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Stoke Row and a Maharajah's Gift

Discover the link between India and a quiet English village on this pleasant walk in the Chilterns.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 164ft (50m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field and woodland paths and tracks, road (busy), 8 stiles

Landscape Chiltern woodland and farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 171 Chiltern Hills West

Start/finish SU 678840

Dog friendliness On lead in Stoke Row and Cherry Orchard; under control where indicated. On lead where indicated on Walk 49

Parking Roadside parking in Stoke Row; two spaces in village hall car park when hall not in use

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park turn right and walk past the village stores. Turn left into Cox's Lane and follow it as it curves to the left. Soon it dwindles to a track. Continue to a waymark, avoid the footpath on the right and keep ahead on the right of way. The track narrows to a path now, running between trees and hedgerows. Pass a stile and footpath and eventually you reach the outbuildings of Hundridge Farm. Join a track running through the woodland and make for the road.

2 Turn right along the road for several paces, then swing right at the footpath sign into the wood. Follow the path between trees and cross a drive. Make for a stile ahead and then go diagonally right in the field, using the waymark posts to guide you. Look for a stile in the corner and cross a lane to a further stile on the opposite side. Head diagonally right in the field and look for a stile by a hard tennis court. Pass alongside a beech hedge to a drive and turn left. As the drive sweeps left to a house, go forward over a cattle grid to a field. Continue with the boundary on your left and on reaching the corner, go straight on along a track.

3 Turn right at English Farm and follow the narrow track known as English Lane. Pass a footpath and stile on the right-hand side and follow the track along the edge of woodland. Continue to a junction and keep ahead through the trees. Pass a timber-framed cottage on the left-hand side and a house on the right called Forrigan. Keep ahead for about 100yds (91m) and swing right at a sign for Stoke Row.

4 Cross a stile and cut through the wood to a second stile. Emerge from the woodland at a gate and cross a pasture to a further patch of woodland. Negotiate the next stile within sight of the Crooked Billet and go up a gentle slope towards the pub. Turn right at the road, pass a footpath on the right, followed by Rose Cottage, and head for the crossroads in the centre of Stoke Row. Turn right and return to the start of the walk.

It is unusual, to say the least, and not what you would expect to find in an English village. Enclosed by an exotic cupola, the Maharajah's Well might be a familiar landmark in Stoke Row but first-time visitors gaze curiously at this spectacle, unsure at first if they can believe what they are seeing.

The well was given to the village by the Maharajah of Benares in 1863 as a gift. But where, you might ask, is the connection with Stoke Row? It was on a Benares hillside, around the middle of the 19th century, that the Indian ruler met Edward Anderdon Reade, who was soon to become Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Provinces of India. The Maharajah indicated his plans to overcome the acute water shortage in the area and Anderdon Reade responded by pointing out that it was a familiar problem at home in the Chilterns where his father ran an estate.

In villages like Stoke Row, he told the Maharajah, local people relied on rainwater for their cooking, and so precious was it that it was often passed from one cooking pot to the next. Neighbours shared what water they could collect and children were often punished for drinking it to quench their thirst. Pond water was used for washing and when that ran out, wash day was postponed, sometimes indefinitely.

During the Indian Mutiny, Edward Anderdon Reade offered help and support to the Maharajah of Benares, who had not forgotten Stoke Row and the ongoing problem of its water supply. To express his gratitude for the Lieutenant-Governor's solidarity at a difficult time, and as a token of friendship, the Maharajah presented the village with a charitable gift.

The local Commissioners chose a suitable site in Stoke Row and the Maharajah duly approved it, recommending that construction work should commence on the wedding day of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. The date was 10 March 1863. Building began with the sinking of a 4ft (1.2m) wide well to a depth of 368ft (112m), more than twice the height of Nelson's Column. All the work was done by hand.

The well was officially opened 14 months later on 24 May 1864 - Queen Victoria's birthday. A condition of the gift was 'that the public should have the privilege of taking water free of charge in all time to come.' A small cottage was built beside the well, housing a warden who would manage it.

The beneficent Maharajah did not forget the village and in later years donated other gifts. For example, to mark the wedding of Princess Louise he created a new footpath leading to the well and also gave £200 so that the villagers could host thanksgiving celebrations. In 1906 mains water was piped to Stoke Row and in 1927 a second pipeline brought water from Nettlebed. Even so, some residents continued to use the well and it was still in use in 1939.

While you're there

If you've time, visit Wellplace Zoo at nearby Ipsden. Opened in 1968, the zoo is a very popular family attraction in the area. It has a large and varied collection of birds and animals from all parts of the world including lemurs, flamingos, penguins, parrots and owls. There is also a small museum devoted to village life, and an education centre.

What to look for

Together with the adjoining well, the Cherry Orchard was given to the village by the Maharajah of Benares. One hundred and one cherry trees were originally planted to provide an income to help fund the upkeep of the well, though today the orchard is a village open space, its upkeep dependent on donations and support from the parish council. A number of features within the orchard were given Indian names.

Where to eat and drink

The Crooked Billet at Stoke Row is a popular rustic country pub with the emphasis very much on food. Once one of Dick Turpin's hideouts, it retains lots of old-world charm and atmosphere. The actress Kate Winslet held her wedding reception here. The quality, award-winning menu is made up of local produce and organic ingredients.

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