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Local heroes, going global

This chilly sunny morning is reminiscent of an autumn day, not long ago, in Henley-on-Thames. Our publishers Bradt had chosen the town for their annual staff day out, and they kindly invited us to join them, as well as Gail Simmons, the author of a new Chilterns travelogue.
We were regular Bradt customers long before we pitched to write a guide to our own area, as part of the Slow Travel range. We enjoyed the process of shaping our words into a guidebook (with the occasional touch of anxiety that all authors experience!) The Bradt team has a clear vision of what it’s trying to achieve, but there is room for the author’s views too.
It’s a true collaboration. Without us, Bradt wouldn’t have had the content; without Bradt, the final result wouldn’t have been nearly as good, and we wouldn’t have had access to Bradt’s formidable distribution network and promotional muscle.
So we were concerned to learn from Bradt that the current coronavirus crisis is hitting the firm hard. There’s no giant parent corporation to dip into its pockets and bail the company out. It has to stand on its own feet – and, as for many companies in the travel industry and elsewhere, that’s extremely challenging right now.
There are plenty of excellent causes to support during these difficult times. For our part, we’re proud to support a local firm which has made good, and done good, globally (see Hilary Bradt’s comments here). Bradt enabled us to achieve our dream of publishing a guidebook to the Chilterns. We hope they will be around, to help more authors and travellers to realise their travel dreams, for many years to come.
Bradt is currently offering a minimum of 50% off all books, e-books and gift vouchers on its website. To claim your discount, enter code DREAM50 at checkout.
Pictured: Henley-on-Thames

This weekend: open spaces to enjoy

As we all try to follow the official instructions and/or guidance about social distancing, it’s great news that some of the open spaces that the National Trust and English Heritage manage will remain open for the public to enjoy.

Our favourites in the Chilterns and Thames Valley include:-

  •  Sharpenhoe Clappers – a beautiful combination of chalk escarpment and ancient woodland. An Iron Age hillfort once stood here and John Bunyan walked in these parts – the views may well have inspired some of the locations in Pilgrim’s Progress
  •  The remains of Berkhamsted Castle – an 11th century Norman motte and bailey construction, later the London residence of Henry III’s brother
  •  The garden and grounds of Hughenden Manor, home to Benjamin Disraeli – including Pleasure Gardens, from which you can glimpse Hughenden Valley, and an arboretum of about 80 specimen shrubs and trees

The National Trust in particular manages many open spaces in this region which offer the prospect of fresh air and inspiring views of this wonderful part of England.

Please do check, before you set out, whether the open space you want to explore is open this week. Some of the smaller spaces may be closed, in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

We wish you a healthy and safe weekend – and hope you’ll be able to enjoy these walks in happier circumstances very soon.

Pictured: Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire

Something old, new… or refilled

Can local people help to revive their high street while addressing the implications of the world climate emergency? A new café in the central Chilterns village of Prestwood is giving it a try.

The Pantry at No 51, which opened this week, is the idea of two local mums. The site used to be a florist’s shop and, more recently, a cafe which sadly didn’t do well enough to continue. The Pantry offers everything from bagel and savoury pastry boards to soup, sweet treats and a ‘mini-pantry’ for smaller customers. If the jam doughnut and (strong, dark) hot chocolate I tried were a true indicator, then the Pantry is going to make a lot of local people very happy. There are plenty of books and children’s drawing materials for family visitors, along with a water bowl by the entrance for thirsty dogs. One additional improvement might be to add a ramp – which wouldn’t have to be large or steep – for pushchairs and/or wheelchairs.

The Pantry, perhaps cannily given the fate of its predecessor, is not relying on café business alone. It’s also a refill shop, something new to Prestwood (or, at least, there hasn’t been anything similar in a very long time). The idea is simple: you bring your existing bottles, cartons,  jars, Tupperware boxes (anything sealable) and refill it with any of a wide range of food and household goods – see this list. A few eco-friendly products such as reusable cups are also on sale.

Local buying of locally sourced goods; reduction in the use of single use plastics; less packaging; convenience (you can bring your own reusable cups for hot drinks to take away)… Like many Prestwood residents, we wish the Pantry every success. It seems like a great idea at the right time in the right place. Time will tell…

 

 

The Hermit is back

A little piece of history has returned to the hamlet of Ford in the Vale of Aylesbury. Just before Christmas, the Dinton Hermit – a historic coaching inn and pub which closed in 2013 – re-opened for business. It’s being restored and managed by Moogies, a company which oversees three other local historic pubs: the Russell Arms, the Black Boy at Oving and the Eight Bells in Long Crendon.

The full redevelopment of the Dinton Hermit is going to take some time. Signs indicate where a larger car park, a living wall and outside eating areas are planned. There will also be 11 bedrooms offering bed and breakfast. In the meantime, though, the pub seems to be a popular venue for lunch. When we visited on New Year’s Day, visitors included two large family groups, but the friendly staff team managed to cope with them, us and everybody else.

The menu is firmly in the “hearty pub food” category with grilled options, burgers, salads, seasonal mains and pizzas available. We chose beer battered haddock and chips (see below) and game pie, followed by Black Forest gateau and apple strudel with vanilla custard. It was all well prepared and just what you’d want from a pub lunch. A sign on the door offers ideas for local walks to help work those calories off.

And why the pub name? It comes from John Bigg, a 17th-century resident of nearby Dinton who may have been the executioner of Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Bigg took to living in a local cave and relying on the charity of others for food, drink and scraps of leather. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford displays one of Bigg’s shoes – an extraordinary collation of hundreds of pieces of leather… Bigg shoes to fill, you might say.

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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.