A Tour of Rothschildshire
Link to GPX File of the Route : Rothschildshire
It is mostly flat and on-road with a few undemanding climbs. The exception is at Eythrope See ‘Route Tips’ below.
The Rothschild Mansions. 7 of them! Eyethrope, Waddesdon, Ascott, Mentmore, Tring, Aston Clinton & Halton.
Tring Natural History Museum. Old school & none the worse for it.
The Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Rail geek heaven.
Quainton a lovely and interesting stop. The George & Dragon is a great pub AND cafe!
The site of the Great Train Robbery in 1963. A good story.
A WW2 secret weapons lab.
A site once seriously (but ludicrously) mooted for a 3rd London Airport.
The usual assortments of oddities.
NB. Of the mansions, Waddesdon charges for entry, Ascott is National Trust, Tring is now an offshoot of the Natural History Museum, you can get close to Halton & Mentmore with some judicious trespassing, Eyethrope isn’t public and Aston Clinton is just a memory.
If your app provides notes on the road surfaces etc. keep in mind that they are automatically generated and only as good as the underlying mapping.
The estate road at Eyethrope Park has been blocked, supposedly on a temporary basis. You might need to use one of two adjacent ‘right of way’ footpaths for a few hundred metres. Check you map. The Western of the two has an awkward gate that you might have to lift your bike over and the other longer. When I am aware that this has changed, I will update the waypoint note on the blog.
Also, check online for information on roads temporarily closed to facilitate HS2 works.
Much of the route is across the flat, clay landscape of the Aylesbury Vale. The exceptions are the rocky outcrops around Waddesdon and Quainton which are capped with limestone Basically, all sedimentary rocks and deposits, but laid down under different conditions.
The Aylesbury Vale is the valley of the River Thame. You might wonder how such a small river cut such a wide valley. The answer is thought by some to be that this was one of the routes of the ancestral Thames, before Ice Age glaciation diverted it through the Goring Gap to its present course. The clay is its legacy. For a long time, light ploughs meant that clay wasn’t easy to far, so the heart of the vale wasn’t a densely populated area. It still isn’t even though mechanisation has solved the problems. Compared with now, much more land was once devoted to sheep rearing.
In contrast the land adjacent to the river offered loamy soil and meadowland; and the land below the Chilterns scarp was rich and fertile, blessed with streams and access to the higher ground of the Chilterns for grazing. As a result it was densely populated with a string of towns villages. Tring and Wendover are examples. But while the local agricultural economy in most places did well in the centuries immediately after the Norman Conquest, it went sharply into reverse later in the 1300’s as the climate cooled, soils were exhausted and crop failures were followed by the Black Death at a time when England was almost constantly at war.
Recovery took a century or more during which labour shortages led to rising incomes and a shift towards less labour-intensive pastoral farming, with an even greater emphasis on sheep, the profitability of can be seen in places in the quality of the Churches. And people started investing in the their property. Many of the oldest houses that you see today were the result of this ‘Great Rebuilding’.
Those enclosures were the next major event in the landscape. Early on, they were locally organised. Later, they could be enforced by an Act of Parliament and the process continued into Victorian times. The impact was most marked in the Vale, where the old system of open fields was gradually eradicated and replaced by a ‘rationalised’ layout, with straight access routes and field boundaries. The early story was a bit more complicated on the high ground around Quainton, which had been part of the woodland patchwork of the Bernwood Forest, but even there the field pattern on the south and western slopes is very regular.
The result of the troubled 1300’s, the need to adapt to the changed economic and social circumstances that followed it, and enclosures, meant that many marginal hamlets and villages shrank or disappeared and some were simply and intentionally obliterated. The sites of several near the route are marked on the 1:25000 OS maps.
The Rothschilds are the legendary Jewish uber-financiers, the Rockefeller's of the Victorian era, accused by both left and right wing conspiracy theorists of manipulating markets and even fomenting wars for personal gain. Some still believe that they secretly control the global economy, presumably from rural Buckinghamshire where many of the family lived (and several still live). Do they deserve their reputation? To my mind, while they were undoubtedly unscrupulous capitalists, there is more than a whiff of antisemitism in all this. Check the (much more detailed!) Waypoint notes and admire the philanthropy tenacity and eccentricity that decorates their uber-capitalist reputations.
On the blog you will also find posts on the rich and complicated human and topographical history of the area as a whole, ranging from the early occupation, the changing agricultural landscape, the geomorphology of the chalk country, the buildings and anything else that moves me.
Houses were marked by signs rather than numbers, so he placed a sign of an eagle on a red shield over the door. Rothschild is German for ‘red shield’ and Bower's son Mayer adopted that as his family name. He was a canny trader and prospered, despatching his large male brood to the corners of Europe to further extend the scope of a nascent banking empire.
Nathan, Mayer's 4h son out of 10, emigrated to England, where he made a fortune trading in bonds and set up his own bank. During the course of the Victorian period he became the richest man on earth. He played a key role in financing Britain’s government funnelling money to the Government and its allies in the Napoleonic War. They needed it! Even at Waterloo, only 20% of the allied army was British, and everyone had to be paid!
You may well have a view on whether this sort of activity is just healthy commerce or ‘casino capitalism’ at its worst, but the Rothschild name has always attracted more than simple political censure. The various conspiracy theories that have arisen range from the possible but improbable to the hilarious and probably owe as least as much to rampant anti-Semitism as to the lingering suspicion of parasitic and monopolistic financial activity.
|A quote attributed - probably falsely - to Nathan Rothschild
The most famous story alleges that in 1815 Nathan made sure he was the first to know of the outcome of Waterloo and used this knowledge to make a vast fortune by manipulating the stock exchange to cause a collapse in the price of shares, which he then scooped back up before the news of Wellington’s victory was officially announced and market prices soared. The story was compelling enough to inspire a 1940 Goebbels production for the Nazis entitled “Die Rothschilds Aktien auf Waterloo”. Over time virtually every element of this story turned out to have been embellished or fabricated but it is still often repeated – not least by City of London Guides!
Nathan's wealth cascaded down through generations of the family many of whom prospered in their own right. But tracing them is complicated not least because they re-used the same names over and over again, used different titles in different times & places and often married within the wider family. So here is a heavily pruned introduction to the cast of characters and apologies for any errors.
Nathan Meyer built the family business in England and was the man associated with Waterloo. His bank, N M Rothschild, lives on and has always been based in New Court in the City of London. Although he plays a central role in this story, he mostly lived in Gunnersbury Park in London which was rural then. He didn't need to go as far out as Buckinghamshire! We will follow his sons, Mayer, Anthony, Nathan and Lionel who continued in business in England.
The scions of the current generation are Evelyn and Jacob, both now very old. I will cover their fortunes in the Route Notes. The next in line is his son Nat, a tax exile in Switzerland and ex Bullingdon Club member alongside Cameron, Osborne & Boris Johnson, who has been busy proving that the best way for the rich to set up your son in a small business, is to give him a big business and wait. He doesn't live in Buckinghamshire.
It would have been useful if the family could have built their houses in generational or date order and to fit a circuit. Clockwise or anti-clockwise, I wouldn't have minded. But they didn't, so you will have to put up with any consequential confusion.
B. Ellesborough & Cymbeline's Castle
The grassy, conical hill ahead of you to the south over the village is Beacon Hill and the earthworks on top are now known as Cymbeline's Castle, referred to in the Shakespeare play Cymbeline. In fact the name refers to the ancient British King Cunobelinus (the name means 'strong as a dog) who is said to have fought the Romans here. It is also the site of a Norman 'motte and bailey', basically a fortified keep.
Ellesborough is the home of 'Del Boy' Trotter i.e. the actor David Jason. Quite the opposite of a Rothschild!
C. Eyethrope : A house without bedrooms
Cycling through Eyethrope’s grounds is a treat, even though Jacob has 'temporarily' closed off a part of the road through Eythrope, miffed by rowdy cyclists at the outset of the pandemic. In the meantime the alternatives, marked on the map, are two footpath rights of way which can be used to bypass the closed stretch. Alternatively, you can continue eastward on the road to Cuddington and divert though the pretty hamlet of Wichendon. This adds about 4 miles to your trip.
Ferdinand (Ferdy) built Waddesdon. (Next stop). He was an Austrian great-nephew of Nathan Meyer's who followed a tradition of 'keeping it in the family', married Lionel's daughter Evalina, his 2nd Cousin. After she died, his sister Alice kept him company and acted as his ‘hostess’. Eyethrope was bought for her. She promptly demolished the original house and all that remains are the grotto by the lake, and the bridge you will cross over the River Thame.
The medieval village of Eyethrope (which means Island Farm in old English) ,is deserted now. All that remains are some earthen banks and ditches in the fields further along the lake to your right together with lots of traces of 'ridge and furrow' farming which can best be seen in the aerial photos on Google Maps.
Like most Rivers the Thame is damp. That exacerbated Alice’s rheumatic fevers, so she never moved in and the house was built without bedrooms as a place to house her collections and entertain guests during the day. A giant Wendy House if you want, but the family referred to it as the ‘Pavilion’. After Alice's death, it was let it to the wife of Somerset Maughan. That was a tough job. Maughan described himself as being ‘three quarters queer’ and used the other quarter to spread the love even further.
Jacob, one of the current scions of the family and Lord Rothschild to you & me, now lives in a more recent house in the park cum Farm and runs Waddesdon for the National Trust. Although elderly he is still active having only recently resigned from chairing Rothschild Capital Partners, an investment company based in another swanky Rothschild gaff in Mayfair. A real claim to fame is that he was the inspiration for the Monty Burns character in ‘The Simpsons’.
|Monty Burns meets his inspiration, Jacob Rothschild
Waddesdon was built rather later in story, by Ferdinand (see above).
|Ferdy. From 'Vanity Fair'.
The entrance is just down the road heading west and on the left, surrounded by trees and difficult to see from the road. I think of it as being 'the Adams Family win the Lottery', but in fact the house was built in the style of the Chateau de Chambord in the Loire and was quite modern in its time. Apparently there was an electric chandelier which Queen Victoria spent 15 minutes switching on and off, never having seen such a thing before.
It is open to the paying public & if time permits, worth a visit. I particularly like the garden statuary made from used bottles of Rothschild's own 'Chateau Lafite' champagne. This can fetch £2,000 a bottle, so have fun working out how much the contents of all the bottles was worth.
The property wormed its way through succeeding generations into the hands of the National Trust and now Jacob runs it on their behalf.
E. Buckinghamshire Railway Centre
Run by enthusiasts, it has a variety of very old engines and carriages from the later 1800’s together with British Rail stock. They proudly claim that while many railways have a cattle dock, theirs is the only one with a restored cattle wagon AND COW!
It opens on odd days, usually earlier in the week from April through to October but sometimes at other times. Check on the website bucksrailcentre.org.
|Buckinghamshire Railway Centre
F. Quainton. Great Pub & Cafe Stop!
A lovely village with half-timbered cottages around a green with the remains of an old preaching cross on the green (see the pic), a working windmill in the background, 17th c. The Winwood Almshouses which are still in use and a 14th c. Church in the 'decorated gothic' style, albeit mucked around by the Victorians.
The name sounds a bit strange but in fact it simply means 'Queen's Estate. No one knows which Queen but one strong possibility is Edith, Mrs Edward the Confessor and the sister of the King Harold who came second at the Battle of Hastings.
Winwood himself was a landowner and parliamentarian of no great note who is immortalised in stone in full armour in the 14th c. church, alongside his wife who is portrayed looking over him, perhaps watchfully or perhaps simply wondering why he bothers with the armour now he is dead anyway.
The hills above the village were used solely for pasture for centuries. The drove roads across the hill might pre-date the Romans. The break came in World War Two when the Government strongarmed people into planting crops on parts of it. More calories per acre!
Finally, the The George and Dragon is a great pub, which has a separate and excellent café with outdoor seating.
An interesting place with lovely old cottages, the earliest of which date back to the 16th c., but which is rather spoiled by the busy road running through it! The Mound behind the buildings on the west side of the road is what is left of Bolbec Castle, built in the 11th c. 'Anarchy' period of King Stephen & Empress Matilda and later destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.
Just before you turn off Whitworth High Street and head for Cublington and opposite the White Swan pub marked, there is a large 'Elizabethan' style timbered house called The Firs on the West side of the road. During World War 2, this was Churchill's secret weapons 'Toyshop'. The first product was the limpet mine, which was stuck to the underside of enemy ships by frogmen. The prototypes used washing up bowls, condoms (to keep the fuse dry) and aniseed balls (used as timers because they dissolved at a steady rate). The place was reputedly the inspiration for 'Q' in the James Bond films.
|Desmond Llwellyn as Q, Roger Moore as Bond
H. Cublington: The Airport that wasn't meant to be
If you detour a few hundred metres up Ridings Way on your left you will find the earthworks that mark the site of Cublington until the time of the Black Death. The mound marks another Motte & Bailey.
Amazingly, in the 1970's a commission set up by the Government proposed Cublington as a site for a 3rd London Airport. It would have been on your left as you ride out of the village, which it would have effectively obliterated. Thankfully the recommendation was ignored on environmental grounds although a cynic might suggest that the Tory Government was mindful that this was a Tory constituency. As an alternative they proposed a Thames Estuary site, albeit one off Foulness rather than Boris' even crazier suggestion of a location between a sunk ship with 1400 tons of live explosive onboard and a Gas and oil terminal.
The old photo below was used to depict the objectors. HS2 protesters take note.
I. Wing (& A Prayer).
I'm sure you are keen on churches. Keep in with the Almighty and all that. If you divert to the right off Wing High Street you will find a fine old Saxon example partly dating back to the 9th c. and a lot more most being added not that long after that. There is a 16th c. rood screen and a complete Saxon crypt but I am sucker for good epitaphs and liked this one:
'Honest old Thomas Cotes, that sometime was porter art Ascott Hall, hath now (alas) left his key, lod, fyre, friends, and all to have a roome in heaven, this is that good mans grave. Reader prepare for thine, for none can tell but that you two may meete to night farewell. He died the 20th of November, 1648. Set up by the appoyntment and charges of his friend, Geo. Houghton'
J. Ascott House : Entrance
Originally, it was given by Mayer (who built Mentmore, next stop!)to his nephew Leopold as a hunting lodge (!) intentionally designed in a mock Elizabethan rustic style and to look as if it had expanded higgledy-piggledy style over the ages. Once again, the architect was George Devey who it seems made a good living out of the Rothschilds.
The house is open to the public (National Trust) but is surrounded by trees and quite difficult to see from the road. You need to check opening hours. Sir Evelyn still uses part as one of his several homes. .
I believe that this is now the country residence of one of the other current scions of the family, Evelyn. Apparently he originally wanted to be a cowboy, following pleasant experiences on Grannie’s ranch in Paraguay, but ended up as the last English Rothschild at the helm of the family bank. Beyond that he has been a financial advisor to the queen, jack of all noble trades and board member of just about everything.
Muffy dabbled in politics but wasn't much into grubby things like finance. It appears that some don't have to get their hands dirty at all, to end up with a pile like this. His great love was gee-gees.
He passed it incomplete to his daughter Hannah who married the Early of Rosebery, a ‘liberal imperialist’, a Prime Minister in the 1890’s of whom Churchill said 'he would not stoop and he did not conquer'. After she died it was mostly downhill. In World War Two it was used to store national art treasures. In 1973 the Labour Government, preferring cold cash to finery, refused to accept the house in lieu of tax payments so it was sold to the Maharishi Foundation , that is Maharishi, the Guru to the Beatles and Transcendental Meditation fans and later beautifully lampooned on TV in 'Goodness Gracious Me'. Later, development proposals failed, and it is now empty and on the English Heritage list of 'at risk' historic buildings.
If might look familiar, having been used in a truly eclectic variety of films including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Johnny English, Eyes Wide Shut, Marquis du Sade, The Mummy Returns, Ali G in Da House and as Wayne Manor in Batman Returns.
L. The Great Train Robbery & Ronnie Biggs
This is Bridego Bridge, site of the 'Great Train Robbery'. In 1963, a gang fixed the signals to stop the train which was carrying cash and then attacked it, beating engine driver senseless. They got away with the equivalent of around £50m in today's money. They were caught and got long prison sentences sentences.
One of them, Ronnie Biggs, gained notoriety by escaping, getting plastic surgery and moving to Brazil. He evaded arrest, extradition and even kidnap for years while happily telling his tale to the newspapers. Eventually he became very ill and in 2001 returned to Britain to complete his sentence. That ill-health led to his release in 2009 and he died shortly afterwards.
The episode was rewarded with a film and mini-series on TV. See:
A pleasant village with old Tudor style buildings. It is another popular filming location, seen in The Avengers, The Saint, Quatermass 2, Batman Begins, Maleficent, The Dirty Dozen, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and (surprisingly) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
I like the community-run 'Curiosity Tearooms'. Lavishly use of food dye in the cakes a speciality.
N. Tring Park Mansion & Museum
Lionel originally bought Tring Park. He gave it to his son Nathan, who gets brownie points for his philanthropic endeavours and then loses them again for being a chum of Cecil Rhodes and a financier of Imperialist excesses generally. He in turn left it to his eldest son Walter, who is the star of this piece. Something of an eccentric, he turned it into a menagerie.
The Mansion is not the biggest or anywhere near the best Rothschild pile but is easily visible from the route with paths across the old garden and up onto the Chiltern's escarpment. There is an outpost of the Natural History Museum here which is usually open.
This original Manor was originally designed by Christopher Wren but later that wasn’t good for Sir Drummond Smith (of Drummonds Bank, now part of RBS. Then as now Buckinghamshire attracted more than its fair shares of Bankers) who made ‘improvements’ and reconfigured the gardens in ‘Capability Brown’ style. In 1872 it was sold to Lionel who gave it to his son Nathaniel (see intro) as a wedding present. It beats a toaster!
Walter is the significant figure in the story. His passion wasn’t banking but zoology and in 1889, and the current museum was his 21st birthday prezzie, built in the grounds to house his massive collection of great, small, stuffed, dried and pickled creatures. You can imagine his Mum was pleased to see them out of the house!
Dad however was not pleased with Walter’s inability to manage the Museum’s finances. So when he died he left him the title and a miserly £1m (equivalent to perhaps £75m today) and everything else went to Charles.
By this time Walter’s zebras, emus, rheas and kangaroos wandered freely around Tring Park, the latter unconstrained by the haha that was supposed to protect the formal gardens and wandering into the town. Later, the family gave the house and grounds to the people of Tring and Walter ended up living with Mum in her ‘dower house’ (i.e. the house occupied by the widow of an estate owner) and which is now Champneys Spa Hotel in nearby Wigginton.
After Walter’s death, Charles’ son offered the collection to the Natural History Museum where the arrayed displays cases of dried butterflies still play a major role in boring school children. The Manor itself is now a school for the Performing Arts.
O. Aston Clinton : 'Nothing to see here folks'
This was another sprawling George Devey concoction in the Italian Style and a relatively modest one by Rothschild standards. (Maybe Devey gave Nectar Points?). It was originally built for a fellow with the wonderful title of General Gerald Lake, 1st Viscount of Delhi and Laswary and of Aston Clinton. Anthony 'Fat Bill' Rothschild bought the place in 1853 as a country escape from his grim garret in Grosvenor Square.
|Anthony 'Fat Bill'.
P. Halton House
We bumped into Lionel at Tring. He actually lived in London, on Piccadilly. He bought the Halton estate and his son Alfred built the House.
Lionel played a major role in financing the Crimean war and sundry Imperial dreams, paying for the Suez Canal, funding Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, and buying big stakes in future mining giants such as Rio Tinto and De Beers. He became the first Jewish MP in 1847 but having refused to take a Christian oath couldn’t take his seat for a long time. Alfred funded the discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Alfred wasn't quite so sharp, but he did become a Director of the Bank of England, which was quite something for a Jew at the time. But I gather he had to leave the bank some years later following a dispute and indiscretion in relation to the purchase of a painting.
The grandiloquent style of the house wasn’t much admired; one critic described it as a cross between a French Chateau and a gambling house.
It was eventually sold to the RAF at a knockdown price and it remains the officer’s mess today. You might reasonably wonder if our supposedly cash-strapped military might find a more lucrative use for it?