Stolen snapshots in a drab, damp landscape

MAY may have ended in a bank holiday heatwave, but for most in the Chilterns it was a damp, drab and chilly month, with intermittent downpours and lower-than-average temperatures.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: buttercups brighten the Amersham landscape PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Gardeners, growers and farmers were glad to see the rain after the drier weather earlier in the spring, but the late cold caused other problems, with late-season frosts, chilly nights and thunderstorms contributing to the impression that summer was being temporarily put on hold.

CHILL IN THE AIR: rainclouds gather over Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

As walkers and riders found the dry earth of April transformed into muddy slippery morasses once more, fledging and flowering patterns were delayed compared with previous years.

SUNSET SONG: startling skies over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Photographers up and about early and later were still able to capture spectacular backdrops, but the delay in budding had a knock-on effect on the hatching of caterpillars, impacting on early brooding blue tit families, for example – though some bird species flourished despite the rain.

INTO THE BLUE: the colour palette changes over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

As our April pictures showed, spring brought an explosion of life and colour into the Chilterns countryside, with swathes of bluebells from Ashridge to Cliveden surviving well into May, while the hedgerows and woods from Hedsor to Penn were awash with purple rhododendron flowers.

BLUEBELL WOODS: a dramatic display in the woods at Henley PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Back in May last year our slow emergence from lockdown at last allowed walkers to stray a little further along local byways at a time when interest in the natural world was at its height.

SPRING BLOSSOM: horse chestnut candles in Wooburn PICTURE: Andrew Knight

These were the weeks where the slower pace of lockdown life allowed many families extra time to savour those small precious sights around us that we so often overlook, from eye-catching hedgerow blossoms to unfamiliar wildflowers or insects emerging from winter hibernation.

NATURAL GLOW: wild clover is known for its medicinal properties PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From the white surf of hawthorn to the pinks, whites and reds of the horse chestnut trees, there’s a welcome explosion of life in the meadows and woods alike, and the insects are making the most of the array of food on offer.

HAPPY FAMILIES: greylag goslings on the march PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From fox cubs and goslings to woodpeckers and treecreepers, fresh life is emerging all around us, even if much of the fledging and migration is taking place a little later than in previous years.

GRUB’S UP: a treecreeper on chick-feeding duties PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Last year the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside.

FEEDING TIME: a hungry young starling asks for more PICTURE: Nick Bell

This May may have been colder and less welcoming for family rambles, but nature lovers on local wildlife forums have been sharing their queries and pictures again, and savouring the growing intensity of the dawn chorus as it reaches its seasonal peak.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a common whitethroat PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Wildlife photographers have been out early and late, some covering impressive distances in their search for an unusual subject: the chance sighting of an adder or water vole, perhaps, or an opportunity to capture the exotic colours of a green orb weaver spider or fast-moving damselfly.

RIVER DANCE: a female azure damselfly at Dorney Wetlands PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Much of our wildlife can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods but as always, our contributors have often managed to find the ideal spot to capture that perfect picture of an elusive butterfly, rare flower or striking sunset.

FLOWER POWER: a meadow by the River Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Their pictures capture some of the brighter moments amid the May monsoon, but by the Spring Bank Holiday temperatures were rising again and families flocking to the seaside to take advantage of the sunshine.

PERFECT TIMING: another stunning sunset over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Back home the Chilterns basked in the warmer weather too, with the weather forecasters promising dryer and sunnier weeks to come.

As always, we’d like to give a very 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 July, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 15/02/21

FACED with another week of lockdown, escapism is the theme of this week’s picture choice – in terms of theme, period and geography.

So while our chilly Chilterns landscape continues to provide plenty of inspiration for local artists and photographers, our weekly feature is taking a trip a little further afield – and a step back in time to the unsettling period between the wars when Eric Ravilious was at the height of his powers.

Train Going over a Bridge at Night, Eric Ravilious, 1935

Raised in Eastbourne, the outstanding British painter and designer is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs, and he remains as popular as ever almost 80 years after his early wartime death, when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland.

For the definitive story of the artist’s home life, the people and places he knew and the culture and customs of 1930s England, essays by art historian, lecturer and curator James Russell feature in a series of volumes published by The Mainstone Press collecting many of his most memorable watercolours.

Wiltshire Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1937

Various other profiles fill in fascinating details about his work and life – including Paul Laity in The Guardian and Frank Delaney – while Henry Rothwell pays frequent tribute to Ravilious in his Twitter account @HenryRothwell.

More recently Rothwell has launched a trio of greetings cards featuring the artist’s work accompanied by short explanations by James Russell, whose published works include RaviliousRavilious in Pictures 1: Sussex and the DownsRavilious in Pictures 2: The War PaintingsRavilious in Pictures 3: A Country LifeRavilious in Pictures 4: A Travelling Artist, and Ravilious: Submarine.

Russell writes of Ravilious in his blog: “I love the fact that his watercolours and designs are both enjoyable and serious, light-hearted yet powerful, dream-like but rooted in reality.”

Wet Afternoon, Eric Ravilious, 1928

Although he settled in Essex and roved as far afield as Wiltshire and Wales, as captured in his Wet Afternoon portrait from Powys in 1928, Ravilious rediscovered the South Downs in 1934 and over the next five years painted a series of watercolours capturing the beauty of the Sussex landscape.

In a Youtube tribute in 2019, Tom Outdoors embarks on a six-mile circular walk in Essex following in the footsteps of the artist, visiting the church where a war memorial commemorates him and walking through the fields and woods that inspired some of his work.

As an official war artist, Ravilious visited ports, naval bases and airfields around Britain, witnessed the Allied invasion and retreat from Norway and produced watercolours of subjects ranging from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to the interior of a mobile pigeon loft.

He was only 39 when he died in 1942, yet he had already achieved amazing things. A brilliant wood engraver and designer, he remains best known for those haunting watercolours in which lighthouses, white horses, empty rooms and downland paths came to life. 

The Vale of the White Horse, Eric Ravilious c1939 PICTURE: Tate Gallery

Ravilious was an enigmatic figure who made little public comment on his work, but in his books and blog entries James Russell manages to piece together many of the jigsaw pieces of the artist’s short life.

And at a time when so many families have been taking a fresh look at their local landscapes, this seems a good week to spend a few moments in the company of Eric Ravilious; luminous, evocative and timeless, his extraordinary watercolours reflect the talents of an artist now regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century.

Train Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1939 PICTURE: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Picture of the week: 19/10/20

THIS week’s picture takes us deep into Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire and a print with a distinctly autumnal feel by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, who with colleague Robin Wilson has a permanent base among these trees.

The pair are artists-in-residence at the University of Oxford, which has owned and maintained this ancient semi-natural woodland since 1942.

MYTHIC PAST: Red Woods, a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

Says Rosie: “Wytham Woods is a singular place, not because there is anything exceptional about the woods themselves but because of the intensity of the attention they receive as Oxford University’s research woodland.”

Pioneers of ecology envisioned the woods as a living laboratory and the data collected here, running back to the 1950s, is invaluable to environmental disciplines that depend on long-term study.

Its 1,000 acres are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and rich in flora and fauna, with over 500 species of plants, a wealth of woodland habitats, and 800 species of butterflies and moths.

“Ornithologists, zoologists and plant scientists – so many of them have passed through Wytham or are familiar with its research and I’ve met people in all kinds of places, from Welsh hillsides to the Isles of Scilly, who have fond memories of these woods,” Rosie reveals.

“And yet it is an amazing piece of woodland because all woods are, and this one is a small realm of wildness in the very tame landscape of Oxfordshire.

“We have been working at Wytham now since 2012 and our studio is right in the middle of the woods. In the winter we get the sun setting through the bare trees, sliding between the icy banks of clouds, and in the summer late-night printing will mean disturbing hare, badger and deer on the journey home.

“There is a great stability, if you open up your idea of time, to landscape: the land just is and will continue, in whatever form, round and over the trinketry lives of man. It’s got infinitely more time than us. But landscape without man doesn’t have any thought – or at least, not one I can access – and I find it difficult to have interest without thought.

“It’s history and myth and legend that puts a whole load of mental life back into the landscape. Among other places, I’ve worked in Romania where landed peasants have a very active and practical relationship with the land, and undertake fieldwork in Lycia, Turkey, where time is kaleidoscoped up into nothing by the fallen amphitheatres and tombs that litter the mountainsides and all of this has helped develop my ideas about landscape. Then I print-make, write and draw, and my ideas come out in one of other of these mediums.

Red Woods is taken from a drawing I made through the trees on the main track up into the Woods, about ten minutes walk from our studio. During WW1 the woods were taken over as a training ground for the front, and in the print you can see the undulation of old trenches.

“It’s an autumn print, hence the colours, and the dry stems of the dead bluebells litter the ground. The little row of mushrooms along the front is for Tolkien, who has a similar line of mushrooms along the front of one of his pen and ink drawings of Milkwood.

“The mythic past that Tolkien invented has seeped its way into the landscape of Britain and Europe for me in the same way the classical world still inhabits the mountains of Lycia, or WW1 still dominates the landscape of the Somme. The past hasn’t gone anywhere and the landscape gives it back all the time.”

Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley runs The Wytham Studio with Dr Robin Wilson at Oxford University’s Wytham Woods. Among other things, they run printmaking workshops. Rosie can be contacted at rosie.fairfax-cholmeley@admin.ox.ac.uk. Follow the studio on Instagram.

Festivals put nature centre stage

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.”

Find the full schedule of Chilterns Celebration events see www.chilternsaonb.org/ccc-fest. For walking festival details and bookings see www.visitchilterns.co.uk/walkingfest. Most events are free, though some require a small fee.

The Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme is a five-year project which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns.

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.

Listening to our landscape

NOISE is all around usand 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. 

Initiated by the Chilterns Conservation Board as part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership, the aim is to establish a sound map of the Chilterns which can be used as a resource for years to come.

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 lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.