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.