Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

The Chilterns Brigadoon: Halton House

In the village of Halton, just outside Wendover, sits a historic house which opens, Brigadoon-like, just once a year, as part of a national initiative called Heritage Open Days. Despite having lived in the area for the past 25 years and more, we had never visited Halton House until earlier this month.

It’s well worth a visit. Halton House represents the junction of two eras: the late Victorian and Edwardian years, a time of leisure and affluence, at least for some; and the First World War and the more egalitarian times which followed.  Alfred de Rothschild had the house built in three years (1880-3) as somewhere to relax from his banking work in London and as a suitable place to entertain his friends – who happened to include the Prince of Wales.  From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alfred was trying to emulate his brother-in-law’s efforts at nearby Waddesdon Manor, with sandstone turrets suggesting a French chateau as inspiration.  Inside it’s more eclectic and attracted some criticism from contemporaries.

All eras end. War came and Alfred offered the estate – which covered over 3,000 acres – to Lord Kitchener as a training venue for troops.  The new School of Technical Training emerged here as a training body for the Royal Flying Corps, known later as the Royal Air Force.  The RAF bought the estate from Alfred’s nephew, his heir after he died unmarried in 1918. It has been known as RAF Halton ever since, with the house serving as the Officers’ Mess.  Apparently there is some prospect that the RAF will leave the site in a few years time, and no doubt there is a good case for building some much-needed housing on part of the estate. Hopefully Halton House will survive, as a reminder of the history and heritage of Halton.

High as a (red) kite

“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance.  “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”

It’s a point of view.  There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.

The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain.  The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds.  So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…

Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr

An American in the Chilterns

“So clear you see these timeless things that, like a bird, the vision sings.”  These words from a John Arlott poem, which now adorn the late broadcaster’s gravestone on Alderney, could just as easily describe the act of watching a cricket match at Wormsley.

It seems remarkable that, just a quarter of a mile after you leave the M40 at junction 5, you’re nudging the car along one of Buckinghamshire’s sunken lanes, avoiding a quixotic pheasant as it waddles towards you.  Eventually you come to the back of the charming pink-facaded pavilion. If you’re lucky (or early) you may bag one of the handful of benches on which to sit.  From that moment, you’re part of the ritual. It doesn’t need many spectators; the day we visited, their numbers only narrowly outnumbered the players.  The home side, a Getty XI, were playing I Zingari, that famous club of itinerant cricketers whose striped caps and blazers have adorned grounds since 1845.

The Getty whom we have to thank for this occasion was John Paul Getty II, later known as Paul Getty (1932-2003), an American philanthropist who donated, among much else, £50 million to the National Gallery.  Getty fell in love with England, becoming a naturalised British citizen, and bought the 2,700 acres of the Wormsley estate in the mid-1980s when it was in a sad condition.  Thanks to the efforts of Arlott’s fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston, and others, Getty also came to love cricket.  Johnston’s distinctive beaky silhouette adorns the weather vane on the pavilion of the cricket ground which hosted its first game in 1992.  This is no amateur effort – Harry Brind, groundsman for many years at the Oval, helped to ensure that the wickets and ground are of high quality.  The England women’s team has played several Test matches here and there’s a busy schedule of matches every summer, some for charitable purposes, others offering free entry.  In the days before the international schedule crowded just about everything else out, male Test stars such as Brian Lara and Graham Gooch played. Lara is the only visiting player to have his feat of a century marked with a special plaque in the pavilion – Wormsley’s version of the honours boards at other venues.

The cricket ground is only one aspect of this amazing, vast estate.  Garsington Opera has become an annual summer fixture here too, having relocated a few years ago from its original Oxfordshire home.  The walled garden and the Library in the family home are also open to visitors on a selective basis.  But arguably Wormsley is most famous for cricket thanks to the paradox that, deep in the Chilterns Hills, it was an American who chose to recreate a timeless English idyll.