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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
You probably know that Hugh Grant starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a hugely successful British romantic comedy film. If you’re a lover of movie trivia, you may know that some filming took place at the Crown in Amersham.
You’re less likely to know that the Crown could have burned down almost sixty years earlier, in 1935… until the alarmed squawking of a sulphur crested cockatoo alerted the staff, enabling them to evacuate guests and put the fire out, the only casualties being two cats. The cockatoo lived another year, to the ripe old age of 118, before being stuffed, mounted and displayed in the hotel bar.
He now sits proudly on the first floor of the refurbished Amersham Museum, in the high street almost directly opposite the Crown. A heroic cockatoo is only one of the various attractions in the new-look Museum, whose glass reception area with an Amersham Tube sign behind the welcome desk contrasts strikingly with the 16th century original elements of the building. Visitors can get an overview of over 2,000 years of local history before viewing a range of exhibits and display installations. Examples include embroidered versions of the front covers of the annual leaflets which the Metropolitan Railways Country Estates used to publish to promote its housing developments along the line, and products manufactured at Goya’s perfume and cosmetics factory. The museum’s garden (pictured) now has access for wheelchair users and features new planting. All in all, it’s an excellent way to find out more about the town – or, if you have lived or worked there, to take a nostalgic trip into its past.
Combining the traditions of 1066 and all that with our modern predilection for lists, we can probably guess that King John was a Bad King and near the top of any Top 10 Worst British/English Kings in History, in most people’s eyes. But one corner of the Chilterns has reason to be grateful to him.
For it was John, in 1200 at the request of Geoffrey, earl of Essex, who granted the right for Amersham to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. The weekly market enabled locals to stock up on the basics they needed for everyday living. The annual fair saw merchants from further across England, and sometimes beyond, offer more exotic wares such as perfumes, handicraft, furs and the types of fruit which might not be available all the time (such as oranges).
If you wander into Amersham’s Garden of Remembrance, you can find a splendid reminder of this in the form of a floral tribute to 800 years of Amersham history: a joint venture by Amersham Town Council, Chesham Bois boy scouts and other volunteers. The building depicted in flowers in the photo is the Market Hall, built in 1682 and now Grade II listed. The Ferris wheel is a reminder of the more light-hearted aspects of the annual event – all the fun of the fair!
There’s a travel syndrome we might call New York State of Mind: the belief that you’ve been somewhere, even when you haven’t. We’ve all seen New York in the movies, so we feel we know it.
If it has nothing else in common with New York, maybe Long Crendon has that. Even on a dull, drizzly day, it’s impossible not to appreciate the weight of history, as you finish your coffee in The Flowerpot café, avoid tripping over someone else’s small dog and make your way down the High Street towards the old Court House (pictured here) and the Church. So many properties are Grade II listed that it’s like an English Heritage showroom; 99 houses built from witchert (puddled clay, straw and dung), stone, timber or brick, from anywhere between the 14th and 19th centuries, as well as several listed barns and walls and a telephone booth from 1935.
But the real reason for any deja vu you may feel is possibly more prosaic. I have a vivid memory of turning on the TV in our hotel room in Bucharest on New Year’s Day 2008. It wasn’t quite “57 channels and nothing on”, but there appeared to be only two things on. One was the video of Kylie Minogue’s latest single; the other was Midsomer Murders which has now been on our TV screens, and millions of others worldwide, for 20 years. And Long Crendon has played a starring role on many occasions. The Court House doubled as a bookshop in ‘The Dagger Club.’ Different houses on the High Street have appeared in the episodes ‘Garden of Death’, ‘Tainted Fruit’, ‘The House in the Woods’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Blood on the Saddle’. The Eight Bells pub, which was featured in ‘A Tale of Two Hamlets’, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘The Oblong Club’, has a signed photo of John Nettles, who played the first Chief Inspector Barnaby, near the entrance.
There weren’t, we have to say, that many people around on the day we visited. It may have been the bad weather, of course. Or perhaps they’ve all been murdered…?
The historian Eric Hobsbawm used to refer to “invented traditions”; the peculiar process of swan upping is what he might have called a re-invented tradition.
Its origins go back many centuries, perhaps as far as the 12th century when the mute swan gained Royal status meaning that, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the Crown. (That might have made the swan-escape sequence in Hot Fuzz even funnier if the Queen had turned up…) By 1378 there was an official post of Keeper of the King’s Swans and the unfortunate bird was known for a long time as a culinary delicacy.
The process of swan upping on the Thames involves identifying swans and their cygnets, weighing them and checking their health. It now takes place during the third week of July each year. The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies (now the only owners of private swans on the Thames). Nowadays the emphasis is heavily on education. The Swan Uppers make over a dozen stops over the course of four days, starting at Romney Lock, the nearest lock to Windsor Castle, and finishing at Moulsford. A number of these stops involve meeting local schoolchildren and briefing them on the work of the Swan Uppers – and, of course, offering the opportunity to get up close and fluffy with a cygnet or two…
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…