It may be on the doorstep of London in the most populated south-east corner of England, yet the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) offers a haven of rural tranquillity, rich in historical interest, writes Bob Chaundy
Put simply, the Chiltern Hills are a chalk escarpment, stretching from the River Thames in Oxfordshire to Hitchin in Hertfordshire and incorporating parts of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. From high vantage points such as Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire or nearby Ivinghoe Beacon, the mosaic of field patterns, woodlands and hedgerows below form a panorama that spreads over the Vale of Aylesbury. It’s a scene that has largely existed since medieval days. Yet the landscape is littered with even older remnants of history. Ivinghoe Beacon, which lies between the towns of Dunstable, Berkhamsted and Tring, is the starting point of the Icknield Way, which runs along the spine of the Chilterns and is thought to be one of the oldest roads in Britain. Since prehistoric times, farmers, soldiers, Saxon warlords and medieval drovers have walked or ridden along it. Today, the trails that wind through this nature reserve are ideal for walkers, kite-flyers, model aircraft enthusiasts, picnickers or those who simply want to savour the views. Ivinghoe Beacon was one of the sites on which fires were lit to warn of the impending Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I. A continuum was reached when a bonfire was lit there in honour of Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. The nearby Five Knolls are ancient burial mounds that date back 5,000 years to the Bronze Age. The chalk, clay and flint prevalent in the area made excellent building materials.
Similarly, the Totternhoe Knolls in Bedfordshire are medieval spoil heaps that were the result of quarrying for clay and Totternhoe stone, a particularly hard and durable chalk used most notably in the construction of Westminster Abbey and Woburn Abbey. The heaps have since developed into flower-rich chalky grasslands. Nearby, the remains can be seen of an 11th century Norman motte and bailey castle. The ruins of another castle at Wallingford near the River Thames in Oxfordshire belonged to a one of the most important fortifications of the 11th and 12th centuries.
For those interested in historical buildings in the Chilterns AONB, a must-visit is the Chiltern Open-Air Museum at Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1976 with the aim of rescuing threatened buildings, the museum has re-erected many on a 45-acre site of parkland, meadow and woodland, and reconstructed many others. They range from an iron-age house to a 20th century cottage. The site also hosts a working traditional farm with its own flock of sheep. The clay and flint have given rise down the years to a certain vernacular checkerboard style of brick patterns. Anyone familiar with the TV series Midsomer Murders will be familiar with the style since the programme is filmed in various Chiltern village locations. A fine example of medieval buildings and the Chiltern architecture can be found in the village of Ewelme, near Wallingford in south Oxfordshire. The village boasts the oldest state primary school in the UK still in use at more than 500 years old, and the medieval Church of St Mary houses the tomb of Alice de la Pole, granddaughter of Britain’s most famous medieval writer, Geoffrey Chaucer. In the church graveyard is buried Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat. The village is also home to the only restored watercress bed in the country. Watercress was a big industry in the 19th century and the streams flowing over the chalk rock of the Chilterns were particularly well suited to its cultivation.
One of the attractions that comprises many of the best features of the Chilterns AONB is the Ashridge Estate, situated near the Buckinghamshire town of Berkhamsted. It encompasses six square miles (nine square kilometres) of farmland, woodland and rolling countryside and is ideal for walking and cycling. Managed by the National Trust, the estate also supports a variety of wildlife, including badgers, wild fallow and muntjac deer, as well as birds such as red kites, goldcrests and lesser-spotted woodpeckers. There are bluebell woods in the spring and, once again, a plethora of ancient hill-forts, trackways and earthworks. The estate has a butterfly trail, a wildlife trail and numerous cycle routes. The famous landscaper Capability Brown sculpted the Golden Valley on the estate in the 18th century. The estate’s centrepiece is the Bridgewater Monument, a granite tower dedicated to Francis Egerton, the 3rd Earl of Bridgewater. At 108 feet (33m) tall, the tower has 170 steps and those with stamina enough to climb them are rewarded with wonderful views of the village of Aldbury and the Grand Union Canal. This is fitting since Egerton is regarded as the father of inland navigation having commissioned the building of what many believe to be the first true canal, built to take coal from Worsley – Manchester during the Industrial Revolution.
Ashridge House at the centre of the estate, once a favourite of royals, including Edward I and Henry VIII, is now a business school and not open to the general public. However, the Chilterns AONB does boast several stately homes accessible to everyone. Greys Court in Oxfordshire is a Tudor manor house with 14th century fortifications. Built on a hillside, it affords wonderful views over a valley. It was originally the home of the lords of the manor of Rotherfield Greys near Henley on Thames. It later came into the hands of Sir Francis Knollys who refurbished it extensively in 1574 prior to a proposed visit by Queen Elizabeth I. It was used to house a garrison during the English civil war and between 1935-37 it was owned by Valentine Fleming, mother of Ian Fleming the author of the James Bond books.
Another stately home popular with visitors is Hughenden Manor in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Built at the end of the 18th century, it was remodelled in Victorian times when owned by the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. During World War II, the house was used as a secret intelligence base and the famous Dambusters raid was planned here. Hughenden is now a National Trust property, as is West Wycombe Park. This is a fine example of Italinate Paladian architecture from the 18th century and was home to the Dashwood family for centuries. Its 45-acre parkland contains several idiosyncratic follies and has been used in several television period dramas including Cranford, Little Dorrit and Downton Abbey. Near the house lie the intriguing Hellfire Caves hewn from the chalk of West Wycombe Hill some 300 feet below ground. They were constructed under the auspices of Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1750s as a meeting for the secret Hell Fire Club. The tunnels remain in their original condition and feature a magnificent banqueting hall and Inner Temple.
The Chilterns AONB is also well known for the large number of Commons situated within it. Common land has been part of the landscape since medieval times. If an individual, usually a lord of the manor, owned land that was too poor for cultivation, he would grant rights of grazing, foraging, fishing and so on to landless tenants. These rights, which are associated with certain properties on or near the land, are statutory. Today, the owners are usually local authorities or bodies such as the National Trust or the Wildlife Trust. The public has right of way on Commons and no building is allowed on them. Among the best are Berkhamsted Common on the Ashridge Estate, Dunstable Downs that has its own visitors centre, Russell’s Water Common in Oxfordshire and Marlow Common. The latter at Marlow in Buckinghamshire features glades of heather and old clay workings found in the woods of birch and oak. It was an area used to train infantry in World War I and contains the best examples of training trenches in Britain. Pullingshill Wood, situated on the Common, has been designated a site of special scientific interest due to its rich and diverse ground flora.
The Chilterns are a mecca for cyclists. The Chilterns Cycleway is a 170-mile signposted route, almost entirely on minor roads, that encircles the AONB. For the energetic, it encompasses some of the best features that the Chilterns AONB has to offer – historic villages, country pubs, lively market towns, stately homes and spectacular views.