Saints, Ravers & Crazies
This route covers two landscapes, the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills. From Twyford Station, you head east across flat arable land before turning north and crossing the higher ground bordering the current course of the river. Descending, you cross the river at a lock, then climb around 100m to the wooded hills overlooking the beautiful valley of the Hamble Brook. After following this for a few miles, you coast down the hillside side and then along the valley road to Hambleden itself before recrossing the Thames at the eponymous lock. Leaving the south bank, you cross the valley side again before returning to Twyford. For the most part the route follows minor roads, but there is an avoidable stretch of about a mile of woodland path south of the Thames on the return leg. See ‘Route Tips’ below. The River is crossed at picturesque locks, where you will need to wheel your bike.
Hurley Priory and Ladye Place, an old Benedictine Monastery with an entertaining history. The Locks, Temple and Hambleden. Lovely and lively spots on the River.
Pullingshill Wood WW1 Trenches. If you like that sort of thing!
Turville. AKA the home of the Vicar of Dibley.
Hambleden Village. ‘Picture postcard’ stuff with an odd cast of former residents and another popular film setting, most famously for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The Velolife Cafe. Another ace dedicated cyclists café.
A salmagundi of other oddities.
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. In this case the reality is that a little under a mile of the route, on Bowsey Hill, between the Thames and Wargrave, uses woodland paths. These are well established and often used by cyclists but in my experience need a bit of navigation and can be muddy after rain. If you are using a road bike you might prefer to devise an alternative route. There are several easy and convenient options; consult your map. Also, the short paths adjacent to the locks will sometime require you to dismount. Note that the road between Wargrave and Twyford is busy, but for the most part has a cycle path alongside it.
Apparently the Thames used to flow north of the Chilterns until its route was blocked during the Anglian Glaciation and it turned south through the Goring Gap and onto roughly its present course. Even after that it didn’t settle, shifting partly because of frequent and drastic changes in sea levels. This is why there is higher ground between the riverine clay of the flat landscape encountered on the first part of the ride, and the present and narrower valley. The Chilterns are of course chalk. The higher ground is not particularly fertile but not particularly fertile, with classic mixed woodland on its East side and more commercial planting on the West.
Being on the Thames and relatively close to London meant that this area was always populated, settled and travelled through. There was a Roman settlement under what is now a car park between Hambleden Lock and the village. By Norman times Henley had started growing and Hambleden was established as a large parish. The area was caught up in both the Reformation, witness the goings on at Hurley Priory, and Civil War. As time went prosperity increased, with glass making, malting and the supply of local wool and grain to London. The Thames Valley as a whole was attracting inward investment and high net-worth individuals on a scale our Chancellor would be proud of. One result was that Hambleden has an impressive roll call of famous and infamous residents.
1. Ecstasy Airport
The airfield on your right as you leave White Waltham was established by the De Havilland Company in 1928 and unsurprisingly nabbed by the Government for use by the Air Transport Auxiliary, just prior to World War Two. In the 1950's it was HQ RAF Home Command. Now it is the home of the West London Aero Club.
It has had more colourful uses. Like almost everywhere else in this part of the Home Counties it appeared in an episode of Midsomer Murders and more recently it was used as Heathrow in the film 'My Week With Marilyn'.
More entertainingly, in 1989 the hangar on the north side of the airfield was the venue for the 'Sunrise: Midsummer Night's Dream' acid house rave which attracted a massive crowd of ravers and led to it being dubbed 'Ecstasy Airport' by the Sun. The Rave Culture and the 'Second Summer of Love' were recently the subject of a Sky TV Documentary on the 'the proud British history of getting off your face in a field'.
You might have seen Carters Steam Fairs around the country from time to time with their heritage style fairground rides and attractions. They are based here.
2. Velolife Cafe
I don’t usually bother to record cafés but this one is special. A cyclist's cafe. Coffee to wake the dead. Cakes packed with enough calories to make the caffeine superfluous. Sartorial nightmares in lycra. Fascinating chatter about sprockets and gaskets. Back copies of cycling mags. Bike nerd heaven.
3. Danesfield & Harleyford Manor
The large white building across the Thames is Danesfield House and is now a hotel. Its Italianate appearance is more imposing than its history. It was owned by William Hudson who made his money through Sunlight Soap, a business he later sold to the Lever Brothers who transmogrified into Unilever plc the makers of everything from Marmite and Persil to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Later, it served the RAF as an intelligence HQ.
4. Hurley Priory & Ladye Place
Hurley Priory is an old Benedictine Monastery, established as an offshoot of Westminster Abbey and dating back to the Norman Conquest. The Benedictines wore dark tunics and thus became known as the `black monks' to distinguish them from the Cistercian monks who had a white kit and laundry problems. They could have done with Mr Hudson’s soap!
The Abbey secured the woodland here by swapping it for the area that is now London's Covent Garden. They clearly were not blessed with visionary commercial skills but were still loaded enough to attract the attention of Henry VIII who 'privatised' the place during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.
The Norman nave of the old Monastery survives as the Parish Church and its guest house is incorporated into the Olde Bell Inn, one of the oldest working pubs in the England.
After the Dissolution, the monastery came to be owned by the Lovelace family who built a mansion called Ladye Place on the site of the ruined Priory. This was reputedly paid for from the proceeds of pirating expeditions with Sir Francis Drake.
The 3rd Lord Lovelace was a protestant who had been jailed for complicity in the Rye House plot to assassinate King Charles II and later became a supporter of William of Orange, the Dutchman who overthrew James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The old Priory crypt, which is still there, became a centre for the plotters and then a place of pilgrimage for the supporters of the Glorious Revolution and the changes that resulted from it, including both William of Orange himself and George III.
|Charte of Ye Old Priory and Ladye Place
Lovelace was a drunkard, keen on a quart of brandy for breakfast and who almost bankrupted the estate. As a result his son toddled off to the new colonies where he became the Governor of the (literally new) New York State and sailed into history by purchasing Staten Island from the Natives.
If you want the full story go to: Ladye Place
5. Temple Lock
There has been a weir and flash lock here since the mid 1500’s. (A flash lock was a removable barrier on the river. It retained enough water that, when removed, boats would be carried over the weir in a 'flash flood'). The current Temple Lock is unusual because when it was built in 1890, the old lock was left where it was and modified for use by smaller boats.
Down river you can see Bisham Abbey which is now the National Sports Centre. It was founded in the 12th century and later served as a lock up for Mrs Robert the Bruce and as part of Henry VIII's divorce settlement with his 4th wife
Anne of Cleves. Anne swapped it with Sir Thomas Hoby whose wife Elizabeth is still a frequent visitor as one of England's most impressive and persistent ghosts.
All of this is perhaps more impressive than its early claim to fame as a home for bits of St Damian and St Cosmas and pilgrimage destination. No, I'd never heard of them either but apparently they were the Ant & Dec of 4th century Rome until eventually hung on a cross, shot by arrows and beheaded. Now, there’s a thought…..
Harleyford Manor on the North bank of the river, is grand but uninteresting. But it does include the twee mini-Temple on the river island after which the nearby Lock is named. The House was built for an MP called Clayton in 1753, possibly because he needed to buy the Manor of Harleyford to gain control of one of Marlow's parliamentary seats.
|The Temple at Harleyford
6. Pullingshill Wood Trenches
These are claimed to be the best most complete set of WW1 era training trenches left in the UK. To the left (west) of the road and easy to find, there are about 1400m of trenches, machine gun posts and fire bays dug about 2m deep and 2m wide. It is likely that they were used by the Grenadier and Welsh Guards in preparation for going to the front lines.
|Trenches at Pullingshill
7. Parmoor & King Zog
The original house, built in medieval times, was owned by the Knights Templar. The current version's claim to fame is that, during WW2 it was the home of King Zog of Albania together with his Hungarian wife Queen Geraldine.
When Mussolini invaded Albania they fled here together with his various Ministers and retainers. Legend also has it that he arrived with seven crates of gold which were stashed in the cellar strongroom. No one knows where they ended up.
Zog was a lucky fellow - he survived over 50 assassination attempts and on one occasion became the only recent head of state to return fire on the assassin. He was not a smoothie. Snr. Bugatti refused to sell him one of his famous cars on account of his appalling table manners.
It is now used by a religious charity for retreats.
The odd name comes from 'Thinghurst' which in Anglo-Saxon meant the wooded place where assemblies were held. The odd church here looks ancient because it is. The tower is Norman and reputedly still occupied by the unpleasant 700 years old Bishop of Lincoln still hangs about around there. Do you like ghost stories? Find this one at:
|The Tower at Fingest Church
11. Turville AKA Dibley
This short diversion (which you can easily skip) is for lovers of the picturesque and fans of the TV series 'The Vicar of Dibley' who might recognise the place. Geraldine's cottage is adjacent to the little Village Green and is shown in the pic below. Her church, St Barnabas, is St Mary The Virgin which is 200m further up the road on the left.
The village pub, the Bull & Butcher, is quite posh though so it probably wouldn't suit Owen & Frank. It is said that is used to be 'The Bullen Butcher from the time of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. She was known as Ann Bullen before going to the French court where she Frenchified herself. And the Butcher? You can work that one out for yourself.
Clearly visible on the hill behind the village to the east is Cobstone Windmill. It ceased grinding in 1873 and in the early 1970's was the home of the once well-known actress Hayley Mills. He biggest claim to fame is that, when I was seven, she became my first cinematic crush. It was later given a cosmetic makeover to star as a location in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
12. Hambleden, The Light Brigade & the W H Smith's & Abba.
Hambleden also appears in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, together with 101 Dalmatians, other more obscure films and the equally ancient but wonderful 'Avengers' series. Oh, and Midsomer Murders of course. It seems that just about every village in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns (and Hayley Mills) has had a part in that!
The Big Hoose which can be seen at the back of the village was built by Baron Scrope, a name perhaps suited to a villain in a Dickens novel and which perhaps explains why he embraced a 'promotion' to become the Earl of Sunderland. Scrope had mates in high places and one result was that Charles 1 used this as a bolt hole while fleeing from Cromwell's siege of Oxford in 1644, when Civil War was coming to an end.
Several centuries later, it became the home of a man who pursued a different path to infamy. Lord Cardigan led the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Pictured). The sea chest that he took to Crimea is in the Church.
|Lord Cardigan. Military Dimwit.
Later W.H. Smith (yes, that one) owned the Hambelden Estate and his descendants took the title 'Viscount of Hambelden'. Recently the widow of the 4th Viscount Hambleden, who still lives in the Manor House, fell out with her step-son, the 5th Viscount, who’s Mum was (of course) Countess Maria Marnela Attolico di Adelfia and whose squeeze was Anni-Frid Lyngstad of 'Abba' fame.
It all got very legal. There is no space to recount the dirty details on how this fraction of the other half live; so if you enjoy a bit of tittle-tattle and are interested; try googling it. Anni-Frid sensibly moved on. She is now Princess Anni-Frid Reuss, Dowager Countess of Plauen.
The Estate itself is now owned by Urs Schwarzenbacher, a Swiss billionaire called who also owns 200 sq miles of Australia, a palace in Marrakech, a polo team with 600 horses and the Grand Hotel Dolder in Zurich. That's what it takes! He now lives at Culham Court, a bit further downstream.
Finally, since this ride features obscure Saints, in 1218 St Thomas de Cantilupe was born in the Old Manor, part of which is now incorporated into the Rectory opposite the church. No, I'd never heard of him either. His party trick was raising people from the dead. According to St. Wikipedia both Mother Theresa and Melinda (i.e. Mrs Bill) Gates are members of his fan club.
13. Roman Car Park & 'Service' Station.
A Roman 'Villa' (modelled below) used to stand behind the car park which started life as 'pay & display' parking for chariots. The site was excavated many years ago and the remains of 97 mostly new-born children were found. This disproportionately large number led to the unappetising theory that it might have been a military brothel stopover or that these were the children of slaves, which Roman law permitted could be killed at birth.
14. Hambleden Lock & Mill End
The Lock was built by the Thames Navigation Commission in 1773. It appears that there has been a weir here since before the arrival of William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard to our French chums). The first Lock Keeper was Caleb Gould, a man apparently partial to Onion Porridge.
He is now buried just down the river at Remenham where his epitaph reads:
'This World's a jest / And all things show it / I thought so once / and now I know it'.
You might reasonably wonder, why 'Crazies'. Why not, say, 'Zombies'?
Quite simply, Crazies is an old name for buttercups and a certain Major Willis built what he called Crazies Hall here, re-using the facade of the old Henley Town Hall.
Beyond Crazies the ride takes you back to Twyford. The first part of this is part of National Cycle Route 4, but the going can be muddy if it has been raining. Do take care with the navigation though - picking the right path can be tricky...
16. Yeldall Manor
If you are finding all of this a bit much...
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