The restoration scheme that gave Aston Clinton a new landscape
PUBLISHED: 15:54 15 December 2016
Richard Wells looks at a restoration scheme that gave a Buckinghamshire village a new landscape with a delightful babbling brook
For millennia water from the Wellonhead spring at Aston Clinton has fed a fast, clear flowing brook from the foot of the Chiltern hills to join the River Thame meandering through the Vale of Aylesbury. Its flow, undeterred by topographical or man-made hindrances, has been life-giving to hundreds of rural acres, and life-sustaining for their communities through many centuries.
Undeterred, that is, until the 19th century when the Rothschild banking dynasty chose Buckinghamshire to live, and so began the creative transformation of the foot of the Chiltern Hills into Aston Clinton Park. Plans for ornamental gates, bridges and balustrades became features in this new landscape, and planting of exotic species complemented the wooded enclosure where water bubbles up from its subterranean journey through Chiltern chalk to meet the impervious gault clay of Aylesbury Vale.
Spring water fed the estate, and it fed, too, the imagination of the young lady Constance Rothschild. She designed water features for the estate and the spring stream provided the inspiration for her Fairy Glen, an apparently favourite feature of other Rothschild gardens.
It’s not known whether it was Constance’s desire simply to create a delightful wooded glen as an attractive water feature, or whether she was inspired by the tradition of well-dressing, where children of the locality decorate a pool next to a spring with flowers to ensure – as the name suggests - the fairies keep the water supply clean.
Clean it was, but only for a few yards beyond before a stout Rothschild clay culvert swallowed around 200 yards of the infant river. And that is where it ran, concealed from view, for more than 150 years.
Today evidence of the house exists only as a footprint on a map, and a handful of ornamental pieces around what is now the Green Park outdoor activity centre owned by Buckinghamshire County Council: no hint of the influential part it once played in the Victorian social and political scene, as one of seven flamboyant Rothschild country houses to which royalty was a regular invited guest.
No hint, either, of its post-Rothschild life as a school in the 1920s at which novelist and biographer Evelyn Waugh was a teacher; no clue that it opened as a hotel before being demolished in 1956. Certainly, today, the functional sports and activity centre built by the county council on the site, following its acquisition in 1959, provides no hint of its opulent past.
But the river flows on
And it has flowed through the Victorian culvert for almost 50 years of council ownership, until the winter of 2013/14 and the appearance of tell-tale signs that something was wrong. Aston Clinton Park, now farmland, a recreation ground and football pitch, flooded. For village footballers it meant disruption to matches. For Aston Clinton Parish Council it signalled not only an inconvenience to residents walking dogs, but also a loss of football pitch rental income. And for farmer Richard Nicholls, who leases much of Aston Clinton Park for grazing from the county council, a whole field was off-limits to his cattle.
A crisis for the county council’s flood management team… or an opportunity? Their subterranean survey made an alarming discovery: Sir Anthony de Rothschild’s clay culvert, installed in the mid-19th century, had partially collapsed, and repairs or replacement would cost well over £52,000.
With news that budget-conscious County Hall probably wouldn’t want to hear, the team began to think the unthinkable. What if they didn’t repair the culvert? There must be an original, centuries-old river channel that could be explored, exposed and pressed back into use.
Enter Flood Management Officer Jessica Dippie, whose research, using old maps and Government Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) information, discovers a possible historical river channel 18-inches deep in among pre-Enclosure ploughing lines and drainage ditches. Following the channel through low-lying land with great anticipation, Jessica eventually finds an area of higher ground along its length, and all hope of using the route comes to an abrupt end.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and the need for a solution gives birth to an inventive notion: a new river. If the lie of the land made this possible, the benefits could be manifold: encouraging wildlife, promoting a wide range of wild plants, not to mention providing a pleasant place for visitors to sit and watch the world go by. And it would greatly reduce the risk of flooding.
Jessica says: ‘We decided to leave the old culvert where it was, let water continue to flow through it, and design a new river channel. We saw this as an opportunity to do more than just solve a flooding problem; to enhance the environment of part of Buckinghamshire’s beautiful countryside.’
So followed a year of research, surveying, consultations with geomorphologists, gathering feedback from all those with an interest in Aston Clinton’s environmental wellbeing. The good news: a new river would cost little more than £30,000.
So in August last year a team from the county council, the Environment Agency, the parish council, Aylesbury Vale District Council, Natural England – not to mention farmer Richard Nicholls and Green Park centre staff – pooled their expertise, rolled up their sleeves and built a new river.
With excavators to dig out nearly 300 cubic metres – around 100 tonnes – of earth, a lorry load of gravel to lay in the riverbed, and new fencing, by bank holiday weekend they had reached the historic and jubilant moment when water started flowing.
This was a multi-purpose plan, says Jessica. The excavated spoil has been formed into bunds in the farmer’s field that flooded to protect the parkland and create a wetland area to attract wildfoul should the river ever overflow. Wild flowers encouraged by the new river will attract pollinating insects, welcome news for arable farmers. And the banks in Aston Clinton Park have been designed shallow enough to allow children to paddle.
Time for a paddle
The project that demonstrated how speedily and effectively seven organisations could work together to research, plan and deliver a new feature of the natural landscape, has now been ‘signed off’ following a year’s monitoring. Opened in the summer by Buckinghamshire County Council Chairman Val Letheren – complete with wellies for paddling – Aston Clinton’s new river is being enjoyed daily, and the dry football pitch appreciated by fixtures secretaries!
Conserving and enhancing local landscapes is an important priority for the county council, says Warren Whyte, who is Cabinet Member responsible for Environment and Planning. A chartered architect by profession, Warren gets a good deal of satisfaction from aesthetically pleasing projects that benefit the community – and this one is no exception: ‘This is an all-round success story not only for the enjoyment of local people, but also for the encouragement of flora and fauna in the shadow of our beautiful Chilterns.’
Fancy a visit?
The entrance to Aston Clinton Park is in the centre of the village, with access off the old A41 London Road. As well as football pitches and pleasant green areas for walking and picnics, the Parish Council has provided a children’s play area, skate park and trim trail. The County Council has provided an information board telling the story of Aston Clinton’s new river. The Café in the Park offers a place to meet friends for coffee, somewhere to work quietly with free Wifi, and serves snacks and lunches. There’s a good sized car park and it’s all accessible at HP22 5HL.
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