Raising the Devil

A sunny Sunday morning in June is the perfect time for a walk in the  countryside.  Conjuring up the devil is a less common pastime, I hope, but I had the opportunity to combine both. Our walk from Oving to North Marston started in the usual way, strolling across fields with views over the countryside, whilst avoiding cow pats and  murmuring ‘mint sauce’ to the sheep as we passed.

On arrival in North Marston, however, we came across the village pump and Schorne Well.  John Schorne was rector of North Marston from 1282 to 1314. After his death, the church became a popular pilgrimage site because of his holiness and the miracles supposed to have been worked by the power of the water in his Holy Well, which was supposed to cure gout.  In the church itself is a ‘boot shrine’ where afflicted pilgrims could insert their feet in hope of a cure. The popularity of the shrine brought huge prosperity to the church, as the impressive building will testify. In 1478, Edward IV had Schorne’s relics transferred to the newly-build St George’s Chapel at Windsor in the hope of attracting the pilgrim trade, but visitors still continued to visit the Holy Well; Henry VIII (commonly believed to have been a gout sufferer) went twice.

Over time, images of the cure for gout, which was represented by the devil being drawn out of a boot, became misunderstood as Schorne conjuring the devil in a boot, giving rise to the local jingle ‘John Schorne, gentleman borne, conjured the devil into a boot.’

Sadly, the well was sealed off in 1861 after a tragic accident and by 1900 the building that  housed it had fallen down, with only the pump remaining. This sorry state of affairs continued for the next century, but in 2005, a new well-house was built, with an amusing reference to the legend. If you pump hard enough, you can see the devil’s head pop up in the boot beside the water trough.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Going slow in Aylesbury

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cows have come home…?

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.

The show must go on? The Silver Caesars mystery

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.

Hello from them: the men who fell to Aylesbury

Every town has its statues, and Aylesbury probably needs them more than most.  Since Henry VIII made it the county town of Buckinghamshire, its fortunes have been mixed. It suffered from an outbreak of plague in 1603-4 and from urban development in the 20th century.  The tower block that is County Hall dominates the skyline, like Sauron’s not so evil but decidedly grumpy younger brother.  Even the Aylesbury duck seems to have permanently flown south.  So the statues of John Hampden, a Parliamentary hero from these parts who helped to win the Civil War, and Disraeli, one of the most famous Prime Ministers in history, help to remind the town that it has also been in the presence of greatness at various times.  Without such reminders, visiting Aylesbury might be a God-awful sad affair.

On the other hand, many bright lights from the world of showbusiness have lived or worked here, including actress Lynda Bellingham and dancer Brendan Cole.  Marillion formed in Aylesbury, naming their first single Market Square Heroes in tribute, and the makers of A Clockwork Orange filmed some scenes (cut from the final film) in Aylesbury.

More recently, a statue and a sculpture within a short walk of each other have marked the town’s significance in the early careers of two giants of the industry.  Under the massive shadow of the Waterside Theatre sits a statue of the actor and comedian Ronnie Barker, who started out with Aylesbury Repertory Theatre, years before he found fame on radio and TV.  The statue of Barker is in character as Fletcher from sitcom Porridge, perhaps his most successful role outside The Two Ronnies.

If you cross the road from Ronnie and walk up towards Market Square, an extraordinary creation sits underneath an archway. Earthly Messenger, a bronze sculpture, depicts the many professional faces of David Bowie, who launched the albums Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in Aylesbury in 1971-2.  Bowie formed The Spiders in the Friars Aylesbury music club, which is still running today.  The first track on the Ziggy album Five Years refers to Market Square: “Pushing through the Market Square – so many mothers sighing.”  After Bowie’s death in 2016, the local councils approved the idea of a memorial in Market Square, provided that the funds were raised privately.  One crowdfunding project and over £100,000 later and Andrew Sinclair – a sculptor from Wendover who had, ironically, just moved to Devon – could start work.  The result, which features a leaping Ziggy and references to Ashes to Ashes, Labyrinth, Life on Mars, Blackstar and other Bowie projects, was unveiled in early 2018.  Speakers above the sculpture are intended to play a different Bowie song each hour.  Sinclair commented: “It’s a huge talking point in Aylesbury. We believe it will really help put the town on the map.”

For someone, this conspicuous creation struck an inappropriate note: the sculpture was vandalised within a week, with “Feed the homeless first” among the graffiti defacing the work.  (Taxpayers’ money had to be used to clean things up; presumably the vandal had not thought of that.)  But the majority sentiment seems to be in favour; there was even a petition to change the town’s name to Aylesbowie.  That may not happen, but we hope Earthly Messenger will encourage more visitors to Aylesbury… even if it’s just for one day.

From monks to Moneypenny: 007’s car and an Oxfordshire barn

“Were you born in a barn?” was a question irritated adults used to ask during our childhood, if we left a door open and the cold came inside.  The question probably didn’t have a specific barn in mind: certainly not the barn you find 200 yards down a turning, near the war memorial, in the small Oxfordshire village of Drayton St Leonard.  This barn – as we discovered on a snowy March afternoon – is the custodian of one of the greatest motoring marques of them all.

The barn itself has been there for half a millennium; the monks of Dorchester Abbey built it.  Since its restoration, almost twenty years ago, it has housed the Aston Martin Owners Club and an associated museum of cars, trophies and artefacts.  Aston Martin was the inspiration, just over a century ago, of Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, who decided to make their own cars and won a hill climb race near Aston Clinton, just over the border in Buckinghamshire, hence Aston Martin.  Who knows whether a firm called Bamford Martin would have become so famous?  Over the years, the company has moved around – and went bankrupt seven times.  Its greatest breakthrough arguably came in the 1950s when the DB range began to race at Le Mans and, unforgettably, when James Bond drove a DB5 onto cinema screens in Goldfinger in 1964.  (There’s a parallel here with the exploits of the Mini at Monte Carlo and on screen in The Italian Job.)

Now, with the Aston Martin brand firmly associated with luxury cars, you can get up close to some of its history here.  There’s the A3, the oldest Aston Martin in existence, dating back to 1921 and as charming a piece of heritage as you could find. Or you can sit in a Vanquish Volante, a recent joint venture with Red Bull.  Just to give a bit of Top Gear madness to the idea, there’s a video of Daniel Riccardo racing his fellow F1 drivers around the track in Austria… while towing a caravan.  Collectors of toy cars will find countless examples of model Aston Martins, and there are various racing overalls, trophies and other items – careful you don’t trip over the engine sitting, top-heavy, at one end of the museum.

There is an explanation of how Sean Connery ended up driving a DB5, complete with ejector seat, machine guns and revolving number plates, but you won’t find the car itself – not a full-scale version, anyway – or 007.  As Bond tends to cause havoc wherever he goes, perhaps it’s just as well for the barn and everything inside that he isn’t here. We like to imagine that, before things got nasty, he might have taken Goldfinger for a spin in his pride and joy.

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to drive…”

The gin in Tring is better out than in…

One of the many pleasures of our research has been finding local producers who are bringing new food and drink tastes to the region.  Ben and Kate Marston are great examples.  A marketing expert and a graphic designer by trade, the couple have combined their love of food and drink, travel, adventure and the great outdoors to set up the first gin distillery in the Chilterns – and the evocatively named Campfire Gin brand.

“Campfire Gin is produced in small batches,” Ben and Kate explain. “Ten carefully selected botanicals, including sweet, fresh orange, rooibos, hazelnut and piney juniper are distilled with the finest UK wheat spirit. The result is a gin that leads with a citrus nose and juniper palate, has a rich middle and sweet end that builds, sip after sip after sip.”

The distillery, named after a rare local rock formation, houses a 50 litre still called Isabella and a 200 litre still called Amelia, named in turn after two great female adventurers, Isabella Lucy Bird and Amelia Earhart.  Based on the P E Mead & Sons Farm Shop site adjacent to Wilstone Reservoir near Tring, Puddingstone offers tours on Thursday nights – which invariably sell out fast – as well as selling in local bars and restaurants and online).  The team has won numerous awards, including Navy Gin of the Year for Campfire Navy Strength – one of three core gins along with London Dry and Cask Aged.  There’s even a summer special produced in collaboration with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.  We tried Campfire inside rather than outside, but it’s an excellent way to make up for a trying day – or to add something special to that evening under the stars.