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.

From monks to Moneypenny: 007’s car and an Oxfordshire barn

“Were you born in a barn?” was a question irritated adults used to ask during our childhood, if we left a door open and the cold came inside.  The question probably didn’t have a specific barn in mind: certainly not the barn you find 200 yards down a turning, near the war memorial, in the small Oxfordshire village of Drayton St Leonard.  This barn – as we discovered on a snowy March afternoon – is the custodian of one of the greatest motoring marques of them all.

The barn itself has been there for half a millennium; the monks of Dorchester Abbey built it.  Since its restoration, almost twenty years ago, it has housed the Aston Martin Owners Club and an associated museum of cars, trophies and artefacts.  Aston Martin was the inspiration, just over a century ago, of Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, who decided to make their own cars and won a hill climb race near Aston Clinton, just over the border in Buckinghamshire, hence Aston Martin.  Who knows whether a firm called Bamford Martin would have become so famous?  Over the years, the company has moved around – and went bankrupt seven times.  Its greatest breakthrough arguably came in the 1950s when the DB range began to race at Le Mans and, unforgettably, when James Bond drove a DB5 onto cinema screens in Goldfinger in 1964.  (There’s a parallel here with the exploits of the Mini at Monte Carlo and on screen in The Italian Job.)

Now, with the Aston Martin brand firmly associated with luxury cars, you can get up close to some of its history here.  There’s the A3, the oldest Aston Martin in existence, dating back to 1921 and as charming a piece of heritage as you could find. Or you can sit in a Vanquish Volante, a recent joint venture with Red Bull.  Just to give a bit of Top Gear madness to the idea, there’s a video of Daniel Riccardo racing his fellow F1 drivers around the track in Austria… while towing a caravan.  Collectors of toy cars will find countless examples of model Aston Martins, and there are various racing overalls, trophies and other items – careful you don’t trip over the engine sitting, top-heavy, at one end of the museum.

There is an explanation of how Sean Connery ended up driving a DB5, complete with ejector seat, machine guns and revolving number plates, but you won’t find the car itself – not a full-scale version, anyway – or 007.  As Bond tends to cause havoc wherever he goes, perhaps it’s just as well for the barn and everything inside that he isn’t here. We like to imagine that, before things got nasty, he might have taken Goldfinger for a spin in his pride and joy.

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to drive…”

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

The Chilterns Brigadoon: Halton House

In the village of Halton, just outside Wendover, sits a historic house which opens, Brigadoon-like, just once a year, as part of a national initiative called Heritage Open Days. Despite having lived in the area for the past 25 years and more, we had never visited Halton House until earlier this month.

It’s well worth a visit. Halton House represents the junction of two eras: the late Victorian and Edwardian years, a time of leisure and affluence, at least for some; and the First World War and the more egalitarian times which followed.  Alfred de Rothschild had the house built in three years (1880-3) as somewhere to relax from his banking work in London and as a suitable place to entertain his friends – who happened to include the Prince of Wales.  From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alfred was trying to emulate his brother-in-law’s efforts at nearby Waddesdon Manor, with sandstone turrets suggesting a French chateau as inspiration.  Inside it’s more eclectic and attracted some criticism from contemporaries.

All eras end. War came and Alfred offered the estate – which covered over 3,000 acres – to Lord Kitchener as a training venue for troops.  The new School of Technical Training emerged here as a training body for the Royal Flying Corps, known later as the Royal Air Force.  The RAF bought the estate from Alfred’s nephew, his heir after he died unmarried in 1918. It has been known as RAF Halton ever since, with the house serving as the Officers’ Mess.  Apparently there is some prospect that the RAF will leave the site in a few years time, and no doubt there is a good case for building some much-needed housing on part of the estate. Hopefully Halton House will survive, as a reminder of the history and heritage of Halton.

An American in the Chilterns

“So clear you see these timeless things that, like a bird, the vision sings.”  These words from a John Arlott poem, which now adorn the late broadcaster’s gravestone on Alderney, could just as easily describe the act of watching a cricket match at Wormsley.

It seems remarkable that, just a quarter of a mile after you leave the M40 at junction 5, you’re nudging the car along one of Buckinghamshire’s sunken lanes, avoiding a quixotic pheasant as it waddles towards you.  Eventually you come to the back of the charming pink-facaded pavilion. If you’re lucky (or early) you may bag one of the handful of benches on which to sit.  From that moment, you’re part of the ritual. It doesn’t need many spectators; the day we visited, their numbers only narrowly outnumbered the players.  The home side, a Getty XI, were playing I Zingari, that famous club of itinerant cricketers whose striped caps and blazers have adorned grounds since 1845.

The Getty whom we have to thank for this occasion was John Paul Getty II, later known as Paul Getty (1932-2003), an American philanthropist who donated, among much else, £50 million to the National Gallery.  Getty fell in love with England, becoming a naturalised British citizen, and bought the 2,700 acres of the Wormsley estate in the mid-1980s when it was in a sad condition.  Thanks to the efforts of Arlott’s fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston, and others, Getty also came to love cricket.  Johnston’s distinctive beaky silhouette adorns the weather vane on the pavilion of the cricket ground which hosted its first game in 1992.  This is no amateur effort – Harry Brind, groundsman for many years at the Oval, helped to ensure that the wickets and ground are of high quality.  The England women’s team has played several Test matches here and there’s a busy schedule of matches every summer, some for charitable purposes, others offering free entry.  In the days before the international schedule crowded just about everything else out, male Test stars such as Brian Lara and Graham Gooch played. Lara is the only visiting player to have his feat of a century marked with a special plaque in the pavilion – Wormsley’s version of the honours boards at other venues.

The cricket ground is only one aspect of this amazing, vast estate.  Garsington Opera has become an annual summer fixture here too, having relocated a few years ago from its original Oxfordshire home.  The walled garden and the Library in the family home are also open to visitors on a selective basis.  But arguably Wormsley is most famous for cricket thanks to the paradox that, deep in the Chilterns Hills, it was an American who chose to recreate a timeless English idyll.

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.