Nature puts on a fireworks display

IT’S great to see so many families getting out into the great outdoors in search of autumn colour.

Ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists, foragers and picnickers locals have been shrugging off the misery of face masks and social distancing by escaping into the woods at the first glimpse of sunshine, however unforgiving the October temperatures.

And what a spectacular show they have seen on those days when the sun breaks through the rainclouds and turns woods and parks into places of wonder and mystery.

Our earlier post about autumn colours took us to Burnham Beeches, Black Park, Langley Park and Cliveden – but it seemed remiss not to return to Penn Wood, given that our last proper sortie here was on such a monochrome February day.

How different the landscape looks now. The colours at this time of year are truly spectacular, the falling leaves forming a tapestry of different shapes and textures, and the trees themselves a glorious variegated backcloth of yellows and greens, russets and pinks.

It’s warm enough in the sun to linger over the array of different fungi peeking out from beneath the leaves, or pause a moment to study the cattle grazing their way incuriously around this remnant of Wycombe Heath, managed by the Woodland Trust.

Across the centuries, Penn and Tylers Green are villages that can boast a long and illustrious history and until the middle of the 19th century, this was a 4,000 acre common of heath and woodland stretching over seven parishes from Tyler End and Winchmore Hill in the south up to Great Kingshill in the north.

The landscape has changed a lot over the years, but you can sense history all around you here, and the evidence ranges from iron age earthworks and Roman pottery to written records of royal hunting parties in the 12th century or aristocratic shooting parties in the Victorian era.

Indeed, recent suggestions that an important Roman official was living in Tylers Green 1700 years ago might force historians to rethink the importance of this area during the Roman occupation.

The southern edge of Wycombe Heath consisted of Kings Wood, St John’s Wood, Common Wood and Penn Wood, where there would have been little if any settlement during the Saxon and early Norman period.

Back in the woods, the wild boar and wolves of the middle ages may have long disappeared but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilising the ground.

In the heyday of the furniture industry, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods here, while during the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it became a prisoner-of-war reception centre and a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Today it’s a place to spot colourful fungi and keep an eye open for rare beetles, tiny mice, amd squirrels gathering their winter hoards. Or listening out for the sound of a red kite or buzzard overhead…or a tawny owl calling as dusk falls.

It’s not quite warm enough to linger under a maple with a book, but this seat under the trees looks so inviting it seems a shame not to be able to while away an hour or two watching the leaves falling and waiting for any woodland creatures to get sufficiently confident to venture out…

Picture of the week: 26/10/20

YOU dont have to be a professional photographer to take a stunning picture: sometimes it’s simply a case of being in the right place at just the right time.

At least, that’s the modest claim of Anne Rixon, whose recent photograph picked up hundreds of “likes” when she shared it on a local wildlife forum, and is our latest selection for Picture of the Week.

A keen walker, Anne took the picture beside the Grangelands nature reserve near her home in Princes Risborough.

“It is not often I get such a response to my photos. I am not a professional by any means but this was a perfect moment,” she says. “I was lucky that the sunset happened and shot these through a hole in a netting fence at the side of the bridleway.”

Photography is a relatively recent hobby for Anne, 64, who loves wildlife, sharing some of her shots with members of the Bucks Free Press and Oxford Mail camera clubs.

“I walk a lot and take the camera with me trying to capture the beauty of the Chilterns as I go,” she says. “I have been an avid photographer for about two years, more so since lockdown in March.

“I have updated a few months ago to a high zoom bridge camera, Nikon P900 83x zoom. I get a lot of advice from members of the camera club.

“I use no other special equipment. I edit slightly but no photoshopping, just basic windows 10. I try to capture life as I see it.”

Favourite local locations include Whiteleaf Hill and Pulpit Hill, the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union canal and the Tring reservoirs, along with Hughenden Park and Naphill Common.

She says: “During lockdown I discovered some lovely places to walk on my doorstep. I suffer from long-term health conditions and I have found walking and photography to be a wonderful therapy.”

Take a walk in Pooh’s paw prints

OUR local woods are a constant delight – and although Black Park Country Park is spread over 500 rather than 100 acres, it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away.

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If proof were needed that we are not alone in this sensation, you only have to go down to the entrance to the lake to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there.

Or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

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All of which makes it all the more pleasurable to be able to savour some of Pooh’s adventures – and his creator’s words of wisdom – via a daily Twitter feed.

Upbeat daily Tweets celebrate words written or inspired by the author and incorporate some of the exploits of Winnie the Pooh and his companions which generations of children have enjoyed.

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Also included are quotes from Christopher Robin Milne, whose relationship with his father inspired the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.

The “real” stuffed toys owned by Christopher Robin may be a long way off – they have been on display in the New York public library since 1987 – but down among the trees it’s all too easy to hear the words of those childhood friends echoing among the autumn leaves, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.

It’s particularly easy to visualise those childhood friends at this time of the year, when the colours are so striking and the leaves are falling.

As C R Milne put it: “When a child plays with his bear the bear comes alive and there is at once a child-bear relationship. Then the child gets inside his bear and looks at it the other way round: that’s how BEAR feels about it… and sympathy is born.”

Perfect way to unwind with friends

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

top trails for tasty treats

AT THE weekends, Yella and I enjoy doing a longer walk – often with friends – that takes in a refreshment stop.

Okay, so maybe Yella (and canine companions) don’t enjoy the refreshment part quite as much as the humans, but it’s nice to reward yourself with a drink.

OPEN OUTLOOK: meet up with the Gruffalo and take in the views at Wendover Woods

Here are three of our favourites…

Wendover Woods is a well-managed woodland area on the side of the Chiltern Hills with ample car parking. Some fellow dog-walkers aren’t too keen on the structured approach, but I think it’s got a good variety of terrain and a lovely cafe that serves good coffee and homemade cake. Plus it’s high up and there are stunning views across the Chilterns.

There are a number of established routes around the woods and we particularly enjoy the Firecrest Trail, a five kilometre route along bridleways, through woodland and with the all-important open spaces for crazy running. It can get quite busy in the areas around the car park/cafe and presents a picnic hazard for inquisitive dogs on sunny days…

FAMILY FUN: Yella and daughter Lumi check out the Firecrest Trail
  • Wendover Woods can be found at HP22 5NQ. Parking is £2.50 for up to two hours.

Rickmansworth aquadrome is a popular public park and nature reserve that can become hideously busy on nice days… but hurry past the main areas near the car park and cafe and you’ll find a tranquil paradise, rich with wildlife.

There are lovely, level, paved walks around the main two lakes. If you’re feeling more adventurous (and your dog’s well-behaved), explore the more distant Stocker’s Lake Nature Reserve. Yella loves nosing around the water’s edge and then lets off steam in the wider open areas.

PAWS FOR THOUGHT: Yella takes a break from letting off steam

Again, there are picnickers on warmer days and lots of water birds – including swans that are quite happy to chase a small dog if it gets too close. And the cafe… oh, the cafe. The best meaty sausage rolls I’ve ever tasted, beautiful bacon sarnies and excellent coffee. It’s a hot-spot with yummy mummies during the week and with families at weekends, but it runs efficiently and is consistently good. Worth a trip for the cafe alone!

  • Rickmansworth Aquadrome is accessed via Frogmoor Lane, Rickmansworth WD3 1NB. Parking is free. More details on the cafe here: https://thecafeinthepark.com/

Penn Street woods is wet-weather favourite because of the thick tree cover. Park in the Holy Trinity Church car park (it’s free) and go where the mood takes you. There are clear paths, diversions down woody alleyways and an abundance of wildlife to chase (for the dogs). Penn Wood is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and it can get quite busy on Sunday afternoons. After a lovely dog walk, arrange for your walk to end at The Squirrel pub – it has a fabulous selection of libations, a big outdoor area and cosy nooks inside. Cheers!

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Next time: Squirrels, pigeons, deer and grouse…Yella proves her street dog credentials

Where to find those secret gardens

A TIMELESS children’s story returns to the big screen in a new guise this week – featuring some spectacular locations around the UK.

Starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters, the retelling of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden opens in the cinemas here on October 23, after the launch was delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown.

From the producer of Harry Potter and Paddington, the new version of the evergreen classic about an orphaned girl finding refuge in a neglected garden takes audiences to some extraordinary locations, including the flowering laburnum of the National Trust’s Bodnant Garden in North Wales (above).

Other scenes range from the twisted woodland of Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean to Iford Manor in the Cotswolds, stopping off along the way at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and Trebah Gardens in Cornwall, where Mary is towered over by Triffid-like rhubarb.

The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a 10-year-old girl sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), under the watchful eye of Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) with only the household maid, Martha (Isis Davis) for company. The film is set in 1940s England at Misselthwaite Manor, a remote country estate deep in the Yorkshire moors. It opens in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from October 23.

Fans of the 1993 version can check it out on DVD.

Help solve our mushroom mystery

AFTER our recent post about toadstools and mushrooms flourishing in Burnham Beeches, we’ve been back out in the woods uncovering an even wider range of fascinating and beautiful fungi.

And what an amazing range of shapes and colours we found. The only problem is that we still couldn’t tell a tawny grisette from a glistening inkcap – not to mention a horn of plenty, velvet shank, parrot waxcap or weeping widow.

The names alone are enough to want to make you find out more – from the stinking dapperling to the charcoal burner, golden scalycap, grey knight or wrinkled peach.

But even armed with the Woodland Trust’s fungi identification guide and those of Wildfood UK and First Nature, the only mushrooms we could identify with any real confidence were the foul-smelling stinkhorn (Picture 15) and the beechwood sickener (Picture 11).

So we put out an appeal to our friends on Twitter and Facebook to help us complete our captions – and the response was terrific.

All 20 pictures were taken on a single afternoon on a short woodland walk at Burnham Beeches.

Within minutes our friends in the Wild Marlow facebook group were pointing us towards the Buckinghamshire Fungus Group – and overnight, group secretary Penny Cullington was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in our knowledge.

If you have similar problems in identifying specific species, check out the group’s detailed alphabetical picture guide – look up the name in the list to locate the photo, with helpful tips about identification.

‘Mushroom man’ John Harris from Leicestershire also has an incredibly useful blog that can help with all aspects of mushroom identification, not to mention a pocket guide for those wanting to investigate further.

And sincere thanks to all those who helped in our quest and commented in forums on Facebook or on Twitter.

PICTURE 1: just a rotting fungus past its sell-by date?
PICTURE 2: our friend @PipsticksWalks helped to pin this down as upright coral fungus (Ramaria stricta). Apparently there are an incredible number of species of coral fungi, but this one is pretty common in our Chilterns woods
PICTURE 3: too little detail to identify this one?
PICTURE 4: Penny from BFG pointed us towards Tricholoma sulphureum, the poisonous Sulphur Knight, once known as the gas works mushroom because of its pungent odour
PICTURE 5: Lycoperdon pyriforme, the stump puffball, says Penny from BFG
PICTURE 6: too many possibilities to choose from here?
PICTURE 7: a faded Amethyst deceiver, Laccaria amethystina, we are told
PICTURE 8: probably the common rustgill or Gymnopilus penetrans, we now believe
PICTURE 9: too far gone to identify?
PICTURE 10: Penny from BFG identifies this as the birch bracket or Fomitopsis betulina (formerly known as Piptoporus betulinus)
PICTURE 11: the poisonous beechwood sickener (Russula nobilis) is known for its bright colours and crumbly gills. It plays a vital role in the woodland ecosystem since beech trees rely on fungi in the soil to pass minerals to them in exchange for sugars from the tree
PICTURE 12: maybe a dappled webcap, but other angles needed for a confirmed identification
PICTURE 13: Penny from BFG suggests the bonnets in the foreground may be saffrondrop bonnets (Mycena crocata) with common stump brittlestem in the background (see below)
PICTURE 14: Psathyrella piluliformis or common stump brittlestem is common and widespread in woodlands, we discover
PICTURE 15: the stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) is recognisable by its foul odour and relies on flies and other insects to transport its spores
PICTURE 16: a species of webcap, we believe
PICTURE 17: clustered bonnet (Mycena inclinata), known by some as the oak bonnet
PICTURE 18: like Picture 4, Penny from BFG believes this is another Sulphur Knight
PICTURE 19: very old honey fungus (Armillaria mellea)
PICTURE 20: probably a shaggy parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes), says Penny from BFG, but hard to be sure without seeing the gills and stem

Hip hip hooray for rosehip syrup

By Olivia Rzadkiewicz

I FEEL very fortunate to have spent 2020 in relative freedom in the Buckinghamshire countryside. 

I’ve watched the seasons roll round with every daily walk showing a different detail in that annual cycle of change. 

On one walk a couple of weeks ago, I noticed gleaming red rosehips punctuating the greens of the hedgerows, and I was reminded of an impulsive foray into foraging that overtook me a few years ago.  In one go, I had made a batch of rosehip syrup and an elderberry cordial. 

Nostalgia swept over me and before I knew it, I had armed myself with a plastic bag and my sturdy walking boots. 

I have never really been good at remembering exact timings for seasonal fruits, and when I got up close to the hedgerow, I realised I had cut it very fine.  The rosehips were nearly all soft and all the best ones had already gone to the birds. 

Undeterred, I picked what I could – a mixture of hard and softening fruits – and zoomed off to another site where I vaguely remembered seeing dog rose blooms earlier in the year. Alas, my fears were confirmed – I was late to the party. 

What followed was a maniacal spree around the whole of south Bucks searching my favourite walking haunts for rosehips.  The actual picking of the hips is quite meditative – you can get lost in the repetitive action of twisting the fruits away from the stems but be warned that the thorns often snap you painfully back to reality! At the end of the day, I counted hips from ten separate locations, with a meagre 1.3kg to show for it. 

Making rosehip syrup is something of a labour of love.  When you have your harvest, you have to wash each hip carefully (to get rid of animal pee and car fumes), and then top and tail each hip.  This takes some time, and I managed to get through a whole radio comedy series in the process.  Make sure you have a sharp knife and a sturdy chopping board for this. 

Next, roughly chop the hips (some recipes suggest popping the fruit in a blender for a quick whizz but I did it by hand).  You’ll notice that the insides of the rosehips have little furry seeds stuck pretty firmly to the fruit wall.  These hairs are used to make itching powder, so be careful when handling them.  You can choose to remove the hairs and seeds at this point but I didn’t- it’s too fiddly and time-consuming and everything gets strained in the end.

Pop all your chopped hips (soft ones and hard ones alike) into a large saucepan and cover with water (1 litre per kg of fruit).  Let it boil for 15 minutes.  You’ll notice the most heavenly aroma coming off the water – it really is a happy and beautiful scent.  Somewhere between rhubarb and custard boiled sweets, candy floss and strawberries. 

Next, strain everything in the pan through a muslin cloth and set aside the clear liquid in a clean pan.  Take the pulp that you have already strained once and boil it in a fresh litre of water for another 15 minutes. 

Then strain everything in that pan through a muslin cloth, letting the liquid run into the pan containing the first batch of strained liquid.  Next, add a kilogram of sugar per kilo of fruit you started with, and stir while boiling until the syrup is at your desired viscosity.  Bottle it up and it will last for a few weeks in the fridge. 

Rosehips contain more vitamin C than oranges so don’t feel too guilty if you find yourself taking shots of the stuff – it’s irresistibly delicious.  Alternatively, it goes really well on pancakes, porridge or drizzled over fruit or ice cream – all the ways you’d use maple syrup. It’s also delicious as a hot or cold cordial, so take your pick and enjoy the fruits of your labour!

BREAKFAST FEAST: porridge with grated apple, cinnamon, blueberries and rosehip syrup

Picture of the week: 19/10/20

THIS week’s picture takes us deep into Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire and a print with a distinctly autumnal feel by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, who with colleague Robin Wilson has a permanent base among these trees.

The pair are artists-in-residence at the University of Oxford, which has owned and maintained this ancient semi-natural woodland since 1942.

MYTHIC PAST: Red Woods, a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

Says Rosie: “Wytham Woods is a singular place, not because there is anything exceptional about the woods themselves but because of the intensity of the attention they receive as Oxford University’s research woodland.”

Pioneers of ecology envisioned the woods as a living laboratory and the data collected here, running back to the 1950s, is invaluable to environmental disciplines that depend on long-term study.

Its 1,000 acres are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and rich in flora and fauna, with over 500 species of plants, a wealth of woodland habitats, and 800 species of butterflies and moths.

“Ornithologists, zoologists and plant scientists – so many of them have passed through Wytham or are familiar with its research and I’ve met people in all kinds of places, from Welsh hillsides to the Isles of Scilly, who have fond memories of these woods,” Rosie reveals.

“And yet it is an amazing piece of woodland because all woods are, and this one is a small realm of wildness in the very tame landscape of Oxfordshire.

“We have been working at Wytham now since 2012 and our studio is right in the middle of the woods. In the winter we get the sun setting through the bare trees, sliding between the icy banks of clouds, and in the summer late-night printing will mean disturbing hare, badger and deer on the journey home.

“There is a great stability, if you open up your idea of time, to landscape: the land just is and will continue, in whatever form, round and over the trinketry lives of man. It’s got infinitely more time than us. But landscape without man doesn’t have any thought – or at least, not one I can access – and I find it difficult to have interest without thought.

“It’s history and myth and legend that puts a whole load of mental life back into the landscape. Among other places, I’ve worked in Romania where landed peasants have a very active and practical relationship with the land, and undertake fieldwork in Lycia, Turkey, where time is kaleidoscoped up into nothing by the fallen amphitheatres and tombs that litter the mountainsides and all of this has helped develop my ideas about landscape. Then I print-make, write and draw, and my ideas come out in one of other of these mediums.

Red Woods is taken from a drawing I made through the trees on the main track up into the Woods, about ten minutes walk from our studio. During WW1 the woods were taken over as a training ground for the front, and in the print you can see the undulation of old trenches.

“It’s an autumn print, hence the colours, and the dry stems of the dead bluebells litter the ground. The little row of mushrooms along the front is for Tolkien, who has a similar line of mushrooms along the front of one of his pen and ink drawings of Milkwood.

“The mythic past that Tolkien invented has seeped its way into the landscape of Britain and Europe for me in the same way the classical world still inhabits the mountains of Lycia, or WW1 still dominates the landscape of the Somme. The past hasn’t gone anywhere and the landscape gives it back all the time.”

Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley runs The Wytham Studio with Dr Robin Wilson at Oxford University’s Wytham Woods. Among other things, they run printmaking workshops. Rosie can be contacted at rosie.fairfax-cholmeley@admin.ox.ac.uk. Follow the studio on Instagram.

Adam roams the Garden of England

A MAJOR problem with exploring unfamiliar territory is knowing where to find the most rewarding rambles.

Where does that footpath lead? How can you discover the best views, magical country lanes or historic villages? How do you find just the right spot for bluebells, butterflies, berries or birdsong, depending on the season?

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Letts Green near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

That’s where journalist and musician Adam McCulloch can help take the guesswork out of a day trip to Kent.

Over the past few years, his Kent Walks Near London website has been building up a library of favourite rambles around the Garden of England, and it now boasts handy downloadable guides to more than two dozen walks, all between 2.5 and six miles long.

From wintry rambles on the North Downs Way to sunny afternoons looking out over the Weald, this is a delightful introduction to some of the county’s strikingly different landscapes.

PERFECT DAY: a winter sunset near Dunstall Farm PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Born in the Petts Wood area of south-east London, Adam spent his childhood gallivanting around the nearby countryside in pursuit of his family’s two English springer spaniels – and, now 58, he’s been enjoying the great outdoors ever since.

You might recognise the byline from the travel pages of The Guardian, but although Adam freelances for a variety of publications writing about everything from farming to finance, his walks website is more of a labour of love, incorporating an occasional blog and slide shows of some of the sights and sounds encountered en route.

He recalls: “I started to write up the routes and add them to the website in 2015. I’d been meaning to do it for several years before that, though. I was working at a large publishing house and a lot of my colleagues were from other parts of the country and some were from abroad. When discussing what people did at weekends I began to realise that a lot of people didn’t really know much about this part of the world and how easy it was to get out here from south London.

WINTRY OUTLOOK: mist over the Darent Valley PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“I was also thinking of university students and tourists who were curious about countryside close to London. I know that when I visit cities abroad I’m never just satisfied with museums, coffee shops, galleries and bars…I want at least one afternoon outside in the countryside.

“I feel strangely happy when I bump into foreign visitors in obscure corners of the North Downs enjoying a walk having ventured out on the train.”

A keen cyclist and golfer, his rambles are focused on that part of Kent south and east of Petts Wood, down to Westerham, Hever and Chiddingstone and out to Shoreham and Otford, with another batch south-east of Sevenoaks.

The walks encompass a range of attractions, from castles, churches, hillforts and manor houses to atmospheric oast houses and monuments, rolling lavender fields or far-flung views over the downs.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: The Mill at Shoreham PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

There are helpful tips about public transport too, along with whether buggies will cope with the route or if dogs need to be kept on leads.

“The good news is that there are beautiful fields, woods and villages to walk in just 30 minutes out of town by car or train,” he says.

Lockdown has encouraged people to stay local and walk more and he has seen a sharp rise in the number of people using the website this year.

“It’s kind of gratifying to think people have found it to be a useful outlet at this disturbing time. Sometimes out on the walks I come across people using one of my routes, either with a pdf print-out or on their phones. It’s always quite a laugh once they realise they’re talking to the ‘author’.”

DISTANT PROSPECT: St Mary’s Church at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“One thing that I always knew to be the case and there’s no getting round is that describing walks accurately can be difficult – people look at trails and hedgerows differently. An instruction that seems simple to me, ‘Turn right just before a stand of trees’ for example, is actually really open to misinterpretation.

“My partner certainly thought so when she did one route with me yesterday… she really helped me improve my description. I’ve learnt to really try to nail down directions and be as accurate as possible – I think it’s working, no-one’s had a moan recently!”

Away from the footpath and keyboard, Adam is also a saxophonist and composer in the jazz, funk and soul genres who has been playing semi-pro since the mid-1980s and organises bands for weddings and other events from private house parties to festivals.

ICY BLAST: deer in the thaw at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

But he’s never happier than out on a walk – either alone or in company – and finding his interest piqued by an unusual wildflower, bird or insect.

“I love a social walk even more than a solitary one,” he admits – at the same time modestly confessing that the fascination with trying to recognise unfamiliar flowers in the hedgerows might just be compensation for him being a “pretty useless” gardener.

Birds have become an interest too, with expert local birder ‘Dave’ obligingly helping to identify bird calls and explain the connection between various species and different habitats and terrain.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST: St Peter’s Church at Hever PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Adam has always paid a lot of attention to what’s happening in the sky, too. “Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations,” he says.

“I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed.”

WEATHER WATCH: the sky comes to life as storm clouds gather PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

History still comes alive here too, from following in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims whiling away the journey to Canterbury with their tales, to visiting Churchill’s home at Chartwell or the Roman villa at Lullingstone.

As Adam says: “These places are still magical, especially now I’ve understood how they chime with some fairly momentous history. Take the unassuming North Downs village of Downe (just 20 minutes’ drive from Bromley), for example.

“Here, a short walk will take you through Charles Darwin’s garden and, 20 minutes later, to the perimeter of an airfield crucial to the UK’s survival in the Battle of Britain, where Spitfires can still be heard and seen.

HISTORY LESSON: Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“And just down the road are the remains of an oak tree – the Wilberforce Oak – under which in 1787 Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce discussed ending the slave trade.”

There you have it, then: medieval pilgrims, old flint churches, soaring birds of prey, big skies, long views and a chance to come face to face with history – what more could you ask for from a quick trip round the M25?

With almost 30 routes described, Adam relies on other walkers to let him know when something has changed.

“The worst ‘change’ I’ve come across was when a beautiful rewilded meadow on my Downe walk was flattened by a farmer all of a sudden with all wildlife utterly eradicated. It had become a wonderful place full of wildflowers, grasses and hawthorn with healthy numbers of yellowhammers, mammals and insects.

KENT SKYLINE: oast houses at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“But I guess the land changed hands and suddenly there was a winter crop of something in there, right up to the edge of the woods, and the path became a muddy mess.

“To balance that, a golf course that walkers had to cross on the Fackenden Down and Valleys East of Shoreham routes was closed down a few years back and has rewilded beautifully, a magical chalk downs landscape full of life.

“Those are probably the two walks I do most often – the train stops right where the path starts in Shoreham (Kent, not the West Sussex one!) and so 40 minutes after leaving Peckham you are in a remote-feeling natural wonderland of beech, yew, birdsong and searing timeless views.

ESCAPE FROM THE CITY: a stag at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“That’s what the site’s all about,” he says. “To take you out of yourself and your neighbourhood and plonk you somewhere very different, yet very accessible.”

Adam’s website welcomes donations from those who find his downloadable guides useful. You can follow him on Twitter @kentwalkslondon.

Woods come alive with autumn colour

CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of autumn rambles.

But brighter days in October and November are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour when the sun breaks through the clouds and turns local parks into places of wonder and mystery.

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Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

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Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.

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There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

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Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

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Although the area round the 14-acre lake and popular cafe tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

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Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.

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For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.

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Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.

This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.

In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.

The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.

Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.

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That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…

For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.

Check out our nature guides page for things to do in the woods and our What’s On page for other local attractions and special events.

Picture of the week: 12/10/20

OUR latest Picture of the Week is a painting completed during lockdown by local artist Christine Bass.

Most of Christine’s paintings are inspired by the countryside where she lives on the edge of the Chilterns, where three counties meet.

Her contemporary landscapes are characterised by strong lines and shapes, flattened planes and the use of vibrant colour.

SENSE OF FREEDOM: The Ridgeway, Steps Hill by Christine Bass

She says: “This spring and summer, I walked almost daily up Steps Hill. My painting shows the start of that walk along the chalk track up the hill. My favourite route takes me from the base of Pitstone Hill, skirts round the top of Steps Hill, turns off into Ashridge Wood and descends to the meadow along the lip of Incombe Hole.

“There are some fabulous views on this walk: the dramatic curves of Incombe Hole as seen from the top of Steps Hill, expansive views across Aylesbury Vale, the softly rounded hills leading up to Ivinghoe Beacon, and the beauty of the beech woods. 

EXPANSIVE VIEWS: Ivinghoe Beacon from Aldbury Nowers by Christine Bass

“I love that combination of chalk downs with woodland and, this year in particular, in the midst of the lockdown, it gave me an exhilarating sense of freedom.”

Christine draws particular inspiration from landscapes where the natural lie of the land is accentuated by man-made interventions such as tracks, farmed fields and hedgerows, planted woodland and reservoirs.

ORDERED LANDSCAPE: Tring Park by Christine Bass

This year she has spent many hours working on very large drawings of Incombe Hole and Ivinghoe Beacon, but even at the height of summer, working conditions outside could be challenging.

She recalls: “Even on fine, sunny days, the wind at the top of Steps Hill was so fierce that I had to wrap up warmly and really secure the pages of my sketchbook.

WHISTLING KITES: Pulpit Wood by Christine Bass

“The soundtrack was that of burbling skylarks and whistling red kites. There were wild flowers in abundance: cowslips and buttercups, bluebells and orchids, knapweed and ragwort, wild carrot, ladies bedstraw, agrimony and scabious, bellflowers and harebells, clover, marjoram and yarrow.”

As the summer fades into autumn, Christine will work in her studio developing paintings from those drawings, working with layers of acrylic paint on a collaged base.

“I begin by drawing the composition onto board before collaging the whole surface with tissue paper,” she explains. “The drawn composition is important to me; when it begins to disappear beneath the layers of tissue, I re-draw it.  I then paint in acrylics onto that collage base, focusing on the original drawing but also incorporating many of the shapes which originate from the tissue layer. My aim is a synthesis between the drawing and the more abstract collage, with the painted layer bringing the two together.”

CHANGING SEASONS: Autumn at Wilstone by Christine Bass

It’s a change of technique from her early artistic career when she worked as an illustrator producing black and white pen and ink drawings. She grew up in Trinidad and the bright light and vivid colours of the tropics still exert an influence in her paintings.

“I longed to work in colour and my first, very vibrant paintings reflected that desire.  I still use strong, saturated colours in my landscape paintings but they tend to be more natural – greens and yellows, blues and greys, oranges and browns,” she says.

To see more of Christine’s work, visit www.christinebassart.com and her Instagram feed.

Crash course in puppy parenting

Guest writer Lucy Parks rises to the challenge of coping with two adorable puppies after rescue dog Yella delivers her biggest surprise

THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD

WE CALLED the puppies Eggy and Sock, a derivative of the Greek for “surprise” and “shock”. And I was in shock. With hindsight, we did everything wrong in those first few days.

SURPRISE DELIVERY: the new arrivals take a nap

I’d handled the pups within minutes of being born and, that weekend after they were born on the Friday, I had so many visitors to the house to see the new arrivals, all of them wanting to cuddle the little ones and Yella being hugely tolerant of the attention they were getting.

Not long after getting Yella I’d joined a Facebook group called Dogs of Amersham and Surrounding Villages, which proved to be a huge source of support in those first few days. Fellow dog owners donated a puppy crate, a video on how to raise puppies, puppy pads and emotional support.

The charity that had provided Yella was brilliant. They were as shocked as I was and gave immediate practical, emotional and financial help.

PROUD MUM: Yella and the pups in their makeshift whelping pen

I’d posted about the pups on Facebook the day they were born and, by that evening, I had five or six people who were interested in having one. First dibs went to my best friend, who’d wanted a dog for years, and Yella gave her the perfect opportunity.

They changed her name from Eggy to Lumi – short for “halloumi”, in a nod to her heritage – and Sock, the boy, was bagged by another friend. At least it took away one of the stresses, knowing that I had homes for them.

Yella’s timing could not have been more perfect: the fact she had the pups on a Friday afternoon, when I was at home; that I had the weekend to get my head around the new challenge I was facing; that I had started work at the vet’s that same week so had expert knowledge on tap. That Yella took to motherhood like a duck to water was an added bonus.

Oh goodness, I learned so much that first weekend. It was a true crash course in dog parenting and it passed in a blur. We made a make-shift whelping pen from Yella’s crate and cardboard. Later, we created a puppy pen in the hallway.

HOME COMFORTS: the pups move into the hallway

The eight weeks I had the puppies at home – incidentally, the same amount of time I’d had Yella before she gave birth – proved the hardest job I’ve ever done. These little eating, sleeping, shouting, pooing machines were relentless. Watching their development from tiny blind hamsters to cheeky, adventurous toddlers, though, was wonderful.

TIRED BUT HAPPY: Lumi and Sock sleep off another day of shouting and pooing

By the time they left for their new homes, we were all exhausted and relieved. Yella was ready to let them go and I was just happy to have my house back to normal.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.

NEXT TIME: Our favourite walks with refreshments

Autumn adventures on the water

THE trees are changing colour, the nights are drawing in – what better time of year to take a relaxing break away from the crowds and explore Britain’s beautiful waterways?

That’s the message from the Canal and River Trust this autumn, especially for those struggling to recharge their batteries amid the stresses of coronavirus lockdowns.

For a self-catering staycation with a difference away from busy tourist areas, canal boat holidays offer a great opportunity to get back to what matters: spending time with family or friends, enjoying the natural world and being as lazy or as active as you like, walking, cycling, fishing or even canoeing if the fancy takes you.

The canals and rivers are beautiful at this time of year and offer plenty of scope to explore, with hire boat companies dotted around the country who have been working hard to make boats safe in line with the latest government guidance.

Research shows that people can feel happier and healthier by the water, which makes a canal boat the ideal option for a relaxing short-break escape.

You can plan your journey based around how you and your family or friends want to spend your days. If you love visiting attractions and eating out, go for a route that passes through a major city like Birmingham or Manchester. But if you prefer peaceful surroundings and spotting wildlife, there’s a huge choice of rural waterways.

Your skill level and confidence in driving the boat may also play a part in your route decision. If you’re new to boating, you may want to avoid areas with lots of locks. However, if you have energetic children, then locks will help to keep them entertained.

The trust looks after 2,000 miles of waterways and its website contains a host of ideas and resources for anyone new to boating – including free guides to fun local days out and comprehensive advice for beginners and where to find boat hire companies.

As well as offering the prospect of a more tranquil pace of life – and a greener holiday than jetting off to sunnier climes – boating holidays offer a chance for families to spend time together and discover some intriguing insights into Britains architectural history.

For those with a head for heights, the scary-looking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales has been recognised with World Heritage Site status and is one of the most impressive engineering feats on the canal network (and one of seven wonders singled out by the trust for special mention). You can walk across or save your legs and go by boat.

To choose a location, you might look for a place that you’ve previously fallen in love with or an area that you have always wanted to explore. 

The trust has plenty of advice for first-timers and advice about circular routes or “cruising rings” which vary in length and could take anything from two days to three weeks without the need to retrace your steps or worry about the return journey.

You can also check out social media posts and capture the excitement of your own boating adventure when you get home by tagging #CanalMemories on Twitter and mentioning @CanalRiverTrust.

Who goes there, friend or foe?

OCTOBER has arrived with a vengeance, Storm Alex wreaking havoc across the country and depositing a month’s worth of rain in some areas over the weekend.

Those venturing out during gaps in the deluge have seen something of a transformation, with the storms stripping leaves off trees and the autumn colours of browns, reds and golden yellows replacing the green of late summer.

While the shops already gearing up for Halloween, the woods are awash with fallen acorns and apples, lichens, mushrooms and toadstools.

Amid the dripping leaves of Burnham Beeches, it’s suddenly a strange new world of unusual textures, shadows and colours.

The ferns are turning brown, along with the trees, an early hint of the glories to come later in the month as the autumnal colour palette really begins to explode.

Down at the ponds the stunning colours of the mandarin ducks stand out against the muddy browns, greys and blacks of tree roots and rain-spattered water.

But it’s at ground level that the real stars of the show can be found, with a small cross-section of the country’s 15,000-odd species of fungi providing an intriguing range of shapes and colours among the soaking foliage.

Not that the uninitiated will want to get too close to some of these amazing-looking fungi: some of them are deadly and boast spine-tingling names like the destroying angel, funeral bell and death cap.

Fungi live everywhere and vary in size from the microscopic to the largest organisms on earth. But perhaps we are most intrigued not just by their beauty, but the deadly consequences of dabbling with the most poisonous of them.

We instantly recognise the familiar scarlet cap of the fly agaric toadstool, which both attracts and kills flies, or the Scarlet elf cups or fairies’ baths, which make a tiny puffing sound when they release their spores into the air.

But on decaying branches and in damp spots scattered around the woodland floor there are an array of others whose offputting appearance may only be matched by their sinister names, like jelly ear fungus, foul-smelling stinkhorns or toxic beechwood sickener.

Or what about the gruesome beefsteak fungus, which looks like a raw cut of meat and even oozes a blood-like substance when cut…or the brown roll-rim, a common birch woodland fungus that looks benign, but is deadly poisonous.

Not that it’s all about innocent-looking killers. As well as many fungi being edible, some have medicinal properties, like the candlesnuff fungus, which is both anti-viral and active against tumours, or other uses like the common inkcap, once a source of ink for important documents.

Lichens play an important role in the ecology of woodlands too, offering valuable microhabitats, shelter and food for various small invertebrates which in turn are prey for larger insects and birds.

They can also be hosts for other species of parasitic fungi, as well as providing other ecosystem services such as carbon cycling and water retention.

Most organisms lack the ability to digest wood and return the nutrients to the soil, but fungi figured out the secret a few hundred million years ago. A good thing too, or otherwise dead trees would just pile up everywhere.

But down here among the lichens and leaf debris, could you spot the difference between a prized chef’s ingredient like a chanterelle or charcoal burner, and a deathcap, which has been used as a murder weapon for millenia?

Notable alleged victims of death cap poisoning range from Charles VI, ruler of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, to the Roman Emperor Claudius.

Voltaire even wrote that a dish of mushrooms had changed the destiny of Europe, since the death of Charles VI led to the War of the Austrian Secession from 1740.

The Woodland Trust does offer a handy guide to some of the most common fungi and lichens, coupled with some fascinating legends and facts – but even professionals can get things wrong, it seems: the distinguished German mycologist Julius Schaeffer died in 1944 after eating a succession of dishes containing brown roll-rim mushrooms.

In the ancient woodlands managed by the City of London Corporation, fungi have a vital role to play in the delicate balance of biodiversity, and in sites like Epping Forest commercial pickers – who can face prosecution – have been stripping the forest of wild mushrooms, depriving insects and animals of a valuable food source and threatening rare species.

Much maligned and mistrusted, toadstools and mushrooms are associated with ancient taboos, death and decomposition, but they have magical associations too and are nature’s natural recyclers, playing a vital role in the ecology of natural habitats like Burnham Beeches.

Down in the woods, hundreds of them are hard at work breaking down decaying organic matter and providing food for squirrels, deer and insects. It’s wonderful to see the fascinating shapes, forms and colours the fungi world has to offer – and yes, of course we want to leave them there for the next visitor to enjoy.

Picture of the week: 05/10/20

IT’S no normal picture of the week this week, but a focus on the lost skill of fairground art, which Joby Carter has been passing on to people from over the world through his unique online courses.

The coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, with all their spring and summer bookings cancelled. But Joby Carter of Carters Steam Fair wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months, as our recent feature revealed.

He discovered a growing demand around the world for his evening classes focusing on traditional signwriting techniques.

Different courses run live from his paint shop outside Maidenhead have been allowing classes to learn about traditional fairground art, signwriting and coachpainting, picking up expert tips acquired through a lifetime of restoring the fair’s beautiful rides, living wagons and transport.

Traditionally everything in the fair is moved around the country using vintage heavy lorries and magnificent showman’s living wagons with their cut-glass windows, lace curtains and gleaming wood interiors.

Latest online courses have included coachpainting and fancy lettering – as well as a five-part course showing how to paint a fairground horse, like the famous Carters gallopers, which date from the 1890s.

Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here.

Prayers for a troubled planet

FOR millions of Christians around the world, a month-long season of prayer culminates this weekend with the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.

The idea of celebrating September 1 as a day of prayer for creation began in 1989 at the wish of the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, a leading figure in the Eastern Orthodox church whose successor Bartholomew I is also seen as something of a “green” source of spiritual inspiration.

In 2013 Pope Francis – formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio – chose his papal name in honour of St Francis, reflecting both men’s concern for the world’s poor, as well as the future of the planet.

The Pope subsequently urged the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and all people of good will to take urgent action against the injustice of climate change and the ecological crisis, to protect the poor and future generations.

The Season of Creation has become an annual celebration uniting Christians in prayer and action for the protection of the earth, with many viewing this year’s event as being of particular significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic and global climate concerns.

NEW LANDSCAPE: a street food market in Japan PICTURE: Jérémy Stenuit, Unsplash

In July a cross-section of faith leaders urged the UK government to develop a new shared vision for the future ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next year, when the UK has the COP26 presidency.

The faith leaders spoke of the need to “restore balance in the very systems of life, affirming the need for equality, justice and sustainability” in the sharing of the earth’s resources.

They pointed out how, amid the fear and the grief for loved ones lost, many had found consolation in the dramatic reduction of pollution and the restoration of nature.

BACK TO NATURE: our global ecosystem is under threat PICTURE: Kunal Shinde, Unsplash

“Renewed delight in and contact with the natural world has the capacity to reduce our mental stress and nourish us spiritually,” they wrote. “We have rediscovered our sense of how interconnected the world is. The very health and future of humanity depends on our ability to act together not only with respect to pandemics but also in protecting our global ecosystem.”

On the plus side, less travel and consumption and more kindness and neighbourliness have helped us appreciate what society can really mean, they pointed out. But in times of crisis injustice becomes more obvious, and it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most, as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development stresses in its climate campaign.

DIVIDED PLANET: children playing in New Delhi PICTURE: Atul Pandey, Unsplash

“All this shows us how precarious our previous ‘business as usual’ was, socially, economically, ecologically and spiritually,” the faith leaders wrote.

“Our faiths teach us that our planet, with its rich resources and inspiring diversity, is lent to us on trust only and we are accountable for how we treat it. We are urgently and inescapably responsible, not just before God but to our own children and the very future of humanity.”

The Season of Creation ends on October 4, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, but the call to action looks beyond the annual event and focuses on protecting biodiversity, reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change and pushing sustainability to the forefront of government decision-making.

CRY OF THE POOR: a homeless man in Athens PICTURE: Jonathan Kho, Unsplash

Pope Francis phrased it as the need to “listen to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”, a message that resonates across the centuries from when Saint Francis chose to take the Gospel literally and lead a life of poverty in the name of the Lord.

“If God can work through me, he can work through anyone,” the saint said, yet on Sunday, almost 800 years after his death, his message about our intimate connection with God’s creation sounds more relevant and important than ever. 

GLOBAL OUTLOOK: a colourful view of the night sky PICTURE: Jeremy Thomas, Unsplash

Chris celebrates citizen science

TV presenter, author and naturalist Chris Packham has been confirmed as the keynote speaker for an online Chilterns conference celebrating citizen science.

Leading policy makers and practitioners from a wide range of organisations across heritage and wildlife are due to speak at the full-day event on October 24.

The ardent environmental campaigner will thank volunteers for their work in making citizen science in the UK the envy of projects around the world and showcase ways in which the data they gather can make a real difference.

The day includes Q&A sessions and a youth panel looking at how to get the next generation engaged in the world of conservation and volunteering.

“I never cease to be amazed when I hear about the efforts many thousands of volunteers go to in supporting conservation projects in the UK,” said Chris.

“Citizen science is hugely powerful in helping us not only better understand our wildlife and heritage but also informing decisions made by government and decision makers.”

Other expert speakers at the conference include Gavin Siriwardena from the British Trust for Ornithology, Michael Pocock from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Mick Jones from Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre, Allen Beechey from the Chilterns Chalk Streams project, Wendy Morrison of the Beacons of the Past project and John Shaw from Chiltern Rangers.

The conference is presented jointly by the Chalk Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership and the Beacons of the Past project, both projects of the Chilterns Conservation Board and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

For more information and to book a free place at the conference, click here and for a full schedule of events organised as part of the Chilterns Celebration and details on how to book your place, click here.

Picture of the week: 28/09/20

THE natural world dominates Jane Duff’s art in the same way it has dominated her life, and our latest Picture of the Week reflects that.

Jane’s childhood was an idyllic existence on the edge of Snowdonia in which she was largely left to her own devices, riding her bike or climbing hills with her dog as her faithful companion. By university her horizons were broadening and she was to spend much of her early twenties in the Nepal Himalayas, initially trekking and camping alone and later becoming a guide herself, taking groups for weeks at a time through Nepal’s magnificent peaks and forests.

When she returned to the UK a few years later to work for OUP as art editor, her passion was for photography and it was not for many years that she turned her hand to drawing and painting.

This led to her enrolling in an arts foundation course and her interest in the natural world also led to an advanced diploma in environmental conservation at Oxford University. She now fuses her interest in the environment with her love of painting.

Landscapes dominate much of her work as demonstrated by Winter Snow in the Wetlands, a 60x60cm oil on canvas painting of the Earth Trust’s River of Life wetland project near Wallingford.

Winter Snow in the Wetlands by Jane Duff

She is also a volunteer for The Earth Trust in Little Wittenham and an avid supporter of their efforts to create new wetlands and improve water ecosystems along the River Thames and River Thame, as well as several new ponds in Little Wittenham woods, home to one of the country’s most significant populations of great crested newts.

“The new ponds, reedbeds, backwaters, wildflower meadows and wet woodland provide vital habitats for wildlife including otters, water voles, club-tailed dragonflies, kingfishers, skylarks , yellowhammers,” she says.

“Regular monitoring has shown that hundreds of thousands of fish fry are using the channels as a safe haven and that 12 of the Thames’ 20 species of fish are already present.”

Woolly thistle on Wittenham Clumps nature reserve by Jane Duff

Phase Two of the project will involve creating wetlands between Little Wittenham and Clifton Hampden and is due to start in 2021.

“The Earth Trust do amazing work,” she says “They look after miles of footpaths and open access land over Wittenham Clumps enjoyed by over 150,000 people per year as well as running a farm and an environmental education programme for local schools.

“ I’m not sure if the general public realise how much work is involved maintaining the paths and hedgerows and forests. Things are really tough for them as for many charities and they do need our support, especially right now.”

Jane put together a solo exhibition entitled Wildsong at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford showing 55 paintings of some of the wildest landscapes in the UK, including several west country seascapes and many paintings of the Welsh moors and mountains.

Early Spring in the Coed y Brenin by Jane Duff

They showed remote, dramatic and elemental landscapes – even if she laments there is no true ‘wilderness’ still to be found in the British countryside.

At present she is preparing for a solo exhibition at West Ox Arts gallery in Bampton in Feb-March 2021 entitled A Love of the Land.

Oxfordshire may lack the more dramatic landscapes reflected in her paintings of Mid-Wales, North West Scotland or the far west of Cornwall, but the softer surroundings of Oxfordshire nature reserves, heathlands, woodlands, chalk downs and open spaces, as well as the River Thames and its many tributaries, provide their own inspiration, she insists.

Light over Loch Kentra, Ardnamurchan by Jane Duff

Jane loves the ever-changing light of wild places, as well as the solitude and peace which helps to concentrate the mind, and despite the practical challenges of painting in situ she tries to do so whenever possible.

“I immerse myself in a landscape for hours, absorbing the atmosphere, the play of light and shadows, the textures and colours of the vegetation before finding the place that moves me enough to want to put up my easel and paint there,” she told OX magazine in an interview last year ahead of her Wildsong exhibition.

“I often struggle to get started and procrastinate a lot as I love it all too much! I find it overwhelming. But once I start I am away with a burst of energy and find myself reacting instinctively to the landscape, bringing the emotions, weather and light of the place into my paintings.

“I will often finish a painting in one sitting but will equally often work further on a painting back in the studio. It can make me a bit nervous painting in remote places especially if there are curious cows and horses around so if this happens, I sometimes pack up and go home armed with sketches and photographs. My two dogs sit alongside me for hours. They must wonder what on earth I am doing.”

She works mostly in oils, cold wax and acrylic and often on a large scale.

She firmly believes that art has a part to play not only in reminding people of the beauty of the landscape but highlighting the importance of protecting habitats and their biodiversity.

“We have such fantastic landscapes in the UK – we are fortunate beyond belief to have so much packed into such a small island. Thank heavens for the National Trust protecting so much of our beautiful British coastline and for our wonderful National Parks and nature reserves. Some of my paintings are of Sydlings Copse, a BBOWT nature reserve under threat from encroaching development to the north of the Oxford ring road.

Sydlings Copse by Jane Duff

“It is small – only 22 hectares – and is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Oxfordshire nature reserves. It has heathlands, amazing wildflower meadows, broadleaved woodland and a rare fen and supports over 400 plant species. It is of international ecological importance yet it is still under huge pressure from development.

“We need to respect and protect our natural world much more than we do. If an area is designated greenbelt, AONB, SSSI, SAC or SPA or landscape conservation area it means that it is likely to have very high biodiversity or landscape value and too often local authorities and government disregard their protection status such as with the recent loss of Calvert Jubilee nature reserve near Aylesbury.

Reedmace in Winter by Jane Duff

“This precious flagship reserve has a lake which is a haven for overwintering wildfowl, waders, bittern and tern and it has wildflower meadows with all five species of the rare UK hairstreak butterfly yet it is in the process of being razed to the ground to make way for HS2.

“One can’t always mitigate against loss of some habitats. It takes a very long time for a woodland to regrow with its complex ecology so we must do everything we can to take care of these special places. They are irreplaceable and I would say that it is deeply immoral to destroy them. I’m not sure if I’ve left it too late to paint Calvert jubilee nature reserve but I fear I might.”

You can see Jane’s work at The Wykeham Gallery, Stockbridge, at Iona House Gallery, Woodstock or through her website or Instagram account.

Create some ‘happy little trees’

bob ross 1

THERE could hardly be a painter whose geographical sources of inspiration are further removed from the gentle landscapes of the Chilterns than the soft-spoken American cult art legend Bob Ross.

But budding artists don’t need to focus on the mountains and log cabins in Ross’s pictures to pick up some handy technical tips from the inspiring host of the US TV program The Joy of Painting, which aired from 1983 to 1994 and still enthrals millions today on Youtube, as well as being screened on BBC4.

There are plenty of “happy little trees” in Black Park, after all, and dozens of Ross’s video tutorials to choose from for anyone tempted to crack out the titanium white and give his trademark wet-on-wet technique a shot.

Perhaps part of Ross’s timeless appeal is the fact he was himself a convert to art after attending a painting class in Anchorage during his 20 years in the US Air Force and honed his own techniques at the feet of another TV artist, the German painter Bill Alexander.

Ross’s enduring popularity stems in part from his distinctive laid-back style, quaint catchphrases and eternal upbeat positivity, and in part from the sheer speed and ease of his quick-painting technique. If you’re ever tempted by the idea of painting but never got round to giving it a try, check out Ross’s official Youtube channel, which has around four million subscribers, or the current BBC4 season of repeats.

Bus stop which brightens journeys

NOT many bus stops can boast their own Facebook page, or receive fan mail.

But then the Bradenham Road bus stop on the outskirts of West Wycombe is no ordinary bus stop.

With more than 550 followers on Facebook, the bus stop launched its social media presence a year ago when it was being relocated – so that the Essex contractors involved in the move could let their partners know what they were working on in darkest Buckinghamshire.

By October it was open again, complete with books, comfy cushions and even a dog bowl and bottled water for anyone out for a stroll.

The summer displays might have faded, but there were winter pansies in place and daffodil bulbs planted. By December it was time for festive lights and Christmas decorations to be attracting the attentions of passing commuters.

Over the months it’s been only too clear from online comments and handwritten letters just what a delight the bus stop has been for queueing motorists and those taking refuge from sun and rain.

In July 2019 a grateful cyclist wrote a letter of thanks after escaping from 34-degree sunshine to mend a puncture, while a passing walker described it as “an awesome place of rest, respite and peace”.

After the March lockdown, the bus stop geared up for Easter with a seasonal children’s drawing competition, with prizes of Easter eggs – not to mention a bottle of Prosecco and top-quality steaks for two provided by a local butcher.

Those artistic offerings were soon followed by posters thanking the NHS and key workers.

By May there were Union Jack flags on show to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the summer saw a return of the dramatic floral displays for which the bus stop is best known.

It was quite a while before local resident Emma Copley admitted to being the driving force behind the clean-up, once neighbours started to spot her in action.

She says: “I’m a great believer in reclaiming space that’s been neglected … nice areas attract good behaviour and respect.

“It’s all made worthwhile by the lovely comments and people stopping to look. I even had a lady give me money (donated to charity ) and a coachload of Japanese tourists stop to take photos.”

Of course the concept of brightening up bus stops and providing reading material for weary commuters is not a new one, with experiments around the world from Singapore to Greek and Turkey.

Back in 2011, a pair of Israeli artists launched a project in Haifa which spread to a number of cities providing bookshelves at a number of stops to see if travellers would swap books and replenish the shelves.

Installation artist and lecturer Daniel Shoshan envisoned that the initiative could serve as a new way of connecting people and possibly even improve literacy rates. Might authors one day give public performances at bus stops?

A couple of years later, bus commuters in Sydney and Melbourne were pleasantly surprised by a Christmas campaign that set up bookshelves at various bus stops to encourage Australians to read and buy local books. The creative move, which enabled commuters to take home free books, enticed so many people that they often missed their bus in the process.

West Wycombe’s glorious community bus stop may not be quite on the same scale, but there’s no doubt of its popularity with passing motorists – and the idea is clearly contagious, as it has now “twinned” with another local bus stop boasting bookshelves, looked after by the Piddington & Wheeler End Parish Council.

Whether it’s the sense of community spirit that captures the imagination or the beauty of the floral displays, it’s clear that fans of the Bradenham Road bus stop enjoy the simple things in life – and if a humble bus stop can put a smile on the face as well as providing shelter from the storm, that sounds like a winning idea that deserves to succeed on a wider scale.

Express delivery proves a surprise

Guest writer Lucy Parks recalls the time rescue dog Yella began behaving oddly…

sudden arrivals spark a panic

I’D HAD Yella, my first dog, for a few weeks and we were both settling into our new routine. She was adjusting to life in the UK and I spent a lot of time on Google, checking that I was doing the right things, too.

Yella was six months old and in season when she came to me from Cyprus; she was growing nicely with good food, exercise and lots of love. We’d noticed that her teats had started to get bigger and, over the course of a few days, she started “nesting”, gathering all her toys into different places around the house. Google told me she was probably having a phantom pregnancy. I wasn’t overly concerned.

NESTING INSTINCT: Yella three days before the birth

I’d decided that I needed a local, part-time job and was delighted to secure a role as a veterinary receptionist at a practice just down the road. I started my new job on the Monday. By the Friday, I was getting worried about Yella.

She was getting fussy about eating, she didn’t want to go for walks and – when I got home from work on Friday lunchtime – she was clearly in distress, shaking and howling like a lamb being slaughtered.

I called the vet to make an appointment and tried to encourage Yella into the garden for a pee before we left. She wouldn’t pee, the howling got worse and, when she came back into the house, she started squatting on the carpet.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I thought, “you poor thing – you must be in a bad way.” And then, before my very eyes, as she continued to squat, a tiny bag of puppy popped out of her. I uttered a profane expletive as I continued to stare at the small bag. What on earth to do?

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Yella becomes a mum

I called my partner, who was driving to my house at the time: “Yella’s just had a puppy and I’m not even effing joking,” I said. “But I think it’s dead… oh no! It’s not! Gotta go.”

Yella had broken through the sac the puppy was born in, bitten the umbilical cord, eaten the placenta and was licking the tiny, mewling creature, no bigger than a hamster.

Through the haze of astonishment, practical issues kicked in. Right, we had an appointment to make. I scoured the house for a suitable receptacle for the puppy: yes, the recycling bin. I lined it with a towel, picked up the puppy and popped it in. Yella went nuts, trying to get to her baby in a bin. How on earth was I going to get them into the car?

I called the vets to let them know that Yella had delivered a puppy and that we might be a bit late for our appointment. Two minutes later, Holly the vet nurse called back: “Would you like me to come over?” Yes, please. “One more thing, Lucy: there might be more than one puppy.” What? WHAT? “Keep Yella and the puppy calm, if another comes out, you can help her by breaking the sac. Make sure they’re comfortable and warm. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

UNEXPECTED ARRIVALS: the two puppies

By the time Holly and my partner arrived at the house, Yella had delivered, cleaned up and was suckling a total of two puppies. For a street dog who was abandoned by her own mother at birth, she was doing an amazing job. I was a mess.

I’d gone from having one dog to three in eight weeks and one day. I was a new dog parent and now grandparent. I had no idea what was going on, while Yella’s maternal instinct had kicked in and she seemed to know exactly what to do.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.

NEXT TIME: Yella and Lucy get to grips with motherhood.

Festivals put nature centre stage

NATURE is in the spotlight next month when a programme of outdoors events, walks and activities is being held across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Chilterns Conservation Board hopes the nature-based activities will inspire families, young people and adults of all ages to get out and explore the AONB.

A new October festival marks a month-long ‘season of celebration’ aiming to bring communities together and inspire people to explore and enjoy the heritage and landscape on their doorstep.

Naturalist, TV presenter and environmental campaigner Chris Packham will be the keynote speaker at the first ever ‘Chilterns Champions’ conference, discussing the importance of citizen science and how everyone can get involved.

There’s a chance to explore a new heritage trail around the Wycombe Rye, get creative in art workshops with local wildlife champions the Chiltern Rangers and enjoy a range of walks, talks and local produce tastings.

The festival runs from October 1-31 and is also designed to help support communities and businesses following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also in October, the Chilterns Walking Festival is now in its seventh year and boasts more than 50 guided walks, activities and events over 16 days, running from October 17.

The walks, all guided by experienced leaders, provide opportunities to meet countryside rangers, farmers, archaeologists, historians, food producers and storytellers of the Chilterns.

Annette Venters, the Chilterns Conservation Board’s people & society officer, said: “We are delighted to be offering lots of new walks that showcase the best of our stunning landscapes, wildlife and local producers.

“There are still plenty of challenging hikes, but we’ve included a greater number of shorter walks too, with the emphasis on learning and discovery, meeting the people and producers of the Chilterns, and spending time in our inspirational landscape.”

Find the full schedule of Chilterns Celebration events see www.chilternsaonb.org/ccc-fest. For walking festival details and bookings see www.visitchilterns.co.uk/walkingfest. Most events are free, though some require a small fee.

The Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme is a five-year project which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns.

The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated in 1965 and stretches from Goring in Oxfordshire to near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. It is one of 38 AONBs in England and Wales and has a resident population of 80,000.

The Chilterns Conservation Board is an independent public body set up to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB.

Picture of the week: 21/09/20

THIS week’s painting is a new work by Chilterns artist Sue Graham, who has often drawn inspiration from local landscapes.

A feature in April revealed how a series of paintings inspired by her love of the dawn chorus prompted her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.

One of her latest completed works takes its inspiration from a landscape at the other end of the country, in Cornwall.

EXPLOSION OF LIGHT: Sundown, St Ives, acrylic on board by Sue Graham

Sue explains: “In 2019 I decided to organise a group exhibition in St Ives, famous for its artist colony and a place I had always wanted to visit.

“It was a great week: off to have a beer and yoga on the beach every evening after I shut the exhibition doors, and wonderful company from my fellow artists. It was just a fabulous hard-working but energising experience.

“One evening I climbed up on the grassy slope above Porthmeor Beach as the sun was setting. The whole bay was lit up and the air itself seemed to glow.

“I wasn’t interested in catching a precise rendition in paint of St Ives viewed from the hill, more an expression of how it felt to be there at that moment: intoxicated by the sense of space, light, the natural world and infinite possibilities. 

“I started painting this in August 2019 when I got home: it started well and then I got lost in it. So I put it away, then Covid came and cancer came and by the time I felt like painting again I pulled it out and by then somehow in my mind I had resolved how to make it work.

“It’s often best to put things away when they get stuck, though I did at one point almost chop it into pieces. This is painted on board: it’s a weird surface, ungiving and thirsty, but it makes for some great textures if you layer the paint and scrape it back again. That’s the technique I used for the foreground, which is my favourite part.”

Art which speaks volumes

FOR millions of Catholics around the world, today’s Gospel reading at Mass is a very familiar story.

Luke is explaining how, with the crowds gathering around him, Jesus recounts the parable of the sower spreading his seed on different types of land, to see much of it trampled on, eaten by birds, withered or choked. Only the seed falling into rich soil grows to produce a successful crop.

Jesus goes on to explain what the parable means in relation to the word of God. But it’s doubtful if too many in the average congregation would immediately relate the story to images of a street artwork conceived by a graffiti artist in Lithuania.

STAR SEEDER: graffiti art by Morfai in Kaunas, Lithuania

That’s where art expert, entrepreneur and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst comes in.

Some 18 months ago the former Sotheby’s director launched a new website linking daily gospel readings with poignant and reflective works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary.

His choice for today’s reading is Star Seeder, a piece of graffiti art which went viral after it appeared on a wall in Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania.

As Patrick goes on to explain: “At first there was simply the bronze statue (on the left on our photo) created by Bernardas Bučas (1903–1979) in Kaunas, the art deco capital of Lithuania. The sculpture embodies the interwar period where the peasant is sowing grains, working for his country. Fast forward to 2008. Street artist Morfai sprayed the wall behind the sculpture with stars. The composition works only at night, as then with the light which is shining upon the monument, a shadow of the sculpture is cast onto the wall, which then corresponds with the stars being sown by the shadow silhouette of the sower… The grains have become stars…”

Patrick then explains the parable connection by pointing out how the street artwork makes no sense during the day – it is only when night comes that the sculpture shadow is cast onto the wall and the artwork does make sense.

Likewise with parables it may be that they make little sense at first sight, he says. “It is only at certain times, or when our own personal circumstances change, or a certain light is shining upon a certain aspect of our lives that the parables make sense,” he writes.

Ironically, the original artwork was overpainted and it was only eight years later that Morfai was invited to restore it, this time incorporated black granite stars onto the wall behind the statue.

Meanwhile Patrick, who moved to London from Belgium in 1995, worked for years at Sotheby’s before featuring as a winner on the TV programme Dragons’ Den when his antiques-valuing website Value My Stuff was backed by both Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis.

But the entrepreneur’s life took a new twist in 2019 when he enrolled as a seminarian with the Diocese of Westminster, studying at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome to become a priest.

His website features an extraordinary range of artworks spanning the centuries, and allowing visitors to consider the daily reading from a new perspective.

His website offers a daily news letter by email with the Gospel reading of the day, alongside an appropriate work of art and short reflection.

Pet rescue is no walk in the park

Guest writer Lucy Parks recounts the pleasures and perils of adopting a rescue dog

A DOG CALLED YELLA

I CAN’T remember a time I didn’t want a dog.

My mother – who doesn’t like animals, hence no childhood dog – tells stories of me toddling up behind German Shepherds as a kid, just to give them a hug. To me, dogs were there to be loved and cuddled and I knew that, one day, I would fulfil my dream.

Cats filled the gap as I worked full-time and simply didn’t have room in my life for a dog.

FRESH START: redundancy prompted Lucy to consider the possibility of owning a dog

Everything changed when I hit 50. Made redundant, I took the opportunity to pare back my life, stay local, work less. The moment had come. I always knew I was going to go down the rescue route but, having two cats at the time, it proved difficult with the UK rescue charities. They, understandably, want to be sure that when they re-home a dog into a house with cats, the dog (and cats) will be comfortable.

FACEBOOK STAR: Yella and Lucy’s artwork on the Cyprus Dog Rescue page

After a few months of looking, a friend with a Cypriot rescue dog suggested a Facebook group I might be interested in. To cut a very long story short, in July 2018, Yella flew into the country and into my arms.

Yella (Greek for “laugh” because, in the first photo we saw of her, she had a big grin) is a Kokoni-cross, a small, domestic Greek terrier known as “the daughter’s dog” for their gentle and devoted nature.

WINNING SMILE: the first picture Lucy ever saw of Yella

She was six months old, scared stupid and didn’t speak any English. But from the first moment we saw each other, on a dark night in the car park at South Mimms service station, it was love.

SECOND THOUGHTS?

I’VE made a terrible mistake…

The first few days with Yella, my new rescue dog, were terrifying for both of us. She was away from everything she knew – albeit that she was only six months old – and not just in a strange home but in a strange country. She’d had an arduous plane and truck journey to the UK from Cyprus and, despite having wanted a dog forever, I had very little idea of what it actually entailed.

Yella wasn’t house-trained; she’d never worn a collar or harness or walked on a lead before; she’d not seen traffic before; she didn’t know how to play; wasn’t interested in sticks or balls. Oh and I discovered that she was in season, which is why she hadn’t been neutered before she came to me.

She followed me everywhere. Everywhere. I thought I’d never be able to leave the house again. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.

HALFWAY HOUSE: Yella’s first night in the hallway

That first night, I’d slept in the hallway with her, next to her crate, waking up regularly to take her outside for a pee. She never really took to the crate, though, and it became a bit of a tussle every night. The sound of a puppy crying in her crate is just heartbreaking.

But as time went on, we both adapted as we got to know each other. Yella came to ParkRun with me at Rickmansworth Aquadrome, she came to the beer shop in Amersham and she revelled in the love and attention she got from my friends.

I guess I was hideously naive at the start. I was impatient to have the perfect pet but any dog, especially a rescue dog, needs time, understanding and patience.

Yella hadn’t had a bad start in life, she wasn’t abused or neglected, but she’d been brought up in shelter and her new life in the Chilterns could not have been more different.

discovering the chilterns

ONE of the very best things about getting a dog has been discovering the Chiltern Hills.

I’d lived in Amersham for 15 years when I got Yella and I was familiar with the well-trodden commuter route between home and the station but, admittedly, I’d explored very little further than that.

EAGER ANTICIPATION: Yella ready for walkies

Yes, I liked going out for walks but it always felt a bit, well, empty without a dog. Now I was forced to venture down footpaths and into new places in search of good walking routes.

As well as finding the stunning scenery that had been right on my doorstep all along, I was blown away by the dog-owning community.

In my first few weeks with Yella, I spoke to more people in my home town than I had in the previous 15 years. Dog owners are always ready to stop for a chat, exchange stories and coo as their pets sniff each other’s butts.

It’s provided a totally unexpected, if slightly unusual, social avenue. I know very few owners’ names, but I know Lily, Arthur, Hector, JJ, Buddy and Billy – and Yella greets them as old friends.

One of my first regular walks with Yella was to Hervines Park in Amersham, which has the winning combination of open parkland to run in and long, deep woods to explore (where squirrels might be found).

The first time I lost Yella

IT WAS at Hervines Park where I lost Yella for the first time.

She’d not long been off-lead and I was still a bit nervous, but she’d always stayed close… but she was getting braver. In the woods at the edge of the park, she suddenly bolted off, chasing a squirrel. I called and called – Yella’s recall has always been a bit selective – and after a few minutes I started to panic.

OFF THE LEAD: exploring Hervines Park in Amersham

Hours passed. Well, it was probably more like five minutes but felt like hours, and then I spotted two women and their dogs walking up through the woods. They hadn’t seen Yella, but they sympathised for a while. As we stood there, a man approached us from the woods with five dogs in tow.

It took me a moment to realise that one of them was Yella. My heart leapt and, boy, was she happy to see me. It transpired that only two of the dogs actually belonged to the man; the others had just joined his walk…

There are always lots of dogs to run around with at Hervines Park and it remains one of our favourites. It can be approached from many different directions, there’s parking at the end of Hervines Road and, if you feel inclined, can walk for miles.

stunning views on the doorstep

WITH hindsight, twilight wasn’t the best time to embark on the new walk that a local runner had told me about, especially one through woods.

I was a bit scared but Yella was oblivious, excited to find a whole new world of sniffs.

It was literally five minutes down the road from home on the Amersham/Chesham Bois border and yet – like many of the other walks I’ve found – I had no idea it was there.

At the end of the quiet but well-established wooded path, I could see daylight and we hurried towards it. We found ourselves crossing a railway bridge and then – oh goodness me, what a sight to behold: the Chilterns Hills, laid out before me like a landscape painting in the late afternoon sun. I could only stand and stare. It was simply stunning.

REGULAR WALK: the light at the end of the footpath that leads to the Big Field

The Big Field, now one of our staple walks, lay ahead, a popular area with dog walkers and kite fliers. It’s on the side of the Chess Valley, exposed, open and perfect for crazy running.

We headed across the field to the left, following the path down the big hill. Only the occasional passing train on the Chesham branch of the Metropolitan line, high above you, reminds you that you’re in the Home Counties.

OPEN ASPECT: Yella takes in views of the glorious Chilterns

The footpath cuts through the valley, under a railway bridge with fine graffiti to the left and up into Blackwell Stubbs, a small but well-maintained woodland. Back up another hill – well, this is the Chilterns – and take the left fork up into Stubbs Wood (that’s a road, not a wood).

This is a lovely circular walk that takes about 45 minutes. Yella loves the variety of woodland and open space, the potential for deer and squirrels, and the chance to meet canine friends.

In the same area of Amersham are Chesham Bois Common and Great Bois Wood, both firm favourites with many different routes to explore.

FIRM FRIENDS: Lucy and Yella in the Big Field

It’s but a tiny area of the Chilterns and it offers so much. Yella and I have loved witnessing the changes of the seasons here, from slipping through snow and slopping through mud to hot summer evenings in the shade of the ancient beech trees. We are truly blessed to live in such a wonderful place.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.

NEXT TIME: Yella delivers her biggest surprise

Has the sun really set on summer?

SEPTEMBER. Suddenly, there’s a chill in the morning air.

It’s as if nature knows you have just changed the month on the kitchen calendar and wants to tell you to forget all about those long humid dog days of summer – autumn is definitely on its way.

It’s not as if this should be a surprise. Days have been shortening since the summer solstice. But it’s the pace of change that suddenly seems to quicken.

From late May until near the end of July, sunset in the south-east is after 9pm. But we lose around three minutes of daylight every day from August through to late November…it just may take us a little time to notice.

That’s why, on a crisp morning in early September, we suddenly start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.

Dramatic skies foretell of more changeable weather to come. Even though in practice September is often a month of long hours of sunshine and relatively warmth, sunset is now before 8pm and will be almost an hour earlier by the end of the month. Psychologically, those long sunny summer evenings are already feeling like a distant memory, especially with the children back at school after the long holidays.

MORNING CALL: a small skein of pink-footed geese PICTURE: Tim Melling

It’s still getting light early, and we’re woken by the reassuring honking of geese flying past in perfect formation – just one of some 4,000 species of birds around the world migrating in search of milder weather and more plentiful food.

It’s a friendly sound, as if the family are having a lively conversation, although scientists speculate that it is actually a way of keeping the flock together on their long flights, with those behind honking encouragement to the ones in front.

The shape makes sense too, creating uplift for the bird immediately behind and adding much more flying range than if a bird flew on its own. They swap positions en route, so that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates further back in the ‘V’ and another goose heads up front.

TEAM SPIRIT: wild Canada geese, pictured in North America PICTURE: Tim Melling

Even more amazingly (and much quoted on team-building courses around the world), when a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, a couple of other geese obligingly fall out with their companion and follow it down to lend help and protection, staying with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; only then do they set off to catch up with the rest of the group.

The geese aren’t the only ones of the wing. The skies are hectic with criss-crossing migrants and down at the local gravel pit the numbers of gulls and cormorants will be building.

Around the country from the Tweed estuary to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, birds are arriving in huge numbers, pausing before pushing on with their remarkable journeys.

KNOTS LANDING: a flock of knots and dunlins at the Humber Estuary PICTURE: Tim Melling

Meanwhile in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and the acorns have been dropping like rainfall – or, as botanist and author @LeifBersweden puts it: “One of my favourite September activities is to sit in the sun near an oak tree, close my eyes and listen for the quiet plick-plock-thump of acorns pinballing between branches before falling to the ground. It might not sound like much, but that sound is just utterly wonderful.”

FUNGUS FORAY: many of the more colourful toadstools and berries are poisonous

The foragers are out looking for mushrooms and other edible delicacies, although many of the toadstools and berries are far from safe.

Start nibbling the fly agaric, destroying angel, death cap or white bryony and you could face vomiting and diarrhoea, stomach cramps, hallucinations and even death. Maybe not such a great idea for the uninitiated, then.

Ants and hornets are busy at work building their nests in the woods, bats are swarming and the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.

Around the country, harvest has been under way for weeks, with early finishes in some areas where the weather has allowed, and heavy rain delaying the combines elsewhere.

Normally falling towards the end of September or early October, the harvest thanksgiving festival dates from pagan times, traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23).

Once Lammas Day at the beginning of the harvest season on August 1 was the time of celebration, when farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church for ‘loaf Mass’ to be used as the Communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest celebrations date from pagan times

The custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season which usually include singing hymns, praying, dancing and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food.

Michaelmas Day is traditionally the last day of the harvest season: the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel on September 29. St. The patron saint of the sea, ships and boatmen, of horses and horsemen, he was the Angel who hurled Lucifer down from Heaven for his treachery.

HARVEST HOME: today, celebrations take place towards the end of September

In the past, the harvest festival differed, based on when all the crops had been brought in, and was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children.

A prosperous harvest would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months and would be cause for much celebration. As an occasion steeped in superstition, it’s no surprise that so many ancient customs and folklore pre-date Christianity but still reflect the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which the harvest was held.

THANK THE LORD: a prosperous harvest was a time for prayer and thanksgiving

Even 150 years ago all the work was done by hand – including the cutting of cereal crops like wheat, barley and oats – and everyone was roped in to help out, including wives, children and roaming groups of migrant labourers who would seek employment from farms at the start of the season, especially in the eastern arable counties.

Gathering sheaves into stooks was back-breaking work too and days were long, from 5am till dusk, but the compensation was extra pay, a midday meal and often all the beer or cider needed to keep a labourer going through a hot day.

OPEN OUTLOOK: farmland in Bedfordshire

After the harvest came the celebration – one of the great village festivals shared by all the local community and culminating in an evening of dancing and merry-making.

We may not have reached Michaelmas Day yet, but many farmers in the south-east have already finished their harvest, despite concerns about crop quality and yields.

With daytime temperatures staying up in the 20s, it’s clear that summer’s not quite over – but for better or worse, around the Chilterns, this year’s harvest is almost gathered in…

Picture of the week: 14/09/20

TO MARK Hertfordshire’s annual open studios programme, our third picture of the week is another featured artist from the event.

Our focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife working in any medium, and our latest selection is a colourful painting by Mary Ann Day.

BOLD COLOURS: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire, by Mary Ann Day

A self-taught artist whose work has featured in several exhibitions on the outskirts of London, Mary Ann has experimented with different styles and textures, using a palette knife in much of her work. She continues to be excited by the “magic of paint” and says she is travelling on “an artistic journey that continues on a never-ending rollercoaster of discovery”.

Her work features various themes but is notable for its bold, bright colours, sometimes laid on in thick layers but always vibrant and often evoking far-off wind-lashed islands like Hawaii and Fiji.

“Colour is the key to my work,” she explains. “Without colour life would be a very dull place.”

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Picture of the week: 07/09/20

TO MARK Hertfordshire’s annual open studios programme, our second picture of the week is another featured artist from the event.

Our focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work in any medium, and this week’s painting is a new work by Alexander James Gordon.

LIGHT AND COLOUR: Daybreak by Alexander James Gordon

Inspired by colour and light, Alexander’s influence comes from watching the sky and imagining the possibility of colour to use within his oil paintings.

He lives and works in Barnet and his paintings are abstract landscapes using oils and a palette knife, which enables him to leave visible marks on the canvas, creating a subtle textural layer to the painting.

His oil painting demonstration for the virtual open studios section of the Herts Visual Arts website shows him explaining his technique during the early stages of creating Daybreak.

More paintings are featured on his own website, which also includes information about future exhibitions.

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Woodland offers a welcome refuge

IF ONLY trees could talk, what secrets they could tell

The ancient oaks and beeches of Burnham Beeches have provided a place of solace and refuge during difficult times this year.

Through the long summer holidays that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions, the woods have been alive with the cries of children and lolloping spaniels, a safe place to socially distance away from the pressures of supermarket shopping and public transport.

Paths wending through overhanging branches have provided shade from the sweltering heat of early autumn and shelter from the rain, a place for bug hunts and Pooh sticks, of family adventures and solitary wanderings.

From hungry ducks and moorhens to foraging ponies and cattle, the woods are home to an array of wildlife, from the ubiquitous pigeons and squirrels to the industrious ants, colourful dragonflies and elusive reptiles.

Spread across more than 900 acres, Burnham Beeches soaks up visitors and provides a cross-section of different habitats, from heathland ferns and heather to lily-covered ponds and carefully grazed wood-pasture.

A national nature reserve for almost 30 years, it is an oasis of calm in a hurried world, and one which hundreds of local families will remember with affection for the part it played in making the long difficult summer of 2020 just a little easier to cope with.

Mark’s ultimate birdsong guide

MARK Avery knows a thing or two about birds.

He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.

WALK FOR WILDLIFE: Mark joins Chris Packham in Hyde Park in 2018

He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.

Back in February his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.

He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.

DAWN CHORUS: a blue tit pictured by Yorkshire-based naturalist Tim Melling

In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.

“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”

February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.

TWO-NOTE PHRASE: the great tit has an easily recognised refrain PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.

Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.

CLARION CALL: the chiffchaff signals that spring is unfolding PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.

A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.

To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.

GARDEN FRIEND: the robin can be vicious to other robins PICTURE: Tim Melling

Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.

His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.

CANDID CAMERA: Tim Melling sees himself first and foremost as a naturalist

Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April:

Introduction
Great Tits
Song Thrush
Songs and calls
Dunnock
Blackbird
More on Great Tits
Chiffchaff
Even more on Great Tits
Yet more on Great Tits
Robin
Great Tits again
Greenfinch
Chaffinch
Wren
Skylark
Blackcap
Sonagrams
Willow Warbler
Cuckoo

SMALL WONDER: the wren is a small bird with a very loud voice PICTURE: Tim Melling

The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.

It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.

Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”

SUBLIME SONG: the wood warbler evokes fond memories for Mark PICTURE: Tim Melling

Starling
Black Redstart
Garden Warbler
Sedge and Reed Warblers
Blue Tit
Yellowhammer
Why a dawn chorus?
Common and Lesser Whitethroats
Goldfinch
Nightingale
Oystercatcher
Golden Plover
Curlew
Lapwing
Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Dunlin
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting
Turtle Dove
Mistle Thrush
Bittern
Woodlark
Corncrake
Nightjar
Common Crane
Meadow Pipit
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Some favourites

UPLANDS FAVOURITE: the meadow pipit PICTURE: Tim Melling

By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?

“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”

MELODIOUS SONG: the blackcap PICTURE: Tim Melling

His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”

Now we just need to wait to February for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.

Picture of the week: 31/08/20

TO MARK the start of Hertfordshire’s annual open studios event, we’re launching a new weekly art feature.

The focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife working in any medium and nominations are always welcome.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Avenue of Trees – Rothamsted Park by Andrew Keenleyside

To kick-start the series, our first ever Picture of the Week is one of a series of local landscapes produced by Hertfordshire artist Andrew Keenleyside, a regular exhibitor at the annual Herts Visual Arts event, which this year includes a wide range of virtual galleries and demonstrations.

Andrew is a painter and printmaker living and working in Hertfordshire who enjoys chronicling the changing seasons at a number of local locations.

His work and approach to painting have been influenced by a variety of artists: Pissarro and Sisley in terms of subject matter, Matisse and the Fauves in his use of colour.

He works in oils on both board and canvas and the picture chosen is one of 15 forming part of his online gallery for the open studios event showing Rothamsted Park, formerly part of the Manor of Rothamsted, owned by Sir John Lawes.

AVENUE OF LIMES: Rothamsted Park features in a series of Andrew’s pictures

Lawes initiated agricultural experiments in 1843 which led to the founding of the nearby Rothamsted Experimental Station, one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world.

He also created the formal entrance from Leyton Road to what is now the park and planted the avenue of lime trees in 1931.  Seven years later the Harpenden Urban District Council purchased the land to provide playing fields and preserve an important open space.

Other popular local spots featured in his paintings include Southdown Ponds on Harpenden Common, and the Nickey Line footpath and cycleway on the former railway line linking Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead.

Galleries featured on his website include paintings in Norfolk, where he has family connections, and other holiday destinations at home and abroad.

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

 

A last chance to reset the clock?

BACK in March I posted a blog about the possibility that the pandemic might just encourage us to rethink our relationship with the natural world and our place in it.

Written just days before the lockdown, it was a plea of hope that our experience of coping with the virus and its horrors might just provide some sort of global opportunity for humanity to reset its values.

Later posts considered the impact of the UK lockdown and the opportunities it offered to reconnect with the natural world.

It was by no means a lone voice, of course. Numerous leaders and pundits have put forward blueprints for how we can rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, and the Pope has been dedicating his Wednesday general audiences on how the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity can help heal the world. 

But have we really forgotten the potential lessons we learned from lockdown so very quickly?

We always knew the importance of the economic imperative and getting people back to work as far as possible. Yet in Warwickshire this week we are seeing ancient oaks being pulled down as HS2 construction work continues at an eventual cost already estimated at more than £70bn.

Every week when we walk among the centuries-old trees at Burnham Beeches we marvel at the age and beauty of these giants, which have witnessed so much history.

The devastation across the Chilterns which has reduced local residents to tears is just one symptom of the race to resume all the things we were doing before the whole crazy coronavirus scare began.

Five months on, do we really need a new railway at this moment in time? A third runway at Heathrow? An Oxford-Cambridge expressway? Surely there might be less damaging job-creation schemes that might protect what little we have left of our countryside before it gets buried in concrete and litter?

The March post suggested: “How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives.”

I’m not sure that’s happening. The race seems to be on to declare that it’s “business as usual”. But it’s no longer business as usual. And it would be good to see more of our political and business leaders taking account of the new reality before it’s too late.

Take an amble around Hambleden

AS picture postcard English villages go, they don’t get any quainter than Hambleden.

This is the ultimate cliché, the stuff of jigsaw puzzles, chocolate boxes and tourism brochures.

Pretty flint-and-brick cottages jostle round an impressive medieval church in a village set in a broad open valley overlooked by hills topped with mature beech woods.

Nestled into the Chiltern Hills close to the River Thames between Henley and Marlow, this is your quintessentially English scene, mentioned in the Domesday Book and still providing the perfect starting place for a family rambles.

Predictably popular with film crews and providing a backdrop for a variety of murder mysteries and children’s classics like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Nanny McPhee Returns and 101 Dalmatians, the village nowadays forms part of the impressive Culden Faw Estate, some 3,500 acres of woods, rolling pastures, parkland and unspoilt chalk valleys. (It also had a slightly darker role as Tadfield, home of the Anti-Christ and his friends, in the 2019 mini-series Good Omens.)

On a sunny Saturday, it resembles a scene from The Darling Buds Of May, with children playing in the brook beside a footpath that stretches invitingly into the distance. Just “perfick”, as Pop Larkin might have put it.

This unspoilt setting is an important staging post on the Chiltern Way, a 134-mile perambulation around the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which manages to encompass all the most characteristic features of a historic Chilterns landscape, including those quaint villages, ancient beeches and crystal-clear chalk streams.

Opened in 2000 and maintained by Chiltern Society volunteers, this is one of the most dramatic sections, taking ramblers from the woods of Marlow Common towards the hamlet of Rotten Row and down into Hambleden, before looping north to Skirmett, Fingest and Turville.

Suitable for walkers of all abilities, the route is well signposted and popular, but for those who want to keep Hambleden as their base, there are numerous circular possibilities in the area, including one trail on the National Trust website.

This circular five-mile walk initially ascends the east side of the Hambleden Valley, descends through the hamlet of Pheasants Hill and then explores the west side before returning to the village from the south, following the route of the Hambleden Brook.

Back in the village hungry walkers gather outside the Village Stores & Post Office for coffee, cake and scones, or adjourn to the Stag and Huntsman Inn for a meal or refreshing pint.

Walkers wanting to tackle the Chiltern Way can find out more about the route from Pete Collins, who chronicles each stage of the journey in some detail on his blog.

And for those looking for something more than a leisurely amble round the village, there are plenty of alternatives – like the Thames and Chilterns walk highlighted on the Chilterns AONB website, which takes you from Henley-on-Thames along the Thames Path National Trail and back via Aston. You can even combine the walk with a boat trip on the Thames between Easter and October.

In the village itself, the key attraction by the old village pump is the fascinating medieval St Mary the Virgin church, an imposing structure boasting a beautiful Norman font and a range of other historical features including a bell tower with eight bells, the oldest of which may first have been rung at around the time of victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Apart from the ornate ceiling detail, there are a variety of features spanning the centuries to engage the visitor’s interest.

In the north transept, the oldest part of the church, is a magnificent monument to Sir Cope D’Oyley (d 1633), his wife Martha and their ten children. In traditional Jacobean fashion, the figures are portrayed kneeling, facing each other, with some of the children carrying skulls to show that they died before their parents.

Inside the church you can also find out about Saint Thomas Cantilupe, born locally and, in 1320, the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation; and see the sea chest taken to the Crimea by Lord Cardigan, who led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

But then there are associations spanning all the centuries here, from a small brass plaque on the south wall of the nave to WH Smith, the famous bookseller, who was a churchwarden at Hambleden, to the grave of Deep Purple rock legend Jon Lord, who lived locally for many years.

Trees remain in tune with the past

IT’S a  perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.

But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.

The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.

This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.

But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.

Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.

The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.

Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.

At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.

Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.

It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.

Snakes alive! It’s a nadder…

MEET Norris. I’m not sure that’s his actual name, because he disappeared a little too quickly into the gorse to indulge in idle chatter.

But then it’s notoriously difficult to get close to an adder without scaring it away, even though local ramblers and rangers blithely talk about spotting them basking in the early morning sun as if the moor was awash with the wrigglers.

Nonetheless, after a couple of long years of scouring the local heath, we are delighted to get to meet our first adder at long last. (To see him in action, see the video below.)

Why not Anthony the adder? Or Adelaide, for that matter? Well, as you probably know, the snake’s common name is the result of a historical pronunciation error. Back in the day, this was a “nadder” in the same way that people once spoke of naprons, noranges and numpires.

In historical linguistics they call this metanalysis or rebracketing, when we break down a word or phrase into segments or meanings different from the original, so Norris the nadder it is for now, with a nod to Old English.

We are wandering amid the gorse and heather of Stoke Common, but this is our first encounter with its most formidable resident, one of Britain’s most exotic native species and our only venomous snake. And without doubt there’s a visceral thrill about seeing that distinctive diamond pattern and frankly scary wriggle.

“There’s nothing madder than a trodden on adder,” said Spike Milligan, but these are actually very shy, timid snakes that tend to bite only in self-defence, usually when someone is attempting to capture them or has inadvertently stepped on them.

After the recent storms, it’s a blustery day on the common, which may be one reason we have managed to get so close to our new friend before he makes a dash for it.

Each adder is unique and the patterns on their heads are as individual as a human fingerprint, apparently, although the markings are also amazing camouflage, making them difficult to spot in this ancient heathland landscape where they can hide among the scrub and gorse and venture out to bask, thermoregulating by moving between sun and shade, since they need to raise their body temperature before they become fully active.

As Shakespeare warned in Julius Caesar: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking.”

Like other members of the viper family, the eggs hatch within the mother and the young are born live. Hence that ‘viper’ name, derived from the Latin for ‘live birth’.

They love rough grasslands, heaths and moorland like this: anywhere with sunny spots for basking, dense cover for shelter and plenty of prey like small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians.

So how nasty is that bite? Pretty bad, apparently. Some 50 to 100 people every year get bitten, and a similar number of dogs, although human deaths are rare, with only around 14 recorded fatalities from adder bites since 1876, the last almost half a century ago.

That’s not to make light of the potential injuries, though. It’s only a month since a distraught dad was warning about the excruciating pain suffered by his three-year-old son when he was bitten at a family picnic in a country park.

Pet dogs have certainly died from adder bites and, since this is the only venomous snake in much of northern Europe, perhaps it was inevitable that myths and misunderstandings would surround the snakes, including a widespread belief that its “sting” lay in its forked tongue rather than delivering venom through their hinged, hollow fangs.

Legends and folk tales span the centuries and it’s hard to tell which are the more gruesome of the many and varied medical cures and traditions surrounding the poor snakes, many of which are recounted on Tim Sandles’ Legendary Dartmoor website.

Would you prefer to rub the bite wound with a dead snake, toad skin, the foot of a dead owl, a live pigeon or the straw from a swallow’s nest? Honeysuckle leaves are a slightly more palatable alternative.

Watching Norris wriggle off into the undergrowth, it’s hard not to shiver at the sight. It certainly doesn’t do to think too much about him and his mates hibernating together during the winter in large groups, as many reptiles do.

They can survive for months like that, it seems, emerging in the spring when it’s warm enough for them to bask in the dappled shade of a gorse bush before mustering the energy to start hunting again.

Our folklore is riddled with stories and superstitions relating to the snakes, and adders are often attributed with powers of wisdom or a sly nature.

But if they were sacred to the druids they were also much persecuted: killing the first adder of spring was supposed to bring the perpetrator good luck and bashing one with an ash stick before sunset would also supposedly neutralise evil sprits.

Wearing the skin of an adder inside a hat could ensure the wearer never suffered from headaches, a skin worn around the leg would banish symptoms of rheumatism and one hung over the fireplace would attract good fortune.

Noawadays it is illegal to kill one: since 1981 adders have become a ‘protected species’, although it was not always thus. Tim Sandles’ recalls the letter written to the Western Morning News in September 1925 when the Reverend Hugh Breton recounted: “I always kill them if I can, as they are dangerous to man and beast…”

Even the famous adder dance, in which pairs of snakes entwine themselves around each other and wrestle energetically, is frequently misinterpreted, it seems. Instead of being a courtship ritual, it is actually a duel between territorial males.

Poor old Norris. So many misconceptions! Still, mugging up on adder folklore has at least uncovered one certain way to spot an adder, according to Dartmoor legend at least.

Find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it; many believed the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. Sorted. Now we know how to find one in future…

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The word adder comes from the Old English word for the species, naeddre. Over time this became ‘nadder’ and reference to “a nadder”, soon became “an adder”. In the development of language this process, whereby a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word, is called metanalysis.

It’s a similar story with napron norange and numpire but works in reverse with newt and nickname.

Back on the murder trail in Thame

GUIDED walking tours of Midsomer Murders locations in Thame have restarted for the first time since last year.

Tour organiser Tony Long said: “We are delighted that the ever-popular Midsomer Tours can start again. We will be ensuring that the now smaller tour groups comply with social distancing guidelines.”

The move came after the tourism and hospitality industry was given the government green light to reopen this month.

ON LOCATION: Neil Dudgeon plays DCI John Barnaby

The tour runs on Wednesdays until October 28 and has proved a big success since its launch in 2017.

Guides take small groups on an hour-long tour around Midsomer filming locations in the town used in episodes of the popular ITV series.

Thame is one of the most frequently used places for filming, appearing in more than a dozen episodes and with 22 locations in the town centre. Among landmarks featured are Thame Museum, Thame Town Hall, Market House, Rumsey’s Chocolaterie, the Spread Eagle and Swan Hotels, the Coffee House, and the Black Horse Pub & Brasserie.

Midsomer Murders is still going strong after more than 20 years. Mr Long said: “Over six million people watch Midsomer Murders in the UK and millions more worldwide. It’s one of our biggest TV exports, and when people see it on TV, they want to come and visit the beautiful towns and villages of Midsomer, such as Thame.

“When they are here, they spend money in our restaurants, pubs, hotels, and shops – which has got to be good for the town and its economy, especially following the lockdown.”

The series is based on the novels of Caroline Graham and the original pilot programme, The Killings at Badgers Drift, was aired in 1997. John Nettles played DCI Barnaby for the first 81 episodes, stepping down in 2011 at the end of series 13. Neil Dudgeon has played DCI Barnaby ever since.

The tour costs £7.50, with funds going to charities. Tour start at 11am on Wednesdays from outside Thame Museum (79 High Street, Thame, OX9 3AE), one of the filming locations but must be booked online at www.ticketsource.co.uk/thamemidsomer.

Fans of the detective series can pick up a free Midsomer Murders leaflet about the deadly town locations from the Town Hall Information Centre or Thame Museum (from September 1).

Free pass for time travellers

HUNDREDS of Chilterns venues throw their doors open next month for ten days of free open days, tours, walks and talks as part of England’s largest festival of history and culture.

Each September thousands of volunteers across the country do their bit to allow guests to experience local history, architecture and culture with no entrance fees.

RAILWAY AGE: the ward-winning Victorian station house at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire

This year’s festival will take place from September 11-20, supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.

From a Victorian station house in Bedfordshire to a derelict wire mill in Berkshire or a haven for wildlife in suburban Reading, venues offer a chance for local people to connect with the past – and the natural world.

POND DIPPING: Lousehill Copse is a haven for wildlife in suburban Reading

Nationwide, destinations range from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns and temples. Not all events are registered yet, but several hundred Chilterns venues are already listed on the Heritage Open Days website.

As well as experiencing local events, this year virtual visitors can participate in activities further afield and see even more hidden places.

TWITCHERS’ TRAIL: try birdwatching at Linford Lakes Nature Reserve in Milton Keynes

For the first time, the programme will include a range of digital events allowing communities to celebrate their stories while adhering to social distancing measures. Some venues and outdoor spaces will open for pre-booked events and visits by small groups, while others will offer virtual tours and digital experiences.

Every year around 50,000 volunteers give their time and effort to help create the largest cultural grassroots festival in the country. Last year 5,700 events were organised which welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors.

This year’s theme is Hidden Nature, which offers an opportunity to discover the nature that exists on our doorsteps, as well as the built heritage. Areas of the countryside that aren’t normally accessible to the public will be opened up and events will reveal the hidden history of not just our natural landscapes, but also gardens, green spaces, urban parks, orchards, vineyards, farms and forests.

Annie Reilly, head of producing for the National Trust, said: “Heritage Open Days is about connecting people so we can share in the amazing stories of the places, spaces, nature, heritage and history around us.”

Heritage Open Days is coordinated and promoted nationally by the National Trust with support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. All events are free, including access to many sites that usually charge for admission.

Parishes protect our common past

THREE cheers for our parish councils.

They may not get much recognition, but they play a crucial role in protecting open spaces and common land across the Chilterns.

Parish and town councils are the most local level of government in England and they vary massively in size, from tiny villages with only a few hundred voters to larger towns where they may look after everything from street lighting and cemeteries to war memorials and markets.

PARISH PUMP: The Vicar of Dibley cast PICTURE: BBC / Tiger Aspect Productions

If the Vicar of Dibley left a lasting impression of parish council meetings being archaic and bumbling, it’s a little unfortunate because the reality is that these grass-roots councils are responsible for a huge range of important community functions.

Originally created in 1894 and called community councils in Wales and Scotland, they can represent from 200 to more than 30,000 people with budgets ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of pounds, levied through the council tax.

COMMON GROUND: Southdown Ponds on Harpenden Common by Andrew Keenleyside

Parishes have numerous powers to provide community facilities – from clocks, bus shelters and litter bins to toilets, sports centres and playing fields. But for many local people it’s their role in protecting shared community land that is of most importance, looking after our commons, open spaces and local nature reserves across the Chilterns.

OPEN OUTLOOK: much of Dunstable Downs is managed by the National Trust

From Dunstable Downs to Ivinghoe, Pitstone and Ibstone, some of our most eye-catching Chilterns scenery is common land, from Chesham Bois to Chinnor Hill and Marlow to Chorleywood.

In fact there are 170 different commons within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and another 88 within 3km of the AONB boundary. 

WELCOME OASIS: Gerrards Cross common, once the haunt of highwaymen

Some, like Stoke Common, managed by the City of London Corporation, may cover 200 acres or more, whereas others may be smaller but much-loved oases of green or wooded land much cherished by dog walkers, runners and picnickers, like Gerrards Cross common, maintained by the local town council.

COMMUNITY ORCHARD: Temple Dell at Farnham Common

Some common land may date back to medieval times, whereas some local initiatives are more recent, including a range of millennium projects across the region – or the community orchard planted in 2011 at Temple Dell and maintained by Farnham Royal Parish Council .

The Warren nature reserve in Wooburn Green is one of around 16 such reserves in Buckinghamshire and looked after by the Wooburn and Bourne End Parish Council.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Wye flowing through Wooburn Green

A number of other small reserves, like that at Homefield Wood near Marlow, are managed by the local wildlife trust.

WILDLIFE HAVEN: birds, butterflies and moths find a welcome at Homefield Wood

District councils have a crucial role to play in waste disposal, while county and unitary authorities spearhead tha battle against fly-tipping.

But on many of our open spaces across the region it’s the humble parish council that’s on the front line in protecting our ancient open spaces – and coping with problems like litter, vandalism and anti-social behaviour along the way.

Virtual visitors enjoy Herts arts

HERTFORDSHIRE artists are taking their annual open studios event online next month.

And although the move was forced by ongoing coronavirus restrictions, it means this year Herts Visual Arts will be able to host an extraordinary range of virtual events around the clock.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Harpenden Ponds, Southdown Road by Andrew Keenleyside

The county network for artists and creatives is celebrating its 30th anniversary and to mark the event is planning 30 themes over 30 days for its annual #HertsOpenStudios celebration of local talent.

As well as a social media wall, the group website features dozens of artist’s galleries and videos of them at work in their studios or explaining their techniques, like the oil painting demonstration produced by Alexander James Gordon (below).

The month-long art celebration follows similar events earlier in the year in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

There will be live personal events and exhibition visits too, normally involving advance booking and social distancing restrictions.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire by Mary Ann Day

But the virtual celebration means that visitors can seek out artwork and demonstrations at any of the day, popping back numerous times to explore different trails and techniques, with videos including studio tours, demonstrations and individual artists explaining and showing off their latest work.

The event runs from September 1-30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

COUNTRY RETREAT: Basildon Park by Susan Edwards

Objects tell Bucks’ special story

IS THERE a single object that somehow sums up why Buckinghamshire is such a special place to live?

A monument, statue or church, perhaps? A museum exhibit, bell tower, painting, buried treasure, pub – even a pint of beer?

Buckinghamshire Culture thought that lockdown might be the perfect time for people to reflect what makes the county unique, and launched a public search for the 100 objects which best define Buckinghamshire and celebrate its story.

That was back in May, and the nominations have been flooding in, with a host of famous faces with local connections only too happy to chip in their suggestions.

The concept derives from a landmark project devised by BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum to tell the history of the world through 100 objects, an ambitious 100-part radio series written and presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor and broadcast over 20 weeks from January 2010.

For the Buckinghamshire version, the aim is to have a public vote to decide the best nominations, but to kick-start the project suggestions were invited from a plethora of local business, arts and political leaders living in Bucks, not to mention a past Prime Minister and an Olympic Gold Medallist.

Predictable places featuring an early mention include several listed in The Beyonder’s What’s On guide, including Bekonscot, Chenies Manor House, Cliveden House (nominated by TV presenter Gabby Logan), Milton’s Cottage, Stoke Common, and Waddesdon Manor.

Other locations included golf courses and nature reserves, museums and churches, like All Saints in Wootton Underwood, nominated by Cherie and Tony Blair.

The grave of William Penn in the grounds of the Quaker Meeting House in Jordans Village also gets a mention: the founder of Pennsylvania set out a legal framework for an ethical society that was radical for its time.

Animals receiving nominations include barn owls, Aylesbury ducks and the swan adopted as Buckinghamshire’s county emblem, not to mention the Caldecotte ichthyosaur, a fossil skeleton of an extinct marine reptile some 160 million years old which was found in 1982 by a workman during excavations near Milton Keynes.

Lions make the list too, in the shape of a statue made famous when Sir Winston Churchill used it as a platform to deliver a rousing post-Second World War speech to the people of High Wycombe in 1945 and the lion statues of Aylesbury’s Market Square.

The county has a rich collection of artefacts dating back over 300,000 years held in museums, stores, archives, National Trust properties, stately homes and gardens, and eventually Buckinghamshire Culture hopes to create an exhibition, publication, county trails and a website sharing details of the objects.

Now the organisation is asking other local residents to put forward nominations – before holding a public vote to help decide the final 100 objects.

For more details about nominations and those objects already put forward, see the website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter #Bucks100

Did you recognise all the objects featured? From the top of the page: a pint of ale from the Chilterns Brewery, the Lenborough Hoard, a collection of more than 5,000 Anglo-Saxon coins, the traditional swan flag of Buckinghamshire, the wheelback Windsor chair, Palladian Bridge, a lithographic print by John Piper from a watercolour held in the Bucks County Museum collection, a thistle on Stoke Common, All Saints Church in Wootton Underwood, William Penn’s grave in Jordans, High Wycombe’s Red Lion statue, a mural created by local artist Teakster, and St Giles churchyard at Stoke Poges.

Keeping the fun of the fair alive

FANCY a day out on the dodgems? Or a chance to learn about signwriting?

The March coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, with all their spring and summer bookings cancelled.

But one Berkshire funfair family wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months, especially having spent years restoring a fleet of 1960s dodgems to pristine working condition.

Joby Carter soon found his traditional signwriting skills were in demand online – and when lockdown restrictions started to ease, the family launched a unique dodgems experience at their base near Maidenhead.

Restoring the worn-out 1960s cars has been a long labour of love for Joby and his team: a restoration process that has taken 25 years of on-and-off work.

“We were determined to finish them in time to reveal them at the first event of our 2020 tour but the COVID-19 pandemic meant that this was not possible,” he says.

The dodgems track was built in the 1960s by Supercar of Warwick and had spent its entire working life in an arcade until it was bought by Carters in 1989. But the original set of Supercar dodgems bought by Joby’s late father John in the 1990s were too worn out to operate.

“It’s believed to be the last traditional round-ended dodgem track that Supercar built,” says Joby. “There is no other dodgem set like this in the world and that’s why we are so excited to open our dodgem experience to the public.”

Unlike at the fair, visitors to the funfair’s base at White Waltham get exclusive access these original 1960s Supercar Italias for half an hour as a group, allowing them to enjoy the dodgems experience in their chosen bubble, with friends watching if they wish.

All 18 cars have now been restored, although the family managed to finish a few in time for them to enjoy a bit of Hollywood fame with the launch of the award-winning movie Rocketman about the life of Elton John.

“We managed to finish a few cars last winter in time and they looked fabulous on the big screen. We’ve worked on them even more since then to get the whole set perfect,” says Joby.

He was just 18 months old back in 1977 when his parents, show promoters John and Anna Carter, bought their first ride – a set of 1890s Jubilee Steam Gallopers that they could take to steam rallies and fairs.

As their passion for vintage fairgrounds grew, they added more rides to their collection and soon Carters Steam Fair became known as specialists in vintage fairground rides, with the artistic talents of Anna Carter put to good use restoring rides to their former glory.

In 1999 they found a new yard to house the fair during the winter months, but were shocked when John Carter was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and died the following year. His enthusiasm and vision had been a guiding force for the fair, but his children had inherited his love for the fair and what it stood for.

After a very difficult few months, it was decided to get the fair back out on the road and continue what John had started.

Joby and his wife Georgina took over the managing of the fair from Anna a few years ago, and are heavily involved in the travelling, maintenance and restoration of the rides.

The fair has since gone from strength to strength, with Joby, Anna, Seth and Rosie Carter and their families all personally involved, and with many friends and supporters working hard to keep it on the road.

The original Gallopers were lovingly restored, most of the horses having been carved from wood by Andersons of Bristol around 1910, and all subtly different to one another. They are all named after friends and family on the fair.

The 46-key Gavioli organ (c1900) was bought from Roger Daltrey in 1979 and provides that unmistakeable fairground atmosphere.

But with rides and sidestalls dating from the late 1890s to the 1960s, the collection includes everything from the steam-driven yachts of the 1920s to a 1910 roundabout featuring an eclectic collection of creatures from running cockerels, to hungry-looking pigs and curious Lord Kitchener centaurs.

From a coconut shy to duck- and fish-hooking games and test-your-strength “strikers”, the funfair has all the traditional elements of a country fair that would have delighted our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors and it provides fascinating insights into British social history.

“When a ride comes into our care, we research as much as we can and try to trace its ancestry,” says Joby. “If we’re lucky, we can even find photos of it from its heyday.”

Skilled painters then work on restoring the ride back to its former glory using traditional sign-writing techniques and making sure that everything is accurate to the era.

Traditionally everything in the fair is moved around the country using vintage heavy lorries and magnificent showman’s living wagons.

Like the rides, each of the fleet of lorries, some dating from the 40s, 50s and 60s, has been lovingly restored to its former glory and repainted in the distinctive red Carters livery.

Every bit as impressive are the beautifully decorated living wagons with cut-glass windows, lace curtains and premium wood and veneer inside, each with their own story to tell and many previously owned by well-known showmen or circus owners.

The emphasis on traditional signwriting techniques is important to Joby, and it’s another skill which came to the fore during the Covid-19 lockdown, when he was able to offer online courses to people around the world.

In an interview for BBC South, he says: “Funny thing is, I can remember my dad saying to me it would good to have a skill to fall back on. Little did he know that I could stay at home in my garage, teach people around the world and that would actually be saving the fair.”

The collection of rides and side stalls makes Carters the largest travelling vintage funfair in the world, but fans will have to wait until 2021 to see it in its full glory.

Fair spokesperson Mercedes Lavin said: “The Dodgem Experience was intended to be for July and August but due to its popularity we are planning to open it on the weekends after August.

“The fairground is hoping to return in 2021. We usually begin touring around Easter time and travel the country until Bonfire Night. The tour dates will be published around February time.”

Carters dodgems experience at White Waltham runs until August 31 and then at weekends in September.

Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here.

All the images in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Carters Steam Fair and more information about the fair’s history and the background to individual rides, sideshows and vehicles can be found on their website.

Project unearths iron age hillfort

LASER technology has helped researchers identify a previously unknown prehistoric hillfort in the Chilterns.

The discovery was revealed by the Beacons of the Past team based at the Chilterns Conservation Board following a recent laser scanning survey of the entire Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which citizen scientists have been poring over.

It adds a new monument to the score of existing Chilterns hillforts like Pulpit Hill, Cholesbury Camp, Church Hill, or Medmenham Camp – although the exact location has not been revealed.

SIGNS OF THE PAST: an enclosure at Pulpit Hill PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

Hillforts are a class of prehistoric monument constructed in Britain from between the Late Bronze Age and the Middle Iron Age, between four and 12 centuries before Christ, although they are often not on hills and may have been used for a variety of functions.

Confirmation of the new hillfort in the AONB coincides with the Online LiDAR Portal’s one-year anniversary. Launched in August 2019, the portal now has nearly 3,000 registered users, who have created records of more than 10,000 archaeological features.

LiDAR stands for “Light Distance and Ranging”, an airborne laser scanning survey technique used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years which can reveal underground features hidden beneath tree cover.

Beacons of the Past is a National Lottery funded project to discover more about the local hillforts, which seem to have a fairly regular distribution, with a few notable gaps.

“One of the aspirations of the project was to locate any hillforts that might have been hiding in plain sight or under tree cover,” said project manager and archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison.

Archaeologist Dr Ed Peveler, landscape heritage officer for the project, and several citizen scientists independently identified an earthwork in the southern Chilterns as a potential hillfort.

Following careful assessment and an extensive walk-over survey by the team with the full co-operation of the landowner, the existence of a new hillfort was confirmed.

Dr Morrison said she thought it was likely from visual inspection of the rampart and ditch that it dated from around 800-500 BC – “Although one can never be certain of the age of a prehistoric earthwork without excavating for dating evidence.”

There is no public access to the site and the exact location is currently being withheld to protect sensitive archaeology and the landowner’s privacy.

Funded by a £695,600 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a number of partners such as the National Trust, Chiltern Society and local authorities, the project provides a focus for community and public involvement through techniques such as remote sensing and survey, practical excavation and research, as well as a programme of events and educational activities.

With full training offered, the Online Citizen Science Portal can be found here.

Rambles round Midsomer country

CHILTERNS villages don’t come much prettier than The Lee, and this area is a perfect base for a summer ramble.

It’s just a shame that HS2 construction is having such an impact on this part of the world – and you don’t have to wander very far to come across hand-made signs protesting about the “ecocide”.

HS2 apart, this is glorious countryside where there’s been a small community since the Domesday Book of 1086 – and doubtless earlier.

The name is believed to derive from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘leah’ meaning ‘woodland clearing’. At that time the Chiltern hills were largely covered with woodland and the community at Lee would have been closely linked to nearby lowland areas at Great Missenden and Wendover, which had land more suited to crops and grazing.

In the 13th century a chapel was built at Lee; known locally as The Old Church, it is now a Grade I listed building.

With ancient rights of way such as the Ridgeway passing close to the hamlet, the cluster of hamlets around Lee remain a magnet for ramblers and cyclists, not to mention an increasing number of Midsomer Murders fans keen to scout out popular locations from the series.

The Cock & Rabbit on the archetypically English village green is better known to followers of DCI Barnaby as the Rose & Chalice – and being handily placed halfway between Great Missenden and Wendover, it’s a good staging post for any walkers reaching and leaving the area by train.

Another local landmark that’s hard to miss is the Grade II listed wooden ship’s figurehead of the Admiral Lord Howe at the entrance to Pipers, a country house steeped in the history of the Liberty family, of Regent Street fame.

As Lord of the Manor in the 1890s, Arthur Liberty he extended the estate to encompass a dozen working farms, many houses, cottages and public houses, and there are still many visual reminders in the village of his influence. He died in 1917 having built Pipers for his nephew and eventual heir.

The figurehead comes from the Navy’s last wooden ship, dating from 1860, though it never saw sea service and was used as a training ship at Devonport before being broken up in 1921, with many of the timbers used for the mock Tudor extension to the Liberty store in London.

Ramblers and cyclists wanting a more dramatic forest setting don’t have far to go to explore Forestry England’s 800-acre site at Wendover Woods, recently expanded as part of a redevelopment funded by a massive HS2 community grant.

On a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails.

Or if you still haven’t had your fill of Chilterns landmarks, make your way over to Hawridge & Cholesbury Common, designated as a local wildlife site and offering the perfect place for another circular stroll.

Cholesbury is an ancient hill top village and has much to interest the visitor, especially an Iron Age Hill Fort which is one of the most impressive prehistoric settlements in the Chilterns.

Starting from the 17th-century Full Moon pub, with its atmospheric views over the nearby windmill and common, you can opt for a two-and-a-half or five-mile round trip to the fort, which was probably built around 300-100BC and occupied from the Roman conquest into the middle of the first century AD.

For the less energetic, the area is criss-crossed with footpaths and is rich in wildlife, including fox, badger and muntjac deer as well as a range of birds and butterflies.

Against the reassuring backdrop of the crack of leather on willow (cricket has been played on the common for more than a century), you can enjoy a leisurely stroll here without veering far off the beaten track (or too far from the prospect of a welcoming pint at the Full Moon)…

Designs to stand the test of time

WHAT makes a truly iconic design?

Stumbling across a little Morris Minor postal van the other day, we find ourselves smiling with delight – but why should this flashback to 1966 give us so much pleasure to look at?

Is it to do with the retro look and nostalgic memories of “happier days”, or is there something intrinsically satisfying about the design of this popular little car?

Morris Minor postal van by the roadside

By any standards the Morris Minor was iconic. It made its debut at the Earls Court motor show in 1948 and was designed under the leadership of Alec Issigonis, who went on to produce the even more legendary Mini.

I remember interviewing a car designer at a launch many years ago where the legendary late racing legend Stirling Moss was putting the roadster through its paces on a Spanish mountainside.

I think it was the first time I had conceived of the satisfaction someone might get from seeing a concept that started life as an idea on a drawing board being transformed into a car that people can actually one day drive, own and enjoy.

Of course these days that would involve millions of pounds, multiple changes to the original concept and thousands of people in the manufacturing process.

More than 1.6m Minors were produced by 1972 in three series – and this gorgeous postal van was part of the third series, manufactured from 1956. Light commercial vehicle versions were introduced from 1953 and some 300,000 vans, pick-ups and chassis/cabs were built in total.

The Post Office was the biggest operator of such vans, with dedicated fleets for both postal deliveries and telephone engineers, the postal vans boasting a number of factory-fitted modifications such as internal partitions and additional locks.

But it’s not just classic cars that catch the eye, of course. Steam trains and canal boats also have the power to stir our soul – and perhaps even phone boxes, letter boxes, lock gates and old fairground rides, as well as churches and mansion houses?

This stunning steam engine at Chinnor is one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on Great Western Railway branch lines.

Like all steam engines, nowadays it has the capacity to rapdily draw a crowd of admiring onlookers – but why is that?

Surely it’s not simply nostalgia for times past: you need to be over 60 to actually remember having seen steam on the railways and many in the crowd are much younger than that. Isn’t it more the fact that these living, breathing machines are perceived as objects of beauty in their own right?

And what about architecture? As partner Olivia says, good architecture looks as if it’s part of the landscape – it feels totally at home in its setting, at one with the natural world.

When you look at the weathered brick of a Kent farmhouse or the tiles and textures in a medieval French village, it looks as if that’s exactly how it was always meant to look: at home in the landscape, not in conflict with it.

Contrast that with some of our big cities, where much of the beauty created by past generations has been swept away under a hotch-potch of high-rise towers which do not feel integrated into the cityscape at all.

Majestic churches and other landmarks from the past have to be searched for, sandwiched between monstrosities of concrete and metal, if they have not been obliterated altogether.

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But this isn’t just lashing out at the modern. There are plenty of examples of good modern design all around us, whether on the roads, railways or on the skyline. We don’t always have to look to the past for inspiration.

It’s just a plea from the heart for designers to think about tomorrow, as well as today. We need new homes and new forms of transport, and affordability is always uppermost in our minds as consumers.

We have to accept that we won’t see modern buildings boasting all the ornate ornamentation of their neo-classical or neo-gothic predecessors.

But we have to live with design decisions for years to come – and it’s so much nicer to be surrounding by trains, homes and cars that can combine functionality with beauty, like the humble Morris Minor!

Litter heroes need our help

“DISHEARTENED, dispirited and disgusted”. Britain’s army of volunteer litterpickers have been feeling under siege since lockdown…

Peter Ryan, founder of the Dorset Devils (@dorsetdevils), a 600-strong litterpicking group on the Dorset coast, summed up the mood in a letter to his local paper, the Daily Echo.

The problem has been worse since lockdown, he says – with vast numbers of beach visitors leaving their rubbish behind them, now increasingly including face masks, disposable gloves, wet wipes and gel bottles, some of which could be infected.

It’s a horror story which has been repeated around the country – and exhausted and dispirited locals are at their wits’ end.

From Scotland and the Lake District to Cornwall and the Jurassic coast of Dorset, beaches, parks and other public spaces have been besieged on a daily basis, with councils and volunteer clean-up crews struggling to keep pace with the deluge, especially around popular beauty spots.

With temperatures soaring and lockdown restrictions eased, many families have headed to the beach to enjoy the sunshine, with the tabloids showing crowded scenes at tourist hotspots like Southend, Brighton and Bournemouth.

Despite pleas from local councils and frustrated residents, much of their rubbish has been left behind. As one Brighton resident wrote: “Brighton beach is an absolute state yet again this morning. It’s very sad. Apart from being lazy and gross it’s detrimental to our environment and wildlife.”

In Bournemouth council leader Vikki Slade said she was “absolutely appalled” at some of the scenes witnessed on local beaches.

Further along the coast local litter-picker Anna Lois Taylor (@annieloistaylor) tweeted: “So much litter. I’m done sacrificing my own time to clean up an area that’s repeatedly abused. We cleared it yesterday evening and returned today to find ourselves right back at the beginning. I cried all the way home.”

Elsewhere locals reported finding discarded tents, human excrement and the debris from family picnics and birthdays – including disposable barbecues that could pose a major fire risk in wooded areas.

In Cornwall, environmentalist Emily Stevenson (@PlasticWaive) spoke about finding 171 pieces of PPE discarded on the ground during a one-hour litter pick, compared to six items previously.

Meanwhile over in Ipswich, wildlife enthusiast Jason Alexander (@WildlifeGadgets, @UKrubbishwalks) was up at 6am clearing Bramford Meadows of litter after a group of young adults spent an enjoyable day drinking, having fun and some somersaulting off the bridge into the river.

Unfortunately little attempt to clean up after themselves, he says. “There desperately needs to be a serious national discussion to try to tackle the issue of littering and large chunks of the population taking responsibility for their actions,” he added on his Facebook page.

In an earlier video, he spoke about changing patterns in littering, with discarded wrappers from fast-food outlets declining during the lockdown to be replaced with an upsurge in PPE, wet wipes and fly-tipping.

Campaigners are divided in their support for national campaigns like Keep Britain Tidy (@KeepBritainTidy) and about potential solutions, with some calling for bigger fines and tougher enforcement, like John Read from Clean Up Britain (@cleanupbritain).

Others want to see registration numbers stamped on packaging issued at drive-in fast-food outlets, the introduction of deposit return schemes on bottles and cans or a return to more community service sentences involving litter-picking for those caught littering.

The Beyonder (@TheBeyonderUK) has highlighted littering and fly-tipping problems in the Chilterns, but believes the solution lies in a co-ordinated local approach that includes schools, churches, councils, landowners and other organisations.

Editor Andrew Knight said: “It’s tragic seeing local groups desperately trying not to lose heart when they see their efforts trashed day after day.

“Nature lovers shouldn’t have a feeling of dread every time they go out for a walk about what new horror they will discover. And the really good news is that the number of people who genuinely care about this is growing.

“The trouble is that once you see litter, it’s very hard for some of us to ignore – and of course it can totally ruin your day if you see a favourite beauty spot trashed by picnickers or fly-tippers.”

But he added that although the extent of the problem could often appear soul-destroying, campaigners, litter-pickers and nature lovers needed to keep helping each other to stay upbeat.

“The problem can seem overwhelming at times and in some cases there are big problems with enforcement, but there are signs of hope too, ” he said. “If Afroz Shah can achieve what he has in India, we can turn the tide here.

“At the moment the scale of the problem in the UK is incredibly depressing, but at least it is still hitting the headlines in the national pape