HIgh Chilterns and Horrible Henrys
GPX File of the Route : High Chilterns & Horrible Henrys
This route covers some of the upland villages in the Southern Chilterns.It heads out of Goring using the Icknield Way and climbs along the open country on the east side of the Thames Valley and onwards to picturesque Ewelme. Thence onwards, ascending the Chiltern Hills circling clockwise past the manors of Stonor and Grey’s Court, then through Stoke Row on the return to Goring. It is almost entirely based on quiet and minor roads and although there are quite a few climbs, none are steep. For more detail see the Route Tips below.
Goring itself, check the view from the bridge.
Views across the Goring Gap from the valley side.
Historic Ewelme & Alice Chaucer
Beautiful deciduous ‘ancient’ woodlands
Grey’s Court, an Elizabethan Manor
The Maharajah’s Well. Odd enough to get into Atlas Obscura!
I confess that several of the waypoint notes are simply lifted from routes covering adjacent areas. I have started the route from Goring, but you could equally well start in Henley, the difference being that there are direct trains from Paddington to the former.
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. This is all on road and although some of the small roads could be better maintained, it is easy enough. The only problem might be in using the access road at Greys Court, sometimes you can cycle it, sometimes not. But it is easy to avoid anyway.
One key factor that has helped to preserve the tree cover is the need for timber in both the surrounding area and London. At times, good woodland hereabouts has been worth a lot more than farmland, hence the plantations of mature beech trees. These were prized for furniture making, a spaciality in nearby Wycombe. But not a lot grows below tall beech trees, so other woodland served as the main source of timber for other uses such as firewood.
The low value of farmland also explains the number of commons. Notice the difference between the regular, rectangular fields on the Valley side, created by enclosures, with the irregular and serendipitous field patterns in the hills, often created by assarting, or focused tree clearance to create farmland, in medieval times or even earlier. Although many of these were eventually enclosed, which explains why so many places with ‘Common’ in the name have been built on, a good number survive.
Neither the high Chilterns or the valley sides were ever densely populated. The number of ditches, dikes and enclosures point to use being made of the land before history was written, but is not clear what for or what those features represent. There is an argument that some of then would have been of limited use in a forest, so the landscape might have been clearer then.
The story is different on the lower ground for instance around Ewelme at the foot of the Scarp, where access to spring water and fertile land probably led to over-population until the exhaustion of soils and the Black Death took a sickle to the them and in the process reinvigorated the use of the clay vale for sheep farming.
The Manors are typical of those created when wealthy individuals created country estates within striking distance of London. They are relatively modest when contrasted with the enormous, sprawling estates like Blenheim or Waddesdon, created by the hereditary and commercial aristocracy in later centuries.
You start in the belly of the 'Goring Gap', a valley cut by the Thames and separates the Chilterns from the North Wessex Downs. It was formed in the Ice Ages, when the ancestor of the river was blocked by glaciers and forced to divert southwards to something like its present course. You can find more on how this landscape was formed in my blog posts on geology. See the links under 'The Stuff You Stand On' Series here: Link : Other Stuff
|The Goring Gap
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 Awhylme which apparently means 'powerful spring'. For obvious reasons people like to settle where there is fresh running water and hereabouts this meant the springs emerging from 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. 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'. He settled in Ewelme and became the thirs husband of Alice, the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer of 'Canterbury Tales' fame. She had been hitched to her first when only eleven years old.
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. A century or so later William got the memorial prize of a major role in Shakespeare's 'Henry V1'.
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 was separated from head by a rusty sword on a beach in Sussex. Maybe our current crop of failed politician-diplomats should be dealt with the same way? Exile in Europe would seem to be an appropriate fate for Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg!
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, subsequently becoming involved in plots to invade England. This didn't endear them to Henry V111 and they never returned.
The Church as you see it now is almost 600 years old. 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 took a look to find out how a lady should wear the Order of the Garter. (See the photo here).
|Alice Chaucer looking cadaverous
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. 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! What an honour! (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 commercial production of watercress which enjoys clean flowing which, coming from springs and wells, is less likely to freeze in the winter. It is traditionally harvested in time to serve as a supplement to the winter diet. 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.
The Waypoint here should (I hope) mark a turning off to the small Saxon church at Swyncombe. The Victorians don't seem to have bothered with this one so it hasn’t been altered very much and gives you a real feel for how the place looked when it was built. It is named for Saint Botolph, the patron saint of wayfarers and a man who apparently could really hold his mead. It must be a comfort to all cyclists to know that someone is keeping an eye on them and it certainly beats relying on a high-vis vest. If you can get inside, there are traces of paintings which are said to have been painted by knights heading off to the Crusades a' looting. I have a vision of them in full armour, with paintbrushs.
I consume podcasts while pedalling and one of my favourites is the ‘History of England’ pod which, unlike most in the genre, is both insightful AND funny. It is produced by David Crowther, who lives in Swyncombe. On his website you will find reams of locally relevant stuff covering the lives lived by the posh and the plebs, together with merry takes of historical high-jinks on his website: Link The History of England. The pod itself is easy to find on all of the usual apps.
On the way you pass the Five Horseshoes pub which is definitely worth a lunch stop.
The Village used to be called Upper Assendon until it fell under the shadow of the nearby manor house of Stonor Park to the point at which it took the name.
The family lurched into history and out of luck in the Reformation when they defied Henry VIII by remaining loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. At one point the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion hid in a ‘priest hole’ there which can still be seen. It was to no avail; he was caught and hung, drawn and quartered for his efforts. In any event, it all cost the family their fortune, which in turn helped to preserve the house in a relatively unaltered state through the subsequent centuries.
If you want to take a closer look, the house is sometimes open to the public and there is also a pleasant Right of Way through the grounds which (if you are using a good mapping app) is about 200 yards north of the Waypoint.
There isn’t anything to see in Bix itself, but if you are a Deserted Village fan you might want to follow the road on your right here for a half mile, up to what is left of the old Saxon village of Byxe Brand where there are ruins of a small Norman church built on top of an earlier Saxon effort. Some of the walls are made of knapped flint, arranged in the herringbone pattern that the Anglo-Saxons used, so it was probably built shortly after 1100 A.D. I can’t see any other traces of settlement, these things so often disappoint, but your sleuthing might be better.
|Bix Brand Church
‘Rotherfield’ comes from an old English word for cattle land and ‘Greys’ from Anchetil de Greye who apparently arrived with William the Conq. How very Henley and, as you would expect, the village is at the well-heeled end of the scale. The glory is Greys Court, a well preserved Elizabethan house dating to 1570 and now owned by the National Trust.
[As per the introductory note, the route along the access road beyond the car park and house is a right of way but they might object to you cycling it and the main exit gate can be locked. But I had not trouble when I tried it]
Some of the earlier residents come from the Knollys family, who strutted their knightly stuff during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Catherine Knollys was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne and….well, you know the rest….
This 400 ft deep Well has even been recognised by Atlas Obscura. It was dug by hand in 1864 as a gift to the village from the Maharajah of Benares, returning a similar favour from a traveller named Edward Anderson Reade. In doing so he seems to have started a bijou trendette. Later, a similar well was a blessing from Rajah Sir Deonarayun Singh for Ipsden, which we passed through earlier on the route.
Checkendon isn’t outstanding but in many ways this is an archetypal Chiltern Village. The surrounding Beech woods thrive on the gravel beds left over from the ice ages and used to support a cottage industry in furniture making. Not for nothing are Wycombe Wanderers F.C. known as ‘The Chairboys’. But up until World War Two, the main occupation was farming, originally mixed, but now mostly cattle, sheep and horses for recreational use. These days it is primarily a dormitory town. Upland farming no longer provides much employment and what used to be the Blacksmiths is now a supplier of expensive audio-visual kit.