To boldly go in search of our only hope…

If you’re a sucker for science fiction and fantasy, especially in the movies and on TV, the ‘Robot’ exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury has been – to quote the Cybermen – an ‘excellent’ place to visit in the last couple of months. It featured all manner of models of robots, cyborgs and androids from the small and silver screens, all the way from Maria (Metropolis, 1927) to Robbie the Robot (Return to the Forbidden Planet), R2D2 and C3P0 from Star Wars and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. There were also some examples of robot toys, which surprisingly date back all the way to the 1940s. Towering over the whole thing was a full-scale model of Darth Vader, the heaviest breathing cyborg in cinema history.

The presence of the Dark Lord is a reminder that the Chilterns has hosted its fair share of science fiction and fantasy invaders over the years. The ever-expanding Star Wars universe has been filming here over the past year, at Ivinghoe Beacon, for Episode IX. The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic novel Good Omens used Hambleden as the idyllic village where a young Antichrist grows up (though the village signs don’t yet say ‘Home of the Antichrist’, strangely). Both Harry Potter and Doctor Who have filmed in Burnham Beeches. On the edge of the Chilterns, the village of Brill was JRR Tolkein’s inspiration for the Lord of the Rings village of Bree.

Several eminent SF and fantasy authors have been born in the region, or lived here for a while. Pratchett, perhaps the best-loved British fantasy author of the 20th century, was born in Beaconsfield and worked in High Wycombe as a journalist in his younger days. Susan Cooper, author of contemporary fantasy books for younger readers including The Dark is Rising, was born in Burnham. And most significantly of all, Mary Shelley spent a year in Marlow completing what would become a seminal science fiction work: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Blood, bone and a snappy opening

If you’re one of those people who laments the lack of variety in British high streets these days, a display in the newly re-opened North Hertfordshire Museum may interest you. It’s a reconstruction of part of Parks and Llewelyn, a pharmacy which stood on Hitchin’s high street for over 170 years till its closure in 1961.

The most diverting item isn’t the various bottles with their mysterious potions and remedies, but what hangs above them; the jawbone of an alligator. This is a reference to the stuffed crocodiles which used to adorn the entrances to apothecaries’ shops in medieval times.

We said hello to the jawbone as part of a visit to the Museum on the occasion of its re-opening, on Saturday 6 July. It’s been partially open for a while, but a dispute over land ownership meant that, for some years, only pre-booked tours were available and visitors had to go in via the Town hall entrance next door.

Happily, that problem was consigned to the past by the opening ceremony. It featured children from Samuel Lucas JMI School reciting what their teacher called a rap – there was no music, so it was in reality a poem – about the eponymous Lucas, a 19th-century brewer and artist who lived and died in Hitchin. After the ceremonial cutting of a red ribbon, the children, their teachers, parents and other visitors streamed inside to explore the new facilities.

The ‘Discovering North Hertfordshire’ gallery on the ground floor covers local history from 90 million years ago to the present day. Sadly, the fibre glass reconstruction of the head of a parasaurolophus – a duck-billed dinosaur – is no longer on display, but there is still plenty to inform, entertain and surprise.

The other main element of the ground floor is a temporary exhibition space, currently used for ‘Blood and Bone’, an interactive installation of inflatable sculptures inspired by cells and organisms from inside the human body. Plenty of children enjoyed themselves, crawling in and out of the installations, as the adults refreshed themselves with drinks from the new onsite café.

The other principal new features are on the second floor (the first floor is reserved for staff office space). ‘Living in North Hertfordshire’ explores how people have lived, worked and died in the region, and features local characters and industries, as well as examples of what people used to wear and the toys with which children used to play. Look out for an exquisite Spitalfields silk dress and quilted petticoat from the early 18th century, and a slightly spooky Japanese doll. The adjacent Terrace Gallery gives you the chance to dress as a suffragette (and commendably explains the difference between suffragists and suffragettes) and showcases various other items, including a selection of ephemera from a football-related collection. The Arches Gallery, part of the Terrace Gallery, is currently showing a collection of work by Vanessa Stone, a local artist.

The Terrace itself is not yet in use, but no doubt this will change in due course. In the meantime it’s good to see the Museum fully open, and it looks set to become a very popular local attraction for years to come.

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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We’ll meet again… and again

The trouble with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as it used to be. As Britain continues its seemingly never-ending agonising re-appraisal of its place in the world, somehow the opening of a café with a World War II theme is not a surprise. The Air Raid Shelter Café and Tea Room has been in the Chilterns Shopping Centre in the middle of High Wycombe since late 2018.

This is not, of course, a unique idea; we’ve come across similar cafes in Hitchin and Stratford-upon-Avon, to name just two examples. And it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the use, even by implication, of tired and rather misleading myths about how the nation came together in the war, the spirit of the Blitz etc. Even that hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers (“Will you stop talking about the war?”) is over 40 years old. Remember, by all means; but try to move on, too.

Still, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, maybe we should just file it under ‘kitsch’. The new café has gone to some lengths to follow its theme. You can have two varieties of all-day breakfast, “Tommy’s” or “Landgirls” – the male version is larger. Or, if you’re there later in the day, some cheese and Marmite bread or a piece of lardy cake will help to take you back to those good old days (that weren’t). Our mismatched crockery included a splendid square-ish teapot depicting the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost of his dead father (Hamlet also finds it hard to move on, despite being Danish rather than British). The walls are covered with old photos of Wycombe and its people, copies of ration books and other artefacts. There are three themed areas: a faux living room with piano and a sofa, on top of which sits a stuffed cat with a piercing stare; a small railway carriage; and even (as per the cafe’s name) an air raid shelter, complete with tins of condensed milk, drinking chocolate, beef and onion broth and other stuff to see us through our darkest hour.

It’s all good fun, the food and drink is good and the service is friendly and unfussy. All in all (as Hamlet would say), despite any reservations about the theme, the Air Raid Shelter Café is a welcome addition to Wycombe, and we expect to be back soon.

A rite of spring

One of the most distinctive sights of High Wycombe lies just outside the town. As you turn right at the roundabout, passing the Eden Centre, Marks and Spencer and a new Aldi, and drive west along the A40, a golden ball appears on the hills ahead.

This marks the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Church of St Lawrence, part of the legacy of Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), a successful politician with a taste for Classical history and architecture. The design of the mausoleum and church are said to have been inspired by buildings in Rome and Venice, and they’re well worth a look.

But that’s for another day. On a gloriously sunny and still Sunday morning in February, once you’ve passed through the charming 16th-century village of West Wycombe and parked at the end of the high street (taking care on a very uneven surface), it’s time to walk through the gates of West Wycombe Park. The grounds are usually closed until April, and the house till June. Today’s an exception, as Snowdrop Sunday, with proceeds in aid of the South Bucks Hospice at nearby Butterfly House.

Snowdrops are everywhere, of course; a welcome promise that the worst of winter is over (we hope) and spring is round the corner. But there are few better places to enjoy them than the grounds of West Wycombe Park, as you admire the main house (pictured below), a mother hen to a brood of eccentric, ornamental constructions such as the Music Temple, sitting splendidly on the middle of a small island as coots and swan squabble in the lake. Each time you turn a corner, you find a better view than the one you just photographed – and with all the buildings in that distinctively Dashwood yellow.

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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…?

Abbey days are here again: a triptych

Embroidery has never loomed too large in our household, or too high on our list of cultural attractions or artistic skills. True, Helen’s father used to create the odd piece. And her mother once answered “Embroidery” to the Trivial Pursuits question “What was the name of the first craft to go up in space?”

But we haven’t thought too much about it over the years. Nonetheless, when we stayed at Missenden Abbey the other day, we found a splendid example of the art, lurking behind a mobile coat-rail in reception.

“The story of Misseden Abbey” [sic] was created in 1990 by Alison M Binns, after a weekend at the Abbey on an HNC in embroidery design. Using traditional techniques including stumpwork figures for the people – a method which was, apparently, popular in the late medieval and early modern periods – it divides the story of the Abbey into three sections:-

  • The blue panel marks the Abbey’s creation in 1133 by Augustinian monks who had fled from France, and the origins of that order
  • The green panel depicts the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, its purchase by various private owners and its occupation by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War;
  • And the red panel shows the recent history of the Abbey; its purchase by the county council for use as an adult education centre and, sadly, the destruction of the interior by a fire in 1985 (hence the use of red).

Happily, the Abbey continues to this day as a conference centre which also runs a range of short courses on creative subjects. It sits unassumingly at the opposite end of Great Missenden’s high street from the railway station; you could easily miss it. But it’s in fine fettle for a nearly 900 year old establishment, and we’d be surprised if it doesn’t make it to a full millennium.

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