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…
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.
Not a real polecat, I should say at the outset; you can sometimes glimpse polecats in parts of the Chilterns, and our friend Tony Marshall of Prestwood Nature tells us they are now breeding regularly. But in this case I’m referring to The Polecat Inn, just outside the centre of Prestwood.
Back in the 17th century, the building was a hunting lodge; more recently, it’s served as a pub, where you can huddle in front of a log fire while enjoying some skilfully cooked food. The Sunday lunches were excellent. Some years ago when Helen was young, her family had lunch in the garden at the back; Helen felt a nudge at her elbow and found a sheep from the neighbouring field, apparently pestering her for a bite of her pizza.
The pub has recently become the property of Oakman Inns, who now own about 25 pubs and restaurants – many in and around the Chilterns. After a period of closure and extensive refurbishment, it’s now open once more.
There are now four main areas in which to sit: the new glass-fronted restaurant, accommodating an open theatre-style kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven; the bar; the lounge (where we sat the other night); and outside seating. There’s significantly more capacity than before, and the number of parking spaces has increased too. There’s still a garden at the back, though some local residents have expressed concern on social media that the play facilities for small children may not be as good as they were.
Inevitably, as part of a larger group which uses a more or less standard menu, the Polecat feels a little less cosy and a little more corporate than it once did. The only sheep this time round was the lamb on Helen’s plate, accompanied by Greek salad (and the lamb was well done, slightly overdone if anything – although the waiter didn’t ask how Helen wanted it). I enjoyed the grilled swordfish (pictured below) from the specials list. In the interests of research we also tried the desserts; my sticky toffee pudding and Helen’s peach melba panna cotta were both very good. Service was swift and we didn’t feel disadvantaged by being in the lounge rather than the main restaurant area.
So the new Polecat isn’t quite the same as the old Polecat – but it’s definitely worth a try. It competes for custom with the Chequers Tree (formerly the Chequers) at the top end of Prestwood’s high street, which has also gone through a change of management recently. Based on recent visits to both, it’s quite a close call between the two.
The Chilterns region has a number of distinguishing features: its beech woodlands; its chalk streams; red kites and rare orchids; the number of great writers and artists who’ve lived and worked here; and a generous sprinkling of marvellous historic houses and mysterious ancient hillforts. There are also a large number of market towns – and, in Beaconsfield, Wendover and so on, you can sample the wares of independent food and drink producers at regular farmers’ and artisan food markets.
These refreshing antidotes to the blandness of mass produced food and drink have now had another event added to the list. Princes Risborough today launched the first in what is, we understand, going to be a quarterly series of farmers’ markets at the Grade II* listed Market House. Today’s launch was the latest in a long tradition: the town has been holding markets of one type or another since Henry VIII granted it that right in 1523. We enjoyed the jam doughnuts and fresh cherries on offer this morning, and will be sampling some pork and marmite sausages later. Good luck to all the traders on this latest addition to the Chilterns’ market portfolio.
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.
One of the pleasures of our research in the past couple of years has been discovering local suppliers. Today we were able to put a face to a name by meeting Anton Hazelle at Orchard View Farm, just a few minutes from us. Undaunted by all the food everyone’s been eating over Christmas, Anton was at the café with a selection of his range of chocolate bars.
There are something like 150 flavours in all, which isn’t bad going for someone who only started his business in 2008. Like many small business, it grew out of a hobby, passionately pursued, and a growing number of friends and acquaintances who asked Anton if he could make some chocolate for them.
Until 2016 there was a café in Princes Risborough, but now Anton concentrates on supplying retailers, farm shops and cafes. We thoroughly recommend his chocolate – and today’s display included a seasonal milk chocolate bar with a citrus and mince pie flavour. (No, you can’t have some of ours – buy your own, online or in the shops…)
One of our great local cafes has been making social media waves recently – and has even been noticed by the might of the national press. A recent Telegraph article has focused on a recent decision by the Wild Strawberry Café in Prestwood to stop featuring avocados on its menus.
The article explains the rationale behind the decision, which essentially amounts to a defence of the role of ethical and sustainable principles in sourcing food. It’s hard to disagree that, in cases like these, we should travel to try the food, not vice versa. In the UK, now and in the foreseeable future, we shan’t be short of options for interesting and healthy eating (regardless of apocalyptically hysterical speculation about the effects of Brexit on the supply of Mars bars…) Most of us are extremely spoilt for food choice, unlike the post-World War II generation which had to suffer rationing, lest we forget.
So why not try smashed peas or vegetable dips instead, as Katy Brill from Wild Strawberry suggests at the end of the article?
Image: Valeria Boltneva (Pexels.com)