I would be reluctant to admit just how many times two geographers with a back seat covered in maps had beetled down a single track lane and got lost. The family still call them ‘Les lanes’ in memory of my late co-author, and the Chilterns is a labyrinth of them: deep and high sided, twisting through tree tunnels up and down this complicated landscape.
My feet have been firmly planted in the chalk for decades: Les was a Northumbrian who came from the hard rocks, with the brains of a scholar and the eyes of a child. Every corner was an adventure that needed exploring, through documents and on the ground, so that the pieces of the landscape history puzzle we were researching could be fitted together.
Unpredictability was part of the package and I was a slow learner. I soon learnt that walking boots should always be put in the car, even if we were definitely only going to look at medieval parchment in the Bodleian Library. I remember a morning full of excitement, untying the tapes on a fusty box and taking out a letter from Thomas a Becket to the Archbishop of Canterbury dated 1166, confirming the rights of the priory in the woods at Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire. By mid-afternoon, I was standing ankle-deep in cloying mud, wearing silly white sandals in the middle of Hampden Woods, because they were on the way home – a damp, evocative return to Earth.
Autumn is a perfect time to visit the Chiltern woodlands, as the beech leaves tint from russet to gold and eventually fall to crunch on the forest floor. Their story is an integral part of the unique landscape history of a region whose identity has been recognised since Anglo-Saxon times. The hills are a discrete wedge that forms part of England’s calcareous backbone, stretching from the South Downs to the Yorkshire Wolds. The northern Chiltern boundary starts in Bedfordshire, near Hitchin, where John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress refers to the area as “…a most pleasant mountainous country… very delectable to behold”.
The Chilterns cross four counties, through Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire to the Thames at Goring, a distance of around 60 miles. The scenery is not typical of the more open, rolling chalk countryside such as the South Downs, because the Chilterns were at the margin of the last ice sheet. Rushing meltwaters carved deep valleys and deposited a thick mantle of stoney, acid clay on the hilltops. The area was difficult to settle, a problem to farm and a challenge to cross, and it is this awkwardness that has contributed over many centuries to its unique sense of place as a region of ‘ancient countryside’.
Oliver Rackham coined this term for places whose cultural history developed slowly over a long period of time, often largely avoiding the huge changes that occurred in the landscape, revolutions such as the medieval three-field farming system.
Today, in ancient bluebell woodlands and species-rich hedgerows that have existed for 1,000 years, is a rich ecological heritage, accessible through a huge network of footpaths and rights of way. Scratch the surface and see how the legacies of the past have survived in a near continuous timeline: Neolithic flint mines, Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age forts, Roman villas, Anglo-Saxon boundaries and medieval wood banks just for starters. Few places can demonstrate so much tangible landscape history in such a small and distinctive area.
High places and hill forts
The leading edge of the scarp, which runs the length of the Chilterns, is always a good place to start exploring. Climb up high and take in the view before winding down the dip slope into the more intimate pleats of the ridges and dry valleys. Iron Age hill forts and ancient tumuli line up all the way from Ravensburgh, Hertfordshire, in the north to Whitchurch-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, often with the old suffix hoe, denoting a projecting ridge, such as at Sharpenhoe, Totternhoe and Ivinghoe.
Away from the crowds, walk the ancient Ridgeway through Whiteleaf, Buckinghamshire, with its Neolithic barrow above a distinctive chalk cross, looking for miles towards the Cotswolds. Then head in the direction of Princes Risborough, across the springy downland turf through Brush Hill and spot rare blue butterflies of the chalk.
Further south, be tempted off the M40 at Stokenchurch and watch the red kites hanging on the thermals at Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve, with its new and wonderful talking sculpture trail, where children can run and touch and climb on the exhibits. Here in spring, stroll through flowery meadows with the beautiful and rare purple Chiltern gentians growing around tussocky anthills. Suddenly the breeze rushes and a panorama appears from nowhere as you reach the edge of the scarp.
Survival of the woodlands
Unlike many places, the Chiltern woodlands on the heavy hilltop soils were not cut down, as they played a significant role in the locals’ lives, providing construction material for houses, barns, carts and fences, as well as fuel. Woods were managed as a resource and every parish wanted their own patch – so much so that those without any were often granted a detached wooded hilltop some distance away.
Today, the Chilterns remain one of the most wooded regions of England with many of its hilltops crowned with trees. Some were part of wood pasture and were pollarded, with the trunk cut just high enough so that the new growth was out of reach of deer and grazing animals. The animals (especially pigs) could then feed on acorns and beech mast at a time when fodder was always in short supply. Domesday woods were even recorded and measured according to their pannage, or the number of pigs they could feed. Hundreds of years old, some of these beautiful and ancient beech and oak trees
are huge and can be found in so many woods – those in Ashridge, Hertfordshire, and Penn, Buckinghamshire, are particularly splendid.
We can thank the canal system for preventing the final demise of the woods. The Grand Union Canal was built to carry coal to London to fuel the new homes and factories of the Industrial Revolution. The sudden expansion of towns and cities created a new demand for furniture, and the beech woods of the Chilterns became the raw material for the production of chairs. It also increased the need for larger timber with far more trees left to grow tall. These high stands have broad canopies and low ground cover, creating a soft, filtered light and deep leaf litter to tread through.
Villages and hamlets
The area is peppered with tiny hamlets and small villages, a dispersed settlement pattern that reveals how such open ground had to be hacked out of woodland. That is why the intimate corners of the Chilterns have more than their fair share of flint cottages, village greens and pretty churches.
The proximity to the capital also makes it an ideal location for grand stately homes. A little tour around Oxfordshire from Henley, towards Bix and Nettlebed, will take you up the Assendon Valley to Stonor, little more than a hamlet with brick-and-flint houses and ancient barns. Just beyond the village are the lodge gates of Stonor Park, where the Stonor family has lived continuously since the 12th century. Enter the grounds or walk along the public footpath to get a view of the house in its Elizabethan splendor, square set in a deer park. Nearby are the tiny unspoilt villages of Fingest and Turville, tucked away and filmset perfect.
There is no place like home when it comes to monitoring changes in the landscape. I am fortunate enough to live in high up in the Chilterns, looking over the Missenden Valley. My cottage would have been cut out (assarted) of the woodland that covered this part of Buckinghamshire, as recorded in the Missenden Cartulary, which says that in 1190-1200, Ingelram of The Lee (Anglo-Saxon for ‘clearing in wood’) granted to the abbey totem assartum de Pedenora (all of the assart of Pednor). Many of the local cottages sit on thin slivers of land and almost certainly started life as squatter huts on the woodland edge.
Most days I walk down Strawberry Lane to listen to the skylarks and admire the flora of the changing seasons in the ancient hedges that sit on relict woodbanks that once belonged to the Chequers Estate. In the distance is the Chiltern Railway with stations at Wendover, Missenden and Amersham: lovely old high streets full of specialist shops, places to eat and interesting little museums and galleries. The Chilterns may be predominantly rural, but they are also extremely well connected: this is Metroland, where early commuters could live in leafy lanes and travel in style to London to work.
Each morning as the day starts and I hang
out of my bedroom window to admire the view in this luscious piece of Chiltern countryside, I am reminded of the enticing words in those old Metroland booklets that “the good air of the Chilterns invites to health by day and to sleep by night”. How right they were.