As it continues to adapt to the demands of the 21st century, Aylesbury and its immediate surrounds are unveiling new attractions and developments at what once might have seemed a bewildering rate. In the past few years we’ve seen the opening of the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, impressive inside and out, as well as new artwork honouring two showbiz stars with connections to the town, Ronnie Barker and David Bowie. Today, we took a look at two new visitor attractions, one in the town centre and one in nearby Stoke Mandeville.
The first stop was at The Exchange, an area just around the corner from central Market Square which used to be a car park. The new development will include residential flats and retail spaces, and work is not complete, as the sound of drilling makes clear. But the first new café/restaurant, the Rococo Lounge, is now open. This is the latest in a chain which includes a branch in nearby Amersham. The vibe is relaxed and noisy, with plenty of families bringing small children in for mid-morning snacks or an early brunch or lunch. The menus, with plenty of gluten free and vegan options, are as eclectic as the interior design, which combines three types of lampshade with framed prints on every spare inch of the walls and ironic 1950s-style graphics on the menus. To add stardust, there’s a large painting of David Bowie on the wall behind the counter. It’s all good fun, and we enjoyed the chorizo and halloumi hash and a mini-tray of three tapas choices.
The area immediately outside Rococo features three sculptures, also new this year, all of human figures: one standing (“I am free”); one in a horizontal pose (“I am strong”); and one crouching (“I am me”). The collective title is “I am”, and the works are a tribute to the Paralympic movement.
You can now find out more about how the Paralympics began by visiting a small new museum at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disabled sport, which sits incongruous at one end of a modern residential estate a couple of miles out of Aylesbury town centre. The story of the Paralympics begins with a German doctor, Ludwig Guttman. As the display – the work of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust – explains, Guttman came with his family to England to escape the growing effects of Nazi rule; as a Jewish doctor, he was allowed only to treat Jewish patients, a ruling he actively defied. The British Government asked Guttman to run a new unit for spinal injuries at the Emergency Medical Services Hospital in Stoke Mandeville – anticipating an influx of paralysed servicemen as World War II ground on. The new spinal unit opened in 1944.
For the full story of how Guttman harnessed the power of sport as a powerful therapy for disability, and how that led to the ‘Wheelchair Games’ of 1948 and eventually to the birth of the Paralympic movement, we thoroughly recommend visiting this new exhibition, conveniently located near the stadium entrance, next to a cafe. You can’t miss it; large replicas of Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the London 2012 Paralympics, stand nearby. The objects on display include a couple of the wheelchairs used in competition and a goalball (used for practice), all of which you can touch, and the 2012 torch, which you can hold. The most extravagant item is Sir Ian McKellen’s gown from the 2012 opening ceremony, a purple creation imagining Prospero from The Tempest as one of London’s Pearly Kings.
It won’t take you long to get around the displays, but it’s well worth it. This is a well-presented tribute to the qualities of tolerance, imagination, willpower and persistence which drove Guttman, his patients and the many Paralympic heroes who have come since.