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.