From monks to Moneypenny: 007’s car and an Oxfordshire barn

“Were you born in a barn?” was a question irritated adults used to ask during our childhood, if we left a door open and the cold came inside.  The question probably didn’t have a specific barn in mind: certainly not the barn you find 200 yards down a turning, near the war memorial, in the small Oxfordshire village of Drayton St Leonard.  This barn – as we discovered on a snowy March afternoon – is the custodian of one of the greatest motoring marques of them all.

The barn itself has been there for half a millennium; the monks of Dorchester Abbey built it.  Since its restoration, almost twenty years ago, it has housed the Aston Martin Owners Club and an associated museum of cars, trophies and artefacts.  Aston Martin was the inspiration, just over a century ago, of Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, who decided to make their own cars and won a hill climb race near Aston Clinton, just over the border in Buckinghamshire, hence Aston Martin.  Who knows whether a firm called Bamford Martin would have become so famous?  Over the years, the company has moved around – and went bankrupt seven times.  Its greatest breakthrough arguably came in the 1950s when the DB range began to race at Le Mans and, unforgettably, when James Bond drove a DB5 onto cinema screens in Goldfinger in 1964.  (There’s a parallel here with the exploits of the Mini at Monte Carlo and on screen in The Italian Job.)

Now, with the Aston Martin brand firmly associated with luxury cars, you can get up close to some of its history here.  There’s the A3, the oldest Aston Martin in existence, dating back to 1921 and as charming a piece of heritage as you could find. Or you can sit in a Vanquish Volante, a recent joint venture with Red Bull.  Just to give a bit of Top Gear madness to the idea, there’s a video of Daniel Riccardo racing his fellow F1 drivers around the track in Austria… while towing a caravan.  Collectors of toy cars will find countless examples of model Aston Martins, and there are various racing overalls, trophies and other items – careful you don’t trip over the engine sitting, top-heavy, at one end of the museum.

There is an explanation of how Sean Connery ended up driving a DB5, complete with ejector seat, machine guns and revolving number plates, but you won’t find the car itself – not a full-scale version, anyway – or 007.  As Bond tends to cause havoc wherever he goes, perhaps it’s just as well for the barn and everything inside that he isn’t here. We like to imagine that, before things got nasty, he might have taken Goldfinger for a spin in his pride and joy.

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to drive…”

Louis, Robert and Winston: traces of the famous at a Bucks historic house

Off the A418 between Aylesbury and Thame sits a historic house that once housed a French monarch for five years.  Hartwell House, now a luxury hotel under National Trust ownership, was home to the court of Louis XVIII of France (pictured above in a portrait by Francois Gerard) during his exile between 1809 and 1814. The court included Louis’s brother the Comte d’Artois (who succeeded him as Charles X) and Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden.

Perhaps less predictably, the advent of Louis’s court also saw the conversion of the roof into a miniature farm with cage-reared rabbits and birds and tubs of cultivated herbs and vegetables.  Emigrés fleeing from the post-revolutionary regime used Hartwell’s outbuildings as shops to earn some much-needed cash.

Over the centuries, Hartwell has had many famous connections, some of them international. For several centuries it was the property of the Lees, ancestors of US Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee – and US troops were stationed and trained here during World War II.  A later owner was Ernest Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook, whose temperance campaigns were the original inspiration for his pioneering work in travel and tourism.

But if you’re looking for an unexpected trace of the great and the good, go inside and look at the extravagant staircase of Jacobean origin. A fire damaged the balustrade in the 1960s and the replacement balusters include carved figures of GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill; the identities of the other, mostly rather grotesque figures are not known for sure.

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.

Marlow’s Siberian connection

Marlow has boasted several famous writers as residents: TS Eliot, the Shelleys, Isaak Walton. But the town’s most extraordinary author was surely Kate Marsden (1859-1931), who became a writer by chance: she was a nurse, who first became obsessed with the need to find a cure for leprosy while working on a Red Cross mission in Bulgaria. Later, in Constantinople, Marsden heard reports of the existence of a rare herb which could alleviate or even cure the disease – in the Yakutsk region of Siberia.

The superbly titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892) tells the story of her journey, with another woman as assistant and translator, across 11,000 inhospitable Russian miles (by train and boat as well as sledge and horseback), searching for the elusive herb and treating the sick as she went.  Marsden travelled with the approval of the Empress of Russia and of Queen Victoria, who presented her with an angel-shaped brooch on her return.

Marsden became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, and her efforts raised over £2,000 for a leper hospital in Vilyuysk.  Some pundits doubted her account of the journey – though it was no less improbable than those of male writers who had travelled in Russia around that time.  Others insinuated that Marsden was attempting to “atone” for acts of homosexuality.

Siberians, perhaps predictably, were and are more sympathetic.  Residents of Vilyuysk funded the construction of a special monument in Marsden’s memory, which was opened in 2014.

The carelessness of Queen Elizabeth II

I admit it – that heading’s clickbait. As it happens, my view is that our current monarch is one of the more blameless people in British public life today. She has served, stoically and dutifully, for well over 60 years. She’s even had to put up with weekly meetings with 13 different Prime Ministers. So I’m not really criticising Her Majesty. But I do have a bone to pick with her team – or rather my wife does – and, as per the title reference to a well-known play and film about one of her predecessors, it does have something to do with George III. Tell me more, I hear you say…

It’s all to do with Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and one of HMQ’s official residences.  Surely the phrase “nothing to see here” was never less appropriate than here. You could end up with a permanently slack jaw and a cricked neck, and no doubt some of the hordes of visitors do.  Suit of armour, on a horse, by the Grand Staircase? Check.  The musket ball that killed Nelson? It’s here.  A special room to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo? Naturellement. And that’s before we even get to the State Apartments, built for Charles II and much altered since, or St George’s Chapel.

I could go on. But I shan’t. Because one of the best, if not the best line manager I ever had used to tell me: “Look for what isn’t there.”  Now Windsor Castle is justifiably proud, among other things, of its art collection. Some of it could claim your attention, and mental speculation, for hours if you weren’t in a hurry. For instance: The five eldest children of Charles I (Van Dyck, 1637) in the Queen’s Ballroom; is the dog unfeasibly large or are the children implausibly small?  But my attention is on a painting that isn’t there.

It used to be. George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room. The King commissioned it, the Prince was not in the preliminary sketches but sat for it later and the final work went to the Royal Academy in 1798.  A smaller version is in the collection (but not on display) at the National Army Museum.  The original was the work of Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), who escaped a possible career as a lawyer to specialise in painting portraits of royalty and other “people of quality” including Queen Charlotte and Lord Nelson.  Beechey may have been a bit of a toady to get all those commissions but his portraits, as someone wrote fifty years after his death, “have maintained a respectable second rank.”

William had two marriages – the second to a painter of miniatures – from which he fathered 21 children.  Of course, names do change, disappear and sometimes re-appear down the generations. But it so happens that my wife Helen’s maiden name was Beechey.  Since William came from Burford, not too far from the Buckinghamshire of my in-laws and their ancestors, a family legend has persisted that those ancestors include William.  It hasn’t manifested in an artistic career – Helen still remembers the woman who criticised a painting she made at the age of three – but that’s not the point. Art in the blood, as Sherlock Holmes said, is liable to take the strangest forms.

Anyway – George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room.  Then in 1992, the year of the great Windsor fire, it was the only painting at the Castle to be destroyed because – get this – it was apparently too large to move out.

Seriously?   These are people who ruled the largest Empire on Earth. They’ve come through war, revolution, industrialisation and hundreds of years of heaven knows what else, and they’re still our monarchs. And they couldn’t work out how to save one painting.  Well, if it was your (possible, and admittedly not likely) ancestor-in-law who’d painted it, you’d have something to say about that, I bet.

Twenty-five years later, perhaps it’s time to forgive and forget. Beechey’s work survives elsewhere. And – despite a bit of carelessness with one of his works – Windsor is still absolutely splendid.

Some corner of an English field…

If Rupert Brooke had spent more time drinking in and around Henley rather than Princes Risborough, he might have inverted his most famous line.  For, in the little village of Stoke Row, there is some corner of an English field that is forever foreign.

The story of the Maharajah’s Well begins with local squire Edward Reade’s time in north-eastern India, working with the Maharajah of Benares (now Varanasi). His work included the sinking in 1831 of a well to aid a local community in Azimurgh.  When Mr Reade left the area in 1860, he asked the Maharajah to ensure that the well remained available to the public.

When the Maharajah decided on an endowment in England, he recalled Mr Reade’s generosity and his stories of water deprivation in Ipsden. The Maharajah paid for the construction of the well at Stoke Row, as well as a neighbouring cottage for a caretaker, and the well was opened officially on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1864.

It operated for 70 years, with the village’s Indian benefactor continuing to pay for its maintenance for the rest of his life.  The bright red dome, and the golden elephant inside, are now an unforgettable part of the local landscape.

Paths of glory: the best known poem?

It’s a tricky one. What’s the best known poem in the English language? And how do we prove it? Does it depend on what you were taught at school, or something else? And are we talking about an entire poem, or the most famous line or couplet?  (Can you tell someone’s age by whether they can recite an entire poem unprompted?) Best known does not equate to best loved, just to complicate matters further.  As it happens, the authors of several contenders have lived in the Chilterns and Thames Valley region: John Milton (Paradise Lost); TS Eliot (The Wasteland); Percy Shelley (Ozymandias); Rupert Brooke (The Soldier); Christina Rossetti (Remember). None of these works has such a striking physical memorial as you’ll find a minute or two away from St Giles, the parish church of Stoke Poges.

The church itself is well worth a look, a remarkable amalgam of Saxon, Norman, early Gothic and Tudor.  Red brick, flint and oak all combine to great effect, while there are several splendid hatchments (diamond-shaped tablets) including one honouring the Penn family.  The Hastings Chapel contains a mystery; a mural monument with cherubs’ heads above and skulls below, but no inscription.

Most visitors, though, don’t linger inside but make for the east window of the Hastings Chapel outside, where Dorothy Gray and her sister Mary Antrobus are buried… along with Dorothy’s son Thomas, though lack of space means his name appears not on the tomb but on a tablet on the wall.  Thomas’s true memorial appeared many years later; about 100 yards outside the churchyard, a stone sarcophagus raised on a square pedestal, on whose sides some verses from Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard appear.  The monument was bought by local residents and presented to the National Trust in 1921 with ten acres of the neighbouring field bought by public subscription to preserve the surroundings.

What you think of the poem itself might depend on which school you went to, and hence whether you learned it then and remember it now.  Close by the church’s south-west door sits the old yew tree under which, so the legend goes, Gray wrote the Elegy. Is this true? It scarcely matters. As a character says in The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Is the Elegy, as the church’s own booklet suggests, “perhaps the best known poem in the English language”? Again, it probably isn’t important. What matter in the end are the words, and the English vision they conjure up:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me…