Albion, ancient sites

On Hawk Hill

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I left at eight for a Sunday morning drive with my son. It was nearly five when I got home… so much for all the stuff that needed doing…! On the other hand… we had a great day. The first of June was warm, clear and sunny, and after all the rain Buckinghamshire is looking very green. We took the cameras to Hawk Hill… okay, West Wycombe hill. It has been ‘Hawk Hill’ since the close encounter with nine wild red kites that led Stuart and I on the adventure that has resulted in a writing partnership and our books.

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Hawk Hill is crowned with the fantastic hexagonal mausoleum of the Dashwoods and the rather odd church of St Lawrence. The nave is a copy of the ruined Sun Temple at Palmyra and the church is a work of extraordinary trompe l’oeil frescoes and ornate plasterwork. Both are built within the earthworks of an iron age hillfort whose embankments are still present and visible. The church is crowned with the golden ball, a hollow space with a drop-down staircase leading into it. It is said that members of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club were wont to meet there for card parties and revelry. I think not.

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I have climbed that tower three times now… the stairs are narrow and difficult, the open space halfway up feels very unsafe were it not for the bird netting to give at least an illusion of security. If that were not enough the next set of stairs are even narrower. I am not sure that some of those gentlemen would even have squeezed through.

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The top of the tower has only a low parapet and a narrow walkway around it. The drop-down staircase has no handrails or safety at all, and the ball itself is a mere eight feet in diameter. Granted there is seating for six inside, but frankly, sober it is an arduous, dangerous climb. Mid revelry? Hardly!  On the other hand, it is also suggested Dashwood used a heliograph to signal to his friend John Norris who lived at nearby Hughenden Manor but had another home at Camberley Park, some 21 miles away, where he had built the Camberley Obelisk. Which was a tower, not an obelisk, some 100 foot high. What were they signalling? Speculation runs wild… but they were both members of the Hellfire Club.

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The hilltop gives a fabulous view over the valley, with the long, straight road into High Wycombe. Wildflowers are everywhere, bees, ladybirds and flying insects of all kinds zip through the air. Nettles are festooned with their pale purple-tinged flowers and copper coloured beetles catch the sun, rivalling the buttercups. and 300 feet below the church tower the Hellfire Caves guard their secrets. Here in the sunlight, a murder of crows has taken possession of the hillside watched, wonderfully, by a red kite perched in a tree. I care not that the image is unclear.. it may be my favourite photograph of the day. I watched it for a long time.

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It wasn’t the only red kite though. They like this place and were gliding majestically above us almost all the time we were there… just out of each of the lens, or swooping over us silently so that there was no chance of catching them on camera. We could hear their keening cry, even above the crows.

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By lunchtime we packed up, Nick walking back to the car, rather than having me push him up the long, grassy slope… hobbits are useful to lean on. We drove to a tiny hamlet where once upon a time Stuart and I had sat in awe watching a whole flock of kites come in to feed. There were two. Nick leaned out of the car with his camera… and suddenly there were twenty, wheeling and diving around the rooftops, dark silhouettes against the bright sun. A little way down the road we stopped again to watch the mating dance of a pair of kites, tumbling aerobatics above our heads. A final stop at a tiny, Templar church was the gift though… the kite there wheeling low above us. Altogether a very good day for flying kites.

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