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.

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”…

 

Down by the river…

The historian Eric Hobsbawm used to refer to “invented traditions”; the peculiar process of swan upping is what he might have called a re-invented tradition.

Its origins go back many centuries, perhaps as far as the 12th century when the mute swan gained Royal status meaning that, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the Crown.  (That might have made the swan-escape sequence in Hot Fuzz even funnier if the Queen had turned up…)  By 1378 there was an official post of Keeper of the King’s Swans and the unfortunate bird was known for a long time as a culinary delicacy.

The process of swan upping on the Thames involves identifying swans and their cygnets, weighing them and checking their health.  It now takes place during the third week of July each year. The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies (now the only owners of private swans on the Thames).  Nowadays the emphasis is heavily on education.  The Swan Uppers make over a dozen stops over the course of four days, starting at Romney Lock, the nearest lock to Windsor Castle, and finishing at Moulsford.  A number of these stops involve meeting local schoolchildren and briefing them on the work of the Swan Uppers – and, of course, offering the opportunity to get up close and fluffy with a cygnet or two…

The original model village

There’s something reassuring about Bekonscot, which sits unobtrusive off the main street of Beaconsfield’s new town area.  In an age of VR headsets and Skype, Bekonscot’s attractions are solidly old-fashioned.

And yet when it was new, it was so new that it was the first of its kind: the first model village in the world, opening in 1929.  Over fifteen million visitors have passed through its gates since then – including the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.  It is a not-for-profit attraction, raising money for various charities.

It would probably be better described as a model community, as there is more than one village. There is Bekonscot Town, the punningly named mining village of Evenlode and Hanton with its aerodrome.  Some of the shops and buildings are based on real-life examples (the world’s smallest Marks and Spencer was added in 1990), while others such as Leekey the plumbers and Argue & Twist the solicitors push the pun envelope.  There’s also a model of Green Hedges, the house where local author Enid Blyton lived… complete with Noddy in his car on the driveway.  Beaconsfield has not always been quick to recognise the international fame and influence of Enid Blyton – but that’s a story for another time.

The main attractions – at least for the hordes of small children rushing round Bekonscot all day long – are obvious: the small model trains which snake through the scenes of shops and churches and cricket pitches and windmills, and the chance to ride on a miniature railway adjacent to the village.  These simple pleasures, it seems, never fade.

Teacups and trucks

Not many people would, probably, put the words “Luton” and “culture” together.  Luton has such a bad reputation that it’s even been voted the UK’s worst town.  A drive round the centre can be depressing and confusing.  Yet some of Luton’s sons and daughters have achieved great things, from composer David Arnold to cricketer Monty Panesar.  Nearby Luton Airport is a national gateway to and from the northern Chilterns, and is the town’s largest employer.  And just outside central Luton sit two splendid ways to spend an afternoon out. 

Along Old Bedford Road is Wardown House, Museum and Gallery (pictured).  The house itself is a late Victorian creation, completed in 1877 for a local solicitor who also had the outbuildings and lodges built and laid out a cricket lawn and park.  After the family moved away, the local council bought the estate, opening the park to the public and using the house as a military convalescent hospital in World War I and later as a rental space for some of their staff.  Wardown House has been a museum since 1931 and it has just reopened after a period of redevelopment. 

Visitors can wander through both floors, admire an eclectic selection of displays including some very Victorian mounted butterflies and learn about two centuries of Luton life in a special exhibition – with the starring role going to the hatmaking industry for which the town is still renowned.  There’s enough interactive content to satisfy the most curious of children.  Sit in an armchair and a voice will explain what games the children of Wardown House used to play; look in the bathroom mirror and what you thought was a portrait of a World War I nurse comes to life and the nurse explains what her job involved.  The tearoom, in what was the house’s dining room, features one or two quirky design choices: customers drink from paper cups while proper teacups form part of the light fittings!  All in all, the house and surrounding park provide an excellent attraction.

Three miles away across town is Stockwood Discovery Centre.  Here, too, there was once a country house, completed in 1740 for £60,000 (probably over £12 million in today’s money) and property of the Crawley family for 200 years.  Again the local council bought the house and surrounding park, but the house fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1964.  Happily a combination of Heritage Lottery Fund money and other donations has enabled Stockwood Craft Museum, as it was, to redevelop and reopen.

Keen gardeners can enjoy the Period Gardens which show a range of styles of English gardens through the centuries (my favourite was the Elizabethan knot garden), as well as other garden spaces devoted to themes such as medicine and wildlife.  The Discovery Galleries in the old stables explore the history of the region from prehistoric times – including a taste of medieval Luton, while the Discovery Hall focuses on another industry for which Luton has become famous, as the home of Vauxhall: the motor trade.  The Hall features a collection previously owned by George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, who collected, drove, restored and constructed horse-drawn vehicles for over fifty years.

Like Wardown, Stockwood Discovery Centre is open most days of the year.  Even better, both are free to enter.  I would recommend either as good options for a day out – and to dispel any remaining prejudice you may have against Luton…