We will remember them: Wilfred Owen and other Great War poets

“I sense his presence, sometimes,” said the elderly gentleman standing next to us as we admired the plaque. “If it’s evening, and I’m preparing the lay reading for the next day, it seems as if he’s here.” Charmingly, he adds: “Does that seem silly?”

It doesn’t. We’re inside All Saints Church, a minute or two down the road from the village of Dunsden, sometimes known as Dunsden Green. Here, for about 18 months between late 1911 and early 1913, Wilfred Owen served as lay assistant to the Vicar, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, which would transform and eventually claim his life. On a strictly physical level, Owen isn’t here now (though his parents and sister are buried in the churchyard); his remains are at Ors in northern France, close to where he died in action on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice. In another sense, Owen’s story ended in Shrewbury, his childhood home town, where his mother received on 11 November the telegram informing her of his death, as the town’s church bells were ringing out in celebration of the peace.

Owen ‘belongs’ to all these places, and more. A century later, we still remember his words, perhaps most famously his denunciation of “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”

Other Great War poets – some who died in the conflict, others who survived or outlived it – lived in and around the Chilterns and the Thames Valley. Sadly, Christ Church in High Wycombe, where poet and composer Ivory Gurney was organist both during and after the war, has long since gone. But you can still drink at the Pink and Lily in Princes Risborough, a favourite haunt of Rupert Brooke when he went for walks in the area. Maybe most poignant of all is the experience of standing in the beautiful Thames-side village of Goring, as you think of Laurence Binyon, a Goring resident. Binyon’s most famous poem For the Fallen is heard each Remembrance Day – particularly the third and fourth verses:-

“They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

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!

Wise to save a folly: Dinton Castle reborn

Tonight’s edition of Grand Designs (Wed 19 Sep, 9.00pm, Channel 4), presented by the ever-affable Kevin McCloud, followed the progress of an architectural project with a difference. A few miles south-west of Aylesbury, set back from the road to Thame, stands a strange octagonal building, Dinton Castle (also known as Dinton Folly). The Grade II listed structure is over 250 years old; Sir John Vanhatten built it as an eyecatcher from nearby Dinton Hall. He also stored his fossil collection in the limestone walls.

However, Dinton Castle has become increasingly precarious in recent years, until its purchase in 2016. Its subsequent restoration, and conversion into a two-bedroom family home, is the work of architect Jaime Fernandez. You can find out more about the project here. Congratulations to Jaime on creating a new purpose for one of the Vale of Aylesbury’s most distinctive architectural landmarks. Thomas Gray wrote that “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”; in this case, clearly it was wise not to abandon a folly to its fate.

Photo: Rob Farrow (reproduced under Creative Commons Licence)

The many names of Christmas

Just over a mile up the hill from Watlington lies the hamlet of Christmas Common. But there doesn’t seem to be settled agreement on the reason for the name…

One theory is that the name derives from the Christmas trees that grow here. The Tree Barn, a local business, was involved in the decoration of the Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in 2017.  A second possibility is that a family called Christmas lived in the area.

The third possible source for the name is the local truce which is supposed to have been declared between the rival troops in the English Civil War on Christmas Day in 1643 (an echo of the legend of the football match between British and German soldiers in the trenches around Ypres on Christmas Day, 1914). The Civil War certainly passed close by. Six months beforehand, in June 1643, John Hampden sustained a fatal wound at the Battle of Chalgrove. Another local legend has it that he stayed at the Hare and Hounds in Watlington the night before, leaving a chest containing money for the payment of troops with the landlord.  The Hare and Hounds stood till 1990; in its place now is the rather more prosaically named Chiltern Business Centre.

Whatever the truth may be, Christmas Common is popular these days with cyclists and walkers alike. There’s any number of walking routes you can follow, or adapt for yourself, through ancient woodland filled with beech, yew, sycamore and other trees – even the occasional cherry tree – and across chalk grassland rich in wild flowers. If a bit of steepness doesn’t faze you, that’s even better. We climbed almost 400 feet (138m) for some wonderful views across south Oxfordshire – taking care not to disturb the cows (above). If you need sustenance at the start, end or mid-point of your route, the Fox and Hounds is a lovely old country pub, where George the amiable Labrador pads around while you enjoy local sausages and mash or one of the chef’s excellent pies.

Mad women, triple poisoners and parallel world portal: High Wycombe

How much money, including visitor income, did John Betjeman cost Slough when his poetry when his poetry called for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on the town? It’s impossible to know, although the local authority and others who promote Slough have been known to express some exasperation about the effect on the town’s reputation.

No poet has been quite so cruel to High Wycombe, but it has a long, unwanted track record of cultural references which make it out to be dull, dreary or even just a bit of a joke. For example…

“This is about as much fun as a wet weekend in High Wycombe…”
(Yootha Joyce in George and Mildred, the film of the ITV sitcom, 1980)

“I’m living in High Wycombe with a madwoman!”
(Tim Brooke-Taylor in You Must Be the Husband, BBC sitcom, 1990s)

“High Wycombe is the last place on Earth, or should I say in the universe, where anything unusual is ever going to happen.”
(The Doctor in short story ‘Return of the Spiders’ from Doctor Who: More Short Trips, 1999 – the story featured giant man-eating spiders)

JOHN: “Do you go for a discreet Harvester sometimes [with Irene Adler]? Is there a night of passion in High Wycombe… Just text her back… Because High Wycombe is better than you are currently equipped to understand.”
SHERLOCK: “I caught a triple poisoner in High Wycombe.”
(‘The Lying Detective’, Sherlock, 2016)

Steve Coogan’s tragi-comic creation Alan Partridge referred to a night of passion in the town’s (fictional) Queen’s Moat Hotel while, in his comic novel In Your Dreams, Tom Holt made High Wycombe an unlikely portal to the land of the Fey.  Even The Archers has made not particularly flattering reference to the town not so long ago.

As it happens, some encouraging developments have been afoot in Wycombe in recent years; a new shopping centre, a new bus station, university status for the local college and an excellent theatre, the Wycombe Swan. And – if you’re ready to look for it – there is much of interest to find, for example at the Wycombe Museum (pictured above).

There isn’t a Harvester in the town, though there is one just outside, at Handy Cross. Maybe all those deerstalker-wearing fans of Benedict Cumberbatch will be paying it a visit soon, hoping for a glimpse of the Great Detective.

Classic, vintage and the need for speed

Earlier this year we visited an Oxfordshire barn with the secrets of Aston Martin inside. If you’re a petrolhead, or even if you just enjoy looking at classic and vintage cars, then the Chilterns is an excellent place to be.

There are many good reasons for visiting Stonor Park in Oxfordshire. This year saw something new, a Supercar Sunday featuring everything from pioneering race cars to classic cars and the latest hypercars. The event, which ran in May in support of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children’s Fund, was a terrific success (thanks to Stonor Park for providing the photo above).  Plans are afoot to repeat the event in 2019, so keep an eye on the Stonor website for news of that.

Meanwhile, several other local events with a motoring theme are coming up:-

All three promise to be fun days out with plenty of motoring power to admire…

Raising the Devil

A sunny Sunday morning in June is the perfect time for a walk in the  countryside.  Conjuring up the devil is a less common pastime, I hope, but I had the opportunity to combine both. Our walk from Oving to North Marston started in the usual way, strolling across fields with views over the countryside, whilst avoiding cow pats and  murmuring ‘mint sauce’ to the sheep as we passed.

On arrival in North Marston, however, we came across the village pump and Schorne Well.  John Schorne was rector of North Marston from 1282 to 1314. After his death, the church became a popular pilgrimage site because of his holiness and the miracles supposed to have been worked by the power of the water in his Holy Well, which was supposed to cure gout.  In the church itself is a ‘boot shrine’ where afflicted pilgrims could insert their feet in hope of a cure. The popularity of the shrine brought huge prosperity to the church, as the impressive building will testify. In 1478, Edward IV had Schorne’s relics transferred to the newly-build St George’s Chapel at Windsor in the hope of attracting the pilgrim trade, but visitors still continued to visit the Holy Well; Henry VIII (commonly believed to have been a gout sufferer) went twice.

Over time, images of the cure for gout, which was represented by the devil being drawn out of a boot, became misunderstood as Schorne conjuring the devil in a boot, giving rise to the local jingle ‘John Schorne, gentleman borne, conjured the devil into a boot.’

Sadly, the well was sealed off in 1861 after a tragic accident and by 1900 the building that  housed it had fallen down, with only the pump remaining. This sorry state of affairs continued for the next century, but in 2005, a new well-house was built, with an amusing reference to the legend. If you pump hard enough, you can see the devil’s head pop up in the boot beside the water trough.

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