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Come back, Don Quixote: the mills return

Mills of one sort or another used to dominate the landscape, making a vital contribution to the economies and lives of their communities. Now, across Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns at least, only a handful remain. As we await the UK release of Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a modern British Cervantes would probably have to find a different nemesis at which his hero could tilt.

However, thanks to the dedicated efforts of various groups of volunteers across our region, some mills have survived and are even returning to some level of activity. Quainton Windmill, in north Buckinghamshire, is a good example: you can read about its history here. Pleasingly, the current owner and life president of the Quainton Windmill Society is a descendant of the original owner who began its construction in 1830. The sails are now operating (when there’s enough wind, of course, as the volunteers patiently explain in response to the occasional enquiry), and you can visit on Sunday mornings between March and October. There’s no entrance fee; you can, though, make a donation to the continuing works.

Inside the Gothic Temple

If you live in north Buckinghamshire, or nearby, you’ll probably know Stowe (main house shown above) – one of the most extravagant and famous National Trust properties in the area. You may not know that you can stay in one of the extraordinary set of buildings within the estate.

The Gothic Temple was the final piece of construction at Stowe in Viscount Cobham’s campaign against the then Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, in the early 18th century. According to the National Trust’s booklet ‘Stowe: the people and the place’, at this point the term Gothic was synonymous with ‘Germanic’ and suggested ‘vigour, hardihood and love of liberty’ – all qualities which Cobham and some of his fellow dissident Whigs felt the government of the day lacked, or had lost.

The Temple is now available for holiday lets via the Landmark Trust, and today was one of its occasional open days. All mods are, of course, not con; the kitchen and bathroom are quite basic, and spiral staircases are not for the nervous. But if you can accept that, and like the idea of looking up at the beautifully decorated ceiling of the dome, or out at wonderful views across the Stowe estate, it’s worth it.

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Coming soon to a pub or bookshop near you…

We’re delighted that Slow Travel: The Chilterns & The Thames Valley is now out, and grateful for all the positive comments we’ve received so far. We’re appearing at several events in the next few months – here’s a handy summary:-

Follow the links in each case for further information. Thanks to Chorleywood, Gerrards Cross and Marlow Bookshops, the Chiltern Society, the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden and our publishers Bradt Travel Guides for making these events possible.

The launch party and the ‘In conversation’ are joint events to promote and celebrate not only our book, but also The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, a new Chilterns travelogue by Gail Simmons, also published by Bradt. The Country of Larks is due out any day now, making it a very good spring for new travel books about the Chilterns!

Pictured above: church in Medmenham

A town fit for heroes

As it continues to adapt to the demands of the 21st century, Aylesbury and its immediate surrounds are unveiling new attractions and developments at what once might have seemed a bewildering rate. In the past few years we’ve seen the opening of the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, impressive inside and out, as well as new artwork honouring two showbiz stars with connections to the town, Ronnie Barker and David Bowie. Today, we took a look at two new visitor attractions, one in the town centre and one in nearby Stoke Mandeville.

The first stop was at The Exchange, an area just around the corner from central Market Square which used to be a car park. The new development will include residential flats and retail spaces, and work is not complete, as the sound of drilling makes clear. But the first new café/restaurant, the Rococo Lounge, is now open. This is the latest in a chain which includes a branch in nearby Amersham. The vibe is relaxed and noisy, with plenty of families bringing small children in for mid-morning snacks or an early brunch or lunch. The menus, with plenty of gluten free and vegan options, are as eclectic as the interior design, which combines three types of lampshade with framed prints on every spare inch of the walls and ironic 1950s-style graphics on the menus. To add stardust, there’s a large painting of David Bowie on the wall behind the counter. It’s all good fun, and we enjoyed the chorizo and halloumi hash and a mini-tray of three tapas choices.

The area immediately outside Rococo features three sculptures, also new this year, all of human figures: one standing (“I am free”); one in a horizontal pose (“I am strong”); and one crouching (“I am me”). The collective title is “I am”, and the works are a tribute to the Paralympic movement.

You can now find out more about how the Paralympics began by visiting a small new museum at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disabled sport, which sits incongruous at one end of a modern residential estate a couple of miles out of Aylesbury town centre. The story of the Paralympics begins with a German doctor, Ludwig Guttman. As the display – the work of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust – explains, Guttman came with his family to England to escape the growing effects of Nazi rule; as a Jewish doctor, he was allowed only to treat Jewish patients, a ruling he actively defied. The British Government asked Guttman to run a new unit for spinal injuries at the Emergency Medical Services Hospital in Stoke Mandeville – anticipating an influx of paralysed servicemen as World War II ground on. The new spinal unit opened in 1944.

For the full story of how Guttman harnessed the power of sport as a powerful therapy for disability, and how that led to the ‘Wheelchair Games’ of 1948 and eventually to the birth of the Paralympic movement, we thoroughly recommend visiting this new exhibition, conveniently located near the stadium entrance, next to a cafe. You can’t miss it; large replicas of Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the London 2012 Paralympics, stand nearby. The objects on display include a couple of the wheelchairs used in competition and a goalball (used for practice), all of which you can touch, and the 2012 torch, which you can hold. The most extravagant item is Sir Ian McKellen’s gown from the 2012 opening ceremony, a purple creation imagining Prospero from The Tempest as one of London’s Pearly Kings.

It won’t take you long to get around the displays, but it’s well worth it. This is a well-presented tribute to the qualities of tolerance, imagination, willpower and persistence which drove Guttman, his patients and the many Paralympic heroes who have come since.

We’ll meet again… and again

The trouble with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as it used to be. As Britain continues its seemingly never-ending agonising re-appraisal of its place in the world, somehow the opening of a café with a World War II theme is not a surprise. The Air Raid Shelter Café and Tea Room has been in the Chilterns Shopping Centre in the middle of High Wycombe since late 2018.

This is not, of course, a unique idea; we’ve come across similar cafes in Hitchin and Stratford-upon-Avon, to name just two examples. And it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the use, even by implication, of tired and rather misleading myths about how the nation came together in the war, the spirit of the Blitz etc. Even that hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers (“Will you stop talking about the war?”) is over 40 years old. Remember, by all means; but try to move on, too.

Still, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, maybe we should just file it under ‘kitsch’. The new café has gone to some lengths to follow its theme. You can have two varieties of all-day breakfast, “Tommy’s” or “Landgirls” – the male version is larger. Or, if you’re there later in the day, some cheese and Marmite bread or a piece of lardy cake will help to take you back to those good old days (that weren’t). Our mismatched crockery included a splendid square-ish teapot depicting the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost of his dead father (Hamlet also finds it hard to move on, despite being Danish rather than British). The walls are covered with old photos of Wycombe and its people, copies of ration books and other artefacts. There are three themed areas: a faux living room with piano and a sofa, on top of which sits a stuffed cat with a piercing stare; a small railway carriage; and even (as per the cafe’s name) an air raid shelter, complete with tins of condensed milk, drinking chocolate, beef and onion broth and other stuff to see us through our darkest hour.

It’s all good fun, the food and drink is good and the service is friendly and unfussy. All in all (as Hamlet would say), despite any reservations about the theme, the Air Raid Shelter Café is a welcome addition to Wycombe, and we expect to be back soon.

The Greenway to a slow day out

While they are wonderful places for a day out, historic houses aren’t always as accessible as everyone might ideally like. This can be an issue before you even set out; not many such houses can be reached by bus, or are close to railway stations (though Arundel Castle in Sussex is a notable exception in the latter case). Last autumn, Waddesdon Manor in north Buckinghamshire came up with a possible solution, for those who want to visit without undue stress or using a car. We’ve been along to try it out.

The nearest railway station, Aylesbury Vale Parkway, is less than three miles from Waddesdon Manor, and the village of Waddesdon itself. But it would take a brave cyclist to use the busy A41 which links the station with the village and the Manor. The solution? The new Waddesdon Greenway, which offers a flat-surfaced walking and cycling route, links station with Waddesdon, passing through land which, at various points, is owned by Network Rail, Thames Water, New College Oxford and the Waddesdon estate. To add some historical interest, part of the Greenway corresponds to Akeman Street, an old Roman road.

Today may not have been the ideal day for a two-way Greenway walk. It was very blustery (while the surrounding land is pretty, there is little or nothing in terms of windbreaks) and the threat of a sudden downpour remained for most of the day. But the walk was still very pleasant, with the occasional encounter with other cyclists, or walkers with their dogs. As a bonus, we happened upon the Manor’s monthly food market, at which local producers such as Just Biscuits tempt visitors with their wares. Walking or cycling to a local visitor attraction, and buying local food and drink; that might be the perfect Slow day out.

And the reason for our two-way walk? We were trying out the Manor’s Pudding Club, an indulgent event in one of its several restaurants at which diners try a sequence of desserts, from rhubarb and custard sorbet to deconstructed cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding. Believe me, we needed the walk…

A rite of spring

One of the most distinctive sights of High Wycombe lies just outside the town. As you turn right at the roundabout, passing the Eden Centre, Marks and Spencer and a new Aldi, and drive west along the A40, a golden ball appears on the hills ahead.

This marks the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Church of St Lawrence, part of the legacy of Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), a successful politician with a taste for Classical history and architecture. The design of the mausoleum and church are said to have been inspired by buildings in Rome and Venice, and they’re well worth a look.

But that’s for another day. On a gloriously sunny and still Sunday morning in February, once you’ve passed through the charming 16th-century village of West Wycombe and parked at the end of the high street (taking care on a very uneven surface), it’s time to walk through the gates of West Wycombe Park. The grounds are usually closed until April, and the house till June. Today’s an exception, as Snowdrop Sunday, with proceeds in aid of the South Bucks Hospice at nearby Butterfly House.

Snowdrops are everywhere, of course; a welcome promise that the worst of winter is over (we hope) and spring is round the corner. But there are few better places to enjoy them than the grounds of West Wycombe Park, as you admire the main house (pictured below), a mother hen to a brood of eccentric, ornamental constructions such as the Music Temple, sitting splendidly on the middle of a small island as coots and swan squabble in the lake. Each time you turn a corner, you find a better view than the one you just photographed – and with all the buildings in that distinctively Dashwood yellow.

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