To boldly go in search of our only hope…

If you’re a sucker for science fiction and fantasy, especially in the movies and on TV, the ‘Robot’ exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury has been – to quote the Cybermen – an ‘excellent’ place to visit in the last couple of months. It featured all manner of models of robots, cyborgs and androids from the small and silver screens, all the way from Maria (Metropolis, 1927) to Robbie the Robot (Return to the Forbidden Planet), R2D2 and C3P0 from Star Wars and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. There were also some examples of robot toys, which surprisingly date back all the way to the 1940s. Towering over the whole thing was a full-scale model of Darth Vader, the heaviest breathing cyborg in cinema history.

The presence of the Dark Lord is a reminder that the Chilterns has hosted its fair share of science fiction and fantasy invaders over the years. The ever-expanding Star Wars universe has been filming here over the past year, at Ivinghoe Beacon, for Episode IX. The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic novel Good Omens used Hambleden as the idyllic village where a young Antichrist grows up (though the village signs don’t yet say ‘Home of the Antichrist’, strangely). Both Harry Potter and Doctor Who have filmed in Burnham Beeches. On the edge of the Chilterns, the village of Brill was JRR Tolkein’s inspiration for the Lord of the Rings village of Bree.

Several eminent SF and fantasy authors have been born in the region, or lived here for a while. Pratchett, perhaps the best-loved British fantasy author of the 20th century, was born in Beaconsfield and worked in High Wycombe as a journalist in his younger days. Susan Cooper, author of contemporary fantasy books for younger readers including The Dark is Rising, was born in Burnham. And most significantly of all, Mary Shelley spent a year in Marlow completing what would become a seminal science fiction work: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

A town fit for heroes

As it continues to adapt to the demands of the 21st century, Aylesbury and its immediate surrounds are unveiling new attractions and developments at what once might have seemed a bewildering rate. In the past few years we’ve seen the opening of the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, impressive inside and out, as well as new artwork honouring two showbiz stars with connections to the town, Ronnie Barker and David Bowie. Today, we took a look at two new visitor attractions, one in the town centre and one in nearby Stoke Mandeville.

The first stop was at The Exchange, an area just around the corner from central Market Square which used to be a car park. The new development will include residential flats and retail spaces, and work is not complete, as the sound of drilling makes clear. But the first new café/restaurant, the Rococo Lounge, is now open. This is the latest in a chain which includes a branch in nearby Amersham. The vibe is relaxed and noisy, with plenty of families bringing small children in for mid-morning snacks or an early brunch or lunch. The menus, with plenty of gluten free and vegan options, are as eclectic as the interior design, which combines three types of lampshade with framed prints on every spare inch of the walls and ironic 1950s-style graphics on the menus. To add stardust, there’s a large painting of David Bowie on the wall behind the counter. It’s all good fun, and we enjoyed the chorizo and halloumi hash and a mini-tray of three tapas choices.

The area immediately outside Rococo features three sculptures, also new this year, all of human figures: one standing (“I am free”); one in a horizontal pose (“I am strong”); and one crouching (“I am me”). The collective title is “I am”, and the works are a tribute to the Paralympic movement.

You can now find out more about how the Paralympics began by visiting a small new museum at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disabled sport, which sits incongruous at one end of a modern residential estate a couple of miles out of Aylesbury town centre. The story of the Paralympics begins with a German doctor, Ludwig Guttman. As the display – the work of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust – explains, Guttman came with his family to England to escape the growing effects of Nazi rule; as a Jewish doctor, he was allowed only to treat Jewish patients, a ruling he actively defied. The British Government asked Guttman to run a new unit for spinal injuries at the Emergency Medical Services Hospital in Stoke Mandeville – anticipating an influx of paralysed servicemen as World War II ground on. The new spinal unit opened in 1944.

For the full story of how Guttman harnessed the power of sport as a powerful therapy for disability, and how that led to the ‘Wheelchair Games’ of 1948 and eventually to the birth of the Paralympic movement, we thoroughly recommend visiting this new exhibition, conveniently located near the stadium entrance, next to a cafe. You can’t miss it; large replicas of Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the London 2012 Paralympics, stand nearby. The objects on display include a couple of the wheelchairs used in competition and a goalball (used for practice), all of which you can touch, and the 2012 torch, which you can hold. The most extravagant item is Sir Ian McKellen’s gown from the 2012 opening ceremony, a purple creation imagining Prospero from The Tempest as one of London’s Pearly Kings.

It won’t take you long to get around the displays, but it’s well worth it. This is a well-presented tribute to the qualities of tolerance, imagination, willpower and persistence which drove Guttman, his patients and the many Paralympic heroes who have come since.

Wise to save a folly: Dinton Castle reborn

Tonight’s edition of Grand Designs (Wed 19 Sep, 9.00pm, Channel 4), presented by the ever-affable Kevin McCloud, followed the progress of an architectural project with a difference. A few miles south-west of Aylesbury, set back from the road to Thame, stands a strange octagonal building, Dinton Castle (also known as Dinton Folly). The Grade II listed structure is over 250 years old; Sir John Vanhatten built it as an eyecatcher from nearby Dinton Hall. He also stored his fossil collection in the limestone walls.

However, Dinton Castle has become increasingly precarious in recent years, until its purchase in 2016. Its subsequent restoration, and conversion into a two-bedroom family home, is the work of architect Jaime Fernandez. You can find out more about the project here. Congratulations to Jaime on creating a new purpose for one of the Vale of Aylesbury’s most distinctive architectural landmarks. Thomas Gray wrote that “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”; in this case, clearly it was wise not to abandon a folly to its fate.

Photo: Rob Farrow (reproduced under Creative Commons Licence)

Hello from them: the men who fell to Aylesbury

Every town has its statues, and Aylesbury probably needs them more than most.  Since Henry VIII made it the county town of Buckinghamshire, its fortunes have been mixed. It suffered from an outbreak of plague in 1603-4 and from urban development in the 20th century.  The tower block that is County Hall dominates the skyline, like Sauron’s not so evil but decidedly grumpy younger brother.  Even the Aylesbury duck seems to have permanently flown south.  So the statues of John Hampden, a Parliamentary hero from these parts who helped to win the Civil War, and Disraeli, one of the most famous Prime Ministers in history, help to remind the town that it has also been in the presence of greatness at various times.  Without such reminders, visiting Aylesbury might be a God-awful sad affair.

On the other hand, many bright lights from the world of showbusiness have lived or worked here, including actress Lynda Bellingham and dancer Brendan Cole.  Marillion formed in Aylesbury, naming their first single Market Square Heroes in tribute, and the makers of A Clockwork Orange filmed some scenes (cut from the final film) in Aylesbury.

More recently, a statue and a sculpture within a short walk of each other have marked the town’s significance in the early careers of two giants of the industry.  Under the massive shadow of the Waterside Theatre sits a statue of the actor and comedian Ronnie Barker, who started out with Aylesbury Repertory Theatre, years before he found fame on radio and TV.  The statue of Barker is in character as Fletcher from sitcom Porridge, perhaps his most successful role outside The Two Ronnies.

If you cross the road from Ronnie and walk up towards Market Square, an extraordinary creation sits underneath an archway. Earthly Messenger, a bronze sculpture, depicts the many professional faces of David Bowie, who launched the albums Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in Aylesbury in 1971-2.  Bowie formed The Spiders in the Friars Aylesbury music club, which is still running today.  The first track on the Ziggy album Five Years refers to Market Square: “Pushing through the Market Square – so many mothers sighing.”  After Bowie’s death in 2016, the local councils approved the idea of a memorial in Market Square, provided that the funds were raised privately.  One crowdfunding project and over £100,000 later and Andrew Sinclair – a sculptor from Wendover who had, ironically, just moved to Devon – could start work.  The result, which features a leaping Ziggy and references to Ashes to Ashes, Labyrinth, Life on Mars, Blackstar and other Bowie projects, was unveiled in early 2018.  Speakers above the sculpture are intended to play a different Bowie song each hour.  Sinclair commented: “It’s a huge talking point in Aylesbury. We believe it will really help put the town on the map.”

For someone, this conspicuous creation struck an inappropriate note: the sculpture was vandalised within a week, with “Feed the homeless first” among the graffiti defacing the work.  (Taxpayers’ money had to be used to clean things up; presumably the vandal had not thought of that.)  But the majority sentiment seems to be in favour; there was even a petition to change the town’s name to Aylesbowie.  That may not happen, but we hope Earthly Messenger will encourage more visitors to Aylesbury… even if it’s just for one day.

Louis, Robert and Winston: traces of the famous at a Bucks historic house

Off the A418 between Aylesbury and Thame sits a historic house that once housed a French monarch for five years.  Hartwell House, now a luxury hotel under National Trust ownership, was home to the court of Louis XVIII of France (pictured above in a portrait by Francois Gerard) during his exile between 1809 and 1814. The court included Louis’s brother the Comte d’Artois (who succeeded him as Charles X) and Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden.

Perhaps less predictably, the advent of Louis’s court also saw the conversion of the roof into a miniature farm with cage-reared rabbits and birds and tubs of cultivated herbs and vegetables.  Emigrés fleeing from the post-revolutionary regime used Hartwell’s outbuildings as shops to earn some much-needed cash.

Over the centuries, Hartwell has had many famous connections, some of them international. For several centuries it was the property of the Lees, ancestors of US Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee – and US troops were stationed and trained here during World War II.  A later owner was Ernest Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook, whose temperance campaigns were the original inspiration for his pioneering work in travel and tourism.

But if you’re looking for an unexpected trace of the great and the good, go inside and look at the extravagant staircase of Jacobean origin. A fire damaged the balustrade in the 1960s and the replacement balusters include carved figures of GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill; the identities of the other, mostly rather grotesque figures are not known for sure.

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.