If it weren’t for the risk of being bumped into, or run over, it would be tempting to wander round Hitchin with one eye shut. The town isn’t ugly – quite the reverse, with over 200 buildings being Grade I, II or II* listed. But then you see a piece of post-war concrete and wonder exactly how and why it got there. The picture above shows some modern flats in the background – but you can find the same effect in Market Square. No doubt it was all part of the post-1945 wish for the modern, and clean lines and new materials and so on. But it’s still ugly. Sorry, modernists!
There are, of course, plenty of lovely sights in town. St Mary’s Church, with tearooms gathered around the churchyard like puppies round their mother; or Bucklesbury, where you can stand for ages wondering whether the dog atop the façade of Harvest Moon really is wearing a wig(?) or wander through the benign chaos that is Hawkins, the department store that’s been there since 1863. So maybe next time I’ll risk it with just one eye…
“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance. “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”
It’s a point of view. There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.
The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain. The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds. So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…
Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr
Around the corner from the hubbub and excitement of Whipsnade Zoo lies a remarkable landmark, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. The site was the original inspiration of Edmund K Blyth, who served in the British infantry in World War I and lost two friends in the conflict, with another wartime comrade dying in a car crash in 1930. On a visit to Liverpool that autumn, the colour and beauty of the unfinished Liverpool Anglican cathedral impressed Blyth and his wife deeply:
“We talked of this as we drove south through the Cotswold Hills on our way home and it was while we were doing this that I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”
Blyth, who had previously bought two cottages in Whipsnade for use as holiday homes for poor London families, envisioned a cathedral of trees as a fitting memorial to his friends and a symbol of faith, hope and reconciliation. The cathedral has never been consecrated, but is used for wedding blessings and interdenominational worship and there is an annual service on the second Sunday in June. The cathedral takes the layout of medieval cathedrals as its inspiration, so you enter through a porch of oak trees into a lime tree lined nave before coming to a chancel of silver birches and yew hedging. Four chapels reflect the seasons with different trees in each, and a garden of flowering shrubs framed by cypresses is the main feature of the cloister area. Despite the occasional sounds of a strimmer or of small infants running amok, the cathedral remains a beautiful, tranquil space in which to relax and reflect.
Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.
More on that later. Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house. The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt. With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.) Sadly not.
What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches. How wrong can you be? According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.
After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot. An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box. Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.
It looks like a timeless scene, basking in the August sunshine. In reality the Ewelme Watercress Beds ran as a going business concern for only just over a century. George Smith, a publican from South Weston, a small hamlet just north of Watlington, bought the land in c.1886 and organised the digging out of the beds so that watercress could be grown. From there it was packed and went by wagon or cart to Watlington station and on by train to the Midlands and Manchester. Regulatory pressures meant that the site stopped selling watercress in 1988. Four years later, the Chiltern Society bought it and a team of their volunteers now runs the site as a nature reserve.
“You’re not seeing it at its absolute best today,” said Tom Stevenson, one of the volunteers, as he showed us around. August is a couple of months too late to enjoy the 130 orchids, of five different species, which flourished this year. Though Tom was reluctant to use the word “weed”, the team is keen to give wild flowers every chance to appear and has been using yellow-rattle in an effort to control the wild grasses which might prosper instead. In similar vein, meadowsweet has become rather invasive and the team is looking at options to prevent it taking up too much space.
Animals and insects get a chance, too. Pupils from a local school have built a “bug hotel”, while the team at Tiggywinkles persuaded Tom to see if the site could be a good home for some of its hedgehogs. “Sixteen of them,” Tom says wryly. “I had to get them here in my car. Have you any idea how smelly hedgehogs are?”
Smells notwithstanding, we wish the Ewelme team the best of luck as they work towards a diverse local habitat – hedgehogs, bugs, flowers and all.
It looks like a simple memorial stone, until you delve into the story of Stanley Spencer’s life, in which nothing was simple.
His was not an especially long life, though the times changed considerably; he was born into a late Victorian world and died as post-war Britain was just beginning to enjoy a little affluence. If it’s a good idea never to be detached from your roots, Stanley followed this maxim more closely than most. He was born in Cookham, died there and spent much of his life in the rural idyll that slowly became a town. The marvels of modern public transport even enabled him to commute to and from London for his undergraduate studies at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art, where his nickname was “Cookham”.
Stanley was active in both World Wars, in the second as an official war artist painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde. He had long since divorced Hilda by the time of his death, but she remained the love of his life despite a second (unsuccessful) marriage to Patricia Preece. Missing the honeymoon was probably not a great start – Patricia went with another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, with whom Stanley had had an affair.
His paintings often combine memories of the Bible stories which his father used to read the family after mealtimes with depictions of the Cookham that Stanley knew so well. Perhaps the best example is, ironically, unfinished: Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta which now hangs in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a small white square of a building on the corner of the High Street. Holy Trinity churchyard, where Stanley is buried, is the setting for The Resurrection Cookham, a bizarre but joyous scene of people who mattered to Stanley coming up out of their graves, having conversations and then taking the footpath down to the river to catch the boat to Heaven.
The fact that two of Stanley’s paintings fetched about £2 million between them at auction in 1990 might have bemused him – and annoyed him too, as he was never rich in his lifetime, partly due to the maintenance payments he made to Patricia. But those sums do show how Stanley Spencer is now widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most significant British artists.
You might be surprised to know that a corner of the Chilterns has survived in its traditional form – more or less – due to the Corporation of London. Burnham Beeches was once common land, used for grazing a variety of animals and for obtaining firewood and turf for fuel. The area includes heathland, woodland, bog, grassland and wood pasture, the latter incorporating many beech and oak trees which have been ‘pollarded’ (cut and allowed to re-grow for firewood).
Come the late Victorian era, there was some prospect of the land being re-developed for houses. Fortunately – and partly due to the intervention of local MP Sir Henry Peek – the City of London Corporation bought Burnham Beeches in 1880. The public has been able to enjoy it ever since – with the exception of World War II, during which the land was used as a military vehicle reserve depot.
Dodge the cattle grids – and sometimes the cattle – and there is plenty to find in the Beeches. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the artistic theme which runs through the land. You can find a plaque celebrating the poet Thomas Gray and the beech tree which may have inspired the ‘nodding’ beech in Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1751). Further along your walk are ponds which have inspired artists such as Myles Birket Foster, and locations visited by Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind, a 19th century opera singer. But the stars of the Beeches are, inevitably, the eponymous trees, and the sense of tranquility they create as you pick your way through them.