In 1257 Henry III granted the town of Chesham a royal charter to hold a weekly market. Today Chesham is still known as a market town and holds 3 regular markets as well as occasional specialist markets along its high street.
It is also home to a quiet revolution of community spirit greening up its streets, gardens, schools and parks.
Situated in the Chiltern Hills, Chesham is the birth place of the beautiful River Chess, a Chilterns chalk stream, providing wonderful scenery and wildlife habitats and as such is popular with walkers. In fact, Chesham is the only Walkers are Welcome town in the Chilterns achieving its status in 2010. At it’s centre is the gorgeous Lowndes Park a sloping open space of trees, fields, play areas and countryside leading to the beginning of the Pednor Walk at its upper most edge. The park has a wildlife area in the lower park, which is managed by the Friends of Lowndes Park and the park is subject to a mixture of mowing regimes to accommodate the wishes of a wide variety of uses.
Earlier this year a community orchard of mixed fruit trees – some of which are traditional local varieties – was planted in the upper park by the Chesham Community Orchard group. Once matured the fruit will be available to the public. The second planting day for the community orchard in Lowndes Park is taking place on Sunday 24th November 2013 from 10am. There are 24 new trees to plant, including 9 apple, 5 plum, 5 cherry, 3 pear and 2 crab apples, so there is plenty to be done! The orchard organisers would like as many people as possible to come along and help plant the trees. For further information click here.
Community groups play an important role in Chesham, and their involvement helps shape and form the town they live in. Chesham even has its very own anonymous guerilla gardener intent on prettying up some of it’s less attractive parts. This summer Hollyhocks, sunflowers and flowering perennials appeared along the rather ugly dual carriageway that cuts through the town.
Chesham in Bloom are a particularly active group and have helped set up school gardening clubs, planted new flower beds, hedgerow and trees and have also established areas for wild flowers in various parts of the town. This year they planted a mini meadow in Moor Rd which became immediately popular with a host of butterflies in summer.
More beds along Moor Rd are planned for next year. Having narrowly missed a Gold Award by RHS judges for the last 8 years I’ve my fingers crossed that the switch to wild flower planting schemes will increase the chances of Chesham in Bloom in 2014.
Another active group are the Chesham and District Natural History Society, chaired by Trevor Brawn. Its members help manage and monitor flora and fauna on sites such as Berkhampstead Fields, a chalk grassland habitat at the edge of the town towards the hilltop villages of the Chilterns.
Over 80% of managed chalk grassland have been lost since the second world war which makes Berkhampstead Fields a very special site for the town. Now recognised as a designated Local Wildlife Site a field survey has recorded 50 wild flowers species, 13 grasses including some key chalk grassland species and 14 butterfly species. One of the recorded butterflies species even included the declining dinghy skipper and in June this year Trevor counted 50 Bee Orchids in the field, which was a welcome sight after the field was mown by mistake last year before the wild flowers had set seed.
Another area that has been monitored by CDNHS is the local cemetery. In 2007 the society undertook a butterfly survey and despite largely poor weather that year they found 9 species. However back in 1996/97 20 species were found, reflecting the more favourable conditions that the cemetery was then managed under. Traditional management had kept soil fertility low allowing for a more diverse range of wild flower species which in turn supported an increased number of butterfly species.
Today a small area in the cemetery has been given over to wild flowers such as Lady’s Bedstraw, Harebell, Knapweed, Red Clover and Aquilegia, to try to redress this. It is managed by Phil Folly, Chairman of Chesham Environmental Group and he hopes the area will be expanded over time if the public is in favour.
It’s a contentious issue as public opinion is divided. Do visitors want a neat and manicured lawn style cemetery or a naturalised, rustic environment? It seems there has been a change in mindset over the last couple of decades which supports the former rather than the latter. As our gardens post 1950’s became more manicured, controlled and ‘perfect’ it seems our public spaces, cemeteries and parks followed along the same lines. We are a nation possessed with tidiness and conformity which leaves our green spaces bereft of plant diversity, interest and wild life.
Phil has also been busy creating a new wild flower area on the old artificial cricket wicket in Lowndes Park and after a slow start it was great to see all his efforts pay off with a mid summer explosion of colour this year.
Michele Blackmore is another inspiring Chesham resident who is hoping that future generations may view our green spaces differently. As the Eco Schools Co-ordinator at Elm Tree School. Michele has organised a Wild flower project at the school which is now part of the open gardens weekend. Michelle said the children helped sow the seeds and they are all very proud and love their meadow. They are in their second year of the newly sown wild flower meadow and this summer it was awash with Oxeye Daisies.The school also has two green roofs – one planted up with wild flowers in their woodland area and one planted up with sedum in the sensory garden. More schools like this please!
Whilst visiting the various green projects supported by Chesham Council with Kathryn Graves, Policy and Projects Officer I was particularly struck by the restoration of Meades Water Gardens incorporating the Chess Valley Walk. Meades Water Gardens has a fascinating history; during the Victorian period it contained the mill pond for Amy Mill and in the early 20th Century was home to functioning water cress beds. When, in 1979, the land was given over to the town council it was converted to an ornamental water garden. However, within a few decades it had become an unloved and unused water folly.
Today Meades Water Gardens has been transformed into a stunning stream side walk alive with dragonflies, amphibians and bird life. They are particularly abundant around the thick reed beds and aquatic plants that have been left alongside the edges of the stream to support a biodiversity of wildlife. Meads Water Gardens now reconnects the town to the once hidden River Chess at the edge of the town and is now regularly enjoyed by walkers, cyclists and joggers alike.
Chesham is an excellent example of how ordinary people can make a direct and positive difference to their local area. With the support of their local Town Council, Chesham community groups have been able to focus on a variety of ways to make their town, park and schools greener, more beautiful AND beneficial to the local wild life. And isn’t it great that they also get to be part of this fantastic community spirit. I wish all towns were like this.