Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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Campaign targets dumping menace

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE is stepping up its war against fly-tipping with a new campaign targeting selfish dumpers prepared to ruin the countryside in an effort to make a fast buck.

The Bucks Waste Partnership’s SCRAP campaign aims to warn householders that THEY could be punished if their rubbish turns up on a back road in Buckinghamshire.

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The message is that if it’s your rubbish, it’s your responsibility to dispose of it properly and legally. Otherwise dumpers could face a £400 fixed penalty notice or, if court action is taken, typically fines of several thousands of pounds or even a prison sentence.

The campaign also features advice for householders and businesses to thoroughly check anyone who they use to dispose of waste on their behalf. Failure to do so means people are not complying with duty of care requirements and could face a nasty surprise if their waste is found fly-tipped.

The campaign follows an upsurge of fly-tipping around the county, with more than two dozen serious incidents reported in the past few weeks around the Chalfonts, Denham and Iver, in some cases with back roads being completely blocked.

Last month The Beyonder highlighted the techniques being used to tackle the menace in a feature about the county council team which investigates and prosecutes such cases.

The SCRAP campaign stands for Suspect, Check, Refuse, Ask and Paperwork – a five-point checklist to help people stay on the right side of the law.

Bill Chapple OBE, Bucks Waste Partnership Chairman and County Council cabinet member for planning and environment said any form of fly-tipping was illegal and socially unacceptable.

“Local people tell me they hate fly tipping with a passion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single bag or a truck load, fly-tipping is disgusting and on average costs our council taxpayers over £750,000 every year in clear up and enforcement costs.

“Fly-tipped material also presents dangers for wildlife, it can pollute local areas and it’s extremely expensive to clear up. People often don’t realise but you could also end up with a criminal record.

“We take a zero-tolerance approach and that tough stance means fly-tippers are around 16 times more likely to be caught and prosecuted in Buckinghamshire compared to the national average. Quite often it’s surveillance camera evidence or an eagle-eyed resident noting down a vehicle number plate that helps bring perpetrators to justice.

“However, going forward we want to do even better and I am determined not to allow the mindless actions of the few, to spoil it for the people that love Buckinghamshire and its beautiful countryside.”

The campaign also reminds people that they can also play their part by reporting suspicious activity or fly tipping in progress. All they need to do is go online to www.fixmystreet.buckscc.gov.uk and select fly-tipping from the  drop-down menu.

Bucks Waste Partnership member and cabinet member for environment at South Bucks District Council, Luisa Sullivan said: “Some of the excuses people give are unbelievable, from promising to come back in the morning to collect a fly-tipped bag to needing to tidy out a works van. Listen to your common sense, think before you act and don’t be tempted to fly tip in the first place.

“Even if you can’t dispose of waste yourself, there are many alternatives that won’t land you in trouble. For example, each Buckinghamshire district council offers a bulky waste collection service for larger items or kerbside waste and recycling centres for things like glass, paper and plastic bottles.”

She added: “Alternatively you could consider donating or even selling your unwanted items. You might make a few pounds for yourself rather than having to pay out thousands in fines.”

For further details about all aspects of the campaign, visit: www.recycle4bucks.co.uk/flytip

Snatch a glimpse of London’s past

LONDON’S skyline is under attack.

Well, in truth it has been under attack for years, but it’s only now that we can fully appreciate the scale of the onslaught as dozens of high-rise buildings reach completion.

When architecture critic Rowan Moore highlighted the problem back in 2014, more than 200 towers were being planned across the city, in urban and suburban locations alike.

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But it’s telling that today the London Town website actually says that this part of London is “aesthetically defined by its towers” and even suggests venues where high-rise visitors might want to savour a vertigo-inducing glass of bubbly and pricey meal while taking in the view of what remains of our once glorious capital.

Moore discusses the aesthetic dangers and practical drawbacks of this race to look like Dubai, Shanghai or New York, but if you haven’t wandered round the backstreets of the City lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that every cobble, every tiny alleyway, is being transformed – mainly into offices or high-rise luxury penthouse blocks.

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Much of that is driven by overseas investment – and a glance in the estate agent’s window quickly establishes that no “normal” rent-payer would find it easy to pick up a bargain around here, even in the few bijou low-rise developments which remain.

Property agents confirmed this month that overseas investors had shrugged off Brexit worries to invest nearly  £7bn in London property in 2018 – ahead of Hong Kong and Paris.

The only consolation is in tiny alleys and hidden squares there are a few remnants of the old city for the wanderer to stumble upon.

The main tourist attractions like St Paul’s still provide visitors with a focal point, of course. Sadly Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign during the Blitz saw swathes of central London flattened in 1940 and 1941, leaving only blue plaques to remind us of some of the buildings which had graced the historic square mile since that other great London disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.

The Museum of London is a great place to start an exploration of London’s past – and when it moves to its new home beside Smithfield Market it should be an even more fascinating attraction.

But what remains of that historic capital, the Roman and medieval city largely hidden under our feet? There are still glimpses of London’s history down dark alleys and quaintly named closes, although it has to be said much of it is masked by traffic fumes and the detritus of modern living.

Between the high-rise blocks, London’s financial heart has become relentlessly hipster in mood and appearance, although the obsession with quality coffee is nothing new. London’s coffee houses were famed across the centuries, even if Samuel Johnson declared himself  ‘a hardened and shameless tea drinker’.

But where to start after you emerge from the overheated hubbub of the Central Line in rush hour and step aside from the frantic City hordes to take your breath outstide St Paul’s?

Down on Ludgate Hill it’s reassuring to see an old Routemaster bus struggling to make any progress down towards Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street, but this throwback to the past is something of a sop to the tourists.

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The vehicle itself is authentic enough, now more than 50 years old, having been originally delivered to London Transport in July 1964.

But it was withdrawn from service in the 1980s and spent time in Hampshire, Perth and Glasgow before being selected as one of a handful of buses to operate “heritage routes” through London – in this case from St Paul’s down to Trafalgar Square.

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More authentic, perhaps – and a lot less well known – is a small park round the corner from St Paul’s which provides a welcome splash of green among the concrete.

Postman’s Park has an intriguing history in its own right, occupying an amalgamation of three burial grounds and taking its name from the fact that when it opened in 1880 it became a popular haunt with postal workers from the nearby General Post Office.

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Efforts to resist the attention of Victorian property developers in the 1890s ensured that the park was saved for posterity and when it reopened in 1900 it incorporated an extraordinary and moving memorial to self-sacrifice, remembering ordinary “humble heroes” who had lost their lives endeavouring to save the lives of others.

Chief proponents of the scheme to remember the extraordinary actions performed by everyday men, women and children were the artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) and his wife, Mary (1849 – 1938).

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The Watts Memorial contains 54 memorial tablets commemorating 62 individuals. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007.

A short walk from the park is a somewhat grimmer memorial on the outer wall of St Bartholomew Hospital in Smithfield paying tribute to Sir William Wallace, one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence – most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart” – who was executed nearby on August 23, 1305.

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Wallace was charged with treason, to which he responded that he could not be guilty, for he had never sworn fealty to Edward I. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to the traitor’s death, one of the most vicious punishments devised during the medieval era.

He was taken to the Tower of London where he was stripped naked and dragged behind horses to the scaffold at Smithfield. He was first hung by the neck and then cut down while still alive. He was then eviscerated and castrated, and eventually beheaded. His body was cut into four parts, and his limbs sent to the corners of Scotland as a warning to the rebellious country. His head was set on London Bridge, where it was soon joined by other Scottish rebels.

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Hidden away from the main tourist thoroughfares, Wallace’s monument is a place of pilgrimage for Scottish visitors to London, while round the corner Sherlock Holmes buffs gather to see the vacant pathology block where Benedict Cumberbatch took his famed mystery plunge in the BBC series reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

This part of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals is being redeveloped into a private healthcare facility. But opposite it is a reminder that this was once a rather seedy corner of medieval London where the Great Fire of London – ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ – finally stopped, as commemorated in a statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner.

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The fire which broke out in in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September 1666 swept across London from the Thames to Smithfield, destroying thousands of houses and more than 80 churches over five days.

Initially blamed as part of a treasonous plot by Roman Catholics, the 18th-century monument credited an alternative culprit in the shame of the extravagant feasting of well-off 17th-century Londoners.

At this corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street also stood The Fortune of War pub, a rather unsavoury drinking den where in the early 1800s corpses provided by body snatchers used to be held in a backroom for surgeons at the nearby hospital to view and purchase.

The high-rise office blocks haven’t quite obliterated this part of London yet, although they are certainly encroaching from all sides.

Not that anyone is suggesting that the medieval brothels of Cock Lane or nearby Victorian gin palaces provided a vision of London which tourists would enjoy today.

But between the soaring office blocks there are those glimpses of a different London skyline – like the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey, where the gleaming statue of Lady Justice, erected in October 1906, has long been used to sum up anything to do with the criminal justice system.

But that, as they say, another story…

See the Further Afield section of The Beyonder for additional snippets about London’s history.

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Full steam ahead at Bo’ness

IT’S HARD to think of a less likely tourist attraction that the UK’s second oldest oil refinery, at Grangemouth.

But if you drive past the gas flares and cooling towers for a few minutes, the detour off the busy M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling will take you to a quite extraordinary reminder of a golden age of steam.

For this is the home of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, a five-mile working heritage railway and home to Scotland’s largest railway museum.

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The view from the station platform – the main station at Bo’ness was actually relocated from Wormit, at the south end of the Tay Bridge – could hardly be more authentic, although the 0-6-0 tank engine decked out in British Railways black is also “in disguise”.

Despite the BR livery, this is not the former LNER Class J94 engine which once bore that number, but a lookalike – an engine once owned by the National Coal Board which was built by W G Bagnall in 1945 and acquired from the NCB’s Comrie Colliery in Fife.

In its gleaming BR livery it certainly looks the part, though, and it’s only one of a large selection of steam and diesel engines to be found here.

Another surprise is the surprisingly rural atmosphere of the route. Despite the proximity of heavy industry, the line takes passengers to a local nature reserve, and you can always walk back along the coast or disembark at another rural station that has been a favourite with film-makers.

The museum across the footbridge at Bo’ness is open seven days a week until October 28 from 11am-4.30pm and boasts three large buildings full of memorabilia – from full size locomotives to old-fashioned railway signs which once adorned the walls of busy railway stations across the country.

For full details of the railway, see the link above – and more information about the Scottish Railway Preservation Society can be found here.

 

Disraeli’s secret sanctuary

ANYONE following in the footsteps of Disraeli at the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor shouldn’t miss the chance to look in on the historic church where the former prime minister once worshipped.

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Disraeli lived at Hughenden from 1848 to 1881 – and today, visitors are not just intrigued by the Victorian stateman’s county home and colourful personal history, but by the manor’s secret wartime past as a base for mapmakers.

Codenamed ‘Hillside’, Hughenden played such a critical role supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command that it was on Hitler’s list of top targets. Around 100 personnel were based here, drawing up the maps used for bombing missions during the war, including the Dam Busters raids and a planned hit on Hitler’s secret bunker at Berchtesgaden.

Skilled cartographers produced maps from aerial photographs delivered by the RAF’s reconnaissance missions – yet the operation was so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a National Trust volunteer overheard a visitor telling his grandson he’d been stationed here during the war.

But away from the cellars, one of the less obvious gems of the estate is the church of St Michael & All Angels – the “church in the park” which provides a glorious oasis of peace amid the rolling parklands so much enjoyed by ramblers and families in the summer months.

The earliest records show a church on this site in the 12th century built by Geoffrey de Clinton, but it was substantially extended and rebuilt in the 1870s. The chancel is the remaining part of the original church, and during the Victorian extension works its floor was redone with beautiful ceramic tiles, the roof altered and the walls painted.

In 1992-94 a major redecoration of the nave and chancel was undertaken and all the Victorian paintings and artwork meticulously restored.

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Disraeli is commemorated in many parts of the church but the principal memorial is on the north side of the chancel, unique in that it is the only known example of a memorial erected by a reigning monarch to one of her subjects.

Various items in the church were paid for by the Hughenden Memorial Fund, in memory of the statesman, including the organ and the murals in the chancel.

A detailed history of the church can be found on the parish website and on summer Sundays and bank holidays guests can also sample a cream tea in the historic nearby church house, which in pre-reformation days was home to six monks and a prior.

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All aboard for quiz night!

THE lights on the country station platform are shining, the semaphore signals are at red and a handful of passengers alight in the drizzle.

It could be a scene from the 1960s, but despite appearances we are firmly in 2018 and just reaching journey’s end after an unusual sojourn through the Oxfordshire countryside.

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The occasion is one of the periodic “fish and chip” quiz nights organised by the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway – but unlike a country train at a platform like this half a century ago, this one is actually packed with passengers, all of whom seem to be in remarkably good spirits.

It’s the culmination of a leisurely three-hour trundle through the local countryside where teams having been pitting their wits against each other for the sheer hell of it.

There are no big prizes on offer here – but for more than 100 enthusiastic diners, that really doesn’t matter. It’s the experience which counts.

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What could be more English than a heritage railway, a pub quiz and a traditional meal of fish and chips? Put them together and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for success, and this train and others like it are sold out long in advance.

The story of the line’s revival has been covered in detail in a previous post on this site, but the return visit is a welcome opportunity to savour the atmosphere of an evening journey in convivial company.

A team of enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers provide a cheerful and efficient table service throughout the journey as our quiz train ambles towards Princes Risborough and back.

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It’s a good time to visit too, because this is a week which sees the railway celebrating the opening of Platform 4 at Princes Risborough station – a long-awaited link up with the Chiltern Railways main line.

Tonight no one’s going anywhere very quickly after the Class 37 diesel-electric engine booked for the service subsides into silence and has to be replaced. But no one on board is too worried as the quiz picks up pace and another heritage engine clanks into place to take the strain.

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This one is a beautifully restored visitor to Chinnor, a Class 20 diesel decked out in the distinctive green livery of British Railways which spent its working life in the Sheffield area after entering service in 1961. It was withdrawn in 1990, one of more than 200 “Choppers” designed to work light mixed freight traffic which earned their nickname from their distinctive engine beat, which resembles the sound of a helicopter.

D8059 proves a more than worthy replacement for the short journey to Thame Junction, but as dusk begins to fall over the surrounding fields, all eyes are on the quiz questions until our return to Chinnor is met with the excited hooting of a driver racing up with our fish and chips.

Serving dozens of people simultaneously with piping hot chip shop fish and chips is no easy task, but our grinning hosts are up to the challenge and the beer and wine is flowing freely between rounds as competitors vent their frustration at being caught out by tricky foreign capitals or elusive logos.

By the time the results have been compiled – and needless to say our four-strong team is no match for some of the expert contestants on board – it’s after 10.30pm and the lights are shining bright at Chinnor station.

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As the passengers disperse into the night, there are sounds of cheerful farewells, train doors slamming and the smell of diesel on the night air.  Surely railway journeys back in the 1960s were never this much fun?

Tickets for quiz night trains cost £19 but the next trip in October is already sold out. See the railway’s website for full timetable details and other special events.