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.
The beech woods may have been carpeted with bluebells, but we were in search of more elusive blooms.
As our group assembled in Hughenden Church car park, local nature expert Tony Marshall explained that we would be seeing Coralroot (cardamine bulbifera), a plant which in the UK is found only in the Chilterns and parts of the Weald. But that would come later.
We started with a close inspection of the area around the church walls – always an interesting place for plants. In the churchyard we came across Cuckoo Flower (cardamine pratensis), a relative of the Coralroot, as well as various other flora, some native, others escaped from gardens (sometimes it can be hard to tell.) Once we had exhausted the potential of the churchyard, we set off towards Flagmore Wood (pictured), resisting the temptation to stop off at Church House for a cream tea on the way.
The walk was organised by local group Prestwood Nature, a conservation group established in 2002, covering the area around Prestwood, including Great Missenden, the Hampdens, the Kingshills, North Dean and Speen. The group undertakes a number of local projects, including a wildflower meadow in Great Missenden and a community orchard in Prestwood, preserving traditional varieties of fruit tree.
It is fascinating how many different plants you can find when you really look and have the guidance of an expert who knows the subtle differences between species. In two hours we spotted no less than forty-four different species, not including bluebells, which were not at all hard to find. Coralroot sadly proved more elusive as we were a week too late to see them at their best, but we found a few in the end.