Inside the Gothic Temple

If you live in north Buckinghamshire, or nearby, you’ll probably know Stowe (main house shown above) – one of the most extravagant and famous National Trust properties in the area. You may not know that you can stay in one of the extraordinary set of buildings within the estate.

The Gothic Temple was the final piece of construction at Stowe in Viscount Cobham’s campaign against the then Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, in the early 18th century. According to the National Trust’s booklet ‘Stowe: the people and the place’, at this point the term Gothic was synonymous with ‘Germanic’ and suggested ‘vigour, hardihood and love of liberty’ – all qualities which Cobham and some of his fellow dissident Whigs felt the government of the day lacked, or had lost.

The Temple is now available for holiday lets via the Landmark Trust, and today was one of its occasional open days. All mods are, of course, not con; the kitchen and bathroom are quite basic, and spiral staircases are not for the nervous. But if you can accept that, and like the idea of looking up at the beautifully decorated ceiling of the dome, or out at wonderful views across the Stowe estate, it’s worth it.

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Coming soon to a pub or bookshop near you…

We’re delighted that Slow Travel: The Chilterns & The Thames Valley is now out, and grateful for all the positive comments we’ve received so far. We’re appearing at several events in the next few months – here’s a handy summary:-

Follow the links in each case for further information. Thanks to Chorleywood, Gerrards Cross and Marlow Bookshops, the Chiltern Society, the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden and our publishers Bradt Travel Guides for making these events possible.

The launch party and the ‘In conversation’ are joint events to promote and celebrate not only our book, but also The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, a new Chilterns travelogue by Gail Simmons, also published by Bradt. The Country of Larks is due out any day now, making it a very good spring for new travel books about the Chilterns!

Pictured above: church in Medmenham

The Greenway to a slow day out

While they are wonderful places for a day out, historic houses aren’t always as accessible as everyone might ideally like. This can be an issue before you even set out; not many such houses can be reached by bus, or are close to railway stations (though Arundel Castle in Sussex is a notable exception in the latter case). Last autumn, Waddesdon Manor in north Buckinghamshire came up with a possible solution, for those who want to visit without undue stress or using a car. We’ve been along to try it out.

The nearest railway station, Aylesbury Vale Parkway, is less than three miles from Waddesdon Manor, and the village of Waddesdon itself. But it would take a brave cyclist to use the busy A41 which links the station with the village and the Manor. The solution? The new Waddesdon Greenway, which offers a flat-surfaced walking and cycling route, links station with Waddesdon, passing through land which, at various points, is owned by Network Rail, Thames Water, New College Oxford and the Waddesdon estate. To add some historical interest, part of the Greenway corresponds to Akeman Street, an old Roman road.

Today may not have been the ideal day for a two-way Greenway walk. It was very blustery (while the surrounding land is pretty, there is little or nothing in terms of windbreaks) and the threat of a sudden downpour remained for most of the day. But the walk was still very pleasant, with the occasional encounter with other cyclists, or walkers with their dogs. As a bonus, we happened upon the Manor’s monthly food market, at which local producers such as Just Biscuits tempt visitors with their wares. Walking or cycling to a local visitor attraction, and buying local food and drink; that might be the perfect Slow day out.

And the reason for our two-way walk? We were trying out the Manor’s Pudding Club, an indulgent event in one of its several restaurants at which diners try a sequence of desserts, from rhubarb and custard sorbet to deconstructed cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding. Believe me, we needed the walk…

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…?

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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