The cherries return?

Time was when cherry orchards were a common feature across the Chilterns; fresh fruit in many varieties, providing local employment as well as healthy eating, not just in the immediate locality but also for London and other nearby towns. Sadly, the orchards have all but disappeared… but there are signs they may be making a comeback.

One example is the work being done at Mongewell, just south of Wallingford in Oxfordshire. There’s a wider project to build an earth sheltered home, a passion of Anna Batchelor, the owner of the orchard at Mongewell: “As an environmental scientist, I was looking for the most sustainable for of construction.” Anna is currently in the third year of a seven year project to re-establish the cherry orchard (Mongewell has a history of cherry growing, as far back as 1877). Over 40 varieties are involved, and during the establishing years local residents, as well as walkers on the nearby Ridgeway, will be able to see the trees as they change with the seasons.  Anna says she has three aims:

“1. To bring back the culture of cherry growing to the area.
2. To create space for wildlife
3. To be a repository of cherry varieties that are lost in commercial settings.”

Meanwhile, the Chilterns Conservation Board is hoping to obtain Heritage Lottery Fund support for a major project Chalk, Cherries and Chairs. As the title suggests, the project aims to bring new life to three elements which have helped to define the Chilterns and to shape the region’s development. The “cherries” element involves investigating the history of Chilterns cherries, and training local communities to restore and manage old orchards, while helping others to set up their own community orchards. The outcome of the funding bid should be known by early 2019.

Thanks to Anna Batchelor and the Chilterns Conservation Board for speaking with us about their projects. We wish them both the very best of luck!

The many names of Christmas

Just over a mile up the hill from Watlington lies the hamlet of Christmas Common. But there doesn’t seem to be settled agreement on the reason for the name…

One theory is that the name derives from the Christmas trees that grow here. The Tree Barn, a local business, was involved in the decoration of the Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in 2017.  A second possibility is that a family called Christmas lived in the area.

The third possible source for the name is the local truce which is supposed to have been declared between the rival troops in the English Civil War on Christmas Day in 1643 (an echo of the legend of the football match between British and German soldiers in the trenches around Ypres on Christmas Day, 1914). The Civil War certainly passed close by. Six months beforehand, in June 1643, John Hampden sustained a fatal wound at the Battle of Chalgrove. Another local legend has it that he stayed at the Hare and Hounds in Watlington the night before, leaving a chest containing money for the payment of troops with the landlord.  The Hare and Hounds stood till 1990; in its place now is the rather more prosaically named Chiltern Business Centre.

Whatever the truth may be, Christmas Common is popular these days with cyclists and walkers alike. There’s any number of walking routes you can follow, or adapt for yourself, through ancient woodland filled with beech, yew, sycamore and other trees – even the occasional cherry tree – and across chalk grassland rich in wild flowers. If a bit of steepness doesn’t faze you, that’s even better. We climbed almost 400 feet (138m) for some wonderful views across south Oxfordshire – taking care not to disturb the cows (above). If you need sustenance at the start, end or mid-point of your route, the Fox and Hounds is a lovely old country pub, where George the amiable Labrador pads around while you enjoy local sausages and mash or one of the chef’s excellent pies.

A Chinese president and a non-takeaway

Today we visited somewhere we have driven past on countless occasions over the years, a classic example of tourist’s doorstep law (you don’t bother looking at things under your nose).  After a morning examining two ancient hillfort sites, one at Cholesbury Camp and one at nearby Pulpit Hill, we wandered into the Plough at Cadsden, a tiny hamlet near Princes Risborough.

The Plough has been around in one form or another for over 400 years, starting life as a coaching inn and, so the legend has it, hosting a wake for John Hampden as supporters brought his body back from Thame, where he died after the Battle of Chalgrove. More recently, several Prime Ministers have popped in for a drink; the ying and yang of British politics from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, and more recently David Cameron.

In 2015 Mr Cameron took Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, to the Plough for a pint and a fish and chip meal, as part of continuing negotiations over trade and diplomatic relations.  The following year, reports stated that the owner had sold the Plough to Chinese investors.  Less impressively, Mr and Mrs Cameron contrived to leave their daughter Nancy unattended at the pub for about 15 minutes, during the summer of 2012.  Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?

If the evidence of our visit today is anything to go by, this unfortunate incident hasn’t deterred other families from bringing their young children to the Plough for Sunday lunch.  As we left, a van with a group of young Chinese businessmen rolled up.  Even muddy-shoed walkers aren’t a problem, with overshoes available in the porch.  And the lunch – shoulder of lamb and steak and ale pie, in our cases – was a splendid reward for yomping up Pulpit Hill.

The secret arboretum

Along a footpath from an unassuming road in Little Kingshill is a secret treasure trove for tree-lovers.

The origins of Priestfield Arboretum lie back in the early 20th century with Thomas Priest, a local solicitor who planted up to 400 trees in six acres of his garden, after he bought the land in 1917.  The site changed hands during World War II,  and has stayed in the ownership of the same family ever since. Though neglected and overgrown after the war, the arboretum came to the attention of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Forestry Commission.  A massive scrub clearance in the early 1980s enabled the discovery of 98 of the original trees.

The Arboretum now comprises around 200 trees and opens twice a year to the public, thanks to the sterling maintenance efforts of volunteers on behalf of the owners.  There is an element of zoning – silver firs are mostly in one area, spruces and pines in others.  Coralie Ramsay, the honorary curator, comments: “We aim to be ‘chemical free’ and to encourage biodiversity that will help optimize the health of the soil and, therefore, the specimens.”

Highlights include a giant redwood tree and aromas which can be evocative or alarming.  Look out for the cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura) whose heart-shaped leaves turn yellow and smell of candyfloss if you rub them.  That’s probably preferable to the pungent leaves of umbellularia californica (California bay laurel or Oregon myrtle) which can apparently cause headaches – though we suffered no ill-effects.

High as a (red) kite

“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance.  “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”

It’s a point of view.  There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.

The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain.  The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds.  So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…

Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr

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.

Faith, hope and reconciliation

Around the corner from the hubbub and excitement of Whipsnade Zoo lies a remarkable landmark, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.  The site was the original inspiration of Edmund K Blyth, who served in the British infantry in World War I and lost two friends in the conflict, with another wartime comrade dying in a car crash in 1930.  On a visit to Liverpool that autumn, the colour and beauty of the unfinished Liverpool Anglican cathedral impressed Blyth and his wife deeply:

“We talked of this as we drove south through the Cotswold Hills on our way home and it was while we were doing this that I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”

Blyth, who had previously bought two cottages in Whipsnade for use as holiday homes for poor London families, envisioned a cathedral of trees as a fitting memorial to his friends and a symbol of faith, hope and reconciliation.  The cathedral has never been consecrated, but is used for wedding blessings and interdenominational worship and there is an annual service on the second Sunday in June.  The cathedral takes the layout of medieval cathedrals as its inspiration, so you enter through a porch of oak trees into a lime tree lined nave before coming to a chancel of silver birches and yew hedging. Four chapels reflect the seasons with different trees in each, and a garden of flowering shrubs framed by cypresses is the main feature of the cloister area.  Despite the occasional sounds of a strimmer or of small infants running amok, the cathedral remains a beautiful, tranquil space in which to relax and reflect.