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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve.
It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.
More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.
Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.
It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!
A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.
THERE’S an almost primeval pleasure about cooking over a campfire that appeals to all ages.
No one knows that better than David Willis, whose bushcraft courses and other outdoor events encourage families to get out into the woods and reconnect with the natural world.
We meet at his Buckinghamshire base, an 18-acre expanse of private woodland near Little Chalfont where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet would feel very much at home.
Owned by a builder friend, this provides David with a base camp for bread-baking and wood whittling, foraging and other outdoor adventures for families, small groups and corporate clients.
It’s quite a change of direction for someone who spent 30 years as an IT consultant, but at 58, David is showing no signs of missing the corporate world. In fact it has been a welcome opportunity to rediscover the simple pleasures that played such an important part of his childhood.
As a boy, he loved being outdoors and would spend many happy hours exploring the local woodlands, building camps with his friends. As father to two sons, those camping experiences were fun to share with the family too – and today he is clearly getting just as much pleasure helping other people recapture some of those lost childhood experiences.
“There was woodland at the end of our garden and as a young boy still in short trousers, this provided a wild place to play,” he recalls in a blog posting about his childhood. “A child of the 60s, I found my own amusement. There were a few large trees that were great for climbing, balancing on limbs, that would no doubt now send many parents racing in, to save their children from any potential harm. I’d happily play there in the trees for hours, only to be called in when it was time for dinner.”
Nowadays he delights in guiding families on woodland walks, showing children how to light a fire and cooking over an open fire, perhaps helping to restore people’s confidence about coping in the great outdoors.
Genial, enthusiastic and immensely knowledgable about his natural surroundings, his invitation to families and corporate clients to escape from their computer screens and mobile phones and get back to nature is clearly one that resonates with his guests.
More than 1,000 people have joined him for his woodland wanders, learning about a variety of things on the way – from recognising different trees to appreciating the uses made of different types of wood and the delights of foraging.
“It’s a very primal thing,” grins David. “There are half a dozen different ways of lighting a fire.”
Guests needn’t worry about having to hunt, trap and enviscerate cute woodland creatures though. Although he has spent time in the army – he joined the Royal Engineers as a teenager and spent six years as a surveyor, serving in Belize – there’s nothing military or survivalist about his courses.
He launched this outdoor events business back in 2010 after years of studying bushcraft and leadership skills, culminating in a year-long course with John Rhyder’s Woodcraft School in West Sussex, which he enjoyed immensely.
Teaching experience with the Scouts was consolidated through trips abroad – like a visit five years ago to spend time with Maasai tribes in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which confirmed the pleasure he gets from imparting knowledge to young people.
When he was growing up, he learned through play – building structures and making things, then improving them when they fell down or broke. Those practical skills are still in demand today as a new generation of woodland adventurers learn how to tie ropes, erect hammocks, light fires and make shelters. They might even end up making bows and arrows.
“It’s great just generally for mental health,” says David. “It does everyone a lot of good to be outdoors.”
These events are all about pitching in and getting involved, so even as we speak, the flour, yeast and water is being mixed so that we can try our hand at bread-making.
It may not be the most sophisticated of kitchens and the woodsmoke is swirling everywhere, but we make a decent fist of kneading a couple of small loaves that can be baked in David’s Dutch oven while we discuss the relative merits of hornbeam, burch, cherry and larch wood.
A local lad, David and his friend started to cycle further afield as boys, exploring Black Park and Burnham Beeches before his family moved to the New Forest for a while, helping to cement his love of wild places and woodland surroundings.
So is it the solitude, the sound of the birds, the grounding in nature, the safety of a home-made shelter among the trees that makes this feel like home? Probably all of these reasons, he confirms.
He’s clearly never happier than when rustling up a tasty meal over a campfire, especially if it means having the chance to share the skills needed to enjoy living the outdoor life to the full.
Our bread is beginning to rise rather impressively and tastes divine. The lamb kebabs take only minutes to cook and are equally delicious, all the more so for being speared on hand-whittled sticks and rotated over the roaring fire. Ah, simple pleasures.
But then this sort of experience is at the heart of David’s woodland events, which can be tailored to suit all ages, abilities and tastes.
From rustling up tasty campfire treats to wood-whittling skills and uncovering the magic of trees, he runs a variety of day and longer courses both here in Buckinghamshire and further afield, while his own thirst for adventure has seen him travelling as far away as Namibia to spend time with the bushmen of the Kalahari.
The learning never stops it seems – although the same might be said for his visitors, as they lap up his wisdom on how to make nettle risotto, which berries are poisonous or which trees are best for warding off witches…
Go down to the woods
To find out more about David’s bushcraft courses, including whittling and woodcraft, campfire bread baking and The Art of Fire, or to arrange private family or group sessions, visit his website.
David’s free guided family walks (booking required) are the first Sunday of the month. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
To see David in action, see the Sorted Food Youtube channel
THERE may be an autumnal chill in the evening air, but sunny September days are still perfect for woodland adventures.
And nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.
Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.
A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.
The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.
Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.
The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.
There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.
If the landscape looks familiar, it might because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.
Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.
For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.
We want to hear from some of the amazingly talented photographers out there in the Chilterns who are chronicling the landscape and its wildlife all year round. Drop us a line at email@example.com or use our contact page.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
GETTING UP STEAM: the preserved railway at Chinnor
THERE could hardly be a more atmospheric little station than Chinnor, on the old GWR branch line to Watlington, especially with the steam mingling with the drizzle of a foul wet Sunday.
But it takes more than a little bad weather to dampen the spirits of railway enthusiasts, and the little branch line was bustling with activity as we arrived to take our seats in the buffet car for a birthday cream tea celebration.
This was a day out booked before Christmas, but the limited winter timetable delayed the opportunity to sample the delights of what is now known as the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway.
END OF THE LINE: semaphore signals at Chinnor station
Originally the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway Company, the eight-mile light railway was largely promoted by local land owners and authorised by parliament in 1869. It opened in 1872 with two intermediate stations at Chinnor and Aston Rowant.
But the company immediately ran into difficulties and the Great Western Railway acquired it in 1883. Under GWR ownership the track was re-laid, with rail level halts being opened at Bledlow Bridge, Kingston Crossing and Lewknor Bridge in 1906 and Wainhill Crossing in 1925.
But after the Second World War passenger traffic on the branch started to drop and by the mid-1950s had fallen to such a level that on July 1, 1957 the line was closed to passenger traffic.
From a personal perspective, the date is a little ironic, since the birthday we are celebrating is my own – just six months later in December, 60 years ago.
GUEST APPEARANCE: Prairie tank engine 5526 backs on to the coaches
And talking of birthdays, this is also a special year for the engine now backing on to the train, No 5526, one of a series of small ‘Prairie’ steam engines built at Swindon in May 1928.
The ‘4575’ class engine has been loaned to Chinnor for her 90th birthday year courtesy of the South Devon Railway, another former GWR branch line which runs along the stunning valley of the River Dart between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
There’s another small irony here, although not one I become aware of until researching the history of the engine, which will be hauling all steam services on the Chinnor line throughout 2018. This is not the first time we have met, it seems – although on the last occasion the engine was in a pretty sorry state and it would have been hard to visualise it ever being in steam again.
It’s one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on branch lines. A development of Churchward’s 4500 class, they were numbered 4575–4599 and 5500–5574; this one was apparently built at Swindon Works as part of Lot 251 and cost the princely sum of £3,602.
GETTING UP STEAM: conversation on the footplate of 5526
For 30 years the engine was almost exclusively based in the West Country, for much of the time at Truro, where workings would have included branch line services to places like Falmouth and Newquay.
These are the sorts of routes which get enthusiasts all misty-eyed because they were often so atmospheric – and in many cases long gone, especially once Dr Beeching got to grips with the loss-making network in the early 1960s.
In my pre-grouping atlas showing the old Great Western lines which existed before the war, these little spurs on the map always smacked of tiny stations like this one at Chinnor, condensation on the windows and steam and smuts in the air. And the branches down in Cornwall and Devon always counted among the most intriguing because of their picturesque seaside and moorland locations.
But there were plenty closer to home too, like this one to Watlington and those nearby, like Wallingford, Abingdon, Blenheim & Woodstock and Henley-on-Thames.
TIME FOR TEA: passengers gather at Chinnor Station ahead of the 3pm departure
By March 1959 5526 had moved from Truro to Westbury and its final years in British Railways days were spent on local passenger and goods workings to destinations like Swindon and Bristol.
It was withdrawn from service in 1962 after travelling almost a million miles in 34 years, and sold for scrap to Woodham Brothers in South Wales on August 28, 1962.
And that’s when I last saw this particular engine, it transpires, because Dai Woodham’s famous Barry scrapyard became a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts as the last resting place of almost 300 steam locomotives.
The story of the scrapyard is an extraordinary one, told on the Great Western Archive. Dai Woodham admitted having to travel to Swindon Works for a week in 1959 to “learn” how to scrap a steam locomotive, with old engines lining up in their hundreds in sidings around the country following BR’s 1955 modernisation plan decision to scrap some 16,000 of them.
By the end of steam in August 1968 there were still some 217 engines remaining at Barry, with the realisation dawning on enthusiasts and preservationists that this was now the only remaining source of steam locomotives which might be rescued for future generations.
GRAVEYARD: Floyd Nello’s Wikipedia picture of Barry
5526 languished for 23 years in the corrosive sea air of Barry, and it was there that I stumbled across it as a teenager in June 1971, one of 70 former GWR engines in those grim sidings on that summer’s day, stripped to rusting shells but many reserved for posterity by different groups of enthusiasts desperately raising funds to rescue the locomotive of their choice.
And so it was for 5526, it seems, which was finally reprieved in July 1985 when it became the 166th locomotive to be saved from the cutter’s torch at Barry Island, moving initially to the Gloucester and Warwickshire Railway before finally arriving at Buckfastleigh on the South Devon Railway, to be fully restored.
Looking at the engine today, it’s hard to believe the transformation from that rusting hulk at Barry – and it’s quite an emotional reunion.
BACK FROM THE DEAD: 5526 prepares for the short journey to Princes Risborough
Back on the station platform at Chinnor, passengers are beginning to mill around in the drizzle while volunteers prepare the buffet car ahead of the 3pm departure to Princes Risborough.
These days that’s all that’s left of the branch, and the volunteers are currently working on restoring a platform at Princes Risborough so that the preserved line can link up with Chiltern Railways main line there.
Back in 1957 when the line closed, the various halts were shut immediately, but the stations remained open for goods and parcel traffic until January 1961, after which the section from Chinnor to Watlington was closed completely and the track lifted.
The line from Chinnor to Princes Risborough was retained to serve the cement works and the wood yard in the village, with the final freight train to the cement works running in 1989 and maintenance of the branch being handed over to the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway Association the following year.
The first passenger service ran in 1994 and was extended to Thame Junction in 1996, although the battle to run trains into Princes Risborough was to take another two decades, as the railway’s website explains.
For now, though, all attention is beginning to turn to afternoon tea as we are ushered to our seats and get ready for the seven-mile round trip.
BIRTHDAY GREETINGS: on board the 1959 buffet car
Our end of the carriage has been cheerfully decorated in honour of the various birthdays being celebrated by diners – I’m one of three, it seems, and feel a bit of a fraud as four months have passed since the milestone in question, but the buffet team are determined not to let the occasion go unnoticed. There’s even a birthday card on the table from the staff.
This is one of the old British Railways Mark I coaches built in the 1950s and early 1960s and once to be found on locomotive-hauled trains pretty much everywhere across the system.
They were long-lived too, gradually disappearing during the 1970s and 80s as new coaching stock was introduced, although remarkably some stayed in use until 2005, with many subsequently turning up on preserved railways like this one.
Reinvigorating these old carriages doesn’t come cheap, though – and there’s an envelope on the table for contributions as a reminder of the high price of our plush-looking seats and the long slow progress of restoration generally.
This particular 1959 carriage (a “restaurant miniature buffet” in formal railway parlance) was off the rails for 10 months in 2010 for a make-over that cost more than £42,000.
COSTLY MAKE-OVER: smart-looking seats in the restored buffet car
This carriage earns its keep, though. It’s used to serve up cream teas and ploughman’s lunches on services throughout the year and the volunteers are already hovering with teapots of boiling water to make sure that these scones and cream won’t be too easily forgotten.
Outside, the signal clangs, the guard shows a green flag and our driver gently eases the regulator open. Because the engine is running behind the train, there’s little obvious sign of steam or smoke, but in any event all eyes are on the scones and refreshing cups of tea being poured into authentic GWR cups and saucers.
The lineside guide on the railway’s website tells us we are heading for the outskirts of Chinnor and Keens Lane Crossing, where the driver may give a warning toot to walkers waiting to cross the line.
This crossing is known locally as Donkey Lane, harking back to the time when the furniture industry was in full swing and chair legs fashioned by ‘bodgers’ (itinerant wood-turners) on the beechwood slopes above, would be brought down from the hills by pack animals to be taken by train to High Wycombe.
Although the windows are beginning to steam up with the hot tea and convivial conversation, it’s still possible to return the waves of walkers on a footpath which runs parallel to the ancient Upper Icknield Way.
What is it that makes it impossible to see a steam traing without waving at it? Looking across the open fields and returning the walkers’ cheery waves, it feels like a scene from the 1970 classic film of E Nesbit’s celebrated novel, The Railway Children. It also reminds me just how evocative the idea of enjoying a meal on a train actually is.
MEAL ON THE MOVE: the train trundles towards Princes Risborough
As a young boy in short trousers I always remember standing on the platform at South Croydon station watching the legendary Brighton Belle thundering through. The iconic 1930s luxury pullman train was electric, not steam, but with its beautiful art deco interiors and distinctive table lamps it seemed to be the epitome of fine dining to the envious eyes of a 10-year-old.
The mythology was only increased by reading articles about the train – reminiscences by the actress Dora Bryan, for example, recording the extraordinary atmosphere of breakfast on board the one-hour journey from Brighton to London.
Our meal may not quite capture the exoticism of the Brighton Belle or the Orient Express, but the stewards are avidly refilling the metal teapots and the scones are going down a treat as we slow down for Wainhill Crossing Halt.
We cross the road at a sedate pace and head on towards Bledlow Cricket Club, the overgrown watercress beds which once provided many boxes of produce to the London markets, and Thame Junction at Princes Risborough, where we pause for a few minutes before tackling the return journey.
Eventually there will be an interchange with the main line here, but for the moment volunteers are busy restoring the platform and passengers are not able to alight.
Of course the incorrigible volunteers can’t let those birthdays pass without a formal announcement, a ‘Happy Birthday’ singalong and a celebratory cake and candle for the lucky trio.
BIRTHDAY SINGALONG: the buffet car volunteers spring a surprise
John and Sue look similarly embarrassed by all the attention, but at least it’s actually John’s birthday…it’s a sweet touch, though, and their efforts and enthusiasm are much appreciated. After all, this isn’t how I remember buffet car service in British Railways days.
A few minutes later and we are back on the move, this time with the engine in front and authentic wafts of steam and smoke floating past the window. It’s a picturesque trip along the foot of the Chilterns escarpment but although the weather is closing in and the windows are steamed up, in some ways that just makes the journey seem even more atmospheric.
It’s not long before we are back in Chinnor and saying our farewells to the buffet staff. It’s been a lovely outing, despite the drizzle: not exactly cheap at £18 a head (the normal adult fare for a round trip without the cream tea is £12), but you can’t grudge the outlay given the energy of the volunteers and the eye-watering costs involved in trying to bring the past back to life.
JOURNEY’S END: 5526 arrives back at Chinnor
The railway is open on Sundays from mid-March to the end of October, with occasional other dates, including Thursdays in August and Santa specials in the run-up to Christmas.
There are diesel days and special galas, Hallowe’en ghost trains, fish and chip quiz nights and even murder mystery evenings, so there’s certainly no shortage of ingenuity when it comes to attracting different types of visitors, and not only those who mourn the passing of steam.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: the restored GWR signalbox at Chinnor
Facilities at the station include a small bookshop and an 1895 Cambrian Railway coach which has been converted to a tearoom. There’s disabled access and toilets too.
Without doubt it’s a labour of love for the regulars who give up their spare time doing everything from cleaning the trains to maintaining the station gardens. There are no paid staff on the railway, so there’s always an appeal for newcomers to join the team working behind the scenes to make the venture a success.
And all credit to them, say I. Everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome – and we’ll certainly be back.
BACK in the darkest days of winter, the aim was always to see the Beyonder website go “live” over the Easter weekend.
That’s the weekend, after all, when many attractions reopen after the winter, when families are hoping to get out and about and make the most of the holiday weekend and when the roadsides and footpaths are finally bursting into bloom in a big way.
Unfortunately the long rainy spell made it difficult to get too many sunny pictures during March. Many footpaths are still mudbaths, there was snow on the ground until late in the month and other work commitments made it difficult to sort out some of the practical problems of adding content and social media links to the website before formally inviting friends and interested strangers to ‘visit’.
MUDBATH: the Thames Path outside Bourne End disappears under water
Hopefully the worst of the wintry weather is behind us. The blossom is certainly out in the hedgerows and there’s a little more free time to get out and about to speak to some of the local people we want to interview.
There’s a great deal to organise, though – especially on the campaign front. Although many parish councils have been doing a sterling job with their spring cleaning, the litter problem on our roads is still a blight on the landscape and a depressing testimony to the selfishness of today’s throwaway society.
That’s something we want to do something practical about – but there are still a lot of people to talk to before we can properly share our plans for the best way of tackling the problem.
There’s also no point in encouraging people to find the website until there’s plenty to read – so we are also in the process of looking for features, reviews and photographs to help give the magazine a proper sense of identity and purpose.
Bear with us while we work on that – and do get in touch with your ideas, suggestions and contributions. We are still hoping to go “live” this spring, so watch this space!
WINTER’S TALE: an unseasonal icy blast casts a chill over Beale Park
There could hardly have been a worse time to visit Beale Park. It’s only a few days after unseasonal March snowstorms have been swept across the UK by the “Beast from the East” – there’s ice in the lake water, the wind is bitter and the few animals who are out and about look as if they would much prefer to be somewhere a whole lot warmer.
Despite that it’s still possible to see just what a lovely location this riverside spot would be on a summer’s day. The landscaped gardens between Pangbourne and Lower Basildon in Berkshire have the Thames as a backdrop – and on virtually any other day of the year that in itself would be a major attraction.
Back in 1956 when Gilbert Beale set about transforming 350 acres of private Thames-side farmland into a charitable trust, it was little more than a track and a couple of ponds.
PEACOCKS ON PARADE: the park’s eccentric founder had a soft spot for the birds
Today the distinctive cry of a peacock is a reminder of just how much the eccentric Gilbert loved the birds – by the time of his death in 1967 at the age of 99 there were over 300 on site. Legend has it that his favourite, a peahen called Laura, followed him everywhere and even rode around the estate in his Rolls-Royce.
Flash forward half a century and nowadays the park boasts three main attractions: the collections of small exotic animals, farm animals and birds; the landscaped gardens and woodlands; and the children’s play areas.
For our chilly March visit it would be easy to be hypercritical. Many of the more appealing creatures are hunkering down out of the chill wind, some of the park is still being renovated ahead of the main season and sections of it feel more like a building site than landscaped gardens.
Icy ripples spread out over the closed paddling pool and everything looks distinctly grey – we are too early for even the bravest flora to be flowering and there’s virtually no colour in the gardens yet.
But that’s more to do with the timing of our visit than any lack of effort on the part of the management and it’s clear that over the years a lot of effort has gone into sympathetically landscaping the surroundings and expanding the range of attractions.
It’s still a family affair – thanks to the involvement of Gilbert’s great-nephew, Richard Howard, and his family, along with a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been associated with the park from its earliest beginnings.
ANIMAL MAGIC: the story for Beale Park’s transformation
The main appeal is definitely for parents with younger children – even aside from the animals, the big play area is an obvious attraction and the sand pits and paddling pool must be great fun in summer.
It’s worth checking out the park’s website ahead of your visit if you want to find out a little more about their conservation and education work. It’s possible that display boards were in the process of being refreshed for the main season, but we found relatively little information explaining what was actually happening on the conservation front. In fact the website doesn’t tell you too much detail either, although there’s a rundown on all the animals you can meet on a visit, with a note about their natural habitat and behaviour.
The “park guide” leaflet contains virtually no information about the attractions, but you do get a handy map at the gate – as well as a free trip on the mile-long narrow-gauge railway which dawdles through the grounds, pulling four open carriages and up to 64 passengers.
PARK LIFE: Beale Park’s attractions are clearly signposted
Since the trust was formed the bird collection has advanced from a few peacocks to a collection of rare and endangered birds, but again there’s too little information about conservation programmes and what you are actually able to see.
We were captivated by the African grey-crowned cranes, for example, but couldn’t find any information about them on the cage or the website. Luckily a couple of staff were able to help identify them – and the 8,000 followers of the park’s Facebook page may get more regular updates and videos than are available on the website.
CROWNING GLORY: one of the African grey-crowned cranes
The zoological collection has expanded too in recent years to encompass prairie dogs, coatis and unbearably cute slender-tailed meerkats. The larger paddocks are home to large flightless rheas, alpacas and wallabies, as well as fallow deer, pigs and sheep.
There are bugs, spiders and owls too, although again on the day of our visit everyone seemed to be lying low – and outside it was just too cold to fully enjoy the deer park or spend too long shivering at the lakeside.
CUTE CUSTOMER: a slender-tailed meerkat
On this, the greyest of wintry days, the younger customers braving the weather still seemed to be having plenty of fun – and a surprisingly wholesome sausage and mash lunch for two in the cafe was the perfect antidote to combat the temperatures outside.
But Beale Park will be a whole lot more appealing when spring has properly sprung, and we pledged to return once the sun starts shining again and everyone comes out to play.
Full details of attractions, admission prices and other details can be found on the park’s website.
THERE was a deer park at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.
Today, Langley Park is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.
Cows Explore Misty Field, by Jerry Lake
Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.
In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George, the fourth Duke, succeeded in 1758 and commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim. In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.
It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.
Love Swans, by Kevin Day
Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.
Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.
The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.
Pincer Tree, by Jerry Lake
The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.
The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.
Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.
Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures, some of which are featured here.
The Park Pictures photostream on Flickr includes around 50 superb pictures taken by local photographers Kevin Day and Jerry Lake in 2009 and the Friends website includes details of how to contact these photographers.
The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.