Terrifying portrait of a planet on the brink

DISASTER movie or movie disaster? Adam McKay’s dark sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up certainly got a tough ride from the critics.

Hollywood A-listers don’t come with any better environmental credentials that Leonardo DiCaprio. (It’s more than 20 years since he launched a foundation dedicated to ensuring the future health and well-being of Earth’s inhabitants.)

COLLISION COURSE: Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

But even with Leo leading an all-star line-up that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Ariana Grande, the disturbing climate change allegory centred around a massive comet about to destroy human civilisation was initially written off by many reviewers as laboured slapstick or self-reverential twaddle.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s hard to create great satire in an age when real life has already exposed us to a distorted dystopia peopled by political clowns and charlatans who behave like comic-book villains.

Let’s face it, after four years of a Trump presidency, what new is there to say about incompetence or disingenuity by those in high office?

EYES ON THE POLLS: Meryl Streep as the American president PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

As the narcissistic President Orlean, Meryl Streep does her best to give POTUS a fresh dynamic, aided and abetted by Jonah Hill as her doting, sociopathic son and chief of staff.

Predictably, the pair meet news of the looming disaster with distracted indifference, more concerned about polling numbers in the upcoming primaries than in averting imminent extermination.

DOTING SON: Jonah Hill as Meryl Streep’s chief of staff PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

But for anyone weaned on The Thick Of It and In The Loop, jokes about self-serving politicians feel too depressingly real nowadays to make us laugh quite so heartily about their foibles as we once did.

The same is true of McKay’s other targets. From creepy billionaire tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to the vacuous banter-driven hosts of fictional breakfast show The Daily Rip, his larger-than-life caricatures are scarily and depressingly recognisable.

TECH WIZARD: Mark Rylance as sinister CEO Peter Isherwell PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

The underlying theme, of course, is that when DiCaprio and Lawrence – as nervous, nerdy Michigan astronomer Dr Randall Mindy and his smart, punkish grad student Kate Dibiasky (who gets ALL the best lines) – try to warn humanity about the looming apocalypse, no one will take their claims seriously.

Writer, director and producer Mackay wants us to share his horror that we live in a society which persistently sidelines the reality of the climate crisis, using savage humour as his principal weapon.

But if some critics found his vision unbearably smug, crass or cynical, that didn’t stop TV audiences making it the third most-watched Netflix film in the company’s history, prompting many commentators to take a fresh look at his offering.

They found scientists reacting positively to the movie, finding it only too easy to relate to Mindy and Dibiasky’s mounting incredulity at society’s terrifying non-response to the impending destruction.

The denialism also struck a chord with environmental activists, who saw their own struggles reflected in the pair’s growing despair that society is more interested in a pop star’s failed relationship than the future of the planet.

The dark humour takes no prisoners, though. Capitalist greed, political expediency and media idiocracy are all in the firing line, along with the polarising nature of social media in a clickbait-driven society anaesthetised into apathy and indifference.

VACUOUS EXCHANGE: Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

This is a world of short attention spans, cruel memes and knee-jerk hashtags which feels very 2022, in which the frustrated audience wants someone to listen to Mindy’s desperate scream that “We’re all going to die”.

So how come some critics found it trite and self-satisfied, trivialising the climate crisis “from a position of lofty superiority” rather than providing searing socio-political insights, while others felt it offered a “one-of-a-kind experience”?

Derivative, meandering, condescending, unfunny and forgettable, or astute, caustic, clever and fast-paced?

DIVIDED SOCIETY: Don’t Look Up enraged some critics PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, it’s brash, absurd, ferocious and infuriating, but there’s some great acting, enormous enthusiasm and some great one-liners, especially from Dibiasky: “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying. And unsettling.”

It’s been slated as a cosmic disaster, a primal scream, an A-list bomb of a movie. Yet a dozen prominent publications have also run contrary think pieces exploring just why the critics gave McKay such a rough ride.

Could the jaded hacks so eager to detect the whiff of condescension in McKay’s boisterous attack actually be in danger of straying into the line of fire themselves? As environmental activist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian: “No wonder journalists have slated it…it’s about them.”

FLIGHT OF FANCY: the astronomers head to Washington PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Perhaps at the end of the day the precise artistic merits of McKay’s film don’t matter quite as much as the critics would have us believe.

He’s got us talking, arguing and debating about the elephant in the room, climate change. And that surely can’t be such a bad thing.

Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix in December 2021.

New Year’s toast to a happier year ahead

DREARY December bowed out in a pretty desultory fashion, paving the way for the warmest New Year’s Day on record.

IN THE PINK: birds silhouetted against a winter’s sky PICTURE: Paula Western

But after a year of debate about climate change, no one was really celebrating the unseasonal temperatures, thought to have been boosted by warm air wafting in from the Azores.

SHORTEST DAY: a winter solstice sunset PICTURE: Anne Rixon

It may not have helped that this was also the dullest December in 65 years, with only around 26.6 hours of sunshine across the UK, leaving many feeling dispirited – though it didn’t stop some lucky photographers snatching striking pictures of the shortest day of the year.

FIRE IN THE SKY: dawn and dusk provide dramatic contrasts PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

For some, seasonal affective disorder is a more serious type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, symptoms of which include a persistent low mood, loss of interest in everyday activities, an extreme lethargy and feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.

SPLASH OF GREEN: near the River Thame in Aylesbury PICTURE: Ron Adams

Nature lovers can struggle with winter depression too on these short days when the sun is obscured and the landscape full of greys and browns.

AWASH WITH COLOUR: the countryside outside Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

But the more persistent photographers are up and about early and late to capture those brief dramatic moments when the sun breaks through to set the landscape awash with colour.

LONGEST NIGHT: December 21 PICTURE: Anne Rixon

On December 21, the winter solstice marks the time when the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, giving us shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year: after which it doesn’t seem unreasonable to start dreaming about spring.

SENSE OF OCCASION: Christmas trees at Blenheim Palace PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that around the world the day should have been seen as such a significant time of the year in many cultures, with midwinter festivals marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun, and with some ancient monuments like Stonehenge even aligned with the sunrise or sunset at solstice time.

THROUGH THE KEYHOLE: Durdle Door in Dorset PICTURE: Siddarth Upadhya

Down in Dorset, one of the UK’s most majestic natural landmarks comes into its own in December, when thanks to the way the Earth moves on its axis there is a rare opportunity to photograph the sun appearing on the horizon through Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast.

BLUE-SKY THINKING: a misty morning near Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Keen photographers arrive in darkness to snatch that holy grail “through the keyhole” shot of sunlight bursting through the famous rock arch, which only occurs for a few minutes each day from mid-December to early January.

CHILL IN THE AIR: beehives at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

If the warm air from the Azores brought an unseasonal feel to New Year’s Eve, the month was not entirely devoid of chilly nights and frosty mornings.

SNOW ON SNOW: Brush Hill nature reserve PICTURE: Anne Rixon

It may have lacked the grim icy resonance of In The Bleak Midwinter, or the reassuring seasonal familiarity of one of John Charles Maggs’ stagecoach paintings, but there were still plenty of moments when the “frosty wind made moan”, bringing a touch of colour to children’s cheeks and a welcome crispness to the morning air.

STUCK IN THE SNOW: Stage Coach in a Snow Drift PICTURE: Benson Fine Art

Wildlife may be hard to spot on these short days, especially when the sun is obscured and the countryside can appear bleak, but snatched snapshots provide a welcome foretaste of the excitement of spring, like a juvenile great crested grebe surfacing amid water glinting like mercury.

MERCURY RISING: a young great crested grebe PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Cross-country walking is a lonely exercise at this time of year and the backdrop may look bleak at times, with trees dormant, flowers withered and much vegetation looking half-decayed.

SLIM PICKINGS: a red kite looks grumpy in the snow PICTURE: Anne Rixon

But even when nature is looking at its lowest ebb, there are already signs of bulbs pushing through the topsoil and it’s easier to see birds perching on the bare branches, hungry for a snack.

CHOCKS AWAY: a red kite launches into action PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The welcome whistle of red kites is familiar to anyone living in the Chilterns, while buzzards too are an increasing common sight above our woodlands once more, having quadrupled in number since 1970.

WILD EYED: a buzzard in the centre of Marlow PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Whether it’s the cry of a tawny owl or bark of a fox or muntjac, there are plenty of evening sounds to remind us that out local wildlife is never too far away, even if many creatures are dormant or hibernating at this time of year.

TASTY TREAT: winter berries PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

A timely expedition down the M25 to the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey is a reminder of just how elusive some of our native wild breeds actually are.

SMALL WONDER: a harvest mouse poses for a picture PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Furtive and fast-moving, or sleepy and nocturnal, our stoats and weasels, dormice and badgers are not easy to spot, which makes this centre an important place for education, given that so few children will have the chance to see such animals in the wild.

FROSTY OUTLOOK: Willow Wood, Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Back in the woods, our dog walkers and nature lovers are undeterred by cold hands and runny noses, and have been roaming across the Chilterns on the look-out for shots that capture the very best of the season.

CHILL IN THE AIR: a wintry walk near Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

2021 was an incredibly tough year for many, dominated by pandemic worries, lockdown restrictions and extreme weather events.

As Bill Gates reflected, it was also a year when we were reminded just how significantly something happening on the other side of the world could affect us at home – but also how change happens “because groups of people get together and decide to make things better”.

BRANCHING OUT: a snowy day in Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

We’re not there yet when it comes to avoiding a climate disaster. But we also know that we won’t get everyone agreeing on how to win the battle unless people care about the natural world and the impact we humans are having on it.

Our wonderful photographers are contributing to that awareness with their beautiful portraits of the flora and fauna to be found across the Chilterns landscape, and we are very grateful for their efforts to chronicle the passing year month by month.

A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month, and throughout 2021. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for the coming year, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Close encounters of the furry kind

HAVE you ever seen a weasel or a stoat? A dormouse, perhaps, or an otter, badger or tawny owl?

So may of our wild creatures are fast-moving and furtive that it can be hard to catch more than the briefest glimpse of them disappearing into the undergrowth.

For city kids, the problem is even tougher. Other than an unwelcome house mouse or scruffy urban fox, many young people will have never encountered most of our iconic British wildlife – which is one of the reasons the British Wildlife Centre was founded back in 1997.

A dairy farmer for 30 years, David Mills had always been inspired by pioneering conservationists like Sir Peter Scott, Gerald Durrell and John Aspinall, who had started their own wildlife centres.

By the time he took the plunge to realise his own conservation dream and sold off his award-winning herd of pedigree Jersey cows, he had a very clear vision of the type of visitor attraction he wanted to create.

It took 18 months to get planning permission to transform Gatehouse Farm in the small Surrey hamlet of Newchapel, during which time David toured the country looking at the smaller collections of animals to see what people were doing and to make contacts.

Rather than opening a traditional zoo for rare or exotic species, he wanted to focus on British wildlife and the concept of “conservation through education”, teaching children to recognise, understand and appreciate Britain’s native wild species and encouraging them to develop a lifelong interest in their protection.

But when most of your collection is shy, small, nocturnal and elusive, how do you ensure that visitors are not just touring a series of apparently empty enclosures where snoozing animals are hidden from view?

It’s a problem that’s most obvious in the winter months, when many animals are hibernating. But it struck David that the secret to engaging visitors’ interest in his collection of fascinating but often reclusive native species lay in keeper talks.

The policy of actively encouraging keepers to form close bonds with animals is coupled with an extensive programme of breeding and release into the wild, helping to rebuild the country’s red squirrel population, for example.

Indeed, the appealing little animals played an important role in the conservationist’s personal life, too – he met his partner, the Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench, after inviting her to open a squirrel enclosure in 2010.

They have been together ever since, and in 2016 she was at Buckingham Palace to see the “elated” 73-year-old pick up an MBE for his conservation work.

Rather than attempting to maximise the centre’s footfall or income, the emphasis has been on becoming a non-commercial specialist attraction, remaining closed to the public on weekdays in term time so that school visits can take place.

“We can then focus on teaching children to appreciate and respect Britain’s own wonderful native wild species,” says David.

Building stimulating natural environments for the animals reflects growing concerns about seeing animals in captivity and encouraging close keeper-animal bonds of trust makes it easier to show the wildlife off to visitors without interrupting their natural daily rhythms.

Weekend visitors can learn about different species at half-hourly keeper talks, scheduled to coincide with feeding times or when the animals are at their most lively.

Here, animal welfare is the top priority, and visitors can’t expect wildlife to “perform” on cue. But even in winter, patient observers can be in just the right place at the right time to catch a particular resident popping their head out to see just what’s going on, or burrow into a darkened underground display where a bundle of cosy badgers can be found curled up asleep in their sett.

This is also not a place where healthy wild animals will be trapped behind bars for a lifetime, although the centre has occasionally offered a permanent home for rehabilitated animals that cannot be returned to the wild – for example those with a permanent injury or too used to human contact.

But wherever possible, animals will be reared and released, and the centre participates in a range of specific conservation projects dealing with everything from hazel dormice and Scottish wildcats to water voles and polecats.

A drizzly January day isn’t the ideal time to see the centre at its best, and two years of coronavirus restrictions have made life tough hard for visitor attractions across the country.

It’s also fair to say that Newchapel is hardly a wildlife wilderness. Thundering traffic on the adjoining main road or the roar of a jet from nearby Gatwick are reminders of just how much our natural habitat is under threat.

Information boards around the cente tell the now familiar story of mankind’s incursion on the natural environment, with a long list of animals hunted to extinction across the centuries or suffering overwhelming habitat loss.

Once bears, lynx and wolves stalked the landscape. Today it is much more humble creatures like hedgehogs, toads and butterflies, along with countless varieties of insects and birds, whose declining numbers are a cause for concern.

The British Wildlife Centre may not have all the answers to the problems of the modern age, but over the past two decades it has allowed generations of school pupils to get close to more than 40 different types of wild animals and birds, animal encounters which complement a range of national curriculum topics in science, history and geography.

The centre has also transformed 26 acres of former agricultural grazing land into a wetland nature reserve where a huge variety of wild birds, mammal and invertebrate species have set up home.

There’s also a field study centre for school nature trips, and the centre hosts a range of photography days and workshops for enthusiastic amateur photographers on days when the centre is closed to other guests.

For tickets, opening times and full details of other facilities, conservation work and special projects, see the centre’s website.

Tweet of the week: 26/12/21

THERE’S nothing cosy or sentimental about Chris Packham’s Twitter feed.

But it’s the searing honesty displayed by the naturalist and TV presenter that has made him such an important figure in the battle to save the planet – and his half a million followers won’t hear a bad word against him.

When it comes to fighting for conservation or climate change issues, no one could have a fiercer supporter, whatever the personal consequences. And while his fan base may be large, he’s made a lot of enemies by speaking out on subjects close to his heart.

As he confessed in a Guardian interview a couple of years ago: “I don’t look for conflict, but I won’t shy away.”

It’s a stance that has seen both online and offline harassment and physical threats against him, especially after his work in 2019 with Wild Justice in challenging the legality of general licences issued by Natural England for landowners to shoot a range of wild birds.

In the wake of a suspected arson attack on his home in the New Forest earlier this year, he revealed that discovering dead animals (including foxes and badgers) tied to his gate had become a “normal occurrence”.

Packham’s skill as a broadcaster lies in his ability to maintain a completely natural style of delivery, whatever might be happening behind the scenes.

It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable in a crisis. On Springwatch he found a perfect verbal sparring partner in Michaela Strachan, his old buddy from The Really Wild Show  days in the 1990s, and the pair’s banter has underpinned the popularity of the series for more than a decade.

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During the long months of lockdown he teamed up with step-daughter Megan McCubbin to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis.

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With 30,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Twitter and as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show, the club proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues.

Like Packham, McCubbin also has that rare skill of appearing totally at ease in front of a camera, neither nervous nor overtly self-aware and able to comfortably join in with the casual banter that is a hallmark of the best of this style of wildlife broadcasting.

The 90-odd broadcasts revealed a different side to Packham, providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing thousands of viewers to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes.

It also paved the way for McCubbin to join the Springwatch team, with the pair going on to co-present a six-part series titled Chris and Meg’s Wild Summer for BBC2.

But back on Packham’s Twitter feed, there’s no let-up in his mission to spell out just what’s wrong with the world, whether that relates to conservation, climate change or his current campaign against fox-hunting.

As he told the Guardian back in 2019: “As a conservationist, I’ve failed. Since I bought my first pair of binoculars, we’ve lost 90 million birds from the UK countryside and 45-50% of the world’s wildlife.”

If anything, that means shouting louder, however unpleasant the backlash. “On my watch, we’ve seen catastrophic declines of the things that I care passionately about. And so, given my shortening life, I feel that I have to up the ante, and put more energy into trying to sort these issues out.”

That energy has been obvious in recent months, culminating in a short animation for the Keep The Ban campaign group highlighting how trail hunting has been a “smokescreen” for illegal fox-hunting.

Narrated by Packham and voiced by actor and fellow animal rights campaigner Peter Egan the animation documents key moments since fox hunting was made illegal in 2004 and the ongoing battle to encourage landowners to follow the example of the National Trust earlier this year and ban trail hunts from their land. ‍

As Packham said back in 2019: “It’s not that I don’t care about death threats, or getting shit posted through my letter box… I’m just impervious.

“My friend Billy Bragg said to me, “If you’re not getting flak, you’re not over the target,” so I’m reassured when the shit turns up in the post. It means I’m putting pressure on the right people at the right time. Frankly, if they’ve got no other arguments than to post shit, that’s a clear indication that I’m winning.”

Tweet of the week: 12/12/21

EVERYONE loves a fairy story, it seems.

But Los Angeles photographer Kelly Kenney could never have forseen how her lockdown tale of a virtual encounter with an imaginative four-year-old would become something of an internet sensation.

FAIRY STORY: Eliana’s colourful garden PICTURE: Kelly Kenney

Better known on Twitter as Kelly Victoria or @saysthefox, the photographer’s pinned tweet thread from December 2020 told of her discovery of a fairy garden created by the parents of a local four-year-old who felt lonely in quarantine.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I went through some painful personal stuff and would often go out at night for long walks because no one was around and I couldn’t sleep anyway,” she wrote.

MAGIC MOMENT: the message from Eliana’s parents PICTURE: Kelly Kenney

The elaborate fairy garden was at the base of a tree, complete with painted rocks and tiny trinkets and a Polaroid picture of the garden’s creator, four-year-old girl Eliana.

Posing as a fairy named Sapphire (and with a separate note reassuring Eliana’s parents of her true identity), Kelly began to exchange messages with Eliana, kindling a friendship that would last through some of the darkest months of the pandemic and beyond.

As Kelly herself confessed: “Doing this every night gave me purpose in a horribly painful and lonely time. I looked forward to my days again and I started ordering art supplies and little trinkets to leave her.

“I hope one day when she’s older she can understand that I truly needed her as much as she needed me these past few months.”

As the pen-pal relationship grew over the course of the pandemic, Eliana’s mum told Kelly her fairy friend Sapphire had been a great emotional support for the child, before finally coordinating for the two to meet in person.

When Kelly first tweeted her thread about the friendship in December 2020 and headed for bed, a handful of people had seen the post. By the end of the weekend, it had been liked and retweeted by hundreds of thousands of people.

By the following June, media mogul Oprah Winfrey was sending five-year-old Eliana, her family and fairy friend Sapphire to Disneyland.

But more important for Kelly is the knowledge that despite Eliana moving out of the neighbourhood, this is one friendship that’s likely to stand the test of time.

Says Kelly: “She’s changed me forever and the things her mom has said about how her self-confidence, her kindness towards others and her creativity have skyrocketed since meeting me make me feel like I made an impact too.”

Picture of the week: 27/12/21

OUR final picture choice of the year is an apocalyptic winter solstice sunset taken by one of our regular contributors.

ORANGE GLOW: the December sun sets over the Icknield Way PICTURE: Anne Rixon

The stunning shot was taken just off the Icknield Way by Anne Rixon, a keen walker and amateur photographer who loves wildlife and has posted on a number of local wildlife forums since taking up photography as a hobby.

“I walk a lot and take the camera with me trying to capture the beauty of the Chilterns as I go,” says Anne, who lives in Princes Risborough.

Along with Sue Craigs Erwin and Lesley Tilson, her pictures have also featured regular in our monthly calendar depicting the changing seasons across the Chilterns, A Chilterns Year.

Another keen photographer with an eye for detail is travel writer Mary Tebje, whose own blog sets out to share stories of the people and places that have shaped the Chilterns. More links to some of her most memorable rambles can be found on our Local Walks page.

Two enthusiastic local wildlife photographers whose work has brightened the pages of The Beyonder immensely are Graham Parkinson and Nick Bell.

Fascinated by the range of different birds visiting his garden in Marlow, Graham was eager to explore more of the local countryside, and lockdown proved the perfect opportunity to explore his longstanding interest in photography.

CHOCKS AWAY: a red kite launches into action PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Nick Bell’s love of birds is matched by a fascination with insects and the challenges posed by their small size and frantic movements.

His photographs featured in a three-part series of articles last year and both photographers have provided a range of startling images which feature in the carousel of pictures appearing on the header pages of The Beyonder as visitors navigate their way around the site.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

In a year which has seen more than 10,000 visitors checking out our pages, another popular “regular” was guest writer Lucy Parks recounting her adventures with Cypriot rescue dog Yella, who has been adjusting to a new life in the Chiltern Hills.

HOME FROM HOME: rescue dog Yella PICTURE: Lucy Parks

Thank you, as always, to all of our regular contributors (and guests!) who have helped to spread the word about the beauty of the great outdoors in what has been such a challenging year for so many. Our Picture of the Week feature has been running for more than a year now, and we hope to see many more of your amazing images in 2022.

Picture of the week: 20/12/21

WANDER around St Albans and the centuries just roll away.

One moment you’re gazing at the intricate mosaic floor of a large Roman town house – complete with sophisticated underfloor heating system – and the next you’re staring at the ornate carvings that adorn one of the country’s great cathedrals.

The Hypocaust in Verulamium Park is a marvel of Roman engineering that reminds us that this area just outside the modern city of St Albans was the third biggest town in Roman Britain after London and Colchester, with much of the ancient city unexcavated to this day.

Nearby lies Watling Street, a historic route used by ancient Britons and paved by the Romans, running in a line from the Kent coast at Dover, crossing the Thames in London and heading north towards Manchester and Wroxeter in the north west, then the fourth largest Roman settlement.

It was one route among the network of thousands of miles of road built when Britain was part of the Roman empire, that extraordinary period from AD43 to 410 when Roman influence stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to Morocco, Egypt and Syria.

And it was here in the third century that one local citizen gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution: a Christian priest now known as Amphibalus. Inspired by how important faith was to the priest, Alban asked to be taught more about Christianity.

By the time the Roman authorities caught up with Amphibalus, Alban’s new-found faith would not allow him to surrender his friend. Instead, he exchanged clothes with the man to allow his escape. Threatened with the same punishment intended for the runaway, Alban refused to renounce his beliefs and was led up to the hillside above the town, where he was beheaded, and soon hailed as Britain’s first saint.

Alban’s grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage and it is said King Offa of Mercia founded a monastery here in 793. After the Norman invasion a new church was commissioned built from bricks and tiles saved from the ruins of Roman Verulamium and completed in 1115.

The medieval Abbey was famous as a place of learning but it did not survive the Reformation, when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the monasteries.

Centuries later, wealthy Victorian benefactors paid for the building to be repaired, so that by 1877 what had previously been a local parish church became a cathedral and the seat of the Bishop of St Albans.

Nowadays the soaring pillars and intricate carvings provide a visually overwhelming backdrop to the story of an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing, and a fitting reminder that his shrine is the oldest known place of Christian pilgrimage in the country.

Picture of the week: 13/12/21

LAST week’s picture choice highlighted the discovery of a batch of old photographs from almost half a century ago recalled a glorious summer holiday exploring the railways of the Lake District.

The year was 1974 and for five railway-mad teenagers, the perfect destination for a first summer break away from home was a dream cottage just feet from the West Coast main line near Shap Summit.

From there, it was just a short drive to explore the spectacular scenery of the famous Settle & Carlisle route, or venture westwards to find out what was left of the long-closed Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway.

The Settle-Carlisle line is the 73-mile-long section of the old Midland Railway main line running through glorious scenery in the Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines and boasting a number of notable tunnels and viaducts, making it one of the UK’s most popular routes for steam charter trains and specials.

Much loved by railway photographers for its glorious backdrops, the line links towns like Settle and Appleby-in-Westmorland with a number of rural communities along the route.

At the time of our visit, the line still boasted old-fasioned Midland “totem” signs, like those at Appleby West, where the Midland line crossed the old North Eastern Railway route to Kirkby Stephen, the Eden Valley line.

This was a time in the line’s history where services were not exactly flourishing, but thankfully the route survived closure attempts in the 1980s after a spirited campaign mounted by rail groups, enthusiasts, local authorities and residents.

Just as well. Passenger numbers have soared since then, with closed stations reopening and quarries being reconnected to the line, allowing passengers to continue to savour what has been consistently voted one of the world’s “ten greatest train journeys”.

Armed with old local Ordnance Survey maps, our mission was to track down the routes of the lost lines which once linked the surviving routes in a rainbow of colours on our pre-grouping atlas, the book which so helpfully shows the ownership of lines before the 1923 amalgamation into four major systems: the LNWR, LNER, Southern Railway and Great Western.

After a visit to Carnforth – then and now a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts and the station where the film Brief Encounter was partly filmed in February 1945 – there was time to meander back past the closed Midland stations at Halton, Caton and Hornby before rejoining the line to Hellifield and head north to Settle.

This is a landscape of evocative place names and stunning scenery, from the 1.5mile-long Blea Moor Tunnel to the towering 104ft-high Ribblehead viaduct. But back in 1974 many of the station buildings were in poor condition or privately owned.

Onwards to Dent, Hawes Junction and the signal box at Ais Gill summit and into Kirkby Stephen, where the East station still had its overall roof, though the goods yard and shed had been removed. Thankfully this is another location to get a new lease of life, courtesy of the Stainmore Railway Company.

If the West Coast mainline had its thundering Class 86 and 87 electric-hauled expresses barrelling up and down the main line between Euston and Glasgow, the Settle line still boasted a rich collection of the diesels of the era, particularly the “Peak” class locomotives whose names echoed the contours of the British landscape.

Originally numbered D1-D10, D11-D137 and D138-D193, the Class 44, 45 and 46 diesels rolled off the production line at Derby and Crewe from 1959 and were withdrawn from the end of the 1970s right through the 1980s.

Class 45s replaced steam as the main traction on the Midland Main Line from 1962 and had a 20-year heyday there until they were relegated to secondary services following introduction of high-speed trains on the route.

Back in 1974 they were still in their element on the main line as we meandered north through Long Marton, New Biggin and Culgaith to Langwathby, Lazonbury & Kirkoswald and Armathwaite, some proudly bearing their new computerised numbers introduced the previous year, like 45009 at Hawes Junction, others still bearing the original numbers, like 21 at Horton-in-Ribblesdale or 24 and 31 at Appleby West. The D prefix was dropped in 1968 when the last steam engines were withdrawn.

There are other diesel interlopers we stumble across on our wanderings too, naturally. A couple of Class 25s crossing Blea Moor viaduct, with others at Ormside, Long Marton and Culgaith. And even the smell of steam to be recaptured at the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway near Ulverston.

There are Class 50s galore over at Oxenholme, Kendal, Ulverston, Dalton and Barrow, not to mention the odd Class 40 wandering around Newbiggin and Culgaith.

But if the pictures predictably provide a visual record of railway comings and goings around the Lakes in the mid-1970s, they also offer a vivid reminder of a remarkable week of youthful exploration and discovery.

Rediscovering the shots when the slides were finally burned onto CD in 2019 provided a chance to look back through the notebooks and discover exactly where we ended up on that memorable Shap holiday.

Scrupulous notes and diagrams record what buildings and tracks remained on some of the closed lines, faithfully following the route of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith route from Workington to Penrith, and then working east again from Kirkby Stephen towards the now-infamous Barnard Castle.

The Cockermouth line closed west of Keswick in April 1966 and the Keswick to Penrith section followed in March 1972, which meant that there was still plenty of evidence to be found of platforms, old station buildings and signalboxes. Today, much of the latter section is maintained as a cycle and walking route.

As for the old North Eastern Railway line east from Tebay, the tracks had long been lifted at Gaisgill, Ravenstonedale, Barras and Bowes following closure in the 1960s.

Not as insightful and amusing as Adrian Mole’s teenage diaries, perhaps. But a wonderful glimpse back into a time of innocence and adventure set against the timeless scenery of the Lake District landscape.

Picture of the week: 06/12/21

IT’S funny how a photograph has the power to sweep the years away in an instant.

This chance discovery from almost half a century ago recalled a glorious summer holiday in the Lake District while studying for A levels.

As a party of railway-mad teenagers, our destination for that break in July 1974 was a dream cottage, literally feet from the West Coast main line near Shap Summit.

And as well as offering the chance to watch the electric-hauled express trains thundering past the door, it provided the perfect touring base to explore the glorious Settle & Carlisle line south towards Leeds, or the long-closed Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway west towards Workington.

But if the holiday was SO memorable, how come the pictures remained hidden for almost 50 years? The answer, in part, lies in changing technology.

For these pictures were taken as colour slides, which might have been perfect for showing on the school’s slide projector – but not owning one at home meant it was never really possible to see what the pictures actually showed.

With exams to prepare for – and the excitement of university beckoning – it wasn’t long before the small collection of a few dozen slides was consigned to a little box at the back of a cupboard, surviving a succession of house moves, but their contents never seeing the light of day.

Flash forward to 2019 and the chance to get the slides burned onto CD finally provided the opportunity to see those shots from almost 50 years ago.

Predictably, perhaps, most might be only of interest to railway enthusiasts, with many of them chronicling the stream of Class 86 and 87 electric locomotives barrelling up and down the main line between Euston and Glasgow.

It also showcases some spectacular Lake District scenery – this part of the route over bleak Shap Fell was hacked out by thousands of tough navvies using picks and shovels in an amazing piece of Victorian engineering from 1844 onwards.

But what of that cheeky smile in the signalbox mirror? Although in the year below the rest of us at school, Pete – or Charlie as he tends to be known these days – was a sufficiently dedicated railway enthusiast to be welcomed along for the week-long adventure.

Nice, then, to discover that Charlie never lost his love of railways – or his equally affectionate memories of that break in the Lake District all those years ago. As he said in 2019 when the pictures first came to light: “I often look out of the window when I’m heading north to see whether I can see that cottage. I spend my life playing with trains…… busman’s holiday really.”

And what of that glorious Settle & Carlisle line? More of that next week, perhaps.

Need a pet in your life? Do your homework!

Guest writer Lucy Parks always wanted to own a four-legged friend, but it was only in 2018 that Cypriot rescue dog Yella flew into the country and changed her life forever. With pet ownership still on the rise, she offers some timely advice for those yearning to own a dog of their own

THE UK’s dog and cat population has risen by around 50% since the end of 2019 and the number of lockdown puppies continues to grow as more and more people seek a flexible working arrangement and have more time to be at home with their pets. 

SPECIAL DELIVERY: Yella flew into the UK in 2018 PICTURE: Lucy Parks

For those still considering getting their first puppies, I offer a few words of wisdom based both on my own experience as a first-time dog-owner and the insight I have gained from working as a veterinary receptionist… 

RESEARCH YOUR BREED 

It’s easy to be swayed by cute puppies but it’s really important to know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s not possible to do too much research: do think carefully about how the chosen breed will fit into your lifestyle and home environment.

How much time do you have to devote to training and walking your new pet? Yes, working cocker spaniels are adorable and, yes, they’re a fairly small dog, but they need A LOT of mental and physical stimulation. A husky or akita may appeal to your machismo, but do you have the firm hand and the time needed to train him? And are you ready for the hair shedding?

Poodle mixes are popular because they’re low-shedding but a) be sure you know what mix you’re getting or you could end up with a 30kg dog when you’re expecting a 10kg one and b) poodles are a high-energy, intelligent breed so whatever the mix, they’re going to need a lot of work… Oh, and low-shedding means an extra cost in regular visits to the groomer: that fur’s got to come off somehow.

PERFECT CHOICE: kokonis are stubborn, playful and loyal PICTURE: Lucy Parks

If you’re going the rescue route, keep an open mind and listen to the advice given by the rescue centre. When a kokoni was suggested to me as a good first dog, I did my research. They’re loyal, low maintenance, stubborn and playful. Yella has totally lived up to this and she proved to be a perfect choice. 

WHAT’S YOUR BACK-UP?

No dog-owner is an island and there will be times when you need support to just live your life, whether that’s someone taking your dog for an hour’s walk or having them overnight. I have both supportive friends and a paid dog sitter that I turn to; other friends have had great success through Borrow My Doggy.

Dog walkers and dog boarders are massively over-subscribed at the moment with the sheer volume of new pets and they can afford to be picky about who they take: a well-trained, well-socialised pooch will always win over the high-maintenance chewer! 

GET A VET

With the surge in pet owners, and the double whammy of Covid and the impact of Brexit meaning fewer EU vets available in the UK, many vets are no longer taking new clients. We’ve had people register with us from 30 miles away, just because they couldn’t find a vet closer to get their puppy’s vital first vaccinations.

SOCIAL ANIMAL: Yella adores whippets and collies PICTURE: Lucy Parks

There’s some advice to get a vet before you even get a pet, but this may not always be possible. Either way, don’t forget to find your local vet for vaccinations, socialisation and, of course, should anything go drastically wrong… 

LEAVE IT ALONE

Lockdown puppies have rarely been left on their own, which has led to a rise in separation anxiety. This can result in destructive behaviour, howling and a generally miserable dog. Get your pup used to being on its own by leaving it alone, gradually building up the amount of time each day. It may seem cruel, but it gets them used to their own company. It may be your rose-tinted dream to have a dog you can take with you everywhere, but it’s simply not feasible and, if you can’t even step into another room without your dog missing you, you’re both going to be miserable.

LET YOUR DOG BE A DOG

Many people opt for a small breed dog, simply because they’re more manageable, but there’s a danger in not allowing your dog to be a dog. Don’t carry him everywhere: he needs to walk, and sniff, and experience life from the ground.

Dogs need to socialise with other dogs. Yes, not all dogs get on – as with humans – but they need to find their own way. They’ll tell each other off if they’re not happy and, while this can be scary for owners, it’s part of their development.

As your dog gets older, you’ll get to understand them. Yella doesn’t like bouncy puppies and flat-faced dogs (and I steer her clear when possible) but she absolutely loves whippets, greyhounds and collies… it’s just her preference, which I’ve learned over time.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. 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, Part 4, Part 5, Part and Part 7.

Step out into a world of fire and light

HARDLY had the shrill echoes of the little Halloween ghosts and ghouls died away before we were facing the noise and light explosion that is Bonfire Night.

SOFT EDGES: trees loom out of the mist near Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Dreaded by pet owners and nature lovers worried about the impact on local wildlife, the annual fireworks jamboree has become a more organised affair in modern times, with most November 5 celebrations run by local charities and other organisations.

CHILLY OUTLOOK: looking out over Aylesbury Vale from Coombe Hill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

But of course there’s a visceral delight in so many of those sights, sounds and smells of bonfire night, of toffee apples and burnt marshmallows, baked potatoes and warm chestnuts; hands stabbed by the sharp prickles of sparklers, cheeks red with the cold night air pinching our faces.

AUTUMN PALETTE: walking at Whiteleaf Hill PICTURE: Anne Rixon

Bathed in woodsmoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder, our caveman origins come to the fore as we draw closer to the flames and huddle together for warmth and light.

LEST WE FORGET: November is a time of remembrance PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

November is a month of remembrance too, of poppies and poppy-strewn memorials, of old soldiers and wreath-laying ceremonies, of sombre thoughts of past battles and lost loved ones.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the Water Garden at Cliveden PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

It’s also the month that sees a fortnight-long firework display of natural colour as the falling leaves provide a spectacular backdrop for autumn rambles before the first winter storms strip the branches bare.

GATE EXPECTATIONS: perfect weather for a ramble PICTURE: Paula Western

The timeless Chilterns landscape offers such a wealth of different outings too, from ancient long-distance routes and drovers’ paths to simple circular strolls watching the red kites soar or catching a deer unawares.

WHO GOES THERE?: a fallow deer buck in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For some, it’s the small details which catch the eye, from veins on leaves, unfamiliar fungi or seed cases strewn among the leaf litter.

OUT ON A LIMB: leaf patterns catch the light PICTURE: Ron Adams

For others, it’s the chance to get close to the mammals, birds and insects which inhabit this wonderland, always in the hope of that rare moment when time stands still just long enough for the perfect close-up of a or a hungry sparrowhawk.

EAGLE EYED: a juvenile female sparrowhawk poses for the camera PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Speaking of one of her November rambles a couple of years ago, Melissa Harrison writes in The Stubborn Light Of Things: “Dusk is my favourite time to go out walking. As the light fades, the night shift clocks on: rabbits come our to feed, owls call from the copses and spinneys, and foxes, deer and bats begin hunting as darkness falls…”

AT THE CROSSROADS: a signpost at Ley Hill PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

She goes on: “But there’s another reason I love to be out of doors at day’s end. Here in Suffolk traces of the past are everywhere, from horse ponds glinting like mercury among the stubble fields to labourers’ cottages like mine with woodsmoke curling from brick chimneys hundreds of years old.

LOOKOUT POST: the stunning colours of a red kite PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“In the half-light of dusk, the old lanes empty of traffic, it’s possible to leave behind the present day with its frightening uncertainties and enter a world in which heavy horses worked the land, the seasons turned with comforting regularity and climate change was unheard of.”

GO WITH THE FLOW: the Thames at at Cliveden PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

Against the backdrop of the Thames, or those ancient woodlands and hidden holloways, the Chilterns is a similarly captivating landscape where time can frequently seem to stand still, especially at dusk and dawn.

LENGTHENING SHADOWS: in the woods near Latimer PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Under our feet are the hillforts, earthworks and buried flints and pots reminding us that this landscape has been a focal point for people for thousands of years, an ancient and beautiful place where the whistle of the kite or bark of a fox can still keep us in touch with the natural world around us.

A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for December, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 29/11/21


THE power of great art lies in its ability to help us see the world through different eyes.

Cave Painting Removal, sprayed in 2008 © Banksy / Pest Control

So I somehow think Banksy might approve of this London graffiti being repurposed to permit a reflection on the start of Advent by art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst.

The artwork in Leake Street Tunnel underneath Waterloo railway station, a designated graffiti area which celebrates urban art, was only visible for four months between May and August 2008 and depicts a council worker jet-cleaning a prehistoric cave painting.

As van der Vorst reflects: “In typical ironic fashion, Banksy is thus making a point that art is often destroyed by those who don’t understand it.”

The painting was soon covered with other graffiti works, given the ever-changing nature of art in the tunnel.

Says van der Vorst: “We as a viewer can see immediately that the cleaner shouldn’t be jet blasting the ancient cave paintings. We feel like shouting ‘stop’. It is almost as if the council worker is committing an act of vandalism by removing the cave painting. But then the graffiti work itself by Banksy can be seen as vandalism too. So we are torn as a viewer and share in the artist’s irony.”

The seminarian, whose website links daily Gospel readings with an array of thought-provoking works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary, adds his own message to the graffiti too.

“Advent is a quiet, reflective, prayerful season,” he says. “Jesus recognises that we can become so absorbed by our daily activities that we lose sight of the daily need for prayer. During our daily chores of cleaning, working, talking, walking…we are asked to be alert to Our Good Lord’s presence everywhere.”

For van der Vorst, Advent is a time for looking back, in order to look forward. “Over the next weeks, the nights are getting longer, darkness sets in, but in our cities and streets, Christmas lights will be switched on. Candles will be lit,” he explains.

“Advent tells us that the world lay in darkness before the Light of the World was born. The Advent wreath will be lit, one candle a week. Light will gradually enter our churches and homes…”

A religious message, hidden in graffiti under a London railway station? Banksy is better known for political and social commentary than religious reflections, but maybe the irony would appeal.

Tweet of the week: 28/11/21

OUR Sunday night Twitter foray this week takes us deep under London’s streets to a maze of tunnels containing clues to the hidden history of the capital.

The @HiddenLondon account has more than 600 followers despite sending out NO tweets during the past six years.

However it does provide an introduction to tours of London’s disused stations, organised through the London Transport Museum and a Hidden London Hangouts channel on Youtube containing 75 videos exploring the city’s underground history, from Highgate to Clapham South, Wood Green to Whitechapel.

The Twitter account may not be an active one, but the Youtube channel has attracted more than 30,000 visitors since it launched in April 2020.

Real-life tours give Londoners the chance to explore some of the stations and spaces that are normally off limits to the public, uncovering the fascinating stories of London’s transport history in the company of an expert guide.

During lockdown, many of the tours have taken place on Zoom, and the Youtube podcast series features the museum’s assistant director Chris Nix teaming up with Laura Hilton Brown, Siddy Holloway and self-confessed Tube geek Alex Grundon to explore closed stations and hidden tunnels from Aldwych to Metroland.

The team use photos, videos and never-before-seen footage from the museum’s collection to explore a station or area, with tickets for guided tours going on sale at regular times through the year.

Find out more about stations that never fulfilled their intended purpose, like Highgate in North London, which was set to become a bustling interchange as part of the Northern Heights project but which now lies in a secluded vale as an urban wilderness home to protected species.

Or disappear 11 stories underground to explore Clapham South deep-level shelter, which has over a mile of subterranean passageways revealing the extraordinary stories of those who sheltered here, from Londoners seeking refuge during the Second World War, to hopeful Caribbean migrants arriving on the Empire Windrush.

Aldwych station is one of London’s secret places, holding myths and memories of times gone by. Opened to the public in 1907, it was never as heavily used as originally intended and closed nearly 100 years later in 1994.

The station has had a varied history from providing shelter to Londoners during the Blitz to being used for film and TV shoots including The ABC Murders (2018), Darkest Hour (2017), Sherlock (2014), and Atonement (2007).

Other tours explore dusty stations and deserted platforms once used by the travelling public, including at Euston station a gallery of preserved vintage advertising poster fragments that have been concealed for over 50 years.

To keep up to date with Hidden London events, sign up to a free monthly newsletter from the main London Transport Museum website.

Autumn hues light up the countryside

ON A chilly morning down at the lido on Wycombe Rye, mist rises over the warm blue-lit water.

Barely distinguishable swimmers emerge from the half-light, as if in an advertisement for an Icelandic geothermal spring.

SKY HIGH: autumn silhouettes against a backdrop of clouds PICTURE: Sarah How

As dawn breaks, swimmers turning their eyes skywards may see fluffy clouds tinged with pink, or vapour trails slicing through the fabric of a clear blue sky.

PURPLE RAIN: berries are in plentiful supply for foraging wildlife PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

It’s crisp and cold and calm: October in the Chilterns, when the woods are ablaze with colour and families are searching out their scarves and winter coats to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.

AUTUMN SHADOWS: a path through the trees at Rushmere PICTURE: Steve West

Autumnwatch is back on our screens, the pumpkins are suddenly swamping the supermarket shelves and a host of animals and birds are stocking up for the winter months.

GREEN LIGHT: exploring the banks of the River Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

It’s a year since we started asking our readers which sights, sounds and smells best sum up the spirit of each month, and pictures have flooded in for our online Chilterns calendar chronicling the changing seasons.

SUNSET SONG: evening light PICTURE: Sarah How

From an astonishing array of fascinating fungi to the night-time cry of the fox or muntjac, different aspects of the month have grabbed our attention, from swirling leaves and colourful toadstools to the glorious colours of ripe berries and falling fruit, or the cries of honking geese and calling owls.

RUTTING SEASON: a striking shot of a stag at Grangelands PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

This is the rutting season, where the roar of a stag can be heard from afar, and free-roaming red and fallow deer in parks across the area may be exhibiting some unusual behaviour, as well as physical changes.

It’s a month of eager foraging for humans and rich pickings for birds, insects and mammals alike, with trees and bushes bursting with tasty treats.

EAGLE EYE: sparrowhawks prey on finches, sparrows and tits PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

In kitchens across the Chilterns, pots and pans have been bubbling with jams and jellies, crumbles and preserves. Windows have been steamed up as cooks have dusted off their recipes for rosehip syrup, sweet chestnut stuffing or crab apple jelly.

The rich, rapidly-changing colours and glorious textures of October make it a favourite with photographers, especially deep in the woods where the green, yellow and russet hues contrast so beautifully with the rugged outlines of ancient trees and when the sky can contain so many surprises, especially at dawn and dusk.

EVENING GLOW: a spectacular Chilterns sunset PICTURE: Carol Ann Finch

And after so many months of pandemic worries, there’s a renewed enthusiasm for socialising as the end of the month approaches, houses bedecked with cobwebs, witches and carved pumpkin lanterns to welcome the little parties of ghouls and ghosts trotting round to see neighbours after a painful and difficult year.

So many of the pictures were striking that it offered a chance to highlight the stories of regular contributors – joining Sue Craigs Erwin on her walks between Amersham and Little Chalfont with her mischievous rambling companion Ted, an inquisitive four-year-old spaniel, for example.

REGULAR ROUTE: a favourite footpath for mischievous spaniel Ted PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Lesley Tilson is another walker eager to escape her frontline NHS job as a midwife and nurse and finding an opportunity for reflection and peace in the Chilterns countryside.

WORTH THE WAIT: a kingfisher (finally) poses for a picture PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For wildlife photographers like Graham Parkinson, patience is a virtue – but worth those long cold waits when a bird, insect or mammal lands in just the right place at the right time.

STUDY IN SCARLET: a green woodpecker PICTURE: Nick Bell

From cute goslings to fast-moving dragonflies, Maidenhead photographer Nick Bell’s broad range of subjects have also provided a lot of pleasure on local wildlife forums, as well as a vital opportunity to get outside with nature and away from the pressures of living through a pandemic.

GARDEN AMBUSH: a sparrowhawk on the lookout for food PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, from the historic Ridgeway to the depths of Burnham Beeches, this is an ancient and fascinating landscape, with thousands of hidden pathways, Roam roads and drovers’ routes to explore – and we’re grateful, as always, to those hardy souls who are out and about in all weathers capturing the beauty of the local countryside in all its glory.

If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature, drop us a line by email to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK.

Picture of the week: 22/11/21

THERE can’t be many London landmarks that have provided a backdrop for so much of the city’s history as the distinctive dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Gazing out over the Thames from its lofty perch on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London, it was completed in the wake of the Great Fire of London, designed in the English baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren and completed within his lifetime.

As a teenager, I remember visiting the famous Whispering Gallery more than half a century ago, when a favourite uncle was acting as tour guide to my French exchange counterpart, Pascal. Last week, I slipped back inside the building for the first time for a brief lunchtime eucharist staged beneath that awe-inspiring dome.

I’ve pounded the surrounding streets on countless occasions, leading journalism students down to the nearby Old Bailey or the crypt at St Bride’s (below). But I’ve never returned to see that glorious interior, perhaps deterred by the crowds of tourists scattered like pigeons over the steps of St Paul’s in the summer months.

It’s remarkable that the cathedral was completed in Wren’s lifetime – and 19th-century legend has it that he would often take the trip to London to pay unofficial visits to check on the progress of his “greatest work”.

On a grey November day, the building is still full of visitors from all over the world, but it’s relatively peaceful under the dome, where semi-circles of chairs are laid out for the brief service, which on my visit recalls the memory of Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia back in the 9th century.

That throwback across the centuries seems all the more appropriate here, where people have been worshipping for more than a millennium: the original church on this site dates from AD 604.

Hundreds of years of history are recalled on the St Paul’s website, from the funerals of Admiral Nelson and Winston Churchill to the use of the Cathedral’s steps in the set for the iconic Feed the Birds song from the 1964 Disney film version of Mary Poppins.

All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

Maybe down in the crypt Wren is smiling too. He was laid to rest in 1723 and the inscription in Latin on his memorial reads: “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

Picture of the week: 15/11/21

THIS week’s spotlight falls on Lesley Tilson, another regular contributor to our series highlighting the Chilterns landscape through the changing seasons.

THINKING SPACE: the sun’s rays captured at Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Working on the frontline for the NHS as a midwife and nurse during the pandemic, photography became her passion, providing a welcome escape from the stresses and strains of working life.

“Pacing the Chiltern hills with my furry friends offered me opportunities for reflection and peace,” she says. “The countryside provides so much natural beauty and thinking space and supported me with my coping strategies at such a difficult time.”

PRICKLY CUSTOMER: thistles in the frost PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

It wasn’t long before she discovered how to take a ‘not bad’ mobile photograph using her iPhone, and winning a competition which attracted more than 200 entries was a welcome confidence boost too.

Her shot of a stag drinking scooped the mobile category prize in the contest, organised by the Chesham Wildlife facebook group.

Since then her photos have been regularly selected for the local newspaper, with family and friends saying how much they enjoy seeing them.

PEACEFUL PORTRAIT: a deer captured at Grangelands PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“I love landscape and wildlife, in particular the wonderful deer,” says Lesley. “I regularly visit nature reserves and National Trust properties in the Chilterns, many advertised in The Beyonder.   

“Some of my favourite walking spots are in Great Missenden, Coombe Hill and Grangelands. More local walks are down Shardeloes and the River Misbourne. “

EARLY START: dawn over the Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

When a close work colleague was diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of the pandemic, she found therapy and recovery in painting Lesley’s photos.

NATURAL THERAPY: open country near Latimer PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“I was very humbled when she told me my photography offered her healing opportunities through painting,” says Lesley. “She is now in remission.  We have since completed a 2022 charity calendar and we are raising money for Breast Cancer Now and Thames Valley Air Ambulance. We’ve sold 60 so far, so I’m really delighted.”

MISTY MORNING: a woodland ramble at Coombe Hill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

So what plans does she have for the future?

“I was recently gifted a Nikon Z7 and very much look forward to learning how to use it properly, taking my passion to another level,” she says.

“The pandemic does have some positive outcomes and with retirement planned for 2022, I am planning to explore our beautiful countryside in much more detail.”

Lesley’s charity calendar is available to buy via PayPal and costs £9.95 + £1.50 postage and packaging.

CHILTERNS SUNSET: a striking shot of a stag PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Picture of the week: 08/11/21

THIS week’s spotlight falls on the pictures taken by Sue Craigs Erwin, a regular contributor during the past year to our series highlighting the Chilterns landscape through the changing seasons.

NOSE FOR MISCHIEF: Ted is “beautiful but very inquisitive” PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Most of Sue’s pictures are taking on her walks between Amersham and Little Chalfont with her mischievous rambling companion Ted, an inquisitive four-year-old spaniel.

“After losing my husband four years ago when I was 58 I decided I needed some company,” says Sue. “My husband was a keen amateur photographer and we spent most weekends travelling the countryside and taking pictures.

EYE FOR DETAIL: a spider’s web PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“Having Ted has given me back the opportunity to get out and get walking again.”

Using a Fujifilm FinePix HS10 camera, or sometimes just her phone, Sue’s pictures have appeared frequently on local wildlife forums, attracting plenty of praise and attention, though she is modest about her photography skills.

OVER THE RAINBOW: a colourful display outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“I have been told many times that I have an artistic eye, but to me it’s just sharing the beauty of nature as I see it,” she says.

Over the past year, that shared beauty has delighted Beyonder visitors and Amersham locals alike, from her spring bluebells and May poppies and buttercups to her harvest scenes and September sunsets.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: September sunlight PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“As I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit my favourite places to walk are the woods,” she says. “I love the changing colours and the sounds of the wildlife and Ted loves digging about in the autumn leaves.”

Husband Ed would undoubtedly approve. “I’m sure he’s looking down smiling,” she says. “We were together for 37 years and always had animals. Ed was a lover of the great outdoors. We spent many holidays in a remote cottage in Snowdonia photographing the landscape. It was our favourite place.”

Tweet of the week: 07/11/21

WHEN is a tweet more than a tweet? When it’s a gateway inviting us into another world.

That’s the “through the looking glass” feel you encounter in the social media feed of novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison, the latest in our Sunday night series focusing on Twitter accounts which help to inspire and brighten people’s lives.

Journal, diary, podcast, book – Melissa is a woman of many talents, but whichever means she uses to communicate, her writing is full of humour and kindness as well as delight and wonder at the natural world.

Of course her most memorable writing is reserved for her books and newspaper columns, and she clearly has something of a love-hate relationship with social media and the “grinding daily labour of trying to compose a tweet about some minor thing X in such a way that 26 ppl don’t reply advising you how to do thing X better, informing you that thing X doesn’t reflect their own lived experience or telling you that thing X is problematic, actually”.

But she has encountered much fun and friendship on social media too, which goes some way to counterbalancing the inevitable belligerent point-scoring and mansplaining likely to be encountered by any woman brave enough to openly express an opinion about anything in the twittersphere.

The great joy about Melissa’s feed is not so much to be found in the wit and wisdom of individual tweets, but from the introduction they offer to such a powerful voice in modern nature writing.

Her social media output is prolific, with some 178,000 Tweets since her account opened in 2010. But while much of this is standard author chat about book launches and new publications, or retweets from other nature lovers, writers and commentators, the feed is a very personal one too, with welcome occasional glimpses of Suffolk country life that echo familiar themes in her newspaper columns.

Throughout all her writing, including those latest nature novels for young people, By Ash, Oak and Thorn and By Rowan and Yew, any underlying environmental messages are not trying to engender guilt or fear, but tend to extol the power of noticing and being curious, and how that just might change the world.

For those delighted by the lyricism of her third novel, All Among The Barley – a subtle and haunting tale of the realities of country life in 1930s Suffolk – her 2020 “nature journal”, A Stubborn Light of Things, might have appeared a little more down-to-earth and prosaic, chronicling her relocation from London to rural Suffolk and compiled from entries from her Nature Notebook column in The Times.

But its publication at a time of pandemic makes the diary resonate more deeply than might otherwise have been the case, since the author’s joyful engagement with the natural world coincided with many families’ deeper exploration of the beauty on their doorstep – and a dawning recognition of the need to preserve it.

The diary is also something of an almanac that benefits from close re-reading, especially for anyone discovering the quiet richness of nature with similar wide-eyed wonder.

RURAL ESCAPE: walking the dog in Suffolk PICTURE: Melissa Harrison

As a Londoner for over 20 years, moving from flat to Tube to air-conditioned office, Melissa Harrison knew what it was to be insulated from the seasons, as so many of us are, despite growing up in a Surrey commuter village where a rambling garden and the local woods and common became a playground that fuelled her love of wildlife and fascination with creepy crawlies.

But if wildlife then was something of a refuge, as she explained in a recent newspaper interview, her relationship with nature persisted. Adopting a dog and going on daily walks helped reconnect her with the natural world, and moving to a quiet farm cottage in ancient, rural Suffolk allowed her to complete her transition from townie to true country dweller, lucky enough to be able to walk out of her cottage straight into open countryside.

Inspired by that new-found freedom, she added a new string to her bow during lockdown when she discovered the joy of podcasting, eventually producing a 28-part series that attracted thousands of listeners each week.

“It saved me through lockdown as much as it helped anyone else,” she says. “I didn’t have to feel so guilty about having fields and woods that I could walk into and not see anyone and be safe when lots of people I knew were stuck in flats in cities and couldn’t get out at all.

“It’s easy to forget how frightening it was at the beginning. The only thing I wanted to do was keep people connected to nature because I knew it was going to be important.”

A year on and her children’s books are helping to fulfil her desire to get young people outdoors and connecting with nature in much the same way that she herself was inspired by the writing of British naturalist and children’s author Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

His books, she explains, “helped me understand that the lives of birds and animals are just as real and important as our own”.

She continues, writing for Caught By The River: “It’s vital that today’s children grow up into custodians of nature, so I wanted to write something that might do the same.”

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Picture of the week: 01/11/21

THE final portrait in our short series of pictures taken beside the Thames comes from the blog of Mary Tebje, whose posts have chronicled some four years of rambling around the Chilterns.

What began as a year-long project celebrating life in the Chilterns – that extraordinary space between London and Oxford that has such a rich heritage and such a variety of landscapes to explore! – turned into a much longer and more meaningful venture.

TIMELESS THAMES: the view of the river from Danesfield House PICTURE: Mary Tebje

A Year in the Chilterns started life as a quiet celebration of people and places with quirky and unusual stories to tell, but soon turned into a labour of love, a journey of exploration and self-discovery charting the changing seasons and extraordinary beauty of local landscapes.

Says Mary: “I thoroughly enjoy tramping around the Chilterns, looking, listening, loitering even and meeting lovely people.”

Nothing gives her more pleasure, she maintains, than “capturing the beauty in the mundane, the small things that the locals have stopped noticing”.

RIVER OF ADVENTURE: Cliveden Reach PICTURE: Mary Tebje

As a tourism marketing professional she also began to realise that her pride in living and working in the area could translate into a way of helping to sustainably support the local businesses and destinations featured in her pages.

The pandemic only served to emphasise the importance of the Chilterns landscape and the businesses it supports, and Mary’s posts have continued throughout, providing a kaleidoscope of beautifully illustrated rambles stretching from Bedfordshire to Berkshire.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: several of Mary’s rambles can be found on our Local Walks page

From haunted houses to tales of scandal and intrigue, her stories help to bring people and places to life, regularly echoing many of the aims and enthusiasms that we share at The Beyonder.

Whether visiting a historic manor house or ancient hill fort, her journeys have been accompanied by stunning pictures and even video diaries, social media feeds on Instagram and Twitter and even a range of Chilterns gifts.

TALES OF THE RIVERBANK: exploring Marlow PICTURE: Mary Tebje

“I am part of lovely community celebrating. collaborating and sharing what we know and love about where we live,” says Mary.

And so say all of us. Check out Mary’s latest posts on her blog here.

Picture of the week: 25/10/21

ONCE again, this week’s picture choice focuses on that extraordinary stretch of the river bordering the famous Cliveden Estate.

Back in 1939, the river-loving Astors owned a varied collection of river craft here, ranging from skiffs and canoes to punts and even an electric canoe. 

In 1908 the river had been brought to life in Kenneth Grahame’s well-loved children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. 

A regular visitor to Cliveden, it is believed Grahame was inspired to write the book by spending time on Cliveden Reach – as well as providing a place of sanctuary and escape from the harsher realities of life.

Grahame’s experiences living at Cookham Dean were not always happy ones, but his legacy has encouraged hundreds of families to mess about in boats like Ratty and Mole once did.

And today, just as they did in past centuries, visitors are as keen as ever to take to the water during the summer months, when Boating at Cliveden offers daily skippered cruises and self-hire vessels between April and the end of October.

Picture of the week: 18/10/21

OUR belated post this week pays tribute to Cliveden Reach and a famous stretch of the Thames that has featured from time to time in these pages.

Renowned as one of the prettiest spots on the Thames, this is a glorious section of the river that runs alongside the famous Cliveden Estate, nowadays owned by the National Trust.

Set high above the Thames with far-reaching views, Cliveden’s impressive gardens and majestic woodlands capture the grandeur of a bygone age, and past articles have focused on the outlook enjoyed by the late Duke of Sutherland from his lofty perch among the trees at Cliveden and the peaceful war cemetery to be found in the grounds.

While visitors to the estate can wander in the footsteps of dukes, earls and royalty, in the summer months guests can venture out onto the water and view the estate in the way that so many past generations have seen it.

Boating on the Thames was a late Victorian and Edwardian craze in most social classes. And sitting on one of the prettiest stretches of the river, Cliveden Reach had the heaviest traffic of any up-river lock: on one single day in 1894, a record 129 launches and nearly 1,000 smaller craft passed through it.

Today that view of Cliveden House is every bit as spectacular. But more about that next week in the second of our series focused on this extraordinary stretch of the Thames.

Twins tell the long story of the Thames

GORING and Streatley are twin villages which face each other across the Thames, nestled in the gap that the river has carved between two chalk hillsides.

And it’s here that Chilterns travel blogger Mary Tebje sets off on another of her local sojourns, this time exploring the picturesque countryside around the Goring Gap.

RIVERSIDE SETTING: this stretch of the Thames boasts spectacular views PICTURE: Mary Tebje

As glorious views go, the backdrop of the two villages clustered around the Goring weir is the stuff of jigsaws and chocolate boxes, and the perfect starting point for a ramble around a stretch of the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border which is sandwiched between two areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Mary explores the long history of the villages and how the river, along with turnpikes and railways, shaped their fortunes.

Whether by boat, foot or on horseback, it’s not hard to imagine the bustle of the boats, soldiers and drovers who once converged on this lovely spot, and even today the Thames Path, Ridgeway or Icknield Way can tempt visitors onto trails which have been trodden for centuries.

Famous faces associated with the area range from Oscar Wilde to Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, and George Michael fans still make a pilgrimage to leave flowers and light candles near his former home.

The article is one of the many entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of her adventures here.

Tweet of the week: 17/10/21

IT’S A small world, it seems.

Given that the whole thrust of our Tweet of the Week series has been to explore the positive benefits of social media, it seemed appropriate that our (belated) choice this week should be nominated by a follower we only know online.

Autumn Showers by @itsnotaboutwork

And yet Wendy Tobitt, who responded to our Sunday night Twitter challenge to nominate inspiring and uplifting social media accounts by suggesting the artist @itsnotaboutwork, is not a total “stranger”, it turns out.

Her nominated Twitter account is a self-confessed “incessant doodler” from the East Midlands whose drawings have been delighting followers for the past 10 years.

Lie back and stay cool by @itsnotaboutwork

“I love his random and usually joyous cartoons. A grasshopper in a waistcoat, for instance,” says Wendy, a Thames Path National Trail volunteer better known to us online as @12beesbuzzing.

She is clearly not alone – with almost 10,000 followers on Twitter and a healthy Instagram feed too, @itsnotaboutwork is a nature lover whose irreverent drawings have a broad appeal.

Autumn Toad by @itsnotaboutwork

Hedgehogs, newts and sparrows rub shoulders with tortoises, frogs and snails, all drawn with an irrepressible sense of fun. And cheeky jackdaws are a particular favourite.

Fun with a feather by @itsnotaboutwork

The birds come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes wearing hats and scarves, often playing among the leaves or having slightly surreal adventures, but always raising a smile.

Our doodling addict admits a certain fondness for autumn, as well as jackdaws, but the account includes few personal details otherwise, despite the regularity of the tweets, and the collection of more than 500 drawings on Instagram.

Worm that glows by @itsnotaboutwork

Not that it matters: the drawings speak for themselves, as Wendy points out. And this is someone who should know. Wendy, it transpires, is a friend of local artist Anna Dillon and landscape photorapher Hedley Thorne, and the cousin of artist Tim Baynes, formerly from Beaconsfield but now living and drawing in West Wales.

Not so much a stranger then, just a friend we haven’t yet met…

Do you have a favourite Twitter account which brightens your life? Let us know by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should feature in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 11/10/21

OUR picture this week takes us back to West Wales in the company of exiled Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes, who moved to the town of Laugharne on the south coast of Carmarthenshire in May.

Tim explains how bus journeys on the busy A4066 out of town onto the A40 from Carmarthen to Fishguard had given him only fleeting glimpses of some extraordinary views.

The Road to St Clears I by Tim Baynes

That prompted him to get the bus to drop him off outside Laugharne, a mile or so up the road at Cross Inn.

“Most of the 2.6 miles has no footpath by the side of the road. I wore some hi-vis and fearlessly faced the oncoming traffic, art bag with board and paper and crayons in one hand. The other hand was free to give a thumbs-up approbation to each car as it passed,” says Tim.

“The countryside is wonderful. The ribbon of the Afon Taf is only seldom out of view, reflecting as it did yesterday the grey skies above. Further still and above the river is a ridgeline of hills which were shrouded in mist.

The Road to St Clears II by Tim Baynes

“Pylons march across this calm landscape. Close by, their offspring, the telegraph poles, take their wares to the farms and houses hereabouts.

“Breaks in the hedgerows, entrances to fields, provide wonderful views out across the landscape and the opportunity to use the top of a five-bar gate as an easel on which to rest my board.

“In these same hedgerows are the first signs of autumn. Plenty of blackberries, purple scabious, a few yellow dandelions, tangles of old man’s beard, the skeletons of sheep’s parsley, the seed heads of vergeside grasses and other colourful berries all are on parade.

The Road to St Clears III by Tim Baynes

“I make several drawings and, having forgotten my pen, my mark making was bold and colourful. I cross the Taf, the bridge is quite narrow for a pedestrian and a car. Drivers avert their eyes.

“Into St Clears and outside St Mary Magdelene I enjoy a good drink of water and soon the bus home pulls up for me.

“Once home I add some detail to my work. It is a great way to recall the excitement of what I have seen and the realisation that wonderful scenery can only be enjoyed on foot.”

Tweet of the week: 10/10/21

YOU don’t have to be an artist to keep a nature journal, but it’s always a delight to see a professional at work.

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife. And her @DrawnIntoNature Twitter account echoes that fascination.

ENGAGING WITH NATURE: Jules Woolford at work

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

Her beautifully illustrated journal is a personal, creative response to the natural world in which she shares stories of the flora and wildlife she encounters. But it’s more than that too, as we revealed in a feature earlier this year.

ON A MISSION: Jules encourages everyone to keep a nature journal

“My mission is to encourage as many people as possible to join me in creating their own journal,” she says. “I’m passionate about showing people the wonder of the natural world, literally ‘on the doorstep’. Gardens, local parks and green spaces, even roadside verges.

“You don’t have to live in an idyllic rural setting to engage with nature; part of my journaling patch is an ex-landfill site! My garden isn’t grand or landscaped, but it’s a wildlife friendly habitat full of native plants. We have a regular procession of daily visitors who keep us entertained….”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL: keeping a journal helps to fine-tune observation skills

And she is adamant that the life-changing benefits are not dependent on someone being a talented artist. “The good news is that it doesn’t matter,” she insists. “Improving your drawing comes over time, and keeping a journal is the ideal way to practise your skills.

“Looking deeply at nature helps you fine-tune your observation, and that helps you develop your drawing skills.”

Her blog came about through wanting to connect with others like herself who were interested in discovering the wonders of engaging more fully with the world around them.

She says: “Our lives are filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, try to worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I keep going. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for nature, caring for the planet and the life within it. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

TELLING TALES: Jules mixes stories from history, folklore and fable

If her mission sounds inspiring, take a moment to enjoy those wonderful pictures: in her occasional newsletters, Jules is frank about the fact that life can be an uphill struggle at times.

“I’ve been a bit lost with Notes from Nature in 2021,” she told her followers. “Life’s overtaken me, and I know from your kind messages and comments that many of you have felt the same this year.

“It’s been the kindness of friends and  the lovely folk who follow me online which has kept me going, so a huge thank you to you all.

UPHILL STRUGGLE: 2021 has posed unusual challenges for many

Back among the chittering grey squirrels scurrying to raid the hazel trees and cache their winter stores, Jules is only too well aware that this is the real world, where it is only too easy to overlook the important stuff: the autumn songs of blackbird and robin, the hedgerows decked in their autumn finery of deep red rose hips, crimson hawthorn and purple sloes.

She writes of her delight that a wonderful ‘ lost’ apple orchard on her patch has been brought back to life, full of old varieties with wonderful names such as Merton Charm, King of the Pippins, Gascoigne’s Scarlet, and Ashmeads Kernel.

But she’s conscious too that time spent on social media can be problematic, even when it brings so many positive benefits too.

AUTUMN SONG: portraits of some welcome garden visitors

“I learn something with every post I write and every drawing I do. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” she says.

“It’s easy to feel guilty, and forget about self-care when you seem to have so many responsibilities. I even begin to worry when I don’t post online – so this year I’ve tried to spend even spend more time than normal just being in nature; simply because that is the most important issue for me.

“I’ve not made as many journal pages as last year – but it’s fine.”

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 03/10/21

SUNDAY night is the perfect time for a moment of quiet reflection about the week past and the week to come.

But if you like to start each day with a similarly peaceful few minutes of contemplation, one unlikely social media feed is worthy of a much wider audience.

SISTERS IN FAITH: Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio © Detroit Institute of Arts

@ChristianArtTod is the Twitter feed of art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst, a Belgian-born auctioneer and industry expert who featured 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.

EARLY MARTYRS: St Peter and St Paul as depicted by Cavarozzi © Galerie G Sarti, Paris

And it’s now a couple of years since he launched a new website linking daily Gospel readings with poignant and reflective works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary.

From Old Masters to street artists, the website features an extraordinary range of artworks spanning the centuries, allowing visitors to consider the daily gospel reading from a fresh perspective.

Characteristically, this takes the form of a mini-homily where Patrick’s expertise helps him to forge a better understanding of both the art work and the Bible story it might illustrate – and while his Twitter followers get a link to the website, subscribers get the daily reading delivered straight to their email inbox at 6am every day.

If the 200+ Twitter following sounds modest, the website claims to be sending out 800,000 emails a month, so the offering is not as low-key as it may first appear.

*In November 2021, the website posted Patrick’s is 1,000th Christian Art reflection spread over three years and boasted 26,516 daily subscribers. 

The time has come now to launch a new, updated version of our website. Over the past few months we have been working on redesigning the website and laying the foundation for more features that we may want to roll out in the future. Our new platform will launch soon, so stay tuned!

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

@BooksAlbans and a string of other local independent bookshops whose tweets, podcasts, signings and author interviews delight book-lovers across the Chilterns.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 04/10/21

IF ONLY trees could talk, what stories they could tell.

And nowhere is that truer that at Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and site of special scientific interest where one can feel pretty insignificant surrounded by trees which have been towering over visitors for hundreds of years.

Wandering through these woods, it’s hard not to be swamped by images of the past, especially given that the landscape is dotted with ancient monuments like Hartley Court, a medieval moated farmhouse built in an age before the Black Death ravaged the land.

A long-term Beyonder haunt, this is a place which has provided a welcome refuge for families throughout the more recent pandemic – so much so that additional parking restrictions have been in place for most of the past year to prevent damage to the sensitive habitat.

This is the home of wood ants, owls, hornets, moorhens and an array of other woodland creatures, not to mention grazing cattle and ponies; a place where fungi flourish and a huge array of mushrooms and toadstools can be discovered.

And at this time of year, of course, it’s also the perfect place to take pictures of the annual autumn fireworks display as the greens of summer start changing to a stunning area of browns, reds and golds – which explains why it’s our picture choice of the week.

There’s even a rare chance to pick up a few tips from one an expert photographer whose portfolio of shots taken in these woods is simply stunning. Although Paul Mitchell moved away to the Dorset/Hampshire border about 18 months ago and has swapped Burnham Beeches for local woodlands nearer his home, he returns to his old stamping ground to share some of his secrets on a three-hour wander in November.

We can’t compete with Paul’s startling landscapes, but those same tree-lined paths provide a constant and ever-changing source of delight to ramblers, dog walkers and amateur photographers alike.

Balmy month bows out with a bluster

SUDDENLY, it’s easy to forget that September heatwave that saw temperatures soaring around the country.

Overnight, it seems, there’s a chill in the air and blustery showers are setting the autumnal mood.

It’s the time of year we dust off our warmer coats and cardies, bemoan the loss of those long summer evenings and slowly begin to adjust to the idea that autumn is definitely upon us.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: following a footpath outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Days have been shortening since the summer solstice but it’s now that we start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.

The children have settled into the new school year after the long holidays, universities are reopening their doors and dramatic skies are warning us of more changeable weather to come.

CHILL IN THE AIR: sunset over Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

The colour palette is subtly changing too, the greens gradually giving way to golds, russets and browns. Deep in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and foragers are out looking for mushrooms, berries and other edible delicacies.

SHARP CONTRAST: thistles on the Misbourne PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Not that that’s such a great idea for the uninitiated: 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.

NATURAL PATTERNS: a study in textures PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Although we have basked in some balmy weather this September – the month was the second-warmest on record in the UK and the warmest ever in Northern Ireland – it doesn’t take us long to forget those temperatures once the chillier nights set in, especially as we face soaring fuel bills and long waits at the petrol pumps if we can find a garage actually open.

WIND OF CHANGE: Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

But aside from the moans and groans about fuel prices and petrol shortages, September was a spectacular month for getting out and about, especially now that so many local destinations have emerged from lockdown restrictions.

FRESH HORIZONS: the view from Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

September is the month when thousands of volunteers across England organise events to celebrate the country’s history and culture for the Heritage Open Days Festival, opening hidden places to the public in thousands of events spread over 10 days.

For art lovers it’s the month of the Herts Open Studios event too, although this year there are more online galleries to view than ever before, and a chance to catch up with artists you may have missed from similar events in Bucks and Oxfordshire earlier in the year.

EVENING LIGHT: the sun casts a warm glow over farmland PICTURE: Sarah How

This Sunday is harvest festival time too, a thanksgiving ritual dating from pagan times and traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

As we mentioned last year, in days gone by the festival was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children. A prosperous harvest that would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months would be cause for much celebration.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest was once a matter of life or death PICTURE: Sarah How

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.

Meanwhile it’s still getting light early enough to be 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.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

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.

Bats and owls are busy too, while baby birds like tits, robins, blackbirds and starlings are beginning to look a lot less scruffy as autumn approaches.

SHOWER TIME: baby blue tits get spruced up PICTURE: Nick Bell

Baby squirrels are dicing with death on the back roads, ants and hornets are busy building their nests in the woods, while the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.

RICH PICKINGS: hedgerows are bursting with berries PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Hedgerows, shrubs and trees are bursting with berries, fruits and nuts, providing a welcome feast for birds and small mammals and a welcome splash of colour in the woods.

INNOCENT LOOK: squirrels can appear disarming PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Some babies are still being looked after carefully by doting parents, while others are getting their first taste of independence ahead of the harder winter months.

MUM’S THE WORD: mother and fawn enjoy a family moment PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Fungi are springing up on dead trees and fallen branches to the woodland floor and spiders are out in force, spinning their elaborate webs, intricate patterns glistening in the morning dew.

Some dragonflies are still on the wing too for those photographers with the patience, stealth and a zoom or macro lens for close-up shots.

ON THE WING: a migrant hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But as September moves into October it’s the changing colours of our deciduous trees that provide one of the big natural spectacles of the year.

Coupled with the bright red flashes of the berries and fungi, the glow of those dramatic sunsets and the spectacular hues of our birds and insects, it’s the perfect time to venture back into the woods and soak up some of that autumnal sunshine before winter really takes a grip.

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for October, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 27/09/21

AHOY there, pirates! This week’s choice is not about the quality of the picture itself, but all about the place Ruislip Lido, to be precise and the childhood memories associated with it.

For a more fastidious modern parent stepping over the bird poo or wrinkling their nose at the prospect of toxic algae in the water, the sandy beach at the edge of this 60-acre lake might not immediately look like the perfect place for a picnic, but for generations of Londoners the Lido provided the most memorable of playgrounds.

Those childhood days are firmly etched in the minds of locals sharing their recollections on the official Lido website.

Built as a reservoir in 1811 to feed the Grand Union canal and provide water for Paddington, it became a “lido” in the 1930s, offering boating, swimming and fishing.

Almost a century later crowds still flock to that beach on the summer to enjoy a woodland walk or picnic, visit the playground or have a ride on the miniature railway.

But while locals had used it in the 1920s for skating in the winter and swimming in the summer, it was only in 1936 that it was officially opened as the Lido, complete with art-deco style main building and a concrete swimming area flanked by piers in a horseshoe shape.

With a cafeteria and changing rooms in the main building, the lido boasted rowing and paddle boats as well as the children’s playground, beach and miniature railway. It even became known as a base for water skiing, with the world championships being televised from there.

In its heyday during the 50s and 60s, the place attracted visitors from across West London and the setting was even immortalised in the 1961 film The Young Ones, the first of a string of musicals which would shoot Cliff Richard to stardom.

Musician Vince Cox even used his Youtube channel to show “then and now” shots from the film (as well as carrying out a similar exercise for the 1968 musical fantasy film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

Fond memories date back to the earliest days of the lido, with one local recalling: “My first memory of visiting the Lido was in the big freeze of 1947 when I, as a nine-year-old, walked across the reservoir with my father to the beach area, where shortly my father was to be responsible for importing hundreds of tons of sand.”

For youngsters escaping the war-torn city of the 1950s, this was truly a place of adventure, as another visitor explains: “You have to understand how poor the country was in the aftermath of the war. Rationing was still in force, TV was a rarity and very few people owned cars so having an amenity like the Lido close by was a wonderful treat, especially for us children.”

From donkey rides to picnic sandwiches, waiting for the 158 bus at Ruislip Manor Station or sneaking through the woods in the hope of bypassing the turnstiles, locals vividly recall the highs and lows of lido life during those halycon days.

From first fishing or birdwatching expeditions to rinsing off lake water under freezing cold water taps on the beach or falling through the ice in winter, from watching American servicemen playing their portable radios at the lakeside to Saturday night dances before the war, this was a place which played a formative role in many young people’s lives.

“It was an incredibly fantastic place to grow up in,” one woman recalls. “My brother and other friends in the road would all take to our bikes and cycle through the woods, damming up little streams, climbing trees, haring around like kids do. Going to the Lido was a regular thing, either on foot or our bikes.”

Not that all memories were happy ones, of course. The cleanliness of the water – or lack of it – had always worried some parents, and the polio scare of the mid-1950s deterred all but the most hardy from swimming for a while.

By the 1970s the lido was in serious decline. There were stories of drowning accidents and youngsters shared terrifying tales of encountering “Naked Norman” running naked through the woods. Traders deserted the lake and the beach became litter-strewn.

As one Twitter user recalled: “Was talking about open-air swimming with my 87-year-old father this week. ‘We took you to Ruislip Lido once,’ he mused. ‘It was Hell.’

But although the main building was damaged by fire and knocked down in 1994, the lido got a new lease of life in the 1990s and more investment since then. There may still be no swimming or boating, but there’s still a sandy beach, railway, play areas and pleasant views and walks through the surrounding woods.

On the lake, overwintering birds include wigeon, common pochard and gadwall ducks, with a dozen other species from geese and swans to moorhens, grebes and egrets.

Meanwhile Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve is ‘ancient semi natural woodland’ and some parts are a remnant of the Wildwood that once completely covered England after the last ice age, about 8,000 years ago.

There’s no admission charge to Ruislip Lido but there is a charge to ride on the railway and to park your car, which can be tricky at busy times. Although access is available 24/7, certain facilities like the cafe, railway and toilets are normally only open during official opening hours, from 9am to 4-9pm depending on the time of year. The Water’s Edge pub operates normal pub hours.

Tweet of the week: 26/09/21

IT’S not a single Twitter account that’s in the spotlight this week, but a small supportive group of independent booksellers doing their bit to brighten the lives of avid readers across the Chilterns.

Books on the Hill in St Albans encourages younger readers

Booksellers have faced a rollercoaster ride over the past 18 months, but there’s no hiding their delight at seeing eager customers browsing the shelves again.

From Wallingford to St Albans, Thame to Tring, small shops across the region did their bit to boost people’s spirits during the long weeks of lockdown.

And they were only too keen to welcome the explosion of interest that marked their reopening last June, with almost four million books being sold in the first six days.

The Wallingford Bookshop boasts a lively Twitter feed

After so long having to rely on online or click-and-collect services, retailers were clearly relishing the chance to meet customers face to face again, in spite of all the social distancing and hand sanitising.

Chilterns Bookshops has outlets in Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood

While the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.

But independent bookshops have been flourishing in recent years and many took to Twitter to maintain that daily contact with customers during the darkest days of lockdown, including newcomers like Our Bookshop in Tring and Books On The Hill in St Albans.

The Tring bookshop opened in September 2019, initially as a way of supporting the town’s book festival in November, but becoming a permanent fixture, complete with online author interviews and even its own Youtube channel.

Our Bookshop in Tring hosts book launches and has its own Youtube channel

With more than 2,000 followers already on Twitter, the bookshop is also home to the Tring Comedy Festival and the town’s comedy club.

Another new arrival on the local bookshop scene is Books On The Hill in St Albans, a family-run shop which opened its doors in November 2019 with the dream of creating a “warm and inviting, old-fashioned bookshop” which would provide a haven for busy lives and a meeting place for readers, writers, poets, talkers, speakers, thinkers and dreamers. 

Books On The Hill in St Albans aims to create a warm and inviting atmosphere

Antonia Mason, who runs the shop with her mum, Clare Barrow, and saw the shop plunged into lockdown just months after opening, said they had been “overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support”.

Antonia’s tweets have quickly won her more than 1,000 followers online, and the shop also hosts podcasts of author interviews, as well as recommendations and reviews.

Another local bookshop with a lively Twitter presence is Wallingford Bookshop, which has been active on social media since 2011 and boasts more than 6,800 followers.

First opened by Mary Ingrams in 1983 and now owned by Ali Jinks, the shop is an integral part of the the local community, with more than 6,000 books in stock and a website which claims: “The only thing we love more than helping you to find your perfect book is a challenge.

“So whether you’ve forgotten the name of a book, an author or both come and test us – we’ll do our darnedest to find the book for you!”

Staff at The Wallingford Bookshop relish a challenge

When bookshops reopened last year, books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

The Book House in Thame dates from 1973

Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”

Another Oxfordshire bookshop with a long history is The Book House in Thame, which dates from 1973 and is active on both Twitter and Facebook.

The bookshop was even mentioned by author Claire Fuller in a Penguin Books feature celebrating independent bookshops.

She recalled: “I lived in Thame when I was teenager, and The Book House (or The Red House Bookshop as it was called then) was a favourite place to visit. For many years in a row, I won the art prize at school, and the prize was a book token. I can still remember the shop’s newly printed books smell, the little corners to sit in (it is a beautifully higgledy-piggledy bookshop), and the amazing crazy fact that any of the books on any of the shelves could be mine.”

Outside seating at The Book House in Thame

The shop even boasts a small outside area where browsers can sit on a summer’s day.

Meryl Halls spoke of the profound emotional attachment which readers have for their local bookshops. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”

Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.

He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”

The Marlow Bookshop

Since then bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come back in their droves, despite initial concerns about reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges.

In the meantime, many of them have also learned how to use social media to great effect, adding podcasts, author interviews and online shopping to the delight of actually being able to sit in the corner of a bookshop and turn the pages of a freshly published volume.

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 20/09/21

RAILWAY enthusiasts may have a particular affection for Andrew Keenleyside’s gloriously colourful paintings of the countryside in and around Harpenden.

For one of his favourite sources of inspiration is the “Nickey Line” – a long disused line which once linked the towns of Hemel Hempstead and Harpenden, but much of which has been redeveloped as a cycle and walking path.

One of a series of portraits of the Nickey Line, by Andrew Keenleyside

The Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead branch railway ran for almost nine miles between the West Coast main line from London to Birmingham and the Midland main line from London to Leicester.

With a nickname shrouded in obscurity – there are numerous theories about its origins – passenger demand was never high and further declined in the years between the wars.

By the end of 1946 the only regular passengers on the Harpenden train were a handful of schoolchildren and when passenger services were “temporarily” suspended because of national coal shortages, the service was never reinstated.

A wintry scene on the Nickey Line, by Andrew Keenleyside

Although the last passengers travelled on the line in June 1947, the route remains popular with cyclists and walkers, as reflected in Andrew’s paintings, which use vivid colour and expressive impasto textures to try to capture the essence of the changing seasons.

“I admire Pissarro and Sisley in terms of their compositional themes, along with Henri Mattise and the Fauves with the vivid and exciting use of colour in their palette,” says Andrew, whose work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and is also represented in private collections in the USA, the Far East, South Africa and Europe.

Freight services continued to run over part of the route until 1979, but while some of the line has disappeared under houses and roads, sections of the route remain recognisable, including some bridges and sections of embankment which feature in Andrew’s pictures.

Back in August 2020, it was one of his paintings which was used to kick-start our Picture of the Week series. He is a regular exhibitor at the annual Herts Visual Arts open studios event, which this year again includes a wide range of virtual galleries and demonstrations.

Events run from until October 10, with more than 60 venues opening their doors to visitors. The full programme can be found on the Herts Visual Arts website.

Tweet of the week: 19/09/21

OUR Sunday night social media reflection this week plunges us into the art world, and particularly landscapes from the 1930s and 1940s.

Our host is @HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, transporting us to that unsettling period between the wars when the outstanding British painter and designer, best known for his watercolours of the South Downs, was at the height of his creative powers.

Chalk Paths by Eric Ravilious, watercolour on paper, 1935

Rothwell’s favourite featured artists include John and Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and George Clausen, but range from 19th-century works to contemporary artists like Anna Dillon, whose ongoing Wessex Airscapes exhibition at the Sewell Centre Gallery highlights her collaboration with aerial photographer Hedley Thorne based on their shared passion for the landscapes of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. 

The Dryers by Anna Dillon from her Wessex Airscapes exhibition at Radley College

Rothwell’s own Twitter identity is slightly cryptic, but the “recovering” archaeologist is based near Wells in Somerset and has a particular interest in using digital media in the presentation of archaeology, spending much of his time developing a digital map of the hillforts of Britain.

But it is his fascination with art which has won him more than 30,000 followers on Twitter over the past decade and which translated into a small family business in February 2021, when Rather Good Art was launched, offering postcards and greetings cards based on the work of those favourite artists.

From small beginnings the number of cards on offer is steadily increasing, with the range of featured artists now extending to Van Gogh and Klimt.

Piquet Hill by David Alderslade, watercolour and gouache

Back on his Twitter feed, Rothwell’s enthusiasm for English landscapes allows him to sweep around the country, from Norfolk to Cornwall, from Kent to the south-west of England, perhaps pausing for a moment to study a favourite work by the contemporary artist David Alderslade, for example, based in his caravan on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

He does stray further afield on occasion, to Scotland, France or even Canada, and to coast and city scenes too, but his roots are firmly in the English landscapes of Ravilious, Nash and contemporaries like Claughton Pellew.

The Train by Claughton Pellew, 1920

Away from social media, Rothwell reveals yet another range of interests on his Notes for the Curious website which, alongside book reviews and occasional essays, features a score of Grave Goods interviews with a range of writers, historians, musicians, comedians and others deciding which items they might like to accompany them to the afterlife on their final “great adventure”.

Highlights include interviews with mudlark Lara Maiklem, comedian Isy Suttie and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Like our other Tweet of the Week selections, Henry Rothwell is able to lift our spirits and transport us into a different dimension – and who can ask for anything more from their social media friends?

In case you missed them, here are some other favourites:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 12/09/21

AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.

And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.

Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it. 

“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.

“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”

As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.

Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?

If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.

When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.

His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.

“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”

Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.

Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.

Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.

Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.

Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.

Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.

Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.

But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.

“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”

Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.

“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.

“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”

Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.

“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”

More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.

That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.

“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.

“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).

“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.

In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.

“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.

Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 13/09/21

HERTS Open Studios returns this week, the event which prompted the launch of our weekly Picture series just over a year ago.

And to celebrate the anniversary, today’s picture choice seems particularly appropriate as it features a self-taught oil painter who only rediscovered the love of painting during lockdown.

Blue Birch Waters by Leon Barnes was inspired by the work of TV art legend Bob Ross

The work itself is a homage to Bob Ross, the soft-spoken American art legend whose Joy of Painting TV series still enthrals millions today on Youtube.

And Stevenage artist Leon Barnes has even produced a video tutorial demonstrating the trademark wet-on-wet technique of the man whose “happy little trees” proved an inspiration to so many.

As a DJ and karaoke host for the past 16 years, Leon found his business swept away overnight by the lockdown restrictions.

Feeling lost and depressed, and lacking funds for a family birthday present, he stumbled across a stored loft gift from 2009 of an oil painting set and some old canvases, and embarked on a new artistic journey.

“Thanks to Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting, I found a new purpose, a hidden talent and lifeline,” says Leon.

Sunset Lake, an original oil on canvas landscape by Leon Barnes

This month, Leon is one of dozens of artists featured in this year’s Herts Open Studios event, which brings artists, artisans and art-lovers together for three weeks of inspiration and discovery in communities across Hertfordshire.

Events run from September 18 to October 10, with more than 60 venues opening their doors to visitors and a variety of local area art trails offering a range of free events from working studios and demonstrations to group exhibitions.

Running for more than 30 years, it is the largest county-wide art event with every venue free to enter and offering visitors a unique opportunity to meet artists and to enjoy and discuss their work.

Sunset Stream, an original oil on canvas landscape by Leon Barnes

Artists also offer online demonstrations and tours, allowing virtual visits to take place 24 hours a day.

“With many new artists joining our event alongside long-standing participants, there is just so much to explore,” said Herts Visual Arts chair, Sally Taylor. The full programme can be found on the Herts Visual Arts website.

Rich pickings signal the end of summer

AUGUST is a time of plenty, when gardens are in full bloom and the combines are rolling across nearby farmland.

FRIENDLY FACES: sunflowers put on a show near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Ironically, Britain’s farmers may have an unlikely source to thank for thousands of us watching those crops being harvested with a new and more knowledgable eye this year.

For amid all the mysterious talk about spring beans, oilseed rape and winter wheats, moisture content and disappointing yields, it seems that the belligerent “petrolhead” Jeremy Clarkson was responsible for introducing a new generation of TV viewers to the trials and tribulations of farming life.

FARMING LIFE: harvest time at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The success of Clarkson’s Farm offered some unexpectedly revealing insights as our Jeremy took personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008.

And amid all the hapless bumbling and frustrated swearing at the continual setbacks, we were treated to a warm-hearted gem of a series that potentially taught us more about farming than any other agricultural programme on the box.

WINTER FEED: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Farmers are a notoriously tough audience, but many were won over by the TV star’s hard-hitting commentary about bureaucracy, pricing policies, Brexit challenges and bad weather.

“I think the show is absolutely brilliant,” Redditch-based farmer George Beach told Birmingham Live. “Clarkson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but everyone seems to agree about what he’s done.”

Even Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved such a popular character on BBC2’s This Farming Life that even her collies get fan mail, tweeted: “I love @JeremyClarkson on his farming. The best TV ever.”

SUNNY SIDE UP: a sunflower crop near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this was Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences.

The whole experience also gave him a new respect for farmers, he confessed. He told monthly magazine Farmers Guide: “I get annoyed with what people think about farming. It’s either the huge barns in Texas where they brutally grow pigs or cows, or Kate Humble with a freshly scrubbed baby lamb on a clean bed of hay. Farming is somewhere in between.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: overlooking the Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“Farmers are trying to fill the supermarket shelves with cheap good food, and at the same time look after the countryside. Every one of them I talk to is responsible and doing this all the time, despite what is going on with Covid, Brexit or idiotic political decisions.

“We should give farmers a lot more respect. We’re all eating what they produced.”

SPLASH OF COLOUR: heather in bloom on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Away from the arable farms, it’s been a colourful month on local heathland like that at Stoke Common, where the heather and gorse are at their finest.

Pockets of heathland like this provide a marked contrast to the large ploughed fields of the scarp foothills where medieval open fields were divided into regular parcels through the process of enclosure. From the 1750s onwards, enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm, affecting more than a fifth of the total land area of England by the First World War.

EVENING LIGHT: a Chesham sunset PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

The majority of Chilterns crops are cereal crops like wheat and barley, used in a variety of foodstuffs from bread, cakes and biscuits to beer and whisky. One of the most familiar crops is oilseed rape, with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma, the rapeseed being crushed and the oil used for cooking or food processing, or as an industrial lubricant.

But you can also find peas and beans, alternative crops such as linseed, borage and poppies, and of course thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs, not to mention the occasional less familiar livestock like red deer, emus or alpacas.

POLLEN COUNT: a bee gets busy PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards, particularly those growing cherries, while there are also several vineyards producing quality wines – and while the arable farmers are busy with haymaking and silage collection, insects, birds and baby mammals are abundant too, the annual wildlife population at its highest this month, even if the birds are too busy moulting to make much noise.

DISTINCTIVE CALL: the green woodpecker or “yaffle” PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Lambs born in the spring are back out in the fields, reptiles can be spotted basking the sun and baby squirrels are beginning to put on weight and bully the young birds at garden feeders.

But according to meteorologists, August 31 marks the end of summer, and although it’s too early for the real golds, reds and browns of autumn, there’s a definitely chill in the morning and evening air that hints at the start of a new season, even if we are hoping there are plenty of sultry September days still to enjoy.

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: an Egyptian goose PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

September is a big month for bird migration, with the British Isles a crossroads for millions of arrivals and departures, but the first to head south are already on the move in August.

ON THE WING: a swallow skimming over the river PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Swallows, house martins and swifts are all migratory birds that winter in Africa. Swallows and house martin arrive back in the UK in late March to early April and leave again in September to October, but the swifts are first to leave, and young swallows and house martins are honing their flying skills and enjoying the abundance of insects before joining the exodus.

Fruits, berries and nuts are plentiful, the game season is under way for meat eaters and the list of vegetables in season is quite overwhelming, from beetroot and broccoli to parsnips, peas and peppers.

TOUCHDOWN: Canada geese coming in to land PICTURE: Nick Bell

Home-grown herbs are also in plentiful supply, and from bilberries and crapapples to wild damsons and mushrooms, there’s plenty to keep foraging enthusiasts busy too, as well as ensuring a fertile feast for many species of birds, eager to gorge on berries before their long migration and helping plants propagate in the process.

Across the Chilterns, it still feels as if summer is with us, with warmer temperatures marking the opening weeks of September. But this is a time when the leaves are beginning to dry out on plants and trees, flowers are fading and days are becoming shorter.

Whisper it quietly, but autumn is sneaking quietly in. We haven’t had the dramatic drop in temperature yet, or the growing awareness that the leaves are beginning, ever so gradually, to change colour. But it won’t be long, so enjoy that September heatwave while you can, as temperatures briefly push close to 30 degrees centigrade before autumn finally makes its presence felt.

GROW WITH THE FLOW: the river Misbourne at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for September, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Tweet of the week: 05/09/21

TWITTER accounts don’t come any more dramatic and enticing than that of Alison O’Neill, a shepherdess in the Yorkshire Dales whose @woolismybread account offers thousands a welcome escape from the pressures of city life.

Not that anyone would claim running a small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales is an easy task, but living in nature amid the spectacular scenery of the majestic Howgill Fells in Westmoreland makes up for any harsher challenges life throws at her, she insists.

OPEN OUTLOOK: Alison’s pinned tweet features her beloved fells PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“I am blessed with a rare freedom,” she writes. “I work quietly in the old way, woven to my landscape, betrothed to the life of a shepherdess.

“I don’t like sheep, I love them and I always have. I care for my flock and in turn they provide for me. I fashion their wool creating beautiful products, offering provenance and heritage as hallmarks for every item I produce.”

That love of nature shines through her posts from the fells, but it’s the lifestyle as much as the scenery which her followers find both restful and inspiring, from the homely sound of clucking hens around the farm to the sight of a bulging breakfast tray or the reassuring company of Shadow the sheepdog.

Alison enjoys sharing her world, guiding walks and holding talks about my life on the fells with her beloved sheep, amid the whirling swifts and restless winds.

HOME COMFORTS: Sunday breakfast on the farm PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

Born into a shepherding family, she recalls: “Life for me was practical and everyday, sometimes harsh in a northern way. I was lucky and thankful to be reared on fresh air and freedom, a country girl whom inherited an instinct to nurture and a desire to care.”

When in the late 1970s her grandparents and parents sold their farms, she vowed that one day she would have her own farm and follow in their footsteps, despite the warnings about the impossibility of making money from small-scale hill farming.

Come the run-up to the millennium, and she was taking on the tenancy of Shacklabank Farm, a 37-acre plot which would be home for the next 20 years: where her daughter Scarlett would be born and where unhappy memories of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and a divorce would be offset by the rewards of farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes.

Thanks to that “sheer Dales-woman grit and determination”, she has managed to remain at the farm on the hill, offering an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alison has farmed at Shacklabank for 20 years PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Rather than selling my wool for next to nothing I found a way of turning it into highly desirable tweed clothing. And rather than pushing wildlife back on my farm, I have encouraged it to flourish. My labour of love is a way of life and one that I am most grateful to have,” she says.

Certainly her 38,000 Twitter followers appreciate her straight talking and love of simple pleasures, like the smell of autumn in the air, the company of the loyal Shadow or nurturing her beloved Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick flocks, using their wool to produce a range of natural tweeds that capture the “spirit of the place we all call home”.

It’s a lifestyle that has made the Yorkshire shepherdess something of a media star, but for her Twitter fans it’s her ability to “keep it real” that continues to delight and inspire.

Alison’s website, shop and media and video links can be found here.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 06/09/21

OUR picture of the week this week takes us back to the fair, and the lost skill of fairground art.

As we revealed last October, although the coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, Joby Carter of Carters Steam Fair wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months when shows had to be cancelled.

Instead he launched a series of online courses passing on his traditional signwriting techniques to people from over the world from his paint shop outside Maidenhead.

Flash forward 12 months and once again people can enjoy at first hand the wonderful old rides, vintage heavy lorries and magnificent living wagons with their cut-glass windows, lace curtains and gleaming wood interiors.

With the show’s famous 1890s gallopers and other rides once again open to the public at a series of local venues until mid-October, visitors can see for themselves what the fuss is all about – and why this unique “steam fair” has earned such a warm place in the hearts of local communities for the past four decades.

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

Woodlands echo to hoots in the night

THERE’S no sound which better captures the atmosphere of the woods at night than the hoot of an owl.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

But even when they are at their loudest and most active, these nocturnal hunters are not always easy to spot – and there are even some popular misconceptions about the noises they make too.

LOCAL FAVOURITE: a little owl poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Like that “twit – twoo” we so often mimic, for example, is not one owl, but two different owls calling – the high-pitched “kee-wick” of the female tawny owl, which is responded to by the “hoohoo” or “twoooo” note of the male.

Owls have evolved as specialised hunters with a wide range of skills to help them locate and catch their prey. Each species has a range of incredible “superpowers” that many other birds do not possess, but which give owls the ‘tools’ they need to survive.

Different species can see in almost total darkness, have soft feathers with a comb-like ‘fringe’ on the flight feathers which aids silent flight, have round facial discs with special feathers to ‘catch’ sound and a toe that swivels so talons can be used in different ways when squeezing prey or gripping a branch.

PERFECT CAMOUFLAGE: a tawny owl hides in the trees PICTURE: Andrew Knight

But for most of us, spotting any of the five species of UK owl can be tricky. They can be notoriously difficult to track down, are very well camouflaged and tend to set up home in some pretty hard-to-reach places.

The calls may echo around the woods on an autumn evening when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting around February, but can you tell your tawny owl from a barn owl or little owl?

DAYDREAMING: a little owl appears to yawn PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

For Steve Gozdz and partner Billie O’Connor, relocating to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature has sparked an ever-evolving fascination in the wildlife to be found near their home base where the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

From here, Steve’s Owl Walks over the past couple of summers have introduced locals and visitors alike to the range of owls to be found in nearby woods.

EVENING RAMBLE: owl walks have proved popular with locals PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “We are really lucky to live in an area which has four different types of owls all sighted in a small radius. Whilst the short-eared owls and barn owls are a less common sight for most, it’s been delightful to show a number of local residents the families of little owls we have nesting and breeding here in Goring & Streatley, and to help them learn more about them and the tawny owls we so often hear and sometimes also get to see too.”

Steve’s business, GG Wildlife Experiences, was born out of lockdown and his long-standing interest in wildlife.

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” he says. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.”

FEATHERED FRIENDS: little owls nest and breed locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Billie adds: “We already know we are incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful location, of scenic countryside and amazing wildlife. Many of us might hear the evening and night-time calls of different evening creatures, the most recognisable for some being the tawny owl.”

Steve started Goring Gap Wildlife Walks back in 2019, but the broadening into a wider range of experiences was a natural step, says Billie. “We now offer guided wildlife spotting boat trips, and even nature breaks, so expanding the business and rebranding made sense, to show we now offer so much more.”

The pair believe that helping people understand local wildlife better will encourage them to want to look after it. “The more people understand, the greater their interes, and then a lot of people want to know about how to protect it, how to create good habitats in their garden or on their land to allow wildlife to flourish – which is a great way to protect and grow those species we really want to see thrive,” says Steve.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

So much so, that last year Steve turned his woodwork skills to good use and began creating and installing custom handmade owl boxes for those in the local area.

“You can’t just put any box up and hope for the best. Different Owls require different habitats and very different homes; it also depends if you are creating just a roost, or are creating a nesting location,” he says.

Steve will check out the garden or land and advise on the most appropriate box for the owl type that is likely to frequent the area. And in some cases, he has advised against buying one, as the habitat just hasn’t been right. “The environment needs to be suitable for a long-term habitat in order for the wildlife to flourish, and so I want to ensure we give the right advice, and give the wildlife the best chance,” he explains.

HOME TO ROOST: owl and bat boxes have proved increasingly popular PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

A new request at the end of last year was bat boxes, and Steve began installing these for customers who enjoyed seeing bats in the garden and wanted to provide a safe haven for them.

As the guided owl walks season comes to an end, Steve is now busy with a series of owl box orders in the run-up to the roosting wintering period, ready for the next year’s mating period when new pairs will need to find new homes……

You can contact Steve at info@ggwildlifeexperiences.co.uk or visit his website for guidance or advice on your garden’s suitability for different wildlife. Guided Wildlife Experiences run all year round.

Village tales are stranger than fiction

WHAT connects the Wall Street Crash and Benjamin Franklin with Hollywood stars and an English rake with a reputation for arranging underground orgies?

The answer lies in a picturesque village of wobbly roofs and hidden passages where time seems to have be standing still for centuries.

FROZEN IN TIME: the picturesque village of West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

And as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers, the story behind the extraordinary village of West Wycombe really is stranger than fiction.

Today it looks like a film set, though it was once an important stop for stagecoach travellers heading to and from London, with more than a dozen public houses vying for the custom of weary passengers.

Yet this is a place of scandal and innuendo, thanks to the antics of an 18th-century politician whose Hellfire Club was notorious for orgies and black magic.

RUMOUR AND INTRIGUE: history comes alive in West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

In the latest instalment of her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns, Mary finds out more about Sir Francis Dashwood and the story behind his parties, his wonderful park and his imposing mausoleum, which still dominates the landscape after 250 years.

It’s just one of a continuing series of stories about the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Vivid memories of a year in pictures

IT’S been a year since we launched our Picture of the Week series – and what a year it’s been.

Inspired by the open studios events staged across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire each year, the series was launched at a time when months of lockdown had prevented artists from getting out and meeting potential customers face to face.

Such events offer a great opportunity for artists and makers to throw open their doors and showcase their work, but if the lockdown put paid to such intimate contact, it certainly did not the cramp the enthusiasm and ingenuity of creative souls from all over the Chilterns.

MAUREEN GILLESPIE
LOCKDOWN WALK: Blenheim by Maureen Gillespie

Some turned to local walks near their homes for inspiration, while others took the opportunity to go back through old sketchbooks, sort out old photographs and revisit settings which had never quite made it on to canvas.

STOCKTAKE: Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes searched old sketchbooks for inspiration

And many seized the chance to improve their virtual galleries and reach out to customers through blogs, instagram posts and online shops.

PERSONAL TOUCH: Dorset artist Sam Cannon launched a monthly newsletter

Of course that’s not quite the same as getting to meet your customers in person, but as lockdown restrictions started to ease, those exhibitions, pop-up displays and working studio visits soon began to emerge again.

PERSONAL TOUCH: self-taught artist Sabbi Gavrailov from Hemel Hempstead

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights of the weekly series have included many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape, from the Ridgeway views of Anna Dillon and Christine Bass to the colourful Oxfordshire scenes captured by Alice Walker, Jane Peart and Sue Side.

VALE VIEW: Inchombe Hole, Buckinghamshire by Anna Dillon

We have ventured out into the parks of Harpenden with Andrew Keenleyside, explored the wetlands of Oxfordshire with Jane Duff and delved deep into Wytham Woods with Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley.

ROSIE FAIRFAX-CHOLMELEY
WOODLAND FORAY: a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

A score of those local artists can be accessed through our Local Landscapes page, and their subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

SUE GRAHAM
CORNISH VISIT: Sundown, St Ives by Sue Graham

Further afield, Chilterns artists have taken on us on journeys from Cornwall to West Wales, while guest artists have hailed from as far afield as Dorset and the Lake District.

Photographers have featured too, patiently waiting for the perfect wildlife shot, whether otter or kingfisher, red kite or dragonfly.

FAIRGROUND FUN: handpainted gallopers at Carters Steam Fair

Over 52 weeks, the collection has grown into a formidable showcase of local talent, punctuated by occasional more unusual contributions, ranging from the fairground art of Joby Carter and family to a step back in time to enjoy the 1930s art of Eric Ravilious, the “happy little trees” of TV art legend Bob Ross or the stunning works of Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.

Do you have a nomination for an artist who should be featured in our weekly series? Write to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk explaining the reasons behind your choice.

Fairground favourites thrill the crowds

IT’S BEEN a pretty special bank holiday weekend at Pinkneys Green for Joby Carter and his family.

Here, to the sound of fireworks, steam engines and fairground organs, Carters Steam Fair has been celebrating its 40th visit to a favourite local venue in grand style.

The largest travelling vintage funfair in the world, the steam fair has delighted generations of local youngsters with lovingly restored rides dating from the 19th century to the 1960s.

And after being forced off the road by the pandemic, as we reported last year, the fair is back on the road for 2021, delighting families at a series of local venues until mid-October.

The vintage rides have featured in films ranging from Paddington 2 to Rocketman, and as dusk falls on Pinkneys Green, the screams of delight are a testimony to the enduring appeal of the fair, which offers rides suitable for toddlers, teenagers and the young at heart.

Set against a backdrop of flashing lights and pounding pistons, the fair provides visitors young and old with a sensory overload, as the scent of hot doughnuts mingles with the oil and steam of machines which are a triumph of mechanical engineering.

Part of the fair’s popularity lies in the extraordinary attention to detail with which vintage rides have been restored, from the precision engineering required to maintain moving parts to the artwork which has all been done by hand.

Says Joby: “I encourage anyone visiting to take a close look at the lettering and artwork at the fair. It has all been done by hand using traditional signwriting skills and techniques – no computers or fancy software programmes!

“Stand next to our brightly coloured trucks with huge lettering over 1 meter high and see if you can figure out how we manage to paint it all by hand!”

It was back in the late 1970s that show promoters John and Anna Carter first started their collection by buying a set of 1890s Jubilee Steam Gallopers that they could take to steam rallies and fairs.

As their passion for vintage fairgrounds grew, the Carters added more rides to their collection, with Anna’s artistic talents in restoring rides to their former glory helping to establish the fair’s specialism in vintage rides.

Joby was just a child at the time but soon followed in their footsteps. Now, with more than 20 years’ of signwriting experience, he even ended up teaching creative online courses on lettering and fairground art which helped the fair to survive a year of lockdown.

Those iconic gallopers are still going strong too, most of the horses having been carved from wood by Andersons of Bristol around 1910 and all subtly different from one another.

They are all named after friends and family on the fair, and the 46-key Gavioli organ bought from Roger Daltrey in 1979 helps to provide that unmistakeable fairground atmosphere.

Being based in Maidenhead, the Berkshire family has a particular affection for the Pinkneys Green venue where they have worked for four decades. But several other local favourites are on their 2021 itinerary too, including Hemel Hempstead, Holyport Green and Reading.

The same loving attention to detail is visible everywhere at the fairground, 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.

Restoring the worn-out 1960s dodgems cars has been a long labour of love for Joby and his team: a restoration process that took 25 years of on-and-off work, with a few finished just in time for them to enjoy a moment of Hollywood fame with the launch of the award-winning movie Rocketman about the life of Elton John.

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.