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

Watercress Walk

Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.

More on that later.  Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house.  The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt.  With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.)  Sadly not.

What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches.  How wrong can you be?  According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.

After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot.  An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box.  Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.

HM

Wycombe tradition: MORE or NO MORE?

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…

 

Teacups and trucks

Not many people would, probably, put the words “Luton” and “culture” together.  Luton has such a bad reputation that it’s even been voted the UK’s worst town.  A drive round the centre can be depressing and confusing.  Yet some of Luton’s sons and daughters have achieved great things, from composer David Arnold to cricketer Monty Panesar.  Nearby Luton Airport is a national gateway to and from the northern Chilterns, and is the town’s largest employer.  And just outside central Luton sit two splendid ways to spend an afternoon out. 

Along Old Bedford Road is Wardown House, Museum and Gallery (pictured).  The house itself is a late Victorian creation, completed in 1877 for a local solicitor who also had the outbuildings and lodges built and laid out a cricket lawn and park.  After the family moved away, the local council bought the estate, opening the park to the public and using the house as a military convalescent hospital in World War I and later as a rental space for some of their staff.  Wardown House has been a museum since 1931 and it has just reopened after a period of redevelopment. 

Visitors can wander through both floors, admire an eclectic selection of displays including some very Victorian mounted butterflies and learn about two centuries of Luton life in a special exhibition – with the starring role going to the hatmaking industry for which the town is still renowned.  There’s enough interactive content to satisfy the most curious of children.  Sit in an armchair and a voice will explain what games the children of Wardown House used to play; look in the bathroom mirror and what you thought was a portrait of a World War I nurse comes to life and the nurse explains what her job involved.  The tearoom, in what was the house’s dining room, features one or two quirky design choices: customers drink from paper cups while proper teacups form part of the light fittings!  All in all, the house and surrounding park provide an excellent attraction.

Three miles away across town is Stockwood Discovery Centre.  Here, too, there was once a country house, completed in 1740 for £60,000 (probably over £12 million in today’s money) and property of the Crawley family for 200 years.  Again the local council bought the house and surrounding park, but the house fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1964.  Happily a combination of Heritage Lottery Fund money and other donations has enabled Stockwood Craft Museum, as it was, to redevelop and reopen.

Keen gardeners can enjoy the Period Gardens which show a range of styles of English gardens through the centuries (my favourite was the Elizabethan knot garden), as well as other garden spaces devoted to themes such as medicine and wildlife.  The Discovery Galleries in the old stables explore the history of the region from prehistoric times – including a taste of medieval Luton, while the Discovery Hall focuses on another industry for which Luton has become famous, as the home of Vauxhall: the motor trade.  The Hall features a collection previously owned by George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, who collected, drove, restored and constructed horse-drawn vehicles for over fifty years.

Like Wardown, Stockwood Discovery Centre is open most days of the year.  Even better, both are free to enter.  I would recommend either as good options for a day out – and to dispel any remaining prejudice you may have against Luton…

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News, views, thoughts and impressions from this wonderful part of Britain…

In this section we’ll be posting thoughts from around the Chilterns and the Thames Valley as we explore it for Slow Travel. In the meantime…

Why the Chilterns and Thames Valley?

Despite the number of people who live here, work here, visit the area or travel through it, the Chilterns and Thames Valley are not well-served by existing guidebooks.  There are many excellent walking guides, for the Chilterns in particular, but no general guidebook.  In larger guidebooks covering England, Britain or the UK, the Chilterns and Thames Valley barely merit a mention.  Given the area’s many charms and attractions, it’s about time that someone corrected this oversight!

Where is the Chilterns and Thames Valley in any case?

For the Slow Travel guidebook, we are defining it as: the area covered by the Chiltern Society, the area’s largest environmental group, across parts of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, along with the Vale of Aylesbury; plus the Thames Valley area to the south, from Runnymede in the east to Reading in the West.  We include the Vale of Aylesbury as its landscape, wildlife and heritage is impossible to separate from that of the rest of Buckinghamshire.