Tudors and tulips

In the middle of the Metropolitan Green Belt sits the small village of Chenies.  Seriously small: there are well under 200 inhabitants.  Chenies Manor goes back, in one form or another, at least 800 years, having been in the possession of the Cheyne family.  However, the brick manor house which is the central part of what survives today was built in the mid-15th century, and John Russell modernised it in the 1530s.

Russell, a successful operator in Henry VIII’s court, received an earldom and Chenies became the main home of the Earls of Bedford, receiving many eminent visitors including Elizabeth I on several occasions.  After the Restoration, Chenies ceased to be the Russells’ principal seat – they used Woburn instead – and, over the following generations, suffered a degree of neglect.  The Macleod Matthews, the current owners since the 1950s, is the first family to live in the house as a whole for over 300 years.  They have embarked on an extensive restoration programme which continues.

These days Chenies opens to the public on selected afternoons between April and October, with timed tours of the house and plenty of opportunity to enjoy the splendid gardens.  The tulips were a highlight of our visit today.  There’s also a tearoom across which you navigate with your trolley of tea and raspberry shortcake, trying not to fall over the large, friendly dog which shambles here and there. It’s a splendid day out at a quirky house – look out for the ornamental cut-brick chimneys which look as if they’ve escaped from a Dali painting.

The Drawingroom: bigger on the inside…?

It’s no big deal eating in someone’s living room.  True, it’s a little more unusual when the low beams hint at over 400 years of history.  And then there’s the art works… and the local produce… Clearly the Drawingroom, just off Chesham’s high street, is more than just any old drawing room.

It used to be an office, a photographic studio and a barber’s shop. Not all at the same time, you’d assume.  But the current owner Richard seems keen to find as many uses for the space as possible.

When you’re not sitting in the living room enjoying toasties, jacket potatoes or even “wapas” (The Drawingroom’s term for world tapas… yes, I know), along with properly brewed tea, you can goggle at the artwork and the décor. The first floor features a bedroom/sitting room with billowing, Bedouin tent furnishings.  The landing is “painted in theatrical red with various guitars hanging on the walls: “The Musicians’ Gallery,” Richard calls it.  Musicians – specifically emerging acts – feature in gigs here on the first, second and third weeks of each month. If you miss it, they’re filmed and the TV in the living room will play what you missed.

If music isn’t your bag, try backgammon here on the first or third Wednesday of each month.  Or you can hire the venue for your own occasion, as many have done for christenings, wakes or wedding anniversaries.

“Whether you are here for the Art, music, home cooking or peace and tranquillity, I do hope you enjoy it and return often,” say the notes on the menu sheet.  I’m not sure about the tranquillity – especially when the gigs are on – but it’s certainly a venue with a difference.

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”

Teacups and trucks

Not many people would, probably, put the words “Luton” and “culture” together.  Luton has such a bad reputation that it’s even been voted the UK’s worst town.  A drive round the centre can be depressing and confusing.  Yet some of Luton’s sons and daughters have achieved great things, from composer David Arnold to cricketer Monty Panesar.  Nearby Luton Airport is a national gateway to and from the northern Chilterns, and is the town’s largest employer.  And just outside central Luton sit two splendid ways to spend an afternoon out. 

Along Old Bedford Road is Wardown House, Museum and Gallery (pictured).  The house itself is a late Victorian creation, completed in 1877 for a local solicitor who also had the outbuildings and lodges built and laid out a cricket lawn and park.  After the family moved away, the local council bought the estate, opening the park to the public and using the house as a military convalescent hospital in World War I and later as a rental space for some of their staff.  Wardown House has been a museum since 1931 and it has just reopened after a period of redevelopment. 

Visitors can wander through both floors, admire an eclectic selection of displays including some very Victorian mounted butterflies and learn about two centuries of Luton life in a special exhibition – with the starring role going to the hatmaking industry for which the town is still renowned.  There’s enough interactive content to satisfy the most curious of children.  Sit in an armchair and a voice will explain what games the children of Wardown House used to play; look in the bathroom mirror and what you thought was a portrait of a World War I nurse comes to life and the nurse explains what her job involved.  The tearoom, in what was the house’s dining room, features one or two quirky design choices: customers drink from paper cups while proper teacups form part of the light fittings!  All in all, the house and surrounding park provide an excellent attraction.

Three miles away across town is Stockwood Discovery Centre.  Here, too, there was once a country house, completed in 1740 for £60,000 (probably over £12 million in today’s money) and property of the Crawley family for 200 years.  Again the local council bought the house and surrounding park, but the house fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1964.  Happily a combination of Heritage Lottery Fund money and other donations has enabled Stockwood Craft Museum, as it was, to redevelop and reopen.

Keen gardeners can enjoy the Period Gardens which show a range of styles of English gardens through the centuries (my favourite was the Elizabethan knot garden), as well as other garden spaces devoted to themes such as medicine and wildlife.  The Discovery Galleries in the old stables explore the history of the region from prehistoric times – including a taste of medieval Luton, while the Discovery Hall focuses on another industry for which Luton has become famous, as the home of Vauxhall: the motor trade.  The Hall features a collection previously owned by George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, who collected, drove, restored and constructed horse-drawn vehicles for over fifty years.

Like Wardown, Stockwood Discovery Centre is open most days of the year.  Even better, both are free to enter.  I would recommend either as good options for a day out – and to dispel any remaining prejudice you may have against Luton…

Commuter Castle

We’ve all had this problem… Working in the big smoke; live a long way away; how to shorten the daily grind of commuting? Get a base in town, perhaps – or just outside town.

Which brings us to Richard, earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III.  Duty at the royal court in London often called, so Henry granted his brother Berkhamsted Castle in 1225.  Richard got his staff to bring the accounts from his earldom to Berkhamsted, and turned the Castle into a luxurious palace complex – a definite upgrade from its Norman motte-and-bailey origins.  Richard used the Castle until his death in 1272, making him a far more durable resident than Thomas Becket, who had held it for nine years until, in 1164, his quarrel with Henry II led to disgrace.  Edward, the Black Prince, would enjoy the Castle, as would five subsequent queens.

The past 500 years have not been so distinguished, with the Castle slowly falling into ruin. Today you can pick your way round its remains, keeping an eye on the demob-happy schoolchildren as they cavort around the ruins. Beckett, Richard or Edward might all have appreciated the fast train which passes within a javelin’s throw of the Castle, taking today’s London workers to Euston within 40 minutes, up to four times an hour.  From here it’s a short walk up Castle Street (helpful name) into Berkhamsted proper.