To boldly go in search of our only hope…

If you’re a sucker for science fiction and fantasy, especially in the movies and on TV, the ‘Robot’ exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury has been – to quote the Cybermen – an ‘excellent’ place to visit in the last couple of months. It featured all manner of models of robots, cyborgs and androids from the small and silver screens, all the way from Maria (Metropolis, 1927) to Robbie the Robot (Return to the Forbidden Planet), R2D2 and C3P0 from Star Wars and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. There were also some examples of robot toys, which surprisingly date back all the way to the 1940s. Towering over the whole thing was a full-scale model of Darth Vader, the heaviest breathing cyborg in cinema history.

The presence of the Dark Lord is a reminder that the Chilterns has hosted its fair share of science fiction and fantasy invaders over the years. The ever-expanding Star Wars universe has been filming here over the past year, at Ivinghoe Beacon, for Episode IX. The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic novel Good Omens used Hambleden as the idyllic village where a young Antichrist grows up (though the village signs don’t yet say ‘Home of the Antichrist’, strangely). Both Harry Potter and Doctor Who have filmed in Burnham Beeches. On the edge of the Chilterns, the village of Brill was JRR Tolkein’s inspiration for the Lord of the Rings village of Bree.

Several eminent SF and fantasy authors have been born in the region, or lived here for a while. Pratchett, perhaps the best-loved British fantasy author of the 20th century, was born in Beaconsfield and worked in High Wycombe as a journalist in his younger days. Susan Cooper, author of contemporary fantasy books for younger readers including The Dark is Rising, was born in Burnham. And most significantly of all, Mary Shelley spent a year in Marlow completing what would become a seminal science fiction work: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Coming soon to a pub or bookshop near you…

We’re delighted that Slow Travel: The Chilterns & The Thames Valley is now out, and grateful for all the positive comments we’ve received so far. We’re appearing at several events in the next few months – here’s a handy summary:-

Follow the links in each case for further information. Thanks to Chorleywood, Gerrards Cross and Marlow Bookshops, the Chiltern Society, the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden and our publishers Bradt Travel Guides for making these events possible.

The launch party and the ‘In conversation’ are joint events to promote and celebrate not only our book, but also The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, a new Chilterns travelogue by Gail Simmons, also published by Bradt. The Country of Larks is due out any day now, making it a very good spring for new travel books about the Chilterns!

Pictured above: church in Medmenham

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.”

Gazumptious: two Missenden openings

After a summer break, the most distinctive building on Great Missenden’s High Street re-opened. A few doors down, an old building began a new life. Both got an enthusiastic reception from families warming up for half-term.

The re-opening was at the Roald Dahl Museum. All the features which have made this such a firm family favourite are as popular as ever: the doors to the first room, which really do smell of chocolate; the original hut in which Dahl wrote, complete with items such as the rolled-up ball of silver wrappers from all the chocolate he used to eat (one bar a day); and plenty of opportunities for young budding writers to get creative. And, for the next few weeks, the courtyard is hosting something special for the 30th anniversary of the publication of Matilda – a new statue of the eponymous heroine standing up to President Trump, the public’s choice of public figure as a 2018 equivalent to the book’s Miss Trunchbull. One other thing to mention: you can now use your ticket to return to the Museum for up to 12 months.

“Do we really need another café?” asked a local lady, watching with me in amusement as her sons jumped up and down outside the Old Post Office building to get a glimpse of what is now inside. It’s a fair question. I’d happily swap the large branch of Costa for the return of the extremely good Chinese restaurant we used to enjoy or, failing that, a good Italian restaurant. The latest café to try its luck in the village is the appropriately named Stamp. There are one or two traces of the building’s former use – our table mats had special issue Roald Dahl-themed stamps in their centre. It’s a bright space in which you can stop for a quesillada, a salad or even a pizza, along with some single origin tea and specially curated coffee (yes, I know you can’t “curate” coffee, but there’s no accounting for pretentious use of language). To help make ends meet, the café also sells some sweet handmade cotton products; cushion covers, coasters and multicoloured elephants which we predict will be in much demand. It remains to be seen whether The Stamp survives and thrives. Its one obvious drawback is a lack of space; it’s postage stamp sized, but we squeezed onto an extra table at the back, where we enjoyed our harissa chicken and nduja sausage and chilli pizzas. If you’re in Great Missenden, do give The Stamp a try. (If you are visiting the Museum with small children who can’t wait for something to eat or drink, there’s a very good café there, too.)

The cows have come home…?

When you’re wandering round an Oxfordshire town centre in 2018, there are certain things you don’t expect.  Such as random sightings of replica cows.  Milton Keynes, maybe; it has a reputation for concrete bovines.  But we saw a few as we pottered around Thame today.

Perhaps it’s no more than a useful reminder that Thame has been a market town for almost a millennium, and that the upper end of its high street was once occupied by a livestock market, with cattle and pigs penned into an area now marked by cobbles.  That would certainly help to explain the wide High Street and market place, with narrow entrances at both ends.  There still is a cattle market each Wednesday and Friday, along with a general market each Tuesday and a farmers’ market on the second Tuesday of each month.

Conservation efforts over many years have ensured that many other traces of the town’s history remain for visitors to find.  There’s the 15th century Nag’s Head, which used to be called the King’s Head… till a supporter of Charles I was hanged from the sign by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War.  Further along the High Street, by the corner with Church Road, the timber frame alms houses, founded in 1447 by Richard Quartermain, are almost trumped by the elaborate 19th century bandstand in the grounds.  Or there’s the Swan Hotel, whose Georgian facade belies the timber frame jettied construction inside, or the James Figg pub on Cornmarket, named after the world’s first boxing champion, who grew up in the town; or the plaque on Hampden House commemorating the heroism of John Hampden in the Civil War – he went to school in Thame, and died in Hampden House after sustaining injuries in battle in 1643.  And there are buildings with links to Evelyn Waugh and WB Yeats.

All in all, Thame is an excellent place to wander around for a day. A host of cafes can refresh you, and we thoroughly recommend The Thatch for lunch.  Maybe best to avoid the slow-braised beef brisket, though… just in case you catch a cow’s eye on your way back up the high street.

Louis, Robert and Winston: traces of the famous at a Bucks historic house

Off the A418 between Aylesbury and Thame sits a historic house that once housed a French monarch for five years.  Hartwell House, now a luxury hotel under National Trust ownership, was home to the court of Louis XVIII of France (pictured above in a portrait by Francois Gerard) during his exile between 1809 and 1814. The court included Louis’s brother the Comte d’Artois (who succeeded him as Charles X) and Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden.

Perhaps less predictably, the advent of Louis’s court also saw the conversion of the roof into a miniature farm with cage-reared rabbits and birds and tubs of cultivated herbs and vegetables.  Emigrés fleeing from the post-revolutionary regime used Hartwell’s outbuildings as shops to earn some much-needed cash.

Over the centuries, Hartwell has had many famous connections, some of them international. For several centuries it was the property of the Lees, ancestors of US Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee – and US troops were stationed and trained here during World War II.  A later owner was Ernest Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook, whose temperance campaigns were the original inspiration for his pioneering work in travel and tourism.

But if you’re looking for an unexpected trace of the great and the good, go inside and look at the extravagant staircase of Jacobean origin. A fire damaged the balustrade in the 1960s and the replacement balusters include carved figures of GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill; the identities of the other, mostly rather grotesque figures are not known for sure.

Marlow’s Siberian connection

Marlow has boasted several famous writers as residents: TS Eliot, the Shelleys, Isaak Walton. But the town’s most extraordinary author was surely Kate Marsden (1859-1931), who became a writer by chance: she was a nurse, who first became obsessed with the need to find a cure for leprosy while working on a Red Cross mission in Bulgaria. Later, in Constantinople, Marsden heard reports of the existence of a rare herb which could alleviate or even cure the disease – in the Yakutsk region of Siberia.

The superbly titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892) tells the story of her journey, with another woman as assistant and translator, across 11,000 inhospitable Russian miles (by train and boat as well as sledge and horseback), searching for the elusive herb and treating the sick as she went.  Marsden travelled with the approval of the Empress of Russia and of Queen Victoria, who presented her with an angel-shaped brooch on her return.

Marsden became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, and her efforts raised over £2,000 for a leper hospital in Vilyuysk.  Some pundits doubted her account of the journey – though it was no less improbable than those of male writers who had travelled in Russia around that time.  Others insinuated that Marsden was attempting to “atone” for acts of homosexuality.

Siberians, perhaps predictably, were and are more sympathetic.  Residents of Vilyuysk funded the construction of a special monument in Marsden’s memory, which was opened in 2014.