THE COUNTRY OF LARKS: EXTRACTS

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We’re delighted to share with Land Lines readers extracts from Gail Simmons new book The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, published today by Bradt Travel Guides.

ABOUT ‘THE COUNTRY OF LARKS’

In 1874, a lovesick Robert Louis Stevenson stepped off a train at High Wycombe station on the first leg of a three-day journey across the Chiltern Hills to Tring. Almost 150 years later, Gail Simmons took to the hills in his footsteps, chronicling the world of her childhood before HS2 brings destruction to this historic landscape.

Entwining personal memories with impassioned interviews and extracts from Stevenson’s essay In the Beechwoods, Gail portrays the author’s ‘country of larks’ from prehistory to the present day.

Setting out

In October 1874, a slender young Scotsman carrying a rucksack stepped off the London train onto the platform at High Wycombe station. He was twenty-four, suffering from poor health and in the throes of an unhappy love affair with an older, married woman. Having based himself in London over the summer to be near the object of his affections, and to immerse himself in literary life, Robert Louis Stevenson was now procrastinating over returning to Edinburgh to resume his university studies.

Wearing his favourite velvet jacket, and with his wispy moustache and unkempt hair, the aspiring author must have cut a strikingly bohemian figure in High Wycombe. This was, after all, a respectable working town famed chiefly for the chair-making industry that flourished thanks to the beech woodland covering its nearby hills. The daintier crafts of lace-making and straw-plaiting also thrived here, but from the late eighteenth century it was chairs – particularly good, solid Windsor chairs – that concerned the town’s inhabitants. Passing through in 1822, William Cobbett described Georgian High Wycombe as ‘a very fine and very clean market town’. By the time that Stevenson alighted here some fifty years later, the rows of terraced workers’ cottages had already begun crawling up the steep slopes of the Wye Valley.

Now, almost 150 years on from Stevenson’s arrival, I too alighted the train at High Wycombe station. Built in the Chiltern vernacular style of knapped flint with brick dressings, the station had opened just twenty years before Stevenson turned up. This was the heyday of Victorian engineering, a time dominated by names such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Louis’ own grandfather, the Scottish civil engineer Robert Stevenson.

Layers of history

Antique landscapes such as the one I was walking through that day are palimpsests, layers of history, one lying just beneath another. Sometimes an upper layer peels away, and a buried one is revealed. Such is Kingstreet, which according to my 1880s map existed when Stevenson was here and which leads north from Holmer Green. This was an important drovers’ road, where cattle and sheep would be driven across the Chilterns to seasonal fairs and markets. Nowadays its importance is much reduced, there not being much call for drovers anymore. Yet there are still references to the village’s connection with drovers and their animals in the street names. I was standing in Penfold Lane (where sheep were penned), having just passed Sheepcote Dell Road. Even the neat bungalows lining the street out of the village still cling on to the old rural traditions, with their allotment gardens and signs advertising home-grown runner beans. And names such as Orchard End hark back to Holmer Green’s vanished agricultural past when the village’s proximity to London encouraged fruit-growing, its plentiful cherry orchards still studding my 1880s map.

Kingstreet survives today as a bridleway, its entrance hidden at the edge of the village. Too hidden, it seems, as I could not locate it. I paused to check my map, and an elderly couple with Labradors approached. They looked very like my parents – he tall, with a cloth cap and gilet, she with a trim grey bob and a smiley face.

‘You look like you’re on a long-distance walk,’ the woman said, touching my arm. I wondered if this was a polite way of informing me that I didn’t quite fit in with the Sunday strollers of Holmer Green, with my scruffy hiking gear and old rucksack. Just as the apparently civil enquiry ‘can I help you?’, when uttered by a certain breed of English person, really means ‘what do you think you are you doing here?’

‘I am on a long-distance walk – to Tring,’ I responded to her gentle tease. ‘I’m looking for Kingstreet, which goes to Little Missenden.’ She pointed me in the right direction.

A dream of Middle England

Wider still the track, and greater still the sense of walking on an ancient thoroughfare. Descending steeply, Kingstreet sinks into the earth from centuries of footfall. A sudden clearing, a breach in the hedge and I looked down, over a stubble plain, to a scene – a mirage, almost – of village England. Little Missenden lay cocooned in the Misbourne Valley, its flint church tower winking in the autumn sunshine. Beyond, the hillside rose steeply from the valley bottom, its upper slopes clad with beech hangars.

Hangar: ‘wood on steep side of hill’;
from Old English hangra, ‘hang’

Geologists have a term for this characteristic Chiltern topography in which the land has eroded more dramatically on one side of the valley (usually south and west facing) than the other. They call them ‘asymmetric dry valleys’, with the gentler northern slopes, such as where I now stood, being more suited to cultivation. But even the arid language of geologists could not detract from the tableau before me that day. In the foreground, the village cricket team was playing perhaps its last game of summer. Ripples of applause wafted up from the vale as a run was made or a catch taken, and mingled with the birdsong in the tree canopy above. If you could ignore the pylons striding gigantically across the hillside, little appeared changed since Stevenson travelled here.

I turned back from this dream of Middle England, a microcosm of old certainties in an uncertain world, and continued down the deeply hollowing holloway. Twisted beech roots, like arthritic fingers, emerged from earth banks almost as tall as me. The trees leaned in, branches interlacing over my head like clasping hands.

Above the treetops the early autumn sun was warm, but the air beneath was cool and damp. I was lured further into this verdant tunnel by birdsong, sucked deeper and darker into England’s rural past on a venerable road once trod by drovers and tradesmen, churchgoers and soldiers, merchants and missionaries.

Route map

A most pleasant country

‘The lanes were profoundly still. They would have
been sad but for the sunshine and the singing of the
larks. And as it was, there came over me at times a
feeling of isolation that was not disagreeable, and yet
was enough to make me quicken my steps eagerly when
I saw someone before me on the road.’ R L Stevenson

The lanes were profoundly still that Sunday afternoon too, although sadly no larks were singing. My feeling of isolation was not disagreeable either, as I followed in the footsteps of Stevenson’s lovesick ghost. Heading away from Little Missenden along a narrow road marked on my map as Chalk Lane, the idyll was ruptured by the grumble from the A413 which now bypasses the village. Stevenson, the scion of a great engineering dynasty, might have approved of this road, but I did not as I scurried across, dodging the traffic.

Chalk Lane now led me out of the Misbourne Valley and up into the chalk uplands, and once again I became aware of the geological and climatic forces that shaped these hills. From around 145 million years ago the Chiltern chalk started to form under sub-tropical seas, to be thrust upwards by massive tectonic forces some eighty million years later. And although they were never entirely covered by glaciers during the Ice Ages, their tundra-like hills were carved by ice and frost to emerge as vertebrae in a spine of chalk hills that run from the Dorset Downs in southern England to the Yorkshire Wolds in the north.

It is the Chilterns that John Bunyan is thought to be describing when he writes in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) of ‘a most Pleasant Mountainous Country, beautified with Woods, Vineyards, Fruits of all sorts; Flowers also with Springs and Fountains, very delectable to behold’. Three hundred and forty years on and Chiltern woodlands are beautiful yet: fruit and flowers still grow in Chiltern gardens and vineyards still prosper on their slopes.

Looking back from the top of just such a slope I could no longer see Little Missenden, sequestered in its valley. This mirage of village England had dissolved back into the miasma from where it came.

The eye of the storm

And then, just as I found myself lulled into reveries of this meadow’s history, I was brought up short by a sign barring my way. Ahead, where the portal of HS2 will emerge from under the Chilterns, ‘essential maintenance’ to the electricity pylons was taking place and I was forbidden to take another step. The shouts of workmen scaling the pylon in front of me confirmed the warning. I had no choice but to turn back and retrace my steps to the bottom of the hill and walk up the busy main road to South Heath.

South Heath is a prosperous community, and one that will bear much of the brunt of HS2. Having failed to get the tunnel extended under the whole of the AONB, the inhabitants will see the railway emerging from a portal just north of the village.

If the tunnel had been extended another six miles, to beyond Wendover, then it would have emerged outside the AONB. As it is, the tunnel will descend under the River Misbourne – twice – then climb uphill in one of the steepest gradients in the whole of Network Rail, to surface near the top of one of the most historic and unspoiled valleys in the entire Chilterns.

Now, walking into the village, I was entering the eye of the storm, the illusory calm before the maelstrom of HS2. It was a Monday morning, but an unnatural hush settled over the village like the first autumn mists. My 1880s map shows little development where modern South Heath is, only Sibley’s Coppice, another ancient woodland of oak and beech wood scattered with rowan, cherry and birch. Coppices are woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber, the woodland being managed sustainably to provide fuel for generations of villagers.

To hear a skylark?

That morning I wanted to stride out across the hills and the meadows one last time, as summer faded and autumn took hold. Above all, I really wanted to hear a skylark. The air might not have been ‘alive with them from High Wycombe to Tring’ as it was for Stevenson but surely I should hear at least one before the end of my walk. And I was at least walking this last leg. As Stevenson cheerfully admits in ‘In the Beechwoods’:

 ‘The morning cleared a little, and the sky was once more
the old stone-coloured vault over the sallow meadows
and the russet woods, as I set forth on a dog-cart from
Wendover to Tring.’ R L Stevenson

Stevenson was, in Victorian parlance, a sickly youth. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was thought to have been suffering from tuberculosis (‘consumption’), although medical experts today dispute that he had this disease, or at least that he died from it. Besides, to play the role of a romantically ailing poet was the height of late nineteenth-century fashion, which may also have played a role in Stevenson’s decision not to walk the final day of his Chiltern jaunt.

No dog-cart to hand, and preferring to walk anyway, I struck off down a minor road…

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Our grateful thanks for Bradt Travel Guides for permission to reproduce these extracts, artwork and map. Bradt Travel Guides is offering readers of Land Lines a special 20% discount on copies of The Country of Larks. To claim your discount, purchase the book at www.bradtguides.comand enter code LANDLINES at checkout. Offer valid until 30 June 2019.

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