The many names of Christmas

Just over a mile up the hill from Watlington lies the hamlet of Christmas Common. But there doesn’t seem to be settled agreement on the reason for the name…

One theory is that the name derives from the Christmas trees that grow here. The Tree Barn, a local business, was involved in the decoration of the Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in 2017.  A second possibility is that a family called Christmas lived in the area.

The third possible source for the name is the local truce which is supposed to have been declared between the rival troops in the English Civil War on Christmas Day in 1643 (an echo of the legend of the football match between British and German soldiers in the trenches around Ypres on Christmas Day, 1914). The Civil War certainly passed close by. Six months beforehand, in June 1643, John Hampden sustained a fatal wound at the Battle of Chalgrove. Another local legend has it that he stayed at the Hare and Hounds in Watlington the night before, leaving a chest containing money for the payment of troops with the landlord.  The Hare and Hounds stood till 1990; in its place now is the rather more prosaically named Chiltern Business Centre.

Whatever the truth may be, Christmas Common is popular these days with cyclists and walkers alike. There’s any number of walking routes you can follow, or adapt for yourself, through ancient woodland filled with beech, yew, sycamore and other trees – even the occasional cherry tree – and across chalk grassland rich in wild flowers. If a bit of steepness doesn’t faze you, that’s even better. We climbed almost 400 feet (138m) for some wonderful views across south Oxfordshire – taking care not to disturb the cows (above). If you need sustenance at the start, end or mid-point of your route, the Fox and Hounds is a lovely old country pub, where George the amiable Labrador pads around while you enjoy local sausages and mash or one of the chef’s excellent pies.

Mad women, triple poisoners and parallel world portal: High Wycombe

How much money, including visitor income, did John Betjeman cost Slough when his poetry when his poetry called for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on the town? It’s impossible to know, although the local authority and others who promote Slough have been known to express some exasperation about the effect on the town’s reputation.

No poet has been quite so cruel to High Wycombe, but it has a long, unwanted track record of cultural references which make it out to be dull, dreary or even just a bit of a joke. For example…

“This is about as much fun as a wet weekend in High Wycombe…”
(Yootha Joyce in George and Mildred, the film of the ITV sitcom, 1980)

“I’m living in High Wycombe with a madwoman!”
(Tim Brooke-Taylor in You Must Be the Husband, BBC sitcom, 1990s)

“High Wycombe is the last place on Earth, or should I say in the universe, where anything unusual is ever going to happen.”
(The Doctor in short story ‘Return of the Spiders’ from Doctor Who: More Short Trips, 1999 – the story featured giant man-eating spiders)

JOHN: “Do you go for a discreet Harvester sometimes [with Irene Adler]? Is there a night of passion in High Wycombe… Just text her back… Because High Wycombe is better than you are currently equipped to understand.”
SHERLOCK: “I caught a triple poisoner in High Wycombe.”
(‘The Lying Detective’, Sherlock, 2016)

Steve Coogan’s tragi-comic creation Alan Partridge referred to a night of passion in the town’s (fictional) Queen’s Moat Hotel while, in his comic novel In Your Dreams, Tom Holt made High Wycombe an unlikely portal to the land of the Fey.  Even The Archers has made not particularly flattering reference to the town not so long ago.

As it happens, some encouraging developments have been afoot in Wycombe in recent years; a new shopping centre, a new bus station, university status for the local college and an excellent theatre, the Wycombe Swan. And – if you’re ready to look for it – there is much of interest to find, for example at the Wycombe Museum (pictured above).

There isn’t a Harvester in the town, though there is one just outside, at Handy Cross. Maybe all those deerstalker-wearing fans of Benedict Cumberbatch will be paying it a visit soon, hoping for a glimpse of the Great Detective.

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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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.

A Chinese president and a non-takeaway

Today we visited somewhere we have driven past on countless occasions over the years, a classic example of tourist’s doorstep law (you don’t bother looking at things under your nose).  After a morning examining two ancient hillfort sites, one at Cholesbury Camp and one at nearby Pulpit Hill, we wandered into the Plough at Cadsden, a tiny hamlet near Princes Risborough.

The Plough has been around in one form or another for over 400 years, starting life as a coaching inn and, so the legend has it, hosting a wake for John Hampden as supporters brought his body back from Thame, where he died after the Battle of Chalgrove. More recently, several Prime Ministers have popped in for a drink; the ying and yang of British politics from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, and more recently David Cameron.

In 2015 Mr Cameron took Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, to the Plough for a pint and a fish and chip meal, as part of continuing negotiations over trade and diplomatic relations.  The following year, reports stated that the owner had sold the Plough to Chinese investors.  Less impressively, Mr and Mrs Cameron contrived to leave their daughter Nancy unattended at the pub for about 15 minutes, during the summer of 2012.  Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?

If the evidence of our visit today is anything to go by, this unfortunate incident hasn’t deterred other families from bringing their young children to the Plough for Sunday lunch.  As we left, a van with a group of young Chinese businessmen rolled up.  Even muddy-shoed walkers aren’t a problem, with overshoes available in the porch.  And the lunch – shoulder of lamb and steak and ale pie, in our cases – was a splendid reward for yomping up Pulpit Hill.

Some corner of an English field…

If Rupert Brooke had spent more time drinking in and around Henley rather than Princes Risborough, he might have inverted his most famous line.  For, in the little village of Stoke Row, there is some corner of an English field that is forever foreign.

The story of the Maharajah’s Well begins with local squire Edward Reade’s time in north-eastern India, working with the Maharajah of Benares (now Varanasi). His work included the sinking in 1831 of a well to aid a local community in Azimurgh.  When Mr Reade left the area in 1860, he asked the Maharajah to ensure that the well remained available to the public.

When the Maharajah decided on an endowment in England, he recalled Mr Reade’s generosity and his stories of water deprivation in Ipsden. The Maharajah paid for the construction of the well at Stoke Row, as well as a neighbouring cottage for a caretaker, and the well was opened officially on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1864.

It operated for 70 years, with the village’s Indian benefactor continuing to pay for its maintenance for the rest of his life.  The bright red dome, and the golden elephant inside, are now an unforgettable part of the local landscape.

The secret arboretum

Along a footpath from an unassuming road in Little Kingshill is a secret treasure trove for tree-lovers.

The origins of Priestfield Arboretum lie back in the early 20th century with Thomas Priest, a local solicitor who planted up to 400 trees in six acres of his garden, after he bought the land in 1917.  The site changed hands during World War II,  and has stayed in the ownership of the same family ever since. Though neglected and overgrown after the war, the arboretum came to the attention of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Forestry Commission.  A massive scrub clearance in the early 1980s enabled the discovery of 98 of the original trees.

The Arboretum now comprises around 200 trees and opens twice a year to the public, thanks to the sterling maintenance efforts of volunteers on behalf of the owners.  There is an element of zoning – silver firs are mostly in one area, spruces and pines in others.  Coralie Ramsay, the honorary curator, comments: “We aim to be ‘chemical free’ and to encourage biodiversity that will help optimize the health of the soil and, therefore, the specimens.”

Highlights include a giant redwood tree and aromas which can be evocative or alarming.  Look out for the cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura) whose heart-shaped leaves turn yellow and smell of candyfloss if you rub them.  That’s probably preferable to the pungent leaves of umbellularia californica (California bay laurel or Oregon myrtle) which can apparently cause headaches – though we suffered no ill-effects.