Driving through the Chilterns – past pony paddocks, picket fences, cricket pitches and red-brick cottages – it’s difficult to imagine a time when this wasn’t one of the most genteel parts of England, but a few centuries ago this was a no-go zone. ‘In the Middle Ages, outlaws would use the area as a place to hide out,’ says Claire Forrest, information and interpretation officer at the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). ‘It had really quite a bad reputation at the time, and for a long time, people would avoid coming here unless they had to.’
That all changed during the 17th and 18th centuries, when ‘the great and the good of London began moving out here and carving up the area into estates’. Now the Chilterns is one of the most visited places – and one of the most expensive places to live – in Britain. But as it sits just a few kilometres to the northwest of London, stretching up from the Thames through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, its story and personality will always be entwined with that of the capital.
Previously, the area’s woodlands (20 per cent of the AONB is still wooded) were used to supply firewood and beech furniture to London, and now the city’s transport arteries – the Thames, Grand Union Canal, M40 and M1 – slice it into chunks, while commuters, rather than medieval criminals, seek refuge within its 833 square kilometres of gently rolling chalk hills.
The beech furniture industry largely died out in the 20th century when cheap foreign imports flooded the market, but the landscape still provides the raw materials for another local craft: brick making. Before the Second World War, there were 23 brickyards within eight kilometres of the Chiltern market town of Chesham; now there are just three. One of which is HG Matthews, founded in 1923 by Henry George Matthews and now run by his grandson, Jim.
Using clay and loam extracted from the local landscape, he and his team of 30 produce two and a half million bricks a year, half of which are made by hand. We stand in the brick-making section of the yard, watching a small group of men sweep handfuls of sanded pug (a wet mixture of clay and loam) into wooden moulds at high speed.
‘This is 14th-century technology being used today,’ says Matthews. ‘If a brick maker from that era walked in here today, he would know exactly what was going on and he could just pick up some clay and start making bricks.’ The resulting building blocks are just as strong as machine bricks, but are less uniform and textured with creases.
Matthews is an advocate of using local bricks in local building projects. He believes the unique colour of the bricks – created through a combination of the clay and kiln – results in a geographical distinctiveness that is now being lost. ‘You used to get regional identity from one area to another, but now houses look the same, whether they’re built in Cornwall or Glasgow,’ he says.
By using local bricks, people building or buying new-build houses would, Matthews believes, be contributing to the area rather than simply benefiting from it. ‘It wouldn’t cost a million pounds to use local bricks,’ he says. ‘It would only add about three per cent to the cost of a house compared to cheap imported bricks.’ And to make his products even more appealing, he’s trying to create the first zero-carbon brick by combining traditional production methods with modern technology.
A NECTAR FEAST
Elsewhere in the Chilterns, what lies beneath the soil is attracting butterflies rather than brick makers. Dotted around the AONB are areas of grassland growing on chalk that haven’t had their soils ‘enriched’ with fertilisers. As a result, these chalk grasslands are low in nutrients and attractive to a variety of wildflowers, including wild basil, wild thyme, St John’s wort and cowslip – and, in turn, the butterflies that feed on their nectar or roost on them.
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is trying to improve an area of chalk grassland known as Aldbury Nowers in the hope of attracting even more butterflies to the area. ‘It’s a very complex process,’ says reserves officer Paul Thrush, who has been working with volunteers to clear scrub and scrape soil from the fields before the trust’s flock of Shetland sheep is moved in to prevent the areas from scrubbing up. ‘The important thing is knowing which species like which type of plant.’
The reserves already attract up to 30 different species of butterfly – walking along, we easily spot common blues, brimstones, painted ladies and brown arguses. Around half of Britain’s butterfly species have already been seen in the area at some point, but Thrush hopes to see more of certain species, such as gatekeepers, grizzled skippers and Dukes of Burgundy, as the restored areas return to health.
The chalk geology of the Chilterns also creates another wildlife-friendly habitat: chalk streams – distinctive clear, gravel-bedded streams fed by underground aquifers. Numerous species call them home, including grayling, brown trout, the larvae of the short-lived mayfly and water voles – on the rise thanks to a mink-catching programme carried out by the AONB and local landowners.
There are eight chalk streams in the Chilterns. We take a walk alongside the River Chess, peering through green reeds on the banks to stare at the thickset trout swaying in the clear current below. There’s plenty of water in the river now, but Allen Beechey, the AONB’s chalk streams officer, worries that, due to climate change, there won’t be for long. ‘Chalk streams need traditional English rain that’s fine and goes on forever, but we’re getting less of that,’ says Beechey. Instead, ‘English rain’ is being replaced by high-intensity deluges that quickly soak the ground and prevent it absorbing further water.
And, on top of this, domestic water consumption is putting pressure on the chalk streams’ diminishing underground sources. ‘The people in this area use more water than anyone else in Europe – 170 litres per day compared to an average of 150,’ says Beechey, who is concerned that the rivers are being ‘treated like a public commodity’.
Since 2005, local water company Veolia has been installing water meters when properties change ownership, cutting water use by ten per cent on average. It says that although it does extract more than 200,000 megalitres of water annually from the chalk aquifer under the Thames Basin, it’s simply supplying local water for local people – all 3.3 million of them.
Beechey would like to see mandatory metering, but feels that the government is shying away from what could be an unpopular move: ‘These rivers are dying, and there doesn’t seem to be the political will to do anything about it.’ Normally, chalk streams fill out to their source at least every few winters, but the top sections of the rivers Ver and Gade have been dry since 2001.
As a result, the winterbourne habitat’s rare animals, such as water beetles that burrow into the gravel to survive dry spells, are under threat. And the problem could get worse in the future, with more houses planned in the area. However, because of its proximity to London, housing isn’t the AONB’s only development pressure. The AONB team and local residents recently objected to a proposal to reroute much of southeast England’s air traffic over the area, and now they are preparing to fight off plans for a high-speed rail track that could cut a swath more than 100 metres wide through the area.
‘Sometimes, as an AONB, you can feel a bit puny trying to fight these national plans and stand up for the interests of the area,’ says Forrest, ‘but this is a tranquil rural area and we want to keep it that way.’
Where to take a sustainable walk
Goring-on-Thames. ‘Go on a circular walk along the Thames and up onto the hills. You get the most wonderful view from the top – over Goring; the gap in the chalk that the Thames flows through called the Goring Gap; and two AONBs – the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs.’
Claire Forrest, AONB information and interpretation officer
What to eat for a taste of the Chilterns Watercress.
‘Buy it from the Watercress Farm (Moor Lane, Sarratt, 01923 265 842), the last such farm in the Chilterns. The farmer, Terry Tyler, grows it over the River Chess, in the same way his grandfather did, with no fertilisers or chemicals.’
Allen Beechey, AONB chalk streams officer
Where to see glow worms
Aldbury Nowers. ‘You can see glow worms – a beetle that lights up a special segment of its tail to attract a mate – on the chalk grasslands during the evening in June and July. And, at that time of day, the air smells delicious because of all the wild herbs up there.’
Paul Thrush, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserves officer
Where to see traditional Chilterns-style buildings
Turville, Buckinghamshire. ‘It demonstrates all of the key principles that we would look for in traditional buildings – the use of locally made and sourced materials such as red brick, flint and clay roof tiles, and the way the materials are put together to create small cottages with fully gabled roofs that often have chimneys and small dormer windows. Turville hasn’t really been affected by modern development, and this is perhaps the reason it was used to film The Vicar of Dibley.’
Colin White, planning officer, Chilterns Conservation Board
First published October 2010