After a summer break, the most distinctive building on Great Missenden’s High Street re-opened. A few doors down, an old building began a new life. Both got an enthusiastic reception from families warming up for half-term.
The re-opening was at the Roald Dahl Museum. All the features which have made this such a firm family favourite are as popular as ever: the doors to the first room, which really do smell of chocolate; the original hut in which Dahl wrote, complete with items such as the rolled-up ball of silver wrappers from all the chocolate he used to eat (one bar a day); and plenty of opportunities for young budding writers to get creative. And, for the next few weeks, the courtyard is hosting something special for the 30th anniversary of the publication of Matilda – a new statue of the eponymous heroine standing up to President Trump, the public’s choice of public figure as a 2018 equivalent to the book’s Miss Trunchbull. One other thing to mention: you can now use your ticket to return to the Museum for up to 12 months.
“Do we really need another café?” asked a local lady, watching with me in amusement as her sons jumped up and down outside the Old Post Office building to get a glimpse of what is now inside. It’s a fair question. I’d happily swap the large branch of Costa for the return of the extremely good Chinese restaurant we used to enjoy or, failing that, a good Italian restaurant. The latest café to try its luck in the village is the appropriately named Stamp. There are one or two traces of the building’s former use – our table mats had special issue Roald Dahl-themed stamps in their centre. It’s a bright space in which you can stop for a quesillada, a salad or even a pizza, along with some single origin tea and specially curated coffee (yes, I know you can’t “curate” coffee, but there’s no accounting for pretentious use of language). To help make ends meet, the café also sells some sweet handmade cotton products; cushion covers, coasters and multicoloured elephants which we predict will be in much demand. It remains to be seen whether The Stamp survives and thrives. Its one obvious drawback is a lack of space; it’s postage stamp sized, but we squeezed onto an extra table at the back, where we enjoyed our harissa chicken and nduja sausage and chilli pizzas. If you’re in Great Missenden, do give The Stamp a try. (If you are visiting the Museum with small children who can’t wait for something to eat or drink, there’s a very good café there, too.)
On the first Sunday of the month, between November and March, surprising noise issues from a unit on a small industrial estate, just off Amersham’s Plantation Road, a few minutes from the railway station. The source of the noise takes a bit of finding. You have to locate the right, inconspicuous white door. Once you open it and step through, prepare for an assault on your senses.
For this is the unlikely home of the Amersham Fair Organ Museum, a collection of English fair organs guaranteed to press your nostalgia buttons and transport you to holidays, long ago, the moment they begin to play. Fairground organs evolved from street barrel organs, with the music being created from folding sheets of perforated cardboard music. Travelling showmen used them, at least until the interwar years when amplified music began to come in.
Although this means almost everyone who heard and saw fairground organs in their heyday must be gone, there is no lack of interest or enthusiasm even today, as the audience sits with their tea and cake to listen to It’s a long way to Tipperary and other tunes from years gone by (and even, God help us, the music from those annoying Go Compare ads…) The Museum is a registered charity and runs occasional special events for subscribing Friends, as well as its Open Days. It’s a visual and aural feast, and an important link back to one of the ways in which our ancestors used to enjoy themselves.
You probably know that Hugh Grant starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a hugely successful British romantic comedy film. If you’re a lover of movie trivia, you may know that some filming took place at the Crown in Amersham.
You’re less likely to know that the Crown could have burned down almost sixty years earlier, in 1935… until the alarmed squawking of a sulphur crested cockatoo alerted the staff, enabling them to evacuate guests and put the fire out, the only casualties being two cats. The cockatoo lived another year, to the ripe old age of 118, before being stuffed, mounted and displayed in the hotel bar.
He now sits proudly on the first floor of the refurbished Amersham Museum, in the high street almost directly opposite the Crown. A heroic cockatoo is only one of the various attractions in the new-look Museum, whose glass reception area with an Amersham Tube sign behind the welcome desk contrasts strikingly with the 16th century original elements of the building. Visitors can get an overview of over 2,000 years of local history before viewing a range of exhibits and display installations. Examples include embroidered versions of the front covers of the annual leaflets which the Metropolitan Railways Country Estates used to publish to promote its housing developments along the line, and products manufactured at Goya’s perfume and cosmetics factory. The museum’s garden (pictured) now has access for wheelchair users and features new planting. All in all, it’s an excellent way to find out more about the town – or, if you have lived or worked there, to take a nostalgic trip into its past.