Midsomer & Medieval Murders


GPX File of the Route  Midsomer & Medieval Murders

This route uses minor roads and the Phoenix Trail to explores the Aylesbury Vale and some attractive old villages, used as settings for the documentary series ‘Midsomer Murders’. It starts at Princes Risborough Railway Station and the initial 3 mile stretch to Chinnor is on a well used B Road. It then turns north then west towards Ewelme where it pivots back on a more northerly route, passing through Chalgrove and the Haseleys before crossing the River Thame at Shabbington on the way to Thame. From there it uses the Phoenix Trail, a converted railway line, to return to Princes Risborough. There are some homeopathic climbs, the highest point being just 124m (past Postcombe) and the lowest is around 40m. For more detail see the Route Tips.

Zooming In

Highlights are:  

  • The ‘Midsomer Murders’ Villages. (Almost every village here claims to have appeared in in the series, with plots around an improbable number of mysterious murders. You might not unreasonably expect to find bones scattered across village greens, cottage walls dripping blood and pubs packed with eccentric detectives.

  • Memories of even more, medieval, bloodshed at Ewelme

  • Olde churches, many retaining original features including what is perhaps the oldest inscription in English, a hagioscope and a Stone Cadaver. (If you want to know what the hell they were, read on...). And Olde pubs. Of course.

  • The old market town of Thame.

  • A cast of local characters includes Mercian and Saxon Kings, Plantagenet knights and schemers, Chaucer’s remarkable granddaughter and the odd pop star.

  • The usual goody bag of ephemera.

If you are interested, you can find a lot of general information on what has shaped this landscape from pre-history to the present day, elsewhere on this blog. Check this page: Link  Other Stuff 

Route Tips

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 1 mile run on the return leg from North Weston to the Thame Roundabout, is on the busy A418, but you can use the dual use footpath alongside.

The Phoenix Trail is gravel and / or hard earth and in my experience presents few problems for a bike with anything but the flimsiest tyres, even after wet weather. The start at Thame can be difficult to find. If you want to go into Thame, check your map. If you want to avoid it, the best bet is to come off the roundabout onto Oxford Road and almost immediately turn right into the Leisure Centre. Eagle eyes will spot signs directing you around the left hand side of the building towards the Trail. 

Zooming Out

The Aylesbury Vale is the valley of the River Thame. It has been suggested that this was one of several routes of the Thames, long before Ice Age glaciation diverted it through the Goring Gap to its present course. A lot of the valley floor is clay, with the low hills and outcrops being various concoctions of harder stones that resisted erosion rather more successfully.

For early man, clay wasn’t easy to plough, and the heart of the vale wasn’t a densely populated area. It still isn’t. Compared with now, much more land was devoted to sheep rearing. In contrast

The land below the Chilterns scarp was rich and fertile, blessed with streams and access to the higher ground of the Chilterns for grazing. The result was the string of villages, of which Ewelme is an example. But while the local agricultural economy 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. Marginal villages shrank or disappeared, a process that continued for several centuries as the country adjusted to changing economic and social circumstances, not least of which were the increasingly better paid and footloose agricultural workforce and the enclosure (privatisation!) of swathes of the farmland.

A particular shift was from arable and subsistence farming to large scale sheep rearing, the profitability of which is attested by the quality of the Churches. And people started investing in the their property, adding windows, storeys and staircases. Many of the oldest houses that you see today were the result of this ‘Great Rebuilding’.

Initially, the enclosures were locally organised. Later, they could be enforced by an Act of Parliament as part of a 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 many of the straight access routes and field boundaries that you see today.

A. Princes Risborough 

Princes Risborough lies at end of a gap in the Chilterns that once would have been valued as a link between the Icknield Way and the Thames. Now, truth be told, there isn't a lot to see. Originally, the place passed from King Harold to William the Conq. after 1066, and then on to the Prince in the name. He is the famous 'Black Prince' who was instrumental in the English victories at Poitiers and Crecy in 1346 while marauding around France. He was 'custodian' of the Manor, now buried under the car park (!) and had a stud farm here, with horses with names like Grisel, Tankarvill, and Morel de Salesbirs. It beats Dobbin! The waypoint photo depicts his effigy in Westminster Abbey. 

More recent famous residents include Jamie Kay of Jamiroquai (who I can only remember by his headgear) and Sarah Harding of Girl's Aloud. Don't ask me. I am too old to be a Girl Band fan.

B. Through Adwell & Postcombe

The land to the south of Salt Lane, running between Adwell and heading for Postcombe, was one of the last with medieval-style open field 'strip farming'.  One of the strips was named Saltwey because the local Abbot partly paid the local folk in salt for helping to harvest hay.. 

Another legacy of the farming landscape is the ancient north–south tracks, linking the valley farming hamlets with the Chiltern Scarp and originally used to access summer grazing. If you want to know more about this, check the post on local Landscape History at (Link)  Pootler

Beyond Adwell, you climb over Clare Hill on the old road linking Thame to Wallingford, from where you could reach London by river.

C. Brightwell Baldwin & John Ye Smyth

Unusually, when the Victorians decided to ‘improve’ St Bartholomew’s church, they kept many of the older features and the memorials to long dead Lords of the Manor etc. There is a truly impressive ancient yew in the churchyard. Maybe I will get around to doing a blog post on pootler.co.uk on  why these are so often found in graveyards; one practical theory is that they provide good rain cover for itinerant preachers! 

In the North Aisle (i.e. on the wall facing the main entrance) there is a brass plaque to John Smith who died in 1371. Wikipedia reckons - so it must be right? - that this might be the oldest known inscription in English. It reads:

'man com & se how schal alle ded li: wen yolk comes bad & bare moth have ben ve awa? fare: All ?s werm?s yt ve for
care:—bot yt ve do for god ?s luf ve haue nothyng yare: yis graue l?s John ye sm?th god yif his soule hewn grit'.

Useless fact. When 'ye' means you, it is pronounced 'ye'. When it means 'the' like it does here, it has always been pronounced 'the'. Quite simply, the character originally used for 'th' was a 'thorn' and it looked like this 'þ'. People then often stuck the 'e' on top! Early printers couldn't replicate this and substituted a 'y'. Eventually, people started to pronounce it 'y'. Ignorant fools!

D. Ewelme - Chaucer & Jerome K Jerome

I would linger here. Ewelme (pronounced Ewe-ulm) is lovely and on top of that the shop in the village centre also serves as a café with a nice place to sit outside overlooking the 'oldest primary school in continuing use in England'. It provides a good bike pump, inner tubes and will refill your water bottle etc. Excellent.

Odd name. In the Domesday Book Ewelme appears as Auuilme which apparently means 'powerful spring'. For obvious reasons people like to settle where there was fresh running water and hereabouts this meant where the springs emerged at the base of the chalk escarpment. Hence the string of villages and towns that you can see there on the map.  

Ewelme became a significant centre in medieval times, owing much to two families who grew from rags to riches. William De La Pole, later the Duke of Suffolk, was the Great Grandson of a wealthy wool merchant who helped to finance the wars of the early Plantagenet Kings and whose devious and deadly doings inspired the 'Game of Thrones'. William settled in Ewelme and married Alice, the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer of 'Canterbury Tales' fame. He was her third husband, having been hitched to her first aged only eleven. 

De La Pole. Posing. 

The family had more up and downs than the Blackpool Roller Coaster which, as you know,  was until recently the tallest in the world. William's Dad was killed at the siege of Harfluer in the 100 Years War and his brother Michael copped it at Agincourt only a few months later. William himself survived long enough to be captured by Joan of Arc and imprisoned in France, but not before he had fathered an illegitimate child after a bit of nun-fun.

Once home he assumed a diplomatic career, negotiating the loss of England's French territories as part of a marriage deal for Henry V1. People weren't too pleased with this and, following a stay in the economy suite at the Tower of London and on his way into exile, William's head was forcibly detached by a rusty sword on a boat to England and washed up on Dover Beach. Maybe our current crop of failed politician-diplomats should be dealt with the same way? Exile in France would seem to be an appropriate fate for Nigel Farage! 

Alice herself was quite a character, and intelligent and cultured woman who wasn't to be crossed! She was married to De La Pole at 11, Castellan at Wallingford, arraigned by the King, lent money to the King, opportunistically changed sides in the War of the Roses and had property in 22 countries. 

Things didn’t get better for his brood. They were associated with the losing side in the Wars of the Roses and some also crossed the Channel. Their subsequent involvement in plots to invade England didn't endear them to Henry V111 and they never returned. The consolation prize came a century or so later William got a major role in Shakespeare's 'Henry V1'. But the Bard didn't change the ending. 

Suffolk's execution 

The Church is almost 600 years old and hasn't been altered too much. Thomas and Alice are buried there, the latter in a tomb with a visible and gruesome 'sculpted cadaver' underneath her more conventional effigy. Take a look and follow the example of Queen Victoria who apparently wanted to find out how a lady should wear the Order of the Garter. (See the photo here).

Generally the De La Pole's seem to have been a treacherous, corrupt, generally unpleasant and infectiously unlucky lot. Alice was no angel.  But they did fund the almshouses behind the church which are worth a look. At the same age as the church, they are reckoned to be among the very oldest dwellings in continued use in the country. If you want a bit more detail see: (Link) Fordsfarm : Ewelme History

Jerome K Jerome, the author of 'Three Men in a Boat', resides in the graveyard. He was also a self-made man but made a good living writing and ended up as a freeman of Walsall! Oh! The Glory! (Incidentally, the 'K' stands for Klapka. His siblings fared no better. One sister was called Blandina, his brother was Milton Melancthon and his Father's middle name was Clapp; not a good name for a Reverend in those censorious times). Jerome crops up again in my Goring Gap Route. 

Until 1988 the clear chalk stream through the village supported the production of watercress on some scale. The brick walled beds were restored by the Chilterns Society and, while they are rarely open to the public, can be seen from the road in places. More generally, watercress grows in clean (and preferably flowing) water coming from springs and wells, because that is less likely to freeze in the winter. It is traditionally harvested in time to serve as a supplement to the winter diet. 

E. RAF Benson

You go past the end of the runway at RAF Benson shortly after leaving Ewelme. In WW2 this was the base for Wellington and Mosquito bombers and Spitfires. Now, it is a helicopter base, with Puma and Merlin HC3 helicopters. That seems odd to me. How much space do you need to land a helicopter? 

The  location has some history. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle recorded that in 777:
 'her Cynewulf & Offa gefuhton ymb Benesingtun & Offa nam pone tuun' 
Just in case your Olde English isn't up to scratch, that means that the King of Mercia, Offa of Dyke fame, duffed up the West Saxons hereabouts; a victory that resulted in Wessex recognising Mercian overlordship. 

F. Chalgrove Village, Airfield & Manor

If you are interested in those olde churches, detour into the village where St Mary’s dates back to the 100’s and  has a full set of medieval wall paintings that miraculously survived the vandalism of the reformation and tell the story of Christ from King David to the Day of Judgement.

The Airfield itself was the site of the Battle of Chalgrove Field in 1643 where the Charles I wingman, the Cavalier Prince Rupert, defeated a Roundhead army.

In World War Two it was used by the US Army. Now it used for testing the ejector seats that are supplied to air forces around the world. So if you fancy buying a really unusual component for your bike.....

G. Ickford Bridge & Ickford  - You are now leaving Oxfordshire

At the bridge you leave Oxfordshire for Buckinghamshire. Boundary stones inserted into the Bridge attest to this and suggest that it was built in 1685. And take a look in the river either here or at Shabbington. It is clean, if obstructed in places, and there are supposed to be Roach, Perch, Tench, Bream and Pike in it. There used to be Eels too. 

The village itself is a bit further along the road. It has shuffled about a bit over time and if you look at the fields beyond the church, you can see some 'ridge and furrow' ploughing patterns and the mounds which is all that is left of some of the medieval buildings. 

After the Civil war the Prebend of the Church was the delightfully named Calybute Downing probably because the local bigwig, the equally sweetly named Thomas Tipple was a Parliamentarian. Lucky Calybute; the prebend was effectively an income. But following the Restoration of the Monarchy it was among the goodies that changed hands and it passed to the more boringly named Gilbert Sheldon, who already had several livings to his name and eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury and presumably a lot richer still.

Even during Cromwell's reign the niceties of class were not lost on the denizens of Ickford. In the Church the strange rectangular opening low down on the north wall was probably a 'hagioscope', inserted when the posher members of the congregation don't want to be seen by the plebs.

H. Boo for Boris

As far as I can work out, Boris Johnson's house (or one of them) is in Weston Lane, roughly opposite when you turn onto the A418 off to the right and is the one in the pic below. Do with this information what you will but don’t be too unpleasant, I believe the place is rented out following his last divorce. 

The road from here into Thame is busy This is a busy road but bikes can use the footpath. You can then either follow the cycle route that runs through the sports centre (watch out for the signs - they are small and not always clearly visible), or visit Thame (see below) which is worth a look.

I. Thame - Grossteste & a threat

Thame, like Thames, is a Brythonic name meaning dark river. As I understand it, in the early days the town centred on the area around the church and the bridge over the river Thame on the road to Long Crendon. 

The church itself is suitably ancient, having been rebuilt at the behest of Bishop Grossteste 1250's. The name Grossteste means 'big head' and he was quite a character, described by some as a medieval Dr Johnson, a philosopher and a wizard, and by others less charitably. 
The Church itself must have been quite wealthy judging by the size of the 500 year old Tithe Barn adjacent to it. 

Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees is buried in the cemetery. If you are lucky, you will be too young to remember them. 

As part of his project Grossteste was also responsible for creating 'New Thame' on adjacent fields the early 1200's. The market square was laid out in a boat-shaped pattern with the Buttermarket on the shadier north side, the Cornmarket on the south side and Middle Row.......well, you can work that out.  

Lots of old pubs here. The Birdcage pub in the middle of the square is 700 years old and was used as a prison for 'other ranks' in the Napoleonic War. (Officers were stuck in the Royal Oak). Slightly later, Thame's most famous brewer, a Mr Boddington, left it for Manchester and never looked back.  

Don't let the Georgian appearance of much of the high street lead you to conclude that the rest of the buildings only go back a couple of hundred years or so. Look closely and you will see that many of them are just 'modern' facades on much older structures. Full detail can be found at Thame's Museum at 79 High Street. You can scheck opening time through this link: 

Mind that you behave yourself while you are there. A Statute from 1405 required every town to maintain a set of stocks to punish layabouts and drunkards on pain of being downgraded to a mere hamlet. In 2016, the Town Council were investigating bringing them back. 

When leaving Thame keep a careful eye out for the route onto the Phoenix Trail. It is easy to miss and if you reach what was the bridge over the old railway line, you have gone a bit too far.

J. Pheonix Trail

This is a flat trail, around seven miles in length, along the route of a closed railway line. It is mostly well-compacted gravel which drains well even when it is wet, excepting the extension south of Lower Icknield Way. There are various art installations along the way which I believe were created by staff & students of a local college. 

Keep an eye out on the way for Red Kites who often hover around looking for scurrying beasties to devour. A swooping kite is an impressive sight! You can spot them by the tail shape. 

As you approach Princes Risborough and have reached the Icknield Way, which is a road here, you can either return to the station the way you came or continue on the Phoenix Trail. But be warned, after this point the surface deteriorates and navigation becomes more complicated. 


Popular posts from this blog

Start Here : Explanations

Mapping Apps Review

3. Mud