Careless writing and an Eton mess – UPDATE

A few years ago, in a book which wasn’t really about Sherlock Holmes, I read an assertion that (to paraphrase slightly) The Hound of the Baskervilles was commonly believed to be set in the 1870s. As there are clear indications in the book’s first few pages that the year is 1889 (or 1890 at a pinch), this belief can only have been common among people who had never read it.  The author compounded their error by asserting that Arthur Conan Doyle was sometimes careless with facts. Oh, dear. Author, heal thyself.

Perhaps rashly, at the end of the book the author invited readers to contact him to advise of any errors they had found in his book. So I did.  The evasive, patronising response told me, in effect, not to worry my ugly little head about it as I would only get confused.

A few years later I received a standard email on behalf of the same writer, encouraging me to buy his latest book.  I didn’t. But, today in a branch of Waterstones, I came across the book – and found that a large part of the chapter on Buckinghamshire was devoted to Eton College and also mentioned Slough. The trouble with this is that Eton and Slough are in Berkshire, and have been for some time.  True, they used to be in Buckinghamshire; Slough was the location of South Bucks District Council (whose customer service levels extended to leaving an answerphone on during lunchtime, but that’s another story). But this wasn’t a book about historic Buckinghamshire.  And in a book which sells in the travel section, putting a town in the wrong county is a bit of a howler.

Perhaps chastened – even if not admitting it – by his Baskervilles blooper, the author has not asked readers to let him know of any errors in his latest book.  The shame is that, before my email correspondence with him, I admired his writing. But then it wouldn’t be the first time that a writer in real life didn’t live up to the writer on the page.  I can’t promise that our Slow Guide won’t have any howlers in it – though, knowing the Bradt team, I’d bet against it! – but I hope we might be a bit more gracious if someone pointed one out.

Update: the author apparently believes that border changes in 1974 (which include Buckinghamshire/Berkshire) were “almost all terrible” and so he has based his book on an AA Handbook from 1955.  At a minimum the publicity does not point this out and hence is misleading; and a book published in the past five years would be expected, by most readers and people with any sense, to observe the current borders.  Unless, of course, the author is happier living in 1955…

Image of Eton College courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

A sight for sore eyes, or an eyesore?

If it weren’t for the risk of being bumped into, or run over, it would be tempting to wander round Hitchin with one eye shut.  The town isn’t ugly – quite the reverse, with over 200 buildings being Grade I, II or II* listed.  But then you see a piece of post-war concrete and wonder exactly how and why it got there.  The picture above shows some modern flats in the background – but you can find the same effect in Market Square. No doubt it was all part of the post-1945 wish for the modern, and clean lines and new materials and so on.  But it’s still ugly. Sorry, modernists!

There are, of course, plenty of lovely sights in town. St Mary’s Church, with tearooms gathered around the churchyard like puppies round their mother; or Bucklesbury, where you can stand for ages wondering whether the dog atop the façade of Harvest Moon really is wearing a wig(?) or wander through the benign chaos that is Hawkins, the department store that’s been there since 1863.  So maybe next time I’ll risk it with just one eye…

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

The Chilterns Brigadoon: Halton House

In the village of Halton, just outside Wendover, sits a historic house which opens, Brigadoon-like, just once a year, as part of a national initiative called Heritage Open Days. Despite having lived in the area for the past 25 years and more, we had never visited Halton House until earlier this month.

It’s well worth a visit. Halton House represents the junction of two eras: the late Victorian and Edwardian years, a time of leisure and affluence, at least for some; and the First World War and the more egalitarian times which followed.  Alfred de Rothschild had the house built in three years (1880-3) as somewhere to relax from his banking work in London and as a suitable place to entertain his friends – who happened to include the Prince of Wales.  From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alfred was trying to emulate his brother-in-law’s efforts at nearby Waddesdon Manor, with sandstone turrets suggesting a French chateau as inspiration.  Inside it’s more eclectic and attracted some criticism from contemporaries.

All eras end. War came and Alfred offered the estate – which covered over 3,000 acres – to Lord Kitchener as a training venue for troops.  The new School of Technical Training emerged here as a training body for the Royal Flying Corps, known later as the Royal Air Force.  The RAF bought the estate from Alfred’s nephew, his heir after he died unmarried in 1918. It has been known as RAF Halton ever since, with the house serving as the Officers’ Mess.  Apparently there is some prospect that the RAF will leave the site in a few years time, and no doubt there is a good case for building some much-needed housing on part of the estate. Hopefully Halton House will survive, as a reminder of the history and heritage of Halton.

An American in the Chilterns

“So clear you see these timeless things that, like a bird, the vision sings.”  These words from a John Arlott poem, which now adorn the late broadcaster’s gravestone on Alderney, could just as easily describe the act of watching a cricket match at Wormsley.

It seems remarkable that, just a quarter of a mile after you leave the M40 at junction 5, you’re nudging the car along one of Buckinghamshire’s sunken lanes, avoiding a quixotic pheasant as it waddles towards you.  Eventually you come to the back of the charming pink-facaded pavilion. If you’re lucky (or early) you may bag one of the handful of benches on which to sit.  From that moment, you’re part of the ritual. It doesn’t need many spectators; the day we visited, their numbers only narrowly outnumbered the players.  The home side, a Getty XI, were playing I Zingari, that famous club of itinerant cricketers whose striped caps and blazers have adorned grounds since 1845.

The Getty whom we have to thank for this occasion was John Paul Getty II, later known as Paul Getty (1932-2003), an American philanthropist who donated, among much else, £50 million to the National Gallery.  Getty fell in love with England, becoming a naturalised British citizen, and bought the 2,700 acres of the Wormsley estate in the mid-1980s when it was in a sad condition.  Thanks to the efforts of Arlott’s fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston, and others, Getty also came to love cricket.  Johnston’s distinctive beaky silhouette adorns the weather vane on the pavilion of the cricket ground which hosted its first game in 1992.  This is no amateur effort – Harry Brind, groundsman for many years at the Oval, helped to ensure that the wickets and ground are of high quality.  The England women’s team has played several Test matches here and there’s a busy schedule of matches every summer, some for charitable purposes, others offering free entry.  In the days before the international schedule crowded just about everything else out, male Test stars such as Brian Lara and Graham Gooch played. Lara is the only visiting player to have his feat of a century marked with a special plaque in the pavilion – Wormsley’s version of the honours boards at other venues.

The cricket ground is only one aspect of this amazing, vast estate.  Garsington Opera has become an annual summer fixture here too, having relocated a few years ago from its original Oxfordshire home.  The walled garden and the Library in the family home are also open to visitors on a selective basis.  But arguably Wormsley is most famous for cricket thanks to the paradox that, deep in the Chilterns Hills, it was an American who chose to recreate a timeless English idyll.

That Name Rings A Bell….

Wing, Tring and Ivinghoe
Three churches in a row

I have known this couplet* since childhood, but have never actually visited any of the three churches until now.

My attempt to remedy this with the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring got off to a slightly shaky start as we pushed open the door, only to find it full of aproned ladies wielding brooms and dusters. We were about to retire gracefully, but they beckoned us in, saying we were welcome to look round whilst they were cleaning.

The most immediately striking feature inside the church is the imposing baroque memorial to Sir William Gore and his wife Elizabeth on the north wall of the nave.Sir William was a city alderman and Lord Mayor of London (1701-2) who subsequently purchased Tring Park. He was a great benefactor of the church, contributing significantly to restoration of the church in the early eighteenth century.  To the left of the Gore memorial, and easily missed if you are not looking for it, is a framed family tree commemorating some earlier residents of Tring and their famous descendant: Lawrence Washington, the great grandfather of US President George Washington lived in Tring between 1630 and 1650 and several members of the Washington family were baptized in the church.

Not wishing to disturb the cleaning ladies any more than necessary as they already had their hands full with a little girl who was ‘helping’ in the way only small children can, we decided to return later for a closer look at the rest of the church.

After a lunch with friends, we paid a brief visit to a favourite school trip destination of my youth. Now a branch of the Natural History Museum, the museum at Tring originated as a home for the zoological collections of Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring Park.  I was pleased to find that our old favourites, the dressed fleas (yes, fleas with clothes on!) were still there. Walter Rothschild was a serious zoologist and a fascinating character. His habit of driving around in a zebra-drawn carriage is commemorated in a modern pavement maze in Church Square.

We returned later to the church only to find a choir practice in full swing, but managed to take a closer look at the nave without disturbing them. The church as it stands today dates mainly from the fifteenth century and among its most interesting features are the medieval corbels which top the columns in the nave, including a monkey dressed as a monk, a fox carrying a goose, a collared bear and a dragon.

Unlike most churches, there was no booklet about the history of the church on sale.  Instead, there was series of colour leaflets about individual aspects of the church compiled by members of the Friends of Tring Church Heritage and students of schools in Tring.  Each leaflet includes a paragraph with the thoughts of a school pupil – a really nice idea.

*I quoted the version of the couple that was current in my family, but there are a number of variations.  A similar poem refers to a supposed quarrel between the Hampden family and the Black Prince which led to the three villages being confiscated:

Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe
Hampden of Hampden did foregoe
For striking of ye Prince a blow,
And glad he might escape it so.

HM