Feel the festival

In recent years, in addition to events in specific locations across the region, a number of Chilterns-wide festivals have sprung up. This is excellent news for two main reasons: (1) more local events from which to choose; (2) in the long run, we hope, a higher profile for the Chilterns as a whole.

The star at the moment is the Chilterns Arts Festival – a week-long programme of musical events in some splendid venues including All Saints Church in Marlow (pictured above). The climax is a special performance of Così fan tutte at Pipers Corner School this Saturday, 16 February.

The year is still young, so there are plenty more Chilterns-wide festivals to come:-

See you there…?

Abbey days are here again: a triptych

Embroidery has never loomed too large in our household, or too high on our list of cultural attractions or artistic skills. True, Helen’s father used to create the odd piece. And her mother once answered “Embroidery” to the Trivial Pursuits question “What was the name of the first craft to go up in space?”

But we haven’t thought too much about it over the years. Nonetheless, when we stayed at Missenden Abbey the other day, we found a splendid example of the art, lurking behind a mobile coat-rail in reception.

“The story of Misseden Abbey” [sic] was created in 1990 by Alison M Binns, after a weekend at the Abbey on an HNC in embroidery design. Using traditional techniques including stumpwork figures for the people – a method which was, apparently, popular in the late medieval and early modern periods – it divides the story of the Abbey into three sections:-

  • The blue panel marks the Abbey’s creation in 1133 by Augustinian monks who had fled from France, and the origins of that order
  • The green panel depicts the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, its purchase by various private owners and its occupation by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War;
  • And the red panel shows the recent history of the Abbey; its purchase by the county council for use as an adult education centre and, sadly, the destruction of the interior by a fire in 1985 (hence the use of red).

Happily, the Abbey continues to this day as a conference centre which also runs a range of short courses on creative subjects. It sits unassumingly at the opposite end of Great Missenden’s high street from the railway station; you could easily miss it. But it’s in fine fettle for a nearly 900 year old establishment, and we’d be surprised if it doesn’t make it to a full millennium.

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Chilterns 3Cs: chalk, cherries and chairs

It’s easy to forget, as we hurry about our daily lives, the quietly heroic efforts of various people and organisations striving to preserve the best of where we live, and to find out more about it. The Chilterns Conservation Board is a key local player in these parts. So it’s encouraging to learn that the Heritage Lottery Board has awarded £2 million for a five-year conservation project. The three Cs – chalk, cherries and chairs – refer to some of the best-known natural and historical features of the region.

The press release gives fuller details of exactly what will be part of the project. Our first home in Prestwood was on the site of one of the cherry orchards which used to be a major local employer. Sadly, the orchards are almost completely gone, not only from Prestwood but from the Chilterns as a whole. So it’s exciting to read that restoring the orchards to some extent, and resurrecting the annual Cherry Pie Festival, is part of the project plans.

One of Helen’s ancestors was a bodger, otherwise known as a wood turner. Furniture making used to be synonymous with High Wycombe in particular (the football team’s nickname is still “the Chairboys”), and the bodgers were a key link in the production process. As with the cherry orchards, this part of local history is well overdue for revival and re-examination.

And the chalk? Well, the Chilterns Conservation Board is already working on our large collection of Iron Age hillforts.  Whichever one you visit – whether Sharpenhoe Clappers, for example, in the northern Chilterns – there’s nothing like an old hillfort for a bit of atmosphere and mystery. This new project promises to step up work on the hillforts, and we may even learn more about Grim’s Ditch – though, if investigations come up with anything better than that wonderful name, we’ll be surprised.

Rare birds and butterflies should benefit, too, with this project providing additional resources to try to ensure that rareness doesn’t turn into extinction. All in all, we think the HLF’s £2 million for this new project is going to be money well spent.

Do you think it’s 60?

When a tourist attraction has been open for a long time, one of the challenges for those who own and manage it is to find new reasons for people to visit. This is presumably a major issue for the National Trust, whose five million members eagerly make use of their membership whenever they can.

In 2019 one of the Trust’s most famous properties in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, will be celebrating 60 years of opening to the public. As Trust members, we’ve visited many times over the years, usually to goggle at the extraordinary, relentless procession of exquisite, expensive taste displayed within the house. We do enjoy the gardens too – and remember fondly a mynah bird called George, who lived in the Aviary and who might favour you with a range of comments, from the accurate but unimaginative “Waddesdon Manor” to the more colourful “You’re an old stinker!”

This Christmas, as part of a special Carnival programme, Waddesdon is looking a bit different from normal, and it’s all to do with light shows. The Stables are illuminated (the work of the Guildhall School), as is the front of the Manor itself, and there’s a light trail on the paths around the Aviary. Any aficionado of horror films knows how the atmosphere of a place can change at night; that’s certainly the case here. The magnificence of the grounds turns to mystery and it’s all quite eerie, even with the large number of visitors around (and the younger children seemed to be having a whale of a time). If you’re in the areas between now and 2 January, we recommend a visit. You can also pre-book tickets for visits to the house – but, for once, the grounds are the star.

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)