The New York of English villages

There’s a travel syndrome we might call New York State of Mind: the belief that you’ve been somewhere, even when you haven’t.  We’ve all seen New York in the movies, so we feel we know it.

If it has nothing else in common with New York, maybe Long Crendon has that.  Even on a dull, drizzly day, it’s impossible not to appreciate the weight of history, as you finish your coffee in The Flowerpot café, avoid tripping over someone else’s small dog and make your way down the High Street towards the old Court House (pictured here) and the Church.  So many properties are Grade II listed that it’s like an English Heritage showroom; 99 houses built from witchert (puddled clay, straw and dung), stone, timber or brick, from anywhere between the 14th and 19th centuries, as well as several listed barns and walls and a telephone booth from 1935.

But the real reason for any deja vu you may feel is possibly more prosaic. I have a vivid memory of turning on the TV in our hotel room in Bucharest on New Year’s Day 2008. It wasn’t quite “57 channels and nothing on”, but there appeared to be only two things on. One was the video of Kylie Minogue’s latest single; the other was Midsomer Murders which has now been on our TV screens, and millions of others worldwide, for 20 years. And Long Crendon has played a starring role on many occasions.  The Court House doubled as a bookshop in ‘The Dagger Club.’  Different houses on the High Street have appeared in the episodes ‘Garden of Death’, ‘Tainted Fruit’, ‘The House in the Woods’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Blood on the Saddle’.  The Eight Bells pub, which was featured in ‘A Tale of Two Hamlets’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and  ‘The Oblong Club’, has a signed photo of John Nettles, who played the first Chief Inspector Barnaby, near the entrance.

There weren’t, we have to say, that many people around on the day we visited. It may have been the bad weather, of course. Or perhaps they’ve all been murdered…?

How do you make a hedgehog blue?

Also, what flavour of food do they dislike?  These were a couple of the questions to which we heard the answers on a trip to Tiggywinkles, the world’s leading wildlife hospital.

Tiggywinkles – named after the Beatrix Potter character – became famous for its treatment of injured hedgehogs, and there were over 300 in for treatment on the day we visited. But clearly the organisation has expanded in recent years.  There is now a badger sett, for example. Just as each person in a hospital for humans has their own problems, the same applies to badgers. Rachel has fractures in both front legs, so she cannot dig and therefore can’t return to the wild), while Stevie is blind and Logan was found starving after the human family which used to feed him moved away. Christmas, meanwhile, is thus named for being found on 24 December, not for being white (but not albino)!  There is also a new Red Kite education centre and aviary, along with a hide for observing muntjac, Chinese water deer, roe deer and fallow deer in a paddock.

Having said that, Tiggywinkles is still closely associated with hedgehogs.  Its museum covers almost everything you can think of, including military formations, Royal Navy memorabilia… but not the “hedgehog sandwich” sketch from Not the Nine O’clock News.  The hedgehog talk revealed that hedgehogs typically have 5,000 spines and like cat food or dog food, as long as it isn’t tuna or other flavours of fish.  One resident of Tiggywinkles apparently enjoyed eating crisps, while another was known as Blue because – he fell into an open tin of blue paint.  As well as the talks, you can view, through a window, baby hedgehogs and other animals and birds as staff feed them.  You’d have to have a heart of stone not to say “aaaah”…

 

Mills and meals

Perching by a bridge on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, The Mill at Sonning provides an excellent example of new uses for old buildings.  Mills have existed at Sonning since the days of Domesday, and the main parts of the present building and the waterwheels date back to 1890.  By the time the mill closed in 1969 it was one of the last mills on the Thames driven by wheels.  Eight years later Tim and Eileen Richards stepped in to begin the restoration of the Grade II listed building – and its new use as a theatre.  The Mill provides a two-course buffet lunch or dinner to its theatregoers as part of the ticket price.  We noticed that at least one diner interpreted “buffet” as “all you can eat”.  The restaurant experience is unusual; you go up and collect your main course, then the dessert and coffee is provided by waiter service.

The theatre itself is intimate with only 215 seats – it’s the first time I’ve seen a sign saying PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE STAGE (and if you’re sitting in the front row, that is genuinely difficult).  We went to a performance of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web (1954), a typically convoluted whodunit set in a country house in Kent. The director, Brian Blessed, is better known as an actor with a booming voice. One of his most famous roles was in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon; I half-hoped the play would feature a character called Gordon who came back from apparent death so that we could hear a Blessed boom of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”

The Mill is proud of not only the theatre and restaurant but its sustainable principles.  In 2005 it launched the first Hydro Electric Scheme to be powered by the natural resources of The River Thames. The scheme generates enough electric energy for the theatre’s numerous lights, restaurant dining rooms, bars, ovens, backstage corridors, dressing rooms, wardrobe areas, set construction workshops, control box and the administration offices.

Down by the river…

The historian Eric Hobsbawm used to refer to “invented traditions”; the peculiar process of swan upping is what he might have called a re-invented tradition.

Its origins go back many centuries, perhaps as far as the 12th century when the mute swan gained Royal status meaning that, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the Crown.  (That might have made the swan-escape sequence in Hot Fuzz even funnier if the Queen had turned up…)  By 1378 there was an official post of Keeper of the King’s Swans and the unfortunate bird was known for a long time as a culinary delicacy.

The process of swan upping on the Thames involves identifying swans and their cygnets, weighing them and checking their health.  It now takes place during the third week of July each year. The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies (now the only owners of private swans on the Thames).  Nowadays the emphasis is heavily on education.  The Swan Uppers make over a dozen stops over the course of four days, starting at Romney Lock, the nearest lock to Windsor Castle, and finishing at Moulsford.  A number of these stops involve meeting local schoolchildren and briefing them on the work of the Swan Uppers – and, of course, offering the opportunity to get up close and fluffy with a cygnet or two…

Speak softly and rule the nation

In an age of noise, spectacle and rolling news, Dorneywood House – tucked away off a country lane in the depths of Buckinghamshire – seems like a throwback.  The estate on which the house stands has a history of ownership dating back to the days of Edward the Confessor.  The house itself was converted from a farmhouse into a manor house in the 1890s by Charles Palmer, the latest of his family to have owned the land for three centuries (the Palmers still own nearby Dorney Court).  Dorneywood’s significance today derives directly from its purchase in 1919 by Sir Courtald Thomson, a businessman and philanthropist, and his later donation of it to the nation, for use as a retreat and for entertaining on a “moderate” scale by Prime Ministers or senior ministers whom the Prime Minister of the day would nominate.

Lord Courtald-Thomson, as he became, died in 1954.  The first senior minister to use Dorneywood as their country residence, conveniently close to London, was Sir Anthony Eden in his final days as Foreign Secretary the following year (the image above, with Eden in the centre, shows Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth meeting in London in 1956 by which time Eden had succeeded Winston Churchill as PM).  Dorneywood has hosted various Foreign Secretaries – until they began to use Chevening in Kent instead – as well as Home Secretaries and the occasional Deputy PM. Who can forget the sight of John Prescott playing croquet on the lawn (however hard we might wish to…) Most recently, Chancellors of the Exchequer have been the lucky nominees for residence, though an informed source tells me that the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, barely visits at all. In this restful and welcoming environment, ministers can reflect and think, away from the Westminster hurly-burly.

Visitor access by pre-booking, on selected afternoons between April and September, is regulated by the Dorneywood Trust, who lease Dorneywood from the National Trust.  No photography is allowed in house or gardens for security reasons. Nonetheless it’s an agreeable place, reflecting the sense of hospitality which Courtald Thomson and his sister Winifred used to offer when they were there. Unlike some of the grander sites of power in the Chilterns and Thames Valley, Dorneywood is on a human scale. You can – just about – imagine living there, and enjoying the exquisite trappings such as the free-standing double-sided bookcases, the Flemish tapestries and the Bechstein piano.  The bagatelle board in the conference room gives one clue as to how eminent residents and guests used to relax; if you scored over 1,000 points, that merited a special entry in a ‘golden book’.  Churchill scored 1,015 on one occasion in 1942.  The exterior is worth a look, too: don’t miss the white door marked TOAD HALL, as a tribute to Thomson’s brother-in-law Kenneth Grahame, and the cart-shed containing various stained glass windows relating to institutions with which Thomson had links.  The gardens, too, are full of interest and well-tended without being intimidatingly perfect.  At present, there’s an apologetic notice explaining that one section is fallow due to an infestation of ground elder, a complaint with which many owners of smaller gardens can empathise.

Stanley, I presume?

It looks like a simple memorial stone, until you delve into the story of Stanley Spencer’s life, in which nothing was simple.

His was not an especially long life, though the times changed considerably; he was born into a late Victorian world and died as post-war Britain was just beginning to enjoy a little affluence. If it’s a good idea never to be detached from your roots, Stanley followed this maxim more closely than most. He was born in Cookham, died there and spent much of his life in the rural idyll that slowly became a town.  The marvels of modern public transport even enabled him to commute to and from London for his undergraduate studies at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art, where his nickname was “Cookham”.

Stanley was active in both World Wars, in the second as an official war artist painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde.  He had long since divorced Hilda by the time of his death, but she remained the love of his life despite a second (unsuccessful) marriage to Patricia Preece. Missing the honeymoon was probably not a great start – Patricia went with another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, with whom Stanley had had an affair.

His paintings often combine memories of the Bible stories which his father used to read the family after mealtimes with depictions of the Cookham that Stanley knew so well. Perhaps the best example is, ironically, unfinished: Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta which now hangs in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a small white square of a building on the corner of the High Street.  Holy Trinity churchyard, where Stanley is buried, is the setting for The Resurrection Cookham, a bizarre but joyous scene of people who mattered to Stanley coming up out of their graves, having conversations and then taking the footpath down to the river to catch the boat to Heaven.

The fact that two of Stanley’s paintings fetched about £2 million between them at auction in 1990 might have bemused him – and annoyed him too, as he was never rich in his lifetime, partly due to the maintenance payments he made to Patricia. But those sums do show how Stanley Spencer is now widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most significant British artists.