Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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Big ideas get lost in a small world

THERE’S so much about Alexander Payne’s movie Downsizing (15) that doesn’t quite work that it’s easy to overlook some of the many endearing facets of his ambitious 2017 sci-fi satire.

For a start, it’s not every day you get a film brave enough to play to audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability, but these aren’t subjects ideally suited to comedy so perhaps it’s no surprise that this unlikely fantasy never seems entirely clear what it is trying to achieve.

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It’s a dilemma which clearly confused the writer responsible for the DVD sleeve, because if Downsizing is anything it’s certainly not “hilarious” in any laugh-out-loud way – unless you find a Vietnamese refugee speaking in pidgin English side-splittingly funny, that is.

Yes, there are some witty concepts, intriguing characters and entertaining dialogue, but despite the thoughtful and expansive premise, the film tends to fall between all the available stools – neither arthouse nor mainstream and not scoring a hit with the critics or at the box office, despite the familiar names on the cast list.

By its nature satire tends to cause discomfort and unease and yet there are plenty of life-affirming moments in Downsizing, which perhaps ensures that as dystopias go, this isn’t a journey that leaves us too emotionally exhausted.

Perhaps that’s the central problem – it’s hard to stay upbeat in the face of imminent apocalypse and there are times when we are not sure whether to laugh or cry about the whole experience.

The initial premise is original enough (although it’s worth remembering that Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726). Here the twist is that visionary Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) has uncovered a shrinking formula which provides a potential solution to the world’s population woes.

This raises the prospect that miniaturised people will consume only a fraction of the world’s resources but the utopian project is soon hijacked by American capitalism, paving the way for an explosion of tiny dome-covered communities boasting a lifestyle of ease and opulence marketed with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes the average car salesman look like a rank amateur.

The fundamentally sound qualities of central everyman figure Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) are somewhat offset by his beigeness. But it’s easy to see how our unfulfilled hero might be tempted by the prospect of upward mobility in micro-suburbia, and his new life as someone five inches tall provides plenty of scope for inventive satire as it becomes only too clear that life in the diminutive world of Leisureland is a literal microcosm of the big bad world outside.

There are plenty of surprises awaiting Paul when he starts to scratch the surface of the miniature community, starting with the potentially alluring lifestyle of his new neighbour, the larger-than-life Serb black marketeer Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz.

But if the disarmingly roguish Dusan seems cartoonish, how are we supposed to react to his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese illegal immigrant who was shrunk against her will while imprisoned as a dissident.

In some ways it’s only Hong Chau’s bravura performance that enables her to overcome the extraordinary list of clichés and stereotypes she has been saddled with, her staccato broken English troubling more politically correct audiences, although most were won over by her irrepressible energy and Payne assures us she was created and brought to life with a lot of tenderness.

Paul manages to resist the hedonistic attractions of party boy Dusan’s existence and is drawn instead into the darker world of Ngoc Lan’s life in the dirt-poor ghetto where she lives outside Leisureland’s walls.

So far, so good – after all, Payne has an excellent track record in exploring the anguish of humdrum middle-aged American men and the special effects are used cleverly to immerse us in the small world in such a way that the absurdist humour never allows us to become distracted by hi-tech gimmickry.

But if it’s a pleasant change to exchange Bond-style supermen for a “real” hero, Damon is sometimes not the most entertaining of companions and his relationship with Ngoc Lan feels a little cartoonish at times too as he blankly takes in the harsh realities of life for the disabled activist who has become part of Leisureland’s exploited underclass.

On the one hand we are being bombarded with bold reminders of humankind’s fundamental flaws, but many of the avenues are left unexplored and questions unanswered, despite the film feeling a little rambling and overlong.

Love may conquer all, but it may well do so in a somewhat bland and suburban way, despite the off-stage collapse of the world as we know it.

And if it feels like a very fitting message for our times to explore the lengths people will go to escape global overcrowding and the dangers of climate change, Damon is sometimes less than compelling company on the journey to enlightment and a little too passive to win our hearts, never mind the sharp-voiced and sharper-brained Ngoc Lan’s.

We understand the need to escape from the prison of materialism, and the spectre of a new kind of migration crisis lends a sense of urgency to the closing third of the film, but the loose ends rankle and ultimately Paul’s road to redemption feels a little too muddled to leave audiences feeling truly moved.

Downsizing gives us pause for thought and raises some intriguing questions about the world we live in, but never quite becomes the miniature masterpiece Payne’s fans might have hoped for.

 

 

Pupils call for climate change action

THOUSANDS of pupils took to the streets across the UK yesterday in a national protest calling for action on climate change.

Defying criticism from head teachers and the prime minister, schoolchildren in more than 60 towns and cities took part in marches calling on the government to declare a climate emergency and take active steps to tackle the problem.

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Organisers Youth Strike 4 Climate said protests took place in more than 60 towns and cities, with an estimated 15,000 taking part.

Meetings took place outside town halls from Truro to Inverness and from Norwich to Ullapool, with the largest crowds converging on parliament in Westminster, at one point blocking Westminster Bridge.

The action was part of a wider global movement, Schools 4 Climate Action, which began when 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg skipped classes to sit outside government buildings, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement.

The climate activist, who has Asperger’s. quickly became a global phenomenon, being invited to speak at the UN and the World Economic Forum at Davos, where she told world leaders: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day – and then I want you to act.”

With more than 182,000 followers on Twitter Greta, now 16, has inspired thousands of other young people across the world to carry out similar protests, many of them with placards bearing slogans such as “There is no planet B”.

Students participating in yesterday’s day of protest in the UK demanded that the Government communicate the severity of the ecological crisis to the public and reform the curriculum to make it an educational priority.

Anna Taylor, 17, of UK Student Climate Network, said: “We’re running out of time for meaningful change, and that’s why we’re seeing young people around the world rising up to hold their governments to account on their dismal climate records.

“Unless we take positive action, the future’s looking bleak for those of us that have grown up in an era defined by climate change.”

In a TV interview she said: “I feel very disappointed that 15,000 students had to walk out of school today. We feel deeply betrayed by past generations and past governments.”

The campaign has also received celebrity backing.

On Twitter, TV presenter Chris Packham wrote: “Across the planet we have elected a confederacy of idiots obsessed with short term greed.

“Well today a bunch of children and young people are going to show them up. Bloody marvellous isn’t it!”

Theresa May was attacked by Labour politicians after saying that those taking part in the strike were “wasting lesson time”. And activist Greta Thurnberg responded on Twitter: “That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

Other young activists promoting the strike included 17-year-old wildlife ambassador Bella Lack and 14-year-old Dara McAnulty from Northern Ireland, an autistic naturalist and conservationist who demanded that governments declared our time “an ecological emergency”.

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The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that while it supported the rights of young people to express themselves, it did not condone students being out of the classroom to take action.

But writing in the Huffington Post, Caroline Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion and former leader and co-leader of The Green Party, said: “Our children recognise that they are living through a climate emergency. They are striking today because they know we cannot carry on as normal.

“There have been some who have questioned today’s strike – asking if climate change is enough of an ‘exceptional circumstance’ for children to miss lessons. But if the threat of civilisational collapse and the possibility of the end of life on Earth as we know it is not an exceptional circumstance, then I don’t know what it is.

“We’re already feeling the effects of climate breakdown. Nature and wildlife populations are at tipping points. Wildfires and droughts are becoming increasingly common.

“And in October last year, the United Nations warned that we have only 12 years left to transform our global economy and prevent catastrophe.”

She said young people were issuing a wake-up call and showing “courage and leadership where the adults in charge show none”.

Her message was echoed after the protest by Chris Packham, who Tweeted: “Day 1 – superb . And authority responded predictably – from headmasters to government . Never trust – always question them, be peaceful but forceful, rational and informed . The future is yours not theirs. Seize it.”

And energy minister Claire Perry said she was “incredibly proud” of young people’s passion and concern.

She told the BBC: “I suspect if this was happening 40 years ago, I would be out there too.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said schoolchildren were “right to feel let down by the generation before them” and said it was “inspiring” to see them making their voice heard.

 

 

 

Fog lifts on a different landscape

AFTER the snow, the fog – a murky, swirling affair worthy of a night on the Kent marshes or a Whitechapel back street.

But aside from conjuring up images of Magwitch and London pea-soupers, this latest twist in the February weather story also manages to banish the hard crusting of ice and snow that has been resolutely frosting the local landscape.

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And as the fog subsides, to be replaced by a steady drizzle, that’s great news for all those early flowers tempted into bloom by the mild January air and buried by last week’s wintry downfall.

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Candlemas day is past and the snowdrops are out, but the chill in the air still makes it feel as if spring is a long way off.

Nonetheless there’s a definite sense of anticipation in the air as the natural world starts to sense warmer times to come, and the bare branches and withered vegetation provide a drab backdrop against which to watch the countryside starting to stir.

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Certainly there’s a jauntiness to the dawn chorus this morning and the bare branches of the laburnum outside our bedroom window make it easier to spot the miniature army of blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits which have been frequenting our bird feeders.

The variety here is a little less dramatic than the visitors chronicled in this week’s newsletter from The Moorhens – alias Roy and Marie Battell, whose small nature reserve near Milton Keynes has been frequented by badgers, muntjac deer, red foxes and partridges, along with pheasants and woodpeckers.

But there have been a few less familiar visitors to our patch too, with one stray pheasant, a lone goldfinch and a cheeky lesser spotted woodpecker popping in for a quick bite.

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Not that these colourful guests have displaced the regulars in our affections. As well as the robins, blackbirds, magpies and dunnocks, one of our firm favourites remains the baby moorhen who has become a regular saunter round the feeders looking for scraps the smaller birds have dropped on the ground –  and whose distinctive tracks in the snow were a dead giveaway of her movements last week too.

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Natural boost for our mental health

IT SOUNDS pretty obvious that time spent outdoors can be good for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.

But a variety of different bodies have been quick to promote the wonders of the natural world to mark the start of the fifth year of Children’s Mental Health Week.

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From the Woodland Trust to local wildlife trusts, forest schools and activity weeks, the message has been simple – that climbing trees, building dens and playing in the woods can all help youngsters learn valuable life skills, as well as reconnecting with nature.

On Sunday it was worrying to read in The Observer that emergency talks were being held over the future of children’s adventure playgrounds amid concerns that funding cuts are making some popular sites too dangerous to insure.

“Too many children are living a ‘battery hen’ existence, spending more and more time sitting in front of screens and less time outside playing. I want to see more playgrounds across the country, not fewer,” said England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, who has championed play as a weapon against child obesity and poor mental health.

Mental health and the natural world was also under the spotlight last week in an emotional interview on Winterwatch between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harness.

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Viewers were quick to phone, Tweet and email with their thoughts on the subject, pointing out how much pleasure even the housebound could obtain from watching garden birds at their kitchen window.

Certainly our own garden guests have been giving us great joy during the recent snowfall, with the tits, robins, blackbirds and pigeons being joined by curious moorhens, affable ducks and boisterous squirrels.

In America, a survey of managers of assisted living and nursing home institutions all agreed that watching garden birds had a positive effect on their residents’ morale, and that feeding and watching birds gives housebound residents a connection with the outside world and reduces isolation and depression.

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Braving the wintry weather has allowed eagle-eyed youngsters to pick out the tracks of some of the more unfamiliar guests, while budding photographers have also been out and about, discovering that finding beauty in nature can help to ease the February blues.

Laura Howard, digital producer for The Watches, points out: “During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky the world seems to slow right down. A sleepy darkness creeps in and colours often mute to greys.

“However if conditions are right, this season can also show nature at its most inspiring as precious winter light illuminates the world. Due to its low profile on the horizon and its distance from the earth, winter sun has a quality all of its own as evidenced by these terrific photos.”

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It’s got to make sense – and on recent trips to Black Park, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park, it has been a delight to see people of all ages braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the most of the natural world in all its winter glory.

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Icy venue gets a warm welcome

MORE than 2.5m tuned into the first night of BBC2’s four-part Winterwatch series this week, the best viewing figures for a couple of years.

And although some continued to lament the absence of Martin Hughes-Games, the move to the Cairngorms appeared to prove a big hit with presenters and viewers alike.

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Veteran TV buddies Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan were joined by the affable Welsh naturalist Iolo Williams, 56, as well as biologist Gillian Burke, 42, who has been a regular presenter on the show for the past two years.

While some critics took to social media to say how much they missed Hughes-Games, with some arguing the show should have honoured his departure officially, the stunning snow-covered venue won plenty of praise.

Highlights included sleepy pine martens, superbly camouflaged ptarmigans and a moving interview between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harkness about the mental health benefits of bird-watching.

The Cairngorms National Park is  the new, year-round home for The Watches, with this week’s show exploring how local wildlife adapts to get through the tough winter.

The presenters will then return to their new base  throughout the year to cover the changing seasons, keep up with some of the key year-round residents and meet the seasonal arrivals as they flock to the wild landscape in spring and summer.

Home base is at the Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 sitting on the edge of the Abernethy Caledonian pine forest and perfectly placed to link viewers to the whole of the Cairngorms.

From here, the team can showcase the whole region, seeking out the wildlife that thrives in this challenging habitat and looking at the people and projects working to conserve it, including the UK’s largest landscape-scale conservation project, Cairngorms Connect.

As ever, the programme reflects wildlife issues and spectacles across the UK in a series of pre-recorded films showcasing the diversity of habitats and species that make this group of islands a truly unique place for wildlife.

All the presenters spoke of their enthusiasm for the new base before the show and have taken to social media regularly to sing its praises.

Michaela Strachan said: “The Highlands have a wonderful diversity of wildlife and habitats. It’s one of those places in the UK where you can really connect with the natural environment.”

Scotland’s national tourist organisation, Visit Scotland, and RSPB Scotland have both been delighted by way the programme has highlighted the scenic and wildlife attractions of the Cairngorms, with some local papers predicting the show will prompt a tourism boost.

The Watches are produced by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

 

Model village reopens for business

THE miniature world of Bekonscot reopens to the public next month, with some craft activities to keep youngsters busy during half-term week.

The 2019 season is a special one for Beaconsfield’s timeless tourist attraction because this August marks 90 years since Roland Callingham welcomed the first visitors to the model village and railway he built in his garden.

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There will be special celebrations in the summer to mark the event, but in the meantime the doors reopen at 10am on Saturday February 16  ready for the half-term holiday.

Special attractions include a chance for youngsters to make their own fridge magnets to take home on Monday, and a 45-minute workshop on Thursday where children can help to recreate one of Bekonscot’s animated models.

The model village actually comprises six little towns stuck in a 1930s timewarp with more than 200 buildings, 3,000 animals and features ranging from coal mines to great castles, aerodromes to farms, docks to cable cars, racecourses to escaped convicts!

Latest attractions include new models based on local businesses as they would have looked in the 1930s and a range of interactive activities for younger visitors in the EdShed, as the education centre has been re-branded.

Keep an eye on our What’s On pages for details of forthcoming attractions – and find out more about the tiny world of Bekonscot here.

 

The tiny world of Bekonscot

GENERATIONS of children have delighted in the extraordinary miniature world of Bekonscot Model Village.

Before the war, a teenage Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were among early visitors to marvel at the village landscapes created by accountant Ronald Callingham in the back garden of his home at Beaconsfield.

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Originally, Callingham’s swimming pool and tennis courts had been used for garden parties attended by London’s high society, with politicians and aristocrats escaping from the city for a breath of country air.

But when Mrs Callingham intimated in 1928 that either his indoor model railway went or she would, his model railway moved outdoors and Bekonscot was born.

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The world’s oldest model village was not conceived as a commercial visitor attraction but as a plaything to entertain Callingham and his guests.

Named after Beaconsfield and Ascot, where he had previously lived, it was only after 1930 that the existence of his garden empire became widely known, capturing the imagination of the press and public alike. It was formally opened to visitors in 1937 – and since that time has attracted more than £15m people through its gates.

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With the help of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur, Callingham set about the business of painstakingly recreating the landscape of Britain in the 1930s, with local buildings and personal favourites of the staff providing much of the inspiration, all constructed from memory, photos or imagination.

Gloriously eccentric and intricately crafted, Bekonscot was always full of fun and character, rather than an exercise in precision, and that spirit lives on today in the countless tiny vignettes and terrible puns captured in the names of village stores.

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It’s the challenge of spotting all those small humorous details that still gives visitors so much pleasure today. And yet, although Bekonscot’s founder never intended his creation to be taken too seriously, there was nothing small about the scale of his vision – his miniature world boasts some 200 buildings with more than 3,000 tiny people living in them.

And that’s not to mention one of the largest and most complex model railways in the UK, covering 10 scale miles at 1:32 scale.

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This ultimate Gauge 1 train set was built with the help of the model railway manufacturer Bassett-Lowke (and the current computer control system was programmed by the same expert who programmed the Jubilee Line extension to London’s underground).

Overall, the site covers around two acres, much of it crafted as a miniature 1:12 landscape, with buildings constructed in natural materials, concrete or dense foamboard, and many dating from the 1920s.

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There are pubs and cottages, shops and railway stations, cricket on the village green and even a zoo, circus, funfair, castle, port, colliery…well, perhaps it’s easier to think of a scene that hasn’t been recreated in miniature.

Bekonscot has seen many changes in its long history, but the biggest came in 1992 when it reverted back in time to the 1930s – where it has remained ever since.

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That timewarp is also reflected in the education centre, which boasts an array of 1930s memorabilia and encourages children to find out more about the era – and even dress up in period clothes.

A dozen full-time staff maintain the village throughout the year and successive generations of modelmakers, gardeners and craftsmen have left their mark on the landscape and buildings.

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It’s easy to see how these surroundings could have inspired the series of Borrowers books by Mary Norton, because in each of the six model villages are an array of tiny vignettes depicting different aspects of village life – from cricketers to choirboys and from railway passengers to rugby players.

An increasing number of small models are also mechanised, bringing further life to the scenes, whether in the form of a waving coal miner or a painter falling from his ladder.

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From rock climbers in the fishing village of Southpool to George and Anna getting married in Hanton, from the Brownies dancing round their maypole to the gravediggers in the churchyard, there’s always another small detail to spot or drama unfolding in miniature – like the fire fighters struggling to put out a blaze in the thatched roof of a local cottage.

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For railway buffs young and old the railway is a delight, with up to a dozen trains running at a time, including some original stock from the 1930s. Some trains have been running for over half a century, each covering about 2,000 miles per year.

There are a seven stations in total, two based on local examples, with lineside features including tunnels, a working level crossing and even a scaled-down replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, traversed by the branch line to the coal mine.

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The model railway has changed many times over its history but the impressive signalbox at Maryloo incorporates lever frames from Purley and Ruislip Gardens which control the points and signals across the gardens to provide a large selection of different routes. The village website even features a driver’s-eye view of the journey.

Another miniature railway runs round the perimeter of the site, giving passenger rides. The 7¼ inch gauge Bekonscot Light Railway was extended in 2004 to a new terminus.

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Equally impressive are the water features around the canal basin, warehouse and locks, the working tramway and cablecars, the sailing boats out on the lake (and even the real fish under their keels which dwarf the tiny sailors!).

Immortalised on TV in shows from Blue Peter and Countryfile to Midsomer Murders, Bekonscot is one English tradition which has clearly stood the test of time – and the children peering into the windows of the church and hospital seemed as delighted today by its quirkiness and eccentricity as they’ve always been.

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Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and has raised millions for charity.

For full details of the attractions, prices and history, see the main Bekonscot website.

 

 

A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

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As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Squirrel acrobats in the spotlight

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

SQUIRREL B

Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the timing could not be better given the recent screening of the BBC Nature Watch programme The Super Squirrels, originally broadcast last summer and still available for a week on BBC iPlayer.

bbc

The Nature Watch episode introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

SQUIRRELS

Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.