The Grande Dame of Ewelme

Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village? The village of Ewelme fits the bill.

On the Swyncombe road about a mile outside the village of Ewelme is where I stopped to take a deep breath and familiarise myself with the lay of the land. The last time I was here was to visit St Botolph’s, three miles up the lane in the direction two casually-peddling Lycra-free cyclists were heading. It’s a good sign!

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The winding road to Swyncombe

I picked my along the path before settling on a rotten tree trunk that offered respite from the sticky mud. A rabbit dart beneath the hedgerow, it must have seen the two lazily circling kites overhead. A weedy line of smoke from a farmhouse rises from a small fire further up the valley and only a low-flying aeroplane just taking off from nearby RAF Benson is competing with the spring birdsong.

The English countryside: managed or manicured, everything in it’s place, but that’s not to say without beauty, it’s how you see it that counts. Symmetry, patterns, parallel lines, even the turn of the plough creates its own pattern picked out by the sunlight. Little dabs of lime green growth in the hedgerows contrasts with the emerald green of the field behind. Even the vapour trails add their dotted and dashed pattern to the perfect blue sky. I am buzzed by an enormous bumblebee, circling my  muddy shoes.

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Every village needs a chalk stream flowing through it, a manor house, old rectory, almshouses, red-brick school and well-stocked village shop. And a good ghost story.

Ewelme is located north east of the market town of Wallingford, nestled in a green dip, with narrow lanes and pretty cottages tumbling down the hillside to congregate along now defunct watercress beds fed by the Ewelme Brook, that eventually makes its meandering way to the River Thames. Production has sadly ceased (cress can still be bought and enjoyed in the Chess Valley), but now these beds are owned and managed by the Chiltern Society who organise events here in the reserve.

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The old ‘cress beds

If you like medieval villages, there is plenty to satisfy you here: lots of typical Chilterns brick and flint and crooked doorways, well-tendered gardens bursting with flowers, the 15th century cloistered almshouses and modest school; but the real gem is the lovely church of St Mary the Virgin that commands the village heights with a 14th century tower that can be seen from almost anywhere above walls and rooftops.

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Much has been written about this church, it’s memorials, tombs and occupants that can still be seen today thanks to some quick thinking by local Civil War army commander Colonel Francis Martyn, who refused to give up the key to the church and the  Roundheads who surprisingly obeyed, left the church unscathed.

How many parishes can boast a “grande dame” who has the finest alabaster tomb in the village?

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Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church
The must-have tomb

The reason everyone visits is to gaze at the rather splendid tomb of Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and patron of the church who died in 1475 aged 71. We remember her not only for her status, wealth, influence, three husbands, family connections and rare recipient of the Order of the Garter, but because she and her husband gave Ewelme its (rebuilt) church, new superior grammar school and almshouses. She also happened to be the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and her father, Thomas Chaucer was lord of the Manor of Ewelme and governor of Wallingford Castle. The side chapel where she is buried has a curious array of church furnishings that include the original medieval floor tiles, a gaudy turn-of-the-century alter piece adorned with English saints, the sole surviving medieval seat and fabulous IHS monogrammed walls. The tomb dominates the space in a style and manner usually reserved for a Knight and his Lady. She is buried alone as her third husband suffered a ghastly traitors fate and is buried in Suffolk, so she had to make do with adoring cherubs instead. Arranged over three levels, from the most elaborate and celebratory at the top to the realistic effigy of the occupant in her funeral shroud at the bottom.

Too many village churches are nothing but disappointment and dust, sanitised by the Victorians who liked to clean up the mess and paint over the unsightly to better suit their view of the world. But here you have a medieval complex that has seen continuous use for about 600 years, from childhood through to death, and I am certain, watched over by the community who take great pride in their heritage, it will cope with the pressures and fancies of the next 600 years.

Out through the west door, leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex. The school has outgrown the red brick building and has extended it’s classrooms discreetly behind another brick wall to the rear.

In the village store, opposite Kings Pool, I enjoyed coffee and a tasty sandwich and chatted with a bloke who had an interesting collection of old-school camera’s, and wondered if there was any truth to the legend that a lady-in-waiting had in fact pushed King Henry Vlll in!

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Ewelme Store

As for the ghost stories, we’ll save those for another day, as you’ll hear tell of fairies and a witches curse too. Please leave your car in the car park at the entrance to the village and explore on foot.

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For more Chilterns inspiration and ideas

Flavours of the Chess Valley

Despite knowing you are out in the Chilterns countryside, I am reminded of how precious this landscape is – some would say lung – situated so close to burgeoning market towns and London. I heard mention many times of the environmental stress that the River Chess endures, from drought, increased demand for water and waterborne pollution.

Drinking before lunchtime is not without risk; needing a loo whilst out on the trail, not finding the trail, or failing to turn up for lunch on time!

The Chilterns is a living, working area of beautiful countryside whose character has been shaped by agriculture, industry and the people who have lived and worked here over the centuries. Once the larder of London, the historic market towns, tucked-away villages, pubs, chalk-fed streams, valleys and ancient woodland, hint at the tradition of growing, trading, travel and of course, enjoyment of good local food and drink.

Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink

I had the pleasure of once again visiting the charming Chess Valley to meet food producers including a start-up brewery and the last watercress farmer in the valley, with our guides Andrew Clark and local Chess Valley Lamb farmer, Paul Jennings, both of whom had organised this unique event as part of the inaugural Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink.

It was another beautiful spring morning as we set off from Chenies Manor on our walk through this beautiful valley. This historic location 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, 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.

Despite knowing you are out in the Chilterns countryside, I am reminded of how precious this landscape is – some would say lung – situated so close to burgeoning market towns and London. I heard mention many times of the environmental stress that the River Chess endures, from drought, increased demand for water and waterborne pollution.

River chess looking calm
The tranquil river chess

Three Springs

Rising from three springs, the river is fed from precious groundwater beneath the Chiltern hills that hold a chalk aquifer that is the lifeblood of this region. From nearby Chesham, the river flows below parkland landscaped by Capability Brown at Latimer House, just to the north of the hamlet of Chenies, through water meadows at Frogmore and the watercress beds at Sarratt Bottom to the west of Sarratt, which was our destination.

On the way, we drank some beer!

’low hanging fruit’
‘watercress ale’
‘win-win’and ‘black friday’ awaited.

Paradigm Brewery
Watercress Ale

All new ales brewed at the Sarratt-based Paradigm Brewery, founded in 2012 and already making a tasteful noise across the Chilterns. Co-owners Neil Hodges and Rob Atkinson certainly have a passion for what they do, a quest for producing the best beer, which is no easy feat when the bigger brewers have first dibs at the hops harvest. Undaunted, their beer is flying off the shelves, much in demand from local pubs and thirsty brewery visitors. I must confess to not being very knowledgable or appreciative of all things beer, but my father used to brew his own in the garage so understand the brewers zeal. I was keen to try to watercress beer that John Tyler suggested they use to create a new flavour that would be really distinctive, something that tasted of the Chess Valley.

Strip lynchets before lunch

Andrew and Paul pointed out various landmarks and places where former industry once was, including strip lynchets, on the rise up the valley side that are thought to date from the 9th century and may have been the site of medieval vineyards! Vines love chalky soils. There is plenty of wildlife, including the rare ‘ratty’ or water vole, once again making their homes on the riverbanks. The area is busy with film crews too including; Midsomer Murders, Taboo and Mary Berry’s Everyday cookery show.

The cress beds on a winters day
Crestyl Watercress Beds

The highlight of the day was a visit to E.Tyler & Sons Crestyl Watercress beds, the last cress farmer from a once busy industry that supplied the dining tables of London. The lama’s grazing at the entrance politely ignored us as we headed down the lane to meet with John Tyler, third generation farmer and formally keeper of the cress flame.

Watercress farmer, the last of his kind
John Tyler, formally the keeper of the flame

John is a man with many stories and he stood waiting for us with his tools of the trade; an innocuous-looking knife and plastic crate into which he placed the freshly cut cress. The diverted clear waters of the Chess make for perfect growing conditions as the plants take root in the shallow beds. The farm feels timeless, the tools, the terrain and technology. And the flavour, wow! Fiery, peppery and fresh. ‘Just picked’ cliche aside, it’s true.

Chenies Manor

Andrew dragged us away as our Taste of the Chess Valley feast awaited at Chenies Manor. On the menu was Crestyl Watercress soup, Chess Valley-grazed slow cooked lamb pea&mint pie, Blackwell farmed beef and Paradigm Ale pie served with a fiery cress salad, and if there was room, Chiltern hills honey and rhubarb.

Lunch at Chenies Manor
Two happy diners

What a fabulous day; being able to enjoy a beautiful spring walk in the Chilterns, meeting inspirational food producers, hearing their stories, sometimes tinged with dark humour as they have had to overcome obstacles on the way to bring us such wonderful food and unusual drink. Now it’s your turn to enjoy it.

Further Information

Read about the last watercress producer John Tyler, who has sadly had to close this business to the varying quality of the water.

I recommend this 10-mile walk through the Chess Valley, details downloaded here.

For further information on what else there is to enjoy locally in the Chilterns and elsewhere across the summer.