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…

 

Licensed to… print?

“The name’s Bond, Basildon Bond. I’ve got letters after my name,” was the quip Russ Abbot used to introduce his 007-parodying character on TV in the 1980s.  But the real reason for this brand’s choice of name involves opposite ends of the Chilterns.

The story begins, indirectly, with the creation of John Dickinson Stationery in Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead, in 1804.  The firm was to enjoy over 200 years in business before its acquisition in 2005. Along the way it bought Millington and Sons, a London firm.  In the summer of 1911, Millington’s had been considering the introduction of a new rag writing paper, and some of the directors of the company were staying at Basildon Park. One of the matters arising was a name for this new paper brand. The directors took the name from the house, liking the alliterative effect.  The Basildon Bond brand survives to this day.

The house from which the brand got its name also embodies classic style as a Palladian villa with Adam-style interiors, built between 1776 and 1783 on the fortune which Sir Francis Sykes had amassed working for the East India Company in Bengal.  Its current healthy condition is largely due to Lord and Lady Iliffe who restored it, furnished it with appropriate Old Masters paintings and gave the house and park to the National Trust in 1978.  The Bath stone within the portico of the principal entrance has kept the warmth of its colour. The most surprising element inside is probably the Sutherland Room, which contains studies by artist Graham Sutherland for the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral as part of its post-war restoration; Sutherland was a friend of Lord Iliffe, a newspaper proprietor whose empire included the Coventry Evening Telegraph.  The tearoom in the old Servants’ Hall displays murals evoking Angkor Wat and other Eastern scenes, as a reminder of Sir Francis Sykes’ career and a trip by Lord and Lady Iliffe around the world.

Poetry… it’s the word on the street

Reality TV regularly shows us the results when competitions challenge people to be creative against the clock, whether that means implementing a business plan or baking a cake.  Along West Street at the top end of Marlow, heading towards Henley-on-Thames, is a reminder of a time, 200 years ago, when literature used to do something similar.

For this is where Percy and Mary Shelley once lived.  The house has since split into several flats but, in 1817, the Shelleys were completing or creating two significant literary works.  The story of how they stayed with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva the previous summer, reading each other ghost stories because of the inclement weather until Byron challenged each to write his or her own story, is well known.  By April-May 1817, Mary was completing work on what had started out as a short story, but became a novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  Publication followed on 1 January 1818, albeit anonymously.

What is perhaps less well known is that Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may also have had a competitive origin.  According to Stephen Hebron, Curator of Special Projects at Oxford’s Bodleian Library,

“It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home in Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.”

Shelley’s Ozymandias beat Smith’s version to publication by three weeks, being printed on 11 January 1818, and is much-quoted two centuries on.  Across the road, at 47 West Street, is a plaque to Thomas Love Peacock, novelist, poet and satirist – and close friend of Percy Shelley.  Peacock outlived Shelley by more than 40 years, but his writings now lie in an Ozymandias-like state of obscurity. Peacock’s old home is a showroom for a firm supplying natural stone and porcelain for the discerning home owner.

Remarkably, another plaque at number 31 reminds us that TS Eliot came to live in this street a century after the Shelleys, in a house which Aldous Huxley lent him.  By 1917, Eliot was beginning to come to the wider world’s attention for his poetry, including The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had been published two years earlier.  31 West Street now houses an excellent fine dining restaurant.

Given its length, perhaps it’s just as well that Eliot didn’t have to write Prufrock against the clock.

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.