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.

Forty years on… then another forty

It’s amazing what you come across by accident – or, to put it another way, browsing in charity bookshops.  In this case, it was a shop in Princes Risborough where we found a book about King Zog (one of the less likely foreign visitors to the Chilterns), a collection of stories about Buckinghamshire villages by the local Federation of Women’s Institutes and a Ward Lock guide to the Thames and the Chilterns.

The guidebook dates back to 1977 and is a cheery, relatively standardised guide to the sights.  “An understanding of the historic background of a building, guidance on walks and excursions… [and] knowledge of the facilities available for entertainment, all play an important part in the thorough enjoyment of a holiday,” as the dustjacket blurb states.  The balance of content is sometimes debatable – Bekonscot is covered in one sentence – but overall the book could still be used today.

Go back almost 40 years further and you find Chiltern Country by HJ Massingham (1940).  I bought this online on a personal recommendation.  In fairness its author says in his preface that the book “cannot claim to be exhaustive enough to be called a guide-book”.  Massingham claims that “we are rather tired of the repetition of literary anecdotes and the enumeration of local antiquities dissociated from the life of the people.”  Today this comes across as a rather narrow and naïve view; the historic houses of the region, for instance, were key community hubs and major local employers, and hardly “dissociated” from local people’s lives.  But the author was the son of a radical journalist, and also a well-known writer on country life, and by 1940 Attlee and Labour’s New Jerusalem was just beginning to hove into view.

Much of Massingham’s other writing was on country matters, so it isn’t too surprising that Chiltern Country is an amalgam of topographical essay and polemical lament for a vanished, or fast vanishing, past.  The author criticises the design of the Whipsnade Lion:

“What a pity that the designer failed to note that the great original of all the chalk figures on the downs – the White Horse of Uffington – is stylized, as all such figures should be, not magnified copies out of a picture-book. They knew better how to do these things in BC.”

As nostalgia goes, this is hard to beat. On his travels, Massingham meets Edward Goodchild, “the very last of the Chiltern handicraft chair-makers”, and laments this breed of craftsmen’s “virtual extermination… sheer murder by an evil economics… Theirs has been an innocent death and the blood is on the head of the killer.”  The “killer” is, of course, mass production.

Later, Massingham uses an anecdote about a travelling companion’s geographical confusion to argue that

“The identity of this part of the Chilterns [between Chenies and Chalfont St Giles] has been obliterated… everybody was a stranger in these parts… a country without a name as well as without natives… The loss of the individual, whether in thing, place or person, is the danger to which our twentieth-century civilization has exposed the world…”

Perhaps predictably, this is part of a sub-chapter entitled “Suburbia”.  We are in familiar territory in which nearby “Metro-Land” becomes a symbol of modern blandness and of loss of tradition and identity.  It makes for powerful writing, whatever you make of the writer’s world view.

We believe, almost 80 years on, that there is still plenty of distinctive Chilterns identity to find, whether it’s in the form of heritage or something else.  Perhaps some other author, in another 40 or 80 years, will find our Slow Guide. I wonder what they’ll think?

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…