This weekend: open spaces to enjoy

As we all try to follow the official instructions and/or guidance about social distancing, it’s great news that some of the open spaces that the National Trust and English Heritage manage will remain open for the public to enjoy.

Our favourites in the Chilterns and Thames Valley include:-

  •  Sharpenhoe Clappers – a beautiful combination of chalk escarpment and ancient woodland. An Iron Age hillfort once stood here and John Bunyan walked in these parts – the views may well have inspired some of the locations in Pilgrim’s Progress
  •  The remains of Berkhamsted Castle – an 11th century Norman motte and bailey construction, later the London residence of Henry III’s brother
  •  The garden and grounds of Hughenden Manor, home to Benjamin Disraeli – including Pleasure Gardens, from which you can glimpse Hughenden Valley, and an arboretum of about 80 specimen shrubs and trees

The National Trust in particular manages many open spaces in this region which offer the prospect of fresh air and inspiring views of this wonderful part of England.

Please do check, before you set out, whether the open space you want to explore is open this week. Some of the smaller spaces may be closed, in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

We wish you a healthy and safe weekend – and hope you’ll be able to enjoy these walks in happier circumstances very soon.

Pictured: Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire

Something old, new… or refilled

Can local people help to revive their high street while addressing the implications of the world climate emergency? A new café in the central Chilterns village of Prestwood is giving it a try.

The Pantry at No 51, which opened this week, is the idea of two local mums. The site used to be a florist’s shop and, more recently, a cafe which sadly didn’t do well enough to continue. The Pantry offers everything from bagel and savoury pastry boards to soup, sweet treats and a ‘mini-pantry’ for smaller customers. If the jam doughnut and (strong, dark) hot chocolate I tried were a true indicator, then the Pantry is going to make a lot of local people very happy. There are plenty of books and children’s drawing materials for family visitors, along with a water bowl by the entrance for thirsty dogs. One additional improvement might be to add a ramp – which wouldn’t have to be large or steep – for pushchairs and/or wheelchairs.

The Pantry, perhaps cannily given the fate of its predecessor, is not relying on café business alone. It’s also a refill shop, something new to Prestwood (or, at least, there hasn’t been anything similar in a very long time). The idea is simple: you bring your existing bottles, cartons,  jars, Tupperware boxes (anything sealable) and refill it with any of a wide range of food and household goods – see this list. A few eco-friendly products such as reusable cups are also on sale.

Local buying of locally sourced goods; reduction in the use of single use plastics; less packaging; convenience (you can bring your own reusable cups for hot drinks to take away)… Like many Prestwood residents, we wish the Pantry every success. It seems like a great idea at the right time in the right place. Time will tell…

 

 

The Hermit is back

A little piece of history has returned to the hamlet of Ford in the Vale of Aylesbury. Just before Christmas, the Dinton Hermit – a historic coaching inn and pub which closed in 2013 – re-opened for business. It’s being restored and managed by Moogies, a company which oversees three other local historic pubs: the Russell Arms, the Black Boy at Oving and the Eight Bells in Long Crendon.

The full redevelopment of the Dinton Hermit is going to take some time. Signs indicate where a larger car park, a living wall and outside eating areas are planned. There will also be 11 bedrooms offering bed and breakfast. In the meantime, though, the pub seems to be a popular venue for lunch. When we visited on New Year’s Day, visitors included two large family groups, but the friendly staff team managed to cope with them, us and everybody else.

The menu is firmly in the “hearty pub food” category with grilled options, burgers, salads, seasonal mains and pizzas available. We chose beer battered haddock and chips (see below) and game pie, followed by Black Forest gateau and apple strudel with vanilla custard. It was all well prepared and just what you’d want from a pub lunch. A sign on the door offers ideas for local walks to help work those calories off.

And why the pub name? It comes from John Bigg, a 17th-century resident of nearby Dinton who may have been the executioner of Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Bigg took to living in a local cave and relying on the charity of others for food, drink and scraps of leather. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford displays one of Bigg’s shoes – an extraordinary collation of hundreds of pieces of leather… Bigg shoes to fill, you might say.

20200101_132937

 

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.

Blood, bone and a snappy opening

If you’re one of those people who laments the lack of variety in British high streets these days, a display in the newly re-opened North Hertfordshire Museum may interest you. It’s a reconstruction of part of Parks and Llewelyn, a pharmacy which stood on Hitchin’s high street for over 170 years till its closure in 1961.

The most diverting item isn’t the various bottles with their mysterious potions and remedies, but what hangs above them; the jawbone of an alligator. This is a reference to the stuffed crocodiles which used to adorn the entrances to apothecaries’ shops in medieval times.

We said hello to the jawbone as part of a visit to the Museum on the occasion of its re-opening, on Saturday 6 July. It’s been partially open for a while, but a dispute over land ownership meant that, for some years, only pre-booked tours were available and visitors had to go in via the Town hall entrance next door.

Happily, that problem was consigned to the past by the opening ceremony. It featured children from Samuel Lucas JMI School reciting what their teacher called a rap – there was no music, so it was in reality a poem – about the eponymous Lucas, a 19th-century brewer and artist who lived and died in Hitchin. After the ceremonial cutting of a red ribbon, the children, their teachers, parents and other visitors streamed inside to explore the new facilities.

The ‘Discovering North Hertfordshire’ gallery on the ground floor covers local history from 90 million years ago to the present day. Sadly, the fibre glass reconstruction of the head of a parasaurolophus – a duck-billed dinosaur – is no longer on display, but there is still plenty to inform, entertain and surprise.

The other main element of the ground floor is a temporary exhibition space, currently used for ‘Blood and Bone’, an interactive installation of inflatable sculptures inspired by cells and organisms from inside the human body. Plenty of children enjoyed themselves, crawling in and out of the installations, as the adults refreshed themselves with drinks from the new onsite café.

The other principal new features are on the second floor (the first floor is reserved for staff office space). ‘Living in North Hertfordshire’ explores how people have lived, worked and died in the region, and features local characters and industries, as well as examples of what people used to wear and the toys with which children used to play. Look out for an exquisite Spitalfields silk dress and quilted petticoat from the early 18th century, and a slightly spooky Japanese doll. The adjacent Terrace Gallery gives you the chance to dress as a suffragette (and commendably explains the difference between suffragists and suffragettes) and showcases various other items, including a selection of ephemera from a football-related collection. The Arches Gallery, part of the Terrace Gallery, is currently showing a collection of work by Vanessa Stone, a local artist.

The Terrace itself is not yet in use, but no doubt this will change in due course. In the meantime it’s good to see the Museum fully open, and it looks set to become a very popular local attraction for years to come.

The Greenway to a slow day out

While they are wonderful places for a day out, historic houses aren’t always as accessible as everyone might ideally like. This can be an issue before you even set out; not many such houses can be reached by bus, or are close to railway stations (though Arundel Castle in Sussex is a notable exception in the latter case). Last autumn, Waddesdon Manor in north Buckinghamshire came up with a possible solution, for those who want to visit without undue stress or using a car. We’ve been along to try it out.

The nearest railway station, Aylesbury Vale Parkway, is less than three miles from Waddesdon Manor, and the village of Waddesdon itself. But it would take a brave cyclist to use the busy A41 which links the station with the village and the Manor. The solution? The new Waddesdon Greenway, which offers a flat-surfaced walking and cycling route, links station with Waddesdon, passing through land which, at various points, is owned by Network Rail, Thames Water, New College Oxford and the Waddesdon estate. To add some historical interest, part of the Greenway corresponds to Akeman Street, an old Roman road.

Today may not have been the ideal day for a two-way Greenway walk. It was very blustery (while the surrounding land is pretty, there is little or nothing in terms of windbreaks) and the threat of a sudden downpour remained for most of the day. But the walk was still very pleasant, with the occasional encounter with other cyclists, or walkers with their dogs. As a bonus, we happened upon the Manor’s monthly food market, at which local producers such as Just Biscuits tempt visitors with their wares. Walking or cycling to a local visitor attraction, and buying local food and drink; that might be the perfect Slow day out.

And the reason for our two-way walk? We were trying out the Manor’s Pudding Club, an indulgent event in one of its several restaurants at which diners try a sequence of desserts, from rhubarb and custard sorbet to deconstructed cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding. Believe me, we needed the walk…

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.)