Watercress Walk

Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.

More on that later.  Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house.  The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt.  With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.)  Sadly not.

What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches.  How wrong can you be?  According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.

After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot.  An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box.  Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.

Mills and meals

Perching by a bridge on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, The Mill at Sonning provides an excellent example of new uses for old buildings.  Mills have existed at Sonning since the days of Domesday, and the main parts of the present building and the waterwheels date back to 1890.  By the time the mill closed in 1969 it was one of the last mills on the Thames driven by wheels.  Eight years later Tim and Eileen Richards stepped in to begin the restoration of the Grade II listed building – and its new use as a theatre.  The Mill provides a two-course buffet lunch or dinner to its theatregoers as part of the ticket price.  We noticed that at least one diner interpreted “buffet” as “all you can eat”.  The restaurant experience is unusual; you go up and collect your main course, then the dessert and coffee is provided by waiter service.

The theatre itself is intimate with only 215 seats – it’s the first time I’ve seen a sign saying PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE STAGE (and if you’re sitting in the front row, that is genuinely difficult).  We went to a performance of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web (1954), a typically convoluted whodunit set in a country house in Kent. The director, Brian Blessed, is better known as an actor with a booming voice. One of his most famous roles was in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon; I half-hoped the play would feature a character called Gordon who came back from apparent death so that we could hear a Blessed boom of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”

The Mill is proud of not only the theatre and restaurant but its sustainable principles.  In 2005 it launched the first Hydro Electric Scheme to be powered by the natural resources of The River Thames. The scheme generates enough electric energy for the theatre’s numerous lights, restaurant dining rooms, bars, ovens, backstage corridors, dressing rooms, wardrobe areas, set construction workshops, control box and the administration offices.

The Drawingroom: bigger on the inside…?

It’s no big deal eating in someone’s living room.  True, it’s a little more unusual when the low beams hint at over 400 years of history.  And then there’s the art works… and the local produce… Clearly the Drawingroom, just off Chesham’s high street, is more than just any old drawing room.

It used to be an office, a photographic studio and a barber’s shop. Not all at the same time, you’d assume.  But the current owner Richard seems keen to find as many uses for the space as possible.

When you’re not sitting in the living room enjoying toasties, jacket potatoes or even “wapas” (The Drawingroom’s term for world tapas… yes, I know), along with properly brewed tea, you can goggle at the artwork and the décor. The first floor features a bedroom/sitting room with billowing, Bedouin tent furnishings.  The landing is “painted in theatrical red with various guitars hanging on the walls: “The Musicians’ Gallery,” Richard calls it.  Musicians – specifically emerging acts – feature in gigs here on the first, second and third weeks of each month. If you miss it, they’re filmed and the TV in the living room will play what you missed.

If music isn’t your bag, try backgammon here on the first or third Wednesday of each month.  Or you can hire the venue for your own occasion, as many have done for christenings, wakes or wedding anniversaries.

“Whether you are here for the Art, music, home cooking or peace and tranquillity, I do hope you enjoy it and return often,” say the notes on the menu sheet.  I’m not sure about the tranquillity – especially when the gigs are on – but it’s certainly a venue with a difference.

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”