Tourists welcomed back to Bucks

TOURISTS are being welcomed back to the Chilterns as lockdown restrictions start to ease – with the emphasis firmly on enjoying the great outdoors.

The region’s official tourism website Visit Buckinghamshire & The Chilterns is promoting walks, parks, camping and water-based activities as families make plans for their summer holidays.

And The Beyonder has dozens of family days out listed on its What’s On pages, many of them healthy, outdoors – and free.

The Chiltern Conservation Board and the Chiltern Society are promoting more than 20 social distance friendly walks which avoid crowded well-known locations and narrow paths where possible.

Visit Buckinghamshire identifies a number of family friendly walks with guides and fun quizzes included, while The Beyonder has collated a range of nature guides families can use to identify flowers, insects and birds they spot on their wanders.

Lucy Dowson, of Visit Buckinghamshire & The Chilterns, said: “Buckinghamshire is the perfect year-round destination for memorable visits.”

Parks range from Campbell Park in the centre of Milton Keynes with its impressive sculpture to Willen Lake, Black Park, Langley Park and Denham Country Park.

Campsites are slowly re-opening and include Home Farm in Radnage; Shillingridge Glamping; Chadwell Hill Farm, Hedsor Field Camping and Orchard View Farm.

And for water-based fun the The Little Boat Trip starts in the Aylesbury basin and takes you and your family (one household or bubble only at the moment) on a canal boat from the Exchange Theatre through several locks to the Aylesbury marina.

Willen Lake has all sorts of water sports for you to enjoy and the Longridge Activity Centre offers a great range of activities, including canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding and dragon boating, while Salters Steamers, which starts at Higginson Park Pier in Marlow, travels down the river to Temple Lock taking in the beautiful Thames scenery.

Rachel relishes a taste of the wild

LOOK at a hedgerow and what do you see? Rachel Lambert sees a feast – or a satisfying meal, at any rate.

Nettles and elderflower, dandelions and heather tea, gorse and seaweed – no wild flower is too much of a challenge for Rachel to rustle up a hearty meal, it seems, and the recipes all look frankly delicious…

From pink elderflower and rose cordial to gorse flower ice cream, wild moorland tea and home-made blackberry jam, this is all about harnessing the extraordinary colours and unique flavours of nature, and Rachel’s prolific foraging has seen her featuring as a guest on morning TV and her recipes popping up in every food magazine from Sainsbury’s to Waitrose.

Her wild food journey started many years ago by a crumbling Devonshire stone wall where friends introduced her to edible pennywort. “It quenched my thirst and tasted as fresh as peas – and my world changed forever,” she recalls.

“To me, foraging is a fun and enlivening way to appreciate the environment and access to fresh, seasonal food. It’s also an excuse for outdoor adventures, as well as quirky and labour of love investigations in the kitchen.”

It was back in 2007 that she started teaching other people about foraging, with that early discovery of pennywort building up into an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to harness the best of more than 100 other edible wild plants and weeds.

“Foraging is the glue that brings together the things that I love; nature, good food and people,” she says.

On hand to capture something of the atmosphere of her unusual lifestyle was Rick Davy, a photographer also based in Cornwall who has produced an extraordinary visual documentary of the lives of dozens of local people from different walks on life, featured on his A Day In The Life Of website.

His pictures – some of which are reproduced here – capture Rachel on a couple of foraging expeditions, including one to pick gorse flowers.

She recalls: “Last winter I went crazy about these flowers. I even made a little video about Foraging Gorse in Winter – such was my love affair with them.

“In my first foraging book I share a Gorse Flower Rice Pudding recipe, and I’ve made so much more with them since then. That day I was trying to perfect gorse flower truffles, and also wanted to dry some flowers for future syrups and cocktails. La, la, laaaa, the joys of foraging for gorgeous drinks and food.

“Those days that I shared partly with Rick are the good days – the outdoor days. As a forager I manage to get outdoors everyday, into nature. The rest of my time is spent cooking, preparing, writing, doing administration and contemplating new ideas and adventures.”

She published her first foraging book in 2015 and it sold out withing six months. She promptly created a second a year later focusing on edible seaweeds.

Having learned from many skilled nature teachers and previously worked within the arts, health and environmental education and community food projects, she was well placed to lead group foraging expeditions with adults and children from all walks of life – some even laced with the odd song or two.

“You may also find me singing my heart out (if no one’s listening) on clifftops and beaches and occasionally sharing one of those foraging songs on courses. It is a new love; that makes me, the plants and others smile (or so I’m told!).

“Joy and pleasure are key to my teaching style and life as a forager. With a self-confessed sweet-tooth, wild desserts and sweet treats made from foraged ingredients feature regularly in my courses and blog posts, as well as savoury delights!”

Rick didn’t need much convincing about the merits of foraging. “I’d be the first to admit that I do love a bit of foraging,” he writes in his photo-essay about Rachel. “Foraging for Rachel has brought together many different things she loves, walking, nature, plants, food, the senses and creative cooking.

“I joined Rachel foraging one early spring morning. She started picking stuff from the hedgerow and to you and I it might pass off as nothing other than weeds.”

Back in her kitchen the wild alexanders were transformed into sweet filo tarts, while she uses bright yellow gorse flowers in jewelled savoury rice, sugar syrups for ice creams and rice pudding, powdered sugar for truffles and cocktails.

“I enjoyed furthering the art of foraging and discovered some new recipes and food along the way,” says Rick, who has lost count of the number of “lives” he has featured on his site, from a beekeeper to a wildlife artist.

“The project will continue to evolve – it has no end,” he says. “I’ve shot and documented the coastal lives project for the love of it. I love what I do for a living.”

Rick Davy is a creative commercial and lifestyle photographer based in Cornwall. All the photographs in this feature are reproduced with his kind permission from his website documenting the lives of individuals living and working by the Cornish coast.

Rachel Lambert is an author and forager based in Penzance who runs wild food foraging courses for groups, families and couples.

‘Give litter louts £1,000 fines’

SELFISH litterbugs should face the prospect of £1,000 fines, say campaigners.

With tourists trashing beaches and beauty spots around the country in the wake of the lockdown easing, InYourArea and Clean Up Britain joined forces to launch a nationwide anti-littering campaign called Don’t Trash Our Future.

Spearheaded by a number of famous faces including JLS singer JB Gill, the campaign encourages people to organise local clean-ups, push for higher fines and put pressure on councils to enforce penalties.

The campaign calls for volunteers to organise neighbourhood clean-ups in August and September tackling “grot spots” from parks and beaches to scrubland or messy roadsides.

Supporters are also being asked to sign a petiton calling for the maximum fixed penalty fine for dropping litter in the UK to be raised to £1,000.

Councils are called on to play their part too. Research by Clean Up Britain found the vast majority of local authorities in the UK were not using their enforcement powers enough – with 72% of councils in England and Wales either not enforcing the law at all, or not enforcing it effectively.

Those questioned said littering had got worse since lockdown began to ease and made them miserable, angry, sad or depressed. And the vast majority (97%) thought councils should enforce the law properly.

Don’t Trash Our Future has been backed by a number of high-profile names including JLS singer-turned-farmer JB Gill, a passionate advocate for farming and the environment who has made numerous appearances on Springwatch and Countryfile.

He said: “It’s great to see that people recognise that litter is a public health concern and a major problem.”

The campaign has also received the backing of broadcaster and animal rights campaigner Clare Balding and her partner Alice Arnold, along with TV presenter Gabby Logan and her husband, former Scottish international rugby star Kenny.

Journalist and television presenter Jeremy Paxman is Clean Up Britain’s patron. He said: “It depresses people because mucky surroundings make them feel worthless. It’s expensive – councils across the UK spend over a billion pounds a year trying to clean it up.”

Packham loses HS2 legal challenge

ENVIRONMENTAL campaigner and TV presenter Chris Packham has lost his Court of Appeal challenge over the legality of the HS2 high-speed rail scheme.

He had argued there were failings in the way the government decided to give the project the go-ahead but judges have refused permission for a judicial review into the cabinet’s decision to give the multibillion pound project the “green signal” in February.

Expressing his disappointment in a 10-minute video to his 434,000 Twitter followers, Packham said: “Today is a dark day for us, our wildlife, our environment and our planet. And darker still for our government.”

But he added: “Winning is not giving up – and we’re not giving up.”

Environmentalists say the high-speed rail project is leading to irreversible destruction of ancient habitats and woodlands.

Packham said the case for HS2 should be revisited despite Friday’s ruling. He argues the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on public finances and the need for a green recovery has undone the business and environmental case for the line.

“Obviously we are deeply disappointed by today’s ruling. But the fact is, we are a world away from the place we were when we issued the original claim for judicial review,” he said.

“People now see that a scheme for a railway which will tear up the countryside so that we can shave a few minutes off a journey time, makes no sense in the contemporary workplace.”

HS2 is set to link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. A spokesman for HS2 Ltd told the BBC it took its commitment to the environment “extremely seriously” and there was “safeguarding in place to protect wildlife and other natural assets”.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said the project was “crucial to rebuilding our economy from coronavirus”.

Five go down to the farm shop

TWO large eggs for breakfast. For lunch, farmhouse ham and fresh tomatoes on sourdough bread…

If it’s starting to sound like the sort of food that the Famous Five would tuck into on one of their adventures, that’s not so far from the truth – but actually it’s just the day after a visit to Peterley Manor Farm Shop.

If Enid Blyton were alive today, the NFU would be signing her up to handle their publicity. No one ever spread so much goodwill about farm-fresh food than the prolific children’s author, whose 750 books are awash with imagery about ice-cold creamy milk, crusty loaves and hot scones.

But then dropping in to a modern farm shop is like stepping into the pages of one of Blyton’s books – everything from red radishes and new potatoes to huge eggs and home-cooked cakes smacks of Famous Five territory.

No one worries about calories or cholesterol in Blyton books: “A large ham sat on the table, and there were crusty loaves of new bread. Crisp lettuces, dewy and cool, and red radishes were side by side in a big glass dish. On the sideboard was an enormous cake, and beside it a dish of scones. Great slabs of butter and jugs of creamy milk were there, too, with honey and home-made jam.”

“Hot scones,” said George, lifting the lid off a dish. “I never thought I’d like hot scones on a summer’s day, but these look heavenly. Running with butter! Just how I like them!”

Millions of children around the world have sat enraptured listening to these feasts, from India to rural America, marvelling at the vivid descriptions of ripe plums and huge hams, cherry tart and fruit cake.

Blyton’s descriptions have spawned a number of recipe books too, but to children on the other side of the world there was something magical about these feasts, however bemusing the taste combinations, a mix of wartime food restrictions and almost glorious excess.

Diya Kohli recalls: “To a child growing up in Kolkata of the 1980s and 1990s, tongue sandwiches, potted meat, anchovy paste and kippers and clotted cream were all part of an alien food lexicon. All I knew was that they sounded wonderful.”

Coookery writer Jane Brocket included Famous Five picnics in her top ten evocative food moments from the past: “It’s amazing how she manages to make hard-boiled eggs sound ultra-exciting and appealing; maybe it’s the addition of the inevitable “screw of salt” which does it? Or maybe it’s something to do with fresh air, freedom and the adventures that invariably follow any Famous Five picnic?

“Tomato sandwiches, lemonade, tinned sardines, melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, lettuces, radishes, Nestlé milk, ginger beer, tins of pineapple chunks, squares of chocolate. The Famous Five set a standard in picnics that has never been equalled.”

More culinary meanderings can be found on the World Of Blyton blog for the author’s many enthusiasts, but back at Peterley Manor there may just be time for a bacon sandwich at the Strawberry Shack before a happy homecoming laden with fresh vegetables, crusty bread and other treats.

What’s for tea? We don’t know yet. But George, Anne, Julian, Dick and of course Timmy the dog would definitely approve.

Welcome splash of summer colour

BUTTERFLIES are among our most beautiful summer visitors – and the only insects that we universally love to welcome to our gardens (unless you grow cabbages, perhaps).

But how well do you know the most common species? We have become so removed from daily contact with the countryside that many of us are unfamiliar with all but the most iconic or instantly recognisable, like the peacock, small tortoiseshell or painted lady.

It doesn’t help that they flit about so quickly that it can be hard to study them closely, though Butterfly Conservation have produced a handy series of spotters’ guides as part of their ongoing Big Butterfly Count, as featured on our Nature Guides page.

Britain has about 56 species in total, with about three dozen in the Chilterns, as captured in a colourful charity wallchart by members of the Chesham Wildlife group.

With many families exploring their local lanes and footpaths during lockdown, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the natural world, and TV programmes like Springwatch have helped spread the word – along with enthusiastic young naturalists like Rebecca’s Butterfly Farm on Twitter and Youtube.

Habitat loss is a major problem for many butterfly series, especially specialists like the marsh fritillary which can be extremely fussy, and if their food plant or habitat becomes scarce, so do they.

Some specialists, such as the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries, are near to extinction in Britain, while other wider countryside species have also declined in areas where agricultural activities have turned much of the countryside into an ecological desert.

Although many factors have contributed to butterfly decline – a changing climate, pesticides and habitat loss – some species have increased in abundance, so it’s certainly not all bad news.

More than 72,000 citizen scientists have been taking part in the annual butterfly count, with a million butterflies spotted – the top five being the large white, small white, gatekeeper, peacock and meadow brown.

But did you immediately recognise the species featured on this page? From the top they were: a gatekeeper at Stoke Common, a peacock at Woolman’s Wood, a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park and a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Stoke Common…

Capture the colours of Caledonia

EXILED Scots wanting to capture something of the atmosphere of the Highlands should take a trip round Stoke Common this month.

Amid the ferns and conifers on this slice of ancient Buckinghamshire heathland, the gorse and heather are springing into bloom, giving the common a distinctly Caledonian feel.

No distant mountains or deep, dark lochs to complete the illusion, of course, but the yellows, pinks and purples create a carpet of colour as the heather bursts into flower at the end of the summer.

The iconic British moorlands of Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles fame are depicted as bleak, windswept and foreboding – but all that changes by the start of August.

A large proportion of the world’s moors and upland heaths are in the UK, making our moorland habitats internationally important – and none more so than this one, since these 200 acres of land represent the largest vestiages of a landscape that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

So there’s no need to head for the hills of the Scottish uplands to savour the late-summer spectacle. The lowland heaths of southern England and south Wales also have the heather showing off at is best alongside the golden yellow of gorse, and Stoke Common is a perfect example.

And if you think the yellow flowers look good enough to eat, forager and author Rachel Lambert has some intriguing recipes on her website; fancy a wild rice pudding, anyone?

Find out more about Rachel at a website documenting the lives of people living and working by the Cornish coast.

Farmers face fly-tip nightmare

FARMERS around the UK are under siege from fly-tippers.

But campaigners and councils across the country are stepping up the fight to outlaw the waste criminals.

The issue gained national exposure after a dramatic increase in fly-tipping in rural areas reported after the Covid-19 lockdown.

TARGET: Andrew Ward found 40 tons of rubbish dumped on his land

Targets included Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward, who hit the national news after finding 40 tons of rubbish had been dumped on his property, costing thousands of pounds to move.

Some areas of the country saw a 300% increase in dumping as householders saw the lockdown period as an ideal time for a spring clean but found local tips closed or busy.

Rural and environmental organisations stress that fly-tipping has a significant impact on rural areas and pose dangers to wildlife.

Another victim was beef and arable farmer Richard Heady, who runs WF Heady and Sons near Milton Keynes in partnership with his father and uncle, and discovered a lorryload of household waste strewn across part of an emerging crop of spring oats.

Although many local authorities had to shut waste recycling centres at the height of the crisis, most have now reopened and initial long queues have reduced. But farmers’ fields, laybys and lanes have become hot spots for DIY remnants, unwanted furniture and garden waste.

One group of concerned organisations in Scotland said: “At a time when farmers are working around the clock to provide food for the nation and trying to keep their businesses running despite being short-staffed, it is heartbreaking to see their land being used as a giant tip.

“Fly-tipping is illegal, ugly and dangerous. It can be harmful to lambs, calves and other animals and wildlife too. But for farmers and other landowners, it is also costly to clean up.”

The National Farmers’ Union says two-thirds of farmers and land owners have been affected.

Andrew Ward told Sky News: “It really makes my blood boil to think that people will probably get away with this. The fact that they can do this to a lovely area, where we have families walking, we have children walking down here, we have wildlife.

DUMPING GROUND: fly-tipping on Andrew Ward’s farm included commercial industrial waste

“It’s on an absolutely huge scale; this is not your one man and a van who turns up at a house, this is probably three lorry loads of commercial industrial waste.”

Mr Ward’s partner, Rhonda Thompson, an NFU adviser in the county, said: “Fly-tipping needs to be regarded as a much more serious crime and I think the penalties have to be fairly hefty. The fines that are currently around just aren’t enough to deter people from doing this.”

DETERRENT EFFECT: campaigners want to see tougher penalties for fly-tipping

The Department for Food and Rural Affairs said that fly-tipping can lead to unlimited fines and a prison sentence of up to five years. But campaigners maintain prosecutions are rare in some areas and have called for heavier punishments for less serious littering offences.

Buckinghamshire County Council enforcement officer David Rounding confirmed fly-tipping in the county increased during lockdown, particularly smaller dumping incidents which might involve householders dumping their own waste.

But he added: “We have also seen even higher rates than previously of cross-border offending and we have been working in partnership with neighbour authorities where appropriate to address and seek to reduce this. It is still the case that most of the waste dumped in Buckinghamshire was transported into Bucks from outside.”

CALL FOR WITNESSES: offences across Buckinghamshire are pursued through the courts

He said surveillance work and eyewitness reports had helped in an ongoing programme of detection and enforcement through the lockdown period. Offences in the county are regularly prosecuted and in future warnings will be replaced by £400 fixed penalty notices.

He said: “The council has recently adopted powers to serve fixed penalties of £400 (the maximum rate allowed by Government) against people fly-tipping waste and also against people transferring their waste to unauthorised waste carriers.   These powers will be used in addition to the existing use of court prosecution and will replace zero penalty simple cautions in the enforcement mix at the lower end of the scale.  This means that people who were previously cautioned will now be fined.”

Householders are warned that when using waste carriers they make payment only online or by other traceable means so that they are able to provide the waste carrier’s details should their waste be found later to have been fly-tipped.

“Enforcement work by definition always follows offences and we will see many fixed penalties imposed and court cases which follow later through the usual process,” said Mr Rounding.

Mixed emotions in Wendover Woods

BIKE-MAD teenagers love Wendover Woods, and many runners find it the perfect place to work out their fitness routines.

But not everyone is over the moon, it seems, at the programme of improvements funded by a massive HS2 community grant – and not just because of where the money came from.

There’s a sense of adventure as you make your way up what seems an interminable entrance drive, and it gives you a  chance to take in the full extent of the 800-acre site. This drive, the car park and the café are all part of the improvements financed by a £450,000 cash injection.

There’s even a promotional video from April 2020 saying how pleased Forestry England were with the redevelopment, although only a few hundred people have seen forest centre manager David Barnett explaining that it was “some 17 years in the making”.

Doubtless there are many who have found the easy car parking, new visitor hub and large café real improvements – and some visitors have praised all of those things. But there are also a number of reviews in recent months that have expressed less enthusiasm for the changes, with critics lambasting the parking and food charges, and finding the scale of the makeover a little overwhelming.

No one has any issues with the scenery, and on a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails best suited to intermediate and expert riders.

But it rankles a little to pay £1.50 for the one-page map of the site, the coffee in the cafe was undrinkable on the day of our visit and the car park fees rack up for those staying for longer periods.

The signposting of trails around the cafe is far from clear for newcomers, and despite the facilities, the plethora of trail options and the impressive views out over Aylesbury Vale to the north, it’s clear several visitors have been disgruntled with aspects of their visit – though at the time of writing no one from Forestry England seemed to have answered their concerns.

Queues to pay for parking top the list of gripes, but some found the new cafe unappealing too: variously described as a “container” and “industrial warehouse”, dogs are not welcome inside, although some found the food reasonable and outside picnic area appealing.

Once in the woods and away from all the “commercial aspects” of the top area, it’s “magical” says one reviewer, but another found it a “dull commercialised version of nature” and yet another “little more than a countryside theme park”.

Sad to say, we found ourselves agreeing with the critics – especially compared to the blissful peace of Stoke Common or empty tracks at Black Park. And yet it was clear a lot of families were having a lot of fun at Wendover Woods, and long may it continue.

Outside peak periods the trails offer an escape from the cares of the outside world, and hundreds of families are taking advantage of that chance to engage with nature at first hand.

But Forestry England may need to pay a little more heed to the worries expressed by visitors. Numbers may be up, but that counts for little if the experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth or too large a hole in the pocket.

Walkers warned about hairy hazard

WALKERS at Stoke Common are being urged to watch out for dangerous caterpillars which can be a hazard to humans and animals.

 The caterpillars of the oak processionary moth are pests of oak trees and have been found on the site.

TOXIC: caterpillars of the oak processionary moth nest on an oak PICTURE: Falko Seyffarth

OPM was first accidentally introduced to England in 2005 and is subject to a government-led programme of survey and control to minimise its spread and impact.

The caterpillars have the distinctive habit of moving about in late spring and early summer in nose-to-tail processions, from which they derive their name.

Walkers have been warned to steer clear of the caterpillars, whose hairs contain a toxin that can cause itchy skin rashes as well as eye and throat irritations.

Residents can report sightings but that the caterpillars should only be removed by pest control operators because of the health risk.

Pets, children and forestry workers who come into close contact with the caterpillars are most at risk and anyone who experiences an itchy skin rash or other allergic symptoms after being near oak trees in these areas should phone NHS111 or consult their GP.

Each caterpillar has around 62,000 hairs, which they can eject. The brown moths, which are harmless, live for only two to three days in July or August.

Action is taken to screen trees imported from Europe, but the species is established in most of Greater London and in some surrounding counties and there are restrictions on movements of oak plants from this protected zone.

HAIRY HAZARD: each caterpillar has thousands of hairs which can be ejected

The Forestry Commission and Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) have been working to identify infestations and spray infected trees.

Large populations can strip whole oak trees bare, leaving them more vulnerable to other pests and diseases, and to other stresses, such as drought.

Older caterpillars develop tiny hairs containing an irritating protein which on contact can cause skin rashes and eye irritations, as well as sore throats and breathing difficulties, in people and animals.

The caterpillars can shed the hairs when threatened or disturbed. The hairs can be blown by the wind and they accumulate in the caterpillars’ nests which can fall to the ground.

Signs have been erected at Stoke Common to warn visitors about the risk.

Heath comes alive for summer

AS THE July afternoon sun falls across Stoke Common, there are some welcome splashes of colour to grab the eye.

There are times of the year on a drizzly day when this patch of ancient heathland can seem a little bleak and featureless, but it’s surprising how different it can look on a summer’s day.

The butterflies are dancing in the light breeze, the blackberry blossom is blooming and there are splashes of yellow and purple among the gorse and heather.

Many of the plant species recorded at Stoke Common are considered rare, at least in Buckinghamshire, and there are times when it looks more like a Scottish heath than somewhere that’s a stone’s throw from Slough.

Nowadays this is one of the rarest habitats in Britain, but these 200 acres of land represent the largest remnant of ancient heathland that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and land management which includes grazing, it is home to some  very rare plants, animals and insects that are quite different from those of grassland and woodlands and account for its status as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A score of burnished brown Sussex cattle are currently doing their part to protect the heathland and look smooth, velvety and very healthy on their prickly diet.

Nowadays owned and run by the City of London Corporation, with the help of volunteers and supporters like the Friends of Stoke Common, the common is pleasantly quiet for walkers and runners trying to get away from it all.

But is the splash of yellow broom or gorse? What type of heathers grow here, what type of thistles are these – and what are all those other yellow flowers popping up here and there across the heath?

Pocket guidebooks can sometimes seem more confusing than helpful on such matters, offering you more than 20 pages of similar-looking yellow wild flowers to choose from, all with ever more exotic-sounding names, from creeping jenny and tufted loosestrife to yellow archangel and common fleabane.

Broom and gorse should be easy enough to distinguish, even though both are members of the pea family, have bright yellow flowers and tend to grow in the same kind of places. Gorse is the prickly one whose flowers smell of coconut, whereas broom stems are long, flexible and smooth.

Common broom’s old Latin name, planta genista, is said to have lent its name to the Plantagenet kings because they wore sprigs of it in their hats, while the Glasgow songwriter Adam McNaughtan based his song Yellow on the Broom on the hardships of the Scottish travelling community.

The song was inspired by a book of the same name recalling the memories of Perthshire traveller Betsy White, who wrote of her childhood and the feelings of her mother who, accustomed to travelling all year, married a man who wintered in town.

The hostility of the townsfolk towards the travellers and the unkindness of the other children at school towards her own made her long to see the broom start to flower in the spring – a sign that it was time to be back on the road:

I’m weary for the springtime when we tak’ the road aince mair
Tae the plantin’, and the pearlin’ and the berry fields o’ Blair
When we meet up wi’ our kinfolk fae a’ the country roon’
And the gaun-aboot folk tak’ the road when the yellow’s on the broom

If it’s easy to understand how the flowers of the broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller, gorse is not without its fans too.

Pioneering 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus was so taken with it that he tried to grow it in his native Sweden but found the winters there too harsh for it to survive. On a visit to England in 1736 he is said to have wept with joy at the sight of it flowering on London’s Putney Heath.

Anyone who has come into direct accidental contact with gorse is less likely to be so impressed. We have three native gorse species in Britain: common gorse, western gorse and dwarf gorse, the latter restricted to the south and south-east.

Birds like the stonechat and Dartford warbler love this sort of environment, as do lizards and adders, though the reptiles are pretty good at keeping well hidden.

But sitting astride a gorse bush, the stonechat has no such reservations about issuing its distinctive call, which sounds like two pebbles being rubbed together.

Perhaps that confidence stems from the fact that in country folklore this little cousin of the robin, with its blood-red breast, was seen as the devil’s bird and therefore protected, its call representing a constant conversation with the devil, who would break the back of anyone foolish enough to take a stonechat’s eggs.

The abundant flowers of gorse and heather at Stoke Common are valuable sources of nectar and pollen for insects. Pollinated mainly by bumblebees and honey bees, they are valuable both as a food plant and as habitat for many invertebrates including moths and spiders.

But then the same is true of plants we regard as weeds, like thistles and ragwort. Despite its weed status, the spear thistle seeds are attractive to birds like goldfinches and the flowers are a nectar source for butterflies like the small copper.

The much-maligned ragwort (or “stinking willie”) is even more remarkable, providing a home and food source for at least 77 insect species, 30 of which rely on it exclusively for their food source, including the very distinctive cinnabar moth.

These insects are remarkable looking both as moths and caterpillars: the moths have distinctive pinkish-red and black wings, as shown in Charles Sharp’s magnificent photograph on Wikipedia, while newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves, absorbing toxic and bitter tasting substances from the plants, becoming unpalatable themselves.

The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators.

Initially, the larvae are pale yellow, but later develop a jet-black and orange/yellow striped colouring. They can grow up to 30 mm (1.2 in) and are voracious eaters, with large populations able to strip entire patches of ragwort clean.

There is no more controversial and divisive flower around, it seems. Ragwort contains chemicals that are toxic to livestock and has been blamed for deaths of horses and other animals. Yet conservationists say it’s a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects.

The nature poet John Clare was firmly in the positive camp. In 1832 he wrote:

THE RAGWORT

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare — the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest’s plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Who would have thought a poisonous weed would become the stuff of poetry? But then, as they say, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder…

What to spot by the waterside

WILDLIFE lovers who live near water can pick up a free spotter’s guide to birds, insects and animals they might look out for on a waterside wander.

The Canal and River Trust has put together a free family nature guide to what walkers might find on, in and by the water.

The trust encourages families to take a trip to their nearest waterway and see how many different species they can spot.

The guide complements an online introduction to more than two dozen species that can be found by water, from bees and dragonflies to owls and kingfishers, newts and water voles.

The charity safeguards some 2,000 miles of wildlife-rich waterways which form a “green-blue ribbon” between hundreds of wildlife habitats, and looks after hundreds of bridges and aqueducts to ensure boats can move freely around the network.

For more information about the work of the trust, or how to volunteer with them, see their website. Apply for the free nature guide using the link above.

Bookshops begin a fresh chapter

BOOKSHOP business has been booming as desperate readers have flocked back to browse the shelves for the first time in three months.

But times are still tough for small independent booksellers across the Chilterns as they fight to bounce back from weeks of lockdown.

Almost four million books were sold in the first six days after bookshops reopened in England on June 15 – a jump of over 30% on the same week last year.

But in one survey more than a third of regular customers said they still felt unsure about returning to bricks-and-mortar premises now lockdown has eased.

Booksellers were forced to shut up shop on March 23 in response to the coronavirus pandemic and were unable to reopen for 12 weeks.

During that period, they were only able to offer online or click-and-collect services – and 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.

The good news for retailers was that 3.8m print 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.

Independent bookshops have been thriving in recent years, with numbers growing for three years on the trot to almost 900 in 2019, including local newcomers like Books On The Hill in St Albans.

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.

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.”

Antonia Mason, who runs Books On The Hill with her mum, Clare Barrow, said: “We as a team have been overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support over the last few months. It’s been incredible, especially considering we had only been open a few months prior to lockdown.”

Although many bookshops were able to respond quickly to the shutdown, some had a weak online presence and were unable to compete with the service provided by Amazon – with the crisis undermining the advantage of small local businesses being able to provide personal contact, relaxed browsing and advice.

Worries about maintaining rental payments, coping with supply chain problems and having to furlough staff added to the pressures but Meryl Halls added: “I am unutterably proud of booksellers at the moment—they are weathering a historic battering and we will do all we can to keep the sector intact.”

Asked what the first week back in business would look like, 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.”

Prior to lockdown, bookshops had been enjoying a growth in trade spurred on by a thriving “shop local” movement and environmental considerations, helping them to weather the Amazon “firestorm” – the astonishing success of the trillion-dollar company able to promise overnight delivery and customer reading recommendations at the touch of a mouse. 

Since June 15 bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come “racing back”, but have been forced to cope with reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges and in some cases the need to continue delivering to customers who are shielding or reluctant to venture out.

Booksellers have also had to introduced a range of safety measures for customers, including hand sanitiser stations, plastic screens and one-way systems. Footfall predictably remains lower than before the pandemic, with few able to boast outside seating areas like The Book House in Thame.

Nonetheless Meryl Halls believes consumers are understanding that high streets are more than just shops and transactions, with savvy shoppers also anxious to reduce waste and shop more ethically. 

“Food miles, gratuitous expenditure, waste, re-use and recycling are all aspects of the decision of how and where to shop,” she said. “It has to be better for many reasons to go to your local high street and pick up goods that have been transported en masse to shops, than to have individual parcels thundering up and down the country in huge trucks from online companies.”

Retailers continue to face stiff online competition and unequal business rates, but shop owners have spoken of receiving wonderful comments from customers. One children’s bookshop owner said: “The conversations about books are joyous and experiencing the excitement from children in our space will never get old.”

Booksellers say books bought by customers in store have been more varied than those purchased online, where the chains’ lockdown charts were topped by Sally Rooney’s Normal People, thanks in part to a timely 12-part BBC dramatisation.

Thrillers, rom-coms and crime novels proved popular, with less appetite for dystopian fiction. Some wanted to be absorbed, others favoured escapist reading, but booksellers expressed delight at the appetite for personal recommendations, boosting sales of books which might not pop up on algorithms, including those from local authors.

Although Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow to publishers, it has also witnessed a frenzy of innovation, with the industry sharing Zoom invites to “visual author events”, podcasts and virtual festivals and some pundits predicting the end of lockdown unleashing a new wave of “interesting and exciting” writing – some perhaps based on people establishing a new relationship with the natural world during their three months of lockdown, not to mention their revised expectations of what kind of “new normal” will emerge on transport and in the workplace.

Lazy days on the Beeches Way

AS long-distance paths go, the Beeches Way is a minnow among leviathans.

Many national trails are more than 100 miles long, and some greatly exceed that – with routes like the Greater Rideway, Pennine Way or South West Coast Path being measured in hundreds rather than tens of miles.

But however modest the Beeches Way may sound at a mere 16 miles, it cuts a picturesque route through some magnificent Chilterns countryside, taking in a top trio of local country parks and sites of special scientific interest along the way.

It runs from Cookham on the Thames to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton, a route developed by the Iver and District Countryside Association in conjunction with Buckinghamshire County Council.

It also links up with other long-distance routes, including the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path from Cookham.

Several walkers have chronicled highlights of the route and you can see full details on the website of the Long Distance Walkers Association and Pete Collins’ informative website, which also includes links to other connecting walks in the area.

Tim Bertuchi is another walker to provide a step-by-step guide to the route back in 2009 and if, like him, you find the section around Iver feels insufficiently picturesque, you can easily pick up the path in Langley Park, once a deer park that was the scene of royal hunting parties into the Middle Ages.

Since the war the park has been council owned, and although it’s only a stone’s through from Slough, you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Walkers might want to linger here a while, watching the wildfowl round the serpentine-shaped lake, a landscape feature influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s.

There’s an arboretum too, and in the spring the rhododendrons of the Temple Gardens are alive with colour.

From here it’s a short step across the busy dual carriageway into Black Park, a spectacular 530-acre network of 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to explore.

Thread your way past the grazing Sussex cattle and you face a short descent into Fulmer, where the Black Horse might prove tempting if you feel you have earned a pint or bite to eat.

Cross the road and you are entering Stoke Common, the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England, also currently graced with its own visiting herd of Sussex cattle to help with the grazing.

If you’ve come all the way from West Drayton this is around the halfway mark. You may even want to take the weight of your feet to appreciate the new benches produced by Gina Martin and inspired by artwork by local pupils at nearby Stoke Poges school.

Among the heather, ling and purple moor grass and gorse you may hear the distinctive scraping sound of a stonechat or even catch a glimpse of a lizard, adder or slow worm.

From here you are heading to Farnham Common and another glorious swathe of ancient woodland, Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and conservation area that is another site of special scientific interest. It’s worth making a date to take this trip in the autumn too, when the woods are a blaze of colour.

The route is shown on the OS Explorer map 172 and is waymarked and signposted in both directions, but it’s easy to get distracted in Burnham Beeches and find yourself wandering away from the route. Try to get back on track to make sure you pick up the path to Littleworth Common and on towards Wooburn.

The Beeches Way links up with the Berkshire Loop near the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub.

From here, the path leads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas at Hedsor and on to Hedsor Wharf, where the old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames.

Anyone travelling by train can pick up the path at either end, either from West Drayton station, close to where the Grand Union Canal meets Yiewsley High Street, or in the picturesque Berkshire village of Cookham on the banks of the Thames.

More ambitious walkers can pick up the Thames Path here, or even diverge onto the Berkshire Loop of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, a more ambitious ramble through the characteristic Chilterns landscape of woods, downland and pretty old villages.

It may even inspire you to tackle some of the further-flung national trails or themed routes, which may take their name from historical or literary figures like Shakespeare and Bronte.

But there’s nothing wrong with savouring a short stretch of the route either, or diverging from it to take a lazy village wander like those around Cookham Village or a short local detour into the woodland paths around Wooburn.

Small is beautiful, they say – and as long-distance walks go, that’s certainly true in the case of the Beeches Way.

Oasis of calm and contemplation

COULD there be a more restful spot for a moment of silent contemplation or thoughtful remembrance of loved ones?

Hats off to the gardeners at Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens: the rhododendrons and wisteria may have faded, the roses are losing their blooms but the gardens still look spectacular and provide a welcome oasis of peace and tranquillity.

The setting may lack that dramatic splashes of colour we saw back in the spring, but this is still a place of beauty and serenity – a haven for quiet reflection where dozens of small secret gardens are dedicated to local loved ones; a place often stumbled upon by poetry lovers making a pilgrimage to the nearby grave of Thomas Gray in St Giles’ churchyard.

It’s not a park, and visitors are asked to treat the gardens with respect and behave accordingly. But see our previous feature, Secret garden soothes the soul, for more detail about the gardens, Thomas Gray and the adjoining churchyard and National Trust monument.

Vlogger Henry picks up the pace

HENRY Allum doesn’t need much encouragement to go for a walk.

Show him a footpath, ancient abbey or closed railway line and he’s off, map, phone and microphone at the ready, all set to plan another video upload for his Youtube channel.

So it seems only natural to suggest we meet in Black Park for a chat and ramble, given that Henry has been back home with his parents in Chalfont St Peter since the lockdown began in March – and using that time to visit as many interesting places on his old home patch as he can.

HOME TURF: Henry has featured more local destinations in his videos during lockdown

It was around 2016 that the 31-year-old first thought about uploading short videos about his visits to heritage railways, but now Henry’s Adventures have become a regular feature on Youtube, Facebook and Instagram, with hundreds of subscribers checking in to see what he’s been up to.

In the past couple of years his uploads have begun to attract a lot more attention – not only from railway enthusiasts but a more general audience intrigued by a range of different subjects, from outdoors rambles to historical sites.

REGULAR UPLOADS: Henry’s subject matter ranges from steam railways to rural rambles

“I do some to do with railways, but also castles, canals, anything I’m interested in,” he says, perhaps with a slight flicker of frustration at being as being typecast too easily as a railway buff when there are so many other things that fascinate him.

Although dozens of the short videos do chronicle railway visits – some dating back to the 90s – others include visits to sites of historical or natural interest at home and abroad, taking him as far afield as Belgium, Portugal and Romania.

OUT AND ABOUT: Henry visits the ruins of Godstow Abbey on the Thames

Many focus on steam train trips or visits to rail centres, reflecting not only his own passion for steam transport but his professional role organising railway journeys for groups at home and abroad.

Based at Leek in Staffordshire before the lockdown, some of his videos look at abandoned lines in that area, while others capture steam trains in action around the country – and miniature railways too.

SMALL SCALE: Henry calls in at the Vanstone Woodland Railway in Hertfordshire

Henry worked for the National Trust and at Bekonscot Model Village before taking on his current role, but was furloughed when the coronavirus crisis instantly impacted on the travel and leisure sector.

That allowed more time to concentrate on his Youtube venture, but initially prevented him from straying far from Chalfont St Peter.

“The furlough scheme has given me the chance to make more videos and upload some archive stuff,” he says – including some railway clips from family videos his father had shot.

MINIATURE WORLD: Henry at Bekonscot model village, where he used to work

Prior to lockdown, it was only after setting himself the challenge of visiting all of the country’s miniature railways that he realised the sheer scale of the task – there are around 340 of them, not including those privately owned.

Undeterred, he’s made a good start by uploading the first 20 or so, while making plans for more visits when the opportunity arises.

BACK TO NATURE: exploring National Trust properties in West Berkshire

A prolific vlogger with more than 200 uploads to his credit, passing the 1,000 subscriber mark means his channel can carry advertisements and potentially generate Youtube income – though this is a labour of love and he is under no illusions about making any real money through his videos.

Most of the uploads are short and straightforward, with minimal editing, and mainly filmed on his own, with occasional help from his Hungarian girlfriend Barbara.

PROLIFIC: Henry’s Youtube channel features more than 200 videos

He has a relaxed, easygoing style when addressing the camera and realises in many cases the central attraction is the locomotive, castle or station in question, rather than him hogging the limelight.

He has also been making the most of the furlough period to go back through old family films and upload archive footage from the 90s, searching for appropriate railway clips that his subscribers might appreciate.

WATCH THIS SPACE: Henry has plenty more adventures in the pipeline

The regularity of his posting has seen visitor numbers grow, and while some short clips may only receive 150 visits, some have attracted much bigger audiences, with several hundred tuning in to two series of short films shot around the village of Chalfont St Peter and following the route of the River Misbourne, with many adding comments and expressing their interest in the footage.

Surprise hits might attract more than 1,000 views – from closed lines to Cheshires steepest railway to a ramble round the Romanian city of Oradea – and his Facebook page now boasts more than 7,000 followers.

Always restless for another outing, its sometimes hard to know what to tackle next. What about the 78-mile Capital Ring walk round London, perhaps – or local long-distance walks like the Chiltern Way? And of course there are still those miniature railways beckoning.

It looks as if Henrys in-tray is overflowing, which means his Youtube subscribers wont have to wait too long for his next adventure…

[Sure enough, heres Henry back on the trail a few days after we spoke…]

‘The adventure starts here!’

BEYONDER supporters are being asked to help spread the word about the magazine as part of an August What’s On promotion.

The outdoors magazine was due to launch its What’s On pages properly in April – but the March lockdown stopped people from going out for more than a short exercise walk each day, and meant most attractions having to shut their doors to the public.

Now that museums, zoos and country parks across the Chilterns are beginning to open their doors again, The Beyonder is starting to boost its coverage of local attractions.

Editor Andrew Knight said: “We’ve done what we can to highlight virtual open days, online classes and other things that people could do from their own homes, but it’s exciting to see some of the region’s main attractions opening their doors again.”

But the magazine doesn’t want to encourage visitors at any cost – and has been happy to see the slow, incremental growth of its small Facebook group and Twitter following.

“We’ve seen such an increase in littering, fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour since the end of lockdown that the last thing we want is for the Chilterns to be swamped with selfish visitors who don’t care about our local landscape,” said Andrew.

“It’s been important to us that those joining the Facebook group or following us on Twitter share our love of the countryside and desire to look after it.

“We want a lively following of families who appreciate the natural world and want to do what they can to protect it.

“Tourism is important to our economy, but it has to be responsible. We want visitors to our parks and special places who are anxious to protect the environment for future generations too.”

The Autumn motto is “The adventure starts here” – which reflects the fact that the What’s On pages already provide a one-stop guide to dozens of local attractions, many of them free.

From nature reserves to country parks, steam railways to palaces and zoos, the site allows visitors to click through to the home websites of key attractions, including woods, parks and gardens open for charity under the National Gardens Scheme.

The site also includes more than 100 features covering different aspects of local life, from the area’s history and heritage to the wildlife of the Chilterns.

Reviews focus on TV programmes and books which focus on nature, along with local artists and photographers capturing the beauty of the local landscape.   

There’s even a page with links to attractions slightly further afield, like Chartwell, Legoland and Hever Castle.

Says Andrew: “The original idea of the website was to offer a perfect starting point full of ideas for families looking to get out and about in the area.

“The focus is on enjoying the great outdoors and we’ve tried to focus on free options wherever possible, given how expensive it can be for a family of four to visit a major attraction.”

Now the magazine is calling on its friends to help spread the word about the site, to encourage more contributions from fellow outdoors enthusiasts and to appeal to advertisers.

Says Andrew: “Getting the site to this point has been a labour of love over the past two or three years and we’ve met some wonderful people along the way and discovered a great deal about the area.

“Now we want to spread the word to find more like-minded Beyonders – and of course that includes business like pubs, farm shops, vineyards and bookshops that share our interests and values.”

New members can join the magazine’s Facebook group or Twitter feed, while advertisers and potential contributors can contact Andrew direct by email at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

HS2 challenge goes to appeal

TV presenter and environmental campaigner Chris Packham has taken his fight against the HS2 high-speed rail scheme to the Court of Appeal after losing his High Court bid to stop the clearing of ancient woodlands. 

“Enough is enough. It’s time we pulled this absurd vanity project. It’s time to Stop HS2,” Packham told his 400,000-strong army of Twitter followers.

His lawyers maintain that the Government gave the green light to the scheme based on a ‘complete misapprehension’ of the environmental impact.

The presenter took his case to the High Court in April seeking an emergency injunction to stop works he claimed would cause destruction or irreparable loss to ancient woodland sites.

His application was unsuccessful, but now his lawyers hope to convince Court of Appeal judges that there were failings in the way the Government reached its decision to give the HS2 project the go-ahead.

The presenter used his Twitter feed to explain 11 key reasons behind the legal challenge, claiming the scheme was “obsolete before it’s even started”.

The Government is opposing the challenge but Packham’s supporters are concerned that the building work will damage hundreds of wildlife sites and destroy dozens of ancient woodlands.

The presenter argues that the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary failed to have regard to the implications of the Paris Agreement when they took the decision and that the business case for HS2 had not taken the impact of coronavirus into account.

He said: “I am delighted that the Lord Justices see merit in hearing the appeal and that they have acknowledged the ‘considerable public interest’ in the case – a public interest which spans the heinous and irreparable damage done to ancient woodland, breeding birds, badgers and bats this Spring, the complete incompatibility of this project to the government’s obligations to address climate change, the appalling conduct of HS2 Ltd and its employees in a time of global crisis, and the future drain that the project will be on that public’s purse, which due to the pandemic is empty.”

Supporters providing witness evidence include the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. Meanwhile members of the Chiltern Society have been taking pictures across the Chilterns since 2010 and monitoring the impact of construction work on the landscape in an HS2 photo diary.

Meanwhile Greenpeace launched a Twitter campaign ahead of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s keynote speech in parliament about the economy calling on him to invest in a green recovery.

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Campaigners altered road signs on the chancellor’s route to work to get the message across that they believe the government must do more to tackle the climate emergency at the same time as trying to grow the economy.

Walkers get to keep their distance

THERE’S good news for walkers worried about bumping into crowds of other people who had exactly the same idea about trying to get away from it all.

The Chilterns Conservation Board and Chiltern Society have developed a series of 23 walks across the Chilterns which are social-distance friendly, avoiding crowded ‘honey-pot’ locations and narrow paths where possible.

Between two and six miles long, the walks start in market towns or villages with good public transport links or parking facilities and are being launched to coincide with the re-opening of many pubs and cafes.

The Chilterns has some outstanding food and drink producers and these walks highlight the many farm shops nearby that are open for business and selling Chilterns local specialities to enjoy on a picnic, or to take home – everything from local honey and beer to cheeses, charcuterie and grass-fed lamb.

The walks were developed by 18 volunteers, all experienced walk leaders who are passionate about the Chilterns and keen to share some of their favourite walks away from the crowds.

All the routes take in the beautiful rolling landscapes of the Chilterns, picturesque villages and plenty of historic interest too, from old drovers’ routes to iron age hillforts.

Discover places with wonderful names like Nanfan Wood, Lilley Hoe and Cobblershill. And some walks start on commons or at recreation grounds with lots of open space, making them ideal for families or friends to combine with a picnic and for kids to run around safely.

Annette Venters of the Chilterns Conservation Board said: “During Lockdown the Chilterns countryside has been used and enjoyed as never before, bringing comfort and joy to many. The well-used honey-pot sites can get very crowded, making social distancing difficult and putting pressure on the landscape. Luckily, the Chilterns has over 2,000km of footpaths, so there are plenty of quiet places to enjoy. We hope these walks will encourage people to explore the Chilterns and discover new places.”

Many of the walks are stile-free and most are under four miles long, making them accessible to many. But walkers are warned to take their litter home and avoid lighting fires and barbecues.

Highlights include pub walks from Great Offley and Pegsdon in the northern Chilterns. The Pegdson walk passes through Knocking Hoe and Hoo Bit nature reserves with outstanding views and witchcraft-sounding plant names like fleawort, eyebright and harebells.

Many of the walks take in famous TV and film locations. The Hound of the Baskervilles walk from Binfield Heath takes in the historic Crowsley Park.

Le De Spencer Arms on Downley Common, the Red Lion on Peppard Common and the Cock and Rabbit on Lee Common are just some of the wonderful country pubs along our routes.

The walks can be downloaded free of charge.

The Chiltern Society was established over 50 years ago and is supported by 7,000 members. It manages 12 conservation sites and has 500 volunteers who work to maintain and improve the Chilterns for the benefit of both residents and visitors alike.

All creatures great and small

IT’S BEEN a month of making new acquaintances, small and large – from huge British white cattle at Burnham Beeches to tiny beetles, from inquisitive piglets to baby coots, goats, ducks and squirrels.

The largest livestock wandering our local commons are the cattle released each year to graze the vegetation at Black Park, Stoke Common, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park.

IMPOSING PRESENCE: British White Cattle at Burnham Beeches

Perhaps the most intimidating, size-wise, are the British White Catttle at Burnham Beeches, although they seem docile enough when lying down or thoughtfully munching their way through the local vegetation.

The modern day breed of cattle can claim direct links with the ancient indigenous wild white cattle of Great Britain, notably from the park at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, and have become regular visitors in recent years as grazing has become increasingly seen as a way of creating diverse habitats in such ancient landscapes.

Once such woodlands would have been grazed by red deer, aurochs, wild boar and beavers. As humans increased their influence on the countryside they seriously reduced the numbers of wild herbivores, but introduced their own grazing pressures in the form of domestic livestock such as pigs, goats, sheep and cattle.

OLD FRIENDS: Sussex cattle have become regular visitors at Stoke Common and Black Park

Overstocking of woodland grazers can cause a loss of plant and animal species and prevent natural regeneration, but balanced regimes with appropriate grazing pressure can increase habitat diversity, support important wildlife populations and encourage natural regeneration. A lack of grazing often allows more aggressive plants to outcompete and dominate sites, one reason why the past decade has seen the wider use of grazing cattle across the UK.

The livestock’s dung decomposes quickly as there are many insects and fungi which have evolved to feed on it, making it an important part of the ecosystem.

Bugs and beetles, moths and butterflies are just as important to the local ecosystem but a lot harder to photograph. Thankfully local forums like the Wild Cookham and Chesham Wildlife facebook groups are awash with experts good at spotting, capturing and chronicling their movements, or pulling together useful photo montages of which species to spot – and when.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the red-headed Cardinal beetle

One of the smallest but most colourful discoveries in a Chalfont meadow was the red-headed cardinal beetle, a bright red beetle with black legs and knobbly antennae found in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens over summer.

But this glorious meadow was alive with insects, from crickets to marbled white butterflies: it’s just tricky to capture them on camera when they move so quickly.

INSECT HEAVEN: summer comes to a Chalfont meadow

Thankfully the experts in the Wild Cookham facebook group are able to come up with much better images of some of the butterflies I have failed to capture, like the marbled white, comma, red admiral and holly blue, along with an excellent guide to about three dozen of the most common local species; Butterfly Conservation also have a useful identification guide.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park

Apart from the insects, this is also the season for baby animals in all shapes and sizes. Living near water, we have several families of ducks among our regular visitors, although seeing the little family line dwindle as the weeks go past and local predators get to work can be a little disheartening, reminding us of our very special rescue duckling a couple of years ago.

FAMILY OUTING: ducklings drop in for a visit

Watching a family of young thrushes showering and playing in the birdbath was an unexpected delight, a reminder of just how many visitors dropped in during the dark weeks of lockdown to make our lives a little cheerier – from a flustered pheasant and partridge to tits, robins and blackbirds, dunnocks, magpies and goldfinches.

We were remiss in keeping a proper lockdown diary, but one weekly photographic record that is a regular source of delight is the photo-newsletter issued by the “Moorhens” from their base near Milton Keynes.

PIGEON POST: one of a series of weekly pictures from Roy Battell
NAUGHTY NIBBLE: another of Roy Battell’s visitors

A couple of years ago we posted the story of the Battells’ transformation of a couple of acres of cow pasture into an impressive nature reserve and their weekly newsletter continues to chronicle the exploits of a vast array of bird, animal and insect visitors, from courting pigeons to hungry foxes and naughty young squirrels. Contact their Moorhens through their home page to sign up.

The local farm shops have had new arrivals too, from piglets at Sandy Lane Farm to newborn goats at the Crazy Bear Farm Shop at Stadhampton.

PATTER OF TINY HOOVES: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

Baby coots, ducklings and goslings have been vying for visitors’ attention at Black Park, and similar scenes have been repeated in ponds and rivers across the Chilterns.

From bats and barn owls to moorhens and muntjacs, after those long weeks when the main highlights were the daily visitors on the bird feeders, it’s a delight to be out and about again, lucky to be alive and blessed to be able to enjoy the amazing flora and fauna on our doorstep.

Sandy Lane’s secret is in the soil

AN ORGANIC farm between Oxford and Thame has become one of the latest to be featured on the Soil Association’s website.

Sandy Lane Farm is a 40-hectare family farm selling produce via veg boxes, markets and to local restaurants.

ANIMAL MAGIC: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

The Soil Association, formed in 1946, is a campaigning charity which believes human health, environment and animal welfare issues cannot be tackled in isolation. It lobbies against harmful food and farming laws, runs a certification scheme for organic farmers and researches ways of improving existing farming systems.

The association believes that healthy soils hold the answer to growing better food: “They produce healthy crops that nourish people and animals. But when chemicals are used and lands are intensively farmed, soil is damaged. Keeping it healthy is essential if we are to feed a growing population, and protect our environment.

“All farms, big and small, organic and non-organic, have a part to play in making farming more rewarding for all. It’s a challenge, along with the stark financial and environmental changes farming faces. But the solutions to these challenges are coming from farmers who are finding new ways to grow better food, and protect our land for future generations.”

At Sandy Lane, the family partnership is managed by George Bennett who returned to the family farm eight years ago after working in IT.

FAMILY BUSINESS: George Bennett returned to the farm eight years ago PICTURE: Mark Lord

The farm has grown organic vegetables for nearly 30 years and runs a produce market in their barn selling organic eggs and fresh vegetables, as well as rearing free-range, traditional breed pigs and lambs.

Sandy Lane has also hosted various ‘pop-up’ seasonal suppers, weddings and open days showcasing their produce, and maintained a click-and-collect service during the coronavirus crisis before reopening their barn to browsing visitors.

Certified organic for growing vegetables for more than 30 years, the farm has about 10 hectares for vegetable production and also grows arable crops, as well as rearing pigs, sheep and chickens.

In the Soil Association feature, George speaks about soil types, crop rotation and pests, as well as the need for biodiversity.

PERSONAL TOUCH: visitors enjoy an open day at the farm before the coronavirus crisis

As he explains: “By far the most important pest control is biodiversity. If you try and artificially create an imbalance somewhere down the line, it’s going to come back and bite you.”

When George returned to the farm, the focus was on wholesale vegetables, but he flipped the model to direct sales. He says: “Wholesale had been flat, so by selling direct we have kept the volume the same, but the value is much greater.”

There has been a growing demand for more provenance, flavour, freshness and organic, he says, which has offered huge opportunities. Now 80 per cent of their business is veg boxes – more than 200 a week – and the farm works with a local company Ten Mile Menu, that has a slick online ordering system and delivers the boxes.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY: visitors meet the lambs at a farm open day

The farm shop in their barn provides an outlet for other local businesses selling bread, milk, cheese and honey in what he describes as “a small, humble operation, that’s not at all glossy and loved by locals”.

It has created a sense of community for locals of all ages to come along for a coffee and chat, and to buy great food.  

George says it’s important to be entrepreneurial: “If your budget and acreage is small, go for high value crops, such as salads, unusual veg and edible flowers.”

Among his specialities are a range of unusual oriental vegetables, not to mention 29 different varieties of pumpkins and squash which have proved a great hit in the autumn.

Looking to the future, he is continuing to think about ways of adding value to his produce, maybe through high-value organic ready meals. There’s no magic secret for business success in such difficult times, but expect more of the approach that has already put Sandy Lane on the map. As he advises: “Be different, interesting and connect with your customers.”

Stagecoach trip back in time

DID stagecoach passengers ever view their journeys as being as humdrum and mundane as modern travellers think their bus, train and plane trips are?

Recent talk of highwaymen and horse-drawn transport raised a few additional questions about life on local roads 250 years ago.

Apart from the risk of highway robbery, what was it actually like to take the stagecoach through Beaconsfield, Amersham or Tring back in the day?

Most towns along main roads boasted one or more coaching inns, often in a prominent position and acting as a focal point for the town’s main activities. And both Amersham and Tring museums have plenty of additional detail about the scale and nature of the local businesses.

TRANSPORT HUB: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, mentioned by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

Just as in more modern times a dozen London railway termini have served different parts of the country – so that we still hear distinctive West Country accents at Paddington, those from Scotland, the north-east and Yorkshire at King’s Cross and those from Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow at Euston – back in the day more than 100 London stagecoach inns offered services fanning out across the country.

As Greg Roberts explains in his fascinating Wicked William blog, the coaching inns with the biggest stables, such as the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, offered the widest selection of destinations, although most concentrated on specific routes – like the Blue Boar Cellar at Aldgate, which relied heavily on Essex trade.

NEW ARRIVALS: a coach and horses at St John’s Gate by John Charles Maggs, 1880
PICTURE: Museum of the Order of St John

He writes: “Inns sited near important industry or London markets such as Smithfield will place greater emphasis on waggons or carts with much less traffic by stagecoach.

“Some inns are owned by the same businessmen. The Swan with Two Necks, the Spread Eagle and the White Horse all belong to William Chaplin.

“Chaplin is ahead of his time in regard to corporate branding because all coaches have livery relating to the specific inn from where they operate. Thus it is common to see coaches with either a two-necked swan, a white horse or an eagle emblazoned across their rear.”

Outside London, coaching inns usually had an imposing entrance doorway leading to the interior of the inn, with an inner courtyard wide enough to allow a coach to turn round. 

HOME FROM HOME: the White Hart was one of the smaller coaching inns in Beaconsfield

Surrounding this, or in the driveway leading to it, were rows of stabling with accommodation above for ostlers and drivers of stage wagons and carriers’ carts, and sometimes an inn owned its own meadows to provide an ample supply of fodder.

The Tudor period had seen the development of the road coach, but the earliest ones had no brakes, careful handling of the horses being the only way to keep the coach at a steady pace and control progress over inclines. On very steep hills passengers had to step down and walk.

Faced with other obstacles such as deep ruts, potholes and flooding, together with foul weather and stray animals, early passengers had to cope with more than their fair share of drama and discomfort.

ROUGH RIDE: an array of open wagons at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Stagecoaches took their name from the term ‘stage’, the distance between stops along a route. The aim was to convey fare-paying passengers and the first route, from Edinburgh to Leith, started in 1610. But with coaches making slow progress on primitive roads, coaching inns soon began to spring up to provide teams of fresh horses and sustenance for coach passengers, including overnight stops on long journeys.

In the earliest days, it was too precarious for passengers to sit on top, but later designs included two seats behind the driver and two over the luggage box at the rear; outside travellers needed to be aware that it was prudent to stay awake to prevent toppling over the side.

Towns like Beaconsfield, Tring and Amersham were ideally placed to pick up a share of the flourishing business, and in the reign of Charles I, Buckinghamshire had more carrier services a week from London than any other county.

Some of this traffic would have gone to High Wycombe, some to Stony Stratford via Hertfordshire and some passed along the Misbourne Valley en route for Aylesbury, with the ‘Carriers’ Cosmographie’ of 1637 listing four London inns where the Aylesbury carriers lodged.

STAGING POST: the Crown Hotel in Amersham Old Town

There were a dozen pubs in Amersham and a trio of important coaching inns – the Griffin, the Swan and the Crown. By 1737, two stagecoaches were passing through the town daily.

Numerous accounts of life on the road survive. But Dickensian-style tales of poor food, unpleasant fellow passengers and dishonest drivers or porters have to be balanced against more rose-tinted accounts of long lavish lunches in cosy inns en route.

If the earliest stagecoaches were expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable and beset with dangers, by the late 18th century, many main roads had come under the control of turnpike trusts and conditions had begun to improve.

GOLDEN AGE: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of the Bath Mail Coach
PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

The period from the first royal mail coaches in the 1780s to the 1840s and the coming of the railways is now known as the ‘Golden Age of Coaching’, familiar to us today through sentimental Christmas card scenes of snow-covered stagecoaches arriving to a hearty welcome at a coaching inn.

Many of these portraits were the work of John Charles Maggs (1819-1896), a Bath-born artist who specialised in such scenes and who captured the atmosphere of the ‘golden age’ that was to last until the 1840s when the railways killed not just an industry, but an entire way of life.

Over in Amersham, while the railway boom spelt disaster for many towns which had grown up with the coaching trade, there was an alternative source of employment thanks to the success of the brewery taken over by William Weller in 1771 which employed half the male population of the town by the end of Victoria’s reign.

When Weller’s sold up in 1929 they owned 142 licensed premises in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex including local houses like The Kings Arm, Eagle, Chequers, Saracen’s Head and Wheatsheaf.

BREWERY EMPIRE: the King’s Arms was one of more than 140 once owned by Weller’s

Although the first turnpikes dated from the 17th century, main routes from London were tumpiked early in the 18th century, increasingly funded by the levying of tolls on certain kinds of traffic – particularly wheeled vehicles, horses, and cattle going to market.

During this period road surfaces improved and turnpike roads were often straightened, widened, and given gentler curves and gradients.  Stagecoach construction also evolved with the fitting of better brakes and suspension, allowing speeds to increase from around six to eight miles per hour, inclusive of stops. The advances meant a journey from London to Manchester which would have taken days in 1750 could be completed in 26 hours by 1821.

Small toll houses provided accommodation for the gate keepers, with side windows angled to give views of approaching traffic from both directions and a board attached in a prominent position displaying the table of tolls.

TABLE OF TOLLS: the Wycombe toll house was rescued and re-erected at COAM

One of the few toll houses to survive of those once scattered across the county is one of five that once dotted the Buckinghamshire stretch of the A40, the road from London to Oxford, Birmingham and Worcester.

The section from Beaconsfield to Stokenchurch was turnpiked as early as 1719 and there were gates at Denham, Red Hill, Holtspur, High Wycombe and West Wycombe.

The Denham gate opposite the Dog and Duck was demolished in 1931 and the Red Hill gate near the 18th milestone in 1929. The Holtspur gate was at the north end of the road from Hedsor, the West Wycombe one at the junction with the Princes Risborough road. The gate in High Wycombe was by the 29th milestone and was dismantled in 1978 and re-erected in 1983/84 at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, complete with toll board.

Turnpike tolls ranged from a penny per person or horse to sixpence for carts, waggons and coaches. Mail coaches, the army and local labourers on foot were allowed to use such roads free of charge.

But stagecoach fares were expensive and only the well off could afford this form of transport: in January 1836 the coach operator Joseph Hearn & Co advertised ‘The Despatch’, an “elegant and light four inside coach” operating on the London to Aylesbury route.  It left the King’s Head Aylesbury at 7am and travelled down the turnpike road through Watford to arrive at the King’s Arms in Holborn shortly after midday.  Fares were 12 shillings inside and 7 outside. 

Coach and horses were smartly turned out in the livery colours of their owners, or in the case of the Royal Mail coaches, in red, although this was changed to blue in 1833, supposedly as a compliment to King William IV.

COLOUR CODED: a Bristol-London mail coach from 1800 PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

When the Post Office started using stagecoaches in 1784, they became the most important vehicles on the road.  By the 1830s and 1840s, the nightly departure of the mail coaches from the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand was one of the sights of London, but by 1846 it was over, replaced by the new, faster railway services.

On the passenger services there was increasingly fierce competition between rival coach proprietors, the exotic names conjuring up images of distant towns and cities: The Expedition to Banbury, King William and Britannia to Kidderminster or Leamington, arriving early in the morning in Tring with a distinctive bugle call.

Or what about the Dispatch – driven for 40 years by the same man, James Wyatt – or the Old Union from Buckingham, the Good Intent or the Young Pilot? The Express to Maidenhead or the Wonder to St Albans?

It was only appropriate that after Beaconsfield Services opened at Junction 2 on the M40 in 2009, Wetherspoons should in 2014 name their Hope & Champion pub there after two such services: the Hope, which carried passengers to Warwick, and the Champion, which ran to Hereford.

The stage and mail coaches were a driving force of the industrial revolution. They stimulated road improvements, brought news to remote areas and accurate timekeeping to villages, and gave employment to thousands.

But the end was in sight once the railways started to flourish. Stagecoaches from London to Birmingham were withdrawn in 1839, followed by Bristol in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848.

The last mail coach in the Midlands ran out of Manchester in 1858 though services continued in those areas the railways were slow to reach, like Cornwall, Mid Wales, the Peak District and far North of Scotland.

The routes and towns all remain and many of the old coaching inns survive, but the popularity of rail travel soon meant that the age of the stagecoach was well and truly over, memories of those difficult journeys consigned to historical journals and the pages of Dickens and Austen.

END OF AN ERA: Night Coach by John Charles Maggs

For more about coach driving, the working life of a coach horse and Royal Mail services, see the local museum websites in Amersham and Tring. For more information about stagecoach travel, see the Wicked William blog by Greg Roberts.

When robbers ruled the lawless roads

THE evening traffic is building up on the A40 at Gerrards Cross and further along the road Beaconsfield is getting busy again.

Lockdown may not quite be a thing of the past, but there’s plenty of hubbub ahead of the weekend when restrictions are finally being further relaxed.

Funny thing is, this is a road that’s been busy for centuries. It’s just hard to visualise what it must have been when the route was bustling with stagecoaches, carts and wagons.

These days we jump in our cars so casually for a trip to the shops – but getting about wasn’t so easy or comfortable in the days of horse-drawn transport.

Looking out from the trees on Gerrards Cross common on a sunny day, it’s hard to conceive that highwaymen once hid here, preying on stagecoaches heading to and from Beaconsfield’s busy Old Town.

STAND AND DELIVER!: highwaymen once hid out on Gerrards Cross common preying on stagecoaches passing to and from Beaconsfield Old Town

It’s only when we watch a period drama that we perhaps think what life must have been like from the 17th century onwards, when stagecoach services were established and coaching inns along main routes like this were bustling with life.

Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, Tring, Amersham and Aylesbury were all thriving hubs of the stagecoach age, with passengers from London heading out through Uxbridge to Oxford, Banbury and beyond – as far as Worcester, Shrewsbury and Wales.

TRAVELLERS’ REST: the White Hart in Beaconsfield was one of the town’s smaller coaching inns

In the heyday of coach services as many as 20 might come by here in a day – providing rich pickings for highwaymen along the route and good business for the coaching inns of Beaconsfield like the White Hart and Saracen’s Head.

Standing in the woods at Gerrards Cross common, it’s hard to image what a scary journey this would have been in centuries past, as Clare Bull recalls in her article for the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society.

“Despite the advent of the ‘flying coach’ most travellers chose to break their journey by staying in one of the many coaching inns in Beaconsfield.

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Saracen’s Head, where Oxford coaches stopped to change horses

“Travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort. Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to get here through some of the most notorious danger-spots in this country.

“On the London side, Gerrards Cross Common was one of the highwaymen’s favourite haunts.

“From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur – much steeper then than now and badly surfaced – presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses.

“The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite haunts.”

DANGEROUS DETOUR: travellers risked their lives on the quiet lanes around Holtspur

It’s odd how we tend to harbour romantic illusions about these criminals – many of them vicious thugs whose exploits became the stuff of legend for later generations in the same way that Robin Hood became a folk hero.

Louise Allen, author of the 2014 book Stagecoach Travel, might have a vested interest to see the best in such figures as Dick Turpin and the dashing Frenchman Claude Duval, given that two of her ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century.

But she is unequivocal about her own antecdedents: “So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it. ”

GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD?: English artist William Powell Frith (1819-1909) depicts a group of highwaymen led by Claude Duval holding up the carriage of Lady Aurora Sydney on a heathland road where a young woman is made to dance with her captor PICTURE: Manchester Art Gallery

Although it seems likely that even the famous Dick Turpin was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers, Victorian readers loved the tales of daring raids and escapes, and were delighted by the legend of how Claude Duval was said to have gallantly spared the possessions of any pretty lady prepared to dance with him. He was immortalised in a painting by Frith, but it didn’t stop him being hanged at Tyburn in January 1670, aged 27.

Clare Bull has colourful tales to tell of Duval’s fair day exploits in Beaconsfield and he certainly had his female admirers. His epitaph begins: “Here lies Du Vall: Reder, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if Female to thy heart. Much havoc has he made of both: for all Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall.

With hundreds of coaches heading out of London for destinations all over the UK and more than 100 coaching inns in the capital itself, it’s not surprising that the lawless roads outside the city were tempting places for robbers.

RICH PICKINGS: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, one of dozens of busy coaching inns in the capital. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

On heaths and commons and in woods and forests from Hounslow Heath to Windsor Forest, there was good reason for wealthy visitors and courtiers to worry; lurking in the thick undergrowth of Maidenhead Thicket or Windsor Forest might be the worst of their nightmares – including the most famous highwayman of all, Dick Turpin.

Maidenhead was a busy coaching stop and the Bath Road to Reading was one of the busiest roads in the country, with many escape routes through the Thicket, where highwaymen flourished until the early 1800s.

Many hostelries were associated with the most prominent rogues of the period, including the Dew Drop Inn in Burchett’s Green, which was said to have had an underground room where Turpin would hide his horse Black Bess in an emergency.

UNDERGROUND ROOM?: the Dew Drop Inn at Burchetts Green

He was also rumoured to have used the Olde Swan Inn at Woughton-on-the-Green as a base, and legend links him with the George in Wallingford and Hind’s Head in Bracknell too. His ghost is said to haunt the roadside hamlet of Stubbings (while Duval is said to haunt the Holt Hotel at Steeple Ashton in Oxfordshire).

But even Turpin was finally caught: he was imprisoned in York and was later hanged and buried there in 1739.

VULNERABLE VISITORS: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of The Old White Hart, one of at least eight coaching inns in Bishopsgate which provided rooms and board for wealthy guests arriving in the capital or returning to the country. PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

With no national police force to clamp down on robberies, by 1713 it was said that ‘almost every coach running between London and Oxford was robbed’. The same year saw the hanging of the notorious Jack Shrimpton from Penn while another notorious gang of three brothers from Burford also suffered gruesome deaths – and may even have been the original “Tom, Dick and Harry” of the popular saying.

Tom and Harry Dunsdon were hanged at Gloucester in 1784 and their bodies brought back to Shipton-under-Wychwood and gibbeted from an oak tree. Dick Dunsdon is thought to have bled to death after his brothers had to cut off one of his arms to free his hand which became trapped in a bungled burglary.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery locally was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury.

It was the end of an era; turnpike roads and toll houses had already curtailed the activities of the highwaymen and soon railways would make travel around Britain faster, more comfortable and a great deal safer.

Never again would worried passengers have troubled nightmares about being made to “stand and deliver” – or forced to dance at the roadside with a dashing French highwayman!

Ferns and foxgloves set the tone

AT LAST the welcome relaxation of lockdown restrictions has allowed scope to roam a little further afield – and after the bluebells of April, it’s foxgloves and ferns which provide the focus of woodland forays in June.

What a joy to be able to escape into the trees of Denham, Langley and Black Park again. And after the hawthorn blossom and horse chestnuts putting on a show earlier in the year, now it’s time for the foxgloves to provide a welcome splash of colour amid the glorious greenery.

We may have missed those startling May displays of rhododrendrons in the Temple Gardens at Langley, but the wildflowers are out, the wildfowl are busy on the lake and the arboretum provides a welcome escape from face masks, shopping queues and worries about illness.

Once a hunting ground for medieval monarchs, this is part of a network of green spaces which make up the huge Colne Valley Regional Park, formed in 1965, which stretches from Rickmansworth to the Thames, Heathrow and Slough and provides the first proper taste of countryside west of London.

Cross the road from Temple Gardens and you are immediately in Black Park, another woodland oasis with more than 600 acres to explore.

From miniature mariners to unusual wildfowl, there’s always something to see on the lake, and with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, this is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, but although the lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

Need to get even further away from the family fun? Footpaths lead from here to Stoke Common, and the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England.

Theres less for youngsters to do here, but for walkers wanting room to breathe, the 200 acres are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) which provides home to some very rare plants, animals and insects – although it may take a sharp eye to spot some of them.

A lot easier to spot are the 20 Sussex cattle currently being used to graze heathland plants on the common, which has been managed by the City of London Corporation since 2007, with friends and volunteers helping to restore it to its former glory.

The site has small areas of birch, pine and mixed woodland, with several ponds, and like nearby Burnham Beeches was grazed by livestock for centuries.

The only difference is that the wood pasture at Burnham is being grazed by seven British white cattle, along with Exmoor ponies.

Due to the they way they graze, livestock help to create a diverse plant structure which is great news for the local wildlife – although stumbling across a beast of this size behind a bush can be quite a surprise, despite their normally placid natures.

Like Black Park, Burnham Beeches is a marvellous haunt for families, and with 500 acres to get lost in, its ancient oak and beech pollards provide a perfect backdrop for those wanting to get back to nature after spending too long indoors.

Ramblers wanting to get a little further off the beaten track don’t have to look far in the Chilterns, of course. Footpaths criss-cross the area, including long-distance paths like Shakespeare’s Way, opened in 2006 from the great man’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre in London, passing through Marlow and Burnham Beeches on its way.

Or there’s always a chance to walk a section of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, particularly well signposted by the Chiltern Society and offering some particularly scenic sections around here, whether through the Marlow woods and on to the Hambleden Valley or sweeping north from the Chiltern Open Air Museum towards Chenies, Sarratt and beyond, in a huge circle heading towards Dunstable Downs.

Closer to home those foxgloves are still beckoning, this time just off the Chiltern Way at Homefield Wood, another SSSI owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

The nature reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

Wild orchids flourish here, including the rare military orchid, and the place is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white, white-letter hairstreak and the silver-washed fritillary – not to mention hundreds of species of moth.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often by heard calling during the day. Fallow and roe deer are also regular visitors to the reserve.

If open vistas and sweeping views are more appealing than woodland wanders, check out some of the local National Trust common land like the pastures at Winter Hill with their breathtaking views over the Thames, or the hay meadows at Pinkneys Green, where a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects have made their home.

The grasses in these open, unfenced meadows are left to grow tall all summer, with a wealth of wildflowers adding specks of colour across the open expanse of meadow, from delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious.

On a sunny day, walkers pause for a lazy chat under the trees, but on a windy evening there’s something invigorating about the gusts sweeping over the meadow and the clouds scudding across the sky, making it a perfect place for kite-flying too.

From Pinkneys Green to Dunstable Downs, the freedom to get out and about across the local areas is such a blessing after the dark days of lockdown. And who would prefer a packed south coast beach at Brighton or Bournemouth to the fresh air and open countryside of the Chilterns?

Lose yourself in the woods

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THERE aren’t too many country parks where it’s easy to get lost.

But with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

And with that amount of room to explore, it really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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

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

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

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks or even Indian runner ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, in normal circumstances the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops. The park is also home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, whose lifelike models can often be seen bobbing around on the water.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, and you only have to go down to the lake entrance to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.

Happy hunting ground at Langley

WANDERING around Langley Park, it’s not hard to imagine a medieval monarch mustering a royal hunting party here.

But then there was a deer park  at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Langley is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim.  In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.

It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.

Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.

The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build  Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.

The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.

The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.

Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.

Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures.

The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.

Bucks reopens for business

BUSINESSES across the Chilterns are preparing to welcome visitors back to high streets across the region this week.

Visit Buckinghamshire & The Chilterns, the region’s official tourism website, is excited about the chance to welcome guests back to the area’s market towns, as well as key tourist attractions and outdoor spaces.

But the organisation is keen to encourage local residents to #SupportLocal, #LoveWhereYouLive and #StaySafe, as well as opening their doors to day visitors from neighbouring areas.

Historic gems such as Waddesdon Manor, Hughenden Manor, Stonor Park and Stowe gardens are open for online booking with timed slots. Chiltern Open Air Museum has plenty of open space to enjoy too while exploring (but not entering) their collection of historic buildings.

Zoos and animal parks including Kew Little Pigs, Green Dragon Rare Breeds Eco Farm and Odds Farm Park are preparing to show off the baby animals which have been arriving during lockdown.

All attractions have strict social distancing guidelines in place to keep families and staff as safe as possible.

Buckinghamshire is also blessed with many bustling historic market towns, such as Marlow, Beaconsfield and Amersham where a range of independent shops are now able to welcome customers back, but with restrictions on numbers entering their premises at any one time.

For refreshments, some resourceful cafes and restaurants are providing takeaways until they get the all-clear to fully re-open.

Lucy Dowson of Visit Buckinghamshire & The Chilterns said: “Locals already know that Buckinghamshire is the perfect year-round destination for memorable day visits, stretching from the banks of the River Thames through the glorious rolling Chiltern Hills, and on into the verdant Vale of Aylesbury.

“Its close proximity to London, coupled with excellent road links, means that you can easily access exciting new destinations, discover fabulous attractions and enjoy the beautiful scenery.”

Country parks and nature reserves like Black Park, Langley, Stoke Common and Burnham Beeches offer miles of woodland trails to explore for the price of a car park ticket, while footpaths across the region offer a range of spectacular scenery, from a Thames Path ramble to a windy walk on Dunstable Downs or Ivinghoe Beacon.

During the coronavirus crisis, many local firms have survived by adapting to offer click-and-collect services or local deliveries, while some attractions have provided virtual tours during the lockdown weeks, from Waddesdon Manor to Beckonscot model village and the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway, whose steam and diesel train usually does a seven-mile round trip from Princes Risborough to Chinnor.

Now, those firms and attractions are looking forward to welcoming visitors back properly for the first time, if suitable social distancing arrangements can be put in place.

The Beyonder’s What’s On pages provide links to more than 50 attractions across the region for easy access to full details of opening arrangements as these develop.

Relearning a lost language

IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?

It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.

And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.

We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.

Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.

For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).

We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.

It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:

I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.

Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor the scent of the earth after it has rained to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.

But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.

Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?

Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.

During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.

And the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.

When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.

Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.

Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.

But of course there’s no shortage of expertise to be found on the internet, from Butterfly Conservation or Woodland Trust to the British Beekeepers Association or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?

You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature. 

Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.

But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.

That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.

For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones was published in February 2020.

Amazing antics of the humble ant

ACID-SPRAYING giant ants with a brutal bite sound like the stuff of horror movies.

But at Burnham Beeches these formidable predators are actively encouraged and cared for, so they can’t be as terrifying as they sound.

Unwary visitors to the stunning Buckinghamshire nature reserve might not feel quite as warmly disposed to the mound-building woodland forager, especially if they inadvertently stumble over a nest.

But this site of special scientific interest is particularly well suited to support colonies of formica rufa, with its ancient oak and beech pollards and welcoming mountains of rotting wood.

More alert ramblers won’t take long to spot the small armies eagerly transporting building materials and prey back to their nests, which might support more than 100,000 ants.

They may not be as immediately likeable as the 56 species of birds which inhabit these woods, but they are fascinating creatures, and with numbers decreasing across the country it’s important to pay more attention to the role they play in our ecosystem.

Wildlife film maker Tom Hartwell’s film for Woodlands TV takes a closer look at the life of wood ants with the help of Helen Read, conservation officer at Burnham Beeches for nearly 30 years.

Helen explains how the woodlands provide the perfect location for these insects as they use rotting wood and tree stumps for their nests, collecting pine needles, twigs and other woodland debris to create a “thatch” exterior which acts like a sun trap for their ant cities.

Farming aphids for their food, the ants are known for the strong smell they emit when disturbed, spraying a pungent formic acid to protect themselves from predators. But it has been found that some birds visit wood ants nests to be deliberately sprayed, as the acid helps to repel lice and mites.

It’s said that there are more ants roaming the world than any other creature on the planet and it’s certainly not hard to believe that on a sunny day here at Burnham, where they can be seen scurrying everywhere with their burdens – up to 100 times their own weight.

The combined weight of all the ants on earth would total more than the combined weight of all the humans. Relative to their size, ants have the largest brain of any insect, with someone calculating that an ant’s brain has more processing power than the computer controlling the first Apollo space missions.

To hear the sound of a colony in action (above), tune in to a recording made at Burnham Beeches by Mark Wilkinson in 2017 and featured on The Badger’s Eye website.

Find out more about wood ants from the website of the National Wood Ant Steering Group and more about Burnham Beeches in this short video produced by the City of London Corporation:

Secret garden soothes the soul

STOKE Poges guards its secrets well.

No casual motorist driving through the scattered village and glancing incuriously at the front gates of the memorial gardens on Church Lane could possibly guess what lies inside.

And yet the extraordinary beauty and serenity of these gardens have made them a place of refuge and solace for more than 80 years.

It’s a secret stumbled upon by poetry lovers making a pilgrimage to the nearby grave of Thomas Gray.

And indeed the story behind the gardens started here more than 250 years ago when Gray completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church.

Acclaim was instantaneous and overwhelming in the mid-18th century literary world following its publication – and indeed the 32-stanza poem was to become one of the most famous in the English language, learned and recited by generations of English schoolchildren:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The poem stood the test of time – and after Gray died in 1771, aged 54, he was buried in the churchyard where he had finished his greatest work.

He had not been the most prolific of poets, but the people of Stoke Poges seem to have taken him to their hearts, and a massive monument to him was erected in 1799 by John Penn, the soldier, scholar and poet whose grandfather had founded Pennsylvania and who was now in the process of transforming his Stoke Park estate with a new mansion.

Designed by James Watt and erected in 1799, the monument today stands proudly in a field which the villagers bought in the early 1920s before giving it to the National Trust in 1925.

But if it’s the monument and grave which attract National Trust members and poetry lovers to the churchyard, it is the nearby memorial gardens which are the most spectacular attraction, with their sweeping views across to Stoke Park, nowadays a five-star hotel, spa and championship golf course.

What makes the memorial gardens so unusual is that they were deliberately designed to ensure that no building, structures or monuments of any kind would be likely to remind one of a cemetery.

Instead the aim of Sir Noel Mobbs, the local Lord of the Manor, when he acquired the 20 acres of land was not just to preserve the tranquil setting of the church but to create a ‘living memorial to the dead and of solace to the bereaved’. The gardens were opened on 25 May 1935 and their 80th anniversary was commemorated in 2015.

Designed by landscape architect Edward White, they actually comprise hundreds of individual family gated gardens set amid wisteria and rhododendrons awash with a kaleidoscope of colour at this time of year.

It’s a glorious setting on a sunny day, dotted with benches and hundreds of inconspicuous memorials, a perfect place for reflection or remembrance, an oasis of tranquillity that’s very different in atmosphere from the more sombre graves under the ancient yew which caught Gray’s imagination, where Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, / The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The gardens are maintained and managed by South Bucks District Council and underwent significant restoration work prior to 2004 where much care was taken to recreate their original design and character.

A staff of gardeners is assisted by a volunteer group and the ‘Friends of Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens’ support the gardens with fundraising and with practical help.

Now Grade I registered by English Heritage, they contain water features, a colonnade, rose garden, woodland, rock garden and open parkland with stunning views across the Capability Brown landscape and Repton bridge to Stoke Park.

April and May are the best months for spring and early summer displays, as well as October for stunning autumn colour.

It’s the perfect place to escape with a good book or contemplate the elegance of Gray’s Elegy perhaps, which is not really an elegy at all since it doesn’t mourn any one individual, but is instead more of a meditation on death and the lives of simple rustic folk.

Was there ever a better description of the weariness of the evening after a hard day’s work and that time of day when labouring folk would retire home after toiling in the fields all day? Carol Rumens explains a little more about it in her Poem of the Week feature in The Guardian back in 2011.

She describes it as “musical, eloquent, moral”: not only a beautiful poem in its own right, but opening a network of cultural pathways and awash with impressive sound effects, especially in those memorable opening lines.

There’s politics here too in his reflection on the unsung heroes of England who pass their lives in anonymity: Full many a gem of purest ray serene, / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The poem influenced subsequent generations of writers too: one stanza gave Thomas Hardy the title for Far From the Madding Crowd, encapsulating the rural remoteness of the novel’s setting.

But whether you admire the poem’s simple lyricism of Gray’s lament, its memorable language or political undertones – what talents might have sprung from the hearts and hands of those in the ground if their lives had not been constrained by poverty – this is a perfect place to reflect on the power of those opening stanzas, which generations of schoolchildren learned by rote.

From Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
  The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
  And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
  And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
  And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
  The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
  Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
  Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
  The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
  No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
  Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
  Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens are open from dusk to dawn each day and admission is free.

Gray’s Monument is located on Church Lane, Stoke Poges SL2 4NZ. Car parking is available in the St. Giles’ Church car park which is open to dusk each day.

Home is where the heart is

THERE must be something enormously reassuring about having a centuries-old link to the land you live on.

Like those great old aristocratic English families whose estates have been passed down from father to son across the centuries, history oozing from every brick of the ancestral home.

Or hill farmers who can look back across the generations knowing every square foot of their local landscape in exactly the same way as their grandfather and great-grandfather once did.

In our fast-changing modern world, that certainty in one’s own identity must surely be comforting. But does it really matter that much?

We know identity has been a powerful theme in literature across the ages, and in a world of mass migration and climate change it will remain so in the future. But isn’t it possible for new arrivals to feel an immediate connection with their surroundings and be able to relate to their local landscape without those historical links?

Perhaps an awareness of history helps – and it’s certainly possible to soak up that sense of the past in the Chilterns countryside, however recently you have arrived…

Here, amid the rolling chalk hills and cathedral-like beech woods, the old days never seem too far away, and there’s always a strong awareness of people from the past who have walked this way before, from Iron Age families and Roman soldiers to 20th-century chair bodgers working in the woods or passengers on a steam train thundering along the old Great Central Railway.

I’m reminded of that on a wander round our “patch” – necessarily curtailed in my meandering by the requirements of the coronavirus lockdown.

Although we have only been here a few years, those links with the past make us feel a lot less like strangers.

Our parish magazine recalls how early hunter-gatherers adept at curing and stretching animal skins may have used coracles on waterways like the Thames, where flint tools and Roman remains hark back to a time before the Norman invasion, when two manors became the focal points of local life.

A short wander along part of the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way gives you glimpses of churches which have been holy places for a thousand years or more, of picturesque cottages in brick and flint, of deserted lanes where the sound of birdsong echoes above the cow parsley and wild garlic.

Sauntering down the Church Path footpath towards St Nicholas’ church at Hedsor on a fine spring evening, it’s not hard to imagine the Chilterns equivalent of Thomas Hardy’s Mellstock choir heading homewards with their instruments and lanterns for a celebratory pint or two.

Iron Age roundhouses and hillforts excavated in the Chilterns remind us how this part of England has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, with more than 20 sites harking back to a more dangerous age where communities needed to keep their possessions and livestock safe from marauders.

The earthworks are virtually the only major constructions that have survived from this ancient time, although the Chiltern Open Air Museum has done its bit to recapture something of the atmosphere of life in those times.

The Romans trod these paths too, finding ways of crossing the Thames, while footpaths and bridleways often traverse routes well known as ancient droving routes along which thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs, geese and turkeys were once driven, or sunken lanes known as hollow-ways or holloways, thoroughfares worn into the landscape by cartwheels, hooves and feet across the centuries.

It’s a landscape of coaching inns and highwaymen tales and of ancient woodlands which supplied vast quantities of charcoal before canals allowed easier access to coal from the Midlands – and later allowed the furniture industry to flourish.

The carefully managed beech woods supplied excellent raw materials for chair-making for the rapidly-expanding industrial population of London and small workshops flourished in the villages around High Wycombe, with the Chiltern “bodgers” toiling in the woods to produce the millions of chair legs needed.

The bodgers and paper mills may be long gone, but the past is still very much alive in the landscape, with woodland still making up around a fifth of the AONB landscape, making it one of the most heavily wooded areas in England.

The influence of the industrial past is hard to ignore, from brick-making to chalk and gravel extraction, but in the depths of a bluebell wood it feels easier to relate to those varied individuals who walked these paths across the years, savouring the same ancient woodlands, downlands and commons.

London may not be far away – and of course the proximity of the capital contributed to the establishment of those small furniture factories, paper mills, orchards and watercress beds, as well as fuelling an influx of day trippers once the railways and Tube stations began to open.

So is it a problem not to have centuries of family tradition to fall back on to help appreciate this ancient landscape? Hopefully not. Like countless other newcomers, it’s been easy for us to fall in love with the Chilterns.

That’s as much to do with marvellous neighbours as the sweeping views, leafy lanes and wonderful wildlife, but it makes for a winning combination.

So thank you, all the locals, businesses and new friends who have made it so easy to love your “area of outstanding natural beauty” (and it is): there’s no place like home, they say, and this place certainly feels like home…from those sweeping views over the Vale of Oxford to the timeless paths meandering through the beech woods or the stolen glimpse of a tawny owl in the treetops.

Birds of a feather flock together

WHAT makes Chris Packham such an extraordinary broadcaster is the completely natural style of his delivery, whatever the circumstances.

It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable, cheerful, entertaining and informative irrespective of any challenges live broadcasting might throw at him.

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 almost a decade.

But in recent weeks there’s been a new face on the block – and although Chris’s step-daughter Megan McCubbin is an established presenter, photographer and conservationist in her own right, the pair’s decision to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis has exposed her to a much wider audience.

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 has proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues, although the total professionalism of the show itself means there have been few compromises in terms of the quality of the programming, despite Chris describing it to The Guardian as “Dad’s army makes TV”.

Like Chris, Megan 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 pair are also immensely knowledgable and they’ve done their homework…so 40-plus days into lockdown there’s nothing amateurish or hesitant about this surprisingly engaging escape from real-world worries.

The programme may be produced with mobile phones and Skype with earpods, mixed in a bedroom in Norwich, but it doesn’t look that way, and all the modern tech toys like nest box and trail cameras help to make modern wildlife reporting a whole lot more interesting than it ever used to be.

But this show is not about hi-tech wizardry or big budgets, simply an engaging, easy-going celebration of the natural world that extends beyond the ornithological roots of the title.

And the gang’s all here, of course: Michaela, Iolo Williams and the other Springwatch favourites, along with a stream of wildlife celebrities only too happy to share their short films, live cams and cheesy banter with the New Forest hosts.

The coronavirus lockdown may have shaped the straightforward format of the show, but it’s worked well, the enthusiasm of the daily exchanges providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing hundreds and thousands of us to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes (a separate #punkrockmidnight Twitter feed has featured Chris playing through his collection of classic punk singles).

Amid all the enthusiastic debates about barn owls and sea eagles, there has been room for bats, butterflies and hedgehogs too, for a chance to catch up with some of the leading young naturalists who have featured on Springwatch, like Bella Lack, Holly Gillibrand and Dara McAnulty, who will be reading his young naturalist’s diary on Radio 4 from May 25.

We have been invited to nose around other people’s gardens, with guests ranging from the wonderfully eccentic Martin Hughes-Games singing the praises of bats, chickens, earwigs and hornets, to Hugh Warwick waxing lyrical about hedgehogs and the author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham taking his delightful eight-year-old daughter Esme on a butterfly hunt.

But the guest list is already too long to credit them all, and growing by the week as long as the lockdown continues.

Packham himself is back on the BBC at the moment showing his true Attenborough credentials with the screening of Primates, which finishes on May 17.

But it’s closer to home that he and Megan have been proving to be the real wildlife stars of the coronavirus crisis – and helping to make people’s lives a lot happier into the bargain.

Half a million viewers for a weekday morning programme about birds? There must be a TV executive or two somewhere in the country kicking themselves for not thinking of this sooner…

Listen to the buzz on the street

EARLIER than last year, the laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

LABURNUM

The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine, eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

With World Bee Day looming on May 20, those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

GOLDEN RAIN: The Laburnum Tree by artist Tim Baynes

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

Even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tends to haunt you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This post was updated from a blog entry originally posted in May 2019.

Bluebells lift the lockdown gloom

BLUEBELLS. If there’s one word which conjures up more positive images of life during 40 days on lockdown it’s this one.

And on a personal level, if there’s one abiding, memorable positive image to emerge from the extraordinary month of April 2020, it will be those vistas of bluebells dancing in the local woods.

We have been lucky, of course. Living on the edge of open country, it has been easy for our vital daily escape from the house to disappear into the woods.

And what a great healer nature has been. From the deluge of Twitter and Instagram pictures being shared from woodlands across the Chilterns, it seems we are not alone in finding this a welcome respite from the grim tally of deaths and infections on the news feeds.

It’s not a luxury we are taking for granted either – friends in Italy, Spain, China and Argentina have been under virtual house arrest, unable to get out for anything more than a tightly controlled shopping trip.

Not to mention those trapped on cruise ships or stranded in a drab hotel in a foreign country stressing about how to get home.

But these walks have offered so much more than just a welcome escape from the house, a breath of fresh air and all-important exercise.

From the moment that the prime minister addressed the nation on March 23 about government plans to take unprecedented steps to limit the spread of coronavirus, it was clear we were in uncharted and scary territory – not just in the UK, but all over the world.

Doubtless many volumes will be written about the awful spring of 2020, and it’s hard to write anything positive about this time without being conscious of the terrible human toll – some 27,500 deaths in the UK so far, with all the associated individual family tragedies that involves.

For a while, it felt as if we might be joining the statistics. A long feverish weekend paved the way to a fortnight of slow recovery. But lying in the night coughing and sweating, listening to relentless government press conferences and stories of doom from around the world, it was all too easy to succumb to the paranoia.

Every cough and tickle takes on a new significance. What if there’s a problem breathing? Will this mean dying on a ventilator in a hospital unable to say anything to your nearest and dearest? And the social media feeds don’t help – this is real, and friends around the world are already having to cope with the loss of loved ones.

Thankfully, the symptoms subside and strength returns. And nothing feels quite so exhilarating as the fresh air of that first tentative walk, even if we can’t smell the flowers.

Which makes those bluebells all the more enchanting. And they go on blooming all month on so many of the paths we wander through…English bluebells, of course, so long associated with the Chilterns and ancient woodlands and a constant source of inspiration for artists like Jo Lillywhite (below).

And as our first steps outdoors become a little more confident and we manage to stray further from home, there are new copses and paths to discover.

Enchanting and iconic, bluebells are a favourite with the fairies – and the violet glow of these bluebell woods is an incredible wildflower spectacle that really does lift the spirits and warm the heart.

“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte in 1840. The vivid hues may have begun to fade by the end of April, but the secret beauty of our ancient local woods has helped to set us firmly on the road to recovery and provide a welcome gentler vision of a terrible month which will haunt so many for years to come.

Planting hope for the future

IT WAS disappearing birdsong which was to change the life of Chilterns artist Sue Graham and her family.

Many of her paintings are inspired by the local landscape and a series of her oil paintings which she started more than 10 years ago reflected her love of the dawn chorus.

But the painter could hardly have foreseen quite how that project would ultimately lead her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Sue in her home studio in Buckinghamshire

“When I started doing the Dawn Chorus paintings around 2008, there was a piercing resonance to the sounds I heard in my garden at four in the morning,” Sue recalls. “But even in the short time we have lived here there are fewer birds singing. That’s happening all over the place.”

What was obvious to Sue in her garden at Prestwood near Great Missenden was soon hitting the national headlines.

A survey in 2013 showed that in some cases the decline was dramatic and worrying. The sounds of the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are enshrined in British folklore, yet populations of both summer migrants and many resident species have dropped in recent years.

CAUGHT ON CANVAS: Sue Graham’s painting And Birds Were Singing, To Calm Us Down

The scale of the problem had soon become apparent after the family moved back from America in 2002. “We always enjoyed the outdoors, but if you go out walking there’s always something missing,” she says. “None of the ground-nesting birds are there any more.”

The missing songbirds featured in a vivid series of paintings, but aside from inspiring her art, environmental worries were beginning to play a bigger part in the lives of the artist and her research scientist husband Gabriel Waksman – a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology whose work had taken them to New York and Missouri.

FEATHERED FRIENDS: Sue’s painting Dawn Chorus

By 2016, with the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it seemed as if things were coming to a head.

Husband Gabriel was only too well aware that in almost 30 years as an academic and scientist, he had clocked up thousands of air miles travelling to international conferences, seminars and lectures at foreign institutions.

Many scientists and academics are increasingly worried about the environmental cost of such international travel – but Gabriel wanted to do something practical about it.

If travelling to conferences must remain part of a scientist’s life, what might be the best way to offset the carbon that will inevitably be released? The answer, it seemed to him, was to find a way that scientists, academics and others worried about the environment could offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in groves.

FRESH GROWTH: planting trees can help offset carbon emissions

In 2016, he teamed up with a couple of friends and the charity All Things Small and Green was born.

Writing in Nature magazine in February 2020, he explained: “Governmental action will be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, but individual responsibility has a major part to play.”

His charity allows air travellers to calculate their carbon emissions and work out how many native trees they need to plant to offset those, using a simple formula. The trees can then be planted in groves set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands.

With more than 40 planting sites, the charity has overseen the planting of almost two million trees, growing thousands in its tree nursery and creating acres of new forest.

“I was especially drawn to native tree planting,” says Gabriel. “Carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I liked the idea of coupling carbon fixing with reconnecting to a wonder of nature such as a native woodland.”

CALL OF THE WILD: Gabriel officially launched his tree planting charity in 2019

Companies and universities can ask for groves to be set up for them – and he has also been in touch with partners in Spain and France to explore ways of allowing localised groves to be planted in other European locations.

The latest project is a grove which will allow French scientists, academics, and researchers to offset their carbon emissions by planting native trees closer to home.

“It is important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we work with are native,” he explains. “Native afforestation and reforestation increase biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems. By contrast, monoculture conifer plantations — wrongly favoured by some governments — destroy biodiversity and damage natural ecosystems.”

The tree planting mission didn’t stop with the charity though. Sue found herself equally inspired by the need to do something more for the planet – particularly as the mother to two sons in their 20s.

“It was time to think about the legacy of what we leave and the only thing that would make us feel slightly better about putting two extra people on the planet,” she says.

The outcome was their dramatic decision to purchase a croft on the remote Scottish island of Gigha, with the aim of launching their own family rewilding project.

The 13-acre croft was once home to an old oat mill, although that is not habitable at the moment.

REWILDING PROJECT: the croft on Gigha

With their two sons working in Scotland, it might not have seemed so crazy to look at buying land in the area – but by any standards the croft is remote, Sue admits, although the location is picturesque too, looking out of the nearby island of Jura.

The island – with a population of under 200 – lies west of Glasgow off the coast of the Kintyre peninsula, accessed by ferry from Tayinloan, a small village about midway between Tarbert and Campbeltown.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the view towards Jura

“You think, ‘How much time have I got left?’ and of course it was always a project we should have started 20 years ago,” Sue admits.

But that didn’t stop them going ahead with the plan – and in November 2019 the first phase of their mission involved planting some 1300 trees on a three-acre site on the island.

“Planting trees is the best thing we can do for the future,” Sue insists.  “I know it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon capture, but I needed to sleep better at night.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: the first wave of planting

It’s an enthusiasm her husband shares – although the project is separate from his charity activities: “Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy,” he says.

“This is also one of the most selfless activities I have taken part in. A native woodland takes decades to come to maturity, so the results of my tree planting will hopefully be enjoyed by people much younger than me.”

The tiny saplings were selected with the help of the Woodland Trust to ensure they were best suited to the island’s soil and climate – a mixture of hazel, willow, birch, alder, oak and rowan.

LONELY LOCATION: the Gigha shoreline

“It gives us the opportunity in a very beautiful location to do something for the planet that we need to do for our psychological well-being,” says Sue, a self-taught artist with a degree in modern languages from Oxford University who loves walking, gardening, wildlife and cooking, as well as painting.

“I can barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting. I have had various other ‘real’ jobs but somehow my heart was never in them,” she says. “Somebody once asked me to reflect on why it is that I paint: the question has sat with me for years but I think the answer is this: to communicate feelings and ideas and to be accepted for who I am.”

Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks which have forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year while she undergoes cancer treatment.

HIGH HOPES: Sue in her Buckinghamshire garden

But she remains unfailingly optimistic and determined about the island project and the prospects for their thousands of saplings, planted with such enthusiasm by the five-strong family team with two staff members and volunteers from the Woodland Trust.

With fertile soil and good climate – and friends on the islands keeping an eye on things – there’s every reason to hope the project will boost local biodiversity over the next couple of years.

Says Sue: “I was more afraid of looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking that we couldn’t do it.”

It’s also a welcome escape from health concerns and the challenges posed by chemotherapy.

“It’s going to be really interesting – and it’s nice to be able to think about something positive and lovely,” she says.

For more information about the charity, see All Things Small And Green, which has links to their Instagram and Facebook pages.

Glimpses over the garden gate

THERE’S nothing gardeners love more than sneaking a glance over someone else’s garden gate.

Over the years, that’s been the secret behind the success of the National Garden Scheme and its famous yellow book, the definitive guide to thousands of gardens which open for charity from time to time around the country.

Under normal circumstances, this is a perfect excuse to nose around someone else’s flowerbeds and enjoy countless afternoon mini-adventures, exploring spring snowdrops and summer floral displays in settings which range from sleepy cottage gardens to majestic manor houses.

The coronavirus lockdown may have prevented those adventures so far this year, but there are high hopes that visits might be able to resume by the autumn and the NGS is anxious to recoup some of the funds lost during the crisis.

We know that gardens are good for our health (as long as we don’t enjoy the home-made cakes too much!) but as well as being able to savour the fruits of someone else’s labout and perhaps get inspiration for ways of improving our own small plot, these open days have raised millions for charity since the NGS was founded in the early 1900s.

Back then the scheme originally supported district nurses, but nowadays the visits encourage donations worth millions of pounds to nursing and health charities.

That 90-year history gave one gardening enthusiast the idea of trying to visit 90 open gardens in a year, and in January 2017 Julia Stafford Allen began chronicling her perambulations around the country in her blog, The Garden Gate Is Open.

Based in Norfolk, where she volunteers for the NGS and opens her own garden to the public, Julia is passionate about encouraging people to get out and visit gardens.

She says: “I think that garden visiting is a lovely pastime for families and gardens in the Scheme are usually private and children are admitted free.”

Although her blog is nationwide, her travels have frequently taken her through the Chilterns – to destinations like Welford Park in Berkshire, home of the Great British Bake Off since 2014, the Georgian manor house ar Walkern Hall in Hertfordshire or even a small wintry display of ornaments, mirrors and candles in the back garden of a house in Bushey, Hertfordshire.

“I loved the Bushey garden because children really enjoyed it,” she recalls. Other local forays – camera always firmly in hand – have taken her to see the display of snowdrops at Oak Cottage in the Berkshire village of Finchampstead and an unusual array of sculptures at Lord Carrington’s Bledlow Manor in North Buckinghamshire.

Her travels have taken her to Overstroud Cottage in Great Missenden, Rivendell in Amersham and even to Stoke Mandeville, although since the garden was still a building site, she returned a year later for the formal launch.

From extensive country landscapes and romantic cottage gardens to urban hideaways and ancient woodlands, there are thousands of open gardens to choose from, normally opening from February to October.

The £13.99 NGS handbook contains detailed descriptions of every garden, together with photographs, handy maps and calendars. This week NGS president Mary Berry launched a new appeal aimed at supporting gardens during the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking from her home, Mary said: “Right now people are not able to visit the gardens and there is no money being raised. In fact, as things are, the charity’s income is likely to be down by 80% during 2020. So a team at the National Garden Scheme made up of garden owners, volunteers and staff have organised a marvellous campaign centred about virtual garden visits. I urge you to support the campaign generously and to enjoy the stunning gardens.”

Since 1927 the National Garden Scheme has raised almost £60 million. Core beneficiaries include Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, Hospice UK and The Queen’s Nursing Institute.

See the charity’s main website for details of gardens open later in the year – and The Beyonder hopes to feature key attractions in our monthly calendar from the autumn. Check out The Garden Gate Is Open blog for details of previous garden visits around the UK.

Time to go down to the woods

WORRIES about coronavirus may have brought chaos to the supermarkets, but with 500 acres to get lost in, Burnham Beeches should be an ideal place to put social distancing to the test – although gathering in groups to socialise in the park totally defeats the whole purpose of the Government’s strategy.

Few places are more welcoming on a sunny day than this national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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

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

However the Mother’s Day weekend also brought government warnings that young people in particular were not taking social distancing seriously – and across the country there were concerns about crowds inundating beaches, parks and other public spaces.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

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

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

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

Haunting tale from the riverbank

WITH descriptions on the cover like “haunting” and “heartbreaking” you are under no illusion that Kenneth Grahame’s life story is going to make for easy reading.

Accomplished biographer Matthew Dennison deftly and poignantly portrays an awkward, bookish bachelor dogged by personal tragedy who retreated into his own imagination from an early age.

His lasting legacy, of course, was the book he published in 1908 which became one of the greatest children’s classics of all time, The Wind In The Willows.

And as Dennison explains, the Thames Valley appears to have given Grahame the inspiration for his writing – as well as providing a place of sanctuary and escape from the harsher realities of life.

Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Grahame was only five when his mother died, and his father, who had a drinking problem and was overcome by grief and self-pity, gave the care of his four children to their grandmother, who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire.

There they lived in a higgledy-piggledy but dilapidated home in extensive grounds by the River Thames where they would be introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Inglis, the local curate.

Although they would later have to move to Cranbourne before the young Kenneth attended school in Oxford, it was at The Mount in Cookham Dean that the author became a “doodler and a dreamer”, exploring the adjoining Quarry Wood and the Thames beyond during a golden two-year interlude that would provide him with his most vivid and intense memories.

An unexpected bonus of his schooldays at St Edward’s School in Oxford was that the pupils were free to wander the city’s cobbled streets alone, imbuing in him a fascination for the city that he hoped to further explore as a university undergraduate there.

Unfortunately his sensible Scottish uncle had different ideas about his future prospects, and his appointment as a bank clerk in London was to pave the way for a respectable banking career that would immerse him in City life but leave him free to day-dream about riverside adventures and leave him free at weekends to return to the Thames.

Still in his twenties, he began to publish light stories in London periodicals and in the 1890s started to write tales about a group of parentless children whose circumstances sounded remarkably similar to his own childhood days at Cookham Dean.

By the mid-1890s, Grahame had tasted success in both his banking and writing careers, but Dennison reveals a bookish bachelor more comfortable with his pipe, a solitary ramble or male colleagues than in female company.

Nonetheless Grahame was to marry Elspeth Thomson in 1899 when he was 40 after a pursuit by her characterised by Dennison as “single-minded and unwavering”. But the marital relationship was emotionally sterile and both appeared to find it disappointing and unfulfilling.

Their only son Alastair (“Mouse”) was born blind in one eye and was plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Tragically he would later take his own life on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University a few days before his 20th birthday in 1920. And yet it was Grahame’s bedtime stories for Alastair that formed the basis for The Wind In The Willows.

‘Mouse’ was about four when Grahame started to tell him stories and on the author’s frequent boating holidays without his family he would write further tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger in letters to Alastair.

The four animal friends provided the basis for the manuscript for the book which would secure Grahame’s reputation, published in the year he took early retirement from the Bank of England, by which time he had moved back to the Thames, initially to Cookham and later to Blewbury.

Despite its success, he never attempted a sequel, although the book gave rise to many film and television adaptations and Toad remains one of the most celebrated and beloved characters in children’s literature.

Indeed the Julian Fellowes 2017 stage adaptation — filmed at the London Palladium, and starring Rufus Hound as Toad, Simon Lipkin as Ratty and Craig Mather as Mole — was offered free online when theatres closed as the coronavirus scare spread in the UK, with a small donation requested to help support theatre workers.

The pastoral tale of riverside camaraderie seemed to reflect the author’s fascinating with “messing about in boats” and is celebrated for its evocation of the Thames Valley. But as Dennison explores in a sensitive and nuanced account of his life, both the literary and real-life riverbank escapades may have provided a necessary escape from darker emotions.

It also warned about the fragility of the English countryside and express fear at threatened social changes that became a reality in the aftermath of World War I.

Grahame’s life was not without adventure. He met many of the literary greats of the period and was even shot at in 1903 when a gunman opened fire at the Bank of England.

But when he died in Pangbourne in 1932 it was for one thing that he was remembered – as his cousin and successful author Anthony Hope had engraved on his gravestone in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford: the fact that he left childhood and literature “the more blest for all time”.

Matthew Dennison has published a number of works of biography and writes for Country Life and the Telegraph. Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus Ltd at £8.99

Life, but not as we know it

FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.

Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

From the locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of the few.

The epidemic is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship with nature and the world around us.

New York trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?

The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.

Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design and architecture magazine Dezeen.

The woman named by Time magazine in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.

With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.

“Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”

It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.

But if it offers the prospect of resetting the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it will come with a heavy price tag.

As well as potentially millions of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.

Going cold turkey in changing our shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the negatives.

Of course, there’s little room for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already struggling families.

Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.

Yet clearly the shutdown will also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”

We are not at that stage yet. But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the selfish stockpiling of the greedy.

For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.

For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.

Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?

We’ve suffered pandemics before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on population figures).  

How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.

Take time out on the towpath

THE Chilterns may be a fair distance from the sea, but that’s no excuse for not getting down to the waterside for a ramble this month.

With the Thames rushing down to London from Oxford and the slightly more sedate Grand Union Canal linking Paddington Basin in West London with Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Birmingham, there’s no shortage of towpaths and cosy canalside cafes to explore.

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For wintry walks and an escape from traffic, the network provides a glorious break from office routine, with a stroll promising the opportunity to spot birds and wildlife, study industrial landmarks or just become a lazy “gongoozler” watching canal life from the towpath.And that’s one of the reasons we’ve added ‘Waterside wanders’ as a regular monthly reminder of the delights on our doorstep that we often take for granted.

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It’s one of half a dozen free attractions that can provide a day out with a difference for cash-strapped families – and the Canal & River Trust website offers a range of maps and downloadable regional guides, as well as tips about nature spotting and details of open days and special events.

On its way through Reading, Henley, Windsor and Hampton Court, the Thames offers countless different vistas, and the Thames Path is a national trail offering walkers the chance to “follow the greatest river in England for 184 miles from its source in the Cotswold hills to the sea”.

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From unspoilt rural villages to the heart of London, England’s longest river has been an integral feature of the country’s trade and culture since pre-Roman times.The Queen later recalled how she once sailed up the Thames to London with Winston Churchill in 1954. “One saw this dirty commercial river as one came up and he was describing it as the silver thread which runs through the history of Britain,” she said. “He saw things in a very romantic and glittering way.”

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As popular today with pleasure craft as it’s always been, today the Thames boasts a range of towpath treats from rushing weirs to intriguing locks, from remote river banks reminiscent of Wind In The Willows to bustling towns like Henley and Marlow, with their races and regattas.From Hurley Lock to Maidenhead, Bourne End, Cookham and Cliveden, this is a world of weekend walks and messing about in boats, of riverside pubs and cosy cafes where you can watch the world drift by.

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And if the pace of the Thames is too frantic, there’s always the Grand Union linking London to Birmingham or, out in Berkshire, the Kennet & Avon Canal striking west for a hundred miles from Reading towards Newbury and Hungerford on its way to Bath and Bristol.With a range of free maps and guides to help you find your way around the network, the Canal & River Trust is eager to get the message across that getting active down by the waterside could be a perfect way to enjoy a happier and healthier life. 

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From sailing and canoeing trips to boating holidays, fishing, art and cultural events, there’s no shortage of things to do – and if you like getting your sleeves rolled up, the trust relies on an army of towpath volunteers to keep the network thriving.Check out the Canal & River Trust website for events, free guides and more information about the industrial heritage of the local canal network. And keep a check on our What’s On pages every month for local events across the Chilterns area. 

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‘Delight in the little things’

DELIGHT in the little things, said Kipling – yet all too often the simple daily pleasures slip past us without us taking the time to savour them.

These days there’s an added problem for the selfie generation: everyone is so busy taking pictures for Instagram or Snapchat that the chance to properly relish a reunion with old friends, an extraordinary meal or stunning view is sometimes undermined or lost completely.

It’s the perennial challenge for travel writers and bloggers, of course. Do you soak up that chance conversation with strangers, the scent of exotic spices in the souk or the interminable bus journey through the mountains without capturing a picture for posterity, or do you spend all your time looking at life through a lens?

On the first day of March, with the sun streaming in through the bedroom window after what seems like weeks of gales and torrential downpours, the birds are in full song and, to quote Wodehouse: “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way around – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.”

And so, turning away for a moment from the grim TV news about coronavirus, locust plagues and war, what are the small reasons to celebrate this week?

One small highlight is the return of an old friend, Fez the pheasant. Or, to be a little more realistic, an avian relation that looks remarkably like Fez, resplendent in his splendid waistcoat, who became a regular visitor round the bird feeder last year.

This year’s lookalike only pays a brief morning visit before scuttling off in a panic, but we hope he will return – like his majestic cousin, so beautifully captured on camera by Roy Battell of The Moorhens and circulated to followers in one of his weekly newsletters.

Other seasonal highlights include the daffodils providing a welcome splash of colour around the nearby Cliveden estate, prompting the predictable outpouring of Wordsworth quotes and perhaps a less well known quote from the Twitter account of @A_AMilne: “I affirm that the daffodil is my favourite flower. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes, but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Yes, a favourite flower must be a spring flower.”

And although the slog up from the river to the house at Cliveden can be a thigh-wearying climb, it’s worth it to look back over the sunlight fading over the swollen Thames.

Other little pleasures in recent weeks have been culinary surprises like an enticing cream tea at the Crazy Bear farm shop, a tasty vegetarian lasagne at the Grocer at 15 in Amersham Old Town, an outstanding Sunday lunch at Flowerland in Bourne End and a tasty bacon butty at The Barn Cafe in picturesque Turville Heath.

Not that we’re name-dropping, I hasten to add. But it was nice to be able to recognise the quality of local produce in our post for the Rearing & Growing page, which was shared on some local tourism websites.

It’s been an exciting week for our website too, because our friends at cbacontent have been helping us finally sort out our top destinations for our What’s On pages, installing links to more than 50 top family attractions across the Chilterns, from free museums to Whipsnade Zoo.

The toughest thing with an outdoors magazine is sitting at the computer when you want to be outdoors, of course – and a call from the kitchen reminds me that we should be getting our boots back on to get back out there – actually delighting in those little things, and not just writing about them…

True taste of the Chilterns

THE distinctive Chilterns landscape has been shaped by centuries of agriculture – and food and drink remain an essential feature of our local heritage.

From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a working countryside home to quintessentially English pubs, ancient woodlands and picturesque chalk streams, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to countless episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

It many no longer boast “bodgers” in the woods, or as many watercress farms and cherry orchards as it once did, but the landscape known as London’s larder is still home to many artisan food and drink producers, as well as the historic coaching inns, upmarket restaurants, farmers’ markets and food festivals.

On the doorstep of the nation’s capital, an hour from central London, this is a haven for flourishing wildlife populations boasting a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

From fine dining, famous chefs and Michelin stars in Bray, Chinnor, Cookham or Marlow to ancient inns like the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, this is a world where you can take your pick from heartwarming soups to signature dishes.

Smart gastropubs jostle for your attention with sleepy village locals with carved beams, sunny beer gardens and 12th-century churches when you fully expect to bump into Inspector Barnaby.