Hostelry where time stands still

THEY don’t do history by halves at the Royal Standard of England.

There aren’t too many British pubs boasting a 2,000-word explanation on the menu of their historic origins – but then there aren’t too many hostelries as old or as atmospheric as this Forty Green favourite.

PILGRIM

“Bring the dog, come for a walk, bring the children” says the owner in a welcome video on the pub’s website and “welcome pilgrim” is the message to those lured into the Beaconsfield countryside by the promise of good food in quintessentially English surroundings.

The pub claims to be the oldest freehouse in England, but although that’s a pretty contested title, few pubs have done as much work on researching their history as the RSOE.

Curved walls, low beams, twinkling candles and an eclectic collection of helmets, weapons and other period paraphernalia hint at the pub’s long and intriguing past and an extensive menu of crispy whitebait, huge battered fish and much-vaunted Sunday roasts draws a large regular following and a good cross-section of excellent reviews.

ROOM 2

Like all busy and large establishments, it’s not possible to keep everyone happy and the long process of extending the historic alehouse has generated some testy comments in recent months about the surroundings looking like a building site.

But the extension is open for business now and they’ve done a pretty impressive job of recreating something of the same sense of history to be found in the other rooms.

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Certainly on our visit the young staff were cheerful, chatty and helpful. On previous visits the food has been outstanding – by 8pm at night on a busy Sunday evening it wasn’t perhaps as remarkable as usual.

But of more than 1100 reviews on TripAdvisor, 83% thought the food very good or excellent, so it looks as if standards are maintained pretty well, even if prices aren’t exactly cheap, with the popular Sunday roasts costing £16.95, desserts at £6 and starters like pate, whitebait and garlic prawns ranging from £6 to £8.

Forty Green is a small hamlet surrounded by ancient beech woodlands and quiet country lanes and the pub provides the starting point for a couple of invigorating rambles of between half a mile and two miles for those wanting to work up an appetite before they eat – or work off the calories afterwards.

It was a sleepy backwater until the coming of the railway to Beaconsfield in 1906 and home to only about 20 households in the mid-19th century, mostly employed in agriculture or lace-making.

The location of the inn is no longer on a major thoroughfare, yet in the early days it was an important trade route for transporting bricks and tiles from Penn and Tylers Green down to the River Thames at Hedsor Wharf and from there by barge to London.

Cattle were moved along the drovers’ roads to markets in Beaconsfield and High Wycombe and hospitality was also given to the medieval courts on their way to deer hunts in Knotty Green and Penn.

ROOM

The pub’s menus regale visitors with a history lesson about Roman Britain, Iron Age hill forts and the 1400-year-old brick and tile kiln industry in the area. Drinkers with sufficient time on their hands are invited to recall the last Viking raids, when longboats travelling up the River Thames to Hedsor Wharf.

Then it’s on to the Norman conquest, Domesday Book (1086) and droving days, when the Ship Inn, as it was then called, was a lodging house for royalty travelling to Windsor and Woodstock Palace.

From Tudor travellers to highwaymen and kings, the pub claims to have been hosting visitors and sitting at the heart of local life across the centuries…gaining its current name after Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1663, the only inn in the country bestowed the honour of the full title, allegedly in recognition of the loyalty and support given to the Royalists by the landlord (or possibly as a reward for the king being able to meet his mistresses in rooms above the inn).

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How large a pinch of salt to take with these tales is a moot point, but the 900-year-old hostelry is sufficiently atmospheric not to really grudge any exaggerations to the stories of  cavaliers and roundheads, highwaymen and ghostly hauntings.

Could that drum beating the car park really be that of a 12-year-old drummer boy brutally slaughtered by the Roundhead soldiers? At the end of the day it maybe really matter too much whether Charles II actually hid in the roof or a shadowy figure disappearing through the wall is actually that of an unknown traveller crushed outside the inn by a speeding coach and four in 1788.

Immortalised in Midsomer Murders, The Theory of Everything and, perhaps most memorably in Hot Fuzz, this is a placed haunted by history, and it’s certainly not hard to imagine those figures from past centuries enjoying a cooling pint inside its hallowed walls.

For menus, prices, opening times and other information, see the pub’s website.

 

 

 

History in the making

HISTORY comes alive at the Chiltern Open Air Museum – literally.

One minute you’re wandering past an 18th century house wondering about its former residents and the next moment a lady in period dress has popped out to fill in some of the details and answer your questions.

She is one of a small army of committed volunteers at the museum who love nothing more than bringing the past to life in a very vivid and engaging way, whether that means baking bread in the Iron Age roundhouse or taking part in a school workshop about Victorian life.

It’s the perfect place for a school visit, of course – but what can ordinary families expect to find?

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It’s the perfect antidote to anyone who finds traditional museums stuffy and offputting. There are no glass cases here, just a series of lovingly rebuilt authentic buildings dotted around the spacious 45-acre woodland site close to Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles.

It was founded in 1976 to rescue historic buildings threatened with demolition and so far more than 30 buildings have been saved and rebuilt on the site, with more in store, spanning hundreds of years of local history.

These range from medieval and Tudor barns to a toll house, forge, chapel, 1940s prefab and a working Victorian farm.

On a sunny day there’s plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around each of the different buildings – and there are a range of paths laid out in the woods for those wanting to get a little more exercise.

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For older visitors there are vivid reminders of the Second World War and post-war housing crisis, with a “prefab” from Amersham vividly capturing life in the late 1940s, right down to the Anderson Shelter in the garden and pictures on the mantelpiece of the family who lived in the building from 1948.

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Outside, despite the July heatwave there’s a flourishing and colourful vegetable garden and a Nissen hut salvaged from Bedfordshire fitted out as an RAF pilots’ briefing room, where guests young and old can try on military uniforms and gas masks.

Atmospheric audio tapes in some of the locations add to the period feel, while in others volunteers are on hand to provide more personal detail. Easy-to-read information boards provide an at-a-glance summary of key facts, with more information on the website and in a family guide available from reception for £3.50.

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We get the personal touch at Leagrave Cottages, where a volunteer is on hand to show us round the building, which started life as an 18th century barn in Bedfordshire and was converted into cottages in the 1770s.

Interviews with the Marks family who lived in one cottage from 1913 to 1928 have enabled the museum to present one cottage accurately as it would have been in the 1920s.  The other side is presented as it might have been in the 18th century.

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From here, we continue to wander through different periods of Chilterns history – from the atmospheric Henton Mission Room built in 1886 in Oxfordshire to an 1830s cottage from Haddenham with walls made of a special type of local earth called wychert.

We still haven’t got to the working Victorian farm – complete with a small selection of rare-breed livestock – and by the time we have chatted with volunteers about iron age baking techniques it’s too late for an ice cream at the tea room, which closes at 3pm on weekdays.

There’s still plenty to see, though – the blacksmith’s forge, the industrial buildings and the 1826 High Wycombe tollhouse from the London to Oxford road which was home to a family of five in the 1840s.

This is perhaps the museum’s greatest strength: its focus on the houses and workplaces of ordinary people that have gradually disappeared from the landscape, particularly in an area on London’s doorstep where the pressures of redevelopment are particularly great and where much of this heritage would otherwise have been lost.

The charity relies very much on the support of more than 200 volunteers (and its association of friends) and those individuals we encountered were relaxed, helpful and not at all pushy. You take a tour here at your own pace and you don’t get history forced down your throat.

You can host a party here, take part in a variety of organised workshops and experience days, or even get married, should you fancy a civil ceremony in the roundhouse, toll house or tin chapel.

But most families will doubtless just enjoy the opportunity to ramble around the extensive site at their own speed, piecing together snippets of local history and appreciating some magical insights into the ordinary lives of people living in this landscape all those centuries ago.

Full details of prices, options and a calendar of forthcoming events are available on the museum website.

MAP

 

 

 

Secret wonders in the woods

BACK in 1990 the bare field next to Roy and Marie Battell’s house didn’t look too promising as a potential nature reserve…

MAR 1991

But anyone sceptical about the couple’s plan to transform around two acres of cow pasture north of Milton Keynes would be amazed to see just what can be achieved when you undertake a labour of love.

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century and today there are around 800 trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife. What’s more, over the years the ‘Moorhens’ website depicting life in the Battells’ nature reserve has developed something of an international reputation.

Moorhens were the first waterbird to adopt the ponds that were dug to encourage wildlife – hence the name chosen for the website.

“They successfully raised one to three broods each year from 1991 to 2011,” Roy explains on the site.  The delight of all that activity earned the shy water birds the URL ‘dedication’ for the website – which since then has attracted more than 94,000 visitors intrigued by different aspects of the project the couple were undertaking.

“Planting, digging and caring for this lot has provided more, and more interesting, exercise than ever before in our lives,” says Roy.

Roy and Marie in front of Round Mound(r+mb Sample@576)

When the couple started to dig out the ponds they vaguely anticipated that this would attract the sort of visitors – ducks, coots and dragonflies – that they had been used to seeing at their previous homes, from Watford to Welwyn Garden City.

A then-and-now picture sequence chronicles the development of the reserve from early 1991 to the summer of 2007 – starting with fencing and hedge-planting and moving on to plant bare-root stock and digging out the ponds.

“The first 10 years were very slow with basically a sea of plastic tree shelters in grass that needed endless mowing,” Roy recalls. “But the trees suddenly took off and have become a dark canopy in summer.”

NOV 2007

The hedging is predominantly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, elderberry and blackberry, but the native hedging of the area includes a lot of elm, which shoots and dies in rotation.

“Of the 50 or so chestnut and hazel trees we planted on the site, the squirrels do not leave us a single nut!” says Roy. “However nothing can decimate the blackberries we hack back each year and Marie makes gorgeous jam from the crop.”

‘The Field’ quickly evolved into an intriguing wooded area providing a surplus of wood for willow wands and similar coppice products, as well as offering home to all types of birds, wildlife and insects, from bluetits and swallows to foxes, badgers and the tiniest insects.

“The sky too is full of interest with breeding by corvids and occasional visits by buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawk and kestrels,” says Roy. “Of course we are delightfully infested by tits, finches, thrushes, robins, sparrows and in recent years tawny, barn and little owls.”

An avid photographer, Roy has not only posted a series of animated sequences showing the landscape and flowers changing through the seasons, but has been systematically chronicling visiting wildlife in a weekly newsletter distributed to dozens of loyal followers

His archive of daily wildlife pictures – including birds and insects in flight – dates from 2005 and has attracted more than 2,500 visitors since 2016.

His latest selection is pretty representative, it seems – from a young magpie with downy feathers to a hungry badger, a little owl, bustling butterflies and dragonflies, clustering rooks and feeding woodpeckers.

ROOK

But the event of the week was the repeated appearance over one night of a polecat on the hunt – possibly moving a kit in her mouth and then then carrying two dead rabbits back into her burrow.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, some of whom are in regular contact. The couple also receive numerous requests from around the world for the original pictures.

“Our pictures are in about 10 wildlife textbooks,” he reveals. The couple are also in regular contact with the Bucks RSPB and other local enthusiasts and supply images to a variety of non-profit organisations and for use in museum displays and educational spreads. There is usually no charge, although those making commercial use of the images are asked to donate to the RSPB or Woodland Trust.

Vegans since 1972, the couple used to grow much of their own food in an allotment area: Marie is a painter who is also mad about gardening – as well as “collecting scruffy old books about the world before it was shrunk by modern communications”.

In recent years that became a little too much to maintain with all the rest of the maintenance and photographic work, and a third of the area has become a little apple orchard using 100 unwanted trees rescued and replanted from a nearby farm.

“We have a little salad bed near the house that used to be a huge cage for a golden
pheasant and his girls (that we inherited with the house 27 years ago),” says Roy. “We enjoyed their company for a couple of years before a fox tunnelled in and killed them.”

The Battells’ website is a modest one, but the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the natural world around them – and an inspiring pictorial backdrop to the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep.

 

 

High cost of waste crime

NEVER pay a man in cash to take your household rubbish away – it could cost you a fortune (and a criminal record).

That’s the message from Buckinghamshire waste enforcement officer David Rounding after an upsurge in fly-tipping incidents across the county.

IMG_0849COSTLY CRIME: David Rounding probes a dumping incident near Burnham

He believes many householders still don’t realise the consequences of allowing rogue waste collectors to dispose of their rubbish.

More than a third of those prosecuted in the county over fly-tipped waste are people who claim to have paid someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items. But David warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster.

It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly- tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

“People don’t seem to realise they could face a substantial fine and end up with a criminal record because they have allowed someone to get rid of their waste without checking them out,” he said.

IMG_0854WASTE DETECTIVE: enforcement officer David Rounding

The legislation makes it a crime not only to actually dump waste but also to fail to show a “duty of care” in arranging for waste to be disposed of.

So if your property ends up being dumped in a country layby and can be traced back to you, it’s you who could end up in court.

The surge in rubbish dumping across the country cost taxpayers £57m in 2017-18, a rise of 13 per cent on the previous year.

Local authorities in England deal with a million fly-tipping incidents a year – and in Buckinghamshire that translates to six a day on average, costing £500,000 in clean-up costs.

Much of the rubbish comes from households in nearby London boroughs like Hillingdon or local conurbations like Slough and Uxbridge – and since 2015, there has been a growing industry of criminal rubbish collectors advertising their services via social media sites like Facebook.

In May the Local Government Association highlighted the problem was on the increase. A spokesman said: “Small-scale criminals are attempting to undercut legitimate services by offering to take household rubbish away cheaply. But often they are just dumping items on other people’s land or in public. People should avoid using these services as they are driving the problem.”

David Rounding says a further irony is that many of the criminals are not even charging “cheap” rates.

“We have seen householders being charged hundreds of pounds for someone to take their rubbish away – sometimes two or three times the market rate. But in Buckinghamshire the ten recycling centres are free to use for household waste,” he said.

Families moving to new-build homes may be easy targets if they don’t know the area or how easy it is to dispose of their rubbish. They can also be targeted by fly-tippers on the look-out for bulkier items like sofas or beds which can be easily loaded into a Transit-style van or pick-up.

As many as half of local residents are thought to be unaware that they have a duty of care to dispose of their unwanted stuff correctly and can be fined or prosecuted if their rubbish is subsequently fly-tipped.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s environment spokesman, told the Telegraph in May: “Fly-tipping is unsightly and unacceptable environmental vandalism. It’s an absolute disgrace for anyone to think that they can use the environments in which our residents live as a repository for litter.”

David Rounding believes a simple ban on cash payments would go a long way to solving the problem and keeping law-abiding residents out of trouble: “If your rubbish ends up in a layby in Buckinghamshire, we will be asking you how it got there. We suffer from more fly-tipping than many councils and we will prosecute.”

He points out that the council has saved £3m over the past decade through its zero-tolerance approach, because the cost of clearing fly-tipped waste is so high.

“People using someone they have only met through Facebook face a much greater risk,” he warned. “Don’t pay cash – pay online or with a cheque. Ask to see the firm’s waste carrier permit. Legitimate companies won’t mind giving you’re their name or registration number.”

What is fly-tipping?

Fly-tipping is the illegal disposal of household, industrial, commercial or other ‘controlled’ waste without a waste management licence. The waste includes garden refuse and larger domestic items such as fridges and mattresses.

What are the penalties?

Fly-tipping is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £50,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment if convicted in a magistrates’ court. The offence can attract an unlimited fine and up to five years’ imprisonment if convicted in a crown court. There are also a number of other possible penalties, including fixed penalty notices of up to £400 and seizing a vehicle and/or its contents because of suspected involvement in fly-tipping.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

 

Fresh case for the waste detectives

The Beyonder meets waste enforcement officer David Rounding on Buckinghamshire’s front line in the war against illegal dumping

IMG_0849DIRTY WORK: David Rounding investigates a fly-tipping incident at Burnham

AN IDYLLIC single-track lane in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside sounds like an unlikely place for a crime scene.

But it’s surprising what goes on in our leafy rural backroads – and for David Rounding there’s sadly nothing out of the ordinary about the location of today’s investigation.

Responding to a tip-off from a concerned local, we’re standing in a small layby on a backroad near Burnham studying a pile of debris dumped at the side of the road.

It’s pretty standard household stuff – a sofa, bed, rug and other assorted bits and pieces. Infuriatingly, it’s less than half a mile from a household recycling centre where the items could have been unloaded legally for nothing.

Instead, they’ve been dumped here – spoiling the sylvan setting and posing a headache for South Bucks District Council, who will now have to clear up the mess. But David’s on the lookout for clues – and is not disheartened.

The waste enforcement officer is part of a small team employed by Buckinghamshire County Council – and he has quite a few weapons in his armoury that can help him solve this latest unpleasant ‘whodunnit’.

IMG_0854FRONT LINE TROOPS: waste enforcement officer David Rounding

“When I started out it was really, really hard to prosecute,” he recalls. But times have changed – and for the past 15 years Buckinghamshire has led the way in the war on illegal waste dumping.

When David took up his job here in 2003, dumping was at a record high and rising, with more than 4,000 incidents a year across the county. By 2013 that had been reduced to under 1,500, partly as a result of an upsurge in prosecutions resulting in substantial fines, compensation payments and even jail.

Sadly fly-tipping is on the rise again – back up to more than 3,000 cases a year locally and costing taxpayers across England more than £57m.

Like other shire counties around London, Buckinghamshire is seen as an easy target because of good transport likes and easy access via the M40 and M25 to deserted country lanes like this one – the sort of idyllic country setting seen in so many episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

From selfish householders leaving mattresses or fridges and rogue traders unloading tyres and plasterboard to criminal gangs dumping waste on an industrial scale, an increasing number of fly-tippers are littering fields, woods, roads and verges with unsightly piles of rubbish like this one.

For nature lovers and local residents taking a ramble or walking their dog, this sort of eyesore raises strong emotions. More than 11,000 fly-tipping cases – six a day on average – have blighted the local countryside in the last five years, costing tax-payers £500,000 a year in clear-up costs.

But it’s not all bad news, and as David Rounding launches his latest investigation, there’s a definite spring in his step.

After starting his career in Halifax he was working for the Environment Agency in 2003 when the various councils in Buckinghamshire first got together to combat the fly-tipping menace.

They realised that proper enforcement of the law was an invaluable deterrent and in the 15 years since the county council and four district councils launched their anti-fly-tipping campaign – ‘Illegal Dumping Costs’ – David and his fellow investigators have successfully prosecuted more than 600 fly-tippers.

As with most crime, a handful of individuals can cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the environment – and in serious cases prosecution can result in imprisonment, as well as hefty fines and compensation awards.

Don’t be fooled by the remote locations, either – in recent years hidden cameras have increasingly helped the team catch the criminals in the act.

waste 2REPEAT OFFENDER: John Keenan dumped waste across Buckinghamshire

Like Letchworth builder John Keenan, 33, who was convicted in 2017 after CCTV twice caught him dumping waste from his tipper truck in local villages. Four other incidents of fly-tipping in rural Buckinghamshire and west Hertfordshire were traced back to him and work done by his company in and around London.

Keenan pleaded guilty to two counts of fly-tipping and four charges of failing in duty of care regarding waste he had produced. He was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs totalling more than £4,700.

The cameras are a welcome boost for the enforcement team, who have seen detection rates improve.  “We are becoming better and better at convicting people. If the evidence is there, we will get them to court,” says David. “Since 2010 we have been averaging more than one conviction a week, and they each pay around £1,500 in fines and costs.”

Signs at dumping hotspots advertise the surveillance cameras but a succession of fly-tippers still get caught out. But CCTV accounts for only 40 per cent of the team’s convictions. Eye-witnesses account for another 20 per cent of convictions, with sharp-eyed members of the public equally keen to help catch the criminals spoiling their environment.

There aren’t many things which ruffle David’s composure, but he does get a little irritated by some of the myths which surround fly-tipping – like the claim that fines don’t get paid and costs aren’t recouped.

Last year alone, the team achieved 72 convictions and court-awarded costs of more than £75,000 towards the councils’ clean-up and legal costs, he points out.

“If you look at the evidence the fines and compensation costs do get paid,” he insists – and on top of that there’s the estimated £3m savings made over the past decade because of not having to clear dumped waste and send it to landfill.

Armed with the sort of evidence his team can gather, the net cost of a prosecution may be only around £300. But while nearly two thirds (62%) of fly-tipping convictions are for the act of dumping, the people who produced the waste can be prosecuted too for failing their duty of care if they do not ensure their rubbish is being disposed of legally.

David believes this is something many people may not realise, which could lead to someone unwittingly facing a heavy fine and a criminal conviction after paying someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items.

And he warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster. It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

The waste detectives have become experts at finding clues to identify the source of dumped rubbish. And although David recalls late-night raids and dawn swoops with police when known dumpers have been caught red-handed, it is the sifting of rubbish for clues which he excels at and which brings 40 per cent of convictions.

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SMALL PRINT: David’s team are expert at sifting through rubbish for clues

The enforcement team works closely with Thames Valley Police, which can make it easier to trace a vehicle’s movements when a crime has been committed – and there’s close co-operation in more serious cases involving crooked commercial operators and even organised gangs.

Other crimes can also result in waste being dumped in rural areas, from professional shoplifters disposing of incriminating evidence to drugs stashes and paraphernalia from cannabis farms.

Another worry is an upsurge in more serious waste dumping by organised criminal gangs, and David’s next call is to visit a council site in High Wycombe where lorryloads of waste were dumped – the latest in a series of such incidents across Buckinghamshire in recent months.

Such large-scale, serious or organised dumping is investigated and potentially prosecuted by the Environment Agency, but their resources are hard-pressed and such crimes are on the increase, so David is only too keen to provide any practical help he can.

Clamping down on the criminals is also good for legitimate waste carriers, he points out, who potentially lose millions in business. But although the short-term profits may be tempting for lazy criminals, David is keen to make sure the prosecutions count.

One man was fined more than £1,000 for adding to rubbish which had already been dumped at the roadside by someone else. In January a Slough man was fined £2,200 for dumping 19 sacks of rubbish in Fulmer, and last month a Calvert Green man was fined £2,000 for dumping boxes near Aylesbury.

There have been a number of other successful prosecutions, as David has highlighted on his Twitter account.

“They might think the money makes it worth the risk but they can serve up to five years in prison, and we have jailed a few,” he points out.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

Wake up with a smile

JAMIE ROSS WINNING BANNER PICTURE OFR THE DISCOVER BRITISH NATURE GROUPLEAP OF JOY: Jamie Ross’s winning banner picture for the Discover British Nature Group

WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.

Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.

With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.

Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.

That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?

In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.

So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.

Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.

So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…

ssandy laneCREAM OF THE CROP: Sandy Lane Farm in Oxfordshire

For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.

This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.

Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.

KIDDERMINSTERKEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers in Kidderminster

There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.

On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.

Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.

A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.

Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.

Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.

ALAN BAILEY GROUP HEADERFROZEN IN FLIGHT: Alan Bailey’s spectacular group header for Nature Watch

It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.

Another delight is The British Wildlife Photography Group, whose 21,000 members share very similar interests – and an equally stunning selection of photographs.

Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.

In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.

Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.

There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.

So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.

We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.

 

Landmark steeped in history

IMG_0671‘CATHEDRAL OF THE DOWNS’: St Michael & All Angels at Lambourn

THERE’S a solidity to the church at Lambourn that you might expect of a landmark that has witnessed ten centuries of history.

A stone’s throw from the busy M4 motorway between Swindon and Newbury, the village provides a welcome escape from the traffic streaming west from London and the historic Grade I listed church is a cool, peaceful oasis at the heart of the village.

Nowadays Lambourn is perhaps best known as the largest centre of racehorse training in England outside Newmarket, but centuries ago it was the market town for the sheep farmers of the western Berkshire Downs – and the church of St Michael and All Angels is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’.

At least four Anglo-Saxon documents refer to the town and the church and since the association of King Alfred with this part of England is well known and Alfred was a devout Christian, it is perhaps reasonable to presume that he may have had something to do with the founding or improvement of St Michaels. The dedication of Michael the Archangel was certainly a popular one in Saxon times; the addition of All Angels came later

From the outside, the visitor’s attention is perhaps initially focused on the distinctive lych-gate.

Nowadays we tend to have forgotten the purpose of these traditional gates but the name derives from the Old English ‘lich’, meaning corpse, and they were meeting places and shelters for the party bringing a corpse for burial.

Although some had been built earlier, the 1549 Prayer Book required the priest to meet the corpse at the churchyard entrance. This encouraged the provision of lych-gates to shelter the corpse and the funeral party for that purpose.

Lenton_Lincolnshire_Lychgate_geograh1761572_by_BobHarveyFUNERAL SHELTER: a lych-gate at Lenton in Lincolnshire [PICTURE: Bob Harvey]

Medieval lych-gates were made of timber and most have long since disappeared. However many new lych-gates were erected in Victorian times, sometimes as memorials to prominent local people or as war memorials.

Although the numerous ancient barrows in this area are proof of much earlier settlements, as are finds of Roman pottery in the vicinity, Norman invaders later made their presence felt and the grand nave of the church dates from the 12th century.

IMG_0673IMPOSING INTERIOR: St Michael’s boasts several chantry chapels

The first written record of a church at Lambourn dates from 1032, but it seems likely there was a Saxon church here several centuries earlier and the circular shape of the churchyard suggests that the site may have been in use in Roman times.

The current church was begun in the 12th century and the core of the building dates to about 1180 and is constructed on a cruciform plan. More information about the church’s history, transepts, chapels and stained glass windows can be found on a website run by the Friends of St Michael.

By the 13th century Lambourn had assumed some importance and a charter was granted by Henry VI to allow a market and two sheep fairs a year to be held. Around this time the Market Cross in the Market Square was erected.

IMG_0675PAST GLORIES: some stained glass dates from the 16th century

Inside the church a variety of chapels provide plenty to interest the passing visitor – from the Holy Trinity Chapel built in 1502 by John Estbury, featuring a tomb chest decorated with coats of arms and a brass effigy, to the North Chapel, added in the late Elizabethan period and heavily restored in 1849, which contains a wonderful table tomb to Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret.

At Sir Thomas’s head is a fiery salamander, emblem of the Essex family, while his feet rest upon a dolphin, an unusual symbol in an English church.

IMG_0676CHAPEL OF REST: the table tomb of Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret

After exploring the historic delights of the various chapels, you don’t have to go far for more earthly sustenance. The George across the road is not perhaps the most impressive looking of village hostelries from the outside, but the Arkell’s inn is friendly and bustling inside and the Sunday lunch proves a unexpected delight – and excellent value for money too.

IMG_0684SUNDAY LUNCH: the George at Lambourn

Lambourn Church is at Parsonage Lane, RG17 8PA and The George on High Street, Lambourn, RG17 8XU.

Volunteers make a clean sweep

EMMAKEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers hit the streets in Hereford [PICTURE: Andrew Wood]

COMMUNITY websites CAN make a real difference when it comes to getting local people to change their littering habits, it seems.

It’s almost a year since Emma Jones and Andrew Wood set up their online community in Hereford dedicated to clearing up local areas, following a community litter pick the friends took part in last Easter organised by Keep Britain Tidy.

That initiative tied in with a local Herefordshire Council campaign called Stop the Drop launched in January 2016 – and a year on, the community clean-up website now boasts more than 1400 members and has its own website too.

“There’s a new national feeling that we have become recycling conscious and getting people to join was relatively easy,” says Andrew, who used local buying and selling websites to put out an appeal for volunteers to get involved.

The council stepped in with litter pickers, high-visibility vests and rubbish bags. From the start, the aim was to encourage individuals to clean up local streets around their homes on a very small scale – and that seems to be having an impact, he believes.

“You need enforcement officers to be fining people to change habits,” he said. “But it has been working very, very well.” Sponsorship from local companies has helped to make the group self-sufficient and the group liaises with those companies on the ground too.

“We will work with Asda to do the area surrounding the car park, for example,” he says. “And we will name and shame too. Companies don’t like the bad publicity if they are not clearing up their own property.”

As well as retrieving supermarket trolleys from the river and notifying the council of fly-tipping incidents, the group has launched a new project to tidy up the flower beds at the main station.

It has also forged links with other groups performing similar roles around the country – from Michelle Medler and her team in Kidderminster to the Dorset Devils in Bournemouth.

The group has increasingly developed into a social group too, as well as entering a float in the Hereford River Carnival, sprucing up the town for Hereford in Bloom and prompting a major county council campaign against dog fouling.

“We are making a difference,” insists Andrew. “It takes time and it doesn’t happen overnight. But things are changing for the better.”

ASDASUPERMARKET SWEEP: salvaging trolleys from the river

What’s on in the Chilterns

Your at-a-glance guide to activities and events across the Chilterns should be up and running by Easter 2019. For the moment, check out our Facebook group for upcoming events, along with these other local What’s On websites:

The what’s on services operated by tourism websites Visit Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire CotswoldsVisit North Oxfordshire, Visit Southern Oxfordshire, Visit Newbury, Visit Reading, Enjoy St Albans, Visit Herts and Experience Bedfordshire.

The events pages run by The Chiltern Society.

The events calendar operated by local Buckinghamshire magazine Hiya Bucks.