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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Chilterns 3Cs: chalk, cherries and chairs

It’s easy to forget, as we hurry about our daily lives, the quietly heroic efforts of various people and organisations striving to preserve the best of where we live, and to find out more about it. The Chilterns Conservation Board is a key local player in these parts. So it’s encouraging to learn that the Heritage Lottery Board has awarded £2 million for a five-year conservation project. The three Cs – chalk, cherries and chairs – refer to some of the best-known natural and historical features of the region.

The press release gives fuller details of exactly what will be part of the project. Our first home in Prestwood was on the site of one of the cherry orchards which used to be a major local employer. Sadly, the orchards are almost completely gone, not only from Prestwood but from the Chilterns as a whole. So it’s exciting to read that restoring the orchards to some extent, and resurrecting the annual Cherry Pie Festival, is part of the project plans.

One of Helen’s ancestors was a bodger, otherwise known as a wood turner. Furniture making used to be synonymous with High Wycombe in particular (the football team’s nickname is still “the Chairboys”), and the bodgers were a key link in the production process. As with the cherry orchards, this part of local history is well overdue for revival and re-examination.

And the chalk? Well, the Chilterns Conservation Board is already working on our large collection of Iron Age hillforts.  Whichever one you visit – whether Sharpenhoe Clappers, for example, in the northern Chilterns – there’s nothing like an old hillfort for a bit of atmosphere and mystery. This new project promises to step up work on the hillforts, and we may even learn more about Grim’s Ditch – though, if investigations come up with anything better than that wonderful name, we’ll be surprised.

Rare birds and butterflies should benefit, too, with this project providing additional resources to try to ensure that rareness doesn’t turn into extinction. All in all, we think the HLF’s £2 million for this new project is going to be money well spent.

The sweet taste of success

One of the pleasures of our research in the past couple of years has been discovering local suppliers. Today we were able to put a face to a name by meeting Anton Hazelle at Orchard View Farm, just a few minutes from us. Undaunted by all the food everyone’s been eating over Christmas, Anton was at the café with a selection of his range of chocolate bars.

There are something like 150 flavours in all, which isn’t bad going for someone who only started his business in 2008. Like many small business, it grew out of a hobby, passionately pursued, and a growing number of friends and acquaintances who asked Anton if he could make some chocolate for them.

Until 2016 there was a café in Princes Risborough, but now Anton concentrates on supplying retailers, farm shops and cafes. We thoroughly recommend his chocolate – and today’s display included a seasonal milk chocolate bar with a citrus and mince pie flavour. (No, you can’t have some of ours – buy your own, online or in the shops…)

Do you think it’s 60?

When a tourist attraction has been open for a long time, one of the challenges for those who own and manage it is to find new reasons for people to visit. This is presumably a major issue for the National Trust, whose five million members eagerly make use of their membership whenever they can.

In 2019 one of the Trust’s most famous properties in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, will be celebrating 60 years of opening to the public. As Trust members, we’ve visited many times over the years, usually to goggle at the extraordinary, relentless procession of exquisite, expensive taste displayed within the house. We do enjoy the gardens too – and remember fondly a mynah bird called George, who lived in the Aviary and who might favour you with a range of comments, from the accurate but unimaginative “Waddesdon Manor” to the more colourful “You’re an old stinker!”

This Christmas, as part of a special Carnival programme, Waddesdon is looking a bit different from normal, and it’s all to do with light shows. The Stables are illuminated (the work of the Guildhall School), as is the front of the Manor itself, and there’s a light trail on the paths around the Aviary. Any aficionado of horror films knows how the atmosphere of a place can change at night; that’s certainly the case here. The magnificence of the grounds turns to mystery and it’s all quite eerie, even with the large number of visitors around (and the younger children seemed to be having a whale of a time). If you’re in the areas between now and 2 January, we recommend a visit. You can also pre-book tickets for visits to the house – but, for once, the grounds are the star.

We will remember them: Wilfred Owen and other Great War poets

“I sense his presence, sometimes,” said the elderly gentleman standing next to us as we admired the plaque. “If it’s evening, and I’m preparing the lay reading for the next day, it seems as if he’s here.” Charmingly, he adds: “Does that seem silly?”

It doesn’t. We’re inside All Saints Church, a minute or two down the road from the village of Dunsden, sometimes known as Dunsden Green. Here, for about 18 months between late 1911 and early 1913, Wilfred Owen served as lay assistant to the Vicar, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, which would transform and eventually claim his life. On a strictly physical level, Owen isn’t here now (though his parents and sister are buried in the churchyard); his remains are at Ors in northern France, close to where he died in action on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice. In another sense, Owen’s story ended in Shrewbury, his childhood home town, where his mother received on 11 November the telegram informing her of his death, as the town’s church bells were ringing out in celebration of the peace.

Owen ‘belongs’ to all these places, and more. A century later, we still remember his words, perhaps most famously his denunciation of “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”

Other Great War poets – some who died in the conflict, others who survived or outlived it – lived in and around the Chilterns and the Thames Valley. Sadly, Christ Church in High Wycombe, where poet and composer Ivory Gurney was organist both during and after the war, has long since gone. But you can still drink at the Pink and Lily in Princes Risborough, a favourite haunt of Rupert Brooke when he went for walks in the area. Maybe most poignant of all is the experience of standing in the beautiful Thames-side village of Goring, as you think of Laurence Binyon, a Goring resident. Binyon’s most famous poem For the Fallen is heard each Remembrance Day – particularly the third and fourth verses:-

“They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

“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.”

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.