Sharpenhoe Clappers: what’s in a name?

I wonder how many of the declarations of love carved on the beechwood tree trunks, still hold true today?

Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.

The landscape of the northern Chilterns is not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word: dramatic yes, tenacious even, as it stands out amidst intense agricultural activity, flight paths to and from Luton, intrusive road infrastructure, a burgeoning population in the crowded South East – yet ironically it was so quiet, I could hear a jet-washer being used in the hamlet below.

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Looking south towards London

Sharpenhoe Clappers is located in Bedfordshire to the north of London, in the parish of Streatley, sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable, Luton and alongside the MI motorway, is rightly an oasis of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm.

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Orange-tipped butterfly

Classic Chilterns chalk escarpment, you could not find a better example. Protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument for its prehistoric and medieval features,  that this would not however, be obvious if you visited; no interpretation and only a concrete obelisk to commemorate a local family and their sons who died in the First World War. There are numerous way-marked medium and long-distance trails criss-crossing the site, but they offer no clues either. Yet, such a prime topographical site could not have gone unused by the locals? The clues then, are in the name: Sharpenhoe Clappers.

Sharpenhoe means “sharp spur of land” which is an accurate description of the site and Clappers refer to the medieval rabbit warrens consisted of an enclosure surrounding one or more purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or buries.

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Looking north, where the spur can be seen to the right

As I approached the site from the carpark, full of wagging tails and expectation, I decided to walk away from the hilltop and approach from the other side to get a sense of the lay of the land. To the south, the view of the hillfort is not as dramatic as the northern side where you can really appreciate the strategic position of this Iron Age promontory hillfort, now fringed by a ring of beechwoods, like a pudding-bowl haircut. Of the Clappers, I found no evidence.

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Avenue of beech trees

A mature beech wood, established in the 1840’s, now covers what would have been the interior of the fort, with gnarled and worn roots and beechnuts crunched underfoot. Around the fringes, lie decaying moss-covered tree-trunks and stumps, whilst the Dogs Mercury alongside, has colonised the floor of the ancient woodland.

The entire hilltop must be a favourite spot to declare your love by carving your initials into the tree trunks. I wonder how many of the locals have carved their names on the beechwood trunks? The initials indecipherable, but the years they declared their love are still visible; 1969, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984.

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With so many trunks to choose from, it’s no surprise they are all concentrated along the side where the view is not obscured by foliage on the slope below. I noticed too, offerings suspend from branches, like a ‘wishing tree’.

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Local legend tells of Cassivellaunus, the Celtic chieftain, who ruled the territory north of the River Thames, and led the native British tribes in opposition to Julius Caesar on his second expedition in 54 BC, haunts the site by cloaking the hilltop in cloud. Why the association with this location, is unclear, but I rather hoped he was there today as the show of clouds – not menacing nor dark – but light and playful against the backdrop of rapeseed, where impressive.

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Rapeseed under a Celtic sky

I have visited a number of Chiltern hill forts over the years  and have found each has a distinctive feel, not always immediately obvious; some broody, some with easy-to-spot landscape features and others needing a more active imagination to bring them alive. Sharpenhoe Clappers has the best name and still feels lived-in and loved by the locals.

I am proud that we have such wonderful links back to the past when our ancestors began colonising this area, and look forward to the outcomes of a new hill forts project that the Chilterns Conservation Board is undertaking that promises to reveal what lies beneath the benign Chilterns’ woodlands.

To find out more about visiting the Chilterns

Here is a link to  three circular walks all local, with connections by train and car.

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