Raising the Devil

A sunny Sunday morning in June is the perfect time for a walk in the  countryside.  Conjuring up the devil is a less common pastime, I hope, but I had the opportunity to combine both. Our walk from Oving to North Marston started in the usual way, strolling across fields with views over the countryside, whilst avoiding cow pats and  murmuring ‘mint sauce’ to the sheep as we passed.

On arrival in North Marston, however, we came across the village pump and Schorne Well.  John Schorne was rector of North Marston from 1282 to 1314. After his death, the church became a popular pilgrimage site because of his holiness and the miracles supposed to have been worked by the power of the water in his Holy Well, which was supposed to cure gout.  In the church itself is a ‘boot shrine’ where afflicted pilgrims could insert their feet in hope of a cure. The popularity of the shrine brought huge prosperity to the church, as the impressive building will testify. In 1478, Edward IV had Schorne’s relics transferred to the newly-build St George’s Chapel at Windsor in the hope of attracting the pilgrim trade, but visitors still continued to visit the Holy Well; Henry VIII (commonly believed to have been a gout sufferer) went twice.

Over time, images of the cure for gout, which was represented by the devil being drawn out of a boot, became misunderstood as Schorne conjuring the devil in a boot, giving rise to the local jingle ‘John Schorne, gentleman borne, conjured the devil into a boot.’

Sadly, the well was sealed off in 1861 after a tragic accident and by 1900 the building that  housed it had fallen down, with only the pump remaining. This sorry state of affairs continued for the next century, but in 2005, a new well-house was built, with an amusing reference to the legend. If you pump hard enough, you can see the devil’s head pop up in the boot beside the water trough.

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Going slow in Aylesbury

 

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Dominated by the grey concrete monolith of County Hall, Aylesbury town centre is not immediately appealing.  But there is another side of Aylesbury to explore. Just a few streets away from the  bustle of Friar’s Square and the modern shopping complexes, the Church of St Mary the Virgin is surrounded by cobbled streets and picturesque old cottages, a former workhouse and  almshouses.

Inside the church, late on a Sunday morning after the worshippers have left, the scent of incense lingers. Beneath the great west window, bright with Victorian stained glass bible scenes, is a twelfth-century font.  In the north transept is an alabaster monument to Lady Lee (d.1584) wife of Sir Henry Lee of Quarrendon and her three children. Just around the corner lies an unidentified fourteenth century tomb effigy.   Close to the church is Prebendal House, once the home of John Wilkes, the radical eighteenth-century MP for Aylesbury. Back in Friar’s Square, an unassuming archway leads to the King’s Head pub, a historic coaching inn established in 1455 and now owned by the National Trust and run by Chiltern Brewery.  On Sundays you can enjoy a traditional roast in the oak-panelled dining room.

A short walk through Friar’s Square past Old County Hall and the Judge’s Lodgings brings you to Exchange Street and the Waterside Theatre. From the canal basin at the rear of the theatre the Little Trip Boat offers a relaxing post-prandial cruise along the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union Canal.

Travel doesn’t come much slower than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cows have come home…?

When you’re wandering round an Oxfordshire town centre in 2018, there are certain things you don’t expect.  Such as random sightings of replica cows.  Milton Keynes, maybe; it has a reputation for concrete bovines.  But we saw a few as we pottered around Thame today.

Perhaps it’s no more than a useful reminder that Thame has been a market town for almost a millennium, and that the upper end of its high street was once occupied by a livestock market, with cattle and pigs penned into an area now marked by cobbles.  That would certainly help to explain the wide High Street and market place, with narrow entrances at both ends.  There still is a cattle market each Wednesday and Friday, along with a general market each Tuesday and a farmers’ market on the second Tuesday of each month.

Conservation efforts over many years have ensured that many other traces of the town’s history remain for visitors to find.  There’s the 15th century Nag’s Head, which used to be called the King’s Head… till a supporter of Charles I was hanged from the sign by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War.  Further along the High Street, by the corner with Church Road, the timber frame alms houses, founded in 1447 by Richard Quartermain, are almost trumped by the elaborate 19th century bandstand in the grounds.  Or there’s the Swan Hotel, whose Georgian facade belies the timber frame jettied construction inside, or the James Figg pub on Cornmarket, named after the world’s first boxing champion, who grew up in the town; or the plaque on Hampden House commemorating the heroism of John Hampden in the Civil War – he went to school in Thame, and died in Hampden House after sustaining injuries in battle in 1643.  And there are buildings with links to Evelyn Waugh and WB Yeats.

All in all, Thame is an excellent place to wander around for a day. A host of cafes can refresh you, and we thoroughly recommend The Thatch for lunch.  Maybe best to avoid the slow-braised beef brisket, though… just in case you catch a cow’s eye on your way back up the high street.

Marlow’s Siberian connection

Marlow has boasted several famous writers as residents: TS Eliot, the Shelleys, Isaak Walton. But the town’s most extraordinary author was surely Kate Marsden (1859-1931), who became a writer by chance: she was a nurse, who first became obsessed with the need to find a cure for leprosy while working on a Red Cross mission in Bulgaria. Later, in Constantinople, Marsden heard reports of the existence of a rare herb which could alleviate or even cure the disease – in the Yakutsk region of Siberia.

The superbly titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892) tells the story of her journey, with another woman as assistant and translator, across 11,000 inhospitable Russian miles (by train and boat as well as sledge and horseback), searching for the elusive herb and treating the sick as she went.  Marsden travelled with the approval of the Empress of Russia and of Queen Victoria, who presented her with an angel-shaped brooch on her return.

Marsden became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, and her efforts raised over £2,000 for a leper hospital in Vilyuysk.  Some pundits doubted her account of the journey – though it was no less improbable than those of male writers who had travelled in Russia around that time.  Others insinuated that Marsden was attempting to “atone” for acts of homosexuality.

Siberians, perhaps predictably, were and are more sympathetic.  Residents of Vilyuysk funded the construction of a special monument in Marsden’s memory, which was opened in 2014.

A charitable note

On the first Sunday of the month, between November and March, surprising noise issues from a unit on a small industrial estate, just off Amersham’s Plantation Road, a few minutes from the railway station.  The source of the noise takes a bit of finding. You have to locate the right, inconspicuous white door.  Once you open it and step through, prepare for an assault on your senses.

For this is the unlikely home of the Amersham Fair Organ Museum, a collection of English fair organs guaranteed to press your nostalgia buttons and transport you to holidays, long ago, the moment they begin to play.  Fairground organs evolved from street barrel organs, with the music being created from folding sheets of perforated cardboard music.  Travelling showmen used them, at least until the interwar years when amplified music began to come in.

Although this means almost everyone who heard and saw fairground organs in their heyday must be gone, there is no lack of interest or enthusiasm even today, as the audience sits with their tea and cake to listen to It’s a long way to Tipperary and other tunes from years gone by (and even, God help us, the music from those annoying Go Compare ads…)  The Museum is a registered charity and runs occasional special events for subscribing Friends, as well as its Open Days.  It’s a visual and aural feast, and an important link back to one of the ways in which our ancestors used to enjoy themselves.

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.

That Name Rings A Bell….

Wing, Tring and Ivinghoe
Three churches in a row

I have known this couplet* since childhood, but have never actually visited any of the three churches until now.

My attempt to remedy this with the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring got off to a slightly shaky start as we pushed open the door, only to find it full of aproned ladies wielding brooms and dusters. We were about to retire gracefully, but they beckoned us in, saying we were welcome to look round whilst they were cleaning.

The most immediately striking feature inside the church is the imposing baroque memorial to Sir William Gore and his wife Elizabeth on the north wall of the nave.Sir William was a city alderman and Lord Mayor of London (1701-2) who subsequently purchased Tring Park. He was a great benefactor of the church, contributing significantly to restoration of the church in the early eighteenth century.  To the left of the Gore memorial, and easily missed if you are not looking for it, is a framed family tree commemorating some earlier residents of Tring and their famous descendant: Lawrence Washington, the great grandfather of US President George Washington lived in Tring between 1630 and 1650 and several members of the Washington family were baptized in the church.

Not wishing to disturb the cleaning ladies any more than necessary as they already had their hands full with a little girl who was ‘helping’ in the way only small children can, we decided to return later for a closer look at the rest of the church.

After a lunch with friends, we paid a brief visit to a favourite school trip destination of my youth. Now a branch of the Natural History Museum, the museum at Tring originated as a home for the zoological collections of Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring Park.  I was pleased to find that our old favourites, the dressed fleas (yes, fleas with clothes on!) were still there. Walter Rothschild was a serious zoologist and a fascinating character. His habit of driving around in a zebra-drawn carriage is commemorated in a modern pavement maze in Church Square.

We returned later to the church only to find a choir practice in full swing, but managed to take a closer look at the nave without disturbing them. The church as it stands today dates mainly from the fifteenth century and among its most interesting features are the medieval corbels which top the columns in the nave, including a monkey dressed as a monk, a fox carrying a goose, a collared bear and a dragon.

Unlike most churches, there was no booklet about the history of the church on sale.  Instead, there was series of colour leaflets about individual aspects of the church compiled by members of the Friends of Tring Church Heritage and students of schools in Tring.  Each leaflet includes a paragraph with the thoughts of a school pupil – a really nice idea.

*I quoted the version of the couple that was current in my family, but there are a number of variations.  A similar poem refers to a supposed quarrel between the Hampden family and the Black Prince which led to the three villages being confiscated:

Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe
Hampden of Hampden did foregoe
For striking of ye Prince a blow,
And glad he might escape it so.

HM