An American in the Chilterns

“So clear you see these timeless things that, like a bird, the vision sings.”  These words from a John Arlott poem, which now adorn the late broadcaster’s gravestone on Alderney, could just as easily describe the act of watching a cricket match at Wormsley.

It seems remarkable that, just a quarter of a mile after you leave the M40 at junction 5, you’re nudging the car along one of Buckinghamshire’s sunken lanes, avoiding a quixotic pheasant as it waddles towards you.  Eventually you come to the back of the charming pink-facaded pavilion. If you’re lucky (or early) you may bag one of the handful of benches on which to sit.  From that moment, you’re part of the ritual. It doesn’t need many spectators; the day we visited, their numbers only narrowly outnumbered the players.  The home side, a Getty XI, were playing I Zingari, that famous club of itinerant cricketers whose striped caps and blazers have adorned grounds since 1845.

The Getty whom we have to thank for this occasion was John Paul Getty II, later known as Paul Getty (1932-2003), an American philanthropist who donated, among much else, £50 million to the National Gallery.  Getty fell in love with England, becoming a naturalised British citizen, and bought the 2,700 acres of the Wormsley estate in the mid-1980s when it was in a sad condition.  Thanks to the efforts of Arlott’s fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston, and others, Getty also came to love cricket.  Johnston’s distinctive beaky silhouette adorns the weather vane on the pavilion of the cricket ground which hosted its first game in 1992.  This is no amateur effort – Harry Brind, groundsman for many years at the Oval, helped to ensure that the wickets and ground are of high quality.  The England women’s team has played several Test matches here and there’s a busy schedule of matches every summer, some for charitable purposes, others offering free entry.  In the days before the international schedule crowded just about everything else out, male Test stars such as Brian Lara and Graham Gooch played. Lara is the only visiting player to have his feat of a century marked with a special plaque in the pavilion – Wormsley’s version of the honours boards at other venues.

The cricket ground is only one aspect of this amazing, vast estate.  Garsington Opera has become an annual summer fixture here too, having relocated a few years ago from its original Oxfordshire home.  The walled garden and the Library in the family home are also open to visitors on a selective basis.  But arguably Wormsley is most famous for cricket thanks to the paradox that, deep in the Chilterns Hills, it was an American who chose to recreate a timeless English idyll.

That Name Rings A Bell….

Wing, Tring and Ivinghoe
Three churches in a row

I have known this couplet* since childhood, but have never actually visited any of the three churches until now.

My attempt to remedy this with the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring got off to a slightly shaky start as we pushed open the door, only to find it full of aproned ladies wielding brooms and dusters. We were about to retire gracefully, but they beckoned us in, saying we were welcome to look round whilst they were cleaning.

The most immediately striking feature inside the church is the imposing baroque memorial to Sir William Gore and his wife Elizabeth on the north wall of the nave.Sir William was a city alderman and Lord Mayor of London (1701-2) who subsequently purchased Tring Park. He was a great benefactor of the church, contributing significantly to restoration of the church in the early eighteenth century.  To the left of the Gore memorial, and easily missed if you are not looking for it, is a framed family tree commemorating some earlier residents of Tring and their famous descendant: Lawrence Washington, the great grandfather of US President George Washington lived in Tring between 1630 and 1650 and several members of the Washington family were baptized in the church.

Not wishing to disturb the cleaning ladies any more than necessary as they already had their hands full with a little girl who was ‘helping’ in the way only small children can, we decided to return later for a closer look at the rest of the church.

After a lunch with friends, we paid a brief visit to a favourite school trip destination of my youth. Now a branch of the Natural History Museum, the museum at Tring originated as a home for the zoological collections of Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring Park.  I was pleased to find that our old favourites, the dressed fleas (yes, fleas with clothes on!) were still there. Walter Rothschild was a serious zoologist and a fascinating character. His habit of driving around in a zebra-drawn carriage is commemorated in a modern pavement maze in Church Square.

We returned later to the church only to find a choir practice in full swing, but managed to take a closer look at the nave without disturbing them. The church as it stands today dates mainly from the fifteenth century and among its most interesting features are the medieval corbels which top the columns in the nave, including a monkey dressed as a monk, a fox carrying a goose, a collared bear and a dragon.

Unlike most churches, there was no booklet about the history of the church on sale.  Instead, there was series of colour leaflets about individual aspects of the church compiled by members of the Friends of Tring Church Heritage and students of schools in Tring.  Each leaflet includes a paragraph with the thoughts of a school pupil – a really nice idea.

*I quoted the version of the couple that was current in my family, but there are a number of variations.  A similar poem refers to a supposed quarrel between the Hampden family and the Black Prince which led to the three villages being confiscated:

Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe
Hampden of Hampden did foregoe
For striking of ye Prince a blow,
And glad he might escape it so.

HM

A movie star, a cockatoo and a hotel

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.

 

What did blooming King John do for us?

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!

The New York of English villages

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…?

The silence of Friends

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.

Wine, women and Hell-Fire…

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…