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.

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”