The cherries return?

Time was when cherry orchards were a common feature across the Chilterns; fresh fruit in many varieties, providing local employment as well as healthy eating, not just in the immediate locality but also for London and other nearby towns. Sadly, the orchards have all but disappeared… but there are signs they may be making a comeback.

One example is the work being done at Mongewell, just south of Wallingford in Oxfordshire. There’s a wider project to build an earth sheltered home, a passion of Anna Batchelor, the owner of the orchard at Mongewell: “As an environmental scientist, I was looking for the most sustainable for of construction.” Anna is currently in the third year of a seven year project to re-establish the cherry orchard (Mongewell has a history of cherry growing, as far back as 1877). Over 40 varieties are involved, and during the establishing years local residents, as well as walkers on the nearby Ridgeway, will be able to see the trees as they change with the seasons.  Anna says she has three aims:

“1. To bring back the culture of cherry growing to the area.
2. To create space for wildlife
3. To be a repository of cherry varieties that are lost in commercial settings.”

Meanwhile, the Chilterns Conservation Board is hoping to obtain Heritage Lottery Fund support for a major project Chalk, Cherries and Chairs. As the title suggests, the project aims to bring new life to three elements which have helped to define the Chilterns and to shape the region’s development. The “cherries” element involves investigating the history of Chilterns cherries, and training local communities to restore and manage old orchards, while helping others to set up their own community orchards. The outcome of the funding bid should be known by early 2019.

Thanks to Anna Batchelor and the Chilterns Conservation Board for speaking with us about their projects. We wish them both the very best of luck!

The gin in Tring is better out than in…

One of the many pleasures of our research has been finding local producers who are bringing new food and drink tastes to the region.  Ben and Kate Marston are great examples.  A marketing expert and a graphic designer by trade, the couple have combined their love of food and drink, travel, adventure and the great outdoors to set up the first gin distillery in the Chilterns – and the evocatively named Campfire Gin brand.

“Campfire Gin is produced in small batches,” Ben and Kate explain. “Ten carefully selected botanicals, including sweet, fresh orange, rooibos, hazelnut and piney juniper are distilled with the finest UK wheat spirit. The result is a gin that leads with a citrus nose and juniper palate, has a rich middle and sweet end that builds, sip after sip after sip.”

The distillery, named after a rare local rock formation, houses a 50 litre still called Isabella and a 200 litre still called Amelia, named in turn after two great female adventurers, Isabella Lucy Bird and Amelia Earhart.  Based on the P E Mead & Sons Farm Shop site adjacent to Wilstone Reservoir near Tring, Puddingstone offers tours on Thursday nights – which invariably sell out fast – as well as selling in local bars and restaurants and online).  The team has won numerous awards, including Navy Gin of the Year for Campfire Navy Strength – one of three core gins along with London Dry and Cask Aged.  There’s even a summer special produced in collaboration with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.  We tried Campfire inside rather than outside, but it’s an excellent way to make up for a trying day – or to add something special to that evening under the stars.

A Chinese president and a non-takeaway

Today we visited somewhere we have driven past on countless occasions over the years, a classic example of tourist’s doorstep law (you don’t bother looking at things under your nose).  After a morning examining two ancient hillfort sites, one at Cholesbury Camp and one at nearby Pulpit Hill, we wandered into the Plough at Cadsden, a tiny hamlet near Princes Risborough.

The Plough has been around in one form or another for over 400 years, starting life as a coaching inn and, so the legend has it, hosting a wake for John Hampden as supporters brought his body back from Thame, where he died after the Battle of Chalgrove. More recently, several Prime Ministers have popped in for a drink; the ying and yang of British politics from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, and more recently David Cameron.

In 2015 Mr Cameron took Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, to the Plough for a pint and a fish and chip meal, as part of continuing negotiations over trade and diplomatic relations.  The following year, reports stated that the owner had sold the Plough to Chinese investors.  Less impressively, Mr and Mrs Cameron contrived to leave their daughter Nancy unattended at the pub for about 15 minutes, during the summer of 2012.  Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?

If the evidence of our visit today is anything to go by, this unfortunate incident hasn’t deterred other families from bringing their young children to the Plough for Sunday lunch.  As we left, a van with a group of young Chinese businessmen rolled up.  Even muddy-shoed walkers aren’t a problem, with overshoes available in the porch.  And the lunch – shoulder of lamb and steak and ale pie, in our cases – was a splendid reward for yomping up Pulpit Hill.

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!

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.

HM

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.