A town fit for heroes

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.

We’ll meet again… and again

The trouble with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as it used to be. As Britain continues its seemingly never-ending agonising re-appraisal of its place in the world, somehow the opening of a café with a World War II theme is not a surprise. The Air Raid Shelter Café and Tea Room has been in the Chilterns Shopping Centre in the middle of High Wycombe since late 2018.

This is not, of course, a unique idea; we’ve come across similar cafes in Hitchin and Stratford-upon-Avon, to name just two examples. And it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the use, even by implication, of tired and rather misleading myths about how the nation came together in the war, the spirit of the Blitz etc. Even that hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers (“Will you stop talking about the war?”) is over 40 years old. Remember, by all means; but try to move on, too.

Still, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, maybe we should just file it under ‘kitsch’. The new café has gone to some lengths to follow its theme. You can have two varieties of all-day breakfast, “Tommy’s” or “Landgirls” – the male version is larger. Or, if you’re there later in the day, some cheese and Marmite bread or a piece of lardy cake will help to take you back to those good old days (that weren’t). Our mismatched crockery included a splendid square-ish teapot depicting the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost of his dead father (Hamlet also finds it hard to move on, despite being Danish rather than British). The walls are covered with old photos of Wycombe and its people, copies of ration books and other artefacts. There are three themed areas: a faux living room with piano and a sofa, on top of which sits a stuffed cat with a piercing stare; a small railway carriage; and even (as per the cafe’s name) an air raid shelter, complete with tins of condensed milk, drinking chocolate, beef and onion broth and other stuff to see us through our darkest hour.

It’s all good fun, the food and drink is good and the service is friendly and unfussy. All in all (as Hamlet would say), despite any reservations about the theme, the Air Raid Shelter Café is a welcome addition to Wycombe, and we expect to be back soon.

The Greenway to a slow day out

While they are wonderful places for a day out, historic houses aren’t always as accessible as everyone might ideally like. This can be an issue before you even set out; not many such houses can be reached by bus, or are close to railway stations (though Arundel Castle in Sussex is a notable exception in the latter case). Last autumn, Waddesdon Manor in north Buckinghamshire came up with a possible solution, for those who want to visit without undue stress or using a car. We’ve been along to try it out.

The nearest railway station, Aylesbury Vale Parkway, is less than three miles from Waddesdon Manor, and the village of Waddesdon itself. But it would take a brave cyclist to use the busy A41 which links the station with the village and the Manor. The solution? The new Waddesdon Greenway, which offers a flat-surfaced walking and cycling route, links station with Waddesdon, passing through land which, at various points, is owned by Network Rail, Thames Water, New College Oxford and the Waddesdon estate. To add some historical interest, part of the Greenway corresponds to Akeman Street, an old Roman road.

Today may not have been the ideal day for a two-way Greenway walk. It was very blustery (while the surrounding land is pretty, there is little or nothing in terms of windbreaks) and the threat of a sudden downpour remained for most of the day. But the walk was still very pleasant, with the occasional encounter with other cyclists, or walkers with their dogs. As a bonus, we happened upon the Manor’s monthly food market, at which local producers such as Just Biscuits tempt visitors with their wares. Walking or cycling to a local visitor attraction, and buying local food and drink; that might be the perfect Slow day out.

And the reason for our two-way walk? We were trying out the Manor’s Pudding Club, an indulgent event in one of its several restaurants at which diners try a sequence of desserts, from rhubarb and custard sorbet to deconstructed cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding. Believe me, we needed the walk…

A rite of spring

One of the most distinctive sights of High Wycombe lies just outside the town. As you turn right at the roundabout, passing the Eden Centre, Marks and Spencer and a new Aldi, and drive west along the A40, a golden ball appears on the hills ahead.

This marks the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Church of St Lawrence, part of the legacy of Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), a successful politician with a taste for Classical history and architecture. The design of the mausoleum and church are said to have been inspired by buildings in Rome and Venice, and they’re well worth a look.

But that’s for another day. On a gloriously sunny and still Sunday morning in February, once you’ve passed through the charming 16th-century village of West Wycombe and parked at the end of the high street (taking care on a very uneven surface), it’s time to walk through the gates of West Wycombe Park. The grounds are usually closed until April, and the house till June. Today’s an exception, as Snowdrop Sunday, with proceeds in aid of the South Bucks Hospice at nearby Butterfly House.

Snowdrops are everywhere, of course; a welcome promise that the worst of winter is over (we hope) and spring is round the corner. But there are few better places to enjoy them than the grounds of West Wycombe Park, as you admire the main house (pictured below), a mother hen to a brood of eccentric, ornamental constructions such as the Music Temple, sitting splendidly on the middle of a small island as coots and swan squabble in the lake. Each time you turn a corner, you find a better view than the one you just photographed – and with all the buildings in that distinctively Dashwood yellow.

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Feel the festival

In recent years, in addition to events in specific locations across the region, a number of Chilterns-wide festivals have sprung up. This is excellent news for two main reasons: (1) more local events from which to choose; (2) in the long run, we hope, a higher profile for the Chilterns as a whole.

The star at the moment is the Chilterns Arts Festival – a week-long programme of musical events in some splendid venues including All Saints Church in Marlow (pictured above). The climax is a special performance of Così fan tutte at Pipers Corner School this Saturday, 16 February.

The year is still young, so there are plenty more Chilterns-wide festivals to come:-

See you there…?

Abbey days are here again: a triptych

Embroidery has never loomed too large in our household, or too high on our list of cultural attractions or artistic skills. True, Helen’s father used to create the odd piece. And her mother once answered “Embroidery” to the Trivial Pursuits question “What was the name of the first craft to go up in space?”

But we haven’t thought too much about it over the years. Nonetheless, when we stayed at Missenden Abbey the other day, we found a splendid example of the art, lurking behind a mobile coat-rail in reception.

“The story of Misseden Abbey” [sic] was created in 1990 by Alison M Binns, after a weekend at the Abbey on an HNC in embroidery design. Using traditional techniques including stumpwork figures for the people – a method which was, apparently, popular in the late medieval and early modern periods – it divides the story of the Abbey into three sections:-

  • The blue panel marks the Abbey’s creation in 1133 by Augustinian monks who had fled from France, and the origins of that order
  • The green panel depicts the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, its purchase by various private owners and its occupation by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War;
  • And the red panel shows the recent history of the Abbey; its purchase by the county council for use as an adult education centre and, sadly, the destruction of the interior by a fire in 1985 (hence the use of red).

Happily, the Abbey continues to this day as a conference centre which also runs a range of short courses on creative subjects. It sits unassumingly at the opposite end of Great Missenden’s high street from the railway station; you could easily miss it. But it’s in fine fettle for a nearly 900 year old establishment, and we’d be surprised if it doesn’t make it to a full millennium.

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Chilterns 3Cs: chalk, cherries and chairs

It’s easy to forget, as we hurry about our daily lives, the quietly heroic efforts of various people and organisations striving to preserve the best of where we live, and to find out more about it. The Chilterns Conservation Board is a key local player in these parts. So it’s encouraging to learn that the Heritage Lottery Board has awarded £2 million for a five-year conservation project. The three Cs – chalk, cherries and chairs – refer to some of the best-known natural and historical features of the region.

The press release gives fuller details of exactly what will be part of the project. Our first home in Prestwood was on the site of one of the cherry orchards which used to be a major local employer. Sadly, the orchards are almost completely gone, not only from Prestwood but from the Chilterns as a whole. So it’s exciting to read that restoring the orchards to some extent, and resurrecting the annual Cherry Pie Festival, is part of the project plans.

One of Helen’s ancestors was a bodger, otherwise known as a wood turner. Furniture making used to be synonymous with High Wycombe in particular (the football team’s nickname is still “the Chairboys”), and the bodgers were a key link in the production process. As with the cherry orchards, this part of local history is well overdue for revival and re-examination.

And the chalk? Well, the Chilterns Conservation Board is already working on our large collection of Iron Age hillforts.  Whichever one you visit – whether Sharpenhoe Clappers, for example, in the northern Chilterns – there’s nothing like an old hillfort for a bit of atmosphere and mystery. This new project promises to step up work on the hillforts, and we may even learn more about Grim’s Ditch – though, if investigations come up with anything better than that wonderful name, we’ll be surprised.

Rare birds and butterflies should benefit, too, with this project providing additional resources to try to ensure that rareness doesn’t turn into extinction. All in all, we think the HLF’s £2 million for this new project is going to be money well spent.