abide,

shall see Bledlow Church fall into the Lyde”

Medieval nursery rhymn

The shady gardens have a distinctive sub-tropical feel, with some leaves the circumference of tractor tires. Moody willows droop into the ponds, exotic ferns jostle with Californian trees and brightly coloured Himalayan flowers line the path. Even the duck house looks exotic!

Lyde garden duck house
Lush, full vegetation
Fabulously Wild

Holy Trinity church is described by Simon Jenkins, (author of England’s Thousand Best Churches), as ‘fabulously wild’. This largely unaltered Romanesque church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. Sadly, due to Covid restrictions, I have not yet been able to go inside. I will return.

Bledlow church
Residents past and present

A microcosm of an English village, Bledlow is a blip on the landscape, but very much shaped by it. The church is still standing, but who knows, in thousands of years, perhaps the nursery rhyme will come true?

Further Information

The Manor House Garden, Bledlow HP27 9PB is open to visitors by appointment.

The Lyde Garden, is on Church End and is open all year around from 9 – 5pm. No dogs please.

Explore the veritable feast that is the Central Chilterns including extensive Ashridge woodland, Dunstable downs, a Norman castle, historic market towns and the Grand Union Canal.

Discover holidays and long-distance hiking holidays along the ancient Ridgeway National Trail.

Celebrate the seasons in the Chiltern Hills with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to take home with you. Chilterns Gifts are available for delivery to mainland UK addresses only.

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Gifts for friends

Shillington Village

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing place names, unusual geology and landscape history, is worth your time.

I am increasingly drawn to the northern Chilterns. Encircled by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire conurbations of Luton, Dunstable, Stevenage and Hitchin, this unassuming space has a rich history.

A landscape under urban pressure as the sprawl grows and grows. Pre Covid-19, Luton airport had over 100,000 annual aircraft movements, adding to the noise and pollution. This is no chocolate box English idyll. In sharp contrast to the central and southern Chilterns, you have to look harder to understand the landscape and it’s unusual sense of place.

From Shillington towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
The view towards Sharpenhoe Clappers
Beauty and special landscape qualities are everywhere

Just north of the Barton Hills and within sight of the escarpment that runs from Sharpenhoe through to Knocking Hoe, Shillington village is crowded around its church. A prominent landmark atop its chalk hill, the tower is visible for miles around.

“hoh”, or “hoe” as it has become known, refers to a heel or protruding piece of land.

From the Bunyon Trail
John Betjeman called All Saints the ‘Cathedral of the Chilterns’

At nearly 1,000 years old, All Saints Church has survived the weather, natural disaster, decay, plague, pollution and a Victorian make-over. The geology has determined the vernacular with the ironstone walls, a type of Clophill sandstone commonly found in Bedfordshire. The whiter interior stone is called ‘clunch’, a soft, workable chalky limestone from the old quarry at Totternhoe in south Bedfordshire. A stone distinguishable in many local churches (and in Westminster Abbey). Mined at Totternhoe Knowles, a favourite place to walk with wildflowers, industrial archaeology and smattering of burnt-out cars.

Ancient poo

Once a Saxon monastery, the church and region grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite. More than just fossilised dinosaur dung, this wonder substance can also include teeth, bones and claws consumed by the ‘producer’, and mineralised over millions of years.

These accumulations are in fact the remains of land animals caught as the sea levels rose over 90 million years ago. The resulting Greensand Ridge stretches over 100 miles from Tring through Bedfordshire and Cambridge and on to East Anglia.

Cottages on Church Street
A gold-rush

In the 1700’s, someone discovered that once coprolites were processed, the resulting phosphate made excellent fertiliser. Seams were subsequently exposed at nearby Chibley Farm, and so began a dangerous, but lucrative trade. All across the region, people came to what must have been a mini-gold rush. Shillington’s population doubled to 2,400 thirsty men, women and children who made good use of the 12 local pubs! Everyone was cashing in; landowners, farmers, the church, publicans, bankers, brewers and mining suppliers.

Drinking was naturally a problem and the church spent time and effort trying to tackle it. After taking the pledge, one man was advised by his doctor to take ‘a glass of Porter’ to alleviate his rheumatism, he decided to be pain-free rather than devout, but lost his membership of the congregation!

From about 1890 the industry declined almost as fast as it grew. There are no landscape scars however, no rusty mining structures either. The layer of coprolite-bearing clay was handily near to the surface, and once extraction holes had been depleted, the fields could be easily restored.

Is that the time?

One local exception could be the clock in the church tower. Put in at considerable expense at the height of the boom in 1870, when £100 seemed a reasonable price?

The more visible legacy are the big houses that got bigger from the proceeds of leasing land for prospecting. Methodist chapels sprung up at the height of the boom and landowner Trinity College in Cambridge, made handsome profits.

A house in the Shillington village
Shillington Village cottages

As you explore these pretty village and country lanes with screeching summer swallows, imagine who has passed before you; hoping to make their fortune, or finding misfortune from the fossils.

An unassuming county, Bedfordshire and the northern Chilterns with their intriguing places, geology and history, is worth your time.

Shillington church street
Looking down Church Street
Further Information

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, All Saints is temporarily closed. Sunday afternoon teas and refreshments will hopefully be offered once they re-open.

Explore nearby Baron Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers, all possible on the same day. Tucked away down an impossibly bumpy road, is Someries Castle, a scheduled ancient monument.

The Bunyon Trail is dedicated to the memory of John Bunyan, the Puritan Evangelist and author of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, his famous work he wrote whilst in prison. The route passes through villages and scenic countryside, taking in many places of historic interest connected with him.

The nearby Crown pub serves cozy pub meals with a garden in the summer.

Six miles away is the market town of Hitchin. I recommend the British Schools Museum and one of the last working lavender farms in the country, Hitchin Lavender.

Chilterns Gifts

Celebrate the seasons with a NEW range of beautifully designed gifts and souvenirs to remind you of your time well spent. Online order and deliveries to mainland UK only.

Chilterns Gifts
A4 photographic prints, mugs, tea-towels and stationery

Mongewell Park

A place of contrasts with a dollop of atmosphere, offset by the creepy landscape. The little chancel amidst the weeds and decay made this an unexpected delight.

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!

Carmel College Mongewell Park
The Modernist synagogue is just visible through the trees

Agatha Christie lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for 40 years. I wonder how much inspiration she found here?

A jigsaw puzzle
The exterior of St Johns Mongewell
Roofless with an assortment of brick and flint

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!

A dandelion in the nave of St John the Baptist
Red campion and dandelions grow on the walls and floor of the nave.

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.

A simple interior at Mongewell St Johns
An uncluttered interior with distinctive zig-zag pattern around the Norman arch.

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.

Sunlight through the open door at Mongewell church
With the sunlight streaming through the open door, it was calm and peaceful.
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.

Storm clouds over St johns Mongewell
Derelict and with no congregation, St John the Baptist was vested to the Churches Conservation Trust in 1985

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.

Further information

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.

The Ridgeway National Trail skirts the site and a quick visit to the church is recommended.

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Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Tring in Spring

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.

Tring Park paths
The primroses lead the way

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.

Innovation

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.

Tring park boundary walls
Flint and bricks crumble and decay, ivy lazes on the top like a giant boa.

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.

Copper beeches get dressed

Past Lives

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!

King Charles’ Ride
Like a penny farthing bicycle stuck in the mud

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.

The A41 cuts through Tring Park
Tring Park school for the Performing Arts sits over the road, to the north of 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.

A trail in Tring Park
Was this such a good idea?

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.

Spring shadows in Tring park
The shadows are long, and the grass wet with a light frost, the air cold in the shadow of the beech trees

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.

Spring flowers in Tring park
Primroses, lesser celandine and blackthorn

Further information

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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Chilterns gifts
Beautiful new Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

Ashridge Forest, Paused

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.

Staying local

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.

Ashridge Forest Trails
The trails are quiet

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. 

A hazy winter forestscape

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.

Bare trees in the winter sunshine
Winter sunshine finds its way through the trees

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.  

Ashridge Forest
A tangle of trees

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 beautiful view opens up
Only available in winter

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? 

A quiet winter pond in Ashridge Forest in the great outdoors
A quiet winter pond

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.

Jelly Ear fungus growing in Ashridge

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.

Green moss covers the lower tree trunks in the great outdoors
Winter socks for the trees

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.

Stay safe!

Further Information

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.

Enjoy more walks across the region on the Beyonder walks website along the Thames, woodland and churches.

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Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide