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.

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.