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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.

Blood, bone and a snappy opening

If you’re one of those people who laments the lack of variety in British high streets these days, a display in the newly re-opened North Hertfordshire Museum may interest you. It’s a reconstruction of part of Parks and Llewelyn, a pharmacy which stood on Hitchin’s high street for over 170 years till its closure in 1961.

The most diverting item isn’t the various bottles with their mysterious potions and remedies, but what hangs above them; the jawbone of an alligator. This is a reference to the stuffed crocodiles which used to adorn the entrances to apothecaries’ shops in medieval times.

We said hello to the jawbone as part of a visit to the Museum on the occasion of its re-opening, on Saturday 6 July. It’s been partially open for a while, but a dispute over land ownership meant that, for some years, only pre-booked tours were available and visitors had to go in via the Town hall entrance next door.

Happily, that problem was consigned to the past by the opening ceremony. It featured children from Samuel Lucas JMI School reciting what their teacher called a rap – there was no music, so it was in reality a poem – about the eponymous Lucas, a 19th-century brewer and artist who lived and died in Hitchin. After the ceremonial cutting of a red ribbon, the children, their teachers, parents and other visitors streamed inside to explore the new facilities.

The ‘Discovering North Hertfordshire’ gallery on the ground floor covers local history from 90 million years ago to the present day. Sadly, the fibre glass reconstruction of the head of a parasaurolophus – a duck-billed dinosaur – is no longer on display, but there is still plenty to inform, entertain and surprise.

The other main element of the ground floor is a temporary exhibition space, currently used for ‘Blood and Bone’, an interactive installation of inflatable sculptures inspired by cells and organisms from inside the human body. Plenty of children enjoyed themselves, crawling in and out of the installations, as the adults refreshed themselves with drinks from the new onsite café.

The other principal new features are on the second floor (the first floor is reserved for staff office space). ‘Living in North Hertfordshire’ explores how people have lived, worked and died in the region, and features local characters and industries, as well as examples of what people used to wear and the toys with which children used to play. Look out for an exquisite Spitalfields silk dress and quilted petticoat from the early 18th century, and a slightly spooky Japanese doll. The adjacent Terrace Gallery gives you the chance to dress as a suffragette (and commendably explains the difference between suffragists and suffragettes) and showcases various other items, including a selection of ephemera from a football-related collection. The Arches Gallery, part of the Terrace Gallery, is currently showing a collection of work by Vanessa Stone, a local artist.

The Terrace itself is not yet in use, but no doubt this will change in due course. In the meantime it’s good to see the Museum fully open, and it looks set to become a very popular local attraction for years to come.

Boarstall Tower: a frank and Ernest history

You don’t tend to come across the phrase ‘licence to crenellate’ too much these days. I found it in the Buckinghamshire volume of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England (1960). Pevsner uses the phrase in his description of Boarstall Tower – now a property affiliated to the National Trust, but once the gatehouse for a manor built on land which Edward the Confessor had given one of his men in return for slaying a troublesome local wild boar.

The gatehouse and the licence to crenellate – which came from the King, in this case Edward II – dates from 1312. According to Samuel Lysons in Magna Britannia (1806), John Hampden’s forces used the manor as a base from which to attack Royalist Oxford, and it changed hands more than once before the end of the Civil War. The manor was demolished in 1778, but the gatehouse survived (having had some changes made in the 17th century). Almost two centuries later, the National Trust received the Tower and its gardens from Ernest Cook, a philanthropist who, along with his brother Frank, was a grandson of the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook.

Today, the Tower is free to Trust members, and currently open on the last Sunday of each month between May and September for tours. You can’t go on the roof for health and safety reasons, but you can view the old banqueting and entertaining hall on the first floor (example of windows below). The Trust website states (at the time of writing) that only the beautiful gardens are open, but this is incorrect. You can join a tour and find out more about this splendid remnant – including the surprising fact that Laurence Olivier and Vivienne Leigh were considering buying it at one point.  In the end, concern about their small children having to negotiate the spiral staircases prevented them taking their interest further. As it turned out, the Oliviers lived at Notley Abbey in nearby Long Crendon instead.

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While you’re here: just up the road is Boarstall Duck Decoy, another National Trust property and a rare surviving example of a 16th-century invention for catching waterfowl, surrounded by lovely woodland. And if you’re looking for somewhere local for lunch, the Angel restaurant six miles away in Long Crendon is recommended; this 16th-century coaching inn serves excellent ham hock, poached haddock and other delicacies – as well as offering accommodation if you need a local base for exploring Boarstall and elsewhere.

An act of remembrance

A while ago, we wrote about the extraordinary Whipsnade Tree Cathedral – the embodiment of one man’s wish to commemorate friends who died in World War I, and to give others a place to reflect, a place of faith, hope and reconciliation. Today was the day for the Cathedral’s annual service, led by Rev Nicola Lenthall, Rector of the United Benefice of Kensworth, Studham and Whipsnade.

Participants came from either end of the age range, with children from Kensworth and Studham Schools singing one song and the Salvation Army providing splendid accompaniment to the hymns. The Cathedral’s service takes place on the second Sunday in June each year and, this year, that happened to follow closely upon the events marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Giving the address, the Venerable Dave Middlebrook, Archdeacon of Bedford, invited those present to pause for a few moments, just to listen: to the birdsong, to the distant sound of the occasional plane overhead or the train from nearby Whipsnade Zoo. It was a simple but effective reminder of the normality that we all take for granted – the normality to which many thousands of young men and women, who fell in both World Wars and in other conflicts, were never able to return. In the words of John Maxwell Edmunds, quoted during the service:

When you go Home, tell them of us and say,
For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today

The only appropriate response is surely to heed the words of another Great War poet, Laurence Binyon (who lived at the other end of the Chilterns in Streatley on Thames), which were also quoted today:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

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Polecat returns: sorry, no (live) sheep

Not a real polecat, I should say at the outset; you can sometimes glimpse polecats in parts of the Chilterns, and our friend Tony Marshall of Prestwood Nature tells us they are now breeding regularly. But in this case I’m referring to The Polecat Inn, just outside the centre of Prestwood.

Back in the 17th century, the building was a hunting lodge; more recently, it’s served as a pub, where you can huddle in front of a log fire while enjoying some skilfully cooked food. The Sunday lunches were excellent. Some years ago when Helen was young, her family had lunch in the garden at the back; Helen felt a nudge at her elbow and found a sheep from the neighbouring field, apparently pestering her for a bite of her pizza.

The pub has recently become the property of Oakman Inns, who now own about 25 pubs and restaurants – many in and around the Chilterns. After a period of closure and extensive refurbishment, it’s now open once more.

There are now four main areas in which to sit: the new glass-fronted restaurant, accommodating an open theatre-style kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven; the bar; the lounge (where we sat the other night); and outside seating. There’s significantly more capacity than before, and the number of parking spaces has increased too. There’s still a garden at the back, though some local residents have expressed concern on social media that the play facilities for small children may not be as good as they were.

Inevitably, as part of a larger group which uses a more or less standard menu, the Polecat feels a little less cosy and a little more corporate than it once did. The only sheep this time round was the lamb on Helen’s plate, accompanied by Greek salad (and the lamb was well done, slightly overdone if anything – although the waiter didn’t ask how Helen wanted it). I enjoyed the grilled swordfish (pictured below) from the specials list. In the interests of research we also tried the desserts; my sticky toffee pudding and Helen’s peach melba panna cotta were both very good. Service was swift and we didn’t feel disadvantaged by being in the lounge rather than the main restaurant area.

So the new Polecat isn’t quite the same as the old Polecat – but it’s definitely worth a try. It competes for custom with the Chequers Tree (formerly the Chequers) at the top end of Prestwood’s high street, which has also gone through a change of management recently. Based on recent visits to both, it’s quite a close call between the two.

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Princes Risborough: half a millennium of markets

The Chilterns region has a number of distinguishing features: its beech woodlands; its chalk streams; red kites and rare orchids; the number of great writers and artists who’ve lived and worked here; and a generous sprinkling of marvellous historic houses and mysterious ancient hillforts. There are also a large number of market towns – and, in Beaconsfield, Wendover and so on, you can sample the wares of independent food and drink producers at regular farmers’ and artisan food markets.

These refreshing antidotes to the blandness of mass produced food and drink have now had another event added to the list. Princes Risborough today launched the first in what is, we understand, going to be a quarterly series of farmers’ markets at the Grade II* listed Market House. Today’s launch was the latest in a long tradition: the town has been holding markets of one type or another since Henry VIII granted it that right in 1523. We enjoyed the jam doughnuts and fresh cherries on offer this morning, and will be sampling some pork and marmite sausages later. Good luck to all the traders on this latest addition to the Chilterns’ market portfolio.