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.

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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At home with Vicky and Bertie

It’s one of the great weekends of the year. Hundreds if not thousands of fans descend upon a splendid and historic venue, wearing their colours, cheering on the proceedings. There’s always the chance of an upset but, whatever the outcome, this will be a day some people remember for the rest of their lives.

Sorry – did you think I was referring to the FA Cup? Well, it’s true the final takes place at Wembley today. But, about 22 miles to the west, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is playing host to the wedding of Lady Gabriella Windsor (52nd in line to the throne, apparently) and Thomas Kingston. It’s the third royal wedding in the Chapel in a year, and a year almost to the day since the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

This poses a problem for the second year running for Prince William, who is President of the Football Association. Last year, his duties as best man meant that the wedding took priority over attending the Cup Final. The word is that he may get to the match this year. In any event, he needs to have a word with any remaining eligible relatives, to tell them to choose another date in 2020 or beyond.

Today’s reception will be at Frogmore House, much less well known than the Castle, but in some ways just as interesting. George III bought the house for his wife Queen Charlotte in the 1790s, and the Crown purchased the lease on the wider estate 50 years later. Victoria often worked on state papers here and she and Prince Albert are buried in a mausoleum on the estate (which isn’t open to visitors).

In contrast with the extravagance of the Castle, Frogmore is filled with wax fruit, artificial flowers and chinoiserie. There’s a room of floral paintings by Mary Moser and, to add some royal glamour, the Britannia Room showcases memorabilia relating to the royal yacht of that name. The gardens were restored in time for the present Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. Frogmore House and Gardens is about to open (28-30 May) for its annual charity days, so do go if you have the chance. Whether you like the house’s contents may depend on your view of what Victorians found tasteful, but there’s no doubt it’s a royal day out with a difference.

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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Feel the festival

In recent years, in addition to events in specific locations across the region, a number of Chilterns-wide festivals have sprung up. This is excellent news for two main reasons: (1) more local events from which to choose; (2) in the long run, we hope, a higher profile for the Chilterns as a whole.

The star at the moment is the Chilterns Arts Festival – a week-long programme of musical events in some splendid venues including All Saints Church in Marlow (pictured above). The climax is a special performance of Così fan tutte at Pipers Corner School this Saturday, 16 February.

The year is still young, so there are plenty more Chilterns-wide festivals to come:-

See you there…?

Abbey days are here again: a triptych

Embroidery has never loomed too large in our household, or too high on our list of cultural attractions or artistic skills. True, Helen’s father used to create the odd piece. And her mother once answered “Embroidery” to the Trivial Pursuits question “What was the name of the first craft to go up in space?”

But we haven’t thought too much about it over the years. Nonetheless, when we stayed at Missenden Abbey the other day, we found a splendid example of the art, lurking behind a mobile coat-rail in reception.

“The story of Misseden Abbey” [sic] was created in 1990 by Alison M Binns, after a weekend at the Abbey on an HNC in embroidery design. Using traditional techniques including stumpwork figures for the people – a method which was, apparently, popular in the late medieval and early modern periods – it divides the story of the Abbey into three sections:-

  • The blue panel marks the Abbey’s creation in 1133 by Augustinian monks who had fled from France, and the origins of that order
  • The green panel depicts the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, its purchase by various private owners and its occupation by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War;
  • And the red panel shows the recent history of the Abbey; its purchase by the county council for use as an adult education centre and, sadly, the destruction of the interior by a fire in 1985 (hence the use of red).

Happily, the Abbey continues to this day as a conference centre which also runs a range of short courses on creative subjects. It sits unassumingly at the opposite end of Great Missenden’s high street from the railway station; you could easily miss it. But it’s in fine fettle for a nearly 900 year old establishment, and we’d be surprised if it doesn’t make it to a full millennium.

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