When life gives you damsons…

“Would you like any damsons?”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear as we walked through a water meadow at Streatley on a typical November day in August.

Our plan had been to do a circular walk from Goring, taking in part of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path, as recommended by our wildflower book, but the grey drizzle was discouraging and my feet hurt.  A re-think over coffee in The Chocolate Café and we decided to take things more slowly.

We strolled over the bridge towards Streatley, pausing to visit the church. The current church mainly dates from 1864, though the tower is fifteenth-century, but there has probably been a church on the site since Saxon times. The churchyard contains the remains of a Saxon warrior, perhaps one who fought with Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. His remains were found together with an iron spearhead and knife, bronze buckle and blood-stained tooth in 1932 by a local resident whilst working on the site of the old Bowling Green, and later re-interred in the churchyard. I’m sure Jerome K Jerome would have had a good story to tell about him, had the remains only been discovered fifty years earlier.

Following a sign from the church to the Thames Path we found ourselves in a water meadow where we had no difficulty in spotting the purple-loosestrife and common fleabane the book had told us to expect.  We also saw some non-native but very pretty orange balsam.

As I watched a barge slowly make its way down the river, my husband drew my attention to a little fruit stand with an honesty box, intended to raise funds for the conservation of the area.  Would I like any damsons? Of course I would.  The only problem was that the fruit was a pound a bag and I didn’t have change for a five pound note.  So that is how we ended up carrying two bags of damsons, two of pears and one of apples on our walk.

Returning, we decided to emulate the Three Men in a Boat and lunch at the Bull.  I don’t know what J, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency the dog) would have made of jalfrezi pie, but I enjoyed it.

That’s the thing about Slow Travel.  You never know quite what to expect, but must take things (and damsons) as you find them. Now, where was that recipe for spiced damson chutney?

 

1984 Live: a doubleplusgood production

One of the themes which runs through the Chilterns and Thames Valley is that of power and dissent.  You can find Chequers, Dorneywood and Windsor Castle on one hand; the Amersham Martyrs, the Jordans Quakers and John Hampden on the other.  The region was also home for a time to one of Britain’s greatest 20th century writers. The young George Orwell (or Eric Blair, to give him his real name) grew up in Henley-on-Thames and nearby Shiplake, and studied at Eton.

Today saw a special event centred on Orwell’s most famous work.  Senate House in London hosted a special reading/performance of 1984 – appropriately, as Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, experiences which informed Orwell’s depiction of the Ministry of Truth in the book.  (Senate House also inspired The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, who lived in Berkhamsted.)

Today’s performance – on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a significant day for freedom if ever there was one, and in the week of a General Election – was part of the UCL Festival of Culture.  A company of players recreated the scenes from the book as various actors, politicians and others read from it.  The performance started at 9am and concluded at 10pm; the extracts I saw involved readings by Alan Johnson, perhaps Labour’s best leader who never was of recent years, and actors Harriet Walter and Guy Paul.  The production excelled in bringing out the power of Orwell’s words:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

In the light not only of today’s anniversary and this week’s election, but recent events, Orwell’s words could scarcely be more relevant.

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”