Talking Landscapes

A landscape defines a destination. Too many destinations are churning out the same old ‘me too’ messages that fail to excite or intrigue potential visitors because so often it’s the detail that is overlooked in the quest to instantly capture the bigger, more visually obvious picture. It’s only when you stop racing through the landscape and look closely, can you spot the clues that form the fabric of often intriguing landscape stories. 

This article is about celebrating the small and often mundane detail that can set a destination apart from the ‘something for everyone’ herd.

In the naturally outstanding Chilterns, in South East England, where I live and work, it was on a  late afternoon walk, when the sun had broken through a veil of cloud that I saw new definition in familiar landmarks, now bathed in unfamiliar light. I could see the skeletons of several man-made structures and remains of earlier industry and occupation, some from as long ago as 5,000 years and others quite recent. It got me thinking about the previous occupants of this landscape, and how the success of their endeavours had been determined by wind, water and topography.

photo
College Lake wildfowl reserve, Chilterns

What is beneath our feet? The seam of chalk that runs through South East England (and is perhaps most recognised at the White Cliffs of Dover), is what defines the Chilterns chalk escarpment. The chalk has long been quarried for the manufacture of cement, flint mined for implements and building material and the scars are evident as you browse the hilltop views, or go sledging down the steep quarry slopes in winter. There is still a working cement quarry at the foot of Pitstone Hill, and nearby is College Lake wildfowl reserve, a splendid example of how local energy and passion turned a decaying quarry into a key site owned and managed by the Berks, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust where you enjoy local and visiting wildlife. There is a tiny museum that has some dusty marine artefacts found at the quarry; shells, clams, nautilus, sharks teeth and a set of mammoth tusks that take pride of place in the visitor centre.

The Peddars Way is another long-distance trackway that links Norfolk with the Chilterns
The Peddars Way is another long-distance trackway that links Norfolk with the Chilterns, and the Iron Age axe on the way-markers is testament to its heritage.

My walk took me along just a short part of the Ridgeway, an ancient trackway in southern England that goes from Norfolk in the east to Wiltshire and the Vale of the White Horse in the west, following the chalk escarpment. For at least 5,000 years travellers have used this trading route along high dry ground that made travel easier and provided a measure of protection by giving traders a commanding view, warning against potential attacks. Now promoted as a long-distance footpath the modern route follows the general line of the Icknield Way, thus continuing to give meaning and purpose today.

This same trackway passes many sites of past Iron Age lives including spectacular hill-forts, ditches and sometimes hard-to-identify tumuli, a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. There is also good evidence for the Ice Age itself in the form of nearby coombs and dry valleys.

A site that really dominates the landscape is Ivinghoe Beacon with it’s lone tree still acting as sentinel. Once a prominent Iron Age hill-fort with Bronze Age round barrows, it still finds purpose in the bonfires that are lit for special celebrations such as the Millennium and Royal Jubilees and is popular with weekend aviators and their model aeroplanes.

Pyramid Orchid
Pyramid Orchid

It’s not just about man-made structures. The chalk downland supports an incredible range of plant and animal species too, including butterflies and rare orchids which are are relatively easy to find, but I am sure there are many more species that I have yet to spot – an adder being at the top of the list.

We all want to leave a mark on the landscape, something to impress (or intimidate), the neighbours. The Chilterns has two chalk hill carvings worth a mention; the Whipsnade Lion and Whiteleaf Cross. The former was built in the 1930’s and is over 140 metres in length to mark the position of ZSL Whipsnade wildlife park. The latter is more mysterious with a number of theories as to it’s origin; a Saxon celebration of a victory over the Danes, a phallic symbol later Christianised, a direction sign for a (non-existent) medieval monastery and a seventeenth-century alternative to a village cross. Whatever the reason, just sitting on the brow of the hill alongside an iron-age barrow with only the wind in your ears seems almost timeless. The modern world vanishes.

Can’t see the wood for the trees: The beautiful adjacent Ashridge Forest estate has been home to Iron Age farmers, the Romans, Tudor nobility, Capability Brown and the British Army who have all taken advantage of the natural bounty that this great wood offers. They have built settlements, enclosed, landscaped, hunted, harvested and dug trenches to practice for warfare! Many of these clues are not hard to spot like sawmill pits and pollarded trees. Now managed by the National Trust which manages to successfully combine commercial interests with extensive visitor facilities and heritage interpretation.

The beechwoods that supplied furniture makers with quality hardwood were once worked by bodgers, an itinerant woodland worker who specialised in making legs (no less than 144 legs where needed each day to make a living), and stretchers, or bracers for Windsor chairs that once made the area renowned for its chair-making industry, centred on the towns of Chesham and High Wycombe. They left  behind their saw-pits and the beechwoods we can see today.

Pitstone Windmill with Ivinghoe Beacon in the distance

Buildings are positioned with purpose: Landscape plays an important part in determining form and function, not least windmills and watermills, although the reasons they were built may be long gone. There are sometimes subtle reminders of lost buildings, such as soapwort (used as a natural soaping agent), while some mills still command the local landscape, the location purposefully chosen for exposure to the elements. Historic Pitstone post mill, built c.1627 one of the oldest in Britain milled grain for close on 300 hundred years before a devastating storm in the early 1900’s put an end to it’s industry, is a good example of this.  There is also a working watermill at nearby Ford End, a typical small farm mill of the late 1800s, making use of a local river that comes from springs below the chalk in the field not far off from Pitstone windmill. A small stream, called Whistle Brook is formed there and flows between the villages of Pitstone and Ivinghoe, marking the parish boundary. Both these sites are now dependent on volunteers given up their time and expertise to restore and open so that visitors can visit and even buy freshly ground flour.

The Chalk streams are themselves a unique characteristic and attractive feature of the Chilterns landscape rising through the chalk hillside. Not only do they support a massive range of plants and animals, they also once supported thriving industries such as the farming of watercress bound for the tables of London and now confined to just a few sites who farm on a small, but still delicious scale. The chalk of the hills is an important aquifer, exploited to provide clean water supplies in the area.

The Romans brought many improvements to Britain, and were the first to plant vines in the chalky soils, although I am not sure how their wines stacked up against those from the Mediterranean vineyards. There are small wine farms nestled against south-facing Chilterns slopes who produce white wine and bubbly to growing acclaim, the Chilterns Winery at Hambledon being the most well known.

All of these in their own way, make up a destination jigsaw that can surprise and delight as the story of a destination and it’s people is told.

More information on the naturally outstanding Chilterns can be found here: VisitChilterns.co.uk

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