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!

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, Local Distinctiveness, Music, Niche marketing, Rural Tourism, Sense of Place, Short breaks, Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, DMO's, Film tourism, Local Distinctiveness, Market Town, National Trust, Niche marketing, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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. 


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.


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


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.

pann_mill 300x225

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

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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

Posted in Chilterns, Local Distinctiveness, Market Town, Museums, Niche marketing, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, Twitter, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

For some destinations, food is integral to the visitor offer. For others, it’s an after-thought.

Why is more effort not made by businesses who supply food and beverage directly into the visitor economy to source and sell what is local when we know that enjoying good produce and local food is increasingly key to reasons why holidaymakers choose destinations in England? Perhaps this is true the world over?  Why is there also scant recognition that a robust local food and drink offer is integral to a memorable visitor experience? And I’m not talking about customer service. 

Stating the bleedin’ obvious: we all need to eat on our way to and from our holiday destination and whilst there; why then, despite the fact that up to a quarter of all holiday spend is on food and beverages, is there such a void in distinctive destination food offers?

What about local culinary traditions and dishes that could so easily reflect a destinations unique offer and experiences? Where are those artisan food producers who put so much love and attention to detail into what they make? Why don’t we know who they are and why aren’t they more visible?

Tastebuds are impared at 35,000 feet and a recent Skift article revealed how British Airways is brewing the new science of Sonic Seasoning; which broadly means that using the art of sound to enhance in-flight dining and what’s on their customers’ plates. So does it work? Well, inspired by the Fat Duck restaurant, and playing an assortment of musical combinations, the experiment revealed that cooks can dial certain ingredients down a notch while still ramping up flavour. Sounds like a gimmick to me!

Turning to companies closer to home, my straw pole had this to say about the state of my local food tourism industry:

“Beetroot and apple salad with snail caviar canapés flew off the plates when we prepared tasters at the Artisan Market weekend.”

“If you happen to hear a few whizzes & bangs, don’t be alarmed, we’re getting our nervous (Christmas) turkeys ready for Bonfire Night.”

“Local food? That has nothing to do with our offer” said a museum,

and this is my favourite; “We love to share inspirational stories about the people and places who produce the food we sell.”

A mixed bag of responses from quite different businesses but with one thing in common; they are selling directly to leisure consumers who will consume for different reasons – apart from hunger.

I was a guest recently at a food tasting event that was delivered in partnership by a local food deli and a lovely pub with more local history than you could shake a cocktail stick at – evident, but quietly understated. The event saw the launch of a new autumn tasting menu that was enjoyed with a thoughtful and carefully chosen affordable wine list that made for a memorable evening for which of number of things stood out for me; meeting two local food heroes – one was passionate about meat and the other wine and together they made beautiful food music by expanding my culinary repertoire and bringing new experiences to me in a delightful setting. I haven’t stopped talking about it.

Russell Arms Butlers Cross, Chilterns.

Russell Arms Butlers Cross, Chilterns.

Does it really matter if visitors eat ‘anywhere’ food? What are the economic impacts if visitors and locals bought their lunch from a food outlet stocking locally-sourced food vs a high street outlet stocking ingredients sourced from other countries? What benefits for the businesses and the visitor economy? That answer should be obvious, but not so, as I discovered whilst researching content for a food tourism workshop.

I recently ran a food tourism workshop for a destination looking at what their current offer is and what opportunities there are to make the offer more memorable and sustainable. Establishing a feel for a national picture was difficult; some pockets do stand out; Ludlow, Cornwall (too many websites to include a link), Kent, London and Scotland – who has been doing the food tourism thing for years and puts a worth of £17 billion against this sector. If I have missed out your food destination, please let me and the world know.

With the help of a medieval text, an Essex farmer has revived a tradition in what was once the heartland of production in Tudor times; saffron from Saffron Waldon is a wonderful example of place-making through food. Read the full story here.

And when it came to statistics for the volume and value of the UK offer; I might as well have been looking for cheese on the moon, so have no idea how this sector matches up to transport or accommodation; two key sectors well supplied by international companies with well established business models, expertise and resources. Perhaps therein lies the problem; where are the food producers? Why don’t we know about them or they us? One clue is that the majority of food producers are micro businesses (employing fewer than 10 people), who are typically located in hard-to-find premises making the very products that they also have to then market and sell.

Another clue is that the traditional grocery sector in the UK is undergoing fundamental change as consumers no longer flock to faceless out-of-town superstores, but instead are doing more (but not enough) shopping locally, perhaps two or three times a week and buying food from a variety of suppliers. Witness too, the rise and rise of the street food phenomena. The appetite is there, so  could this pattern be repeated in the visitor economy? Not quite so simple as there a number of  obstacles that need to be overcome first including;

A sustainable and reliable supply chain
B2b and b2c communication
Connections and harnessing the power of local networks
Brand building
Establishing volume and value
Product mix and of course that old chestnut, time!

Food tourism is bigger than just cafes and restaurants, it is also the relationship to local suppliers and producers and benefits the entire visitor economy. A holy grail for all destination marketeers and a rich  seam to be mined that will add so much depth and experiential offers to a destination that can go beyond simply dishing up an anywhere plate of food in an anywhere destination.  I have work to do!

Posted in Chilterns, DMO's, Local Distinctiveness, London, Marketing Communications, Niche marketing, Retail, Rural Tourism, Segmentatino, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to the National Trust

Is this some kind of new and clever promotion? Pay 12 months for six months access?

Dear Sirs

I am contacting you regarding my lapsed membership of your august organisation, following receipt of my third and final renewal letter in the post today.

I confess to not being a lifetime member, nor spending every leisure hour seeking out NT properties, but I do live in a part of the country that is almost wholly owned by yourselves, so splashed out and bought family membership last year. We made good use of it, to wring out all the value an annual membership offers and was so impressed, I wrote a blog last year following a visit to your Ascott property near Leighton Buzzard. 

This unusual survivor is one of the oldest windmills in Britain. Pitstone windmill ground flour for the village for almost three hundred years until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it damaged beyond repair, until the marvellous volunteers stepped in.

This unusual survivor is one of the oldest windmills in Britain. Pitstone windmill ground flour for surrounding villages for almost three hundred years until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it damaged beyond repair, until the marvellous volunteers stepped in.

You have reminded me in your letter that without my support, you cannot continue to protect 700 miles of glorious coastline, 200 inspirational gardens, 300 historic properties and 612,000 acres of precious countryside….that’s quite a burden of guilt to put on a pair of shoulders!

And the question is of course; what will I do on these barmy summer days when I no longer have access to 200 parks? However will I spend a rainy weekend when I’m no longer able to amble at leisure through galleries and libraries? How will I sleep at night knowing I am no longer doing something special and worthwhile and being an all-round good egg by helping to protect so many historic treasures for generations to come?

And what of your volunteers, will they miss me? I’ll sure miss them.

I’m getting through it somehow, but feel that as one of 3.7 million members, that your automated renewal letters and quaint ways of getting in touch are quite possibly limiting your numbers.  You are clearly not short of communications staff who roll out impressive marketing campaigns, both on and off-line and are at home using persuasive language to encourage repeat purchase. But as is so often the case, the communications don’t chime with the gritty customer reality of membership renewal.

I haven’t told you what my problem is; my membership lapsed in February 2014 and for various reasons, I have not renewed it. This last letter made me chuckle as it must have slipped through the ‘is this lapsed customer going to laugh at us?’ department, because the expectation is that I will happily renew my membership back-dated to February 2014. You even thoughtfully included a Free post Plus envelope for my cheque. Why would I pay for 6 months for the price of 12? Is this a new type of clever promotion?

You do have options for your customers to get in touch:

  • I could have entered into correspondence with you asking for the membership renewal date to be changed, but I don’t know where the nearest post box is nor what a stamp costs anymore.
  • I don’t do telephones much these days either, so went onto your website to see what options you gave me there….there was only one option: back-dated renewal.
  • Maybe I missed it, but why no
  • No response on @nationaltrust and @southeastNT either.

I can’t be the only lapsed member? Does everyone just pay up regardless of how many months they actually have left to save our national treasures? Is this what you rely on?

Please don’t take your members for granted, by giving potential members lots of easy options and the rest of us don’t even deserve an email address.

Regretfully yours

Mary Tebje

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, Local Distinctiveness, Marketing Communications, National Trust, Retail, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Social Media, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, Twitter, UK, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A road trip in the Free State and neighbouring Lesotho

This short travelogue follows the discovery of a set of images taken during a trip a relative took whilst on holiday in South Africa in 1957. His handwriting was even worse than mine, so I am unfortunately not able to identify specific locations or people. He traveled from Germany by boat, calling in at Cape Town, then disembarked at Durban and travelled by car into the interior. I wish he had kept a diary of this trip to give some insight into his and the locals’ interaction as I don’t expect many spoke German!

Cape Town Harbour; 1957

Cape Town Harbour; 1957

He was a landscape artist and sought inspiration from new vistas, worlds away from a continent re-building after the devastation of the Second World War.

This is a flavour of what he saw:

Wash day; Free State dorpie, South Africa

Wash day; Free State dorpie, South Africa

A butcher at work; Lesotho

A butcher at work; Lesotho

Nannies with their charges; Free State dorp, South Africa

Nannies with their charges; Free State dorp, South Africa

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

This timeless rural scene re-acted countless times in countless locations around the world; Free State, South Africa

This timeless rural scene re-enacted countless times over in countless locations around the world; Free State, South Africa

Hotel Staff; Free State 1957

Hotel Staff; Free State 1957

A Free State dorp, South Africa

A Free State dorp, South Africa

Basutho school children in their outdoor classroom; Lesotho

Basutho school children in their outdoor classroom; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Wigmakers; Free State, South Africa

Weavers; Free State dorpie, South Africa

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