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.

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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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.