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.
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.
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.
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.
If it weren’t for the risk of being bumped into, or run over, it would be tempting to wander round Hitchin with one eye shut. The town isn’t ugly – quite the reverse, with over 200 buildings being Grade I, II or II* listed. But then you see a piece of post-war concrete and wonder exactly how and why it got there. The picture above shows some modern flats in the background – but you can find the same effect in Market Square. No doubt it was all part of the post-1945 wish for the modern, and clean lines and new materials and so on. But it’s still ugly. Sorry, modernists!
There are, of course, plenty of lovely sights in town. St Mary’s Church, with tearooms gathered around the churchyard like puppies round their mother; or Bucklesbury, where you can stand for ages wondering whether the dog atop the façade of Harvest Moon really is wearing a wig(?) or wander through the benign chaos that is Hawkins, the department store that’s been there since 1863. So maybe next time I’ll risk it with just one eye…
“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance. “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”
It’s a point of view. There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.
The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain. The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds. So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…
Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr
Around the corner from the hubbub and excitement of Whipsnade Zoo lies a remarkable landmark, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. The site was the original inspiration of Edmund K Blyth, who served in the British infantry in World War I and lost two friends in the conflict, with another wartime comrade dying in a car crash in 1930. On a visit to Liverpool that autumn, the colour and beauty of the unfinished Liverpool Anglican cathedral impressed Blyth and his wife deeply:
“We talked of this as we drove south through the Cotswold Hills on our way home and it was while we were doing this that I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”
Blyth, who had previously bought two cottages in Whipsnade for use as holiday homes for poor London families, envisioned a cathedral of trees as a fitting memorial to his friends and a symbol of faith, hope and reconciliation. The cathedral has never been consecrated, but is used for wedding blessings and interdenominational worship and there is an annual service on the second Sunday in June. The cathedral takes the layout of medieval cathedrals as its inspiration, so you enter through a porch of oak trees into a lime tree lined nave before coming to a chancel of silver birches and yew hedging. Four chapels reflect the seasons with different trees in each, and a garden of flowering shrubs framed by cypresses is the main feature of the cloister area. Despite the occasional sounds of a strimmer or of small infants running amok, the cathedral remains a beautiful, tranquil space in which to relax and reflect.