You probably know that Hugh Grant starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a hugely successful British romantic comedy film. If you’re a lover of movie trivia, you may know that some filming took place at the Crown in Amersham.
You’re less likely to know that the Crown could have burned down almost sixty years earlier, in 1935… until the alarmed squawking of a sulphur crested cockatoo alerted the staff, enabling them to evacuate guests and put the fire out, the only casualties being two cats. The cockatoo lived another year, to the ripe old age of 118, before being stuffed, mounted and displayed in the hotel bar.
He now sits proudly on the first floor of the refurbished Amersham Museum, in the high street almost directly opposite the Crown. A heroic cockatoo is only one of the various attractions in the new-look Museum, whose glass reception area with an Amersham Tube sign behind the welcome desk contrasts strikingly with the 16th century original elements of the building. Visitors can get an overview of over 2,000 years of local history before viewing a range of exhibits and display installations. Examples include embroidered versions of the front covers of the annual leaflets which the Metropolitan Railways Country Estates used to publish to promote its housing developments along the line, and products manufactured at Goya’s perfume and cosmetics factory. The museum’s garden (pictured) now has access for wheelchair users and features new planting. All in all, it’s an excellent way to find out more about the town – or, if you have lived or worked there, to take a nostalgic trip into its past.
Combining the traditions of 1066 and all that with our modern predilection for lists, we can probably guess that King John was a Bad King and near the top of any Top 10 Worst British/English Kings in History, in most people’s eyes. But one corner of the Chilterns has reason to be grateful to him.
For it was John, in 1200 at the request of Geoffrey, earl of Essex, who granted the right for Amersham to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. The weekly market enabled locals to stock up on the basics they needed for everyday living. The annual fair saw merchants from further across England, and sometimes beyond, offer more exotic wares such as perfumes, handicraft, furs and the types of fruit which might not be available all the time (such as oranges).
If you wander into Amersham’s Garden of Remembrance, you can find a splendid reminder of this in the form of a floral tribute to 800 years of Amersham history: a joint venture by Amersham Town Council, Chesham Bois boy scouts and other volunteers. The building depicted in flowers in the photo is the Market Hall, built in 1682 and now Grade II listed. The Ferris wheel is a reminder of the more light-hearted aspects of the annual event – all the fun of the fair!
There’s a travel syndrome we might call New York State of Mind: the belief that you’ve been somewhere, even when you haven’t. We’ve all seen New York in the movies, so we feel we know it.
If it has nothing else in common with New York, maybe Long Crendon has that. Even on a dull, drizzly day, it’s impossible not to appreciate the weight of history, as you finish your coffee in The Flowerpot café, avoid tripping over someone else’s small dog and make your way down the High Street towards the old Court House (pictured here) and the Church. So many properties are Grade II listed that it’s like an English Heritage showroom; 99 houses built from witchert (puddled clay, straw and dung), stone, timber or brick, from anywhere between the 14th and 19th centuries, as well as several listed barns and walls and a telephone booth from 1935.
But the real reason for any deja vu you may feel is possibly more prosaic. I have a vivid memory of turning on the TV in our hotel room in Bucharest on New Year’s Day 2008. It wasn’t quite “57 channels and nothing on”, but there appeared to be only two things on. One was the video of Kylie Minogue’s latest single; the other was Midsomer Murders which has now been on our TV screens, and millions of others worldwide, for 20 years. And Long Crendon has played a starring role on many occasions. The Court House doubled as a bookshop in ‘The Dagger Club.’ Different houses on the High Street have appeared in the episodes ‘Garden of Death’, ‘Tainted Fruit’, ‘The House in the Woods’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Blood on the Saddle’. The Eight Bells pub, which was featured in ‘A Tale of Two Hamlets’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘The Oblong Club’, has a signed photo of John Nettles, who played the first Chief Inspector Barnaby, near the entrance.
There weren’t, we have to say, that many people around on the day we visited. It may have been the bad weather, of course. Or perhaps they’ve all been murdered…?
A few weeks ago, we visited Runnymede and the JF Kennedy Memorial on the centenary of his birth. Just outside Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, there’s another link with the USA – in a quiet house and garden with over 300 years of history.
Jordans Quaker Meeting House was built in 1688 – shortly after James II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed Quakers and other non-conformists to worship legally for the first time. The Quakers – the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends – argued that everybody could encounter God personally and directly, without intermediaries such as priests. They gained a reputation for non-violent protest; Quakers received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for relief work in both World Wars.
The house at Jordans still hosts Quaker meetings today, and its Meeting Room is an excellent place for quiet reflection – appropriately, as Friends gather there to worship in silence. The gardens and burial grounds surrounding the house accommodate many headstones, including two for William Penn (1644-1718) and his second wife Hannah (1671-1726). William founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which later became the US state of Pennsylvania. Also buried here is Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713), who helped his friend John Milton to find a cottage in nearby Chalfont St Giles when plague beset London. A new burial ground incorporates headstones for members of three local Quaker groups: Chilterns, London West and North West London. Arranged in circles, interspersed with apple trees, the headstones radiate simple serenity.
Eunice, the charming and diminutive lady who greeted us when we arrived, told us there is still a Sunday school held at the house, at which small children better known for being noisy begin to learn from the adults’ example. In their own charming and old-fashioned way, the house and gardens act as a pause button for our ever-faster moving modern world. A pause for quiet reflection can help anyone – whatever their religious beliefs, or even if they have none.
Sitting quietly in the Chilterns, on a hill behind the village of West Wycombe, is one of the most famous examples of clubland in the world. Its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, had form in this area: his other creations included the Dilettanti Club (to encourage interest in classical art) and the Divan Club, for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Paul Whitehead, steward to the Hell-Fire Club, may have met Sir Francis at the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks – now there’s a club that deserves eternal fame if only for its name…
But it’s Hell-Fire rather than Beefsteak that has earned a place in history – infamy, even. No doubt a large part of this is down to a later Sir Francis Dashwood deciding in the early 1950s to make the Hell-Fire Caves into a tourist attraction. The Club – or the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe as it was originally known – met in other locations, too, notably at Medmenham Abbey but also in members’ houses such as Sir Walter Stanhope’s at Eythrope and possibly even at Cliveden. As the official guide book states, “Numerous second-hand accounts appeared towards the latter part of the eighteenth century giving varying descriptions of the goings on, some of which seem to be completely fictitious and are not corroborated by any other sources.”
The likelihood is that the Club’s activities were not as racy as the publicity would have had contemporaries or later generations believe. There were plenty of toasts when club members gathered for “private devotions” – although the drinking probably wasn’t excessive – and the guide book notes that “These meetings provided an ideal opportunity for discreet rendezvous with ladies who did not wish to be identified.”
Over its most active years between the 1950s and the mid-1770s, the Hell-Fire Club had twelve members. They included a First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Sandwich), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and even John Wilkes, a journalist who found fame as an MP – now there’s a career path you don’t come across these days…
While Runnymede remains most famous for its location for the agreement of the original Magna Carta, just over 800 years ago, there is also a significant associated modern anniversary. If he had lived, John F Kennedy would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.
In nearby woods, at the top of a hewn stone staircase, sits a memorial to JFK, within an area of land which the UK Government gifted to the US from the Crown Estate, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The memorial quotes his promise to “pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In our age, when Kennedy’s latest successor preaches “America first” and a would-be UK Prime Minister directly blames British actions abroad for the rise of terrorism, these words from 1961 may seem as if they might as well come from 961, or another planet. But they still resound down the years, along with JFK’s other exhortations, which included this:
“My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
In the middle of the Metropolitan Green Belt sits the small village of Chenies. Seriously small: there are well under 200 inhabitants. Chenies Manor goes back, in one form or another, at least 800 years, having been in the possession of the Cheyne family. However, the brick manor house which is the central part of what survives today was built in the mid-15th century, and John Russell modernised it in the 1530s.
Russell, a successful operator in Henry VIII’s court, received an earldom and Chenies became the main home of the Earls of Bedford, receiving many eminent visitors including Elizabeth I on several occasions. After the Restoration, Chenies ceased to be the Russells’ principal seat – they used Woburn instead – and, over the following generations, suffered a degree of neglect. The Macleod Matthews, the current owners since the 1950s, is the first family to live in the house as a whole for over 300 years. They have embarked on an extensive restoration programme which continues.
These days Chenies opens to the public on selected afternoons between April and October, with timed tours of the house and plenty of opportunity to enjoy the splendid gardens. The tulips were a highlight of our visit today. There’s also a tearoom across which you navigate with your trolley of tea and raspberry shortcake, trying not to fall over the large, friendly dog which shambles here and there. It’s a splendid day out at a quirky house – look out for the ornamental cut-brick chimneys which look as if they’ve escaped from a Dali painting.