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…

Words from another age, words for the ages

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.”

Tudors and tulips

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.

Teacups and trucks

Not many people would, probably, put the words “Luton” and “culture” together.  Luton has such a bad reputation that it’s even been voted the UK’s worst town.  A drive round the centre can be depressing and confusing.  Yet some of Luton’s sons and daughters have achieved great things, from composer David Arnold to cricketer Monty Panesar.  Nearby Luton Airport is a national gateway to and from the northern Chilterns, and is the town’s largest employer.  And just outside central Luton sit two splendid ways to spend an afternoon out. 

Along Old Bedford Road is Wardown House, Museum and Gallery (pictured).  The house itself is a late Victorian creation, completed in 1877 for a local solicitor who also had the outbuildings and lodges built and laid out a cricket lawn and park.  After the family moved away, the local council bought the estate, opening the park to the public and using the house as a military convalescent hospital in World War I and later as a rental space for some of their staff.  Wardown House has been a museum since 1931 and it has just reopened after a period of redevelopment. 

Visitors can wander through both floors, admire an eclectic selection of displays including some very Victorian mounted butterflies and learn about two centuries of Luton life in a special exhibition – with the starring role going to the hatmaking industry for which the town is still renowned.  There’s enough interactive content to satisfy the most curious of children.  Sit in an armchair and a voice will explain what games the children of Wardown House used to play; look in the bathroom mirror and what you thought was a portrait of a World War I nurse comes to life and the nurse explains what her job involved.  The tearoom, in what was the house’s dining room, features one or two quirky design choices: customers drink from paper cups while proper teacups form part of the light fittings!  All in all, the house and surrounding park provide an excellent attraction.

Three miles away across town is Stockwood Discovery Centre.  Here, too, there was once a country house, completed in 1740 for £60,000 (probably over £12 million in today’s money) and property of the Crawley family for 200 years.  Again the local council bought the house and surrounding park, but the house fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1964.  Happily a combination of Heritage Lottery Fund money and other donations has enabled Stockwood Craft Museum, as it was, to redevelop and reopen.

Keen gardeners can enjoy the Period Gardens which show a range of styles of English gardens through the centuries (my favourite was the Elizabethan knot garden), as well as other garden spaces devoted to themes such as medicine and wildlife.  The Discovery Galleries in the old stables explore the history of the region from prehistoric times – including a taste of medieval Luton, while the Discovery Hall focuses on another industry for which Luton has become famous, as the home of Vauxhall: the motor trade.  The Hall features a collection previously owned by George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, who collected, drove, restored and constructed horse-drawn vehicles for over fifty years.

Like Wardown, Stockwood Discovery Centre is open most days of the year.  Even better, both are free to enter.  I would recommend either as good options for a day out – and to dispel any remaining prejudice you may have against Luton…

Commuter Castle

We’ve all had this problem… Working in the big smoke; live a long way away; how to shorten the daily grind of commuting? Get a base in town, perhaps – or just outside town.

Which brings us to Richard, earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III.  Duty at the royal court in London often called, so Henry granted his brother Berkhamsted Castle in 1225.  Richard got his staff to bring the accounts from his earldom to Berkhamsted, and turned the Castle into a luxurious palace complex – a definite upgrade from its Norman motte-and-bailey origins.  Richard used the Castle until his death in 1272, making him a far more durable resident than Thomas Becket, who had held it for nine years until, in 1164, his quarrel with Henry II led to disgrace.  Edward, the Black Prince, would enjoy the Castle, as would five subsequent queens.

The past 500 years have not been so distinguished, with the Castle slowly falling into ruin. Today you can pick your way round its remains, keeping an eye on the demob-happy schoolchildren as they cavort around the ruins. Beckett, Richard or Edward might all have appreciated the fast train which passes within a javelin’s throw of the Castle, taking today’s London workers to Euston within 40 minutes, up to four times an hour.  From here it’s a short walk up Castle Street (helpful name) into Berkhamsted proper.