WE DON’T normally like to blow our trumpets here at The Beyonder, but this week’s picture choice is the latest original artwork that my lovely wife Olivia has been able to turn into a greetings card for our online shop.
It’s a suitably autumnal portrait of a rather gorgeous fox who looks as if he’s stepped out of a fairytale, and it’s the seventh piece of art Ollie has been able to transform into a smart greetings card with the help of Tom Allnutt at Amersham Business Services.
Other portraits include a couple of inquisitive badgers, a duck, teddy bear and a pair of endearing dogs, much of the artwork notable for its vibrant colours and celebration of the natural world.
The cards are also for sale on Ollie’s new Etsy shop, where she explains how she has only recently rediscovered her love of painting while struggling to recover from Long Covid.
“It has been such a tonic for me to be able to paint peacefully and prayerfully for just a few minutes each day,” she says. “I have found the process of working with colour to be very restorative and restful as well as uplifting.”
She adds: “I haven’t been able to get out and about in the natural world as much as I would like recently, so escaping into nature via paintbrush and canvas has lifted my spirits.”
Perhaps that’s why many dog walkers stick to circular routes from the main car park on Bottrells Lane.
It’s not that the wood is huge: at 250 acres, it’s a good bit smaller than nearby Black Park or sprawling Burnham Beeches. But then there’s no easy grid system to keep you on track and in the densest parts, all the paths tend to look the same.
Owned by Bucks County Council but run by Forestry England, Hodgemoor lies sandwiched between the historic villages of Chalfont St Giles and Seer Green, bordered by farms, stables and almost deserted country lanes.
A natural heritage area designated a site of special scientific interest by Natural England, it’s sufficiently remote to remain unspoilt and is well maintained by riding association members as part of an impressive 20-year project to improve access for all users.
Among the oaks, birches, beeches and hornbeams are elusive foxes and badgers, though it’s much more likely that walkers will stumble across a startled deer or scurrying squirrel.
At night the hoots of owls can provide an atmospheric soundtrack, but there are times when the trails feel almost eerily silent and near deserted, both by humans and wildlife.
It’s pretty hard to believe that for 15 years the woods were home to more than 150 Polish families, and that these hidden paths must have echoed to the sounds of children playing as that post-war generation grew up.
It was in 1946 that Buckinghamshire County Council built and managed a reception and billeting camp for Polish soldiers and there are many families who remember Hodgemoor as providing a safe home after the war, with the camp’s population reaching more than 600 at its peak in the 1950s.
Few remnants remain of those prefabricated barracks buildings and Nissen huts that offered a refuge among the trees here until 1962, mainly to families of servicemen from the Third Carpathian division in Italy who could not safely return to Poland, where the country had fallen under the totalitarian regime of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
They were among some 120,000 Polish servicemen and women who had fought alongside the allies and accepted the British Government’s offer to settle in this country, initially housed in dozens of similar ‘temporary’ camps.
Conditions may have been primitive but those who lived there recall a real sense of community, complete with a church, infant school, post office, cinema, shop and an entertainment hall boasting a dance team, theatre group, choir and sports club.
Locals referred to Hodgemoor as ‘Little Poland’, although it wasn’t until 2017 that the first formal reunion took place at the General Bor-Komorowski Club in Amersham, itself built by former Hodgemoor residents and opened in 1974.
Today a commemmorative plaque recalls the days of the camp, though for the most part it’s hard to imagine just how busy the place would have been in the 1950s, with its own resident priest performing mass every day and with adults picking up jobs in Slough, Amersham and High Wycombe, where many would later settle.
Deep in the heart of Hodgemoor much of the central area is ancient in origin, with records of its existence dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, though the ancient core is surrounded by semi-natural woodland dating from the 18th century to the present day, one of the largest such tracts remaining in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns.
Generations of children recall riding their bikes up and down the slopes of its mysterious dells, some perhaps marking the remains of diggings for clay to be used in the local brick kilns.
With a wide range of soil types and mixed history of planting, the woods boast an extensive array of trees, shrubs and insects.
Bluebells and foxgloves provide splashes of colour in the spring, while mosses, lichens and an assortment of fungi help to add texture and intrigue to the woodland palette.
To the north, more serious ramblers on the Chiltern Way may bypass the woods on their way down from Winchmore Hill and the Red Lion at Coleshill towards Chalfont St Giles, preferring open outlooks over the Misbourne Valley to an unfamiliar detour into the depths of Hodgemoor, perhaps.
Likewise casual visitors to the farm shops which flank the woods – the Hatchery on the main Amersham road and Stockings Farm on Bottrells Lane – may be unaware of the extended network of woodland walks which surround them.
On the edges of the woods, those glimpses of sheep, cattle, pigs and horses are a reminder that civilisation isn’t very far away, and it’s always nice to see members of the riding association cheerily trotting along the bridleways, families building an Eeyore house or inquisitve spaniels nosing among the autumn leaves.
But some of the deeper recesses can feel almost silent, and frozen in time…sometimes a little too quiet for comfort. It’s a reminder of just how overgrown parts of the wood had become back in the 1960s and the extent to which they have been transformed in recent years.
Research carried out by the author and amateur sleuth Monica Weller in 2016 reveals a very different place, with charcoal burners who worked in the woods from the 1950s recalling how dense and impenetrable it had become by the time a brutal murder in 1966 focused the nation’s attention on Hodgemoor.
Weller probes the killing of popular Amersham GP Dr Helen Davidson in her book Injured Parties, and in the process recalls a complex legal battle between the Forestry Commission and local residents over the future management of the woodland.
Thankfully those early wrangles paved the way for what has become something of a model for private-public co-operation, with the horse-riding association members getting the right to use the trails in return for maintaining them.
It’s an arrangement that’s worked well and for the most part helps to protect the area, with a network of riders and dog walkers on the lookout for any anti-social behaviour and the local parish councils working hard to discourage “unsavoury” activities of the sort that has brought one small area of nearby woodland some notoriety over the years as an alleged hotspot for casual sex.
Back in the heart of Hodgemoor, the changing seasons provide a constantly shifting backdrop of different colours and textures, from spring greens to autumn leaves, from frost glittering in the dawn light to evening rays shining through the trees.
The variety is startling, altering with the time of day and the seasons, from those crisp frosty mornings of winter to muggy summer nights where the air is still and listless.
It’s 60 years since the Polish camp shut and those families moved out, but the woods still echo to the sound of children playing, the rustle of inquisitive dogs and hooves of horses on the bridlepaths.
These days, a new generation of ramblers, riders and dog walkers are disappearing into the maze of paths which make it so easy to feel you are alone, even when know other people are close at hand.
In so many ways it’s a very different landscape from that which housed the postwar camp, yet often the place feels timeless: and for villagers in Seer Green and Chalfont St Giles, it remains a wonderful playground on the doorstep where the appeal of a walk in the woods never grows old.
FEBRUARY. It might be one of the coldest, bleakest months of the year, but it’s also the shortest – and a time when families out on muddy wintry walks are eagerly on the lookout for the first signs of spring.
Not this year. This year, come February 24 and everyone’s eyes are on the other side of Europe and the shock Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Suddenly it seems a little trite to be chatting blithely about the Chilterns countryside awakening after winter. Instead, we are all glued to the television and the unthinkable images of war engulfing Europe.
As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, whole streets and towns are turned into rubble, sparking the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
The devastation is already reminiscent of the streets of Syria and Iraq, and with families streaming over the border to Poland and other neighbouring countries, the fear is palpable and the threat is real.
How ironic then, that in the same week that war broke out we are visiting the Polish resettlement camp at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire and recalling how a previous Russian invasion more than 80 years ago changed the course of world history.
It’s one of many reminders around the UK of those terrible events from the spring of 1940, made all the more painful by history being repeated so many years later.
Marysia, the wonderful woman we are visiting with, lived briefly in this camp when she first came to England as a teenager after the war – like so many others after a long and arduous journey via Russia, Persia and Africa.
She was seven when the Russian soldiers arrived and her family was deported from their forest home to the icy wastes of Siberia.
After the war, Northwick Park was a brief stopping-off point before she was moved on to Herefordshire, but with many of the Nissen huts used to house families then still in use today for local businesses, in many ways the place looks very like it did more than 70 years ago, bringing memories flooding back.
Many of the Polish families relocated to the UK lived in camps like this for years – including those in Hodgemoor Woods beside Chalfont St Giles, where the camp remained open until 1962.
Indeed by October 1946, around 120,000 Polish troops were quartered in more than 200 such camps across the UK.
All of which is an all-too-vivid reminder that the events being played out in the towns and cities of Ukraine today will have an impact on people’s lives for decades to come.
As the pale skies and dramatic sunsets of February give way to the brighter weather of March, we stumble across a young woman looking a little lost in local woods at sunset.
She has no dog and seems a little disorientated as dusk falls, but when we ask if she is OK she assures us that she is. She’s from Ukraine and adjusting to a new life in the Chilterns, insisting that she is fine.
But as she wanders back to the village, we’re left wondering just how many families will be torn apart by the current conflict – and how many decades it will be before the shockwaves stop reverberating across Europe.
Here, the dawn chorus is beginning to pick up volume as the branches begin to look a little less bare and the first flowers poke through the frost: snowdrops and primroses, later to be followed by the daffodils and bluebells.
Once more photographers across the Chilterns are up with the lark, capturing the sights and sounds of the changing months as hungry badgers and foxes get braver in their hunt for an easy snack and insects and reptiles emerge from their slumbers.
There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements.
Beyonder stalwarts Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson are on the hunt for less usual sights, tiptoeing through the undergrowth on the trail of an elusive hare, fox cub or cautious deer.
Regular contributors Sue Craigs Erwin and Lesley Tilson also have their eyes peeled for those spectacular sunsets or rare moments when a bird or insect stays long enough on a twig for the perfect shot.
Deep in the forest, there’s new growth everywhere, with fluffy lichen and moss coating tree barks and warmer weather tempting walkers back out onto footpaths no longer submerged in a sea of mud.
As the weather warms, there’s more time to study the colourful plumage of regular garden visitors, enjoy the first butterflies or spot a muntjac foraging in the woods or a fox returning proudly to its den with breakfast for the family.
We are so lucky to live here: only an hour from central London, yet a haven for wildlife, with a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Suddenly, after long grey days of eager anticipation, the natural world seems alive with activity with something new to spot every day, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.
From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a landscape dotted with quintessentially English coaching inns, ancient churches and picturesque chalk streams.
It many no longer boast charcoal burners or “bodgers” in the woods, or an abundance of watercress farms and cherry orchards, but it’s still a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and historic pubs.
In the spring, the air is thick with birdsong in morning and early evening, robins, blackbirds and wrens shouting about territory while the local wood pigeons strut and coo.
There’s frogspawn aplenty in local ponds and nest-building is under way in earnest, though it’s still hard to fully concentrate on all the intimate daily changes in quite the same way it was before the war started to dominate the news agenda.
After the anxieties and distractions of lockdown we are once again free to explore the local landscape fully, yet it feels almost insensitive to be savouring that freedom against the backdrop of the apocalyptic pictures and real-world horror stories emerging from Ukraine.
Pandemic, climate change, war – no wonder our teenagers are worried about the world and find it hard to concentrate in class.
But then just as lockdown gave us time to re-examine our relationship with the natural world, we know too just what an important role nature can play is maintaining or re-establishing our mental health.
Yes, we must do what we can to provide practical help to those fleeing the war, but it’s no bad thing for us to be immersing ourselves in nature again too.
It’s easy to get depressed by the pointlessness, chaos and destruction of war, but perhaps it’s even more important that we celebrate beauty at such a time and remind ourselves of the importance of those small daily delights that still matter so much.
Whether it’s the sounds of woodland creatures stirring in the early morning sunshine, country lanes awash with spring colour, the screech of an owl as dusk falls, the spring lambs gambolling in the fields or a family of little ducklings learning to swim, the Chilterns landscape has the power to soothe our fears and revitalise us to face new challenges.
Our timeless landscape has witnessed its fair share of bloodshed and conflict across the centuries, but the froth of hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows, dancing bluebells in the woods, and nodding poppies in the cornfields remind us that life must go on, and sustain us at times when our spirits are low.
When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing our own fears and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.
As Melissa Harrison says in her nature diary The Stubborn Light of Things: “It’s the oldest story: the earth coming back to life after its long winter sleep. Yet spring always feels like a miracle when at last it arrives.”
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. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
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.
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 email@example.com. Follow the studio on Instagram.
IT’S a perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.
But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.
The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.
This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.
But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.
Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.
The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.
Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.
At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.
Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.
It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.
THERE aren’t too many country parks where it’s easy to get lost.
But with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.
And with that amount of room to explore, it really does have something to suit everyone.
It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.
The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.
And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.
Although the 14-acre lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.
As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.
While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks or even Indian runner ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.
A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.
A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, in normal circumstances the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.
There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops. The park is also home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, whose lifelike models can often be seen bobbing around on the water.
This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, and you only have to go down to the lake entrance to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.
One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.
The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.
For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.
WANDERING around Langley Park, it’s not hard to imagine a medieval monarch mustering a royal hunting party here.
But then there was a deer park at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.
Today, Langley is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.
Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.
In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim. In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.
It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.
Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.
Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.
The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.
The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.
The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.
Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.
Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures.
The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.