The Haunted Hut

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The origins of Halloween are in the Celtic pagan festival Samhain, when the boundary between the two worlds thinned – the here and now and the afterlife. That’s why it’s supposed to be a bit s-s-s-poooky. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year.

So it was quite the perfect choice to use the old shooting lodge as the destination for the haunted Halloween trail – celebrating the past lives of those ancestors that left their mark on the Ashridge estate.

Halloween allows us to enter into the dark, disquieting and mysterious

Staff and volunteers alike enthused in the ghostly story tale telling of times past, remembering and honouring the departed – the Celtic settlers on the Beacon, the Roman family living in the nearby villa, the aristocratic Bridgewaters with their servants at the Mansion and the American GI’s tented in Thunderdell Wood.

Never been lived in and boarded up for decades this unused artefact was refurbished in the 1980’s after the wooden structure was partially destroyed by fire. For Halloween the single room with fireplace was candle-lit for the occasion and the table laid for feasting. This log cabin on Duncombe Terrace was erected at the time of Adelbert the 3rd Earl Brownlow in the 1880’s, next to a holloway giving access to the valley below, and provided with a veranda for the Gentry to overlook the open hillside in the summer time – no trees in those days.

A hundred years ago it would not be uncommon for volunteers to meet up with royalty and the great and the good, as part of a shooting party. Ashridge shooting parties were famous, drawing prominent guests over the years including King Edward VII and King George V, and most of the royal dukes, though in their later years both Lord and Lady Brownlow came to regard such parties as social obligations rather than pleasures. About fifty keepers, most wearing a green livery with silver buttons bearing the earl’s crest, were employed on the various parts of the estate in Little Gaddesden, Ringshall, Aldbury, Dagnall and Studham, under a head keeper and a deputy. The beaters were mostly workers on the Estate, dressed in white smock coats and red caps. A glance at the earl’s game book for 1912 shows that over a three-day shoot it was not uncommon for a party to claim up to one thousand five hundred pheasants alone.

The game birds were reared on the Estate under the watchful eye of the game-keepers. The huge backdrop of nearby laurel bushes seen today provided a perfect dense cover for roosting, while snowberry bushes were also a feature and still survive! This long lived suckering shrub from N America introduced in 1817 will survive on poor soils under a dense tree canopy giving low level cover for young pheasants – bracken is a no-no for shooting parties. All is spookily quiet these days in the woods,  with precious few pheasants!

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Anger in the Coombe

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With its surrounding wooded hillside it ought to be a tranquil rural idyll.
But this bosky valley has become a battleground over the rights of pedestrians and cyclists –
something which is commonplace in urban areas just moved to the countryside.
The Trust with the help of the volunteers have made a determined effort to exclude mountain bikers from entering the Coombe – it is a prohibited area with no bridleway access. So whilst the Estate gives open access to pedestrians – you can walk anywhere – cyclists and horse riders are restricted to the legal or permitted bridleways.
In an attempt to prevent mountain bike access into the valley all of the slam gates have now been converted into kissing gates – see the article “Queue at the gate”. MTB’s often ride roughshod over rights of way, ignoring and removing no-access signs and lifting cycles over gates.

When does a feeling of annoyance or disapproval turn into an act of vandalism? When an MTB has to stop and dismount! Not interested in the countryside per say, but just looking for an adrenaline rush, it was quite likely that a gate would be damaged sooner or later, as was the case last week. More work for the volunteers!

A sense of entitlement………

In earlier times when the working population had few rights, the people of Ivinghoe Aston and the few living in the lost hamlet of Wards Coombe , had rights over the common land in the Coombe – but all was not well in 1656. There was annoyance with the rabbit population which was out of control and which was damaging the grazing resources of the land.
The Bridgewaters having purchased the Estate in 1604 established  a rabbit warren in the valley, with royal consent – rabbit fur was very fashionable in the Tudor and Stuart period.
For the commoners the culling of the rabbits or conies as they were then known was not an option – punishment by imprisonment would follow – so the angry peasants took their grievance to the Lord of the Manor. They petitioned John 2nd Earl of Bridgewater to come up with a solution to protect their interests.
There was an acceptable agreement, which was to fence off the area of the out-of-bounds warren and to allow the tenants to pursue their livelihoods and catch rabbits outside of it’s boundaries. Today’s rebels could learn a thing or two from those peasants!
As part of the plan, box bushes, which were native to the area were grown in rows to create hedges to provide cover for the rabbits. Despite being coppiced over the centuries, the hedges still remain to this day. By the mid 1700’s the trade in rabbit fur was in decline, so the ever resourceful Bridgewaters took to the felling of the box trees. The timber became very desirable for printing blocks and musical instruments, and it was shipped off to the London wood turners.
There are precious few rabbits to be seen today, more’s the pity.

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Lie of the land

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Some remarkable Victorians tramped over every foot of Britain to create precise pictures for posterity, though they used neither camera nor canvas. Even the unremarkable slopes of Meadleys Meadow came into focus on a certain day in 1876, when a team of men visited to grant it immortality.
They marked out the meadow’s boundaries, measured its area (17.485 acres), hand-drew its crescent-shaped dew-pond. And they plotted the trees. Every significant tree in this meadow, all thirty five of them, was faithfully and accurately represented by a miniature cloud on a stick.
In its attention to detail, this single field illustrates one of the greatest map-making achievements of the pre-digital age – the 25 inch to a mile Ordnance Survey series. And over the course of a morning, a printout of the old map in hand, I found that snapshot of the past sharpening my images of the present.

GO Man go……


Though the supposedly oval pond was full of water with likely lush vegetation, while crowded by two adjacent shade trees that sucked its summers dry, it was empty and the shade trees had gone so I could now make out its quarter-moon curvature. For the first time in years of walking this undulating field, its dips and folds concealing and revealing, I stepped a few feet off the path towards the wooden fence at the south and discovered a remnant of the original Victorian metal enclosure with its original gate now padlocked! This led me to discover the metal kissing gate on the eastern boundary which gave access to the footpath crossing the field in ancient times with the last remaining hawthorn the sole survivor of the original hedge.
Thrilled with these finds, I zigzagged around to check how many of the field’s original trees had lasted. Twenty five trees had been lost, including five for the Visitor Centre – none of which had been replanted as a matter of restoration!
All but one of today’s ten trees had the smooth shapeliness of middle age, towering perhaps forty feet or more but lacking the gnarled and crooked credentials of old age. None of the oaks had the spreading waistline of approaching senility and the wrinkles and burrs to match. They were still a couple of centuries from shedding their antlers and morphing from a veteran tree into an ancient monolith. I walked over and spoke to each one of them, patted their trunks and wished them a happy birthday, at least 150 years young. The odd one out was lying prostate on the ground waiting to be consumed by nature.
I pondered on the haphazed planting of the trees all those years ago – there were only three trees shown on the Estate map of 1762. So by the time of the survey thirty two more trees appeared – but not by the hand of man. Acorns will not germinate under a tree so the oaks rely on the good services of the colourful jay to spread their progeny – the bird plants the acorns for a winter larder and invariably forgets where it put them!
Will they be there in the next century? I doubt it – there is regular talk of turning the meadow into a car park, although that would be difficult to equate with the conservation aims of the National Trust! In Britain 97% of wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the survey. It was only a year ago when the Dairy Hay Meadow – the twenty two acre field next to the farm on the Ringshall Road once owned by Elizabeth 1st – was destined to become the Estate car park until it was rescued by an ancient restrictive covenant placed on the property. Nothing is sacred these days!
Chris Skinner

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Queues at the gate………

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The gates at the Beacon car park are the most used on the Estate with serious soil erosion now taking hold on the hillside in the Coombe.
With the help of the volunteers the Trust make regular improvements to the estate infrastructure to accommodate the ever increasing number of visitors – this can have unintended consequences. So the gates into the Coombe have now been “improved” with the three existing self-closing slam gates upgraded into kissing gates – preventing access to horse riders, bike riders and pram pushers. The enclosures around the gates limit access to just one or two people at a time presenting problems for dog- walkers. There may well be queues forming at busy times!

Horses for courses

There were no such restrictions in the 1740’s when the “locals” arrived for the horse-racing.
The Estate map of 1762 shows two arable fields called “Horse race pieces” on level ground south east of the Beacon, and to the east of Piccadilly Hill. This suggests that the area was used for horse racing before the field enclosures in the late 1750’s. The area was no doubt a meeting place for the Welsh drovers, on their way to London – when horse riders get together in any number they invariably choose to race their steeds.
Thoroughbred racing did not become popular in England until the mid 1700’s by which time all of the English classic races had been established. Francis the “canal” Duke (Ashridge 1748-1803) indulged in the fashionable pursuit of horse racing and breeding, keeping a house and stables at Newmarket. He sold his horses at the Robin Hood inn in Little Gaddesden which is now a care home, and may have used the course in the Coombe. Scroop the first Duke of Bridgewater (Ashridge 1701-1745) had some one hundred and fifty horses on the estate, including race horses and no doubt trained them on the course. Mr Ellis the owner of Church Farm in Little Gaddesden writing in 1750 tells us that a certain Mr Herne, a gypsy who lived a while at Brick Kiln cottage on Berkhamsted common along with some thirty compatriots, was “full of money”, and kept a couple of race horses. He ran a little black bay-horse against a Gentleman’s large grey at Ward’s – combe, and won a great deal of money by a particular “bite” – a cunning plan. He restricted the gallop of his horse in the first race, so he lost that race. A large amount of money was then wagered by the “locals” on the second race expecting a similar outcome, but the restrictive harness was removed from the bay-horse without their knowledge, and Mr Herne won the race easily. The cunning plan had worked and Mr Herne had cleaned up!

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Last one standing

The dramatic destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a stark reminder of the importance of trees in our ecosystem – they give us life taking in carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen.
Ashridge has some two thousand five hundred acres of of woodland, some are ancient woods and others more recent where trees have colonised the open commons, and most of the older trees have been recorded. Some seven years ago the volunteers set about mapping the Estate and recording some three thousand three hundred trees for the Woodland Trust – the ancienttreeregister. The 100,000 th tree on the ATI was recorded by Kevin Neighbour and Steve Waters – a veteran beech boundary marker in Old Copse measuring just under six metres at grid reference SP 97691187. So it’s been around for well over two hundred years. There are three categories in the register covering the age of a tree measured by the girth – notable, veteran, and ancient. The Trust have been actively promoting the veteran trees on the Estate by “halo” pruning – taking out competitive trees – to enable them to achieve ancient status at four hundred years. The older the tree the more species of invertebrates it can support.

Conservation should be based on practical observation not unstable theory – Oliver Rackham 2006


Some trees were overlooked on the original survey and have since been located and recorded. Recently an “ancient” coppiced tree popped up – the unprepossessing hawthorn standing solitary in the middle of Meadleys meadow, last coppiced over one hundred years ago. The remnant of a hedge which once divided the field in two, along with a metal fence and an adjacent ancient footpath crossing the hay meadow – the original metal kissing gate still stands at the entrance. The tree has witnessed over four hundred harvests and hundreds of passers-by travelling from the hamlet of Ringshall to Aldbury for supplies, pleasure at the pub, and penance at the church. Overlooked for decades the Trust has now given the lonesome tree the respect it deserves by erecting a protective fence – it is a point of interest – coppiced and used over the centuries.

A fantastic tree for wildlife that can support more than three hundred species of insect. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by migrating birds such as redwings.
Long live Crataegus monogyna.

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The packed program of special events continues through the Autumn and Winter at Ashridge – The following list will help you when organising your volunteering time-table for the next four months. There are at least fourteen events to consider – dogs are in, but horses are out! There is a Watercolour Workshop on offer for painterly people and also a Photography Workshop for picture buffs.

Details of all charges and bookings must be obtained from the Ashridge Visitor Centre before an event.

Sunday 1st September Volunteer Open Day 10.00am-3pm
Volunteering opportunities at Ashridge.

Tuesday 10th September Golden Valley Stroll 10 30am-12 30pm
Join the volunteers for a walk in the footsteps of Capability Brown.

Saturday 12th October Ashridge In Autumn Walk 10am – 2pm
A volunteer-led guided walk.

Saturday 12th & Friday 18th October Photo Workshop 10am – 4pm

Learn how to get the best out of your equipment.

Wednesday 16th October  Gentle Stroll 10.30am – 12.30pm
Join the rangers in search of deer.

Friday 18th Saturday 19th Sunday 20th Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th October Deer Rut Walk 7am – 9am
Join the rangers for an early morning walk to search for deer.

Monday 21st October to Friday 1st November A Halloween Trail 10am – 4pm
Spooky crafts at the Visitor Centre all week.

Saturday 2nd & Sunday 3rd November Watercolour Workshops  1- 4pm Create your own watercolour of Ashridge.

Saturday & Sunday 1st 7th 8th 14th 15th 21st 22nd 28th 29th & Thursday 26th & Friday 27th December Childrens Christmas Trail 10am – 3pm
Follow the Nutcracker trail to collect a gift.

Monday 2nd December to Monday 6th January Christmas Pudding Walk 10am – 4pm A self-led walk through the woods.

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There is an abundance in the air – not just wildlife, but food and fruits resulting from a favourable growing season sponsored by benign weather.
There has been an embarkation of painted ladies from N Africa – we are talking butterflies here – which has added to the swarms of regular species inhabiting our downs and woodlands at Ashridge.. The rare purple emperor has put in an appearance again around Sallow Copse, its natural feeding area. The rare fickle flowering violet helleborine has put in a magical showing this year at its regular haunts.
Summer is when mother nature presents the fruits of her spring labour. She has not disappointed this year – buoyed by long spells of hot sunshine wildlife and crops are abundant. Mild wet winters followed by a warm spring create the perfect conditions for growing plants. The hornbeams planted in Rail Copse by the volunteers in the spring have burst forth with a near 100% success rate.

Wet May long hay as the farmers say.

February was unseasonably mild – no Beast from the East – and with no severe late frosts to speak of, insects appeared early according to Nature’s Calendar, kick starting a lush growing season. The spring blooming of woodland flowers lasted long, followed by the flowering blackthorn and wild privet supporting the early butterflies in profusion – and the rain showers in May turbo-charged the downland flora.
It’s now payback time as bountiful England basks in a tide of plenty. The hedgerows are bursting with brambles and sloes, the woods weighed down with nuts and berries, the orchards are laden, allotments and gardens are awash with produce.
Now harvest precedes the slow march of autumn which is just around the corner, with lots in store for winter wildlife and Christmas decorations!

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Seven hundred hay harvests and counting………. – that’s what Meadleys meadow has produced over the centuries – first mentioned in 1315. Always a hay meadow, never ploughed, and cut by hand each July since “time out of mind” as the locals would say, until horse-drawn mechanisation took hold around 1880.
Now with the help of the volunteers a small part of the seventeen acre field behind the Visitor Centre has been fenced off and set aside for re-wilding – the deer are to be excluded! A century ago when the deer were contained in the Park, Meadleys would have been a lush meadow with drifts of wild flowers – very meagre nowadays – one of those lost flower meadows which the N T are eager to restore. This is in line with the N T policy when in March 2017 they stated that they had lost sight of their founding principle of protecting wildlife – Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation of the National Trust, said “the charity has a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects 56 per cent of British species.”

You may expel Nature with a pitchfork but she will always return


Haymaking is a tricky business being weather dependent even with today’s mechanisation, as it needs a couple of good drying days after the cut before collection. Today cutting and reaping only takes a couple of days when in earlier centuries it would have taken more like a week of hard labour with a team of scythe cutters. Now the lines of drying grass show up the undulations of the ground like waves on the sea, and in what is normally a quiet and tranquil place there is noise all around from the machines reverberating off the surrounding trees – there to give wind protection to the crop.
When Stubbs painted his “Haymakers” in 1785, now held by the Tate Gallery, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside. Agricultural practices have changed beyond recognition but farming, as then is still governed by the weather. Agricultural life was made up of long hours of slow repetitive labour, followed by evenings of long hours of companionable conversation, either in the cottage or at the ale-house. The painting depicts a bucolic scene showing the fashion of the time when everyone wore a wig called a peruque from the youngest child to the farm labourer, along with the ubiquitous hat.
It was the Irish famine of 1850 which propelled the Irish labourer into the Home Counties to cut hay. From Frithsden down to Finchley in London the fields would have been a sea of hay in Victorian times supplying fodder for the horse transport in the burgeoning Capitol, just waiting for that influx of cheap labour to arrive. The Irish would start as early as 4.30 in the morning strung out in a line across the fields moving forward in unison attempting to be the first to reach the finishing line at the far end – what a sight that must have been – always a competitive bunch!
Meadley’s hay would have fed the many working horses stabled on the Estate, and the deer in the winter period from hay stored around the Park in giant thatch roofed hay-boxes. The permanent hay field is shown on the Estate map of 1762, and the 1877 Ordnance Survey map shows the footpath trod by the villagers on the direct route walking from Ringshall to the shops and Post Office in Aldbury. The ancient dried up water-hole is shown with four shade trees for any livestock grazing the aftermath after the hay harvest had been taken in.

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Cattle grazing in Golden Valley is a big deal – Ashridge Park was laid out in the 1600’s and emparked for deer rather than sheep or cattle. Today we have an ancient breed of cattle introduced to Monument Field next to the Alford Cross in Little Gaddesden.
The White Park cattle are an ancient hardy breed dating back to Roman times at least , originating from the Aurochs which roamed the ancient forests before the dawn of history.
Monument Field has been unused for decades, part of which is wooded with an under-story of brambles, so the wood pasture will suit the seven strong herd down to the ground – the deer do not frequent this fenced off area. Cattle are naturally herbivores rather than grazers, and in historical texts the breed was often referred to as “White Forest” as it mostly frequented remote wooded areas of Britain. The herd will take out the blackberries and and tree branches that are within their reach – in past centuries holly leaves which are very nutritious were fed to cattle in winter time.
A herd of cattle reflectively chewing the cud is well suited to Ashridge Park reminiscent of past centuries when they were reared and domesticated as ornamental animals by the Crown and the aristocracy.
Our cattle are part of the Hoo herd reared by the Hargreaves in Little Gaddesden. The breed came close to extinction during the mid-20th Century, and are still rare today, with just four herds at Whipsnade, Woburn in Bedfordshire, Cadzow in Scotland and Dynevor in the Brecon Beacons. White Park beef is lean yet well marbled and when hung properly for three weeks or so, shrinks very little on cooking and has an excellent flavour.

The wild Chillingham herd, close cousins of the White Park have been at their ancestral home in Northumberland for over seven hundred years – let’s hope the Ashridge herd stay a while!

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High Society

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The Thursday volunteers have been lending a helping hand in the gardens at Ashridge House, assisting with the maintenance of the pleasure grounds, for Ashridge Hult the new occupiers. This is a nice break but a far cry from working in the wild on the Ashridge Estate, where nature has no straight lines.

The Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust has a duty of care to preserve Ashridge House and Gardens for the benefit of the nation. Over the past fifteen years the Italian Garden, Rose Garden, Herb Garden and Flower Garden have all been restored and, at the same time modern gardens have also been created to complement new developments. The grade II listed gardens are manicured to the highest standard and are open to the public on a regular basis throughout the summer. This work is normally undertaken by a handful of qualified gardeners, with some regular volunteers and apprentices. The restoration of the grotto is expected to be completed in the next few years. 

Every age develops its fashions in garden planning and ornamentation, which reflects the social taste of the times and the ambitions of the owners.

In the late 17th Century, the wealthy began to build galleries in their country houses along which the ladies could promenade – the outdoors being considered altogether too wild and intimidating for polite society – it would have been bad form to wander in the woods at Ashridge. In time, these galleries were transplanted outdoors, and the aspect of formal gardens in the early 18th Century bore the impress of their domestic origins – yew and box hedges took the place of walls, framing vignettes of the surrounding flowerbeds that mimicked the paintings hung indoors. The long walk out of captivity had begun − although to begin with, it was simply the cell itself that was expanded, as the formal garden morphed into the landscaped garden, which in turn was a sort of scale-model of the countryside beyond, with added features and follies.
The Canal Duke was unmarried and shunned polite society having few visitors to Ashridge so had no need of a formal back garden, but with the employment of Capability Brown in 1750 he had a makeover to the front aspect, landscaped in the Picturesque style – the contours of Golden Valley are all that remain.
The formal rear gardens to the south of the Mansion extending to some ninety acres are a continuing memorial to the work and ideas of many. But pride of place ought to be given to the first designer of the pleasure gardens Humphry Repton, intended to complement the newly completed home of John William the 7th Earl of Bridgewater from 1814. The new owner who had a soldierly passion for tidiness maintained a huge force of men to care for the new gardens, to the extent of sweeping up and burning fallen leaves. When the 3rd Earl Brownlow arrived in 1867 he took on thirty six gardeners until the first world war interrupted the employment, which was never to be repeated.
The gardens were a venue for the elaborate visit of the Shah of Persia in July 1889 when top hats, morning suits and spats were the order of the day for the gentlemen, and the ladies promenading with their parasols all looking decidedly uncomfortable by today’s standards.

There were huge tubs of summer plants brought from the conservatory onto the terrace standing like sentries watching over the guests. These lent to the scene an air of dignity, matching the formality of an age in which to hurry over anything seemed to be bad form. If today we have managed to adapt to the faster, more casual pattern of living , it is reassuring that gardens such as Ashridge can still offer an ambience for mindful refreshment amid natural beauty, and a sense of order and sequence without which our perspectives might so easily become lost.

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