Forty years on… then another forty

It’s amazing what you come across by accident – or, to put it another way, browsing in charity bookshops.  In this case, it was a shop in Princes Risborough where we found a book about King Zog (one of the less likely foreign visitors to the Chilterns), a collection of stories about Buckinghamshire villages by the local Federation of Women’s Institutes and a Ward Lock guide to the Thames and the Chilterns.

The guidebook dates back to 1977 and is a cheery, relatively standardised guide to the sights.  “An understanding of the historic background of a building, guidance on walks and excursions… [and] knowledge of the facilities available for entertainment, all play an important part in the thorough enjoyment of a holiday,” as the dustjacket blurb states.  The balance of content is sometimes debatable – Bekonscot is covered in one sentence – but overall the book could still be used today.

Go back almost 40 years further and you find Chiltern Country by HJ Massingham (1940).  I bought this online on a personal recommendation.  In fairness its author says in his preface that the book “cannot claim to be exhaustive enough to be called a guide-book”.  Massingham claims that “we are rather tired of the repetition of literary anecdotes and the enumeration of local antiquities dissociated from the life of the people.”  Today this comes across as a rather narrow and naïve view; the historic houses of the region, for instance, were key community hubs and major local employers, and hardly “dissociated” from local people’s lives.  But the author was the son of a radical journalist, and also a well-known writer on country life, and by 1940 Attlee and Labour’s New Jerusalem was just beginning to hove into view.

Much of Massingham’s other writing was on country matters, so it isn’t too surprising that Chiltern Country is an amalgam of topographical essay and polemical lament for a vanished, or fast vanishing, past.  The author criticises the design of the Whipsnade Lion:

“What a pity that the designer failed to note that the great original of all the chalk figures on the downs – the White Horse of Uffington – is stylized, as all such figures should be, not magnified copies out of a picture-book. They knew better how to do these things in BC.”

As nostalgia goes, this is hard to beat. On his travels, Massingham meets Edward Goodchild, “the very last of the Chiltern handicraft chair-makers”, and laments this breed of craftsmen’s “virtual extermination… sheer murder by an evil economics… Theirs has been an innocent death and the blood is on the head of the killer.”  The “killer” is, of course, mass production.

Later, Massingham uses an anecdote about a travelling companion’s geographical confusion to argue that

“The identity of this part of the Chilterns [between Chenies and Chalfont St Giles] has been obliterated… everybody was a stranger in these parts… a country without a name as well as without natives… The loss of the individual, whether in thing, place or person, is the danger to which our twentieth-century civilization has exposed the world…”

Perhaps predictably, this is part of a sub-chapter entitled “Suburbia”.  We are in familiar territory in which nearby “Metro-Land” becomes a symbol of modern blandness and of loss of tradition and identity.  It makes for powerful writing, whatever you make of the writer’s world view.

We believe, almost 80 years on, that there is still plenty of distinctive Chilterns identity to find, whether it’s in the form of heritage or something else.  Perhaps some other author, in another 40 or 80 years, will find our Slow Guide. I wonder what they’ll think?

Down by the river…

The historian Eric Hobsbawm used to refer to “invented traditions”; the peculiar process of swan upping is what he might have called a re-invented tradition.

Its origins go back many centuries, perhaps as far as the 12th century when the mute swan gained Royal status meaning that, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the Crown.  (That might have made the swan-escape sequence in Hot Fuzz even funnier if the Queen had turned up…)  By 1378 there was an official post of Keeper of the King’s Swans and the unfortunate bird was known for a long time as a culinary delicacy.

The process of swan upping on the Thames involves identifying swans and their cygnets, weighing them and checking their health.  It now takes place during the third week of July each year. The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies (now the only owners of private swans on the Thames).  Nowadays the emphasis is heavily on education.  The Swan Uppers make over a dozen stops over the course of four days, starting at Romney Lock, the nearest lock to Windsor Castle, and finishing at Moulsford.  A number of these stops involve meeting local schoolchildren and briefing them on the work of the Swan Uppers – and, of course, offering the opportunity to get up close and fluffy with a cygnet or two…