Dominated by the grey concrete monolith of County Hall, Aylesbury town centre is not immediately appealing. But there is another side of Aylesbury to explore. Just a few streets away from the bustle of Friar’s Square and the modern shopping complexes, the Church of St Mary the Virgin is surrounded by cobbled streets and picturesque old cottages, a former workhouse and almshouses.
Inside the church, late on a Sunday morning after the worshippers have left, the scent of incense lingers. Beneath the great west window, bright with Victorian stained glass bible scenes, is a twelfth-century font. In the north transept is an alabaster monument to Lady Lee (d.1584) wife of Sir Henry Lee of Quarrendon and her three children. Just around the corner lies an unidentified fourteenth century tomb effigy. Close to the church is Prebendal House, once the home of John Wilkes, the radical eighteenth-century MP for Aylesbury. Back in Friar’s Square, an unassuming archway leads to the King’s Head pub, a historic coaching inn established in 1455 and now owned by the National Trust and run by Chiltern Brewery. On Sundays you can enjoy a traditional roast in the oak-panelled dining room.
A short walk through Friar’s Square past Old County Hall and the Judge’s Lodgings brings you to Exchange Street and the Waterside Theatre. From the canal basin at the rear of the theatre the Little Trip Boat offers a relaxing post-prandial cruise along the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union Canal.
Travel doesn’t come much slower than that.
When you’re wandering round an Oxfordshire town centre in 2018, there are certain things you don’t expect. Such as random sightings of replica cows. Milton Keynes, maybe; it has a reputation for concrete bovines. But we saw a few as we pottered around Thame today.
Perhaps it’s no more than a useful reminder that Thame has been a market town for almost a millennium, and that the upper end of its high street was once occupied by a livestock market, with cattle and pigs penned into an area now marked by cobbles. That would certainly help to explain the wide High Street and market place, with narrow entrances at both ends. There still is a cattle market each Wednesday and Friday, along with a general market each Tuesday and a farmers’ market on the second Tuesday of each month.
Conservation efforts over many years have ensured that many other traces of the town’s history remain for visitors to find. There’s the 15th century Nag’s Head, which used to be called the King’s Head… till a supporter of Charles I was hanged from the sign by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War. Further along the High Street, by the corner with Church Road, the timber frame alms houses, founded in 1447 by Richard Quartermain, are almost trumped by the elaborate 19th century bandstand in the grounds. Or there’s the Swan Hotel, whose Georgian facade belies the timber frame jettied construction inside, or the James Figg pub on Cornmarket, named after the world’s first boxing champion, who grew up in the town; or the plaque on Hampden House commemorating the heroism of John Hampden in the Civil War – he went to school in Thame, and died in Hampden House after sustaining injuries in battle in 1643. And there are buildings with links to Evelyn Waugh and WB Yeats.
All in all, Thame is an excellent place to wander around for a day. A host of cafes can refresh you, and we thoroughly recommend The Thatch for lunch. Maybe best to avoid the slow-braised beef brisket, though… just in case you catch a cow’s eye on your way back up the high street.
There’s always plenty to see at Waddesdon Manor, perhaps the most famous Rothschild house in Britain. At the moment, in addition to the many and various splendours on show all year round, there’s a special exhibition about the Aldobrandini Tazze, a collection of twelve standing cups which depict the lives of various Caesars of ancient Rome.
Each standing cup or tazza comprises a statuette of a Caesar, with four episodes from his life, based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (born c.70AD). The narratives are almost wholly positive, in praise of the Caesars – though the Nero tazza shows him singing despite an earthquake and a fire, a version of the old saw about “fiddling while Rome burnt”. Perhaps the creators thought this scene depicted a virtuous devotion to the arts – or maybe it was an early example of “The show must go on”…
More conventionally, the four scenes on the tazza for Vespasian (pictured above) show him putting an end to the rebellion in Judaea in AD 67-68; receiving a stray dog (who has brought him a human hand – how thoughtful) and an ox who bows to him while he is breakfasting; miraculously curing a blind man and a lame man; and returning to Rome in triumphal procession in AD 71 after military victory over the Jews.
At least five of the tazze entered various Rothschild collections, although their collective presence in this exhibition is the first example of all twelve being together on public display for over 150 years. But the real mystery is this: who made them, when, where, for whom and for what purpose? The Waddesdon exhibition suggests a hypothesis relating to a late 16th century Roman cardinal, Pietro Aldobrandini, and the Habsburg prince Archduke Albert VII of Austria. You’ll have to visit the exhibition, which is on until 22 July, to find out more. Whatever the answer to the mystery, the Silver Caesars together are a magnificent example of Renaissance art.