Final weekend on the history trail

DOZENS of venues across the Chilterns have been throwing open their doors this month as part of the country’s largest free celebration of history and culture – and there’s a last chance this weekend to join in the fun.

The annual nationwide event boasts a dynamic programme of more than 5,000 events where public, private and community spaces host tours, talks and open days.

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From open churches to family fun days, doors are flung open at some of the country’s best-known tourist venues, as well as monuments and buildings which do not normally allow visits.

Attractions range from churches, country houses, museums and gardens to theatres, wildlife reserves, distilleries and even recycling centres.

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To celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary, 25 new venues are opening their doors. “It’s always exciting when new places join Heritage Open Days,” said national manager Annabelle Thorpe. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by sharing it with these iconic places.”

Behind-the-scenes visits include theatres, bell towers and sports stadia, with a full searchable list of all 5,000 atractions available at the main Heritage Open Days website.

Other popular options include National Trust properties opening their doors free for the day and local churches, museums and other venues staffed by thousands of volunteers eager to share their knowledge of local heritage.

This year’s event runs until September 22 and local highlights across the Chilterns are listed on our What’s On pages.

Established in 1994, Heritage Open Days is England’s contribution to European Heritage Days – launched in 1991 – and has grown into the country’s largest heritage festival.

Saintly refuge at Stonor

THE SHEER sense of serenity you encounter at Stonor on a sunny day makes it hard to associate the place with persecution and torture.

But this extraordinary Oxfordshire home has some remarkable stories to tell and played a unique part in the history of English Catholicism.

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Today, basking in the September sunlight, the only sound to be heard across the 1760 deer park is the clack of a cricket ball and occasional cries from approval from the small crowd round the green at the Stonor Cricket Club across the main Henley road, which overlooks the estate.

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But although Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years, it was let to the National Benzol Company during the war and was empty when the family moved back in 1945. Many family possessions were sold off during subsequent years of financial hardship.

It was only in 1978 that the current Lord Camoys was able to buy and start renovating the house, opening it to the public in 1979 and buying back many portraits, pictures and other possessions which had been sold.

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It has been an extraordinary achievement, because there’s a wonderful sense of peace and warm about the manor house which the poet John Betjeman remarked upon – and the same sense of serenity can be found in the park and gardens.

Parts of the house date from the 13th century but the site has been inhabited for longer than that, as witnessed by the circle of standing stones by the front drive, deposited during the Ice Age and used as a pagan site of worship.

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The family name (de Stonore in the 14th century) comes from the stones – and the crest, appropriately, is a hill with prominent stones.

But while the children might want to explore the adventure playground out in the woodland, it’s inside the house and 13th century chapel that the real story of Stonor Park unfolds.

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This is where we first encounter those darker memories of centuries of persecution which followed the Reformation, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope and unleashed a harsh crackdown against all those regarded as being guilty of heresy.

Any priest found on English soil was guilty of treason (as was anyone who harboured him), and that included a scholar by the name of Edmund Campion who had once found favour with the Queen as a young man.

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Campion had been born in London and studied in Oxford before moving to Dublin, Douai and ultimately travelling on foot to Rome to become a Jesuit priest. He had been a professor in Prague before the Jesuit mission to England began and he arrived in London in June 1580 disguised as a jewel merchant, and began to preach.

He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire while he started to work on his Decem Rationes (“Ten Reasons”), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church.

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Upstairs in a hidden room behind a chimneybreast at Stonor is where he and his colleagues hid their printing press which was used to print the famous tract – 400 copies were distributed on the benches of the university church in Oxford, causing a great sensation.

The hunt for Campion was stepped up and the “seditious Jesuit” was arrested at a house in Berkshire and soon publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in London in December 1581, at the age of 41.

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Back at Stonor, Dame Cecily and her son John were taken to the Tower of London too, but Dame Cecily refused to conform to the Established Church – meaning that the tiny family chapel is one of only a handful in the country to have remained Catholic despite 250 years of persecution.

Several rooms in the main house are open to the public, including the Gothic Revival hall dating from 1350, the library, drawing room and bedrooms. Throughout, there are dozens of portraits, photographs and family artefacts, meticulously documented in a “hand list” of contents.

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Outside there’s time to unwind in the tranquil gardens to the rear of the house or meander up to the terraces which provide views across the roofs of the house to the park beyond, where the fallow deer may be seen grazing while red kites and buzzards glide on the thermals overhead.

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Although the house and chapel are only open on Sundays in September and are generally closed until April, there are a number of special events planned, from an autumn food festival in October to candlelit tours of the house decorated for Christmas.

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For full details of prices, opening times and future events, see the main Stonor House website.

Exotic sights in St Albans

VISITORS get a last chance to savour some spectacular floral displays and exotic butterflies this weekend as Aylett Nurseries’ “autumn festival” draws to a close.

The Hertfordshire family nursery has long been associated with cultivating dahlias, and has won awards for decades for its stunning displays of the bushy perennials which first arrived in Britain from their native Mexico more than 200 years ago.

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A marquee in the main nursery contains a magnificent splash of colour with its array of home-grown dahlias on the travel theme of “The Way To Go”, while the Celebration Garden and dahlia field where the plants are grown are also open for charity as part of the National Garden Scheme.

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Dahlias were a great passion of the late Roger Aylett, who started the business on the same 7½ acres of land at the age of 21 and was soon dispatching the stunning plants to all corners of the country.

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Inside the marquee this year are more than 55 dahlia varieties freshly cut from the dahlia field, where visitors can use ribbons to pick out their favourites.

The “flagship” of the nursery for over 60 years, since 1961 Aylett displays have picked up 55 gold medals at Royal Horticultural Society annual shows – and it’s not hard to see why.

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Declared the national flower of Mexico in 1963 and grown as a food crop by the Aztecs, there are 42 species of dahlia, with hybrids commonly grown as garden plants.

The official RHS classification lists 14 different groups and there are more than 57,000 cultivars providing an extraordinarily diverse array of colours and shapes.

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For younger visitors less overwhelmed by the displays in the dahlia marquee, there is a last chance to visit “Butterfly Corner”, an enclosed area housing an array of tropical plants and exotic butterflies.

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These include the postman, flambeau and stunning blue morpho, one of the largest in the world. Guests can learn about the fascinating life cycle of the butterfly and watch butterflies feed and fly.

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There is a puparium where new butterflies emerge and younger gardeners can enjoy spotting the different species, caterpillars and butterfly eggs. The butterflies, eggs, caterpillars and plants will be relocated to the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo when the exhibition closes this weekend.

Visitors to the nursery this weekend also get the chance to vote in the Around the World Crate Competition where individuals, schools, clubs and associations were invited to compete for £100 of gift vouchers.

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The competition focuses on the theme of transport and travel and entrants were encouraged to create a miniature world inside a wooden crate which could be displayed during the festival.

Winners will be decided by public vote, with the winner announced on Monday.

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Time for a moonlit meander

TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.

It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.

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But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.

Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).

Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.

More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.

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Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.

Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.

Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.

Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration  is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?

This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.

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In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.

Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox. 

Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield

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From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.

For other moon names, see the Time and Date website.

 

Communities answer call to arms

LITTER-PICKERS across the Chilterns have been rallying local communities to help clean up local neighbourhoods this month.

Within minutes of the launch last week of The Beyonder’s “ripple effect” campaign, local groups had been in touch about their activities.

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In Chalfont St Peter, Jodie Burridge organised a clean-up day in the village, with another planned for October 5.

In Wycombe Marsh, Jean Peasley was in touch about the Wycombe Marsh Environment Group, which organises a monthly litter pick around the area (below), as well as gardening and planting on small uncared-for patches of land.

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In Beaconsfield, the Considerate Beaconsfield group organised a litter pick in August and have another planned for the New Year, while Wooburn Green residents also have a litter-pick planned for September.

Nationally, dozens of such like-minded groups have been keeping in touch via the UK Litterpicking Groups page on Facebook, which has more than 2,000 members.

There are also dozens of similar local initiatives, including the two-minute beach clean movement, the zero plastic lobby and national climate change protests.

The Beyonder’s “ripple effect” campaign was designed to unite the hundreds of like-minded local organisations already doing their bit to keep their neighbourhood clean and spread the word about what more can be done locally to tackle the problem.

The campaign coincided with another international call from action from the Pope on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

Pope Francis has made many calls for environmental protection and has clashed over climate change with sceptical world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, who has taken the United States out of the Paris accord.

At a local level, his call may resonate with church communities across the Chilterns, many of whom can also organise small-scale local events from litter-picking to education in schools.

This week sees hard-hitting TV anti-litter advocate Jeremy Paxman addressing a two-day conference in Birmingham attended by thousands of recycling and waste business and local authority professionals.

Paxman is patron of the Clean Up Britain campaign, a national campaign specialising in changing anti-social environmental behaviour like littering and fly-tipping, and will be delivering a keynote speech on what he sees as the “national embarassment” of how filthy and run-down Britain looks.

He will tell his audience: “There’s only one sustainable solution, and that’s changing the behaviour of people who do litter. Government-supported initiatives have failed – we need a new joined-up, courageous and innovative approach to win the War on Waste.”

Another national campaigner has also called more a more proactive approach. On Twitter, Quentin Brodie Cooper of Zilch UK has spent the past five years building up a network of more than 12,000 followers working together to eliminate littering.

But he expressed disappointment that the Beyonder campaign focused “entirely on picking up litter rather than trying to do more to prevent it”.

His website lists a number of actions which he believes can make a positive and incremental contribution to the war against littering, including encouraging people to act as human camera-traps in car parks and other places where they can witness and report littering from vehicles.

But Beyonder editor Andrew Knight responded: “We do welcome all contributions to the debate and actively work to promote the work of those campaigners who are co-ordinating the fight.

“But we believe that communities working together can make a real difference in changing attitudes towards this problem. It’s not always safe for members of the public to confront litterers or try to prevent anti-social behaviour themselves, for example.

“However working together communities can help spread the word that littering is unacceptable, and Jeremy Paxman is right about the scale of the problem nationwide.

“It’s not just picking up a few bits of litter that makes the difference, but about thousands of local people spreading the word about how much they genuinely care about the local environment and about leading by example.

“Every week on the UK Litterpicking Groups web pages there are heartwarming stories of small triumphs that show many people do care and want to do their bit to help.”

Locally the National Trust rangers’ team based at Cliveden are still looking for more local litterpickers to help keep paths and car parks clean across 843 acres of land at Maidenhead and Cookham commons.