Take an amble around Hambleden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free pass for time travellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objects tell Bucks’ special story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project unearths iron age hillfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designs to stand the test of time

WHAT makes a truly iconic design?

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

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

Morris Minor postal van by the roadside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

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.

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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Final home for fallen comrades

CANADIAN visitors to Cliveden might be surprised to find a peaceful corner of the estate set aside for a small war cemetery paying tribute to their fallen countrymen.

When the First World War broke out, Cliveden was a grand country estate well known for its exclusive parties and famous guests.

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But Waldorf Astor (later 2nd Viscount Astor) offered part of the estate as a military hospital, and the Canadian Red Cross took up the offer.

The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital opened in 1915 and by the end of the war was treating up to 600 injured personnel at a time.

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Nancy Astor was often seen helping out in the hospital and famous visitors included Winston Churchill and King George V.

Of the 24,000 troops treated there, only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.

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A mosaic floor was replaced by turf in which grave stones were later set and a sculpture was created especially by Australian sculptor Bertram MacKennal.

He was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure for which it is thought he used Nancy’s features as inspiration for the face.

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Today the War Memorial Garden contains 40 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. MacKennal’s statue overlooks the graves and below it reads the inscription: ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’

In September 1939 Waldorf Astor again offered the use of the land and the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital was built. A further two war graves on the site date from World War II.

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Hidden history under our feet

Guest writer Dr Wendy Morrison, project manager of Beacons of the Past, explains how local people can help uncover the secrets of our ancient Chilterns landscape

THE Chiltern Hills have been a focal point for people for thousands of years.

Any walk or ride through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will take you past sites and monuments that stretch across huge spans of time and yet have survived the ravages of millennia and subsequent human activity.

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In between Ice Ages, the region was sporadically occupied by people in search of game to eat and flint for making tools. These ancient artefacts are found all over the Chilterns, left by hunter-gatherers from 150,000 years ago up until the last of the Ice Ages (c. 11,000 years ago).

The warming landscape was filled with herds of deer and horse which were the main diet for the Mesolithic (9000-4500BC) people. The chalk streams and valleys were the perfect place for these nomadic groups.

The first substantial human alterations to the Chilterns begin in the Neolithic (4500-2200 BC) when farming technology begins to be practiced. Although the homes people lived in have long disappeared, we can see traces of what they were up to at places like Waulud’s Bank, a monumental enclosure in Marsh Farm, Luton.

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We also know some of the places they buried their dead, in long barrows at Halton, Gerrards Cross, and Whiteleaf Hill. Some of the trackways they used to get around the landscape are still in use today!

The introduction of metals in the Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) to the Chilterns opened up a lot of possibilities to the people living here.

We can see the field systems that outline their agricultural activities at Pitstone Hill as well as their cemeteries – collections of barrow mounds – at Dunstable Downs and at Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Chilterns’ earliest hillfort was built around 1100 BC and where an incredible bronze sword was found.

The enigmatic earthworks collectively known as Grim’s Ditch are seen at various points across the AONB but can best be visited along the Ridgeway National Trail between Nuffield and Mongewell. Although little is known about these features, this particular section of Grim’s Ditch has been dated to the Iron Age.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an Iron Age farmstead recreated at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The period we call the Iron Age ushered in the ability to increase production of grain on the Chiltern fields. Iron tools meant that more difficult soils could be tilled, surplus crops could be grown, and the resulting prosperity mean that some people could show off their wealth and power through the construction of enormous earthworks.

Some of our Chiltern hillforts were certainly these kinds of expressions of power. Some, however, may have had more humble functions, such as places of refuge during conflict or enclosures for livestock.

In the Chilterns we have at least 20 hillforts, varied and unique, and with stunning views. Visit Pulpit Hill, Cholesbury Camp, Church Hill, or Medmenham Camp to take in a sample of these ancient monuments.

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PULPIT HILL: the Iron Age enclosure                  PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

The Chilterns are steeped in prehistoric remains, and a new LiDAR survey of the entire area is revealing hundreds of new features.

Beacons of the Past – a National Lottery funded project to discover more about the Chilterns Iron Age hillforts – flew a bespoke LiDAR survey of the Chilterns earlier in the year, the first of its kind in this area and the largest high-resolution archaeological survey ever flown in the UK.

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RAMPARTS: traces of the past at Pulpit Hill       PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

Encompassing 1400 km2, the survey is revealing hundreds of new archaeological sites across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The project team are asking for the public’s contribution to view and interpret the results of the data gathered by the LiDAR visualisations; in many cases these will be people who may have spent decades exploring the Chilterns landscape or those who live in it, and who will bring a unique perspective to the project.

The team will offer comprehensive training and tutorials to teach LiDAR interpretative skills, allowing users to decipher the results of the data and enter the findings on an online portal at chilternsbeacons.org.

This will enable anyone in the world to discover new archaeological features in the Chilterns from their computer. Encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with a resource that is usually accessible to a handful of researchers will open up the landscape for greater understanding and appreciation, and when we appreciate and understand a place, we begin to take more active roles in caring for it.

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AERIAL VIEW: Pulpit Hill © Google Earth; LiDAR image © Chilterns Conservation Board

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

Results will be used to further engage communities with their heritage, through work in schools, with youth groups, public talks and workshops. The new discoveries will be made available to the relevant Heritage Environment Record officers in the four counties and will also help heritage managers, archaeologists and policy makers to consider how they look after the Chilterns landscape.

LiDAR, standing for “Light Distance and Ranging,” also known as Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS), is a survey technique that has been used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years. It has aided in the discovery of new sites and is particularly important for its ability to show archaeology beneath tree cover.

The Chilterns Conservation Board was set up following the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB. The Board, which also aims to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities, is supported by Defra and all local authorities in the area.

For further information follow @ChilternsAONB, @Hillfortian, and @edpev7 or search #Chilforts. Dr Morrison can be contacted at wmorrison@chilternsaonb.org.

Saintly refuge at Stonor

THE SHEER sense of serenity you encounter at Stonor on a sunny day makes it hard to associate the place with persecution and torture.

But this extraordinary Oxfordshire home has some remarkable stories to tell and played a unique part in the history of English Catholicism.

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Today, basking in the September sunlight, the only sound to be heard across the 1760 deer park is the clack of a cricket ball and occasional cries from approval from the small crowd round the green at the Stonor Cricket Club across the main Henley road, which overlooks the estate.

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But although Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years, it was let to the National Benzol Company during the war and was empty when the family moved back in 1945. Many family possessions were sold off during subsequent years of financial hardship.

It was only in 1978 that the current Lord Camoys was able to buy and start renovating the house, opening it to the public in 1979 and buying back many portraits, pictures and other possessions which had been sold.

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It has been an extraordinary achievement, because there’s a wonderful sense of peace and warm about the manor house which the poet John Betjeman remarked upon – and the same sense of serenity can be found in the park and gardens.

Parts of the house date from the 13th century but the site has been inhabited for longer than that, as witnessed by the circle of standing stones by the front drive, deposited during the Ice Age and used as a pagan site of worship.

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The family name (de Stonore in the 14th century) comes from the stones – and the crest, appropriately, is a hill with prominent stones.

But while the children might want to explore the adventure playground out in the woodland, it’s inside the house and 13th century chapel that the real story of Stonor Park unfolds.

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This is where we first encounter those darker memories of centuries of persecution which followed the Reformation, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope and unleashed a harsh crackdown against all those regarded as being guilty of heresy.

Any priest found on English soil was guilty of treason (as was anyone who harboured him), and that included a scholar by the name of Edmund Campion who had once found favour with the Queen as a young man.

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Campion had been born in London and studied in Oxford before moving to Dublin, Douai and ultimately travelling on foot to Rome to become a Jesuit priest. He had been a professor in Prague before the Jesuit mission to England began and he arrived in London in June 1580 disguised as a jewel merchant, and began to preach.

He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire while he started to work on his Decem Rationes (“Ten Reasons”), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church.

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Upstairs in a hidden room behind a chimneybreast at Stonor is where he and his colleagues hid their printing press which was used to print the famous tract – 400 copies were distributed on the benches of the university church in Oxford, causing a great sensation.

The hunt for Campion was stepped up and the “seditious Jesuit” was arrested at a house in Berkshire and soon publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in London in December 1581, at the age of 41.

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Back at Stonor, Dame Cecily and her son John were taken to the Tower of London too, but Dame Cecily refused to conform to the Established Church – meaning that the tiny family chapel is one of only a handful in the country to have remained Catholic despite 250 years of persecution.

Several rooms in the main house are open to the public, including the Gothic Revival hall dating from 1350, the library, drawing room and bedrooms. Throughout, there are dozens of portraits, photographs and family artefacts, meticulously documented in a “hand list” of contents.

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Outside there’s time to unwind in the tranquil gardens to the rear of the house or meander up to the terraces which provide views across the roofs of the house to the park beyond, where the fallow deer may be seen grazing while red kites and buzzards glide on the thermals overhead.

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Although the house and chapel are only open on Sundays in September and are generally closed until April, there are a number of special events planned, from an autumn food festival in October to candlelit tours of the house decorated for Christmas.

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For full details of prices, opening times and future events, see the main Stonor House website.

Berkshire’s first lady of fashion

IT’S hard to imagine quite how dramatic the state of disrepair at Basildon House was after the war.

Exploring the Grade I listed building today, or sauntering round its 400 acres of parkland, you are greeted with a lovingly restored Georgian country house maintained by the National Trust.

But that’s largely down to the vision and hard work of one extraordinary woman, Renée Lady Iliffe, who first saw the building in 1952 after it had suffered years of military occupation.

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“To say it was derelict is hardly good enough,” Lady Iliffe wrote later. “No window was left intact, and most were repaired with cardboard or plywood.”

Walls were covered with signatures and grafitti from various wartime occupants and there was no sign of modernisation other than an army washroom catering for six people at a time.

Nonetheless, despite the cold and damp, the empty rooms and broken windows, she had fallen in love with the place and would spend the next 25 years carefully restoring it to its former glory.

“There was still an atmosphere of former elegance, and a feeling of great solidity. Carr’s house was still there, damaged but basically unchanged,” she wrote.

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Lady Iliffe was born on the island of Mauritius and the family home was a remote and beautiful 5,000-acre plantation. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the family were increasingly strapped for cash and Renée, the eldest of four children, grew up to be sturdily independent.

But her life changed dramatically through the intervention of her aunt Edith, who insisted that the family decamp to England and paved the way for the family’s assimilation into the English aristocracy.

Cultivated and exotic, with film-star looks, Renée was introduced to Langton Iliffe, and the couple fell in love and married in December 1938 – an event captured for posterity by Pathe News.

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Renée Iliffe soon set about the task of transforming their new home, honing a talent for interior decoration she had first show during the war, and establishing herself as a skilled and generous hostess – so much so that the couple’s lifestyle at Basildon Park would feature in the July 1966 edition of Vogue.

That photoshoot, along with the famous weekend parties in the 1950s and 60s where Lord and Lady Iliffe entertained guests such as Princess Grace of Monaco and artist Graham Sutherland, inspired a special display of select pieces of designer couture from the Fashion and Textile museum which runs until November 18.

From Chanel and Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior, 18 dresses and gowns are on display, including items owned and worn by Lady Iliffe herself.

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She was a skilled and generous hostess whose genius was said to be her ability to create an atmosphere in which comfort was mixed with elegance, and to inject it with a sense of fun.

Sebastian Conway, the Trust’s house and collections manager – and whose pictures feature above and below – said: “The vivid life and colour that filled this house at weekends has for a long time been missing. It’s about time we celebrated Lord and Lady Iliffe’s socialite side, as they brought prestige and recognition to Basildon Park with their dazzling dinners and glamorous parties for their celebrity guests.

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She and Lord Iliffe lived happily at Basildon for many years and, after presenting it in 1978 to the National Trust along with a handsome endowment, remained there as tenants. He had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1960 and died in 1996, while Lady Iliffe died in 2007 at the age of 90.

The Palladian house itself was built by John Carr of York for Francis Sykes, who made a fortune in service with the East India Company, while the interiors were completed for the Liberal MP James Morrison, who bought Basildon in 1838.

But the house stood empty and neglected throughout the first half of the 20th century.

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Nowadays the interior boasts a richly decorated neo-classical hall, a spectacular staircase hall, an octagonal drawing room with heavy Italianate ceilings and a slightly overwhelming upstairs shell room created by Lady Iliffe.

It has to be said that the floral pinks and ornate fifties feel of some of the upstairs rooms are not to every taste, but for those unmoved by fashion and youngsters wanting to let off steam, the 400 acres of parkland provide plenty of space to escape from the house into the sunlight.

Although substantially damaged by wartime tank training, the long-term restoration of the grounds continues today and the parkland walks provide the opportunity to escape from the crowds, even on busy weekends.

For full details about Basildon Park and its history, along with prices and admission times, visit the National Trust’s main website.

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Surprise guests at the palace

YOU can never be too sure who you might run into at Hampton Court Palace.

It might be a sneaky fox sunbathing among the flowers – or possibly even a rogue monarch stopping for a chat in the Tudor garden.

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Henry turns out to be a lot more approachable in real life than the history books might have had us believe.

But maybe that’s because this Henry is one of the actors playing Tudor roles around the site, nowadays a major tourist attraction run by the Historic Royal Palaces charity, which also looks after the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, among others.

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It’s an atmospheric touch much appreciated by many of the thousands of visitors who travel here to find out more about Royal history, or just explore the impressive landscaped gardens.

A major appeal of the palace is the chance to discover more about the public dramas and private lives of Henry VIII, his wives and children, and the extraordinary world of the Tudor court.

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Nowhere is that more vividly on show that in the vast kitchens – one of the king’s earliest building works designed to turn the palace into a principal residence, no easy task given the 1,000-strong size of his household retinue.

Despite owning more than 60 sixty houses and palaces, none of them was really equipped for entertaining on the scale Henry VIII envisaged, so this 1529 transformation was perfect.

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Perhaps it was equally predictable that Henry should be enthusiastic about adding a huge feasting room to the palace. His Great Hall was the last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy and took five years to complete, even with the masons working through the night by candlelight.

But Hampton Court isn’t all about Henry, and there really is an extraordinary amount to take in (so much so that you will want to return again, so the family membership fee for unlimited access to all six of the royal palaces makes a lot more sense than the day tickets).

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When William III and Mary II (1689-1702) took the throne in 1689, within months of their accession they embarked on a massive rebuilding project, commissioning Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace surrounded by formidable landscaped gardens.

Today, the palace houses hundreds of works of art and furnishings from the Royal Collection, mainly dating from the two principal periods of the palace’s construction, the early Tudor and late Stuart to early Georgian period, and ranging from Mantegna’s impressive Triumphs of Caesar in the Lower Orangery to numerous pieces of blue and white porcelain collected by Queen Mary II.

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But that sheer variety of attractions is perhaps the greatest delight of Hampton Court. Even though the Royals left here in 1737, ever since Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public in 1838 it has been a magnet for millions of visitors.

Whether it’s the formal grandeur of the great Tudor kitchens and hall, the stories of ghosts, the famous maze or the fabulous art collection, there’s no shortage of different delights and distractions, from the magnificent chapel to the biggest vine in the world (the ‘Great Vine’, planted in 1768 by Capability Brown and still producing a huge annual crop of grapes).

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Free audio tours allow visitors to make the most of the experience and thousands of Trip Advisor reviews are testimony to the enduring appeal of the palace.

The Magic Garden is an interactive play garden inspired by Hampton Court’s long history, while the gardeners have worked wonders in recent years to reconstruct the kitchen garden which once grew all the local fruit and vegetables for the Royal dining table.

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Note the word local, because of course the king had no qualms about importing the most exotic delicacies from around the world to grace the tables in the Great Hall – and some of the extraordinary menus on display there do much to explain Henry’s imposing girth.

Time was when three sunken gardens were originally ponds used to house freshwater fish such as carp and bream for the Royal table, although when Mary II arrived at the palace, these sunken, sheltered, south-facing gardens were used to house her collection of exotic plants.

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There’s a whole lot more which could be said about the palace of course, but why not set aside some time to pay Henry a proper visit?

See the main website for full details about prices, attractions and special events at Hampton Court Palace as well as those at other HRP destinations like the Tower of London and Kew.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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Time to start seeing the light

OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.

And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.

Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.

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THREE KINGS: Christians mark Epiphany on January 6  [PICTURE: Inbal Malca, Unsplash]

The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.

As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.

But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).

There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.

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TIMELESS TALE: the story of the Nativity                               [PICTURE:Dan Kiefer, Unsplash]

Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.

By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.

The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.

In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.

So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!

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Another glimpse of hidden London

MANY visitors to London’s Central Criminal Court never see the statue of Lady Justice straddling the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey.

Yet this is the statue used to illustrate countless news reports of the great criminal trials which have taken place here across the years.

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There’s been a court here since the 16th century, attached for much of its history to the adjoining Newgate prison, and it has witnessed hundreds of thousands of trials, including some of the most notorious and newsworthy.

Back in the 19th century, hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside and the condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court to be met by riotous crowds pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables.

Those crowds have long gone, but high on the dome above the court stands that bronze statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor F W Pomeroy, erected in 1906 and holding a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left.

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It’s an iconic image that harks back to her origins as Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice introduced by Emperor Augustus and subsequently a figure which every Roman emperor wanted to be associated with.

Though formally called a goddess with her own temple and cult shrine in Rome, it appears she was viewed more as a symbolic personification rather than as an actual deity with religious significance.

Today, she gazes down on streets steeped in history, although so much of this part of London was destroyed in the war and buried by modern monstrosities that you have to look hard to find those hidden traces of the city’s past.

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One such establishment is the Viaduct Tavern, a Victorian gin palace built to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct and with numerous claims over the years that its cellars incorporate old prison cells from Newgate Prison.

The Fuller’s pub is certainly in the right location for that – and it is also likely the pub stands on land which was the original site of a debtors’ prison which operated until 1853.

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Across the road and down a side street  and you find yourself in front of Cutlers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the most ancient of the City of London livery companies.

It its first Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416 and, as was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained.

Their business was producing and trading in knives, swords, and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time the emphasis shifted from implements of war to cutlery and other domestic wares such as razors and scissors.

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A ‘House of the Cutlers’ mentioned in 1285 is the earliest recorded regular meeting place of the Cutlers, but the current building (the fifth such hall) dates from 1888 and survived a great fire bomb raid on December 29th 1940 which left only St Paul’s Cathedral and Cutlers’ Hall standing virtually unscathed amongst the devastation.

Back up Newgate Street and in the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden you can find a much more recent tribute to the city’s past, commemorating Christ’s Hospital School’s 350-year presence in the City of London from 1552 until 1902, when the school moved to Horsham in West Sussex.

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The bronze sculpture by Andrew Brown was selected following an open competition run by The City of London Corporation.

From here, it’s but a short walk to Fleet Street and the first of many hostelries to have resonated with the exchanges of generations of journalists. The Punch Tavern is a Grade II listed refurbished 19th century gin palace once known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf.

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It is said to have been renamed in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from the nearby Punch magazine, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which was at its most influential at that time, when it helped to coin the term ‘cartoon’ in its modern sense as a humorous illustration.

After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.

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Almost next door is another Fleet Street pub with a proud history, the Old Bell Tavern. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, The Old Bell Tavern has been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years.

The claim is that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to house his masons as they rebuilt St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire of London. Certainly it is still sought out by journalists returning for services at the church, with its centuries-old connections with the printing industry.

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Down in the crypt, the church chronicles 2,000 years of its history, which began with the Romans some six centuries before the name of St Bride, daughter of an Irish prince,  emerged from legend to become associated forever with the site.

By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins, a succession of churches had existed on the site for a millennium. It took nine years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren, and for the next two centuries his unmistakeable wedding-cake steeple cast a long shadow over the rise of the British newspaper industry.

In 1940, St Bride’s fell victim once again to flames as German incendiary bombs reduced Wren’s architectural jewel to a roofless shell. This time 17 years elapsed before rebuilding was completed.

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Generations of newspapermen and women have prayed here and feel a special affinity for the place. Many have been married here – while others have come to honour dead colleagues, whose pictures stand on a side altar beside flickering candles.

After exploring the long history of the “journalists’ church”, it’s probably time for another convivial Fleet Street pint, perhaps this time in The Tipperary, which can claim to be the “original” Irish pub outside Ireland.

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On a site which was once an island between the River Thames and River Fleet, a dribble of which is said to still run under the pub, The Boar’s Head was built in 1605 and, being made of stone and brick rather than wood, survived the Great Fire.

In around 1700 the S G Mooney & Son Brewery chain of Dublin purchased the pub and fitted it out in traditional Irish style. It became the first outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft, and was renamed in 1918 by the printers who came back from the Great War in honour of the song “It’s a long way”.

Greene King bought the pub in the 1960s and refitted the interior to the style of Mooney’s days, recapturing the original character of the 1700s.

Emboldened by an authentic pint of Guinness, there might just be time to pop across the road and visit another venerable Fleet Street watering hole which did not fare so well in the Great Fire.

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Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of London pubs to have been rebuilt shortly after the fire, although there was a pub here from 1538 and the establishment is chiefly known for its literary associations and lack of natural lighting, which lends a gloomy charm to its many little side rooms, bars and passages.

Hidden down a narrow alleyway and decorated with wood panelling from at least the 19th century, the pub boasts plaques showing famous people who were regulars, and who may have ranged from Dickens and Chesterton to Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Talking of Dr Johnson, there may be time to look in on the charming nearby 300-year-old townhouse where the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language.

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Today, the hidden gem is open to the public with a collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features. But if you are pressed for time, there’s one famous local character you must look in on before saying a fond farewell to Fleet Street – Dr Johnson’s beloved cat, Hodge.

Hodge is remembered by a bronze statue unveiled in Gough Square in 1997 showing the cat sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary.

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Sculptor Jon Bickley made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult – just about right for putting an arm around. Most of the information on Hodge comes from Boswell’s account:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

Snatch a glimpse of London’s past

LONDON’S skyline is under attack.

Well, in truth it has been under attack for years, but it’s only now that we can fully appreciate the scale of the onslaught as dozens of high-rise buildings reach completion.

When architecture critic Rowan Moore highlighted the problem back in 2014, more than 200 towers were being planned across the city, in urban and suburban locations alike.

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But it’s telling that today the London Town website actually says that this part of London is “aesthetically defined by its towers” and even suggests venues where high-rise visitors might want to savour a vertigo-inducing glass of bubbly and pricey meal while taking in the view of what remains of our once glorious capital.

Moore discusses the aesthetic dangers and practical drawbacks of this race to look like Dubai, Shanghai or New York, but if you haven’t wandered round the backstreets of the City lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that every cobble, every tiny alleyway, is being transformed – mainly into offices or high-rise luxury penthouse blocks.

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Much of that is driven by overseas investment – and a glance in the estate agent’s window quickly establishes that no “normal” rent-payer would find it easy to pick up a bargain around here, even in the few bijou low-rise developments which remain.

Property agents confirmed this month that overseas investors had shrugged off Brexit worries to invest nearly  £7bn in London property in 2018 – ahead of Hong Kong and Paris.

The only consolation is in tiny alleys and hidden squares there are a few remnants of the old city for the wanderer to stumble upon.

The main tourist attractions like St Paul’s still provide visitors with a focal point, of course. Sadly Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign during the Blitz saw swathes of central London flattened in 1940 and 1941, leaving only blue plaques to remind us of some of the buildings which had graced the historic square mile since that other great London disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.

The Museum of London is a great place to start an exploration of London’s past – and when it moves to its new home beside Smithfield Market it should be an even more fascinating attraction.

But what remains of that historic capital, the Roman and medieval city largely hidden under our feet? There are still glimpses of London’s history down dark alleys and quaintly named closes, although it has to be said much of it is masked by traffic fumes and the detritus of modern living.

Between the high-rise blocks, London’s financial heart has become relentlessly hipster in mood and appearance, although the obsession with quality coffee is nothing new. London’s coffee houses were famed across the centuries, even if Samuel Johnson declared himself  ‘a hardened and shameless tea drinker’.

But where to start after you emerge from the overheated hubbub of the Central Line in rush hour and step aside from the frantic City hordes to take your breath outstide St Paul’s?

Down on Ludgate Hill it’s reassuring to see an old Routemaster bus struggling to make any progress down towards Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street, but this throwback to the past is something of a sop to the tourists.

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The vehicle itself is authentic enough, now more than 50 years old, having been originally delivered to London Transport in July 1964.

But it was withdrawn from service in the 1980s and spent time in Hampshire, Perth and Glasgow before being selected as one of a handful of buses to operate “heritage routes” through London – in this case from St Paul’s down to Trafalgar Square.

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More authentic, perhaps – and a lot less well known – is a small park round the corner from St Paul’s which provides a welcome splash of green among the concrete.

Postman’s Park has an intriguing history in its own right, occupying an amalgamation of three burial grounds and taking its name from the fact that when it opened in 1880 it became a popular haunt with postal workers from the nearby General Post Office.

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Efforts to resist the attention of Victorian property developers in the 1890s ensured that the park was saved for posterity and when it reopened in 1900 it incorporated an extraordinary and moving memorial to self-sacrifice, remembering ordinary “humble heroes” who had lost their lives endeavouring to save the lives of others.

Chief proponents of the scheme to remember the extraordinary actions performed by everyday men, women and children were the artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) and his wife, Mary (1849 – 1938).

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The Watts Memorial contains 54 memorial tablets commemorating 62 individuals. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007.

A short walk from the park is a somewhat grimmer memorial on the outer wall of St Bartholomew Hospital in Smithfield paying tribute to Sir William Wallace, one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence – most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart” – who was executed nearby on August 23, 1305.

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Wallace was charged with treason, to which he responded that he could not be guilty, for he had never sworn fealty to Edward I. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to the traitor’s death, one of the most vicious punishments devised during the medieval era.

He was taken to the Tower of London where he was stripped naked and dragged behind horses to the scaffold at Smithfield. He was first hung by the neck and then cut down while still alive. He was then eviscerated and castrated, and eventually beheaded. His body was cut into four parts, and his limbs sent to the corners of Scotland as a warning to the rebellious country. His head was set on London Bridge, where it was soon joined by other Scottish rebels.

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Hidden away from the main tourist thoroughfares, Wallace’s monument is a place of pilgrimage for Scottish visitors to London, while round the corner Sherlock Holmes buffs gather to see the vacant pathology block where Benedict Cumberbatch took his famed mystery plunge in the BBC series reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

This part of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals is being redeveloped into a private healthcare facility. But opposite it is a reminder that this was once a rather seedy corner of medieval London where the Great Fire of London – ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ – finally stopped, as commemorated in a statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner.

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The fire which broke out in in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September 1666 swept across London from the Thames to Smithfield, destroying thousands of houses and more than 80 churches over five days.

Initially blamed as part of a treasonous plot by Roman Catholics, the 18th-century monument credited an alternative culprit in the shame of the extravagant feasting of well-off 17th-century Londoners.

At this corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street also stood The Fortune of War pub, a rather unsavoury drinking den where in the early 1800s corpses provided by body snatchers used to be held in a backroom for surgeons at the nearby hospital to view and purchase.

The high-rise office blocks haven’t quite obliterated this part of London yet, although they are certainly encroaching from all sides.

Not that anyone is suggesting that the medieval brothels of Cock Lane or nearby Victorian gin palaces provided a vision of London which tourists would enjoy today.

But between the soaring office blocks there are those glimpses of a different London skyline – like the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey, where the gleaming statue of Lady Justice, erected in October 1906, has long been used to sum up anything to do with the criminal justice system.

But that, as they say, another story…

See the Further Afield section of The Beyonder for additional snippets about London’s history.

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Disraeli’s secret sanctuary

ANYONE following in the footsteps of Disraeli at the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor shouldn’t miss the chance to look in on the historic church where the former prime minister once worshipped.

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Disraeli lived at Hughenden from 1848 to 1881 – and today, visitors are not just intrigued by the Victorian stateman’s county home and colourful personal history, but by the manor’s secret wartime past as a base for mapmakers.

Codenamed ‘Hillside’, Hughenden played such a critical role supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command that it was on Hitler’s list of top targets. Around 100 personnel were based here, drawing up the maps used for bombing missions during the war, including the Dam Busters raids and a planned hit on Hitler’s secret bunker at Berchtesgaden.

Skilled cartographers produced maps from aerial photographs delivered by the RAF’s reconnaissance missions – yet the operation was so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a National Trust volunteer overheard a visitor telling his grandson he’d been stationed here during the war.

But away from the cellars, one of the less obvious gems of the estate is the church of St Michael & All Angels – the “church in the park” which provides a glorious oasis of peace amid the rolling parklands so much enjoyed by ramblers and families in the summer months.

The earliest records show a church on this site in the 12th century built by Geoffrey de Clinton, but it was substantially extended and rebuilt in the 1870s. The chancel is the remaining part of the original church, and during the Victorian extension works its floor was redone with beautiful ceramic tiles, the roof altered and the walls painted.

In 1992-94 a major redecoration of the nave and chancel was undertaken and all the Victorian paintings and artwork meticulously restored.

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Disraeli is commemorated in many parts of the church but the principal memorial is on the north side of the chancel, unique in that it is the only known example of a memorial erected by a reigning monarch to one of her subjects.

Various items in the church were paid for by the Hughenden Memorial Fund, in memory of the statesman, including the organ and the murals in the chancel.

A detailed history of the church can be found on the parish website and on summer Sundays and bank holidays guests can also sample a cream tea in the historic nearby church house, which in pre-reformation days was home to six monks and a prior.

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History in the making

HISTORY comes alive at the Chiltern Open Air Museum – literally.

One minute you’re wandering past an 18th century house wondering about its former residents and the next moment a lady in period dress has popped out to fill in some of the details and answer your questions.

She is one of a small army of committed volunteers at the museum who love nothing more than bringing the past to life in a very vivid and engaging way, whether that means baking bread in the Iron Age roundhouse or taking part in a school workshop about Victorian life.

It’s the perfect place for a school visit, of course – but what can ordinary families expect to find?

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It’s the perfect antidote to anyone who finds traditional museums stuffy and offputting. There are no glass cases here, just a series of lovingly rebuilt authentic buildings dotted around the spacious 45-acre woodland site close to Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles.

It was founded in 1976 to rescue historic buildings threatened with demolition and so far more than 30 buildings have been saved and rebuilt on the site, with more in store, spanning hundreds of years of local history.

These range from medieval and Tudor barns to a toll house, forge, chapel, 1940s prefab and a working Victorian farm.

On a sunny day there’s plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around each of the different buildings – and there are a range of paths laid out in the woods for those wanting to get a little more exercise.

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For older visitors there are vivid reminders of the Second World War and post-war housing crisis, with a “prefab” from Amersham vividly capturing life in the late 1940s, right down to the Anderson Shelter in the garden and pictures on the mantelpiece of the family who lived in the building from 1948.

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Outside, despite the July heatwave there’s a flourishing and colourful vegetable garden and a Nissen hut salvaged from Bedfordshire fitted out as an RAF pilots’ briefing room, where guests young and old can try on military uniforms and gas masks.

Atmospheric audio tapes in some of the locations add to the period feel, while in others volunteers are on hand to provide more personal detail. Easy-to-read information boards provide an at-a-glance summary of key facts, with more information on the website and in a family guide available from reception for £3.50.

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We get the personal touch at Leagrave Cottages, where a volunteer is on hand to show us round the building, which started life as an 18th century barn in Bedfordshire and was converted into cottages in the 1770s.

Interviews with the Marks family who lived in one cottage from 1913 to 1928 have enabled the museum to present one cottage accurately as it would have been in the 1920s.  The other side is presented as it might have been in the 18th century.

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From here, we continue to wander through different periods of Chilterns history – from the atmospheric Henton Mission Room built in 1886 in Oxfordshire to an 1830s cottage from Haddenham with walls made of a special type of local earth called wychert.

We still haven’t got to the working Victorian farm – complete with a small selection of rare-breed livestock – and by the time we have chatted with volunteers about iron age baking techniques it’s too late for an ice cream at the tea room, which closes at 3pm on weekdays.

There’s still plenty to see, though – the blacksmith’s forge, the industrial buildings and the 1826 High Wycombe tollhouse from the London to Oxford road which was home to a family of five in the 1840s.

This is perhaps the museum’s greatest strength: its focus on the houses and workplaces of ordinary people that have gradually disappeared from the landscape, particularly in an area on London’s doorstep where the pressures of redevelopment are particularly great and where much of this heritage would otherwise have been lost.

The charity relies very much on the support of more than 200 volunteers (and its association of friends) and those individuals we encountered were relaxed, helpful and not at all pushy. You take a tour here at your own pace and you don’t get history forced down your throat.

You can host a party here, take part in a variety of organised workshops and experience days, or even get married, should you fancy a civil ceremony in the roundhouse, toll house or tin chapel.

But most families will doubtless just enjoy the opportunity to ramble around the extensive site at their own speed, piecing together snippets of local history and appreciating some magical insights into the ordinary lives of people living in this landscape all those centuries ago.

Full details of prices, options and a calendar of forthcoming events are available on the museum website.

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Landmark steeped in history

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‘CATHEDRAL OF THE DOWNS’: St Michael & All Angels at Lambourn

THERE’S a solidity to the church at Lambourn that you might expect of a landmark that has witnessed ten centuries of history.

A stone’s throw from the busy M4 motorway between Swindon and Newbury, the village provides a welcome escape from the traffic streaming west from London and the historic Grade I listed church is a cool, peaceful oasis at the heart of the village.

Nowadays Lambourn is perhaps best known as the largest centre of racehorse training in England outside Newmarket, but centuries ago it was the market town for the sheep farmers of the western Berkshire Downs – and the church of St Michael and All Angels is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’.

At least four Anglo-Saxon documents refer to the town and the church and since the association of King Alfred with this part of England is well known and Alfred was a devout Christian, it is perhaps reasonable to presume that he may have had something to do with the founding or improvement of St Michaels. The dedication of Michael the Archangel was certainly a popular one in Saxon times; the addition of All Angels came later

From the outside, the visitor’s attention is perhaps initially focused on the distinctive lych-gate.

Nowadays we tend to have forgotten the purpose of these traditional gates but the name derives from the Old English ‘lich’, meaning corpse, and they were meeting places and shelters for the party bringing a corpse for burial.

Although some had been built earlier, the 1549 Prayer Book required the priest to meet the corpse at the churchyard entrance. This encouraged the provision of lych-gates to shelter the corpse and the funeral party for that purpose.

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FUNERAL SHELTER: a lych-gate at Lenton in Lincolnshire [PICTURE: Bob Harvey]

Medieval lych-gates were made of timber and most have long since disappeared. However many new lych-gates were erected in Victorian times, sometimes as memorials to prominent local people or as war memorials.

Although the numerous ancient barrows in this area are proof of much earlier settlements, as are finds of Roman pottery in the vicinity, Norman invaders later made their presence felt and the grand nave of the church dates from the 12th century.

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IMPOSING INTERIOR: St Michael’s boasts several chantry chapels

The first written record of a church at Lambourn dates from 1032, but it seems likely there was a Saxon church here several centuries earlier and the circular shape of the churchyard suggests that the site may have been in use in Roman times.

The current church was begun in the 12th century and the core of the building dates to about 1180 and is constructed on a cruciform plan. More information about the church’s history, transepts, chapels and stained glass windows can be found on a website run by the Friends of St Michael.

By the 13th century Lambourn had assumed some importance and a charter was granted by Henry VI to allow a market and two sheep fairs a year to be held. Around this time the Market Cross in the Market Square was erected.

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PAST GLORIES: some stained glass dates from the 16th century

Inside the church a variety of chapels provide plenty to interest the passing visitor – from the Holy Trinity Chapel built in 1502 by John Estbury, featuring a tomb chest decorated with coats of arms and a brass effigy, to the North Chapel, added in the late Elizabethan period and heavily restored in 1849, which contains a wonderful table tomb to Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret.

At Sir Thomas’s head is a fiery salamander, emblem of the Essex family, while his feet rest upon a dolphin, an unusual symbol in an English church.

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CHAPEL OF REST: the table tomb of Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret

After exploring the historic delights of the various chapels, you don’t have to go far for more earthly sustenance. The George across the road is not perhaps the most impressive looking of village hostelries from the outside, but the Arkell’s inn is friendly and bustling inside and the Sunday lunch proves a unexpected delight – and excellent value for money too.

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SUNDAY LUNCH: the George at Lambourn

Lambourn Church is at Parsonage Lane, RG17 8PA and The George on High Street, Lambourn, RG17 8XU.

Slow train back in time

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GETTING UP STEAM: the preserved railway at Chinnor

THERE could hardly be a more atmospheric little station than Chinnor, on the old GWR branch line to Watlington, especially with the steam mingling with the drizzle of a foul wet Sunday.

But it takes more than a little bad weather to dampen the spirits of railway enthusiasts, and the little branch line was bustling with activity as we arrived to take our seats in the buffet car for a birthday cream tea celebration.

This was a day out booked before Christmas, but the limited winter timetable delayed the opportunity to sample the delights of what is now known as the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway.

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END OF THE LINE: semaphore signals at Chinnor station

Originally the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway Company, the eight-mile light railway was largely promoted by local land owners and authorised by  parliament in 1869. It opened in 1872 with two intermediate stations at Chinnor and Aston Rowant.

But the company immediately ran into difficulties and the Great Western Railway acquired it in 1883. Under GWR ownership the track was re-laid, with rail level halts  being opened at Bledlow Bridge, Kingston Crossing and Lewknor Bridge in 1906 and Wainhill Crossing in 1925.

But after the Second World War passenger traffic on the branch started to drop and by the mid-1950s had fallen to such a level that on July 1, 1957 the line was closed to passenger traffic.

From a personal perspective, the date is a little ironic, since the birthday we are celebrating is my own – just six months later in December, 60 years ago.

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GUEST APPEARANCE: Prairie tank engine 5526 backs on to the coaches

And talking of birthdays, this is also a special year for the engine now backing on to the train, No 5526, one of a series of small ‘Prairie’ steam engines built at Swindon in May 1928.

The ‘4575’ class engine has been loaned to Chinnor for her 90th birthday year courtesy of the South Devon Railway, another former GWR branch line which runs along the stunning valley of the River Dart between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.

There’s another small irony here, although not one I become aware of until researching the history of the engine, which will be hauling all steam services on the Chinnor line throughout 2018. This is not the first time we have met, it seems – although on the last occasion the engine was in a pretty sorry state and it would have been hard to visualise it ever being in steam again.

It’s one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on branch lines. A development of Churchward’s 4500 class, they were numbered 4575–4599 and 5500–5574; this one was apparently built at Swindon Works as part of Lot 251 and cost the princely sum of £3,602.

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GETTING UP STEAM: conversation on the footplate of 5526

For 30 years the engine was almost exclusively based in the West Country, for much of the time at Truro, where workings would have included branch line services to places like Falmouth and Newquay.

These are the sorts of routes which get enthusiasts all misty-eyed because they were often so atmospheric – and in many cases long gone, especially once Dr Beeching got to grips with the loss-making network in the early 1960s.

In my pre-grouping atlas showing the old Great Western lines which existed before the war, these little spurs on the map always smacked of tiny stations like this one at Chinnor, condensation on the windows and steam and smuts in the air. And the branches down in Cornwall and Devon always counted among the most intriguing because of their picturesque seaside and moorland locations.

But there were plenty closer to home too, like this one to Watlington and those nearby, like Wallingford, Abingdon, Blenheim & Woodstock and Henley-on-Thames.

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TIME FOR TEA: passengers gather at Chinnor Station ahead of the 3pm departure

By March 1959 5526 had moved from Truro to Westbury and its final years in British Railways days were spent on local passenger and goods workings to destinations like Swindon and Bristol.

It was withdrawn from service in 1962 after travelling almost a million miles in 34 years, and sold for scrap to Woodham Brothers in South Wales on August 28, 1962.

And that’s when I last saw this particular engine, it transpires, because Dai Woodham’s famous Barry scrapyard became a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts as the last resting place of almost 300 steam locomotives.

The story of the scrapyard is an extraordinary one, told on the Great Western Archive. Dai Woodham admitted having to travel to Swindon Works for a week in 1959 to “learn” how to scrap a steam locomotive, with old engines lining up in their hundreds in sidings around the country following BR’s 1955 modernisation plan decision to scrap some 16,000 of them.

By the end of steam in August 1968 there were still some 217 engines remaining at Barry, with the realisation dawning on enthusiasts and preservationists that this was now the only remaining source of steam locomotives which might be rescued for future generations.

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GRAVEYARD: Floyd Nello’s Wikipedia picture of Barry

5526 languished for 23 years in the corrosive sea air of Barry, and it was there that I stumbled across it as a teenager in June 1971, one of 70 former GWR engines in those grim sidings on that summer’s day, stripped to rusting shells but many reserved for posterity by different groups of enthusiasts desperately raising funds to rescue the locomotive of their choice.

And so it was for 5526, it seems, which was finally reprieved in July 1985 when it became the 166th locomotive to be saved from the cutter’s torch at Barry Island, moving initially to the Gloucester and Warwickshire Railway before finally arriving at Buckfastleigh on the South Devon Railway, to be fully restored.

Looking at the engine today, it’s hard to believe the transformation from that rusting hulk at Barry – and it’s quite an emotional reunion.

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BACK FROM THE DEAD: 5526 prepares for the short journey to Princes Risborough

Back on the station platform at Chinnor, passengers are beginning to mill around in the drizzle while volunteers prepare the buffet car ahead of the 3pm departure to Princes Risborough.

These days that’s all that’s left of the branch, and the volunteers are currently working on restoring a platform at Princes Risborough so that the preserved line can link up with Chiltern Railways main line there.

Back in 1957 when the line closed, the various halts were shut immediately, but the stations remained open for goods and parcel traffic until January 1961, after which the section from Chinnor to Watlington was closed completely and the track lifted.

The line from Chinnor to Princes Risborough was retained to serve the cement works and the wood yard in the village, with the final freight train to the cement works running in 1989 and maintenance of the branch being handed over to the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway Association the following year.

The first passenger service ran in 1994 and was extended to Thame Junction in 1996, although the battle to run trains into Princes Risborough was to take another two decades, as the railway’s website explains.

For now, though, all attention is beginning to turn to afternoon tea as we are ushered to our seats and get ready for the seven-mile round trip.

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BIRTHDAY GREETINGS: on board the 1959 buffet car

Our end of the carriage has been cheerfully decorated in honour of the various birthdays being celebrated by diners – I’m one of three, it seems, and feel a bit of a fraud as four months have passed since the milestone in question, but the buffet team are determined not to let the occasion go unnoticed. There’s even a birthday card on the table from the staff.

This is one of the old British Railways Mark I coaches built in the 1950s and early 1960s and once to be found on locomotive-hauled trains pretty much everywhere across the system.

They were long-lived too, gradually disappearing during the 1970s and 80s as new coaching stock was introduced, although remarkably some stayed in use until 2005, with many subsequently turning up on preserved railways like this one.

Reinvigorating these old carriages doesn’t come cheap, though – and there’s an envelope on the table for contributions as a reminder of the high price of our plush-looking seats and the long slow progress of restoration generally.

This particular 1959 carriage (a “restaurant miniature buffet” in formal railway parlance) was off the rails for 10 months in 2010 for a make-over that cost more than £42,000.

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COSTLY MAKE-OVER: smart-looking seats in the restored buffet car

This carriage earns its keep, though. It’s used to serve up cream teas and ploughman’s lunches on services throughout the year and the volunteers are already hovering with teapots of boiling water to make sure that these scones and cream won’t be too easily forgotten.

Outside, the signal clangs, the guard shows a green flag and our driver gently eases the regulator open. Because the engine is running behind the train, there’s little obvious sign of steam or smoke, but in any event all eyes are on the scones and refreshing cups of tea being poured into authentic GWR cups and saucers.

The lineside guide on the railway’s website tells us we are heading for the outskirts of Chinnor and Keens Lane Crossing, where the driver may give a warning toot to walkers waiting to cross the line.

This crossing is known locally as Donkey Lane, harking back to the time when the furniture industry was in full swing and chair legs fashioned by ‘bodgers’ (itinerant wood-turners) on the beechwood slopes above, would be brought down from the hills by pack animals to be taken by train to High Wycombe.

Although the windows are beginning to steam up with the hot tea and convivial conversation, it’s still possible to return the waves of walkers on a footpath which runs parallel to the ancient Upper Icknield Way.

What is it that makes it impossible to see a steam traing without waving at it? Looking across the open fields and returning the walkers’ cheery waves, it feels like a scene from the 1970 classic film of E Nesbit’s celebrated novel, The Railway Children. It also reminds me just how evocative the idea of enjoying a meal on a train actually is.

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MEAL ON THE MOVE: the train trundles towards Princes Risborough

As a young boy in short trousers I always remember standing on the platform at South Croydon station watching the legendary Brighton Belle thundering through. The iconic 1930s luxury pullman train was electric, not steam, but with its beautiful art deco interiors and distinctive table lamps it seemed to be the epitome of fine dining to the envious eyes of a 10-year-old.

The mythology was only increased by reading articles about the train – reminiscences by the actress Dora Bryan, for example, recording the extraordinary atmosphere of breakfast on board the one-hour journey from Brighton to London.

Our meal may not quite capture the exoticism of the Brighton Belle or the Orient Express, but the stewards are avidly refilling the metal teapots and the scones are going down a treat as we slow down for Wainhill Crossing Halt.

We cross the road at a sedate pace and head on towards Bledlow Cricket Club, the overgrown watercress beds which once provided many boxes of produce to the London markets, and Thame Junction at Princes Risborough, where we pause for a few minutes before tackling the return journey.

Eventually there will be an interchange with the main line here, but for the moment volunteers are busy restoring the platform and passengers are not able to alight.

Of course the incorrigible volunteers can’t let those birthdays pass without a formal announcement, a ‘Happy Birthday’ singalong and a celebratory cake and candle for the lucky trio.

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BIRTHDAY SINGALONG: the buffet car volunteers spring a surprise

John and Sue look similarly embarrassed by all the attention, but at least it’s actually John’s birthday…it’s a sweet touch, though, and their efforts and enthusiasm are much appreciated. After all, this isn’t how I remember buffet car service in British Railways days.

A few minutes later and we are back on the move, this time with the engine in front and authentic wafts of steam and smoke floating past the window. It’s a picturesque trip along the foot of the Chilterns escarpment but although the weather is closing in and the windows are steamed up, in some ways that just makes the journey seem even more atmospheric.

It’s not long before we are back in Chinnor and saying our farewells to the buffet staff. It’s been a lovely outing, despite the drizzle: not exactly cheap at £18 a head (the normal adult fare for a round trip without the cream tea is £12), but you can’t grudge the outlay given the energy of the volunteers and the eye-watering costs involved in trying to bring the past back to life.

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JOURNEY’S END: 5526 arrives back at Chinnor

The railway is open on Sundays from mid-March to the end of October, with occasional other dates, including Thursdays in August and Santa specials in the run-up to Christmas.

There are diesel days and special galas, Hallowe’en ghost trains, fish and chip quiz nights and even murder mystery evenings, so there’s certainly no shortage of ingenuity when it comes to attracting different types of visitors, and not only those who mourn the passing of steam.

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SIGN OF THE TIMES: the restored GWR signalbox at Chinnor

Facilities at the station include a small bookshop and an 1895 Cambrian Railway coach which has been converted to a tearoom. There’s disabled access and toilets too.

Without doubt it’s a labour of love for the regulars who give up their spare time doing everything from cleaning the trains to maintaining the station gardens. There are no paid staff on the railway, so there’s always an appeal for newcomers to join the team working behind the scenes to make the venture a success.

And all credit to them, say I. Everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome – and we’ll certainly be back.

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TO THE TRAINS: the approach to Chinnor station

Pub talk: what’s in a name?

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NAME GAME: The Red Lion in Chenies, Buckinghamshire [PICTURE: Cathy Price]

PUB names intrigue, bemuse and fascinate us – and across the centuries, there must have been a million rambling conversations over a pint or two about the particular origins or meaning of a hostelry’s moniker.

Of course, some names are clear enough references to animals, plants and sports or local landowners, occupations or geographical landmarks. Some are more generic mentions of smugglers or highwaymen, ships, steam engines or other modes of transport.

Others contain references that are perhaps a little more cryptic, especially if the myths, legends, historic events and literary works are no longer as familiar as they once were.

Our knowledge of heraldry may not be sufficient to immediately recognise royal connections, for example, even though royal names feature high on the list of the most popular choices, often demonstrating the landlord’s loyalty to the crown – whether genuine or otherwise – and particularly following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Coats of arms came into general use by feudal lords and knights in armour to distinguish themselves in battle in the 12th century, although the Romans used similar insignia to identify military units.

Originally granted to individuals, they were made hereditary in England by Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) who, after his crusades in the Holy Land, is credited with introducing the “three lions” design of the Royal Arms of England which also forms the basis of several emblems of English national sports teams.

By the 13th century arms had spread from their initial battlefield use to become an emblem for families in the higher social classes across Europe, inherited from one generation to the next.

The use of arms spread to the clergy, to towns, cities and universities, trades, guilds and subsequently commercial companies. Every noble family had its own coat of arms and inns on their lands were often named after them, particularly encouraged in the 14th century when Edward III attempted to rebrand the monarchy after his father’s disastrous reign.

That explains the ubiquitous Queen’s Arms and King’s Arms, perhaps – along with the Crown, and the Queen’s and King’s Heads. But what about the Royal Oak, the White Hart and that dazzling array of lions – red, black, white and golden?

The Royal Oak refers to the oak tree in Shropshire where King Charles II hid to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The king told Samuel Pepys in 1680 how, when he was hiding in the tree, a parliamentarian soldier passed directly below it, and the story became popular after the restoration, lending the name to hundreds of pubs.

Even more popular is the Red Lion, often considered symbolic of the archetypal English pub and probably deriving from multiple origins. As Martyn Cornell argues convincingly in his Zythophile blog, the most likely source is the fact that the symbol features in the arms or crests of more than 150 local landowners the length and breadth of England.

Traditionally the red lion is also linked with James VI, having featured in the royal arms of Scotland from the 12th century and being incorporated into the coat of arms adopted by James in 1603 when he became king of Scotland, England, France and Ireland.

Another historical contender is John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in 14th century England and effectively founder of the House of Lancaster, but Cornell poses the valid question of why a man so profoundly disliked during his lifetime should have been commemorated so widely.

Cornell’s argument stands up to scrutiny well, particularly in places like Chenies in Buckinghamshire, where the local landowner and lord of the manor was the Duke of Bedford, whose coat of arms incorporates a triumphant red lion. And the names of the village’s two pubs? Yes, the Bedford Arms and the Red Lion (pictured above).

Even the ubiquitous Red Lion is in ongoing decline, however. The problem was highlighted in 2015 when personal trainer Cathy Price from Preston completed the task of visiting all 656 British pubs called The Red Lion – to find that in the years since her challenge began in 2011, some 90 Red Lions had closed.

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Another of the top 10 British pub names is the White Hart, the personal badge of the Plantagenet king Richard II (1377-1399), which takes its name from the archaic word for a mature white stag, often depicted with a chain and golden collar or crown round its neck.

Other “royal” names commemorate different times in our history – including William and Mary or The King and Queen in honour of William III and Mary II, who ruled from 1689, and the Rising Sun, often associated as the heraldic symbol of Edward III (1312-1377), though in rural areas the name may simply reflect the new day’s dawning.