You might be surprised to know that a corner of the Chilterns has survived in its traditional form – more or less – due to the Corporation of London. Burnham Beeches was once common land, used for grazing a variety of animals and for obtaining firewood and turf for fuel. The area includes heathland, woodland, bog, grassland and wood pasture, the latter incorporating many beech and oak trees which have been ‘pollarded’ (cut and allowed to re-grow for firewood).
Come the late Victorian era, there was some prospect of the land being re-developed for houses. Fortunately – and partly due to the intervention of local MP Sir Henry Peek – the City of London Corporation bought Burnham Beeches in 1880. The public has been able to enjoy it ever since – with the exception of World War II, during which the land was used as a military vehicle reserve depot.
Dodge the cattle grids – and sometimes the cattle – and there is plenty to find in the Beeches. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the artistic theme which runs through the land. You can find a plaque celebrating the poet Thomas Gray and the beech tree which may have inspired the ‘nodding’ beech in Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1751). Further along your walk are ponds which have inspired artists such as Myles Birket Foster, and locations visited by Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind, a 19th century opera singer. But the stars of the Beeches are, inevitably, the eponymous trees, and the sense of tranquility they create as you pick your way through them.
A few weeks ago, we visited Runnymede and the JF Kennedy Memorial on the centenary of his birth. Just outside Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, there’s another link with the USA – in a quiet house and garden with over 300 years of history.
Jordans Quaker Meeting House was built in 1688 – shortly after James II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed Quakers and other non-conformists to worship legally for the first time. The Quakers – the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends – argued that everybody could encounter God personally and directly, without intermediaries such as priests. They gained a reputation for non-violent protest; Quakers received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for relief work in both World Wars.
The house at Jordans still hosts Quaker meetings today, and its Meeting Room is an excellent place for quiet reflection – appropriately, as Friends gather there to worship in silence. The gardens and burial grounds surrounding the house accommodate many headstones, including two for William Penn (1644-1718) and his second wife Hannah (1671-1726). William founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which later became the US state of Pennsylvania. Also buried here is Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713), who helped his friend John Milton to find a cottage in nearby Chalfont St Giles when plague beset London. A new burial ground incorporates headstones for members of three local Quaker groups: Chilterns, London West and North West London. Arranged in circles, interspersed with apple trees, the headstones radiate simple serenity.
Eunice, the charming and diminutive lady who greeted us when we arrived, told us there is still a Sunday school held at the house, at which small children better known for being noisy begin to learn from the adults’ example. In their own charming and old-fashioned way, the house and gardens act as a pause button for our ever-faster moving modern world. A pause for quiet reflection can help anyone – whatever their religious beliefs, or even if they have none.
One of the themes which runs through the Chilterns and Thames Valley is that of power and dissent. You can find Chequers, Dorneywood and Windsor Castle on one hand; the Amersham Martyrs, the Jordans Quakers and John Hampden on the other. The region was also home for a time to one of Britain’s greatest 20th century writers. The young George Orwell (or Eric Blair, to give him his real name) grew up in Henley-on-Thames and nearby Shiplake, and studied at Eton.
Today saw a special event centred on Orwell’s most famous work. Senate House in London hosted a special reading/performance of 1984 – appropriately, as Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, experiences which informed Orwell’s depiction of the Ministry of Truth in the book. (Senate House also inspired The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, who lived in Berkhamsted.)
Today’s performance – on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a significant day for freedom if ever there was one, and in the week of a General Election – was part of the UCL Festival of Culture. A company of players recreated the scenes from the book as various actors, politicians and others read from it. The performance started at 9am and concluded at 10pm; the extracts I saw involved readings by Alan Johnson, perhaps Labour’s best leader who never was of recent years, and actors Harriet Walter and Guy Paul. The production excelled in bringing out the power of Orwell’s words:
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
“Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”
“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”
In the light not only of today’s anniversary and this week’s election, but recent events, Orwell’s words could scarcely be more relevant.
Sitting quietly in the Chilterns, on a hill behind the village of West Wycombe, is one of the most famous examples of clubland in the world. Its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, had form in this area: his other creations included the Dilettanti Club (to encourage interest in classical art) and the Divan Club, for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Paul Whitehead, steward to the Hell-Fire Club, may have met Sir Francis at the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks – now there’s a club that deserves eternal fame if only for its name…
But it’s Hell-Fire rather than Beefsteak that has earned a place in history – infamy, even. No doubt a large part of this is down to a later Sir Francis Dashwood deciding in the early 1950s to make the Hell-Fire Caves into a tourist attraction. The Club – or the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe as it was originally known – met in other locations, too, notably at Medmenham Abbey but also in members’ houses such as Sir Walter Stanhope’s at Eythrope and possibly even at Cliveden. As the official guide book states, “Numerous second-hand accounts appeared towards the latter part of the eighteenth century giving varying descriptions of the goings on, some of which seem to be completely fictitious and are not corroborated by any other sources.”
The likelihood is that the Club’s activities were not as racy as the publicity would have had contemporaries or later generations believe. There were plenty of toasts when club members gathered for “private devotions” – although the drinking probably wasn’t excessive – and the guide book notes that “These meetings provided an ideal opportunity for discreet rendezvous with ladies who did not wish to be identified.”
Over its most active years between the 1950s and the mid-1770s, the Hell-Fire Club had twelve members. They included a First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Sandwich), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and even John Wilkes, a journalist who found fame as an MP – now there’s a career path you don’t come across these days…