Old business, new cafe: bear with us

Hildreth’s in Prestwood isn’t quite as old as the dinosaurs, even though a model tyrannosaurus rex used to adorn the entrance to the garden centre. These days it’s reproductions of a boar, a couple of chickens and a bear whose beady eyes are on visitors to this 400-year-old business. It’s like a mini-shopping mall: an ironmongery and hardware shop (the original Mr Hildreth was an ironmonger), a garden centre and two gift shops, all on the same site.

For many years there’s also been an unassuming small cafe. As the gradual easing of Covid-related lockdown continues, this has now re-opened under new management as ‘The Limes’. (I’m not sure of the reason for the new name; lime isn’t a conspicuous element on the menu, so maybe it’s a subtle tribute to Delia Smith, whose name is an anagram of ‘It had limes’).

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In terms of decor and layout, not much has changed. Some decluttering has taken place, though this may have been driven in part, at least, by the social distancing requirements of placing tables further apart. Some of the props from the cafe’s previous incarnation are still in use, such as the cherry-picking ladders in the ceiling and the suit of armour on which an exit sign sits at a jaunty angle.

The two most obvious differences are that The Limes operates table service rather than counter service (again, no doubt this fits in with social distancing needs), and that there is a new menu. The management say they want to get away from the ‘old hat jacket spud and pre-made carrot cake to something inspiring and creative’.

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That’s maybe a little harsh on the old menu – there’s nothing wrong with a good jacket potato. But Helen enjoyed her duck and orange salad (the orange may have been mango), and my steak and ale pie was a well-made pleasure.

The Limes looks like a promising addition to the local cafe scene, a worthy competitor for The Pantry at No 51 in Prestwood’s high street. It should help the current Mr Hildreth (the 13th) and his successors to keep attracting customers for a few more generations yet.

Local returns: three small steps

Unlike the Moon landing, there was never going to be one giant leap back to normality. A series of small steps will be the way out of lockdown. Yesterday we took three, in and around our home village, supporting local businesses.

Step one: a trip to The Framing Gallery in nearby Cryers Hill, to select and order frames for five pictures. We’ve made a habit of buying locally-created pictures on our holidays over many years, usually without frames for ease of transport home. The Gallery provides an excellent service and we’re glad it’s still around.  At the moment, an appointment booking system ensures that the Gallery can limit the number of customers on the premises at any time.

Step two: return to Prestwood and pop into Hildreths. This friendly local business traces its history back over four centuries, having started as a blacksmith’s. There are four main parts to Hildreths today: a hardware store, a garden centre, a gift centre and a cafe. The first three have remained open during lockdown, relying on their staff and customers to maintain social distancing. We bought several heavily discounted cache pots, as well as one of their irresistible lardy cakes.

Step three: like many people across England, we visited one of our local pubs. The Polecat was a part of Helen’s childhood, as she and her parents would sometimes eat lunch here. Oakman Inns have redeveloped and reopened it, not long before the start of lockdown. A little tradition has gone, but there’s no doubt that a modern pub-restaurant is better placed to adjust to unexpected circumstances.

The tables, as far as we could see, were further apart than normal, but not dramatically so. Hand sanitiser was available at the entrance, and a sign advised us of the new working conditions, including an app which we could use to order our food. Visiting the toilets – and leaving at the end of the meal – involved taking a one-way system through the rest of the pub.

In other respects, everything seemed normal. Perhaps because we were there at lunchtime and it wasn’t quite so busy as the pub tends to get for dinner, we didn’t need to use the ordering app. Table service was available and prompt. Nobody was wearing masks, including the staff. Everybody behaved sensibly, observing social distancing. It helps that the Polecat has a substantial outside space at the back, enabling small children to run around to their hearts’ content. Oh, and the food was excellent!

I must admit to a little trepidation before we went out yesterday. We’ve been in shops during lockdown, but strictly for essential (food buying) purposes. And, to use that dread phrase now in vogue, there may well be a ‘new normal’ in future, that isn’t the ‘normal’ we had before the virus.

Still, we enjoyed the morning out: three small steps out of the dark…

Fragrant summer arrives at Yoesden

Among the grassy banks, close to beech hanger woodland, islands of pink and purple have appeared. They’re reminiscent of the night lights on airport runways. But unlike airports, whose purpose is to take us somewhere else (or was – it seems so long ago now), these pink and purple indicators encourage us to linger. These are the orchids of Yoesden nature reserve, near Bledlow Ridge just outside High Wycombe.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), who manage the site, note that “Yoesden has changed little over the centuries”: sheep grazing in medieval times, bodgers (local craftsmen specialising in wood) in Victorian times. BBOWT bought this site in 2014, raising enough money from a public appeal to acquire three plots of land adjacent to the initial purchase.

Yoesden’s south-westerly aspect, descending steeply from the woods, enables plenty of sun to warm the slopes. The stars of the many plants which take advantage of these conditions are the orchids which appear in June. The common-spotted, the chalk fragrant- and the pyramidal orchid are all here, basking in the afternoon sun and gentle breeze. In addition to orchids, you may also spot the Chiltern gentian, kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch.

The last-named is significant as a foodplant for caterpillars of the Adonis blue, one of the scarcest of the 28 species of butterflies which inhabit Yoesden and probably the most spectacular. We didn’t see its brilliant blue wings on this visit, nor the paler small blue and chalkhill blue, but the marbled white, the comma and the tortoiseshell all flitted around us, along with several meadow browns, their single “eyes” seeming to wink.

By autumn the orchids and butterflies will have gone. But there’s plenty more to see in autumn, or the following spring, whether on the slope or in the woodland beneath the beech, whitebeam and yew trees. It’s a tranquil place to be: a reminder, after recent months, that not all of nature is out to get us.

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A slow escape: Stonor out of lockdown

How many local businesses and visitor attractions will survive the current crisis? As the UK goes through multiple phases in relaxing its lockdown, opportunities are slowly opening up to re-visit some favourite places. One example is Stonor Park, just outside Henley-in-Thames in Oxfordshire, which has opened to the public since 1979 and has been in the same family for over 850 years.

The house is still closed, but Stonor’s gardens are now open between Wednesdays and Sundays (timed slots, pre-booking required, including parking). We dodged the showers to visit yesterday afternoon. Social distancing of the mandatory two-metre kind was easy, perhaps because some morning showers had put off a few other potential visitors.

Having bought pancakes from Jesseco’s vintage horsebox in the car park, we followed the one-way system arrows around the gardens, including their distinctive Japanese-style summer-house. They have been a labour of love for Elisabeth, Lady Camoys (the mother of the current owner), since the late 1970s.

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The herbaceous borders were in excellent condition, considering the challenges of lockdown, not to mention a very wet winter and an extremely warm and dry spring. We also walked around the Park, spotting a pair of deer and a few chickens crossing a road (yes, really – see below).

Such are the pervasive effects of lockdown that we couldn’t remember exactly when we last had a day out. It was good to be back at Stonor; we hope it, and the many other local visitor attractions, will soon be fully open and flourishing again.

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Local heroes, going global

This chilly sunny morning is reminiscent of an autumn day, not long ago, in Henley-on-Thames. Our publishers Bradt had chosen the town for their annual staff day out, and they kindly invited us to join them, as well as Gail Simmons, the author of a new Chilterns travelogue.
We were regular Bradt customers long before we pitched to write a guide to our own area, as part of the Slow Travel range. We enjoyed the process of shaping our words into a guidebook (with the occasional touch of anxiety that all authors experience!) The Bradt team has a clear vision of what it’s trying to achieve, but there is room for the author’s views too.
It’s a true collaboration. Without us, Bradt wouldn’t have had the content; without Bradt, the final result wouldn’t have been nearly as good, and we wouldn’t have had access to Bradt’s formidable distribution network and promotional muscle.
So we were concerned to learn from Bradt that the current coronavirus crisis is hitting the firm hard. There’s no giant parent corporation to dip into its pockets and bail the company out. It has to stand on its own feet – and, as for many companies in the travel industry and elsewhere, that’s extremely challenging right now.
There are plenty of excellent causes to support during these difficult times. For our part, we’re proud to support a local firm which has made good, and done good, globally (see Hilary Bradt’s comments here). Bradt enabled us to achieve our dream of publishing a guidebook to the Chilterns. We hope they will be around, to help more authors and travellers to realise their travel dreams, for many years to come.
Bradt is currently offering a minimum of 50% off all books, e-books and gift vouchers on its website. To claim your discount, enter code DREAM50 at checkout.
Pictured: Henley-on-Thames

This weekend: open spaces to enjoy

As we all try to follow the official instructions and/or guidance about social distancing, it’s great news that some of the open spaces that the National Trust and English Heritage manage will remain open for the public to enjoy.

Our favourites in the Chilterns and Thames Valley include:-

  •  Sharpenhoe Clappers – a beautiful combination of chalk escarpment and ancient woodland. An Iron Age hillfort once stood here and John Bunyan walked in these parts – the views may well have inspired some of the locations in Pilgrim’s Progress
  •  The remains of Berkhamsted Castle – an 11th century Norman motte and bailey construction, later the London residence of Henry III’s brother
  •  The garden and grounds of Hughenden Manor, home to Benjamin Disraeli – including Pleasure Gardens, from which you can glimpse Hughenden Valley, and an arboretum of about 80 specimen shrubs and trees

The National Trust in particular manages many open spaces in this region which offer the prospect of fresh air and inspiring views of this wonderful part of England.

Please do check, before you set out, whether the open space you want to explore is open this week. Some of the smaller spaces may be closed, in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

We wish you a healthy and safe weekend – and hope you’ll be able to enjoy these walks in happier circumstances very soon.

Pictured: Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire

Something old, new… or refilled

Can local people help to revive their high street while addressing the implications of the world climate emergency? A new café in the central Chilterns village of Prestwood is giving it a try.

The Pantry at No 51, which opened this week, is the idea of two local mums. The site used to be a florist’s shop and, more recently, a cafe which sadly didn’t do well enough to continue. The Pantry offers everything from bagel and savoury pastry boards to soup, sweet treats and a ‘mini-pantry’ for smaller customers. If the jam doughnut and (strong, dark) hot chocolate I tried were a true indicator, then the Pantry is going to make a lot of local people very happy. There are plenty of books and children’s drawing materials for family visitors, along with a water bowl by the entrance for thirsty dogs. One additional improvement might be to add a ramp – which wouldn’t have to be large or steep – for pushchairs and/or wheelchairs.

The Pantry, perhaps cannily given the fate of its predecessor, is not relying on café business alone. It’s also a refill shop, something new to Prestwood (or, at least, there hasn’t been anything similar in a very long time). The idea is simple: you bring your existing bottles, cartons,  jars, Tupperware boxes (anything sealable) and refill it with any of a wide range of food and household goods – see this list. A few eco-friendly products such as reusable cups are also on sale.

Local buying of locally sourced goods; reduction in the use of single use plastics; less packaging; convenience (you can bring your own reusable cups for hot drinks to take away)… Like many Prestwood residents, we wish the Pantry every success. It seems like a great idea at the right time in the right place. Time will tell…

 

 

The Hermit is back

A little piece of history has returned to the hamlet of Ford in the Vale of Aylesbury. Just before Christmas, the Dinton Hermit – a historic coaching inn and pub which closed in 2013 – re-opened for business. It’s being restored and managed by Moogies, a company which oversees three other local historic pubs: the Russell Arms, the Black Boy at Oving and the Eight Bells in Long Crendon.

The full redevelopment of the Dinton Hermit is going to take some time. Signs indicate where a larger car park, a living wall and outside eating areas are planned. There will also be 11 bedrooms offering bed and breakfast. In the meantime, though, the pub seems to be a popular venue for lunch. When we visited on New Year’s Day, visitors included two large family groups, but the friendly staff team managed to cope with them, us and everybody else.

The menu is firmly in the “hearty pub food” category with grilled options, burgers, salads, seasonal mains and pizzas available. We chose beer battered haddock and chips (see below) and game pie, followed by Black Forest gateau and apple strudel with vanilla custard. It was all well prepared and just what you’d want from a pub lunch. A sign on the door offers ideas for local walks to help work those calories off.

And why the pub name? It comes from John Bigg, a 17th-century resident of nearby Dinton who may have been the executioner of Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Bigg took to living in a local cave and relying on the charity of others for food, drink and scraps of leather. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford displays one of Bigg’s shoes – an extraordinary collation of hundreds of pieces of leather… Bigg shoes to fill, you might say.

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From here to pet-ernity

A few miles from us, in the heart of the Chilterns, are the offices of a charity which makes a vital difference to the lives of thousands of people across the UK. In its own words, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People has “train[ed] clever dogs to help deaf people” since 1982. It relies heavily on donations, sponsorship, legacies and fundraising, as well as the efforts of many volunteers – some of whom help to train the dogs and get them used to the big wide world outside.

The charity’s Chilterns Centre, also known as The Grange, runs weekly pre-bookable tours between March and November. Perhaps the most affecting part of these events isn’t, funnily enough, seeing the dogs themselves, but hearing from the people whose lives they change, and sometimes save.

The benefits of having a hearing dog are, broadly, twofold. Firstly there is the vital practical assistance they offer, alerting their deaf human partners to sounds – the phone, the doorbell, the oven timer, even the sound of a baby crying. Secondly, hearing dogs offer love, companionship and emotional support. Often, by dint of the burgundy coats they wear, they act as a signal to other humans (for example, in a busy supermarket) of their human’s invisible disability.

As well as hearing from a beneficiary of the charity’s work, tour visitors get to see round the dogs’ kennels (which are very smart), to view a demonstration of their skills and, of course, to say hello to the furry heroes themselves. On our visit we met two exuberant labradors and several cocker spaniels; the charity trains these breeds as well as miniature poodles and cockapoos. You’d have to have a heart of stone (or a dog allergy!) not to enjoy meeting them and to admire the skill and dedication of their trainers.

To boldly go in search of our only hope…

If you’re a sucker for science fiction and fantasy, especially in the movies and on TV, the ‘Robot’ exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury has been – to quote the Cybermen – an ‘excellent’ place to visit in the last couple of months. It featured all manner of models of robots, cyborgs and androids from the small and silver screens, all the way from Maria (Metropolis, 1927) to Robbie the Robot (Return to the Forbidden Planet), R2D2 and C3P0 from Star Wars and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. There were also some examples of robot toys, which surprisingly date back all the way to the 1940s. Towering over the whole thing was a full-scale model of Darth Vader, the heaviest breathing cyborg in cinema history.

The presence of the Dark Lord is a reminder that the Chilterns has hosted its fair share of science fiction and fantasy invaders over the years. The ever-expanding Star Wars universe has been filming here over the past year, at Ivinghoe Beacon, for Episode IX. The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic novel Good Omens used Hambleden as the idyllic village where a young Antichrist grows up (though the village signs don’t yet say ‘Home of the Antichrist’, strangely). Both Harry Potter and Doctor Who have filmed in Burnham Beeches. On the edge of the Chilterns, the village of Brill was JRR Tolkein’s inspiration for the Lord of the Rings village of Bree.

Several eminent SF and fantasy authors have been born in the region, or lived here for a while. Pratchett, perhaps the best-loved British fantasy author of the 20th century, was born in Beaconsfield and worked in High Wycombe as a journalist in his younger days. Susan Cooper, author of contemporary fantasy books for younger readers including The Dark is Rising, was born in Burnham. And most significantly of all, Mary Shelley spent a year in Marlow completing what would become a seminal science fiction work: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.