Boarstall Tower: a frank and Ernest history

You don’t tend to come across the phrase ‘licence to crenellate’ too much these days. I found it in the Buckinghamshire volume of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England (1960). Pevsner uses the phrase in his description of Boarstall Tower – now a property affiliated to the National Trust, but once the gatehouse for a manor built on land which Edward the Confessor had given one of his men in return for slaying a troublesome local wild boar.

The gatehouse and the licence to crenellate – which came from the King, in this case Edward II – dates from 1312. According to Samuel Lysons in Magna Britannia (1806), John Hampden’s forces used the manor as a base from which to attack Royalist Oxford, and it changed hands more than once before the end of the Civil War. The manor was demolished in 1778, but the gatehouse survived (having had some changes made in the 17th century). Almost two centuries later, the National Trust received the Tower and its gardens from Ernest Cook, a philanthropist who, along with his brother Frank, was a grandson of the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook.

Today, the Tower is free to Trust members, and currently open on the last Sunday of each month between May and September for tours. You can’t go on the roof for health and safety reasons, but you can view the old banqueting and entertaining hall on the first floor (example of windows below). The Trust website states (at the time of writing) that only the beautiful gardens are open, but this is incorrect. You can join a tour and find out more about this splendid remnant – including the surprising fact that Laurence Olivier and Vivienne Leigh were considering buying it at one point.  In the end, concern about their small children having to negotiate the spiral staircases prevented them taking their interest further. As it turned out, the Oliviers lived at Notley Abbey in nearby Long Crendon instead.

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While you’re here: just up the road is Boarstall Duck Decoy, another National Trust property and a rare surviving example of a 16th-century invention for catching waterfowl, surrounded by lovely woodland. And if you’re looking for somewhere local for lunch, the Angel restaurant six miles away in Long Crendon is recommended; this 16th-century coaching inn serves excellent ham hock, poached haddock and other delicacies – as well as offering accommodation if you need a local base for exploring Boarstall and elsewhere.

An act of remembrance

A while ago, we wrote about the extraordinary Whipsnade Tree Cathedral – the embodiment of one man’s wish to commemorate friends who died in World War I, and to give others a place to reflect, a place of faith, hope and reconciliation. Today was the day for the Cathedral’s annual service, led by Rev Nicola Lenthall, Rector of the United Benefice of Kensworth, Studham and Whipsnade.

Participants came from either end of the age range, with children from Kensworth and Studham Schools singing one song and the Salvation Army providing splendid accompaniment to the hymns. The Cathedral’s service takes place on the second Sunday in June each year and, this year, that happened to follow closely upon the events marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Giving the address, the Venerable Dave Middlebrook, Archdeacon of Bedford, invited those present to pause for a few moments, just to listen: to the birdsong, to the distant sound of the occasional plane overhead or the train from nearby Whipsnade Zoo. It was a simple but effective reminder of the normality that we all take for granted – the normality to which many thousands of young men and women, who fell in both World Wars and in other conflicts, were never able to return. In the words of John Maxwell Edmunds, quoted during the service:

When you go Home, tell them of us and say,
For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today

The only appropriate response is surely to heed the words of another Great War poet, Laurence Binyon (who lived at the other end of the Chilterns in Streatley on Thames), which were also quoted today:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

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Polecat returns: sorry, no (live) sheep

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.

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At home with Vicky and Bertie

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.

Come back, Don Quixote: the mills return

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.

Feel the festival

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…?

The many names of Christmas

Just over a mile up the hill from Watlington lies the hamlet of Christmas Common. But there doesn’t seem to be settled agreement on the reason for the name…

One theory is that the name derives from the Christmas trees that grow here. The Tree Barn, a local business, was involved in the decoration of the Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in 2017.  A second possibility is that a family called Christmas lived in the area.

The third possible source for the name is the local truce which is supposed to have been declared between the rival troops in the English Civil War on Christmas Day in 1643 (an echo of the legend of the football match between British and German soldiers in the trenches around Ypres on Christmas Day, 1914). The Civil War certainly passed close by. Six months beforehand, in June 1643, John Hampden sustained a fatal wound at the Battle of Chalgrove. Another local legend has it that he stayed at the Hare and Hounds in Watlington the night before, leaving a chest containing money for the payment of troops with the landlord.  The Hare and Hounds stood till 1990; in its place now is the rather more prosaically named Chiltern Business Centre.

Whatever the truth may be, Christmas Common is popular these days with cyclists and walkers alike. There’s any number of walking routes you can follow, or adapt for yourself, through ancient woodland filled with beech, yew, sycamore and other trees – even the occasional cherry tree – and across chalk grassland rich in wild flowers. If a bit of steepness doesn’t faze you, that’s even better. We climbed almost 400 feet (138m) for some wonderful views across south Oxfordshire – taking care not to disturb the cows (above). If you need sustenance at the start, end or mid-point of your route, the Fox and Hounds is a lovely old country pub, where George the amiable Labrador pads around while you enjoy local sausages and mash or one of the chef’s excellent pies.