The majesty of The Chess Valley
Meandering footpaths, quaint country pubs and beautiful scenery – it's no wonder the Chess Valley is so popular. Pat Bramley explores
IF the Chess Valley was in the west country it would be chock-a-block with tourists. Fortunately it’s in south west Herts and relatively undiscovered by outsiders.Following the footpaths through fields and woodland at weekends and during school holidays, you may come across half a dozen parents with an assortment of small children and the family labrador in tow picnicking on a grassy bank by a shallow section of the river. But you’ll never be mowed down by crowds.There’s one particular spot at the end of a meadow leading down to the Chess where youngsters in wellies play pooh sticks on a Billy Goats Gruff wooden bridge and wade in the shallow crystal clear water below looking for tiddlers.Some of the adults remember paddling about with a fishing net and jam jar in the same pool when they were five years old. You can’t help but think that if this was a beauty spot in Cornwall or Devon the narrow lanes leading there would be choked with cars. Ice cream vans would be parked on the verges. Tourist tat would be touted in shops and you’d come home a whole lot poorer with not much to show for it other than a bright red face from the strong breeze off the sea. But this is the Chess Valley in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and there’s none of that. There are no traffic jams in the lanes between the picturesque villages and staff in the local award-winning pubs and restaurants are actually pleased to welcome visitors.The best introduction to the area is a ten mile walk (no need to do it in one go) which follows the Chess chalk stream, better known as the Chess River, from where it emerges above Chesham to where it joins the River Colne in Rickmansworth. The route is described in a free leaflet published by The Chilterns Conservation Board and it takes in historic landmarks dating back to Roman times.Last May, 18 members of the Chess Valley Archaeological and Historical Society discovered more about the past during a four-day dig at an extensive Romano-British site near Sarratt.The previous August the archaeologists had unearthed a significant quantity of ancient roof tiles, faced flints and pieces of pottery 30cm-70cm below the surface in a field half a mile from last year’s site. The experts reckoned the finds were the remains of building materials dumped in what was the Roman version of today’s landfill tip.The walk passes the site of old watercress beds and also the site of a Roman farm villa dating from the 1st Century AD at what is now Latimer Park Farm.Not far away is the brick tomb of William Liberty who died in 1777. It’s surrounded by iron railings so you won’t miss it. According to the CAONB leaflet: ‘He asked to be buried alone out of fear that he would not be able to identify his bones when the time came to be resurrected.’Further on, from spring to autumn unless it’s a day when the shop is closed, you can stop off and buy watercress cut straight from the beds at Sarratt Bottom and talk to the lovely guy there who’ll tell you about the wildlife – notably herons, wagtail and the elusive water rail – frequently seen in those parts. Stand on the bridge over the water meadows at that point and if you’re lucky you could see a rare water vole.Opposite the meadows, you’ll see what are called strip lynchets, the steps rising up a terraced field thought to have been first cultivated in the ninth century. The ridges were made by a plough. Historians believe it was possibly the site of a medieval vineyard, mention of which could be the cue for ramblers to take a break from the Chess Valley trail and head off to a village in search of refreshments.The villages close by on the Hertfordshire stretch of the walk are well worth exploring and not just for the excellent grub served in the pubs.
Flaunden church was the first designed by the great Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who drew up the plans for the Albert Memorial. He later described St Mary Magdalene as ‘the poor barn’. What a cheek. The original church in the village was on the river bank but when it was repeatedly flooded by the rising waters it was abandoned by the parishioners until a new one was built in 1838 , funded it is said by the vicar, further up the hill. What remains of the early church is still there.Another landmark is The Green Dragon, a mere few hundred yards from St Mary Magdalene, which not only has a very nice garden, it’s where the notorious spy Guy Burgess met Donald Maclean in the snug the day before their defection to Russia.
Sarratt has its own link with spies but only in print. For his spine chillers, spy fiction supremo John Le Carre chose Sarratt as the setting for the MI6 interrogation centre and ‘the nursery’ for undercover agents. With its duck pond, village school, general store and pretty pubs, the village has always been a retreat for those in high places who hope to have a home life in a peaceful backwater away from the bright lights. Film stars James Mason and Stewart Granger both lived there at one stage of their careers. Even today, you never know who you might spot enjoying a pint in one of the local taverns – Smiley, perhaps?
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Chenies sits right on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Chenies Manor and especially the gardens when they’re open, are really special. The Grade I listed Tudor manor house, once home to the Dukes of Bedford, was originally built in 1460 by a descendant of the Cheyne family at which time the house was known as Cheyne Palace. It has been extended many times over the centuries. Restoration has become an on-going tradition and one carried on by the present owners, the Macleod Matthews. The most recent project was the restoration of the 16th-century pavilion in 2001 which now makes the perfect setting for exhibitions by local and national artists. If you’re lucky and time your arrival when there’s a special event at the manor, you may never resume your walk and reach Scotsbridge Mill, now a pub and restaurant at Rickmansworth, at the end of the ten mile trail. But you can always do that another time.