The scary way to save a church

If you walked around the little village of Flamstead in Hertfordshire this weekend, you may have seen Peppa Pig in a front garden. And some Minions. And Jeremy Corbyn. And the cast of Scooby Doo.  All of them trying to be scary… and wanting your vote.

Confused?  It’s all part of the village’s Scarecrow Festival, which has been running each August for the past 15 years. Villagers create scarecrows in the hope that their fellow residents and visitors will vote for them.  The festival raises money for a local multiple schlerosis therapy centre and for much-needed repairs and restoration work on St Leonard’s, the Grade I listed parish church which has been around for over 900 years but is showing signs of wear due to damp, rot and death-watch beetle.

Some of the competition entries are truly scary, some are funny, some are pun-tastic and others are just odd (why would you create a giant spider as a scarecrow, exactly)?  But it’s all great fun in a good cause.

And the result of the vote? Well, “Jeremy Crow-bin” – yes, that’s a crow in a bin – did better than Theresa May, Lord Buckethead and Donald Trump, but he didn’t win (so no change there). The overall winner was the Lion King.  Hopefully, though, the winner in the long-term will be the church if it survives, for the benefit of its community.

Faith, hope and reconciliation

Around the corner from the hubbub and excitement of Whipsnade Zoo lies a remarkable landmark, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.  The site was the original inspiration of Edmund K Blyth, who served in the British infantry in World War I and lost two friends in the conflict, with another wartime comrade dying in a car crash in 1930.  On a visit to Liverpool that autumn, the colour and beauty of the unfinished Liverpool Anglican cathedral impressed Blyth and his wife deeply:

“We talked of this as we drove south through the Cotswold Hills on our way home and it was while we were doing this that I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”

Blyth, who had previously bought two cottages in Whipsnade for use as holiday homes for poor London families, envisioned a cathedral of trees as a fitting memorial to his friends and a symbol of faith, hope and reconciliation.  The cathedral has never been consecrated, but is used for wedding blessings and interdenominational worship and there is an annual service on the second Sunday in June.  The cathedral takes the layout of medieval cathedrals as its inspiration, so you enter through a porch of oak trees into a lime tree lined nave before coming to a chancel of silver birches and yew hedging. Four chapels reflect the seasons with different trees in each, and a garden of flowering shrubs framed by cypresses is the main feature of the cloister area.  Despite the occasional sounds of a strimmer or of small infants running amok, the cathedral remains a beautiful, tranquil space in which to relax and reflect.

Watercress Walk

Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.

More on that later.  Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house.  The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt.  With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.)  Sadly not.

What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches.  How wrong can you be?  According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.

After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot.  An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box.  Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.

When life gives you damsons…

“Would you like any damsons?”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear as we walked through a water meadow at Streatley on a typical November day in August.

Our plan had been to do a circular walk from Goring, taking in part of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path, as recommended by our wildflower book, but the grey drizzle was discouraging and my feet hurt.  A re-think over coffee in The Chocolate Café and we decided to take things more slowly.

We strolled over the bridge towards Streatley, pausing to visit the church. The current church mainly dates from 1864, though the tower is fifteenth-century, but there has probably been a church on the site since Saxon times. The churchyard contains the remains of a Saxon warrior, perhaps one who fought with Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. His remains were found together with an iron spearhead and knife, bronze buckle and blood-stained tooth in 1932 by a local resident whilst working on the site of the old Bowling Green, and later re-interred in the churchyard. I’m sure Jerome K Jerome would have had a good story to tell about him, had the remains only been discovered fifty years earlier.

Following a sign from the church to the Thames Path we found ourselves in a water meadow where we had no difficulty in spotting the purple-loosestrife and common fleabane the book had told us to expect.  We also saw some non-native but very pretty orange balsam.

As I watched a barge slowly make its way down the river, my husband drew my attention to a little fruit stand with an honesty box, intended to raise funds for the conservation of the area.  Would I like any damsons? Of course I would.  The only problem was that the fruit was a pound a bag and I didn’t have change for a five pound note.  So that is how we ended up carrying two bags of damsons, two of pears and one of apples on our walk.

Returning, we decided to emulate the Three Men in a Boat and lunch at the Bull.  I don’t know what J, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency the dog) would have made of jalfrezi pie, but I enjoyed it.

That’s the thing about Slow Travel.  You never know quite what to expect, but must take things (and damsons) as you find them. Now, where was that recipe for spiced damson chutney?

 

Conserving a 20th century industry hub

It looks like a timeless scene, basking in the August sunshine.  In reality the Ewelme Watercress Beds ran as a going business concern for only just over a century.  George Smith, a publican from South Weston, a small hamlet just north of Watlington, bought the land in c.1886 and organised the digging out of the beds so that watercress could be grown.  From there it was packed and went by wagon or cart to Watlington station and on by train to the Midlands and Manchester.  Regulatory pressures meant that the site stopped selling watercress in 1988. Four years later, the Chiltern Society bought it and a team of their volunteers now runs the site as a nature reserve.

“You’re not seeing it at its absolute best today,” said Tom Stevenson, one of the volunteers, as he showed us around.  August is a couple of months too late to enjoy the 130 orchids, of five different species, which flourished this year.  Though Tom was reluctant to use the word “weed”, the team is keen to give wild flowers every chance to appear and has been using yellow-rattle in an effort to control the wild grasses which might prosper instead.  In similar vein, meadowsweet has become rather invasive and the team is looking at options to prevent it taking up too much space.

Animals and insects get a chance, too. Pupils from a local school have built a “bug hotel”, while the team at Tiggywinkles persuaded Tom to see if the site could be a good home for some of its hedgehogs.  “Sixteen of them,” Tom says wryly. “I had to get them here in my car. Have you any idea how smelly hedgehogs are?”

Smells notwithstanding, we wish the Ewelme team the best of luck as they work towards a diverse local habitat – hedgehogs, bugs, flowers and all.

A movie star, a cockatoo and a hotel

You probably know that Hugh Grant starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a hugely successful British romantic comedy film.  If you’re a lover of movie trivia, you may know that some filming took place at the Crown in Amersham.

You’re less likely to know that the Crown could have burned down almost sixty years earlier, in 1935… until the alarmed squawking of a sulphur crested cockatoo alerted the staff, enabling them to evacuate guests and put the fire out, the only casualties being two cats.  The cockatoo lived another year, to the ripe old age of 118, before being stuffed, mounted and displayed in the hotel bar.

He now sits proudly on the first floor of the refurbished Amersham Museum, in the high street almost directly opposite the Crown.  A heroic cockatoo is only one of the various attractions in the new-look Museum, whose glass reception area with an Amersham Tube sign behind the welcome desk contrasts strikingly with the 16th century original elements of the building.  Visitors can get an overview of over 2,000 years of local history before viewing a range of exhibits and display installations. Examples include embroidered versions of the front covers of the annual leaflets which the Metropolitan Railways Country Estates used to publish to promote its housing developments along the line, and products manufactured at Goya’s perfume and cosmetics factory.  The museum’s garden (pictured) now has access for wheelchair users and features new planting. All in all, it’s an excellent way to find out more about the town – or, if you have lived or worked there, to take a nostalgic trip into its past.

 

What did blooming King John do for us?

Combining the traditions of 1066 and all that with our modern predilection for lists, we can probably guess that King John was a Bad King and near the top of any Top 10 Worst British/English Kings in History, in most people’s eyes.  But one corner of the Chilterns has reason to be grateful to him.

For it was John, in 1200 at the request of Geoffrey, earl of Essex, who granted the right for Amersham to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.  The weekly market enabled locals to stock up on the basics they needed for everyday living.  The annual fair saw merchants from further across England, and sometimes beyond, offer more exotic wares such as perfumes, handicraft, furs and the types of fruit which might not be available all the time (such as oranges).

If you wander into Amersham’s Garden of Remembrance, you can find a splendid reminder of this in the form of a floral tribute to 800 years of Amersham history: a joint venture by Amersham Town Council, Chesham Bois boy scouts and other volunteers.  The building depicted in flowers in the photo  is the Market Hall, built in 1682 and now Grade II listed.  The Ferris wheel is a reminder of the more light-hearted aspects of the annual event – all the fun of the fair!