Speak softly and rule the nation

In an age of noise, spectacle and rolling news, Dorneywood House – tucked away off a country lane in the depths of Buckinghamshire – seems like a throwback.  The estate on which the house stands has a history of ownership dating back to the days of Edward the Confessor.  The house itself was converted from a farmhouse into a manor house in the 1890s by Charles Palmer, the latest of his family to have owned the land for three centuries (the Palmers still own nearby Dorney Court).  Dorneywood’s significance today derives directly from its purchase in 1919 by Sir Courtald Thomson, a businessman and philanthropist, and his later donation of it to the nation, for use as a retreat and for entertaining on a “moderate” scale by Prime Ministers or senior ministers whom the Prime Minister of the day would nominate.

Lord Courtald-Thomson, as he became, died in 1954.  The first senior minister to use Dorneywood as their country residence, conveniently close to London, was Sir Anthony Eden in his final days as Foreign Secretary the following year (the image above, with Eden in the centre, shows Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth meeting in London in 1956 by which time Eden had succeeded Winston Churchill as PM).  Dorneywood has hosted various Foreign Secretaries – until they began to use Chevening in Kent instead – as well as Home Secretaries and the occasional Deputy PM. Who can forget the sight of John Prescott playing croquet on the lawn (however hard we might wish to…) Most recently, Chancellors of the Exchequer have been the lucky nominees for residence, though an informed source tells me that the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, barely visits at all. In this restful and welcoming environment, ministers can reflect and think, away from the Westminster hurly-burly.

Visitor access by pre-booking, on selected afternoons between April and September, is regulated by the Dorneywood Trust, who lease Dorneywood from the National Trust.  No photography is allowed in house or gardens for security reasons. Nonetheless it’s an agreeable place, reflecting the sense of hospitality which Courtald Thomson and his sister Winifred used to offer when they were there. Unlike some of the grander sites of power in the Chilterns and Thames Valley, Dorneywood is on a human scale. You can – just about – imagine living there, and enjoying the exquisite trappings such as the free-standing double-sided bookcases, the Flemish tapestries and the Bechstein piano.  The bagatelle board in the conference room gives one clue as to how eminent residents and guests used to relax; if you scored over 1,000 points, that merited a special entry in a ‘golden book’.  Churchill scored 1,015 on one occasion in 1942.  The exterior is worth a look, too: don’t miss the white door marked TOAD HALL, as a tribute to Thomson’s brother-in-law Kenneth Grahame, and the cart-shed containing various stained glass windows relating to institutions with which Thomson had links.  The gardens, too, are full of interest and well-tended without being intimidatingly perfect.  At present, there’s an apologetic notice explaining that one section is fallow due to an infestation of ground elder, a complaint with which many owners of smaller gardens can empathise.

Stanley, I presume?

It looks like a simple memorial stone, until you delve into the story of Stanley Spencer’s life, in which nothing was simple.

His was not an especially long life, though the times changed considerably; he was born into a late Victorian world and died as post-war Britain was just beginning to enjoy a little affluence. If it’s a good idea never to be detached from your roots, Stanley followed this maxim more closely than most. He was born in Cookham, died there and spent much of his life in the rural idyll that slowly became a town.  The marvels of modern public transport even enabled him to commute to and from London for his undergraduate studies at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art, where his nickname was “Cookham”.

Stanley was active in both World Wars, in the second as an official war artist painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde.  He had long since divorced Hilda by the time of his death, but she remained the love of his life despite a second (unsuccessful) marriage to Patricia Preece. Missing the honeymoon was probably not a great start – Patricia went with another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, with whom Stanley had had an affair.

His paintings often combine memories of the Bible stories which his father used to read the family after mealtimes with depictions of the Cookham that Stanley knew so well. Perhaps the best example is, ironically, unfinished: Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta which now hangs in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a small white square of a building on the corner of the High Street.  Holy Trinity churchyard, where Stanley is buried, is the setting for The Resurrection Cookham, a bizarre but joyous scene of people who mattered to Stanley coming up out of their graves, having conversations and then taking the footpath down to the river to catch the boat to Heaven.

The fact that two of Stanley’s paintings fetched about £2 million between them at auction in 1990 might have bemused him – and annoyed him too, as he was never rich in his lifetime, partly due to the maintenance payments he made to Patricia. But those sums do show how Stanley Spencer is now widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most significant British artists.

The silence of Friends

A few weeks ago, we visited Runnymede and the JF Kennedy Memorial on the centenary of his birth.  Just outside Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, there’s another link with the USA – in a quiet house and garden with over 300 years of history.

Jordans Quaker Meeting House was built in 1688 – shortly after James II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed Quakers and other non-conformists to worship legally for the first time.  The Quakers – the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends – argued that everybody could encounter God personally and directly, without intermediaries such as priests.  They gained a reputation for non-violent protest; Quakers received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for relief work in both World Wars.

The house at Jordans still hosts Quaker meetings today, and its Meeting Room is an excellent place for quiet reflection – appropriately, as Friends gather there to worship in silence.  The gardens and burial grounds surrounding the house accommodate many headstones, including two for William Penn (1644-1718) and his second wife Hannah (1671-1726).  William founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which later became the US state of Pennsylvania.  Also buried here is Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713), who helped his friend John Milton to find a cottage in nearby Chalfont St Giles when plague beset London. A new burial ground incorporates headstones for members of three local Quaker groups: Chilterns, London West and North West London.  Arranged in circles, interspersed with apple trees, the headstones radiate simple serenity.

Eunice, the charming and diminutive lady who greeted us when we arrived, told us there is still a Sunday school held at the house, at which small children better known for being noisy begin to learn from the adults’ example. In their own charming and old-fashioned way, the house and gardens act as a pause button for our ever-faster moving modern world.  A pause for quiet reflection can help anyone – whatever their religious beliefs, or even if they have none.

Wine, women and Hell-Fire…

Sitting quietly in the Chilterns, on a hill behind the village of West Wycombe, is one of the most famous examples of clubland in the world.  Its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, had form in this area: his other creations included the Dilettanti Club (to encourage interest in classical art) and the Divan Club, for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire.  Paul Whitehead, steward to the Hell-Fire Club, may have met Sir Francis at the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks – now there’s a club that deserves eternal fame if only for its name…

But it’s Hell-Fire rather than Beefsteak that has earned a place in history – infamy, even.  No doubt a large part of this is down to a later Sir Francis Dashwood deciding in the early 1950s to make the Hell-Fire Caves into a tourist attraction.  The Club – or the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe as it was originally known – met in other locations, too, notably at Medmenham Abbey but also in members’ houses such as Sir Walter Stanhope’s at Eythrope and possibly even at Cliveden.  As the official guide book states, “Numerous second-hand accounts appeared towards the latter part of the eighteenth century giving varying descriptions of the goings on, some of which seem to be completely fictitious and are not corroborated by any other sources.”

The likelihood is that the Club’s activities were not as racy as the publicity would have had contemporaries or later generations believe.  There were plenty of toasts when club members gathered for “private devotions” – although the drinking probably wasn’t excessive – and the guide book notes that “These meetings provided an ideal opportunity for discreet rendezvous with ladies who did not wish to be identified.”

Over its most active years between the 1950s and the mid-1770s, the Hell-Fire Club had twelve members.  They included a First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Sandwich), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and even John Wilkes, a journalist who found fame as an MP – now there’s a career path you don’t come across these days…

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.

Wycombe tradition: MORE or NO MORE?

Now here’s a practice none of the parties in this year’s General Election campaign are promising to introduce…

Every third Saturday in May, the Mayor of High Wycombe and its Charter Trustees – councillors for the town wards of Wycombe – subject themselves to a public weighing.  The town crier presides as officials compare the Mayor’s and councillors’ weights with the equivalent figures from a year ago.  If they have not gained weight, the cry is “No More!”; if they have put on weight, “And some More!”  The theory is that gaining weight has occurred as a result of the fruits of office…

This year the Mayor and most councillors managed to achieve a cry of “No More!” But a few did not, provoking good-natured ritual booing.  One unfortunate even received the damning verdict: “And a LOT, LOT more!”

It could be worse.  In years gone by, the story has it, the crowds would throw tomatoes and rotten fruit at those who had put on weight…

 

Tudors and tulips

In the middle of the Metropolitan Green Belt sits the small village of Chenies.  Seriously small: there are well under 200 inhabitants.  Chenies Manor goes back, in one form or another, at least 800 years, having been in the possession of the Cheyne family.  However, the brick manor house which is the central part of what survives today was built in the mid-15th century, and John Russell modernised it in the 1530s.

Russell, a successful operator in Henry VIII’s court, received an earldom and Chenies became the main home of the Earls of Bedford, receiving many eminent visitors including Elizabeth I on several occasions.  After the Restoration, Chenies ceased to be the Russells’ principal seat – they used Woburn instead – and, over the following generations, suffered a degree of neglect.  The Macleod Matthews, the current owners since the 1950s, is the first family to live in the house as a whole for over 300 years.  They have embarked on an extensive restoration programme which continues.

These days Chenies opens to the public on selected afternoons between April and October, with timed tours of the house and plenty of opportunity to enjoy the splendid gardens.  The tulips were a highlight of our visit today.  There’s also a tearoom across which you navigate with your trolley of tea and raspberry shortcake, trying not to fall over the large, friendly dog which shambles here and there. It’s a splendid day out at a quirky house – look out for the ornamental cut-brick chimneys which look as if they’ve escaped from a Dali painting.

The Drawingroom: bigger on the inside…?

It’s no big deal eating in someone’s living room.  True, it’s a little more unusual when the low beams hint at over 400 years of history.  And then there’s the art works… and the local produce… Clearly the Drawingroom, just off Chesham’s high street, is more than just any old drawing room.

It used to be an office, a photographic studio and a barber’s shop. Not all at the same time, you’d assume.  But the current owner Richard seems keen to find as many uses for the space as possible.

When you’re not sitting in the living room enjoying toasties, jacket potatoes or even “wapas” (The Drawingroom’s term for world tapas… yes, I know), along with properly brewed tea, you can goggle at the artwork and the décor. The first floor features a bedroom/sitting room with billowing, Bedouin tent furnishings.  The landing is “painted in theatrical red with various guitars hanging on the walls: “The Musicians’ Gallery,” Richard calls it.  Musicians – specifically emerging acts – feature in gigs here on the first, second and third weeks of each month. If you miss it, they’re filmed and the TV in the living room will play what you missed.

If music isn’t your bag, try backgammon here on the first or third Wednesday of each month.  Or you can hire the venue for your own occasion, as many have done for christenings, wakes or wedding anniversaries.

“Whether you are here for the Art, music, home cooking or peace and tranquillity, I do hope you enjoy it and return often,” say the notes on the menu sheet.  I’m not sure about the tranquillity – especially when the gigs are on – but it’s certainly a venue with a difference.

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…

Commuter Castle

We’ve all had this problem… Working in the big smoke; live a long way away; how to shorten the daily grind of commuting? Get a base in town, perhaps – or just outside town.

Which brings us to Richard, earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III.  Duty at the royal court in London often called, so Henry granted his brother Berkhamsted Castle in 1225.  Richard got his staff to bring the accounts from his earldom to Berkhamsted, and turned the Castle into a luxurious palace complex – a definite upgrade from its Norman motte-and-bailey origins.  Richard used the Castle until his death in 1272, making him a far more durable resident than Thomas Becket, who had held it for nine years until, in 1164, his quarrel with Henry II led to disgrace.  Edward, the Black Prince, would enjoy the Castle, as would five subsequent queens.

The past 500 years have not been so distinguished, with the Castle slowly falling into ruin. Today you can pick your way round its remains, keeping an eye on the demob-happy schoolchildren as they cavort around the ruins. Beckett, Richard or Edward might all have appreciated the fast train which passes within a javelin’s throw of the Castle, taking today’s London workers to Euston within 40 minutes, up to four times an hour.  From here it’s a short walk up Castle Street (helpful name) into Berkhamsted proper.