Not a real polecat, I should say at the outset; you can sometimes glimpse polecats in parts of the Chilterns, and our friend Tony Marshall of Prestwood Nature tells us they are now breeding regularly. But in this case I’m referring to The Polecat Inn, just outside the centre of Prestwood.
Back in the 17th century, the building was a hunting lodge; more recently, it’s served as a pub, where you can huddle in front of a log fire while enjoying some skilfully cooked food. The Sunday lunches were excellent. Some years ago when Helen was young, her family had lunch in the garden at the back; Helen felt a nudge at her elbow and found a sheep from the neighbouring field, apparently pestering her for a bite of her pizza.
The pub has recently become the property of Oakman Inns, who now own about 25 pubs and restaurants – many in and around the Chilterns. After a period of closure and extensive refurbishment, it’s now open once more.
There are now four main areas in which to sit: the new glass-fronted restaurant, accommodating an open theatre-style kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven; the bar; the lounge (where we sat the other night); and outside seating. There’s significantly more capacity than before, and the number of parking spaces has increased too. There’s still a garden at the back, though some local residents have expressed concern on social media that the play facilities for small children may not be as good as they were.
Inevitably, as part of a larger group which uses a more or less standard menu, the Polecat feels a little less cosy and a little more corporate than it once did. The only sheep this time round was the lamb on Helen’s plate, accompanied by Greek salad (and the lamb was well done, slightly overdone if anything – although the waiter didn’t ask how Helen wanted it). I enjoyed the grilled swordfish (pictured below) from the specials list. In the interests of research we also tried the desserts; my sticky toffee pudding and Helen’s peach melba panna cotta were both very good. Service was swift and we didn’t feel disadvantaged by being in the lounge rather than the main restaurant area.
So the new Polecat isn’t quite the same as the old Polecat – but it’s definitely worth a try. It competes for custom with the Chequers Tree (formerly the Chequers) at the top end of Prestwood’s high street, which has also gone through a change of management recently. Based on recent visits to both, it’s quite a close call between the two.
The Chilterns region has a number of distinguishing features: its beech woodlands; its chalk streams; red kites and rare orchids; the number of great writers and artists who’ve lived and worked here; and a generous sprinkling of marvellous historic houses and mysterious ancient hillforts. There are also a large number of market towns – and, in Beaconsfield, Wendover and so on, you can sample the wares of independent food and drink producers at regular farmers’ and artisan food markets.
These refreshing antidotes to the blandness of mass produced food and drink have now had another event added to the list. Princes Risborough today launched the first in what is, we understand, going to be a quarterly series of farmers’ markets at the Grade II* listed Market House. Today’s launch was the latest in a long tradition: the town has been holding markets of one type or another since Henry VIII granted it that right in 1523. We enjoyed the jam doughnuts and fresh cherries on offer this morning, and will be sampling some pork and marmite sausages later. Good luck to all the traders on this latest addition to the Chilterns’ market portfolio.
It’s one of the great weekends of the year. Hundreds if not thousands of fans descend upon a splendid and historic venue, wearing their colours, cheering on the proceedings. There’s always the chance of an upset but, whatever the outcome, this will be a day some people remember for the rest of their lives.
Sorry – did you think I was referring to the FA Cup? Well, it’s true the final takes place at Wembley today. But, about 22 miles to the west, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is playing host to the wedding of Lady Gabriella Windsor (52nd in line to the throne, apparently) and Thomas Kingston. It’s the third royal wedding in the Chapel in a year, and a year almost to the day since the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
This poses a problem for the second year running for Prince William, who is President of the Football Association. Last year, his duties as best man meant that the wedding took priority over attending the Cup Final. The word is that he may get to the match this year. In any event, he needs to have a word with any remaining eligible relatives, to tell them to choose another date in 2020 or beyond.
Today’s reception will be at Frogmore House, much less well known than the Castle, but in some ways just as interesting. George III bought the house for his wife Queen Charlotte in the 1790s, and the Crown purchased the lease on the wider estate 50 years later. Victoria often worked on state papers here and she and Prince Albert are buried in a mausoleum on the estate (which isn’t open to visitors).
In contrast with the extravagance of the Castle, Frogmore is filled with wax fruit, artificial flowers and chinoiserie. There’s a room of floral paintings by Mary Moser and, to add some royal glamour, the Britannia Room showcases memorabilia relating to the royal yacht of that name. The gardens were restored in time for the present Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. Frogmore House and Gardens is about to open (28-30 May) for its annual charity days, so do go if you have the chance. Whether you like the house’s contents may depend on your view of what Victorians found tasteful, but there’s no doubt it’s a royal day out with a difference.
Mills of one sort or another used to dominate the landscape, making a vital contribution to the economies and lives of their communities. Now, across Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns at least, only a handful remain. As we await the UK release of Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a modern British Cervantes would probably have to find a different nemesis at which his hero could tilt.
However, thanks to the dedicated efforts of various groups of volunteers across our region, some mills have survived and are even returning to some level of activity. Quainton Windmill, in north Buckinghamshire, is a good example: you can read about its history here. Pleasingly, the current owner and life president of the Quainton Windmill Society is a descendant of the original owner who began its construction in 1830. The sails are now operating (when there’s enough wind, of course, as the volunteers patiently explain in response to the occasional enquiry), and you can visit on Sunday mornings between March and October. There’s no entrance fee; you can, though, make a donation to the continuing works.
If you live in north Buckinghamshire, or nearby, you’ll probably know Stowe (main house shown above) – one of the most extravagant and famous National Trust properties in the area. You may not know that you can stay in one of the extraordinary set of buildings within the estate.
The Gothic Temple was the final piece of construction at Stowe in Viscount Cobham’s campaign against the then Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, in the early 18th century. According to the National Trust’s booklet ‘Stowe: the people and the place’, at this point the term Gothic was synonymous with ‘Germanic’ and suggested ‘vigour, hardihood and love of liberty’ – all qualities which Cobham and some of his fellow dissident Whigs felt the government of the day lacked, or had lost.
The Temple is now available for holiday lets via the Landmark Trust, and today was one of its occasional open days. All mods are, of course, not con; the kitchen and bathroom are quite basic, and spiral staircases are not for the nervous. But if you can accept that, and like the idea of looking up at the beautifully decorated ceiling of the dome, or out at wonderful views across the Stowe estate, it’s worth it.
The trouble with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as it used to be. As Britain continues its seemingly never-ending agonising re-appraisal of its place in the world, somehow the opening of a café with a World War II theme is not a surprise. The Air Raid Shelter Café and Tea Room has been in the Chilterns Shopping Centre in the middle of High Wycombe since late 2018.
This is not, of course, a unique idea; we’ve come across similar cafes in Hitchin and Stratford-upon-Avon, to name just two examples. And it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the use, even by implication, of tired and rather misleading myths about how the nation came together in the war, the spirit of the Blitz etc. Even that hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers (“Will you stop talking about the war?”) is over 40 years old. Remember, by all means; but try to move on, too.
Still, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, maybe we should just file it under ‘kitsch’. The new café has gone to some lengths to follow its theme. You can have two varieties of all-day breakfast, “Tommy’s” or “Landgirls” – the male version is larger. Or, if you’re there later in the day, some cheese and Marmite bread or a piece of lardy cake will help to take you back to those good old days (that weren’t). Our mismatched crockery included a splendid square-ish teapot depicting the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost of his dead father (Hamlet also finds it hard to move on, despite being Danish rather than British). The walls are covered with old photos of Wycombe and its people, copies of ration books and other artefacts. There are three themed areas: a faux living room with piano and a sofa, on top of which sits a stuffed cat with a piercing stare; a small railway carriage; and even (as per the cafe’s name) an air raid shelter, complete with tins of condensed milk, drinking chocolate, beef and onion broth and other stuff to see us through our darkest hour.
It’s all good fun, the food and drink is good and the service is friendly and unfussy. All in all (as Hamlet would say), despite any reservations about the theme, the Air Raid Shelter Café is a welcome addition to Wycombe, and we expect to be back soon.
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…
In recent years, in addition to events in specific locations across the region, a number of Chilterns-wide festivals have sprung up. This is excellent news for two main reasons: (1) more local events from which to choose; (2) in the long run, we hope, a higher profile for the Chilterns as a whole.
The star at the moment is the Chilterns Arts Festival – a week-long programme of musical events in some splendid venues including All Saints Church in Marlow (pictured above). The climax is a special performance of Così fan tutte at Pipers Corner School this Saturday, 16 February.
The year is still young, so there are plenty more Chilterns-wide festivals to come:-
See you there…?
It’s easy to forget, as we hurry about our daily lives, the quietly heroic efforts of various people and organisations striving to preserve the best of where we live, and to find out more about it. The Chilterns Conservation Board is a key local player in these parts. So it’s encouraging to learn that the Heritage Lottery Board has awarded £2 million for a five-year conservation project. The three Cs – chalk, cherries and chairs – refer to some of the best-known natural and historical features of the region.
The press release gives fuller details of exactly what will be part of the project. Our first home in Prestwood was on the site of one of the cherry orchards which used to be a major local employer. Sadly, the orchards are almost completely gone, not only from Prestwood but from the Chilterns as a whole. So it’s exciting to read that restoring the orchards to some extent, and resurrecting the annual Cherry Pie Festival, is part of the project plans.
One of Helen’s ancestors was a bodger, otherwise known as a wood turner. Furniture making used to be synonymous with High Wycombe in particular (the football team’s nickname is still “the Chairboys”), and the bodgers were a key link in the production process. As with the cherry orchards, this part of local history is well overdue for revival and re-examination.
And the chalk? Well, the Chilterns Conservation Board is already working on our large collection of Iron Age hillforts. Whichever one you visit – whether Sharpenhoe Clappers, for example, in the northern Chilterns – there’s nothing like an old hillfort for a bit of atmosphere and mystery. This new project promises to step up work on the hillforts, and we may even learn more about Grim’s Ditch – though, if investigations come up with anything better than that wonderful name, we’ll be surprised.
Rare birds and butterflies should benefit, too, with this project providing additional resources to try to ensure that rareness doesn’t turn into extinction. All in all, we think the HLF’s £2 million for this new project is going to be money well spent.
When a tourist attraction has been open for a long time, one of the challenges for those who own and manage it is to find new reasons for people to visit. This is presumably a major issue for the National Trust, whose five million members eagerly make use of their membership whenever they can.
In 2019 one of the Trust’s most famous properties in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, will be celebrating 60 years of opening to the public. As Trust members, we’ve visited many times over the years, usually to goggle at the extraordinary, relentless procession of exquisite, expensive taste displayed within the house. We do enjoy the gardens too – and remember fondly a mynah bird called George, who lived in the Aviary and who might favour you with a range of comments, from the accurate but unimaginative “Waddesdon Manor” to the more colourful “You’re an old stinker!”
This Christmas, as part of a special Carnival programme, Waddesdon is looking a bit different from normal, and it’s all to do with light shows. The Stables are illuminated (the work of the Guildhall School), as is the front of the Manor itself, and there’s a light trail on the paths around the Aviary. Any aficionado of horror films knows how the atmosphere of a place can change at night; that’s certainly the case here. The magnificence of the grounds turns to mystery and it’s all quite eerie, even with the large number of visitors around (and the younger children seemed to be having a whale of a time). If you’re in the areas between now and 2 January, we recommend a visit. You can also pre-book tickets for visits to the house – but, for once, the grounds are the star.