We’ve all had this problem… Working in the big smoke; live a long way away; how to shorten the daily grind of commuting? Get a base in town, perhaps – or just outside town.
Which brings us to Richard, earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III. Duty at the royal court in London often called, so Henry granted his brother Berkhamsted Castle in 1225. Richard got his staff to bring the accounts from his earldom to Berkhamsted, and turned the Castle into a luxurious palace complex – a definite upgrade from its Norman motte-and-bailey origins. Richard used the Castle until his death in 1272, making him a far more durable resident than Thomas Becket, who had held it for nine years until, in 1164, his quarrel with Henry II led to disgrace. Edward, the Black Prince, would enjoy the Castle, as would five subsequent queens.
The past 500 years have not been so distinguished, with the Castle slowly falling into ruin. Today you can pick your way round its remains, keeping an eye on the demob-happy schoolchildren as they cavort around the ruins. Beckett, Richard or Edward might all have appreciated the fast train which passes within a javelin’s throw of the Castle, taking today’s London workers to Euston within 40 minutes, up to four times an hour. From here it’s a short walk up Castle Street (helpful name) into Berkhamsted proper.
You might be surprised to know that a corner of the Chilterns has survived in its traditional form – more or less – due to the Corporation of London. Burnham Beeches was once common land, used for grazing a variety of animals and for obtaining firewood and turf for fuel. The area includes heathland, woodland, bog, grassland and wood pasture, the latter incorporating many beech and oak trees which have been ‘pollarded’ (cut and allowed to re-grow for firewood).
Come the late Victorian era, there was some prospect of the land being re-developed for houses. Fortunately – and partly due to the intervention of local MP Sir Henry Peek – the City of London Corporation bought Burnham Beeches in 1880. The public has been able to enjoy it ever since – with the exception of World War II, during which the land was used as a military vehicle reserve depot.
Dodge the cattle grids – and sometimes the cattle – and there is plenty to find in the Beeches. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the artistic theme which runs through the land. You can find a plaque celebrating the poet Thomas Gray and the beech tree which may have inspired the ‘nodding’ beech in Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1751). Further along your walk are ponds which have inspired artists such as Myles Birket Foster, and locations visited by Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind, a 19th century opera singer. But the stars of the Beeches are, inevitably, the eponymous trees, and the sense of tranquility they create as you pick your way through them.
A few weeks ago, we visited Runnymede and the JF Kennedy Memorial on the centenary of his birth. Just outside Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, there’s another link with the USA – in a quiet house and garden with over 300 years of history.
Jordans Quaker Meeting House was built in 1688 – shortly after James II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed Quakers and other non-conformists to worship legally for the first time. The Quakers – the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends – argued that everybody could encounter God personally and directly, without intermediaries such as priests. They gained a reputation for non-violent protest; Quakers received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for relief work in both World Wars.
The house at Jordans still hosts Quaker meetings today, and its Meeting Room is an excellent place for quiet reflection – appropriately, as Friends gather there to worship in silence. The gardens and burial grounds surrounding the house accommodate many headstones, including two for William Penn (1644-1718) and his second wife Hannah (1671-1726). William founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which later became the US state of Pennsylvania. Also buried here is Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713), who helped his friend John Milton to find a cottage in nearby Chalfont St Giles when plague beset London. A new burial ground incorporates headstones for members of three local Quaker groups: Chilterns, London West and North West London. Arranged in circles, interspersed with apple trees, the headstones radiate simple serenity.
Eunice, the charming and diminutive lady who greeted us when we arrived, told us there is still a Sunday school held at the house, at which small children better known for being noisy begin to learn from the adults’ example. In their own charming and old-fashioned way, the house and gardens act as a pause button for our ever-faster moving modern world. A pause for quiet reflection can help anyone – whatever their religious beliefs, or even if they have none.
One of the themes which runs through the Chilterns and Thames Valley is that of power and dissent. You can find Chequers, Dorneywood and Windsor Castle on one hand; the Amersham Martyrs, the Jordans Quakers and John Hampden on the other. The region was also home for a time to one of Britain’s greatest 20th century writers. The young George Orwell (or Eric Blair, to give him his real name) grew up in Henley-on-Thames and nearby Shiplake, and studied at Eton.
Today saw a special event centred on Orwell’s most famous work. Senate House in London hosted a special reading/performance of 1984 – appropriately, as Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, experiences which informed Orwell’s depiction of the Ministry of Truth in the book. (Senate House also inspired The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, who lived in Berkhamsted.)
Today’s performance – on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a significant day for freedom if ever there was one, and in the week of a General Election – was part of the UCL Festival of Culture. A company of players recreated the scenes from the book as various actors, politicians and others read from it. The performance started at 9am and concluded at 10pm; the extracts I saw involved readings by Alan Johnson, perhaps Labour’s best leader who never was of recent years, and actors Harriet Walter and Guy Paul. The production excelled in bringing out the power of Orwell’s words:
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
“Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”
“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”
In the light not only of today’s anniversary and this week’s election, but recent events, Orwell’s words could scarcely be more relevant.
Sitting quietly in the Chilterns, on a hill behind the village of West Wycombe, is one of the most famous examples of clubland in the world. Its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, had form in this area: his other creations included the Dilettanti Club (to encourage interest in classical art) and the Divan Club, for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Paul Whitehead, steward to the Hell-Fire Club, may have met Sir Francis at the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks – now there’s a club that deserves eternal fame if only for its name…
But it’s Hell-Fire rather than Beefsteak that has earned a place in history – infamy, even. No doubt a large part of this is down to a later Sir Francis Dashwood deciding in the early 1950s to make the Hell-Fire Caves into a tourist attraction. The Club – or the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe as it was originally known – met in other locations, too, notably at Medmenham Abbey but also in members’ houses such as Sir Walter Stanhope’s at Eythrope and possibly even at Cliveden. As the official guide book states, “Numerous second-hand accounts appeared towards the latter part of the eighteenth century giving varying descriptions of the goings on, some of which seem to be completely fictitious and are not corroborated by any other sources.”
The likelihood is that the Club’s activities were not as racy as the publicity would have had contemporaries or later generations believe. There were plenty of toasts when club members gathered for “private devotions” – although the drinking probably wasn’t excessive – and the guide book notes that “These meetings provided an ideal opportunity for discreet rendezvous with ladies who did not wish to be identified.”
Over its most active years between the 1950s and the mid-1770s, the Hell-Fire Club had twelve members. They included a First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Sandwich), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and even John Wilkes, a journalist who found fame as an MP – now there’s a career path you don’t come across these days…
While Runnymede remains most famous for its location for the agreement of the original Magna Carta, just over 800 years ago, there is also a significant associated modern anniversary. If he had lived, John F Kennedy would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.
In nearby woods, at the top of a hewn stone staircase, sits a memorial to JFK, within an area of land which the UK Government gifted to the US from the Crown Estate, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The memorial quotes his promise to “pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In our age, when Kennedy’s latest successor preaches “America first” and a would-be UK Prime Minister directly blames British actions abroad for the rise of terrorism, these words from 1961 may seem as if they might as well come from 961, or another planet. But they still resound down the years, along with JFK’s other exhortations, which included this:
“My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
There’s something reassuring about Bekonscot, which sits unobtrusive off the main street of Beaconsfield’s new town area. In an age of VR headsets and Skype, Bekonscot’s attractions are solidly old-fashioned.
And yet when it was new, it was so new that it was the first of its kind: the first model village in the world, opening in 1929. Over fifteen million visitors have passed through its gates since then – including the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. It is a not-for-profit attraction, raising money for various charities.
It would probably be better described as a model community, as there is more than one village. There is Bekonscot Town, the punningly named mining village of Evenlode and Hanton with its aerodrome. Some of the shops and buildings are based on real-life examples (the world’s smallest Marks and Spencer was added in 1990), while others such as Leekey the plumbers and Argue & Twist the solicitors push the pun envelope. There’s also a model of Green Hedges, the house where local author Enid Blyton lived… complete with Noddy in his car on the driveway. Beaconsfield has not always been quick to recognise the international fame and influence of Enid Blyton – but that’s a story for another time.
The main attractions – at least for the hordes of small children rushing round Bekonscot all day long – are obvious: the small model trains which snake through the scenes of shops and churches and cricket pitches and windmills, and the chance to ride on a miniature railway adjacent to the village. These simple pleasures, it seems, never fade.
Now here’s a practice none of the parties in this year’s General Election campaign are promising to introduce…
Every third Saturday in May, the Mayor of High Wycombe and its Charter Trustees – councillors for the town wards of Wycombe – subject themselves to a public weighing. The town crier presides as officials compare the Mayor’s and councillors’ weights with the equivalent figures from a year ago. If they have not gained weight, the cry is “No More!”; if they have put on weight, “And some More!” The theory is that gaining weight has occurred as a result of the fruits of office…
This year the Mayor and most councillors managed to achieve a cry of “No More!” But a few did not, provoking good-natured ritual booing. One unfortunate even received the damning verdict: “And a LOT, LOT more!”
It could be worse. In years gone by, the story has it, the crowds would throw tomatoes and rotten fruit at those who had put on weight…
The beech woods may have been carpeted with bluebells, but we were in search of more elusive blooms.
As our group assembled in Hughenden Church car park, local nature expert Tony Marshall explained that we would be seeing Coralroot (cardamine bulbifera), a plant which in the UK is found only in the Chilterns and parts of the Weald. But that would come later.
We started with a close inspection of the area around the church walls – always an interesting place for plants. In the churchyard we came across Cuckoo Flower (cardamine pratensis), a relative of the Coralroot, as well as various other flora, some native, others escaped from gardens (sometimes it can be hard to tell.) Once we had exhausted the potential of the churchyard, we set off towards Flagmore Wood (pictured), resisting the temptation to stop off at Church House for a cream tea on the way.
The walk was organised by local group Prestwood Nature, a conservation group established in 2002, covering the area around Prestwood, including Great Missenden, the Hampdens, the Kingshills, North Dean and Speen. The group undertakes a number of local projects, including a wildflower meadow in Great Missenden and a community orchard in Prestwood, preserving traditional varieties of fruit tree.
It is fascinating how many different plants you can find when you really look and have the guidance of an expert who knows the subtle differences between species. In two hours we spotted no less than forty-four different species, not including bluebells, which were not at all hard to find. Coralroot sadly proved more elusive as we were a week too late to see them at their best, but we found a few in the end.
In the middle of the Metropolitan Green Belt sits the small village of Chenies. Seriously small: there are well under 200 inhabitants. Chenies Manor goes back, in one form or another, at least 800 years, having been in the possession of the Cheyne family. However, the brick manor house which is the central part of what survives today was built in the mid-15th century, and John Russell modernised it in the 1530s.
Russell, a successful operator in Henry VIII’s court, received an earldom and Chenies became the main home of the Earls of Bedford, receiving many eminent visitors including Elizabeth I on several occasions. After the Restoration, Chenies ceased to be the Russells’ principal seat – they used Woburn instead – and, over the following generations, suffered a degree of neglect. The Macleod Matthews, the current owners since the 1950s, is the first family to live in the house as a whole for over 300 years. They have embarked on an extensive restoration programme which continues.
These days Chenies opens to the public on selected afternoons between April and October, with timed tours of the house and plenty of opportunity to enjoy the splendid gardens. The tulips were a highlight of our visit today. There’s also a tearoom across which you navigate with your trolley of tea and raspberry shortcake, trying not to fall over the large, friendly dog which shambles here and there. It’s a splendid day out at a quirky house – look out for the ornamental cut-brick chimneys which look as if they’ve escaped from a Dali painting.
It’s no big deal eating in someone’s living room. True, it’s a little more unusual when the low beams hint at over 400 years of history. And then there’s the art works… and the local produce… Clearly the Drawingroom, just off Chesham’s high street, is more than just any old drawing room.
It used to be an office, a photographic studio and a barber’s shop. Not all at the same time, you’d assume. But the current owner Richard seems keen to find as many uses for the space as possible.
When you’re not sitting in the living room enjoying toasties, jacket potatoes or even “wapas” (The Drawingroom’s term for world tapas… yes, I know), along with properly brewed tea, you can goggle at the artwork and the décor. The first floor features a bedroom/sitting room with billowing, Bedouin tent furnishings. The landing is “painted in theatrical red with various guitars hanging on the walls: “The Musicians’ Gallery,” Richard calls it. Musicians – specifically emerging acts – feature in gigs here on the first, second and third weeks of each month. If you miss it, they’re filmed and the TV in the living room will play what you missed.
If music isn’t your bag, try backgammon here on the first or third Wednesday of each month. Or you can hire the venue for your own occasion, as many have done for christenings, wakes or wedding anniversaries.
“Whether you are here for the Art, music, home cooking or peace and tranquillity, I do hope you enjoy it and return often,” say the notes on the menu sheet. I’m not sure about the tranquillity – especially when the gigs are on – but it’s certainly a venue with a difference.