Only in the Chilterns

If you stop a while, look and listen, you will uncover the weird, wonderful and quirky traditions that make the Chilterns so special; swan upping, ley lines, witches, ghosts, ancient crosses carved into the hillsides...we have selected just a few, but be sure to let us know if you hear of any others. 

With such beautiful scenery, proximity to Pinewood Studios and London, the Chilterns are widely used as a backdrop to movies that include; Midsomer Murders, Harry Potter, Into the Woods, Dirty Dozen, A Little Chaos and Sleepy Hollow amongst others. Creative England has a useful website where you can find out more about specific movies that you may be interested in visiting locations to find out more.

Peter the Wild Boy

The leather and brass collar designed to identify Peter in case he should wander away from the village and inscribed "Peter the Wild Man" is preserved at Berkhamsted School.

Peter the Wild Boy (born c. 1713 died 22 February 1785), was a boy from Hanover in northern Germany who was found by a party of hunters for King George 1 in 1725. He was living wild in the woods near Hamelin, the town of Pied Piper legend and had been living a feral existence for an unknown length of time, surviving by eating forest flora, walked on all fours and could not be taught to speak a language.

Caroline of Ansbach Princess of Wales sent him to live in London in 1726 and after the initial public curiosity began to subside, he was entrusted to the care of Mrs. Titchbourn, one of the Queen's bedchamber women, with a handsome £35 annual pension annexed to the charge. Mrs. Titchbourn usually spent a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr. James Fenn, a yeoman farmer at Axter's End, in the parish of Northchurch. After the death of James Fenn he was transferred to the care of James's brother, Thomas Fenn, at another farmhouse, called Broadway, where he lived with the several successive tenants of that farm until the time of his death.

In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew's in Norwich. As the fire spread, the local gaol became engulfed in smoke and flame. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance and the nature of the sounds he made, which led some to describe him as an orangutan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn's farm, and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear in future should he ever stray again.

Peter died 22 February 1785 and is buried in Northchurch. His grave can still be seen in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Northchurch, directly outside the main door to the church. In 2013 the grave was given Grade II listing on the advice of English Heritage

The London Gliding Club that is not in London

The very first powerless flight across the English Channel was made out of Dunstable in 1939, by club member Geoffrey Stephenson. Founded in 1930 by a group of enthusiastic aviators who were based in London, the London Gliding Club is in fact based at the foot of the Dunstable Downs. The oldest in the country, one of their early bases was on Ivinghoe Beacon, but the resulting interest caused so much disruption, they were asked to find a new home. Many moves later, they settled in their present home, known as the ‘bowl’ which remains an iconic landmark in the gliding world. 

Another famous aviator, Amy Johnson visited the club in 1937 and took up gliding with much enthusiasm. 
 
Amy Johnson

Weighing the Mayor 

The mayor and corporation of High Wycombe are weighed in in full view of the public to see whether or not they have been getting fat at the taxpayers' expense. This annual custom dates back to medieval times and is unique to this market town. It has been captured by British Pathe and takes place in May each year.
 
Weight is no longer an election issue, but for custom's sake the new mayor, is obliged to sit on a specially erected scale to have their weight recorded and compared with the previous year. The macebearer is dressed in tradional costume and rings a bell before calling out the weight. When he adds the words "And no more!" the crowd cheers as a sign of their appreciation and gratitude for hard work done for the community. But if he shouts "And some more!", it means the mayor has been indulging in too much good living at ratepayers' expense and the crowd jeers and boos. In years gone by they would have pelted the offending person with tomatoes and rotten fruit! 
 

Swan Upping

England is full of quaint customs – some funny and others frankly bizarre. Some with origins lost or simply re-invigorated to suit modern tastes and bank holidays. Swan Upping is neither. Firmly routed in the 12th century, it is both necessary for conservation of mute swans and acts as a gentle reminder of just who owns them. A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic mothers, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging camera bags in evidence and pensioners all gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers make their way upriver on their five-day journey to record the swan population on stretches of the River Thames in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
 

The Witches Beech

This ancient beech with a massive girth of 6.39 metres, is what gives this local landmark such a striking appearance. Perhaps the Witches Beech has some connection to the infamous Dunstable Witch, Elizabeth Pratt who lived nearby? She was accused on 1667 of bewitching the two children of the landlord of the Nags Head, touching both on the head after visiting the pub for bread and ale. After her visit, the two children grew sick, with a strange distemper, and died, screaming that they had been murdered by the witch. 

Elizabeth was tried as a witch and burned at the stake. Her fate is now remembered in a poem called The Bottled Curse by Alfred Wire. At her death, she is said to have cursed the churchyard, leading the local people to avoid it, lest her magic attack them, and causing the church to fall into disrepair;

“Thus the churchyard goes to ruin
Graves and fences getting worse:
Everyone devoutly wishing
Not to free the bottled curse.”

Park in Whipsnade Heath car park, walk to the seat in central glade then turn left and follow circular path, at northern corner, turn left to the tree

Markstones

THERE is a facet of history sadly neglected by historians and folklorists, namely standing stones or markstones. These stones - not normally bigger than three or four feet high - are often seen by roadsides or trackways. Recent research suggests they are evidence of the early habitation of an area. For example the sarsen stone built into the north wall of the parish church of High Wycombe may mark a place of workshop long before any church was built. A standing stone in front of the Guildhall, High Wycombe, has survived in its awkward site by the road. Others are in Bull Lane and on the short cut to the library from the High Street.

Many have legends attached to them indicating that for centuries importance has been put on them. The Witch's Stone at Highwood Bottom in Speen is said to be the burial place of a highwayman named Cooper, and his booty. His ghost is said to haunt the lane. This stone is also on a ley line. Similarly the Tarry Stone in nearby Cookham is known to have been important as far back as Roman Times. 

The Chilterns' Crosses

THE gigantic Whiteleaf Cross stands on the edge of the Chilterns silently watching all that goes on in the Vale below. The cross has given away almost none of its secrets throughout the years and defied archaeologists to even guess at its true age or purpose. It was first accurately recorded in 1742 by the Rev Francis Wise who claimed it could be seen from Uffington, 30 miles away. But in fact the cross was not as big then as it is now. The cross cannot be accurately dated any older than that but tantalisingly there is a reference in a Saxon charter of 903 AD to a boundary mark at Whiteleaf called Weland's stock (or pole).
 
More convincingly is a clue discovered by Michael Bayley who noticed a drawing of it cut into one of the tiles of Monks Risborough church at the foot of the cross. The tile is 14th century. It is unlikely the cross was copied from the tile (rather than the other way round) but of course it cannot be ruled out. As to its purpose - that has been open to much conjecture. It faces exactly West which suggests an astronomical alignment (most ancient hill figures face West). Others have suggested it was cut to commemorate a battle or used as a marker for travellers. It sits beneath an Iron Age barrow, so the site has some significance. 
 
Nobody really knows but what is for sure is that a spectacular view across the Vale can be had from the picnic area at the top of the cross. It is said you can see seven counties from the vantage point. Count them and see! To get to the cross drive north out of Princes Risborough. Turn right at Monks Risborough (the cross is signposted) and drive up the hill through the village of Whiteleaf. The entrance to the picnic area is on the left but is not clearly signposted.
 

BLEDLOWLESS well known is Bledlow Cross, which can only be dated to early 19th century. It is smaller than Whiteleaf and was last scoured in 1991. You will have trouble finding it but drive to the end of Hill Top Lane above the village of Chinnor (on the Bledlow Ridge road) and then walk northwards. After about half a mile the cross is above you on your right. The Revd. F. Lee (1883) conjectures that the Whiteleaf Cross near Princes Risborough was cut as a memorial for some victory by King Edward the elder over his enemies. There is, however, no evidence for this.  

Thank you to the Strange Britain website for the Markstones and Chilterns' Crosses information, you will find more of the weird and wonderful there.

Interactive Map of the Chilterns

Interactive map featuring a host of things to do and places to visit

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