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What makes the Chilterns so special?



This paper, written by Alison Doggett, co-author of The Chilterns, the best-selling landscape history of this important region of ‘ancient countryside’, aims to identify the unique physical and cultural features which have contributed to its uniqueness and sense of place.

The proximity of these chalk hills to the edge of the melting ice-sheets at the end of the last glacial period allowed rushing water to carve deep narrow valleys and deposit large quantities of heavy, stony clay on the hilltops. This resulted in a longer slower evolution of communication, farming and settlement than in lowland areas, as all had to adapt to difficult terrain.

Tiny, hedged fields and pockets of woodlands were more typical than large open fields and their legacy remains in a special kind of landscape that has been identified by Oliver Rackham as ‘ancient countryside’. Today the ancient hedgerows, beautiful bluebell woods, commons and downlands leave a rich ecological heritage accessible through a huge network of footpaths and rights of way.

At the same time the cultural heritage can be explored both in the huge documentary record, and on the ground, to show a continuous and uninterrupted time-line of occupation. Few places can demonstrate so much tangible landscape history in such a small and distinctive area.


Identifying the region

A new threat hangs over the Chilterns and the outrage that it has generated is rooted in a general belief that a great travesty may be committed. For this landscape is not simply another bit of South East England that is being slowly swallowed up by the creeping giants of progress. It is, and has been since it was first named by the Anglo Saxons in the 7th century, a distinctive region with a collection of characteristics that combine together in a way that is not found anywhere else.

The enduring regional identity of the Chilterns has been recognised in numerous popular, academic and government studies, from Massingham’s 1940 Chiltern Country to official studies by the Countryside Commission and English Nature who used it as a pilot study for their ‘Natural Areas’ programme. All broadly agree on the regional boundaries which accord closely to those defined by the Chiltern Society. The AONB designation is rightly restricted to two large blocks of the highest quality landscape and does not include the major towns and villages or the smaller more fragmented areas of other high quality landscape. It is not there to define the Chilterns’ whereabouts, but to protect the integrity and coherence of the best of them.

Their distinctive character is ultimately founded on geology and relief. The chalk skeleton is part of the backbone that underlies much of Southern England, but the Chilterns were also at the limit of the ice in the glacial period. As glaciers melted, rushing water carved out deep valleys and deposited a thick layer of clay with flints on the hill tops. The result is a deeply dissected landscape of narrow valleys and steep hill slopes with heavy, acid, stony soils on the top. This has made them difficult to settle, a problem to farm and a challenge to cross. It is their very awkwardness, which has contributed over many centuries to the unique cultural landscape which so many enjoy today.


Ancient countryside

The Chilterns are not typical of rolling chalk scenery with vast open grasslands like those around Marlborough or the South Downs. Instead there is much more local diversity of relief and soils, generating a special small-scale character to the patchwork of fields and woodlands and tiny winding lanes. Oliver Rackham has called this type of landscape ‘ancient countryside’ and such areas are precious because they hold the key to our cultural heritage. Their significance lies in the fact that the landscape evolved very slowly over a long time. They managed for the most part to avoid the radical surgery that occurred in many places when the major land re-organisations occurred. The first of these was in late Anglo Saxon and Medieval times in the creation of the huge strip fields and nucleated villages associated with the joint and co-operative working of the land. Rackham refers to this as planned or champion (from champagne) countryside.

This new social order ploughed up the past in most of middle England and washed it away. However, it did not work so well in hilly areas with poor soils allowing much of this region to remain a mosaic of little hedged fields or ‘enclosures’, with open fields confined to valley bottoms, and the better soils at the scarp foot or on the dipslope. At the same time, the Chiltern woodlands on the heavy hilltop soils were not cut down because they played a very significant role, providing construction material for houses, barns, carts and fences as well as all the fuel for the peasant and his lord. Woods were managed as a resource and every parish wanted their own patch - so much so that those without any were often granted a detached hilltop section some distance away.

This division between ancient and planned countryside was nowhere more marked than the point where Chiltern and Vale juxtapose near Aylesbury. In the 1530’s Leland in his travels noted: Looke as the conterye of the vale of Aillesbyre for the most part is clene baren of woodde, and is champaine; so is all Chilterne well woodyd, and full of enclosures.

By avoiding the worst of this landscape revolution, and the later similar radical transformations that took place when 18th century Parliamentary Enclosure divided all the open fields up again, the Chilterns have managed to cling onto their treasures. Scratch the surface here and you can unearth a continuous time-line of changes with real evidence to go and see on the ground: Neolithic flint mines, Bronze age barrows, Iron age Forts, Roman villas, Anglo-Saxon boundaries and Medieval woodbanks just for starters. A rich documentary record that has been explored and written about by scholars adds authenticity and understanding to the evidence on the ground. Few places can yield so much tangible landscape history in such a small area.


A sense of place

It is this link with the past that provides us with a sense of place in a region which is both distinctive and identifiable. In the Chilterns the landscape in any one place will not have all the defining features because it is an intrinsic feature of ancient countryside to have intense local diversity. Instead, there is more a ‘pick and mix’ of characteristics that are clearly recognisable as ‘typical’: old enclosed fields bounded by steep winding lanes, ancient species-rich hedges some of which match charters that are a thousand years old, numerous small patches of woodland of which a significant amount is ancient woodland dating back to early medieval times, ephemeral chalk streams that come and go with the seasons, numerous heaths, commons and downlands accessible through a network of footpaths and rights of way, hilltop hamlets that represent the daughter settlements of spring line villages at the base of long skinny parishes dating from Anglo-Saxon times.


Changing communications

The discrete block rising between the Hitchin gap and the Goring gap which acts as the limit of the region is traversed by five parallel troughs which have acted as the transport links from Roman times. It was not until the turnpikes of the mid 1700s that roads to Oxford, Birmingham and the North West had to climb over the hills.

The turnpike roads heralded a new era of communication and with it played a fundamental role in meeting the demands of a rapidly industrialising nation. They were quickly followed by the canals and whose forefather, the Duke of Bridgewater, stands perched on a column at Ashridge, surveying the Grand Union Canal below connecting the coalfields of the Midlands with the capital. This man-made waterway was to have a profound side-effect in protecting the Chiltern woodlands, for the chair making industry could fill returning coal barges with furniture for the growing cities and it was both to save the woodlands and change the way they were managed. The beautiful Chiltern beech woods with their carpets of spring bluebells remain an enduring, if unexpected, legacy of the industrial revolution.

The arrival of the steam locomotive is recognised as the catalyst that forced the pace of change in many parts of the country in the 19th century. The Chilterns were early on the scene by default as they were in the way of the important route between London and Birmingham. Ironically, in the light of the new high speed rail challenge, the first proposed line was surveyed by Robert Stevenson and was presented to parliament in 1830 to go through Uxbridge, Amersham and the Wendover Gap. The reaction was colossal and bitter and the Bill was eventually rejected in the House of Lords after landowners (including the Drakes of Shardeloes), canal companies and wagon proprietors combined in a squall of indignant hot air. Indeed, ‘the railway with its tail of smoke curling across the country, was to them everything that was disagreeable, vulgar and mercenary.’

This Missenden valley was to remain the very last to have its line penetrating through the very heart of the Chilterns when the Metropolitan Railway was eventually built in the late 1880s. It was to promote a whole new attitude to the country-side when the concept of Metro-land was born. It is worth reflecting on just how long–enduring railways are in the landscape and the current network rests on lines that have been there for upwards of one hundred years. Mistakes are not readily undone!

A Changing landscape

Cultural landscapes are constantly evolving and the Chilterns have always been under pressure from all sides, especially because they are so close to London. Profound changes have taken place in the rural landscape and the built environment in the last twenty years and it is important that any degradation of the landscape is not penalised further because of negative responses to damage already done. Just because we already have airports, motorways and pylons does not mean that the landscape value of a whole region is lowered to a point where anything goes, in town or country.

The built environment has fallen victim to Government housing pressure, particularly in the area of the Chilterns that falls outside the AONB boundary. It is on this rural-urban fringe where we find a significant ‘blurring’ of the distinctions between urban and rural land uses. Much of this region is part of the Green Belt which has come under increasing pressure, as land degradation around old brown field sites and the leap-frogging of development beyond the restricted zone has led to a re-evaluation of its purpose.

A similar visible change is occurring in the rural landscape and it is a profound one. The Chilterns is first and foremost a farming and forestry region and the rural economy has been disintegrating before our eyes. The combined effects of global competition along with EU policies such as set-aside and diversification have meant that farmers have been dividing up their land and selling it off as they struggle to make ends meet. A significant proportion of this land is being sold as “amenity land” rather than agricultural land, with a variety of consequences. Farmers represent the principal stewards of the countryside and it is unlikely that land lost to agriculture will ever be recovered as such. This type of damaging degradation and fragmentation probably represents the greatest threat to the historic landscape, and its special dependent natural environment.


Looking to the future

The pace of change in the landscape has been paralleled by the growth of new information technologies that enable us to perceive and measure what is going on. A new language has emerged with new frames of reference. Guardians of the Chilterns’ future must grapple with big issues of sustainability, globalisation and climate change. These operate from the tiniest individual scale to the largest global environment. Fitting the geography and history of a region to look at people and place over time has become easier and it has prompted a growing public interest and awareness.

The appetite for local involvement has grown and with it the ease of communication and transparency that the internet has enabled. Setting up affinity groups of like-minded people has never been easier and the current proposals for HS2 have demonstrated just how quickly they can mobilise. The challenge in the Chilterns is to join up the thinking in the hierarchy of decision makers so that everyone knows and understands what is so special about this region. The responsibility for preserving the cultural heritage of this beautiful place belongs to us all.

Fifteen years ago at the end of our book The Chilterns we wrote that ‘public and planning decisions on what to conserve and enhance do require historical understanding. Otherwise we walk blindly into the future. Heritage is something we make from the materials the past has left us, and we cannot avoid selection and interpretation’. This is as true now as it was then and, more than ever, we need wisdom to define the future.


A paper by Alison Doggett BSc Hons PGCE FRSA, author of The Chilterns, Phillimore 1992, LW Hepple and AM Doggett.