NO ‘picture of the week’ this week – just a sincere Christmas “thank you” to all those local artists whose talent has been in the spotlight in our weekly feature during the past few months.
Since August we’ve been able to focus on the work of a dozen different creative folk working in a variety of different formats, from oils and watercolours to photography, linocuts and textiles.
From the Oxfordshire studio of Anna Dillon to the Hertfordshire home of Sabbi Gavrailov, we have met creative folk of all ages and backgrounds.
The formats and materials may vary enormously, but what all our guest artists have in common is a love of local landscapes and wildlife, which frequently provide them with sources of inspiration.
In some cases that inspiration has proved a life-changing experience, as for Sue Graham, whose reflections on the disappearing dawn chorus ended up with her family buying a croft and planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
Other artists whose work is inextricably bound up in local landscapes include Jane Duff, a volunteer for The Earth Trust and an avid supporter of their efforts to create new wetlands and improve water ecosystems, and Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, who with colleague Robin Wilson has a permanent base among the trees of Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire.
From windmills to bluebell woods, local landscapes provide a visual escape for many artists, whether working in textiles like Rachel Wright or acrylics like Christine Bass, who spends many hours outside among the whistling red kites before developing paintings from her drawings back in the studio.
If Chilterns landscapes from Ivinghoe Beacon and Pulpit Wood to Hertfordshire parks have provided many of the settings featured in the weekly articles, there have been occasional forays further afield too, with Tim Baynes providing an online escape from lockdown restrictions with his portraits of Kent marshlands and West Wales shorelines.
We’ve already had plenty of nominations of artists across the Chilterns whose works should feature in future instalments of the series, but keep them coming.
Times are tough for artists in the current climate and we’re eager to do all we can to help promote such a vast array of local talent – particularly in a year when so many of the local open studios events have had to be cancelled.
Thank you to all those who have supported the feature and especially to those talented individuals whose art gives so much pleasure to so many.
To nominate an artist or painting we might feature in the future, simply drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the work and the reason for your choice.
THIS week’s picture is a stunning Chilterns landscape taken from a winter exhibition organised by Herts Visual Arts featuring the work of more than 40 artists from across Hertfordshire.
The hand-signed oil painting is by self-taught artist Sabbi Gavrailov, who lives with his wife and two sons in Hemel Hempstead and only fully rediscovered his love of art earlier this year.
A keen photographer and cyclist, Sabbi is originally from Bulgaria, where he studied architecture and civil engineering before settling in the UK in 2003 to pursue a career in luxury hotels and hospitality.
A fascination with digital photography over the past decade has helped to encourage his love of local landscapes, but despite always wanting to become an artist one day, the opportunity had never really presented itself.
“When I was young, art was everything to me,” he says. Then in April, when his father died from cancer back home in Bulgaria, it seemed to unleash a creative outpouring of emotion.
“I must have produced about 50 paintings in the past five months,” he admits with a smile, having startled friends with the ease with which he began producing everything from classic portraits to eye-catching landscapes, using single strokes of a palette knife with feeling and precision.
Often using his own high-definition photographs as a source, he was soon hard at work, putting down some of the roots of his inspiration to the fact he spent his childhood and teenage years in a small town which has extraordinary artistic connections.
Brezovo is the birthplace of two iconic Bulgarian artists: Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, who died in 1976 and is known for his portraits and landscapes depicting the Old Town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, and village life in the region, and Mincho Katsarov, an artist celebrated in France but virtually unknown in his home country.
Whether or not there is anything in the Brezovo water to explain Sabbi’s artistic endeavours, there’s been no stopping him this year.
“The devastating event of my Dad’s death has triggered an overwhelming desire to paint again,” he confesses. “It’s like something I have never known or done before in my life.”
As well as using his digital photographs and cycling trips into the Chilterns countryside as a starting point for his art, he has produced still lifes, portraits and seascapes too.
“I see no sign of stopping, quite the opposite,” he says. Spurred on by his friends’ enthusiasm for his work, he has become an active member of Herts Visual Arts, where he now has a gallery in addition to his own art website and social media links on Facebook and Instagram.
With some of his paintings available as originals and others as high-res prints, he has also been undertaking commissions.
“My college years gave me a different perspective on art while I studied architecture. Then I got drawn to digital photography very quickly and I felt the need to educate myself further to get the most out of it.
“I got my diploma in digital photography and this opened a different world, through the lens. Now inevitably the painting and photography for me go hand in hand,” he says.
“I constantly experiment with different styles of painting and push myself to learn new techniques. I love to paint portraits, seascapes and landscapes. I feel the power of nature and human expression around me: it is the greatest inspiration one can find and I express it through my paintings.”
ANCIENT landscapes provide the inspiration for many of our favourite artists, and Anna Dillon is no exception.
“As someone who enjoys long-distance walks, travel and exploration I am determined to visit and paint as many landscapes as possible within my life,” she says.
That sense of exploration is reflected in her output, which includes collections ranging from First World War battlefields in France to Irish coastlines, and encompasses dozens of vibrant paintings portraying half a dozen different English counties from Cornwall to the Cotswolds.
But our choice for this week’s featured picture takes us to a painting entitled Whipsnade, showing the view from Ivinghoe Beacon looking out towards the famous chalk lion which has overlooked the Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire since 1933 and was restored in 2018.
Born in Wallingford, Anna trained as an illustrator at Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall and ditched her job as a graphic designer in 2009 when she decided to paint for a living. “It was the best thing I have ever done,” she says. “I feel lucky and my passion for the landscape gets deeper each year as I learn.”
From her Oxfordshire studio she shows off some of the works which have been taking shape during months of lockdown, including a new series of Chilterns landscapes and aerial views for a collaboration with drone pilot Hedley Thorne.
The locations of each painting and photo connect with local history to provide a narrative which the pair hope will give valuable insights at their Airscapes exhibition planned for 2021, providing a ‘birds-eye’ view of the Oxfordshire and Berkshire countryside.
Lockdown has also provided opportunities to explore the local landscape on foot, and Anna incorporates notes from her walking diary to accompany some of the paintings, like that from Lodge Hill, north of Bledlow Ridge in Buckinghamshire.
It’s October and the elements are against her, she recalls, with strong winds and flurries of rain.
“Walking through the outskirts of Chinnor, the track becomes lined with beech trees in wonderful colours of yellow and orange. As I shuffle through the fallen leaves The Ridgeway takes a sharp turn right into a large, expansive and attractive piece of downland called Wain Hill as I cross into Buckinghamshire,” she writes.
“The track steadily climbs on to Lodge Hill where the grass on the track is like a green, velvet covering. The views from up here are spectacular with a 360 degree panoramic of the Chilterns.”
Frequently Tweeting about her enjoyment of the local countryside, from frosty walks by the Thames to visits to the “mother of all hillforts” at Maiden Castle, she has developed her style using bold and strong colour which reflect the form, contours and light of the land, using thin layers of oil paints built up gradually and slowly.
Original paintings might sell for up to £2,500 but many of her original paintings are also available as limited-edition Giclee prints and greetings cards.
One suitable seasonal walk portrays Incombe Hole at the end of December and forms part of her extraordinary Ridgeway series of oil on board paintings, of which prints are available.
“To my right I can see Dunstable Downs and behind me is the famous Whipsnade Lion,” she writes. “I bought my first house not far from here in a village called Slip End on the edge of Bedfordshire. The sun sets on an inspiring walk and the last day of a brilliant year.”
Further afield, her Battlelines Redrawn project started as a study of how some of the wartorn battlefields of the First World War in France and Belgium have regenerated over the last century and exploring poetic connections with the chalk landscapes of the North Wessex and Berkshire downs.
She also cites war artist Paul Nash as a particular inspiration and his special affinity for the wooded hills in South Oxfordshire called The Wittenham Clumps has been reflected in many of her own paintings.
IT’S been a month of first frosts and misty mornings, fading fungi and the smell of fireworks.
It began with a final blaze of autumn colour in the run-up to Bonfire Night and Armistice Day, and ended with an icy blast, a reminder that winter is definitely on the way.
November is a ‘game of two halves’ in many respects, starting with a fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues before the trees get stripped bare by fierce winds and driving rain, and we enter an altogether bleaker period of the year.
Wordsmith, author and friend Alan Cleaver, better known in his neck of the Lake District by his Twitter monicker @thelonningsguy and for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria, reminds us that Cumbrian farmers identify a fifth season of the year covering the dull, drab fortnight or so before winter properly sets in.
“Back End” is the term they use, and it somehow perfectly encapsulates this sullen no man’s land between autumn and winter, the ‘scrag end’ of the year.
Writing in his blog back in 2013, Alan wrote: “It’s such a blindingly obvious fact to most Cumbrians that you really do wonder how the rest of the world copes with a mere four seasons.
“We’ve just entered the ‘lost’ season of Back End. It comes between autumn and winter when autumn’s lost its glory but winter is yet to bite. There’s some dispute but most people will place it around the first two weeks in December.”
No one is quite sure of the precise timing of this season, he concedes: “But we want to keep the rest of the world guessing. We’ve revealed there’s a fifth season – now let them work out when it is!”
As literary translator Antoinette Fawcett put it a couple of years later, “backend” is a “blunt-sounding word, plain and to the point. and…firmly associated with the northern counties of England”.
Northern roots or not, it’s perfect for summing up the dank, drab, lifeless feeling of some days in late November, when the light feels bleached and the undergrowth sodden. But not all days are like that – and chilly glimpses of winter sunshine uncover some hidden attractions.
For a start, those crisper, clearer mornings reveal some stunning cloud patterns, glorious sunrises and mist-coated fields.
Evergreen trees and bushes provide a pleasant colour contrast and the array of berries provide rich pickings for native birds and migrants alike, like the wintering redwings arriving from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland, or this tiny goldcrest, pictured at Burnham Beeches.
Hawthorn, holly and mountain ash all provide valuable food sources for birds and small mammals during the winter months, along with blackthorn, juniper and dog rose.
It’s that time of year when ladybirds huddle together in large groups and start looking for suitable sites to hibernate, sheltering under tree bark or leaf litter perhaps. Hedgehogs are seeking out a comfortable den after escaping the perils of bonfire night and badgers are pulling moss, leaves and bracken into their underground setts where they spend so much time snoozing.
Out on the local lakes and quarries the wildfowl are squabbling, the migrants have arrived in force and under and around the feeders the usual array of tits, squirrels, pigeons and blackbirds have been boosted by the occasional less familiar markings of a magpie, nuthatch, pheasant or parakeet.
Out in the woods the fungi may have faded but the mosses and lichens are creating a colourful carpet over the roots and branches, with many trees looking as if they are boasting furry green pyjamas.
December is almost upon us, with the forecasters warning of icy blasts, though with no immediate threat of snow on the horizon, here in the south at any rate. Does that mean we are still in the “backend” season, then? I guess we need our farming friends in Cumbria to let us know about that.
A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for December, contact email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
THE incredible thing about this week’s Picture of the Week is that it is not a painting but a work of intricate embroidery, created by textile artist Rachel Wright.
“Embroideries enable me to draw and paint through the medium of fabric and stitch,” says Rachel. “My embroideries stand out because of the striking use of rich colour, which captivates and draws the viewer in. My aim is simply to delight the eye.”
Her Brill Windmill piece was part of a commission completed during lockdown earlier this year which also incorporated seven miniature pieces of the churches that form the Bernwode Benefice.
“The windmill part of the brief didn’t bother me at all as the subject matter was right up my street,” she says. “I loved creating the sky, giving a sense of drama with the feeling of wind and movement. The little churches were a much greater challenge. Working at such a small scale was new to me and trying to put in enough detail at that scale was tricky.”
Rachel studied fashion and textiles at Birmingham City University and set up her own business in 1994, selling her work through various galleries and shops and exhibiting regularly.
“I grew up with art all around me because my father is a fine artist,” she says. “He paints in oil and watercolour and does wonderful wood engravings. We used to spend lots of weekends in galleries and museums. My dad was a huge influence on me. He taught me so much about drawing and especially how to observe. I think that’s why I have an eye for detail.”
Her particular love of textiles stemmed from sitting at her grandmother’s knee as a child. “She was always stitching or mending something and she had an old sewing box full of sewing curiosities, which I found endlessly fascinating and just loved to root through,” Rachel recalls.
“I loved to draw and paint when I was young but I wasn’t very good at mixing up paint colours. Fabrics are like a ready-made paint-box full of glorious colours, textures, patterns etc. I realised that I could paint with the fabrics, using them as my palette of colour and the stitching like the stroke of a fine brush to add in details.”
She takes her inspiration from landscapes and cityscapes and has a particular love of the sea, harbour towns, boats and lighthouses. But Chilterns landscapes have featured in her work too.
She explains: “I am inspired by the beauty we find all around us, by the forces of nature which shape our surroundings, carving out our coastlines, sculpting landscapes and twisting mighty trees and painting wondrous sunsets in the expansive skies above our heads.”
One particular picture was inspired by a walk with her son. “It was one of those blustery days in March when the clouds were racing across the sky urged on by the wind and the light on the landscape was changing second by second.
“We were on the Waddesdon estate and I noticed a clump of trees with a stripy ploughed field in front of them. Something about the light and the feel of the day made me give my phone to my son and ask him to try to capture what I’d seen. I knew I wanted to make a piece based on that day and this was the result.”
She works a lot from photographs – “often taken by my family because they are better with a camera than I am” – and sketches directly onto her base fabric, which is cotton calico.
“Once I have a basic sketch I begin to gather together a palette of fabrics, which offer me the colours, markings, textures etc that I will need. I start to cut tiny pieces of fabric, choosing them very carefully and begin to lay them down, painting with them in small areas.
“Sometimes I use pins to hold them in place and then I begin to free motion stitch on my machine, a beloved old Bernina from the 80s.”
Dozens of works in her portfolio focus on animals and birds, as well as seascapes and landscapes – like one archetypal Chilterns view of bluebell woods near Christmas Common.
“This piece was also inspired by a family walk and I worked from photographs taken by my son on my phone again,” says Rachel.
“Apart from the obvious glory of the carpets of bluebells in the woods up by Christmas Common, I was drawn again to the light, dappled and soft as it filters through the bright spring green leaves on the branches.
“It is both exciting and terrifying to see a piece of work emerging, battling through the tricky stages when it really isn’t working until at some point it turns a corner and everything comes together and finally you have the piece that you imagined in your mind’s eye at the start of the whole process.”
OCTOBER has been a spectacular month in the Chilterns – and you have been sharing some of your favourite images of local landscapes and wildlife during that time.
With Autumnwatch back on our screens and the woods ablaze with colour, families across the area have been getting outdoors at every opportunity to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.
And with half the country under strict lockdown restrictions, the natural world continues to provide a vital escape from the stresses and strains of mask wearing and social distancing – and for many, an absolutely essential boost to mental health.
But which sights, sounds and smells best sum up the spirit of the month for you? We asked fellow Beyonders to help us expand our selection of favourite pictorial memories of the past month for our online Chilterns calendar and the response was rapid and generous, as you can see.
This October was perhaps most memorable for its astonishing array of fungi – like these colourful but toxic fly agaric toadstools in Penn Woods (above) – prompting our appeal for help in identifying some of the less obvious local species.
It’s been a month of ripe berries and falling fruit, of eager foraging for humans and rich pickings for birds, insects and mammals, with trees and bushes bursting with tasty treats.
In kitchens across the Chilterns, pots and pans have been bubbling with jams and jellies, crumbles and preserves. Windows have been steamed up as cooks have dusted off their recipes for rosehip syrup, sweet chestnut stuffing or crab apple jelly.
The rich, rapidly-changing colours and glorious textures of October make it a favourite with photographers, especially deep in the woods where the green, yellow and russet hues contrast so beautifully with the rugged outlines of ancient bark.
If the feature proves popular, it could be a regular monthly item, building into a year-round collection of shots capturing some of the natural wonders of our amazing landscape, like this stunning shot highlighted in our Picture of the Week feature.
If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature, drop us a line by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK.
Let us know a little bit about where the picture was taken and make sure you include your full name for the picture credit.
I’D HAD Yella, my first dog, for a few weeks and we were both settling into our new routine. She was adjusting to life in the UK and I spent a lot of time on Google, checking that I was doing the right things, too.
Yella was six months old and in season when she came to me from Cyprus; she was growing nicely with good food, exercise and lots of love. We’d noticed that her teats had started to get bigger and, over the course of a few days, she started “nesting”, gathering all her toys into different places around the house. Google told me she was probably having a phantom pregnancy. I wasn’t overly concerned.
I’d decided that I needed a local, part-time job and was delighted to secure a role as a veterinary receptionist at a practice just down the road. I started my new job on the Monday. By the Friday, I was getting worried about Yella.
She was getting fussy about eating, she didn’t want to go for walks and – when I got home from work on Friday lunchtime – she was clearly in distress, shaking and howling like a lamb being slaughtered.
I called the vet to make an appointment and tried to encourage Yella into the garden for a pee before we left. She wouldn’t pee, the howling got worse and, when she came back into the house, she started squatting on the carpet.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I thought, “you poor thing – you must be in a bad way.” And then, before my very eyes, as she continued to squat, a tiny bag of puppy popped out of her. I uttered a profane expletive as I continued to stare at the small bag. What on earth to do?
I called my partner, who was driving to my house at the time: “Yella’s just had a puppy and I’m not even effing joking,” I said. “But I think it’s dead… oh no! It’s not! Gotta go.”
Yella had broken through the sac the puppy was born in, bitten the umbilical cord, eaten the placenta and was licking the tiny, mewling creature, no bigger than a hamster.
Through the haze of astonishment, practical issues kicked in. Right, we had an appointment to make. I scoured the house for a suitable receptacle for the puppy: yes, the recycling bin. I lined it with a towel, picked up the puppy and popped it in. Yella went nuts, trying to get to her baby in a bin. How on earth was I going to get them into the car?
I called the vets to let them know that Yella had delivered a puppy and that we might be a bit late for our appointment. Two minutes later, Holly the vet nurse called back: “Would you like me to come over?” Yes, please. “One more thing, Lucy: there might be more than one puppy.” What? WHAT? “Keep Yella and the puppy calm, if another comes out, you can help her by breaking the sac. Make sure they’re comfortable and warm. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
By the time Holly and my partner arrived at the house, Yella had delivered, cleaned up and was suckling a total of two puppies. For a street dog who was abandoned by her own mother at birth, she was doing an amazing job. I was a mess.
I’d gone from having one dog to three in eight weeks and one day. I was a new dog parent and now grandparent. I had no idea what was going on, while Yella’s maternal instinct had kicked in and she seemed to know exactly what to do.
Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog.A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.
NEXT TIME: Yella and Lucy get to grips with motherhood.
NATURE is in the spotlight next month when a programme of outdoors events, walks and activities is being held across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Chilterns Conservation Board hopes the nature-based activities will inspire families, young people and adults of all ages to get out and explore the AONB.
A new October festival marks a month-long ‘season of celebration’ aiming to bring communities together and inspire people to explore and enjoy the heritage and landscape on their doorstep.
Naturalist, TV presenter and environmental campaigner Chris Packham will be the keynote speaker at the first ever ‘Chilterns Champions’ conference, discussing the importance of citizen science and how everyone can get involved.
There’s a chance to explore a new heritage trail around the Wycombe Rye, get creative in art workshops with local wildlife champions the Chiltern Rangers and enjoy a range of walks, talks and local produce tastings.
The festival runs from October 1-31 and is also designed to help support communities and businesses following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also in October, the Chilterns Walking Festival is now in its seventh year and boasts more than 50 guided walks, activities and events over 16 days, running from October 17.
The walks, all guided by experienced leaders, provide opportunities to meet countryside rangers, farmers, archaeologists, historians, food producers and storytellers of the Chilterns.
Annette Venters, the Chilterns Conservation Board’s people & society officer, said: “We are delighted to be offering lots of new walks that showcase the best of our stunning landscapes, wildlife and local producers.
“There are still plenty of challenging hikes, but we’ve included a greater number of shorter walks too, with the emphasis on learning and discovery, meeting the people and producers of the Chilterns, and spending time in our inspirational landscape.”
The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated in 1965 and stretches from Goring in Oxfordshire to near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. It is one of 38 AONBs in England and Wales and has a resident population of 80,000.
The Chilterns Conservation Board is an independent public body set up to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB.
THIS week’s painting is a new work by Chilterns artist Sue Graham, who has often drawn inspiration from local landscapes.
A feature in April revealed how a series of paintings inspired by her love of the dawn chorus prompted her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
One of her latest completed works takes its inspiration from a landscape at the other end of the country, in Cornwall.
Sue explains: “In 2019 I decided to organise a group exhibition in St Ives, famous for its artist colony and a place I had always wanted to visit.
“It was a great week: off to have a beer and yoga on the beach every evening after I shut the exhibition doors, and wonderful company from my fellow artists. It was just a fabulous hard-working but energising experience.
“One evening I climbed up on the grassy slope above Porthmeor Beach as the sun was setting. The whole bay was lit up and the air itself seemed to glow.
“I wasn’t interested in catching a precise rendition in paint of St Ives viewed from the hill, more an expression of how it felt to be there at that moment: intoxicated by the sense of space, light, the natural world and infinite possibilities.
“I started painting this in August 2019 when I got home: it started well and then I got lost in it. So I put it away, then Covid came and cancer came and by the time I felt like painting again I pulled it out and by then somehow in my mind I had resolved how to make it work.
“It’s often best to put things away when they get stuck, though I did at one point almost chop it into pieces. This is painted on board: it’s a weird surface, ungiving and thirsty, but it makes for some great textures if you layer the paint and scrape it back again. That’s the technique I used for the foreground, which is my favourite part.”
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.
BLUEBELLS. If there’s one word which conjures up more positive images of life during 40 days on lockdown it’s this one.
And on a personal level, if there’s one abiding, memorable positive image to emerge from the extraordinary month of April 2020, it will be those vistas of bluebells dancing in the local woods.
We have been lucky, of course. Living on the edge of open country, it has been easy for our vital daily escape from the house to disappear into the woods.
And what a great healer nature has been. From the deluge of Twitter and Instagram pictures being shared from woodlands across the Chilterns, it seems we are not alone in finding this a welcome respite from the grim tally of deaths and infections on the news feeds.
It’s not a luxury we are taking for granted either – friends in Italy, Spain, China and Argentina have been under virtual house arrest, unable to get out for anything more than a tightly controlled shopping trip.
Not to mention those trapped on cruise ships or stranded in a drab hotel in a foreign country stressing about how to get home.
But these walks have offered so much more than just a welcome escape from the house, a breath of fresh air and all-important exercise.
From the moment that the prime minister addressed the nation on March 23 about government plans to take unprecedented steps to limit the spread of coronavirus, it was clear we were in uncharted and scary territory – not just in the UK, but all over the world.
Doubtless many volumes will be written about the awful spring of 2020, and it’s hard to write anything positive about this time without being conscious of the terrible human toll – some 27,500 deaths in the UK so far, with all the associated individual family tragedies that involves.
For a while, it felt as if we might be joining the statistics. A long feverish weekend paved the way to a fortnight of slow recovery. But lying in the night coughing and sweating, listening to relentless government press conferences and stories of doom from around the world, it was all too easy to succumb to the paranoia.
Every cough and tickle takes on a new significance. What if there’s a problem breathing? Will this mean dying on a ventilator in a hospital unable to say anything to your nearest and dearest? And the social media feeds don’t help – this is real, and friends around the world are already having to cope with the loss of loved ones.
Thankfully, the symptoms subside and strength returns. And nothing feels quite so exhilarating as the fresh air of that first tentative walk, even if we can’t smell the flowers.
Which makes those bluebells all the more enchanting. And they go on blooming all month on so many of the paths we wander through…English bluebells, of course, so long associated with the Chilterns and ancient woodlands and a constant source of inspiration for artists like Jo Lillywhite (below).
And as our first steps outdoors become a little more confident and we manage to stray further from home, there are new copses and paths to discover.
Enchanting and iconic, bluebells are a favourite with the fairies – and the violet glow of these bluebell woods is an incredible wildflower spectacle that really does lift the spirits and warm the heart.
“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte in 1840. The vivid hues may have begun to fade by the end of April, but the secret beauty of our ancient local woods has helped to set us firmly on the road to recovery and provide a welcome gentler vision of a terrible month which will haunt so many for years to come.
Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.
The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.
Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.
The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.
Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.
The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.
To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at email@example.com.
Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.
Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.
NOISE is all around us – and much of the time it’s not even the sort of sound we want to hear.
Even if it’s not the intrusive irritation of someone else’s music on the train or other people’s children arguing, we frequently want to tune out of the environment around us by plugging into a podcast or our favourite music.
But what about all the noise we are not listening to which might just have huge benefits for our mental health and wellbeing? That’s where Echoed Locations comes in, a project aiming to create the first ever sonic map of the Chilterns.
The project has designed sound recording workshops for local schools and community groups which focus first on attentive listening before moving on to practical recording techniques.
Elizabeth Buckley, communications and community engagement officer for the partnership scheme, explains: “It’s the seemingly ordinary sounds which make the Chilterns a unique and special place to live.
“Echoed Locations was developed because soundscapes are unique and important and inform how we feel about a place.”
The sounds they hope to collect for the project might range from birdsong in the local park to rush-hour traffic, a babbling stream or hoot of an owl at night. It might be a steam train in the distance, rain on a window pane or even a poem, song or interview.
“When you step off the bus as you arrive home, it is not just the smell of your neighbours’ garden or the sight of your front gate that makes you feel at home,” says Elizabeth (below).
“It is likely also the steady hum of a radio nearby, your mother’s voice calling you inside, far away traffic rumbling by.
“It is only when these sounds are lost from our day-to-day lives do, we really begin to listen. For example, when you arrive in a wood where no birds are singing, it feels odd and we notice the absence of a familiar sound. “
From the chatter of children walking to school to the buzzing of insects or hum of traffic, the project aims to encourage residents, visitors and especially young people to contribute to the sonic map.
Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.
Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.
Contact Elizabeth on firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.
IT MIGHT be a barn owl, steam train or buzzing insect.
But whatever the sound, young people across the Chilterns are being encouraged to “listen to their landscape” in a unique project designed to promote mental health and wellbeing.
The ‘Echoed Locations’ project encourages 16- to 20-year-olds to get out into nature and urban spaces which are significant to them and contribute to the first sonic map of the Chilterns.
As part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board, the project will provide free sound recording workshops and online resources to empower youth groups and schools to map the sounds of the Chilterns.
Echoed Locations wants audio recordings from across the Chilterns, from the hoot of an owl to the first songs of the dawn chorus or the morning rush hour.
As the world becomes noisier and yet increasingly focused on the visual, Echoed Locations aims to reconnect people with their local wildlife and cultural heritage through the medium of sound.
Sometimes we can forget to listen to the world around us in an active way, and the project encourages residents to record the sounds around them and help create a sonic legacy of the Chilterns today.
Sound recording workshops help to hone people’s ability to disconnect from the hubbub and distractions of day-to-day life and enjoy the natural sounds all around them.
Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.
Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.
Contact Elizabeth Buckley on email@example.com to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The idea stemmed from local teacher Michelle Medler’s new year resolution to pick up a bag of litter a day while walking her dogs – and mushroomed into a community supported by hundreds of volunteers.
Michelle said: “I’m amazed at how many people care and want to make a difference, which is great to know, and the positive comments from the public make it all worthwhile.”
After launching the group in January, she was surprised to see it grow into a 400-strong group after she initiated a number of communal litter picks in different parts of the town. Membership has since doubled to more than 800.
She soon won plaudits from councillors and council officers too. Youngsters and retired pensioners have been among the groups taking part – and Wyre Forest District Council, which has street cleaning reponsibilities in the area, praised Michelle and supplied volunteers with litter pickers, high visibility jackets and gloves, as well as advice about safely disposing of any dangerous items they came across.
Cabinet member for operational services Councillor Rebecca Vale said: “It is truly remarkable to hear about the positive impact these volunteers have had and I’d like to thank every one of them. We spend a lot of time, effort and money cleaning our streets – this just goes to show what a huge difference we can make to the look and feel of the district by working together.”
The Kidderminster model is one The Beyonder is keen to explore further. Beyonder editor Andrew Knight said: “The Kidderminster group are doing an amazing job and seem to have a real community spirit. They can also see the impact they are having on making the town cleaner – and it’s great that the district council has been so supportive.”
The Beyonder is carrying out a local audit before deciding how to pursue its anti-litter campaign in the Chilterns. It is in the process of contacting local parish, district and county councils to find out more about existing waste collection activities across south Buckinghamshire from Marlow to Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross, Chalfont St Giles, Chalfont St Peter and Denham.