True taste of the Chilterns

THE distinctive Chilterns landscape has been shaped by centuries of agriculture – and food and drink remain an essential feature of our local heritage.

From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a working countryside home to quintessentially English pubs, ancient woodlands and picturesque chalk streams, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to countless episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

It many no longer boast “bodgers” in the woods, or as many watercress farms and cherry orchards as it once did, but the landscape known as London’s larder is still home to many artisan food and drink producers, as well as the historic coaching inns, upmarket restaurants, farmers’ markets and food festivals.

On the doorstep of the nation’s capital, an hour from central London, this is a haven for flourishing wildlife populations boasting a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

From fine dining, famous chefs and Michelin stars in Bray, Chinnor, Cookham or Marlow to ancient inns like the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, this is a world where you can take your pick from heartwarming soups to signature dishes.

Smart gastropubs jostle for your attention with sleepy village locals with carved beams, sunny beer gardens and 12th-century churches when you fully expect to bump into Inspector Barnaby.

This is a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and morris men, but without the tourist hordes of the Cotswolds or West Country.

Farm open days across the region allow visitors to come face to face with the local livestock, with cattle and sheep the most widespread and visible farm animal, with pigs and poultry also present in large numbers – not to mention goats and some more unusual livestock like red deer, alpacas and even European bison.

From Sandy Lane Farm near Thame to the Crazy Bear farm shop at Stadhampton, there may the chance to get close to some of the animals, especially during lambing season.

Many of the larger farm shops also have their own cafes or dining areas, offering everything from snacks to cream teas.

Why not explore the wood-lined dining area at the Crazy Bear (above) or the welcoming yurt at the Wild Strawberry Cafe at Peterlea Manor Farm (below).

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards particularly those growing cherries and during the 19th century parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Take a look at one of the local tourism websites for more details about fruit farms offering pick-your-own opportunities.

The Romans were the first to grow vines on the thin chalky soils of the Chiltern slopes and vineyards and breweries still thrive here, now including a gin distillery, all producing a range of award-winning wines, liqueurs, gin and ales. Visitors can sample home-grown brews in local pubs and restaurants or try them and buy them on the spot.

Most local vineyards offer tours and tastings, often hosted by the winemaker, giving you the chance to share in their passion and knowledge of wine. Check out individual websites for more detail, like Daws Hill at Radnage, the Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Henley-on-Thames, Brightwell Vineyard outside Wallingford, the Harrow and Hope Vineyard near Marlow and, for gin lovers, there’s the Puddingstone Distillery just outside Tring.

And if you enjoy a pint of craft beer brewed with passion and skill by real-ale enthusiasts rooted in their local communities, the Chilterns boasts 10 breweries listed in this online guide.

From the watercress beds of the Chess Valley to the footpaths around Buckmoorend Farm, part of the Chequers Estate, a 16th century Elizabethan country house and the official country residence of the serving Prime Minister, local food tastes at its best when bought direct from farmers markets or just at the farm gate.

There’s also a chance to meet many local food producers at the Love Food festivals in Great Missenden in April and August.

For more information about local food and drink, check out Visit Buckinghamshire and Choose the Chilterns. There’s even a video on Youtube you can watch. The fascinating story of the history of the Chilterns landscape can be found on the Chilterns AONB website and in a guide downloadable here.

Classy refuge on the Chess

VISITORS TO the stunning Chess Valley are getting the chance to stay in brand new self-catering accommodation this year, with the opening of a new holiday cottage at Watercress Farm in Sarratt.

The farm is home to the Tyler family, who have worked the land alongside the River Chess for more than a century. In fact this is now the only working farm of its type in the whole of the Chilterns, one of 19 which once existed between Sarratt and Chesham.

Jon Tyler’s great grandfather set up the business in 1896 and Jon recalls how in previous generations the men would travel by steam train from Chorleywood to London to sell bunches at Covent Garden Market.

Now Jon and his wife Sarah have launched a new business venture, offering high-end self-catering holiday accommodation at the farm in a converted barn originally used for watercress seed drying.

Sarah announced this week on the Chiltern Tourism Network’s facebook page that they are now taking bookings via their new website.

Costs range from £250 for a two-night weekend break to £700 for a week’s stay from Friday to Friday, complete with welcome pack and fuel for the wood-fired hot tub.

The cottage provides a perfect base to relax, walk, cycle, birdwatch and fly fish brown trout in the River Chess or carp in the farm’s private lake. It’s only half an hour from Harry Potter world and easily accessible from London for those wanting an escape from the city.

From here there are stunning walks along the Chess Valley to neighbouring villages. Sarratt itself boasts a range of good pubs, a small village shop for groceries and a stunning 12th Century church, the Holy Cross, one of the locations used in the Hugh Grant film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Watercress is one of the oldest green vegetables known to man and the peppery green leaves have been recognised as highly nutritious since Victorian times when they were eaten to help kept scurvy at bay. The River Chess, with its clean mineral-rich spring water, is still ideal for growing the cress, in gravel beds bathed in the flow of pure spring water .

Visitors to Crestyl Cottage can do their own basking in fresh spring water too, with a soothing soak in the wood-burning hot tub after a wintry walk up the valley.

Jon took over the farm when his father Terry died in 2014 and runs it with the help of his sister Suzanne Burr and his nephew Henry Cooper. But though you won’t find watercress any fresher than buying it at the farm gate, the business has its own red tape challenges at the moment, says Sarah.

“The holiday let is a diversification to support the business at the moment,” she says.

Kate goes back to the land

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SEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

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RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.

Pub talk: what’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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