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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!

Careless writing and an Eton mess – UPDATE

A few years ago, in a book which wasn’t really about Sherlock Holmes, I read an assertion that (to paraphrase slightly) The Hound of the Baskervilles was commonly believed to be set in the 1870s. As there are clear indications in the book’s first few pages that the year is 1889 (or 1890 at a pinch), this belief can only have been common among people who had never read it.  The author compounded their error by asserting that Arthur Conan Doyle was sometimes careless with facts. Oh, dear. Author, heal thyself.

Perhaps rashly, at the end of the book the author invited readers to contact him to advise of any errors they had found in his book. So I did.  The evasive, patronising response told me, in effect, not to worry my ugly little head about it as I would only get confused.

A few years later I received a standard email on behalf of the same writer, encouraging me to buy his latest book.  I didn’t. But, today in a branch of Waterstones, I came across the book – and found that a large part of the chapter on Buckinghamshire was devoted to Eton College and also mentioned Slough. The trouble with this is that Eton and Slough are in Berkshire, and have been for some time.  True, they used to be in Buckinghamshire; Slough was the location of South Bucks District Council (whose customer service levels extended to leaving an answerphone on during lunchtime, but that’s another story). But this wasn’t a book about historic Buckinghamshire.  And in a book which sells in the travel section, putting a town in the wrong county is a bit of a howler.

Perhaps chastened – even if not admitting it – by his Baskervilles blooper, the author has not asked readers to let him know of any errors in his latest book.  The shame is that, before my email correspondence with him, I admired his writing. But then it wouldn’t be the first time that a writer in real life didn’t live up to the writer on the page.  I can’t promise that our Slow Guide won’t have any howlers in it – though, knowing the Bradt team, I’d bet against it! – but I hope we might be a bit more gracious if someone pointed one out.

Update: the author apparently believes that border changes in 1974 (which include Buckinghamshire/Berkshire) were “almost all terrible” and so he has based his book on an AA Handbook from 1955.  At a minimum the publicity does not point this out and hence is misleading; and a book published in the past five years would be expected, by most readers and people with any sense, to observe the current borders.  Unless, of course, the author is happier living in 1955…

Image of Eton College courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

A sight for sore eyes, or an eyesore?

If it weren’t for the risk of being bumped into, or run over, it would be tempting to wander round Hitchin with one eye shut.  The town isn’t ugly – quite the reverse, with over 200 buildings being Grade I, II or II* listed.  But then you see a piece of post-war concrete and wonder exactly how and why it got there.  The picture above shows some modern flats in the background – but you can find the same effect in Market Square. No doubt it was all part of the post-1945 wish for the modern, and clean lines and new materials and so on.  But it’s still ugly. Sorry, modernists!

There are, of course, plenty of lovely sights in town. St Mary’s Church, with tearooms gathered around the churchyard like puppies round their mother; or Bucklesbury, where you can stand for ages wondering whether the dog atop the façade of Harvest Moon really is wearing a wig(?) or wander through the benign chaos that is Hawkins, the department store that’s been there since 1863.  So maybe next time I’ll risk it with just one eye…

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

The Chilterns Brigadoon: Halton House

In the village of Halton, just outside Wendover, sits a historic house which opens, Brigadoon-like, just once a year, as part of a national initiative called Heritage Open Days. Despite having lived in the area for the past 25 years and more, we had never visited Halton House until earlier this month.

It’s well worth a visit. Halton House represents the junction of two eras: the late Victorian and Edwardian years, a time of leisure and affluence, at least for some; and the First World War and the more egalitarian times which followed.  Alfred de Rothschild had the house built in three years (1880-3) as somewhere to relax from his banking work in London and as a suitable place to entertain his friends – who happened to include the Prince of Wales.  From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alfred was trying to emulate his brother-in-law’s efforts at nearby Waddesdon Manor, with sandstone turrets suggesting a French chateau as inspiration.  Inside it’s more eclectic and attracted some criticism from contemporaries.

All eras end. War came and Alfred offered the estate – which covered over 3,000 acres – to Lord Kitchener as a training venue for troops.  The new School of Technical Training emerged here as a training body for the Royal Flying Corps, known later as the Royal Air Force.  The RAF bought the estate from Alfred’s nephew, his heir after he died unmarried in 1918. It has been known as RAF Halton ever since, with the house serving as the Officers’ Mess.  Apparently there is some prospect that the RAF will leave the site in a few years time, and no doubt there is a good case for building some much-needed housing on part of the estate. Hopefully Halton House will survive, as a reminder of the history and heritage of Halton.