01 Where to find the Chilterns
The Chilterns are close to London, but their sylvan charms - stream and wood, high downland, valley and market town, have survived
The Chilterns extends from the Thames above Reading to the M1 at Dunstable, with a little island just beyond Luton, spanning the counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. Much of the Chilterns AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) is in Buckinghamshire.
Away from the commuter surge, and over the hill from highway and motorway, the Chilterns revert to an almost C19 tranquility. It can match Devon and Derbyshire for its wealth of streams, and woods, and valleys and market towns with ancient preserved hearts.
These enduring sylvan charms were recognised a century ago by the transport companies, which encouraged day trip escapes from the capital with poster campaigns, including this somewhat bizarre message to an edgy populace at Easter 1915: “Why bother about the Germans invading the country? Invade it yourself, by Underground and motor-bus.” Unlike other country areas, the transport system of those days is more or less intact, with faster, electrified trains bringing visitors to Chilterns railway stations much quicker. Euston London Euston to Tring, for example, on the edge of the Ashridge estate is 35 minutes by the fastest train. And this year (2018) new electric trains from Paddington will providing a better service on the line to Didcot.
It’s a tribute to the effectiveness of the planning laws since the early 1950s that over much of the rural Chilterns the housebuilders have been held back.
Much of the landscape and the older part of the Southern Buckinghamshire towns remains as picturesque and appealing as it was promoted in those distant railway posters. (The damage and disturbance from the forthcoming HS2 construction is another matter, although much of the new high-speed line will pass through it in a tunnel from West Hyde, just inside the M25, to Great Missenden.)
02 Things to see and do
The South Bucks Way
It is described as a long-distance route, but at 22 miles it isn’t so long. Today it has a health and exercise relevance.
Those old coaching towns, Beconsfield, Amersham, Chesham, Great Missenden and Wendover, have the convenient distance of about five miles between them. And five miles is the magical, roughly 10,000 steps, that the NHS and others recommend as a daily target people should aim for, if they are physically able. “Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers,“ says the NHS website.
The South Bucks Way has railway stations all along its course, which makes it easy to tackle in stages. You might alight at, say, Amersham and pick up the train to return to your destination at Great Missenden, five miles (10,000 strides) on. Or continue to Wendover, another 10,000 paces.
In their historic hearts, in their old pubs, hotels, specialist shops, museums and galleries, all three places sum up the essence of the traditional Chilterns town.
Superimpose onto a map of the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chilterns a day’s worth of comings and goings to the vast London jobs market, and it would look like a big red smudge of commuter hyperactivity. Metroland, though mainly set in Bucks, was, after all, described in promotional material a century ago as “London’s latest suburb.”
As well as the huge numbers shuttling in and out for work, millions rush through each week on railways, motorways and roads cutting through or around the Chiltern Hills. The traffic is lateral too, with the M25 slicing off a tiny sliver of the county near Chorleywood.
There is a new star on these slopes; the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, easily spotted drifting speculatively overhead. The Victorians blasted it to extinction, but reintroducing the species is one of the conservation success stories of the 20th century. A visitor moving around the area should have no difficultly in spotting the conspicuous and slow-moving birds.
100 years earlier red kites had been driven to extinction in England by human persecution. A small population survived in Wales, but there was no hope of these splendid birds of prey repopulating their original areas unassisted. Between 1989 and 1994 the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) imported kites from Spain and released them in the Chilterns. Now there might be as many as 1,000 breeding pairs in the area.
Since 1999, chicks have been taken from the Chilterns for reintroduction programmes in other parts of the country. In recent years it has been joined in the Chilterns by the buzzard, little known in these parts until the early 2000s.
The Chilterns around Wendover is the territory of Britain’s tiniest bird, the firecrest, in Wendover Wood. A pub of the same name celebrate this inconspicuous ornithological marvel. Lucky walkers might just hear its zit-zit call.
(Photo: one of the possible sources of the Misbourne.)
It is a sight to make the most hardened walker’s eyes mist over, not far short of an ecological miracle: the Misbourne reborn. Today the stream looks pure enough to drink, snaking across Chiltern meadows in its old channel, swift and deep.
When I saw the Misbourne in 1990s it was a bone-dry depression in a meadow. Then the water company announced a recovery programme, and shut off pumps in the chalk, through which water was being extracted. Several winters of heavy rain did the rest.
Conservationists are noting the return of wildlife; for example, plants dormant for years, like mint and sedge, ranunculus and water forget-me-not. The keen-eyed might see kingfishers, even an otter.
A public appeal is seeking to raise funds to preserve the cottage (see photo left) where John Milton completed his masterpiece Paradise Lost 350 years ago.
Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire is the only surviving home of Milton, visionary poet and political writer. He lived here for two years after leaving London during the 1665 plague.
He completed his epic work Paradise Lost in this 16th century cottage, now open to the public as a museum, and was inspired to write its sequel, Paradise Regained here.The cottage, retaining the character of the home that Milton knew, now holds one of the world’s most important collections relating to the writer open to the public.
However the dwelling, thought to be the second-oldest writer’s home museum in the world after Shakespeare’s birthplace, requires an urgent injection of cash if it is to avoid closure.
The charity the Milton Cottage Trust plans to raise £3.5m to protect the museum’s future in perpetuity.
Paradise Lost retells the Book of Genesis, through Satan’s war with Heaven and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to their subsequent Fall from Paradise. Recognised as one of the most influential poems ever written, it changed the course of literary history. Milton’s dealt with the freedom of the press, divorce, education, religion and parliamentary democracy, values that still resonate today.
Rare books, paintings and prints on show in the cottage give a unique insight into Milton’s life, work and influence. There is an important collection of first editions, an original proclamation from King Charles II, banning his books, and a lock of the poet’s hair.
With its current resources, the trust is able to cover running costs until December 2018 but to remain open to the public after that, new sources of funding must be found.
Milton lived during a very turbulent period in history; a supporter of the Republican cause, he had written to justify the regicide of Charles I after the Civil War, and was appointed Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary for Tongues. However, after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, it became a treasonable offence to own his work and he was briefly imprisoned.
Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work at a time when religious dissent was considered heresy.
The cultural impact of the poem was immense. Milton is credited with inventing more English words than any other writer, including Shakespeare. Paradise Lost alone gave us self-delusion, self-esteem, outer space and pandaemonium.
In August 2017, a cast of 350 local people and Milton enthusiasts gave a promenade performance of Paradise Lost at the Cottage to mark 350 years since Milton’s publisher registered the copyright for the poem in 1667. The reading of the 10,000 lines of verse took about 11 hours.
03 Places to stay
If you are based in, or live in, London, there is no need. All parts of the Chilterns are easily accessible for a day, or even a half day, trip
04 places to visit nearby
There is a fast train from High Wycombe to Bicester Village and Oxford