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Some corner of an English field…

If Rupert Brooke had spent more time drinking in and around Henley rather than Princes Risborough, he might have inverted his most famous line.  For, in the little village of Stoke Row, there is some corner of an English field that is forever foreign.

The story of the Maharajah’s Well begins with local squire Edward Reade’s time in north-eastern India, working with the Maharajah of Benares (now Varanasi). His work included the sinking in 1831 of a well to aid a local community in Azimurgh.  When Mr Reade left the area in 1860, he asked the Maharajah to ensure that the well remained available to the public.

When the Maharajah decided on an endowment in England, he recalled Mr Reade’s generosity and his stories of water deprivation in Ipsden. The Maharajah paid for the construction of the well at Stoke Row, as well as a neighbouring cottage for a caretaker, and the well was opened officially on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1864.

It operated for 70 years, with the village’s Indian benefactor continuing to pay for its maintenance for the rest of his life.  The bright red dome, and the golden elephant inside, are now an unforgettable part of the local landscape.

Paths of glory: the best known poem?

It’s a tricky one. What’s the best known poem in the English language? And how do we prove it? Does it depend on what you were taught at school, or something else? And are we talking about an entire poem, or the most famous line or couplet?  (Can you tell someone’s age by whether they can recite an entire poem unprompted?) Best known does not equate to best loved, just to complicate matters further.  As it happens, the authors of several contenders have lived in the Chilterns and Thames Valley region: John Milton (Paradise Lost); TS Eliot (The Wasteland); Percy Shelley (Ozymandias); Rupert Brooke (The Soldier); Christina Rossetti (Remember). None of these works has such a striking physical memorial as you’ll find a minute or two away from St Giles, the parish church of Stoke Poges.

The church itself is well worth a look, a remarkable amalgam of Saxon, Norman, early Gothic and Tudor.  Red brick, flint and oak all combine to great effect, while there are several splendid hatchments (diamond-shaped tablets) including one honouring the Penn family.  The Hastings Chapel contains a mystery; a mural monument with cherubs’ heads above and skulls below, but no inscription.

Most visitors, though, don’t linger inside but make for the east window of the Hastings Chapel outside, where Dorothy Gray and her sister Mary Antrobus are buried… along with Dorothy’s son Thomas, though lack of space means his name appears not on the tomb but on a tablet on the wall.  Thomas’s true memorial appeared many years later; about 100 yards outside the churchyard, a stone sarcophagus raised on a square pedestal, on whose sides some verses from Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard appear.  The monument was bought by local residents and presented to the National Trust in 1921 with ten acres of the neighbouring field bought by public subscription to preserve the surroundings.

What you think of the poem itself might depend on which school you went to, and hence whether you learned it then and remember it now.  Close by the church’s south-west door sits the old yew tree under which, so the legend goes, Gray wrote the Elegy. Is this true? It scarcely matters. As a character says in The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Is the Elegy, as the church’s own booklet suggests, “perhaps the best known poem in the English language”? Again, it probably isn’t important. What matter in the end are the words, and the English vision they conjure up:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me…

 

A charitable note

On the first Sunday of the month, between November and March, surprising noise issues from a unit on a small industrial estate, just off Amersham’s Plantation Road, a few minutes from the railway station.  The source of the noise takes a bit of finding. You have to locate the right, inconspicuous white door.  Once you open it and step through, prepare for an assault on your senses.

For this is the unlikely home of the Amersham Fair Organ Museum, a collection of English fair organs guaranteed to press your nostalgia buttons and transport you to holidays, long ago, the moment they begin to play.  Fairground organs evolved from street barrel organs, with the music being created from folding sheets of perforated cardboard music.  Travelling showmen used them, at least until the interwar years when amplified music began to come in.

Although this means almost everyone who heard and saw fairground organs in their heyday must be gone, there is no lack of interest or enthusiasm even today, as the audience sits with their tea and cake to listen to It’s a long way to Tipperary and other tunes from years gone by (and even, God help us, the music from those annoying Go Compare ads…)  The Museum is a registered charity and runs occasional special events for subscribing Friends, as well as its Open Days.  It’s a visual and aural feast, and an important link back to one of the ways in which our ancestors used to enjoy themselves.

Licensed to… print?

“The name’s Bond, Basildon Bond. I’ve got letters after my name,” was the quip Russ Abbot used to introduce his 007-parodying character on TV in the 1980s.  But the real reason for this brand’s choice of name involves opposite ends of the Chilterns.

The story begins, indirectly, with the creation of John Dickinson Stationery in Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead, in 1804.  The firm was to enjoy over 200 years in business before its acquisition in 2005. Along the way it bought Millington and Sons, a London firm.  In the summer of 1911, Millington’s had been considering the introduction of a new rag writing paper, and some of the directors of the company were staying at Basildon Park. One of the matters arising was a name for this new paper brand. The directors took the name from the house, liking the alliterative effect.  The Basildon Bond brand survives to this day.

The house from which the brand got its name also embodies classic style as a Palladian villa with Adam-style interiors, built between 1776 and 1783 on the fortune which Sir Francis Sykes had amassed working for the East India Company in Bengal.  Its current healthy condition is largely due to Lord and Lady Iliffe who restored it, furnished it with appropriate Old Masters paintings and gave the house and park to the National Trust in 1978.  The Bath stone within the portico of the principal entrance has kept the warmth of its colour. The most surprising element inside is probably the Sutherland Room, which contains studies by artist Graham Sutherland for the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral as part of its post-war restoration; Sutherland was a friend of Lord Iliffe, a newspaper proprietor whose empire included the Coventry Evening Telegraph.  The tearoom in the old Servants’ Hall displays murals evoking Angkor Wat and other Eastern scenes, as a reminder of Sir Francis Sykes’ career and a trip by Lord and Lady Iliffe around the world.

Poetry… it’s the word on the street

Reality TV regularly shows us the results when competitions challenge people to be creative against the clock, whether that means implementing a business plan or baking a cake.  Along West Street at the top end of Marlow, heading towards Henley-on-Thames, is a reminder of a time, 200 years ago, when literature used to do something similar.

For this is where Percy and Mary Shelley once lived.  The house has since split into several flats but, in 1817, the Shelleys were completing or creating two significant literary works.  The story of how they stayed with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva the previous summer, reading each other ghost stories because of the inclement weather until Byron challenged each to write his or her own story, is well known.  By April-May 1817, Mary was completing work on what had started out as a short story, but became a novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  Publication followed on 1 January 1818, albeit anonymously.

What is perhaps less well known is that Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may also have had a competitive origin.  According to Stephen Hebron, Curator of Special Projects at Oxford’s Bodleian Library,

“It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home in Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.”

Shelley’s Ozymandias beat Smith’s version to publication by three weeks, being printed on 11 January 1818, and is much-quoted two centuries on.  Across the road, at 47 West Street, is a plaque to Thomas Love Peacock, novelist, poet and satirist – and close friend of Percy Shelley.  Peacock outlived Shelley by more than 40 years, but his writings now lie in an Ozymandias-like state of obscurity. Peacock’s old home is a showroom for a firm supplying natural stone and porcelain for the discerning home owner.

Remarkably, another plaque at number 31 reminds us that TS Eliot came to live in this street a century after the Shelleys, in a house which Aldous Huxley lent him.  By 1917, Eliot was beginning to come to the wider world’s attention for his poetry, including The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had been published two years earlier.  31 West Street now houses an excellent fine dining restaurant.

Given its length, perhaps it’s just as well that Eliot didn’t have to write Prufrock against the clock.

The secret arboretum

Along a footpath from an unassuming road in Little Kingshill is a secret treasure trove for tree-lovers.

The origins of Priestfield Arboretum lie back in the early 20th century with Thomas Priest, a local solicitor who planted up to 400 trees in six acres of his garden, after he bought the land in 1917.  The site changed hands during World War II,  and has stayed in the ownership of the same family ever since. Though neglected and overgrown after the war, the arboretum came to the attention of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Forestry Commission.  A massive scrub clearance in the early 1980s enabled the discovery of 98 of the original trees.

The Arboretum now comprises around 200 trees and opens twice a year to the public, thanks to the sterling maintenance efforts of volunteers on behalf of the owners.  There is an element of zoning – silver firs are mostly in one area, spruces and pines in others.  Coralie Ramsay, the honorary curator, comments: “We aim to be ‘chemical free’ and to encourage biodiversity that will help optimize the health of the soil and, therefore, the specimens.”

Highlights include a giant redwood tree and aromas which can be evocative or alarming.  Look out for the cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura) whose heart-shaped leaves turn yellow and smell of candyfloss if you rub them.  That’s probably preferable to the pungent leaves of umbellularia californica (California bay laurel or Oregon myrtle) which can apparently cause headaches – though we suffered no ill-effects.

A Feast on the Farm

So hands up who doesn’t know the difference between a lamb and a hogget?  This was one of the many things you could learn if you joined a live cooking talk/demonstration, jointly presented by chef Oliver Rowe and Keith Bennett from Stockings Farm in Coleshill, Amersham, yesterday.

The talk was one of various events running as part of Feast on the Farm at Peterley Manor Farm in Prestwood.  It’s a new annual two-day event which aims to demonstrate the rich variety of local produce across the Chilterns.

We were at the Feast for the first morning and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Apparently the organisers had taken many hundreds of advance bookings, but there was no sign of the overcrowding or parking difficulties you see at other events (having said that, we walked to the event as it is close to our home).  Crucially this gave visitors every chance to move in and out of the live demonstrations and to talk to the stallholders about their wares.  The only minor problem we saw was an interruption of the hot water supply inside one of the drinks vans, but otherwise all seemed calm and orderly.

We bought various items, ranging from gin to rabbit to syrups, before enjoying the bean and chorizo stew in the onsite yurt for which Peterley is well-known locally.  From Dunstable in the north-east Chilterns to Nettlebed in the south-west, the range of produce was impressive, as was the enthusiasm of the stallholders.

We hope that, by the end of the event tomorrow, it turns out to have been a success and financially worthwhile for those concerned. It’s an excellent new showcase for the region.  See you next year, we hope!