The scary way to save a church

If you walked around the little village of Flamstead in Hertfordshire this weekend, you may have seen Peppa Pig in a front garden. And some Minions. And Jeremy Corbyn. And the cast of Scooby Doo.  All of them trying to be scary… and wanting your vote.

Confused?  It’s all part of the village’s Scarecrow Festival, which has been running each August for the past 15 years. Villagers create scarecrows in the hope that their fellow residents and visitors will vote for them.  The festival raises money for a local multiple schlerosis therapy centre and for much-needed repairs and restoration work on St Leonard’s, the Grade I listed parish church which has been around for over 900 years but is showing signs of wear due to damp, rot and death-watch beetle.

Some of the competition entries are truly scary, some are funny, some are pun-tastic and others are just odd (why would you create a giant spider as a scarecrow, exactly)?  But it’s all great fun in a good cause.

And the result of the vote? Well, “Jeremy Crow-bin” – yes, that’s a crow in a bin – did better than Theresa May, Lord Buckethead and Donald Trump, but he didn’t win (so no change there). The overall winner was the Lion King.  Hopefully, though, the winner in the long-term will be the church if it survives, for the benefit of its community.

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?

 

A movie star, a cockatoo and a hotel

You probably know that Hugh Grant starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a hugely successful British romantic comedy film.  If you’re a lover of movie trivia, you may know that some filming took place at the Crown in Amersham.

You’re less likely to know that the Crown could have burned down almost sixty years earlier, in 1935… until the alarmed squawking of a sulphur crested cockatoo alerted the staff, enabling them to evacuate guests and put the fire out, the only casualties being two cats.  The cockatoo lived another year, to the ripe old age of 118, before being stuffed, mounted and displayed in the hotel bar.

He now sits proudly on the first floor of the refurbished Amersham Museum, in the high street almost directly opposite the Crown.  A heroic cockatoo is only one of the various attractions in the new-look Museum, whose glass reception area with an Amersham Tube sign behind the welcome desk contrasts strikingly with the 16th century original elements of the building.  Visitors can get an overview of over 2,000 years of local history before viewing a range of exhibits and display installations. Examples include embroidered versions of the front covers of the annual leaflets which the Metropolitan Railways Country Estates used to publish to promote its housing developments along the line, and products manufactured at Goya’s perfume and cosmetics factory.  The museum’s garden (pictured) now has access for wheelchair users and features new planting. All in all, it’s an excellent way to find out more about the town – or, if you have lived or worked there, to take a nostalgic trip into its past.

 

What did blooming King John do for us?

Combining the traditions of 1066 and all that with our modern predilection for lists, we can probably guess that King John was a Bad King and near the top of any Top 10 Worst British/English Kings in History, in most people’s eyes.  But one corner of the Chilterns has reason to be grateful to him.

For it was John, in 1200 at the request of Geoffrey, earl of Essex, who granted the right for Amersham to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.  The weekly market enabled locals to stock up on the basics they needed for everyday living.  The annual fair saw merchants from further across England, and sometimes beyond, offer more exotic wares such as perfumes, handicraft, furs and the types of fruit which might not be available all the time (such as oranges).

If you wander into Amersham’s Garden of Remembrance, you can find a splendid reminder of this in the form of a floral tribute to 800 years of Amersham history: a joint venture by Amersham Town Council, Chesham Bois boy scouts and other volunteers.  The building depicted in flowers in the photo  is the Market Hall, built in 1682 and now Grade II listed.  The Ferris wheel is a reminder of the more light-hearted aspects of the annual event – all the fun of the fair!

The New York of English villages

There’s a travel syndrome we might call New York State of Mind: the belief that you’ve been somewhere, even when you haven’t.  We’ve all seen New York in the movies, so we feel we know it.

If it has nothing else in common with New York, maybe Long Crendon has that.  Even on a dull, drizzly day, it’s impossible not to appreciate the weight of history, as you finish your coffee in The Flowerpot café, avoid tripping over someone else’s small dog and make your way down the High Street towards the old Court House (pictured here) and the Church.  So many properties are Grade II listed that it’s like an English Heritage showroom; 99 houses built from witchert (puddled clay, straw and dung), stone, timber or brick, from anywhere between the 14th and 19th centuries, as well as several listed barns and walls and a telephone booth from 1935.

But the real reason for any deja vu you may feel is possibly more prosaic. I have a vivid memory of turning on the TV in our hotel room in Bucharest on New Year’s Day 2008. It wasn’t quite “57 channels and nothing on”, but there appeared to be only two things on. One was the video of Kylie Minogue’s latest single; the other was Midsomer Murders which has now been on our TV screens, and millions of others worldwide, for 20 years. And Long Crendon has played a starring role on many occasions.  The Court House doubled as a bookshop in ‘The Dagger Club.’  Different houses on the High Street have appeared in the episodes ‘Garden of Death’, ‘Tainted Fruit’, ‘The House in the Woods’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Blood on the Saddle’.  The Eight Bells pub, which was featured in ‘A Tale of Two Hamlets’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and  ‘The Oblong Club’, has a signed photo of John Nettles, who played the first Chief Inspector Barnaby, near the entrance.

There weren’t, we have to say, that many people around on the day we visited. It may have been the bad weather, of course. Or perhaps they’ve all been murdered…?

How do you make a hedgehog blue?

Also, what flavour of food do they dislike?  These were a couple of the questions to which we heard the answers on a trip to Tiggywinkles, the world’s leading wildlife hospital.

Tiggywinkles – named after the Beatrix Potter character – became famous for its treatment of injured hedgehogs, and there were over 300 in for treatment on the day we visited. But clearly the organisation has expanded in recent years.  There is now a badger sett, for example. Just as each person in a hospital for humans has their own problems, the same applies to badgers. Rachel has fractures in both front legs, so she cannot dig and therefore can’t return to the wild), while Stevie is blind and Logan was found starving after the human family which used to feed him moved away. Christmas, meanwhile, is thus named for being found on 24 December, not for being white (but not albino)!  There is also a new Red Kite education centre and aviary, along with a hide for observing muntjac, Chinese water deer, roe deer and fallow deer in a paddock.

Having said that, Tiggywinkles is still closely associated with hedgehogs.  Its museum covers almost everything you can think of, including military formations, Royal Navy memorabilia… but not the “hedgehog sandwich” sketch from Not the Nine O’clock News.  The hedgehog talk revealed that hedgehogs typically have 5,000 spines and like cat food or dog food, as long as it isn’t tuna or other flavours of fish.  One resident of Tiggywinkles apparently enjoyed eating crisps, while another was known as Blue because – he fell into an open tin of blue paint.  As well as the talks, you can view, through a window, baby hedgehogs and other animals and birds as staff feed them.  You’d have to have a heart of stone not to say “aaaah”…

 

Mills and meals

Perching by a bridge on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, The Mill at Sonning provides an excellent example of new uses for old buildings.  Mills have existed at Sonning since the days of Domesday, and the main parts of the present building and the waterwheels date back to 1890.  By the time the mill closed in 1969 it was one of the last mills on the Thames driven by wheels.  Eight years later Tim and Eileen Richards stepped in to begin the restoration of the Grade II listed building – and its new use as a theatre.  The Mill provides a two-course buffet lunch or dinner to its theatregoers as part of the ticket price.  We noticed that at least one diner interpreted “buffet” as “all you can eat”.  The restaurant experience is unusual; you go up and collect your main course, then the dessert and coffee is provided by waiter service.

The theatre itself is intimate with only 215 seats – it’s the first time I’ve seen a sign saying PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE STAGE (and if you’re sitting in the front row, that is genuinely difficult).  We went to a performance of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web (1954), a typically convoluted whodunit set in a country house in Kent. The director, Brian Blessed, is better known as an actor with a booming voice. One of his most famous roles was in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon; I half-hoped the play would feature a character called Gordon who came back from apparent death so that we could hear a Blessed boom of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”

The Mill is proud of not only the theatre and restaurant but its sustainable principles.  In 2005 it launched the first Hydro Electric Scheme to be powered by the natural resources of The River Thames. The scheme generates enough electric energy for the theatre’s numerous lights, restaurant dining rooms, bars, ovens, backstage corridors, dressing rooms, wardrobe areas, set construction workshops, control box and the administration offices.