Nuffield Place – the epitome of understatement

Nuffield Place is typical of the Chilterns: modest, intriguing and tucked away in a
beautiful place you have probably near heard of.

The William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts Movement-fame casts a huge shadow on this William Morris who brought affordable motoring to Britain, and this is his story.

Born in 1877 in Worcester, William Morris moved with his family to Oxfordshire where his mother had been born and raised. Due to financial pressures, he had to leave school at an early ago to become apprenticed to a local cycle repair shop. A natural mechanic and ‘ a tinkerer of things” he saved £4 over a mere nine months and opened his own business repairing bicycles from a shed in his parents garden, labelling his product with a gilt cycle wheel and The Morris.

He met his wife Elizabeth Anstey whilst both members of the local cycling club. Despite going on a tandem-cycling holiday across some vast distance, they still decided to get married! They had no children.

His stratospheric rise to the heights of motor car designer, manufacturer, wealthiest self-made industrialist of his age and philanthropist seems almost unreal as you wonder around his house. A slightly shabby, down at heel 1930’s house, I was there for an altogether different reason: the launch of the Ridgeway Partnership that is taking a new look at how this ancient pathway is being promoted and used. Nuffield Place just happens to be en-route, tucked away in a secluded woodland above Henley-on-Thames. There is an ever-so slightly unkempt feel here, which I love. No sharp edges, ropes and bossy signs. The gardens are full of wildflowers and so many foxgloves! A pair of kites wheeled lazily overhead, and I was tempted to get a game of croquet underway on the lawn.

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Interiors of Nuffield Place, include one very modest “BUD 650″ Wolseley parked in a tiny garage.

Designed by Oswald Partridge Milne, this Arts and Crafts house was completed in 1914 and originally named Merrow Mount, which explains the ship on the weather vane. When Lord and Lady Nuffield purchased the house in 1933, they renamed it Nuffield Place after the nearby village. Refreshingly unpretentious, very personal and seems to have escaped being ‘done over’ to appeal to the historic house visitor demographic who needs tips on lifestyle enhancement and all-round heritage self-help. This is a recent acquisition by the National Trust and came very close to being sold, when at the 11th hour, Nuffield College (the college he founded), handed the house to the nation in 2011. We are grateful.

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Nuffield Place Interiors are surrounded by beautiful Foxgloves celebrate the gardens-edge with the surrounding woodland.

This great philanthropist who gave upwards of £600 million in today’s money to big medical research projects, also gave quite touching donations including buying a supply of wedding dresses that he kept in one of his shops, that wartime brides who, for whatever reason, could borrow to wear for their wartime wedding. There are still letters from these grateful couples who told of what would have been an otherwise drab day had been sprinkled with some much-needed glamour.

Overheard inside the house: ‘Everyone says it’s so modest…but it isn’t is it?”

Not much has changed from when they lived here and all sorts of personal touches are to be found on dressers, hangers, tables and beds; books including “Rheumatism and you – a handbook”, the ‘Book of Etiquette’ by Lady Troubridge and ‘The Scottish Terrier’ by D.A. Casperz. The ‘Cries of London’ picture series that shows the different street sellers, took me back to my childhood! I am not sure which two or three we had in our modest dining room, but am sure were only cheap prints compared to the entire wall-full of images here.

There is no great car collection either, only a modest Wolseley in the garage, which he saw no reason to upgrade. His wife was a terrible driver, but we are not told of his driving skills, only that he didn’t much like the Morris Minor.

To the many volunteers who were working so hard in the gardens and inside the house, ready to share delightful stories, this special house would not be open without you – thank you!

Naturally I recommend a visit, and if you are a NT member, the splendid Greys Court is nearby so can be enjoyed in a day.

For information on opening times and location: and what else there is to explore and enjoy in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

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Mills of the Cederberg

This blog post is an unashamed excuse to celebrate one of the finest wilderness areas in the world. The Cederberg runs through my veins and I welcome any opportunity to celebrate it.

Mountains so ancient, they make my brain ache

Located a few hours drive north of Cape Town, it’s the place to go to really get away from it all. It’s the real deal. The place to re-charge batteries with its bucket-loads of big-sky beauty, mystery, coca-cola-coloured rock pools, walks to nowhere, ancient rock art, quaint settlements, dramatic weather, friendships and scary insects!

If the dramatic weather doesn't hook you, the landscapes certainly will

If the dramatic weather doesn’t hook you, the landscapes certainly will

If you don’t manage to get there at least once a year, the withdrawal systems are punishing and I really miss my “lets pop up there this weekend” escapes. My brother travelled there recently in a bid to sate his Cederberg cravings and it gives me huge pleasure to share his lovely photographs and writing on the heritage mills of the Cederberg.

There were a number of operating mills in the area including Matjiesvlei, Grootrivier (Mount Cedar), Nuwerust and Dwarsrivier at the Cederberg Wine Cellar, all in close proximity. Boasting South Africa’s highest vineyards that produce world class wines, Dwarsrivier remains in the ownership of the Niewoudt family, now in its sixth generation of plying the land.

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On entering the farm the mill is the stone and thatched building on your right as you approach the farmhouse. Built circa 1850 from local sandstone and roofed with Dekriet, or thatching reed, the wooden doors sills and shutters together with the waterwheel and mill parts were constructed with Cedar wood (Widdringtonia Cedarbergensis), harvested from the surrounding mountains. This hardwood, similar in quality to teak was felled almost to extinction as the demand for timber in the Cape was insatiable.

The watermill at Dwarsrivier

These are remnants of another age; when these farms had to be self-sufficient, combining water to generate power to run sawmills, to power a smithy, or grind cereals. Currently the exterior of the mill is relatively intact having undergone two prior restorations. The water is still channeled along the furrow onto the wheel which requires restoration, but then to restore it would require Cedar wood of which none is now available.

For further information on this and other heritage mills in the area;

For further information on the Cederberg Conservancy:

If you like reading about windmills, my blog post ‘Gentle Giants on the Chiltern Ridges’

Chris Duncan, blogger, photographer, international hotelier, raconteur, adventurer, lover of good food and wine is on a three year assignment in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Read his blog here.

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The Seven Sisters

It has taken me 25 years, but finally I made it to the Sussex Heritage Coast and to wonder at those iconic white cliffs – not of Dover – but the Seven Sisters and in particular Birling Gap, further west along the coast. I had only ever glimpsed those white cliffs through a sea fog, or dirty spray-spatted ferry windows on the way to and from the Continent. Today, I was in the hands of an East Sussex local and good friend Vicky, who would show me what I had been missing all these years.

A feast for the eyes: the Seven Sisters along the Sussex Heritage Coast

A feast for the eyes: the Seven Sisters along the Sussex Heritage Coast

We started our walk at the clipped and trimmed village of East Dean, located between Eastbourne to the east and Seaford to the west. At this time of year, cherry blossoms take centre stage, but the verdant verges bursting with nettles, bindweed, cowslips and the last of the daffodils hugging the flint walls also mark the change of seasons, they are just less showy about it. Punters were enjoying the early warmth outside the village pub, heritage low-slung cottages and a deli serving tasty quiches and ‘stinking bishop’ to hungry walkers, nestle around the peaceful village green. So far so typical. As we left the village and headed uphill, I began to pay attention as we crossed through the churchyard of St Simon and St Jude that has an unusual local feature to add to all this heritage eye candy – a Tapsel gate. A wooden gate, nothing special there, but unique to the county of Sussex and one of only six that remain. What makes it unusual is that it rotates in either direction through 90° around a central pivot before coming to a stop at two fixed points. I had never seen one before, and don’t normally get excited by gates, but it was so unusual and fitted the purpose for which it was built: to keep cattle out of the churchyard whilst allowing the efficient passage of coffins to and from the church during burials. A fine invention by a local family to fulfil a local need of both man and beast!

The English countryside seems so benign; few raging rivers, sky-hugging mountain ranges, venomous snakes nor deadly deserts to contend with. Every footpath, dry-stone wall, pasture, woodland and rolling hills mapped and managed. Until you come to the every edge of this British Isle: a chalky headland that just stops, 500 or so feet up from the stretch of English Channel below. Next stop France.

The Seven Sisters are part of the same chalk downlands that form the backbone of eastern and south eastern England, including the Chilterns to the north west. Formed between 65 and 90 million years ago when it was the bed of warm tropical sea, this huge natural aquifer gives rise to chalk streams and a habitat bursting with butterflies and rare orchid species that thrive only in these ancient downlands.

I was amazed to see the pace of erosion and natural destruction along this coastline. This magnificent headland is helpless in the face of violent winter storms and littered now with footpaths which, if followed would mean certain death as they disappear and reappear from thin-air ahead of you. Unobtrusive electric fences have recently been added that run parallel to the clifftop, whether to keep the many sheep from plummeting to their deaths or the 350,000 annual visitors is unclear.

Toe-tingling cliff top views

Toe-tingling cliff top views

Birling Gap, the most photographed settlement along this coast is possibly where the most dramatic change is happening. Enclosed plots of land with a gash at their seaward side, the boundary walls abruptly stopped, mid-stride. The terrace of seven, former coastguard houses now reduced to four, just metres from the sea. How long before these go? Whole buildings lost and in what the National Trust calls ‘managed retreat’ expect their splendid tea-rooms to last another 12 years before submitting to the sea. An ugly, but functional staircase allows access to the shoreline and escape for those facing the incoming tide. The horizontal gangway to the stairwell can be extended to match coastal erosion, and the stairwell can also be removed and repositioned higher up the beach, when the time comes. That’s mighty impressive uber forward planning.

We stopped a while on the polished pebbles and to take in the views from the bottom of the headland and to soak up the sunshine, promising to return with a picnic and a cushion, those pebbles are just not comfortable enough to encourage a snooze in the sun.

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That bracing sea air meant we just had to stop at the self-styled ‘foodie oasis’ of the Frith & Little deli-café back in the village and were not disappointed, even the price of a bottle of wine (as recommended by the River Cafe no less), was a very reasonable £7.49 and the bacon cheese individual sized quiches were delicious.

For all the visitors who walk the South Downs Way on a glorious picture-postcard English day such as this, I expect we would all be in for a shock when the weather is wild, the clouds low and visibility poor; it won’t be as bucolic, but unsettling and a tad scary. An antidote to the blandness of modern life perhaps? Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

Visit soon, before it all slides into the sea.

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The Top Dog

A day to discover what lies beneath turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of an ancient Chilterns woodland at Pigotts Wood.

Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the course on time, would have found many distractions along the way to explore and photograph. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.

We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and then home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years. It was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?

Set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed, and that I could tell from the first five minutes. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before we got stuck into recognising natures’ signs with John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project including; from the woodland flowers, mossy banks, trees and even a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a saw pit which are a special feature of the Chilterns. I am especially interested in the stories associated with past trades and industry and in this case, once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog. I was struck too how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at home, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made as there weren’t many middle-men or a B&Q to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you didn’t have it.

share We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season as the weather was so warm and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup waiting for us and with plenty more stories to tell about the fascinating history and past occupants of the house, including the infamous black bath. But that story is for another time.

This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is hidden gem – one of many we have stashed away in the woods!

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I am no longer just passing through this landscape

It’s not about bagging bucket-list miles, or even bragging about bagging holiday sights, it’s about stopping and looking for the clues that point to natural and man-made structures – or subtle signs of earlier lives that are integral to a locations ‘sense-of-place’ so often missed in the quest to capture that grand vista, or complete that big trek.

The Chilterns are well endowed with remnants of Iron Age lives including barrows and over 20 hill forts; Ivinghoe Beacon, Boddington Camp at Wendover Woods and Pulpit Hill Fort are just three I have visited, that cluster along the ancient trade route that is the Icknield Way or the Ridgeway long distance trail. Some hill forts sit on obvious sites, others are not so obvious, as they are covered with beech woodland and making sense of the site is difficult for the untrained eye such as mine. I had no idea there was a hill fort in Wendover Woods until I was inside it. Fortunate that my visit was in winter when the Pulpit hill fort earthworks are centre stage and not competing with verdant plant life that closes gaps, adds shapes and confusing shadow.

The Pulpit hill fort earthworks are clearly visible in winter.

The Pulpit Wood hill fort earthworks are clearly visible in winter.

With just the earthworks remaining, this site feels compact, perhaps more so as the trees seem to crowd in around you. A modern feature I expect as there would have once been structures on this site. The overhead rubbing branches made for some spooky moments as it was otherwise completely still. No birdsong, no voices, only the rushing wind overhead.

Understandably, those early Iron Age Chilterns’ residents would seek safety above the Vale of Aylesbury and places of danger, and used the natural height and contours of the land as fortified refuge. I have no idea why there are so many forts in this area; perhaps the neighbours weren’t friendly, or the wildlife was too familiar?

I am drawn to Pulpit Hill as not only is the origin of the name a mystery, but not a huge amount is known about the people who lived and died there. The site is also not covered in annoying visitor interpretation, it’s up to you and your imagination.

Its shape is a clue, as even sitting as it does within the cluster of Chiltern hills, like Ivinghoe Beacon, it naturally commands the landscape, like a pulpit in a church.

Chequers Knap commands the local geography.

I made way for a ‘latest gear-clad’ group of walkers and stood in a deep dirty ditch whilst they poured around me like rocks in an avalanche, barely acknowledging my presence as they marched on Wendover. They reminded me of when I last passed through this area and certainly don’t recall seeing a fraction of what I have enjoyed on this slow visit. I was too busy bagging bucket list miles to take the slightest notice of what was all around me; lovely views to be enjoyed with the summer leaf canopy at bay from not-so-obvious vantage points, ancient box woods nestled into a sheltered slope, the site of the hill fort itself, dis-used saw pits, beautiful carpets of vivid-green moss, natural shapes and symmetry, a rusting iron gate without an accompanying fence, trees covered in graffiti and others with strange bumps and lumps upon them. All there, if you only look.

Winter is the ideal time to enjoy the view across to Coombe Hill before the leaf canopy fills the sky.

Winter is the ideal time to enjoy the view across to Coombe Hill before the leaf canopy fills the sky.

As to emphasise my point of not having to cover a great distance to explore somewhere, Pulpit wood and hill are right at the centre of a fascinating corner of the Chilterns that also references the Romans, the Normans, the English Civil War, a country church or two, a mysterious large cross cut into the hillside, the Prime Minister’s country residence, great pubs and miles of beautiful countryside – worth more visits and another blog post clearly!

This site can be accessed from the National Trust car park on the Longdown Hill Road nearest to Monks Risborough.

There is a reconstruction of an iron age house at the wonderful Chiltern Open Air Museum and several local walks to enjoy. The Chilterns Conservation Board has lots of suggestions and route maps.

For information on planning a visit to the Chilterns or even as short break, the Visit Chilterns website is worth a look too.

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Gentle Giants on the Chiltern Ridges

Landscape plays a huge role in determining the form and function of buildings, not least windmills and watermills. The reasons they were built may be long gone, but there are often subtle reminders of lost buildings, in street names for example or from soapwort still growing nearby (used as a natural soaping agent), some mills still command the landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements.

The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is particularly well endowed with mills situated near inland waterways, in busy market towns or on a windy bluff that once provided particular services to local communities that farmed grains to be milled, sheep to be washed or silk to be spun. Many are now only remembered in archives, others have found new purpose and functions whilst the best have been lovingly and painstakingly restored by enthusiastic volunteers and can be visited at certain times of the year.

300-year old Lacey Green Windmill stands on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough, and is possible the most famous for being England’s oldest smock mill, with wooden machinery dating from around 1650. It was left in a terrible state of repair, but since 1971 it has been restored to working order by members of The Chiltern Society. 

Turville

Cobstone Windmill commands the landscape

Cobstone Windmill was built around 1816 and overlooks the village of Turville – a location more famous for its infamous residents including the ‘sleeping girl of Turville” and fictional TV character the Vicar of Dibley. This smock mill, so-called as it has the shape of the farmers smock, replaced the original mill that had stood there since the 16th century.  It was a working mill, grinding cereals until 1873, but it was not until 1967, and the filming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that the mill was cosmetically restored. The cap was remoulded and a new fantail, and light wooden sails were added as was it’s place in local folklore.

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Restored wooden Pitstone Windmill sails attract tired swallows in the summer.

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Pitstone Windmill sits on an exposed site beneath the brooding Ivinghoe Beacon.

Pitstone Windmill is a rare and striking example of an early form of windmill, and is one of the oldest surviving windmills in Britain. It stands exposed beneath Ivinghoe Beacon and ground flour for the nearby villages for almost three hundred years, until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it badly damaged. It was later donated to the National Trust and restored by a team of local volunteers. As you walk around it, wonder at the way the mill and its machinery balance on the head of a massive wooden post. You can still see the tail pole, which the miller had to wrestle with to turn the huge structure to face the wind.

The nearby Ford End Watermill at Ivinghoe was recorded in 1616, but is certainly much older, and remained in use until 1963. Restored by volunteers, and now maintained and run by Ford End Watermill Society, it retains all the atmosphere of a small farm mill of the late 1800s and has an unusual feature – a sheep-wash in the tailrace below the mill. Washing made the fleece easier to shear and increased its value. Stoneground wholemeal flour is also on sale during milling demonstrations.

Redbournbury Watermill is a working mill producing a range of stoneground organic flours, principally from locally grown grains. It is run by a team of dedicated volunteers, having been extensively restored following a fire in 1987. When the present owners bought the mill from the Crown, it had been unused since the 1950s. At this stage the mill was well preserved, although it did need considerable repairs, providing a unique historical record of an early Victorian watermill. However, on the night of 22nd August 1987 disaster struck. Fire broke out in the roof of the mill only a few days after restoration work had begun and destroyed most of the interior of the mill and much of the top floor of the house.

Redbournbury Mill

Redbournbury Mill is once again a thriving mill

The mill is well worth a visit as there is much to see and fresh bread to buy. Bread baked at Redbournbury boasts the lowest possible “food-miles” with the grain grown, milled and baked all within two miles of the mill.

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The lovely Pann Watermill on the river Wye at High Wycombe. Image by Vidya Crawley.

These mills are located in or near lovely Chilterns villages and market towns, so for more ideas and inspiration for an escape to the country can be found at VisitChilterns.co.uk

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Natural History at its Victorian Best.

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…”

The historic market town of Tring is a busy, growing commuter town within easy reach of London and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Located on the original Akeman Street – a major Roman road in England that linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Tring is in auspicious company. Built in 1889 to house one of the finest zoological collections in private hands, this in a museum frozen in time.

Just across the street are the picturesque Louisa Cottages Alms Houses on Akeman Street, built in 1893.

Inside the NHM Tring is a veritable feast of the exotic, elusive, exquisite, extinct and downright delightful exhibits from another age of museum-going. With not a gadget in sight, the slightly surreal setting of sturdy, floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases, drawers and fine cabinets that house thousands of stuffed exhibits that continue to entrance generations of local residents. The galleries are busy, bustling with families looking for items to capture on their trail sheets and clearly enjoying themselves. But you don’t have to be five years old to qualify for the free trails, it’s a pleasure being able to potter and see the iconic Chilterns red kite and elusive kingfisher up close; to be delighted at the fruits of a busy mother’s labours as she sat up late at night dressing the fleas her children had caught from their pets, are on display next to exquisite moths and butterflies, to marvel at the 128-year old tortoise that lived with an assortment of animals (including kangaroos and an Emu), in nearby Tring Park.

Tring Park

Tring Park, within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

On display is more than just stuffed animals though. It is a whole other value system in which our relationship with wild and domestic creatures was clearly very different: witness the display case of stuffed domestic dogs, a dodo and the famous Tring polar bear. We accept them as the animals were captured, slain and stuffed long ago, but I was surprised to see some dogs ‘donated’ as late as 1970. Perhaps not such a lost art after all?

The museum founder, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868 – 1937), second Baron Rothschild belonged to a rich and powerful family that influenced and shaped the local landscape (and seems once owned much of it), was a keen naturalist from an early age and collected all manor of exotic creatures which he brought back to his private museum in Tring. Famous for riding around town in a carriage pulled by a zebra, local response is not, unfortunately recorded, but I do wonder what they made of it all.

Natural History Museum, Tring

Armadillo, Natural History Museum, Tring

My son wanted to show me the Galapagos tortoise that Lord Rothschild once road upon, but I was too distracted by the dust on top of the display case to appreciate the size of the animal…I really must stop doing that. That said, this is no fusty-musty museum, some of the galleries have been overhauled to improve presentation and durability of the exhibits without detracting too much from what I really enjoy; a museum that is not trying to hard, knows its core product, doesn’t smell of fried food, nor does it break the budget – it’s free! What’s not to like?

For further information on visiting NHM Tring which is open all year round except from December 24 – 26th, there is also a regular programme of events and wildlife photography exhibitions.

For information on what else to explore and enjoy in the Chilterns

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