Mark’s ultimate birdsong guide

MARK Avery knows a thing or two about birds.

He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.

WALK FOR WILDLIFE: Mark joins Chris Packham in Hyde Park in 2018

He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.

Back in February his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.

He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.

DAWN CHORUS: a blue tit pictured by Yorkshire-based naturalist Tim Melling

In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.

“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”

February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.

TWO-NOTE PHRASE: the great tit has an easily recognised refrain PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.

Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.

CLARION CALL: the chiffchaff signals that spring is unfolding PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.

A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.

To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.

GARDEN FRIEND: the robin can be vicious to other robins PICTURE: Tim Melling

Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.

His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.

CANDID CAMERA: Tim Melling sees himself first and foremost as a naturalist

Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April:

Introduction
Great Tits
Song Thrush
Songs and calls
Dunnock
Blackbird
More on Great Tits
Chiffchaff
Even more on Great Tits
Yet more on Great Tits
Robin
Great Tits again
Greenfinch
Chaffinch
Wren
Skylark
Blackcap
Sonagrams
Willow Warbler
Cuckoo

SMALL WONDER: the wren is a small bird with a very loud voice PICTURE: Tim Melling

The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.

It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.

Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”

SUBLIME SONG: the wood warbler evokes fond memories for Mark PICTURE: Tim Melling

Starling
Black Redstart
Garden Warbler
Sedge and Reed Warblers
Blue Tit
Yellowhammer
Why a dawn chorus?
Common and Lesser Whitethroats
Goldfinch
Nightingale
Oystercatcher
Golden Plover
Curlew
Lapwing
Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Dunlin
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting
Turtle Dove
Mistle Thrush
Bittern
Woodlark
Corncrake
Nightjar
Common Crane
Meadow Pipit
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Some favourites

UPLANDS FAVOURITE: the meadow pipit PICTURE: Tim Melling

By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?

“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”

MELODIOUS SONG: the blackcap PICTURE: Tim Melling

His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”

Now we just need to wait to February for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.

Keeping the fun of the fair alive

FANCY a day out on the dodgems? Or a chance to learn about signwriting?

The March coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, with all their spring and summer bookings cancelled.

But one Berkshire funfair family wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months, especially having spent years restoring a fleet of 1960s dodgems to pristine working condition.

Joby Carter soon found his traditional signwriting skills were in demand online – and when lockdown restrictions started to ease, the family launched a unique dodgems experience at their base near Maidenhead.

Restoring the worn-out 1960s cars has been a long labour of love for Joby and his team: a restoration process that has taken 25 years of on-and-off work.

“We were determined to finish them in time to reveal them at the first event of our 2020 tour but the COVID-19 pandemic meant that this was not possible,” he says.

The dodgems track was built in the 1960s by Supercar of Warwick and had spent its entire working life in an arcade until it was bought by Carters in 1989. But the original set of Supercar dodgems bought by Joby’s late father John in the 1990s were too worn out to operate.

“It’s believed to be the last traditional round-ended dodgem track that Supercar built,” says Joby. “There is no other dodgem set like this in the world and that’s why we are so excited to open our dodgem experience to the public.”

Unlike at the fair, visitors to the funfair’s base at White Waltham get exclusive access these original 1960s Supercar Italias for half an hour as a group, allowing them to enjoy the dodgems experience in their chosen bubble, with friends watching if they wish.

All 18 cars have now been restored, although the family managed to finish a few in time for them to enjoy a bit of Hollywood fame with the launch of the award-winning movie Rocketman about the life of Elton John.

“We managed to finish a few cars last winter in time and they looked fabulous on the big screen. We’ve worked on them even more since then to get the whole set perfect,” says Joby.

He was just 18 months old back in 1977 when his parents, show promoters John and Anna Carter, bought their first ride – a set of 1890s Jubilee Steam Gallopers that they could take to steam rallies and fairs.

As their passion for vintage fairgrounds grew, they added more rides to their collection and soon Carters Steam Fair became known as specialists in vintage fairground rides, with the artistic talents of Anna Carter put to good use restoring rides to their former glory.

In 1999 they found a new yard to house the fair during the winter months, but were shocked when John Carter was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and died the following year. His enthusiasm and vision had been a guiding force for the fair, but his children had inherited his love for the fair and what it stood for.

After a very difficult few months, it was decided to get the fair back out on the road and continue what John had started.

Joby and his wife Georgina took over the managing of the fair from Anna a few years ago, and are heavily involved in the travelling, maintenance and restoration of the rides.

The fair has since gone from strength to strength, with Joby, Anna, Seth and Rosie Carter and their families all personally involved, and with many friends and supporters working hard to keep it on the road.

The original Gallopers were lovingly restored, most of the horses having been carved from wood by Andersons of Bristol around 1910, and all subtly different to one another. They are all named after friends and family on the fair.

The 46-key Gavioli organ (c1900) was bought from Roger Daltrey in 1979 and provides that unmistakeable fairground atmosphere.

But with rides and sidestalls dating from the late 1890s to the 1960s, the collection includes everything from the steam-driven yachts of the 1920s to a 1910 roundabout featuring an eclectic collection of creatures from running cockerels, to hungry-looking pigs and curious Lord Kitchener centaurs.

From a coconut shy to duck- and fish-hooking games and test-your-strength “strikers”, the funfair has all the traditional elements of a country fair that would have delighted our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors and it provides fascinating insights into British social history.

“When a ride comes into our care, we research as much as we can and try to trace its ancestry,” says Joby. “If we’re lucky, we can even find photos of it from its heyday.”

Skilled painters then work on restoring the ride back to its former glory using traditional sign-writing techniques and making sure that everything is accurate to the era.

Traditionally everything in the fair is moved around the country using vintage heavy lorries and magnificent showman’s living wagons.

Like the rides, each of the fleet of lorries, some dating from the 40s, 50s and 60s, has been lovingly restored to its former glory and repainted in the distinctive red Carters livery.

Every bit as impressive are the beautifully decorated living wagons with cut-glass windows, lace curtains and premium wood and veneer inside, each with their own story to tell and many previously owned by well-known showmen or circus owners.

The emphasis on traditional signwriting techniques is important to Joby, and it’s another skill which came to the fore during the Covid-19 lockdown, when he was able to offer online courses to people around the world.

In an interview for BBC South, he says: “Funny thing is, I can remember my dad saying to me it would good to have a skill to fall back on. Little did he know that I could stay at home in my garage, teach people around the world and that would actually be saving the fair.”

The collection of rides and side stalls makes Carters the largest travelling vintage funfair in the world, but fans will have to wait until 2021 to see it in its full glory.

Fair spokesperson Mercedes Lavin said: “The Dodgem Experience was intended to be for July and August but due to its popularity we are planning to open it on the weekends after August.

“The fairground is hoping to return in 2021. We usually begin touring around Easter time and travel the country until Bonfire Night. The tour dates will be published around February time.”

Carters dodgems experience at White Waltham runs until August 31 and then at weekends in September.

Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here.

All the images in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Carters Steam Fair and more information about the fair’s history and the background to individual rides, sideshows and vehicles can be found on their website.

Bookshops begin a fresh chapter

BOOKSHOP business has been booming as desperate readers have flocked back to browse the shelves for the first time in three months.

But times are still tough for small independent booksellers across the Chilterns as they fight to bounce back from weeks of lockdown.

Almost four million books were sold in the first six days after bookshops reopened in England on June 15 – a jump of over 30% on the same week last year.

But in one survey more than a third of regular customers said they still felt unsure about returning to bricks-and-mortar premises now lockdown has eased.

Booksellers were forced to shut up shop on March 23 in response to the coronavirus pandemic and were unable to reopen for 12 weeks.

During that period, they were only able to offer online or click-and-collect services – and while the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.

The good news for retailers was that 3.8m print books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.

Independent bookshops have been thriving in recent years, with numbers growing for three years on the trot to almost 900 in 2019, including local newcomers like Books On The Hill in St Albans.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”

Antonia Mason, who runs Books On The Hill with her mum, Clare Barrow, said: “We as a team have been overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support over the last few months. It’s been incredible, especially considering we had only been open a few months prior to lockdown.”

Although many bookshops were able to respond quickly to the shutdown, some had a weak online presence and were unable to compete with the service provided by Amazon – with the crisis undermining the advantage of small local businesses being able to provide personal contact, relaxed browsing and advice.

Worries about maintaining rental payments, coping with supply chain problems and having to furlough staff added to the pressures but Meryl Halls added: “I am unutterably proud of booksellers at the moment—they are weathering a historic battering and we will do all we can to keep the sector intact.”

Asked what the first week back in business would look like, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”

Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.

He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”

Prior to lockdown, bookshops had been enjoying a growth in trade spurred on by a thriving “shop local” movement and environmental considerations, helping them to weather the Amazon “firestorm” – the astonishing success of the trillion-dollar company able to promise overnight delivery and customer reading recommendations at the touch of a mouse. 

Since June 15 bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come “racing back”, but have been forced to cope with reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges and in some cases the need to continue delivering to customers who are shielding or reluctant to venture out.

Booksellers have also had to introduced a range of safety measures for customers, including hand sanitiser stations, plastic screens and one-way systems. Footfall predictably remains lower than before the pandemic, with few able to boast outside seating areas like The Book House in Thame.

Nonetheless Meryl Halls believes consumers are understanding that high streets are more than just shops and transactions, with savvy shoppers also anxious to reduce waste and shop more ethically. 

“Food miles, gratuitous expenditure, waste, re-use and recycling are all aspects of the decision of how and where to shop,” she said. “It has to be better for many reasons to go to your local high street and pick up goods that have been transported en masse to shops, than to have individual parcels thundering up and down the country in huge trucks from online companies.”

Retailers continue to face stiff online competition and unequal business rates, but shop owners have spoken of receiving wonderful comments from customers. One children’s bookshop owner said: “The conversations about books are joyous and experiencing the excitement from children in our space will never get old.”

Booksellers say books bought by customers in store have been more varied than those purchased online, where the chains’ lockdown charts were topped by Sally Rooney’s Normal People, thanks in part to a timely 12-part BBC dramatisation.

Thrillers, rom-coms and crime novels proved popular, with less appetite for dystopian fiction. Some wanted to be absorbed, others favoured escapist reading, but booksellers expressed delight at the appetite for personal recommendations, boosting sales of books which might not pop up on algorithms, including those from local authors.

Although Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow to publishers, it has also witnessed a frenzy of innovation, with the industry sharing Zoom invites to “visual author events”, podcasts and virtual festivals and some pundits predicting the end of lockdown unleashing a new wave of “interesting and exciting” writing – some perhaps based on people establishing a new relationship with the natural world during their three months of lockdown, not to mention their revised expectations of what kind of “new normal” will emerge on transport and in the workplace.

Stagecoach trip back in time

DID stagecoach passengers ever view their journeys as being as humdrum and mundane as modern travellers think their bus, train and plane trips are?

Recent talk of highwaymen and horse-drawn transport raised a few additional questions about life on local roads 250 years ago.

Apart from the risk of highway robbery, what was it actually like to take the stagecoach through Beaconsfield, Amersham or Tring back in the day?

Most towns along main roads boasted one or more coaching inns, often in a prominent position and acting as a focal point for the town’s main activities. And both Amersham and Tring museums have plenty of additional detail about the scale and nature of the local businesses.

TRANSPORT HUB: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, mentioned by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

Just as in more modern times a dozen London railway termini have served different parts of the country – so that we still hear distinctive West Country accents at Paddington, those from Scotland, the north-east and Yorkshire at King’s Cross and those from Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow at Euston – back in the day more than 100 London stagecoach inns offered services fanning out across the country.

As Greg Roberts explains in his fascinating Wicked William blog, the coaching inns with the biggest stables, such as the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, offered the widest selection of destinations, although most concentrated on specific routes – like the Blue Boar Cellar at Aldgate, which relied heavily on Essex trade.

NEW ARRIVALS: a coach and horses at St John’s Gate by John Charles Maggs, 1880
PICTURE: Museum of the Order of St John

He writes: “Inns sited near important industry or London markets such as Smithfield will place greater emphasis on waggons or carts with much less traffic by stagecoach.

“Some inns are owned by the same businessmen. The Swan with Two Necks, the Spread Eagle and the White Horse all belong to William Chaplin.

“Chaplin is ahead of his time in regard to corporate branding because all coaches have livery relating to the specific inn from where they operate. Thus it is common to see coaches with either a two-necked swan, a white horse or an eagle emblazoned across their rear.”

Outside London, coaching inns usually had an imposing entrance doorway leading to the interior of the inn, with an inner courtyard wide enough to allow a coach to turn round. 

HOME FROM HOME: the White Hart was one of the smaller coaching inns in Beaconsfield

Surrounding this, or in the driveway leading to it, were rows of stabling with accommodation above for ostlers and drivers of stage wagons and carriers’ carts, and sometimes an inn owned its own meadows to provide an ample supply of fodder.

The Tudor period had seen the development of the road coach, but the earliest ones had no brakes, careful handling of the horses being the only way to keep the coach at a steady pace and control progress over inclines. On very steep hills passengers had to step down and walk.

Faced with other obstacles such as deep ruts, potholes and flooding, together with foul weather and stray animals, early passengers had to cope with more than their fair share of drama and discomfort.

ROUGH RIDE: an array of open wagons at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Stagecoaches took their name from the term ‘stage’, the distance between stops along a route. The aim was to convey fare-paying passengers and the first route, from Edinburgh to Leith, started in 1610. But with coaches making slow progress on primitive roads, coaching inns soon began to spring up to provide teams of fresh horses and sustenance for coach passengers, including overnight stops on long journeys.

In the earliest days, it was too precarious for passengers to sit on top, but later designs included two seats behind the driver and two over the luggage box at the rear; outside travellers needed to be aware that it was prudent to stay awake to prevent toppling over the side.

Towns like Beaconsfield, Tring and Amersham were ideally placed to pick up a share of the flourishing business, and in the reign of Charles I, Buckinghamshire had more carrier services a week from London than any other county.

Some of this traffic would have gone to High Wycombe, some to Stony Stratford via Hertfordshire and some passed along the Misbourne Valley en route for Aylesbury, with the ‘Carriers’ Cosmographie’ of 1637 listing four London inns where the Aylesbury carriers lodged.

STAGING POST: the Crown Hotel in Amersham Old Town

There were a dozen pubs in Amersham and a trio of important coaching inns – the Griffin, the Swan and the Crown. By 1737, two stagecoaches were passing through the town daily.

Numerous accounts of life on the road survive. But Dickensian-style tales of poor food, unpleasant fellow passengers and dishonest drivers or porters have to be balanced against more rose-tinted accounts of long lavish lunches in cosy inns en route.

If the earliest stagecoaches were expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable and beset with dangers, by the late 18th century, many main roads had come under the control of turnpike trusts and conditions had begun to improve.

GOLDEN AGE: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of the Bath Mail Coach
PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

The period from the first royal mail coaches in the 1780s to the 1840s and the coming of the railways is now known as the ‘Golden Age of Coaching’, familiar to us today through sentimental Christmas card scenes of snow-covered stagecoaches arriving to a hearty welcome at a coaching inn.

Many of these portraits were the work of John Charles Maggs (1819-1896), a Bath-born artist who specialised in such scenes and who captured the atmosphere of the ‘golden age’ that was to last until the 1840s when the railways killed not just an industry, but an entire way of life.

Over in Amersham, while the railway boom spelt disaster for many towns which had grown up with the coaching trade, there was an alternative source of employment thanks to the success of the brewery taken over by William Weller in 1771 which employed half the male population of the town by the end of Victoria’s reign.

When Weller’s sold up in 1929 they owned 142 licensed premises in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex including local houses like The Kings Arm, Eagle, Chequers, Saracen’s Head and Wheatsheaf.

BREWERY EMPIRE: the King’s Arms was one of more than 140 once owned by Weller’s

Although the first turnpikes dated from the 17th century, main routes from London were tumpiked early in the 18th century, increasingly funded by the levying of tolls on certain kinds of traffic – particularly wheeled vehicles, horses, and cattle going to market.

During this period road surfaces improved and turnpike roads were often straightened, widened, and given gentler curves and gradients.  Stagecoach construction also evolved with the fitting of better brakes and suspension, allowing speeds to increase from around six to eight miles per hour, inclusive of stops. The advances meant a journey from London to Manchester which would have taken days in 1750 could be completed in 26 hours by 1821.

Small toll houses provided accommodation for the gate keepers, with side windows angled to give views of approaching traffic from both directions and a board attached in a prominent position displaying the table of tolls.

TABLE OF TOLLS: the Wycombe toll house was rescued and re-erected at COAM

One of the few toll houses to survive of those once scattered across the county is one of five that once dotted the Buckinghamshire stretch of the A40, the road from London to Oxford, Birmingham and Worcester.

The section from Beaconsfield to Stokenchurch was turnpiked as early as 1719 and there were gates at Denham, Red Hill, Holtspur, High Wycombe and West Wycombe.

The Denham gate opposite the Dog and Duck was demolished in 1931 and the Red Hill gate near the 18th milestone in 1929. The Holtspur gate was at the north end of the road from Hedsor, the West Wycombe one at the junction with the Princes Risborough road. The gate in High Wycombe was by the 29th milestone and was dismantled in 1978 and re-erected in 1983/84 at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, complete with toll board.

Turnpike tolls ranged from a penny per person or horse to sixpence for carts, waggons and coaches. Mail coaches, the army and local labourers on foot were allowed to use such roads free of charge.

But stagecoach fares were expensive and only the well off could afford this form of transport: in January 1836 the coach operator Joseph Hearn & Co advertised ‘The Despatch’, an “elegant and light four inside coach” operating on the London to Aylesbury route.  It left the King’s Head Aylesbury at 7am and travelled down the turnpike road through Watford to arrive at the King’s Arms in Holborn shortly after midday.  Fares were 12 shillings inside and 7 outside. 

Coach and horses were smartly turned out in the livery colours of their owners, or in the case of the Royal Mail coaches, in red, although this was changed to blue in 1833, supposedly as a compliment to King William IV.

COLOUR CODED: a Bristol-London mail coach from 1800 PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

When the Post Office started using stagecoaches in 1784, they became the most important vehicles on the road.  By the 1830s and 1840s, the nightly departure of the mail coaches from the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand was one of the sights of London, but by 1846 it was over, replaced by the new, faster railway services.

On the passenger services there was increasingly fierce competition between rival coach proprietors, the exotic names conjuring up images of distant towns and cities: The Expedition to Banbury, King William and Britannia to Kidderminster or Leamington, arriving early in the morning in Tring with a distinctive bugle call.

Or what about the Dispatch – driven for 40 years by the same man, James Wyatt – or the Old Union from Buckingham, the Good Intent or the Young Pilot? The Express to Maidenhead or the Wonder to St Albans?

It was only appropriate that after Beaconsfield Services opened at Junction 2 on the M40 in 2009, Wetherspoons should in 2014 name their Hope & Champion pub there after two such services: the Hope, which carried passengers to Warwick, and the Champion, which ran to Hereford.

The stage and mail coaches were a driving force of the industrial revolution. They stimulated road improvements, brought news to remote areas and accurate timekeeping to villages, and gave employment to thousands.

But the end was in sight once the railways started to flourish. Stagecoaches from London to Birmingham were withdrawn in 1839, followed by Bristol in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848.

The last mail coach in the Midlands ran out of Manchester in 1858 though services continued in those areas the railways were slow to reach, like Cornwall, Mid Wales, the Peak District and far North of Scotland.

The routes and towns all remain and many of the old coaching inns survive, but the popularity of rail travel soon meant that the age of the stagecoach was well and truly over, memories of those difficult journeys consigned to historical journals and the pages of Dickens and Austen.

END OF AN ERA: Night Coach by John Charles Maggs

For more about coach driving, the working life of a coach horse and Royal Mail services, see the local museum websites in Amersham and Tring. For more information about stagecoach travel, see the Wicked William blog by Greg Roberts.

When robbers ruled the lawless roads

THE evening traffic is building up on the A40 at Gerrards Cross and further along the road Beaconsfield is getting busy again.

Lockdown may not quite be a thing of the past, but there’s plenty of hubbub ahead of the weekend when restrictions are finally being further relaxed.

Funny thing is, this is a road that’s been busy for centuries. It’s just hard to visualise what it must have been when the route was bustling with stagecoaches, carts and wagons.

These days we jump in our cars so casually for a trip to the shops – but getting about wasn’t so easy or comfortable in the days of horse-drawn transport.

Looking out from the trees on Gerrards Cross common on a sunny day, it’s hard to conceive that highwaymen once hid here, preying on stagecoaches heading to and from Beaconsfield’s busy Old Town.

STAND AND DELIVER!: highwaymen once hid out on Gerrards Cross common preying on stagecoaches passing to and from Beaconsfield Old Town

It’s only when we watch a period drama that we perhaps think what life must have been like from the 17th century onwards, when stagecoach services were established and coaching inns along main routes like this were bustling with life.

Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, Tring, Amersham and Aylesbury were all thriving hubs of the stagecoach age, with passengers from London heading out through Uxbridge to Oxford, Banbury and beyond – as far as Worcester, Shrewsbury and Wales.

TRAVELLERS’ REST: the White Hart in Beaconsfield was one of the town’s smaller coaching inns

In the heyday of coach services as many as 20 might come by here in a day – providing rich pickings for highwaymen along the route and good business for the coaching inns of Beaconsfield like the White Hart and Saracen’s Head.

Standing in the woods at Gerrards Cross common, it’s hard to image what a scary journey this would have been in centuries past, as Clare Bull recalls in her article for the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society.

“Despite the advent of the ‘flying coach’ most travellers chose to break their journey by staying in one of the many coaching inns in Beaconsfield.

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Saracen’s Head, where Oxford coaches stopped to change horses

“Travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort. Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to get here through some of the most notorious danger-spots in this country.

“On the London side, Gerrards Cross Common was one of the highwaymen’s favourite haunts.

“From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur – much steeper then than now and badly surfaced – presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses.

“The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite haunts.”

DANGEROUS DETOUR: travellers risked their lives on the quiet lanes around Holtspur

It’s odd how we tend to harbour romantic illusions about these criminals – many of them vicious thugs whose exploits became the stuff of legend for later generations in the same way that Robin Hood became a folk hero.

Louise Allen, author of the 2014 book Stagecoach Travel, might have a vested interest to see the best in such figures as Dick Turpin and the dashing Frenchman Claude Duval, given that two of her ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century.

But she is unequivocal about her own antecdedents: “So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it. ”

GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD?: English artist William Powell Frith (1819-1909) depicts a group of highwaymen led by Claude Duval holding up the carriage of Lady Aurora Sydney on a heathland road where a young woman is made to dance with her captor PICTURE: Manchester Art Gallery

Although it seems likely that even the famous Dick Turpin was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers, Victorian readers loved the tales of daring raids and escapes, and were delighted by the legend of how Claude Duval was said to have gallantly spared the possessions of any pretty lady prepared to dance with him. He was immortalised in a painting by Frith, but it didn’t stop him being hanged at Tyburn in January 1670, aged 27.

Clare Bull has colourful tales to tell of Duval’s fair day exploits in Beaconsfield and he certainly had his female admirers. His epitaph begins: “Here lies Du Vall: Reder, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if Female to thy heart. Much havoc has he made of both: for all Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall.

With hundreds of coaches heading out of London for destinations all over the UK and more than 100 coaching inns in the capital itself, it’s not surprising that the lawless roads outside the city were tempting places for robbers.

RICH PICKINGS: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, one of dozens of busy coaching inns in the capital. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

On heaths and commons and in woods and forests from Hounslow Heath to Windsor Forest, there was good reason for wealthy visitors and courtiers to worry; lurking in the thick undergrowth of Maidenhead Thicket or Windsor Forest might be the worst of their nightmares – including the most famous highwayman of all, Dick Turpin.

Maidenhead was a busy coaching stop and the Bath Road to Reading was one of the busiest roads in the country, with many escape routes through the Thicket, where highwaymen flourished until the early 1800s.

Many hostelries were associated with the most prominent rogues of the period, including the Dew Drop Inn in Burchett’s Green, which was said to have had an underground room where Turpin would hide his horse Black Bess in an emergency.

UNDERGROUND ROOM?: the Dew Drop Inn at Burchetts Green

He was also rumoured to have used the Olde Swan Inn at Woughton-on-the-Green as a base, and legend links him with the George in Wallingford and Hind’s Head in Bracknell too. His ghost is said to haunt the roadside hamlet of Stubbings (while Duval is said to haunt the Holt Hotel at Steeple Ashton in Oxfordshire).

But even Turpin was finally caught: he was imprisoned in York and was later hanged and buried there in 1739.

VULNERABLE VISITORS: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of The Old White Hart, one of at least eight coaching inns in Bishopsgate which provided rooms and board for wealthy guests arriving in the capital or returning to the country. PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

With no national police force to clamp down on robberies, by 1713 it was said that ‘almost every coach running between London and Oxford was robbed’. The same year saw the hanging of the notorious Jack Shrimpton from Penn while another notorious gang of three brothers from Burford also suffered gruesome deaths – and may even have been the original “Tom, Dick and Harry” of the popular saying.

Tom and Harry Dunsdon were hanged at Gloucester in 1784 and their bodies brought back to Shipton-under-Wychwood and gibbeted from an oak tree. Dick Dunsdon is thought to have bled to death after his brothers had to cut off one of his arms to free his hand which became trapped in a bungled burglary.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery locally was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury.

It was the end of an era; turnpike roads and toll houses had already curtailed the activities of the highwaymen and soon railways would make travel around Britain faster, more comfortable and a great deal safer.

Never again would worried passengers have troubled nightmares about being made to “stand and deliver” – or forced to dance at the roadside with a dashing French highwayman!

Birds of a feather flock together

WHAT makes Chris Packham such an extraordinary broadcaster is the completely natural style of his delivery, whatever the circumstances.

It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable, cheerful, entertaining and informative irrespective of any challenges live broadcasting might throw at him.

On Springwatch he found a perfect verbal sparring partner in Michaela Strachan, his old buddy from The Really Wild Show  days in the 1990s, and the pair’s banter has underpinned the popularity of the series for almost a decade.

But in recent weeks there’s been a new face on the block – and although Chris’s step-daughter Megan McCubbin is an established presenter, photographer and conservationist in her own right, the pair’s decision to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis has exposed her to a much wider audience.

With 30,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Twitter and as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show, the club has proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues, although the total professionalism of the show itself means there have been few compromises in terms of the quality of the programming, despite Chris describing it to The Guardian as “Dad’s army makes TV”.

Like Chris, Megan has that rare skill of appearing totally at ease in front of a camera, neither nervous nor overtly self-aware and able to comfortably join in with the casual banter that is a hallmark of the best of this style of wildlife broadcasting.

The pair are also immensely knowledgable and they’ve done their homework…so 40-plus days into lockdown there’s nothing amateurish or hesitant about this surprisingly engaging escape from real-world worries.

The programme may be produced with mobile phones and Skype with earpods, mixed in a bedroom in Norwich, but it doesn’t look that way, and all the modern tech toys like nest box and trail cameras help to make modern wildlife reporting a whole lot more interesting than it ever used to be.

But this show is not about hi-tech wizardry or big budgets, simply an engaging, easy-going celebration of the natural world that extends beyond the ornithological roots of the title.

And the gang’s all here, of course: Michaela, Iolo Williams and the other Springwatch favourites, along with a stream of wildlife celebrities only too happy to share their short films, live cams and cheesy banter with the New Forest hosts.

The coronavirus lockdown may have shaped the straightforward format of the show, but it’s worked well, the enthusiasm of the daily exchanges providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing hundreds and thousands of us to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes (a separate #punkrockmidnight Twitter feed has featured Chris playing through his collection of classic punk singles).

Amid all the enthusiastic debates about barn owls and sea eagles, there has been room for bats, butterflies and hedgehogs too, for a chance to catch up with some of the leading young naturalists who have featured on Springwatch, like Bella Lack, Holly Gillibrand and Dara McAnulty, who will be reading his young naturalist’s diary on Radio 4 from May 25.

We have been invited to nose around other people’s gardens, with guests ranging from the wonderfully eccentic Martin Hughes-Games singing the praises of bats, chickens, earwigs and hornets, to Hugh Warwick waxing lyrical about hedgehogs and the author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham taking his delightful eight-year-old daughter Esme on a butterfly hunt.

But the guest list is already too long to credit them all, and growing by the week as long as the lockdown continues.

Packham himself is back on the BBC at the moment showing his true Attenborough credentials with the screening of Primates, which finishes on May 17.

But it’s closer to home that he and Megan have been proving to be the real wildlife stars of the coronavirus crisis – and helping to make people’s lives a lot happier into the bargain.

Half a million viewers for a weekday morning programme about birds? There must be a TV executive or two somewhere in the country kicking themselves for not thinking of this sooner…

Planting hope for the future

IT WAS disappearing birdsong which was to change the life of Chilterns artist Sue Graham and her family.

Many of her paintings are inspired by the local landscape and a series of her oil paintings which she started more than 10 years ago reflected her love of the dawn chorus.

But the painter could hardly have foreseen quite how that project would ultimately lead her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Sue in her home studio in Buckinghamshire

“When I started doing the Dawn Chorus paintings around 2008, there was a piercing resonance to the sounds I heard in my garden at four in the morning,” Sue recalls. “But even in the short time we have lived here there are fewer birds singing. That’s happening all over the place.”

What was obvious to Sue in her garden at Prestwood near Great Missenden was soon hitting the national headlines.

A survey in 2013 showed that in some cases the decline was dramatic and worrying. The sounds of the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are enshrined in British folklore, yet populations of both summer migrants and many resident species have dropped in recent years.

CAUGHT ON CANVAS: Sue Graham’s painting And Birds Were Singing, To Calm Us Down

The scale of the problem had soon become apparent after the family moved back from America in 2002. “We always enjoyed the outdoors, but if you go out walking there’s always something missing,” she says. “None of the ground-nesting birds are there any more.”

The missing songbirds featured in a vivid series of paintings, but aside from inspiring her art, environmental worries were beginning to play a bigger part in the lives of the artist and her research scientist husband Gabriel Waksman – a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology whose work had taken them to New York and Missouri.

FEATHERED FRIENDS: Sue’s painting Dawn Chorus

By 2016, with the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it seemed as if things were coming to a head.

Husband Gabriel was only too well aware that in almost 30 years as an academic and scientist, he had clocked up thousands of air miles travelling to international conferences, seminars and lectures at foreign institutions.

Many scientists and academics are increasingly worried about the environmental cost of such international travel – but Gabriel wanted to do something practical about it.

If travelling to conferences must remain part of a scientist’s life, what might be the best way to offset the carbon that will inevitably be released? The answer, it seemed to him, was to find a way that scientists, academics and others worried about the environment could offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in groves.

FRESH GROWTH: planting trees can help offset carbon emissions

In 2016, he teamed up with a couple of friends and the charity All Things Small and Green was born.

Writing in Nature magazine in February 2020, he explained: “Governmental action will be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, but individual responsibility has a major part to play.”

His charity allows air travellers to calculate their carbon emissions and work out how many native trees they need to plant to offset those, using a simple formula. The trees can then be planted in groves set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands.

With more than 40 planting sites, the charity has overseen the planting of almost two million trees, growing thousands in its tree nursery and creating acres of new forest.

“I was especially drawn to native tree planting,” says Gabriel. “Carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I liked the idea of coupling carbon fixing with reconnecting to a wonder of nature such as a native woodland.”

CALL OF THE WILD: Gabriel officially launched his tree planting charity in 2019

Companies and universities can ask for groves to be set up for them – and he has also been in touch with partners in Spain and France to explore ways of allowing localised groves to be planted in other European locations.

The latest project is a grove which will allow French scientists, academics, and researchers to offset their carbon emissions by planting native trees closer to home.

“It is important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we work with are native,” he explains. “Native afforestation and reforestation increase biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems. By contrast, monoculture conifer plantations — wrongly favoured by some governments — destroy biodiversity and damage natural ecosystems.”

The tree planting mission didn’t stop with the charity though. Sue found herself equally inspired by the need to do something more for the planet – particularly as the mother to two sons in their 20s.

“It was time to think about the legacy of what we leave and the only thing that would make us feel slightly better about putting two extra people on the planet,” she says.

The outcome was their dramatic decision to purchase a croft on the remote Scottish island of Gigha, with the aim of launching their own family rewilding project.

The 13-acre croft was once home to an old oat mill, although that is not habitable at the moment.

REWILDING PROJECT: the croft on Gigha

With their two sons working in Scotland, it might not have seemed so crazy to look at buying land in the area – but by any standards the croft is remote, Sue admits, although the location is picturesque too, looking out of the nearby island of Jura.

The island – with a population of under 200 – lies west of Glasgow off the coast of the Kintyre peninsula, accessed by ferry from Tayinloan, a small village about midway between Tarbert and Campbeltown.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the view towards Jura

“You think, ‘How much time have I got left?’ and of course it was always a project we should have started 20 years ago,” Sue admits.

But that didn’t stop them going ahead with the plan – and in November 2019 the first phase of their mission involved planting some 1300 trees on a three-acre site on the island.

“Planting trees is the best thing we can do for the future,” Sue insists.  “I know it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon capture, but I needed to sleep better at night.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: the first wave of planting

It’s an enthusiasm her husband shares – although the project is separate from his charity activities: “Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy,” he says.

“This is also one of the most selfless activities I have taken part in. A native woodland takes decades to come to maturity, so the results of my tree planting will hopefully be enjoyed by people much younger than me.”

The tiny saplings were selected with the help of the Woodland Trust to ensure they were best suited to the island’s soil and climate – a mixture of hazel, willow, birch, alder, oak and rowan.

LONELY LOCATION: the Gigha shoreline

“It gives us the opportunity in a very beautiful location to do something for the planet that we need to do for our psychological well-being,” says Sue, a self-taught artist with a degree in modern languages from Oxford University who loves walking, gardening, wildlife and cooking, as well as painting.

“I can barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting. I have had various other ‘real’ jobs but somehow my heart was never in them,” she says. “Somebody once asked me to reflect on why it is that I paint: the question has sat with me for years but I think the answer is this: to communicate feelings and ideas and to be accepted for who I am.”

Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks which have forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year while she undergoes cancer treatment.

HIGH HOPES: Sue in her Buckinghamshire garden

But she remains unfailingly optimistic and determined about the island project and the prospects for their thousands of saplings, planted with such enthusiasm by the five-strong family team with two staff members and volunteers from the Woodland Trust.

With fertile soil and good climate – and friends on the islands keeping an eye on things – there’s every reason to hope the project will boost local biodiversity over the next couple of years.

Says Sue: “I was more afraid of looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking that we couldn’t do it.”

It’s also a welcome escape from health concerns and the challenges posed by chemotherapy.

“It’s going to be really interesting – and it’s nice to be able to think about something positive and lovely,” she says.

For more information about the charity, see All Things Small And Green, which has links to their Instagram and Facebook pages.

Haunting tale from the riverbank

WITH descriptions on the cover like “haunting” and “heartbreaking” you are under no illusion that Kenneth Grahame’s life story is going to make for easy reading.

Accomplished biographer Matthew Dennison deftly and poignantly portrays an awkward, bookish bachelor dogged by personal tragedy who retreated into his own imagination from an early age.

His lasting legacy, of course, was the book he published in 1908 which became one of the greatest children’s classics of all time, The Wind In The Willows.

And as Dennison explains, the Thames Valley appears to have given Grahame the inspiration for his writing – as well as providing a place of sanctuary and escape from the harsher realities of life.

Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Grahame was only five when his mother died, and his father, who had a drinking problem and was overcome by grief and self-pity, gave the care of his four children to their grandmother, who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire.

There they lived in a higgledy-piggledy but dilapidated home in extensive grounds by the River Thames where they would be introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Inglis, the local curate.

Although they would later have to move to Cranbourne before the young Kenneth attended school in Oxford, it was at The Mount in Cookham Dean that the author became a “doodler and a dreamer”, exploring the adjoining Quarry Wood and the Thames beyond during a golden two-year interlude that would provide him with his most vivid and intense memories.

An unexpected bonus of his schooldays at St Edward’s School in Oxford was that the pupils were free to wander the city’s cobbled streets alone, imbuing in him a fascination for the city that he hoped to further explore as a university undergraduate there.

Unfortunately his sensible Scottish uncle had different ideas about his future prospects, and his appointment as a bank clerk in London was to pave the way for a respectable banking career that would immerse him in City life but leave him free to day-dream about riverside adventures and leave him free at weekends to return to the Thames.

Still in his twenties, he began to publish light stories in London periodicals and in the 1890s started to write tales about a group of parentless children whose circumstances sounded remarkably similar to his own childhood days at Cookham Dean.

By the mid-1890s, Grahame had tasted success in both his banking and writing careers, but Dennison reveals a bookish bachelor more comfortable with his pipe, a solitary ramble or male colleagues than in female company.

Nonetheless Grahame was to marry Elspeth Thomson in 1899 when he was 40 after a pursuit by her characterised by Dennison as “single-minded and unwavering”. But the marital relationship was emotionally sterile and both appeared to find it disappointing and unfulfilling.

Their only son Alastair (“Mouse”) was born blind in one eye and was plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Tragically he would later take his own life on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University a few days before his 20th birthday in 1920. And yet it was Grahame’s bedtime stories for Alastair that formed the basis for The Wind In The Willows.

‘Mouse’ was about four when Grahame started to tell him stories and on the author’s frequent boating holidays without his family he would write further tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger in letters to Alastair.

The four animal friends provided the basis for the manuscript for the book which would secure Grahame’s reputation, published in the year he took early retirement from the Bank of England, by which time he had moved back to the Thames, initially to Cookham and later to Blewbury.

Despite its success, he never attempted a sequel, although the book gave rise to many film and television adaptations and Toad remains one of the most celebrated and beloved characters in children’s literature.

Indeed the Julian Fellowes 2017 stage adaptation — filmed at the London Palladium, and starring Rufus Hound as Toad, Simon Lipkin as Ratty and Craig Mather as Mole — was offered free online when theatres closed as the coronavirus scare spread in the UK, with a small donation requested to help support theatre workers.

The pastoral tale of riverside camaraderie seemed to reflect the author’s fascinating with “messing about in boats” and is celebrated for its evocation of the Thames Valley. But as Dennison explores in a sensitive and nuanced account of his life, both the literary and real-life riverbank escapades may have provided a necessary escape from darker emotions.

It also warned about the fragility of the English countryside and express fear at threatened social changes that became a reality in the aftermath of World War I.

Grahame’s life was not without adventure. He met many of the literary greats of the period and was even shot at in 1903 when a gunman opened fire at the Bank of England.

But when he died in Pangbourne in 1932 it was for one thing that he was remembered – as his cousin and successful author Anthony Hope had engraved on his gravestone in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford: the fact that he left childhood and literature “the more blest for all time”.

Matthew Dennison has published a number of works of biography and writes for Country Life and the Telegraph. Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus Ltd at £8.99

Damon dreams of a brighter future

IF YOU see one film in 2020, make sure you track down a screening of 2040, an inspiring 2019 Australian drama-documentary directed by and starring film-maker dad Damon Gameau.

Alarming and disarming in equal measure, the film takes the form of a poignant letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter Velvet re-imagining how the effects of climate change could be reversed over the next two decades through the creative use of technologies that already exist.

From community-based solar power grids to progressive farming ideas and underwater seaweed beds, the environmentalist offers an upbeat explanation of ways in which workable “regenerative” community projects could help rescue us from the unthinkable alternative.

Set against a backdrop of predictably cutesy soundbites from children around the world talking about the sort of future they want, the film harnesses sophisticated visual effects and clever dramatisation to intersperse interviews with key experts in the climate change discourse in a way that successfully manages to avoid it becoming a montage of talking heads, even if some critics found the offbeat dad jokes and quirky CGI a little too much to handle.

Amid the children’s more outlandish visions of rocket boots and a round-the-clock National Hot Dog Day are some trenchant reminders of the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of the young, and their high hopes for a kinder, cleaner and greener planet are enough to reduce some of the audience to tears.

Yes, there’s scope to criticse the documentary for its “easygoing can-do approach in which there is no great emphasis on sacrifice and not even any obvious sense of emergency”, but although The Guardian’s reviewer only awarded three stars when the film was launched here in November, there was also a recognition of Gameau’s intrinsic likability and the underlying practicality of his approach.

Perhaps more significant is the success with which he moves the rhetoric away from righteous anger and confrontation. Basically he recognises there’s enough eco-anxiety around already and more pessimistic premonitions of doom simply leave us wringing our hands and hiding our heads under the covers.

Yes, the elephant in the room is the backdrop of melting ice sheets and increasing weather abnormalities, but rather than wallowing in fear and despair, Gameau focuses on how local communities in Bangladesh are already harnessing solar power to create micro-grids of electricity, how new farming models can sequester carbon and how new approaches to the cultivation of seaweed could help to promote marine biodiversity.

On his travels he also begins to realise how the education of a new generation of women and an accompanying reduction in population growth could be the single biggest key to success.

The visual letter cleverly juxtaposes visions of how Velvet’s life might have changed in two decades’ time if we make some inspired choices now with subtly understated reminders of the bleak and downright terrifying alternative.

This makes the film an ideal starting point for classroom and community discussions, because we’d all frankly prefer to live in Gameau’s world of green cities, driverless cars and better public transport than consider the prospect of how barren soils and oceans, coupled with rising sea levels and extreme weather, could create a hell on earth and force millions of migrants on the move.

Peopling his film with fellow optimists also allows us to recognise what we too can do to help a new generation of Velvets cope with the realities of modern life. Just as Gameau’s four-year-old must leave her safe bubble of childhood innocence, we also need to reject the blissful ignorance of climate inaction and embrace the opportunity to do our bit for the planet.

As he says, it is time to leave the bubble. And he wants to do that in a way which sounds the fire alarm but shows people where the exits are.

The film doesn’t resort to snide attacks or scapegoating, but there’s no shrinking from harsh realities either, of how our current paralysis may be stoked by a negative press which does not discuss solutions to climate change and a fossil fuel industry hell-bent on protecting its commercial interests at any price.

But while the film touches on the immense wealth and power wielded by vested interests to quell political action, it’s significant that some of the solutions are coming from the poorest people in the world whose lives and livelihoods are most immediately affected by intense weather events and rising sea levels.

It also means that our hopes for an optimistic future do not just rest of the innocent naivety of the young, but a groundswell of ordinary people: academics, campaigners, farmers and engineers who are already starting to create a new vision, pushing against the political tide.

Gameau urges us to join the regeneration revolution, and in the first six months after the film’s launch a surprising amount has been achieved.

Not all audiences may feel the documentary manages to occupy the “sweet spot between overexcited hopefulness and grounded realism”, but it does succeed in making a difficult subject eminently digestible for a universal audience.

UK screenings have been organised by environmental protest groups and other campaigners. Keep an eye out for a chance to see Gameau’s eccentric, engaging and essential contribution to the climate change debate at a local venue.

Raynor’s walk on the wild side

Raynor Winn and husband Moth lost their home just as Moth’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also appeared to rob them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, they began to walk and the true story of their journey along the South West Coast Path turned into a surprise bestseller

IF YOU owned a bookshop, it would be hard to know quite where to place Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut, The Salt Path.

It’s not a nature book, yet the significance of the natural world is inescapable throughout. It wasn’t planned as a spiritual journey or a pilgrimage, yet it certainly was a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t meant to be a sociological study. But it contains plenty of trenchant observations about homelessness in Britain today – and about human nature.

Nor was it ever planned as a book about long-distance walking. Back in August 2013 when Raynor and her husband Moth set off from Minehead in Somerset to walk the South West Coastal Path, they were a couple in their 50s without any clear plans for the future.

The spur for that decision was a combination of life-changing twists of fate – a toxic investment which led to them losing their home in a devastating court case, coupled with a shock diagnosis that Moth was suffering from a rare degenerative brain disease and probably did not have long to live.

“You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man she had met at sixth-form college more than three decades earlier. But with the bailiffs banging on the door it seemed that choices were limited – and tackling some of the 630-mile South West Coastal Path seemed as good a way as any of buying some time to figure out the next move.

With a friend storing their few remaining possessions in a barn, they set off pretty much broke, equipped with thin sleeping bags, a tent bought on ebay and with access only to the few pounds a week they were due in tax credits.

Their journey – split over two summers, with the winter spent in a friend’s shed – ended in 2014 in Polruan, Cornwall, when their lives changed again with an offer from a kind stranger of accommodation on the coast path they had been trekking along for so long.

Raynor’s story of that walk, originally an article for The Big Issue, turned into an inspiring, lyrical and emotional story of human endurance against the odds – and about what homelessness really feels like in 21st-century Britain.

Published in 2018 and shortlisted for the Costa book award, the couple’s epic trek also proved to be an eye-opening examination of a divided society where our preconceptions about the homeless are often misguided.

Forget the stereotypes about people with addictions and mental health problems, Raynor suggests – what about the rural poor, many of them in temporary, seasonal or zero-hours jobs in communities where housing costs are astronomical?

As she revealed in a Big Issue interview in 2019 this problem is largely hidden, as local authorities eager to support their tourism industries want to keep the streets clear of rough sleepers.

Wild-camping along the coastal path in the footsteps of guidebook author Paddy Dillon, the bedraggled pair feel pretty out of place in the picture-postcard villages they pass through along the way – and not always welcome visitors once people discover they are homeless.

But if that heart-breaking loss of identity and self-worth is hard to handle, along with the physical hardships, it’s not a dark and depressing journey.

Writing with warmth and humour, Raynor manages to remain surprisingly free of bitterness about the circumstances which have combined to push them out on their journey, and equally unsentimental about what they have lost. While being forced to desert the Welsh farmstead they had transformed into their family home and business is tough, it’s the loss of sense of self which is the fundamental issue about becoming homeless, she explains in a 2018 Guardian interview.

Plodding along the path – and doing it together as a couple – helps to offer a sense of purpose and a new perspective, that home is not about bricks and mortar but a state of mind, about family, and about being at one with nature.

Alone for weeks in all weathers, that immersion in nature is inescapable, and Raynor is good at immersing the reader in the experience too, so that we can share in the highs and lows, the uplifting encounters with people and animals as well as the more depressing ones.

Thankfully, despite the aching bones and blisters it seems that the experience helps Moth regain some of his physical strength too, and straddling that void between life and death makes each experience all the sweeter, whatever the elements throw at them.

Walking the path hasn’t changed Moth’s diagnosis, but it may have helped stave off his terminal illness a little longer – and his routine of walking and physiotherapy has continued since the couple finally found their new base in Cornwall.

It’s that reconnection with nature that is perhaps the book’s overwhelming message, and while some readers may not be convinced by the health benefits of surviving on fudge, noodles and pasties, the pair emerged from their roller-coaster journey leaner, fitter and better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Growing up on a farm, Raynor was aware of nature being a fundamental part of her daily life. But most of us have lost that connection and need to rediscover it again. As she told The Big Issue: “Nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.”

Whatever the future holds for the Winns, it’s clear we are going to hear a lot more from Raynor this spring when her second non-fiction book, Wild Silence, is published by Michael Joseph , about nursing an over-farmed piece of land back to health.

Expect Raynor to explore some familiar themes here – of lifelong love, nature and what it means to find a home. And expect an army of well-wishers to be toasting her success as a writer as she and her beloved Moth continue to explore a new chapter in their lives.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 and in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). The pictures reproduced in this article were taken by Raynor Winn.

Hidden history under our feet

Guest writer Dr Wendy Morrison, project manager of Beacons of the Past, explains how local people can help uncover the secrets of our ancient Chilterns landscape

THE Chiltern Hills have been a focal point for people for thousands of years.

Any walk or ride through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will take you past sites and monuments that stretch across huge spans of time and yet have survived the ravages of millennia and subsequent human activity.

dr wendy

In between Ice Ages, the region was sporadically occupied by people in search of game to eat and flint for making tools. These ancient artefacts are found all over the Chilterns, left by hunter-gatherers from 150,000 years ago up until the last of the Ice Ages (c. 11,000 years ago).

The warming landscape was filled with herds of deer and horse which were the main diet for the Mesolithic (9000-4500BC) people. The chalk streams and valleys were the perfect place for these nomadic groups.

The first substantial human alterations to the Chilterns begin in the Neolithic (4500-2200 BC) when farming technology begins to be practiced. Although the homes people lived in have long disappeared, we can see traces of what they were up to at places like Waulud’s Bank, a monumental enclosure in Marsh Farm, Luton.

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We also know some of the places they buried their dead, in long barrows at Halton, Gerrards Cross, and Whiteleaf Hill. Some of the trackways they used to get around the landscape are still in use today!

The introduction of metals in the Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) to the Chilterns opened up a lot of possibilities to the people living here.

We can see the field systems that outline their agricultural activities at Pitstone Hill as well as their cemeteries – collections of barrow mounds – at Dunstable Downs and at Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Chilterns’ earliest hillfort was built around 1100 BC and where an incredible bronze sword was found.

The enigmatic earthworks collectively known as Grim’s Ditch are seen at various points across the AONB but can best be visited along the Ridgeway National Trail between Nuffield and Mongewell. Although little is known about these features, this particular section of Grim’s Ditch has been dated to the Iron Age.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an Iron Age farmstead recreated at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The period we call the Iron Age ushered in the ability to increase production of grain on the Chiltern fields. Iron tools meant that more difficult soils could be tilled, surplus crops could be grown, and the resulting prosperity mean that some people could show off their wealth and power through the construction of enormous earthworks.

Some of our Chiltern hillforts were certainly these kinds of expressions of power. Some, however, may have had more humble functions, such as places of refuge during conflict or enclosures for livestock.

In the Chilterns we have at least 20 hillforts, varied and unique, and with stunning views. Visit Pulpit Hill, Cholesbury Camp, Church Hill, or Medmenham Camp to take in a sample of these ancient monuments.

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PULPIT HILL: the Iron Age enclosure                  PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

The Chilterns are steeped in prehistoric remains, and a new LiDAR survey of the entire area is revealing hundreds of new features.

Beacons of the Past – a National Lottery funded project to discover more about the Chilterns Iron Age hillforts – flew a bespoke LiDAR survey of the Chilterns earlier in the year, the first of its kind in this area and the largest high-resolution archaeological survey ever flown in the UK.

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RAMPARTS: traces of the past at Pulpit Hill       PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

Encompassing 1400 km2, the survey is revealing hundreds of new archaeological sites across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The project team are asking for the public’s contribution to view and interpret the results of the data gathered by the LiDAR visualisations; in many cases these will be people who may have spent decades exploring the Chilterns landscape or those who live in it, and who will bring a unique perspective to the project.

The team will offer comprehensive training and tutorials to teach LiDAR interpretative skills, allowing users to decipher the results of the data and enter the findings on an online portal at chilternsbeacons.org.

This will enable anyone in the world to discover new archaeological features in the Chilterns from their computer. Encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with a resource that is usually accessible to a handful of researchers will open up the landscape for greater understanding and appreciation, and when we appreciate and understand a place, we begin to take more active roles in caring for it.

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AERIAL VIEW: Pulpit Hill © Google Earth; LiDAR image © Chilterns Conservation Board

Funded by a £695,600 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a number of partners such as the National Trust, Chiltern Society and local authorities, Beacons of the Past is providing a real focus for community and public involvement through techniques such as remote sensing and survey, practical excavation, and research, as well as a programme of events and educational activities.

Results will be used to further engage communities with their heritage, through work in schools, with youth groups, public talks and workshops. The new discoveries will be made available to the relevant Heritage Environment Record officers in the four counties and will also help heritage managers, archaeologists and policy makers to consider how they look after the Chilterns landscape.

LiDAR, standing for “Light Distance and Ranging,” also known as Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS), is a survey technique that has been used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years. It has aided in the discovery of new sites and is particularly important for its ability to show archaeology beneath tree cover.

The Chilterns Conservation Board was set up following the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB. The Board, which also aims to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities, is supported by Defra and all local authorities in the area.

For further information follow @ChilternsAONB, @Hillfortian, and @edpev7 or search #Chilforts. Dr Morrison can be contacted at wmorrison@chilternsaonb.org.

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.

Berkshire’s first lady of fashion

IT’S hard to imagine quite how dramatic the state of disrepair at Basildon House was after the war.

Exploring the Grade I listed building today, or sauntering round its 400 acres of parkland, you are greeted with a lovingly restored Georgian country house maintained by the National Trust.

But that’s largely down to the vision and hard work of one extraordinary woman, Renée Lady Iliffe, who first saw the building in 1952 after it had suffered years of military occupation.

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“To say it was derelict is hardly good enough,” Lady Iliffe wrote later. “No window was left intact, and most were repaired with cardboard or plywood.”

Walls were covered with signatures and grafitti from various wartime occupants and there was no sign of modernisation other than an army washroom catering for six people at a time.

Nonetheless, despite the cold and damp, the empty rooms and broken windows, she had fallen in love with the place and would spend the next 25 years carefully restoring it to its former glory.

“There was still an atmosphere of former elegance, and a feeling of great solidity. Carr’s house was still there, damaged but basically unchanged,” she wrote.

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Lady Iliffe was born on the island of Mauritius and the family home was a remote and beautiful 5,000-acre plantation. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the family were increasingly strapped for cash and Renée, the eldest of four children, grew up to be sturdily independent.

But her life changed dramatically through the intervention of her aunt Edith, who insisted that the family decamp to England and paved the way for the family’s assimilation into the English aristocracy.

Cultivated and exotic, with film-star looks, Renée was introduced to Langton Iliffe, and the couple fell in love and married in December 1938 – an event captured for posterity by Pathe News.

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Renée Iliffe soon set about the task of transforming their new home, honing a talent for interior decoration she had first show during the war, and establishing herself as a skilled and generous hostess – so much so that the couple’s lifestyle at Basildon Park would feature in the July 1966 edition of Vogue.

That photoshoot, along with the famous weekend parties in the 1950s and 60s where Lord and Lady Iliffe entertained guests such as Princess Grace of Monaco and artist Graham Sutherland, inspired a special display of select pieces of designer couture from the Fashion and Textile museum which runs until November 18.

From Chanel and Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior, 18 dresses and gowns are on display, including items owned and worn by Lady Iliffe herself.

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She was a skilled and generous hostess whose genius was said to be her ability to create an atmosphere in which comfort was mixed with elegance, and to inject it with a sense of fun.

Sebastian Conway, the Trust’s house and collections manager – and whose pictures feature above and below – said: “The vivid life and colour that filled this house at weekends has for a long time been missing. It’s about time we celebrated Lord and Lady Iliffe’s socialite side, as they brought prestige and recognition to Basildon Park with their dazzling dinners and glamorous parties for their celebrity guests.

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She and Lord Iliffe lived happily at Basildon for many years and, after presenting it in 1978 to the National Trust along with a handsome endowment, remained there as tenants. He had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1960 and died in 1996, while Lady Iliffe died in 2007 at the age of 90.

The Palladian house itself was built by John Carr of York for Francis Sykes, who made a fortune in service with the East India Company, while the interiors were completed for the Liberal MP James Morrison, who bought Basildon in 1838.

But the house stood empty and neglected throughout the first half of the 20th century.

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Nowadays the interior boasts a richly decorated neo-classical hall, a spectacular staircase hall, an octagonal drawing room with heavy Italianate ceilings and a slightly overwhelming upstairs shell room created by Lady Iliffe.

It has to be said that the floral pinks and ornate fifties feel of some of the upstairs rooms are not to every taste, but for those unmoved by fashion and youngsters wanting to let off steam, the 400 acres of parkland provide plenty of space to escape from the house into the sunlight.

Although substantially damaged by wartime tank training, the long-term restoration of the grounds continues today and the parkland walks provide the opportunity to escape from the crowds, even on busy weekends.

For full details about Basildon Park and its history, along with prices and admission times, visit the National Trust’s main website.

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Surprise guests at the palace

YOU can never be too sure who you might run into at Hampton Court Palace.

It might be a sneaky fox sunbathing among the flowers – or possibly even a rogue monarch stopping for a chat in the Tudor garden.

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Henry turns out to be a lot more approachable in real life than the history books might have had us believe.

But maybe that’s because this Henry is one of the actors playing Tudor roles around the site, nowadays a major tourist attraction run by the Historic Royal Palaces charity, which also looks after the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, among others.

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It’s an atmospheric touch much appreciated by many of the thousands of visitors who travel here to find out more about Royal history, or just explore the impressive landscaped gardens.

A major appeal of the palace is the chance to discover more about the public dramas and private lives of Henry VIII, his wives and children, and the extraordinary world of the Tudor court.

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Nowhere is that more vividly on show that in the vast kitchens – one of the king’s earliest building works designed to turn the palace into a principal residence, no easy task given the 1,000-strong size of his household retinue.

Despite owning more than 60 sixty houses and palaces, none of them was really equipped for entertaining on the scale Henry VIII envisaged, so this 1529 transformation was perfect.

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Perhaps it was equally predictable that Henry should be enthusiastic about adding a huge feasting room to the palace. His Great Hall was the last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy and took five years to complete, even with the masons working through the night by candlelight.

But Hampton Court isn’t all about Henry, and there really is an extraordinary amount to take in (so much so that you will want to return again, so the family membership fee for unlimited access to all six of the royal palaces makes a lot more sense than the day tickets).

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When William III and Mary II (1689-1702) took the throne in 1689, within months of their accession they embarked on a massive rebuilding project, commissioning Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace surrounded by formidable landscaped gardens.

Today, the palace houses hundreds of works of art and furnishings from the Royal Collection, mainly dating from the two principal periods of the palace’s construction, the early Tudor and late Stuart to early Georgian period, and ranging from Mantegna’s impressive Triumphs of Caesar in the Lower Orangery to numerous pieces of blue and white porcelain collected by Queen Mary II.

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But that sheer variety of attractions is perhaps the greatest delight of Hampton Court. Even though the Royals left here in 1737, ever since Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public in 1838 it has been a magnet for millions of visitors.

Whether it’s the formal grandeur of the great Tudor kitchens and hall, the stories of ghosts, the famous maze or the fabulous art collection, there’s no shortage of different delights and distractions, from the magnificent chapel to the biggest vine in the world (the ‘Great Vine’, planted in 1768 by Capability Brown and still producing a huge annual crop of grapes).

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Free audio tours allow visitors to make the most of the experience and thousands of Trip Advisor reviews are testimony to the enduring appeal of the palace.

The Magic Garden is an interactive play garden inspired by Hampton Court’s long history, while the gardeners have worked wonders in recent years to reconstruct the kitchen garden which once grew all the local fruit and vegetables for the Royal dining table.

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Note the word local, because of course the king had no qualms about importing the most exotic delicacies from around the world to grace the tables in the Great Hall – and some of the extraordinary menus on display there do much to explain Henry’s imposing girth.

Time was when three sunken gardens were originally ponds used to house freshwater fish such as carp and bream for the Royal table, although when Mary II arrived at the palace, these sunken, sheltered, south-facing gardens were used to house her collection of exotic plants.

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There’s a whole lot more which could be said about the palace of course, but why not set aside some time to pay Henry a proper visit?

See the main website for full details about prices, attractions and special events at Hampton Court Palace as well as those at other HRP destinations like the Tower of London and Kew.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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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.

Dame Judi’s love affair with trees

VETERAN actress Judi Dench is full of surprises.

Last Christmas, one of the more unexpected revelations about the woman who played MI6 chief M in seven James Bond films spread over 20 years was the discovery of her lifelong love affair with trees, chronicled in a special BBC documentary screened shortly after her 83rd birthday.

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If you missed the programme’s original screening, there’s another chance this year to catch up with her one-hour tribute to all things aboreal, in the shape of Atlantic Productions’ documentary, Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees.

Much of the filming takes place in her own “backyard” in Surrey, but then this is no ordinary garden, but a six-acre memorial forest dedicated to loved ones in her life who have died.

“I started planting trees here with my actor husband Michael Williams,” she explains. “Every time a relative or friend died, we would plant a tree.”

In other words, this is quite an emotional journey. As Fiona Sturges summed up in her Guardian review in 2017: “Judi looks at trees in the same way that other people look at vintage sports cars or newborn babies: benevolent, indulgent, endlessly astonished.”

But for nature lovers this is a marriage made in heaven, with one of our most beloved national treasures expounding on a subject which has her wide-eyed in admiration.

Shakespeare (another of her great loves) features prominently as we stroll with Dame Judi through the beautiful woodland which surrounds her home and where she has planted trees to commemorate family members and actor friends who have passed away.

We uncover a civil war-era cannon ball found wedged into a 1,500-year-old yew tree, learn how beech trees use tannin to deter roe deer and find out how trees can even summon ladybirds to fight off invading aphids.

It’s an engaging journey and a delight to spend a little time “backstage” with a living legend, picking up a host of intriguing titbits about the secret life of trees along the way.

Nights round the campfire

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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

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At home with C S Lewis

BRILLIANT scholar, poet, philosopher, internationally renowned children’s author – CS Lewis was many things to many people.

And although it’s as the author of his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy fiction that he is best known, for millions of believers it was his inspirational writing and broadcasts about Christianity that had the most lasting impact.

Whatever the motivation for finding out more about the prolific Irish author, a great starting point is the house where Lewis lived from 1930 until his death in 1963, The Kilns in Headington, outside Oxford.

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This is where he wrote and worked, where he sat and smoked and debated philosophy and religion with his brother ‘Warnie’ and great friend and fellow fantasy novelist JRR Tolkien, creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tours of the home are conducted by appointment only, but those joining a small group to explore Lewis’s life and legacy are not entering a museum but a study centre which is also temporarily home to a number of young scholars.

The American foundation which runs The Kilns wanted to honour the author’s memory by encouraging its continued use as a quiet place of study, fellowship and creative scholarly work, much as it was during his own period of residency there.

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The Kilns was built in 1922 on the site of a former brickworks and the lake in its eight-acre garden was a flooded claypit.

CS Lewis bought The Kilns jointly with his brother and Mrs Janie Moore in 1930 and the extensive wild grounds would provide the inspiration for the Narnia chronicles, which started off as a tale told to children evacuated from London in 1939.

Although the house had been totally transformed by the time the foundation bought the building in the 1980s, much has been done to achieve an authentic recreation of how it looked during the years when Lewis lived there.

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Few authors of fantasy literature are as beloved as Lewis – or Jack, as he was always known to family and friends from childhood. Born in Belfast in 1898, he created an unforgettable, magical world to which readers return again and again, both as children and adults.

He wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. And of course many of those books were produced here at The Kilns, including the philosophical writings widely acclaimed by Christian apologists from many denominations.

A brilliant academic, he was educated at Oxford University and returned there after service in World War I to become a fellow and tutor of English literature at Magdalen College.

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He had been wounded in France during the Battle of Arras and his former friend and roommate Paddy Moore was killed in battle. As part of a pledge the pair had made, Lewis looked after Paddy Moore’s mother and her daughter, living with them in Oxford from the early 1920s.

A full timeline of his life and works also appears on the HarperCollins official website, but it was here in Headington that Lewis and fellow novelist and Oxford academic JRR Tolkien became friends.

They were both active in the informal literary circle known as The Inklings, who for 16 years from 1933 held regular discussions about their work in a corner of the local Eagle and Child pub. The pair also argued about philosphy and religion in the “common room” at The Kilns, where the carpet was ingrained with pipe ash and the curtains fashioned from wartime blackout blankets.

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Christened Clive Staples Lewis, Jack and his older brother Warren, or ‘Warnie’, spent long hours in their childhood creating and chronicling the adventures of the inhabitants of their combined imaginary kingdom of Boxen.

Tribute is paid to that early creativity in an upstairs attic room here at The Kilns, next door to the bedroom where young wartime evacuees would hear stories paving the way for the seven Chronicles of Narnia, which were written and published between 1948 and 1956.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience: in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy he likened the process to being hunted down by God, or even being defeated by him in a game of chess.

But his influences were, as always, books and a few close friends, and the final stage in his conversion took place here. By the age of 32 he had become a ordinary layman of the Church of England and began writing his Christian apologetic books, with Warnie recruited to painstakingly type out his handwritten manuscripts.

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Lewis also gave a series of talks about Christianity on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944 which brought him wide acclaim, the text of which would later be published in a book called Mere Christianity.

His literary output in these years was considerable and as his fame grew, many people wrote to him – including the American writer who would become his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in 1956.

Their love story formed the basis of the celebrated 1993 film Shadowlands, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

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Joy was a New York teacher of English literature and a recent convert to Christianity. Outspoken and witty, she had been corresponding with Lewis for two years before moving to England with her two sons, where they became frequent visitors to The Kilns.

She was divorced in 1954, but two years later her work permit expired and she faced having to move back to America. Lewis decided to marry her and claimed the civil marriage ceremony, quietly performed in a registry office, was a purely legal measure to allow her to stay in the country.

Whatever their feelings for each other might have been at this stage, shortly afterwards Joy was diagnosed with advanced cancer and Lewis realised he loved her and decided to make their marriage public.

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The ceremony was performed around her hospital bed and when she was able to leave hospital, she and the boys moved into The Kilns.

Miraculously, her health improved and they enjoyed more than three years together before her cancer returned and claimed her life in July 1960.

Her death hit Lewis hard and tested his Christian faith, as he revealed unflinchingly in a record of his thoughts and feelings throughout the grieving process, published as A Grief Observed.

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He himself died on the 22nd November 1963, a week before his 65th birthday. He never wanted his death to be widely acknowledged and he got his way: American president John F Kennedy was assassinated on the same day.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, he was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but his grave lies much closer to home in the peaceful surroundings of nearby Holy Trinity church in Headington Quarry, where he and Warnie worshipped over the years.

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Inside the church are many reminders of his life and legacy – from the ‘Narnia window’ installed  in 1991 in memory of children George and Kathleen Howe, who died young, to the small plaque on the pew where the brothers chose to sit.

Another peaceful oasis nearby is a small nature reserve around the corner from The Kilns which is now maintained by BBOWT, the wildlife trust for Oxfordshire.

Whether or not this location played any serious role in inspiring such fantasy worlds as Narnia and Middle Earth perhaps is not perhaps too important. But The Kilns itself provides a restful setting to reflect on the life and legacy of an extraordinary writer whose work was to prove such a lasting and pervasive inspiration to future generations.

Tours are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and cost £12.50 per adult and £10 per student, senior (60+), or child. See The Kilns website for details.

History in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Secret wonders in the woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh case for the waste detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FRONT LINE TROOPS: waste enforcement officer David Rounding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REPEAT OFFENDER: John Keenan dumped waste across Buckinghamshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven Alfie rules the roost

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MAKING MISCHIEF: Alfie the raven is determined to play

ALFIE the raven is in mischievous mood during our visit to Corvid Dawn in Berkshire.

This is not at all unusual, it transpires – and to be fair we were given plenty of warning to watch out for one of the more colourful characters looked after by Aimee Wallis at her wild bird rescue sanctuary.

The captive-bred raven flies free around their rural retreat and takes a very close interest in our movements. But then this is a bird who flies and trots along when the ‘family’ goes for a walk and enjoys playing games like ‘fetch’ and hide and seek (as long as he gets to make up the rules).

Alfie’s clearly in his element amid the motley assortment of other animals to be found in Aimee’s sanctuary, and as we embark on a guided tour there are soon plenty of curious onlookers in tow – a trio of dogs, a couple of rescue lambs from Wales and the neighbours’ children, for a start.

Cutest of the new arrivals is Missy the baby duckling, a tiny white mallard found by a couple on a canal, either abandoned by her mother or dropped by a predator.

The RSPB warns people only to interfere with fledglings as a last resort, and says: “Seeing ducklings and other young birds on their own is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to be worried. Just because you cannot see the adult doesn’t mean they are not there.”

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BALL OF FLUFF: Aimee and partner Dario with Missy the duckling

But the couple who found Missy could find no trace of mum and looked after her for a couple of days before bringing her to Aimee.

“They did so well, did all the right things, she’s a lucky girl. They’re off back to Australia at some point so couldn’t really take her on,” Aimee explains.

Missy will be in good company here. The rescue lambs are taking a close interest in her welfare as she settles into her paddling pool and there’s a lot of curiosity among the corvids too – the crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens who are the main focus of attention at the centre.

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MAKING A SPLASH: Missy settles into her paddling pool

Yes, there are hens and turkeys here too, but it’s the corvids that are Aimee’s first love and which prompted her to create the sanctuary in the first place. Before all this she had a career in the beauty industry, though that life seems very distant to her now.

It’s a few years since Aimee’s first encounter with corvids, after she and her mother took an injured blackbird to a bird sanctuary and she became intrigued by the intelligence of the crows and ravens who were kept there.

In fact she ended up working at the centre as a volunteer and the love affair was cemented when she first encountered a blind five-week-old crow called Wonder. But as she began to learn more about the birds she also began to realise that she and the owner had very different ideas about how the rescue centre should be run.

She says: “My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren’t going to be. He didn’t agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”

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FUN AND GAMES: playing with Alfie

It’s clear that there are plenty of unhappy memories associated with that period of her life, but Aimee doesn’t shirk from difficult questions and has publicly spoken out in the press about her experiences at the sanctuary, which was raided by police in 2015, after she had left.

“The former volunteers were all devastated by the outcome,” she says. “When I first went there I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn’t a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.”

Aimee started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself and taking ill birds to a local vet, learning a lot about the birds’ welfare in the process. She was allowed to take two birds with her when she left, but dozens of birds were seized in the police raid and a number had to be put down.

The corvid family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaw, jays and magpies – all known for their intelligence – and it was clear to her that she wanted to set up her own rescue centre if at all possible.

After moving back home with her mum for a while she worked in a local pub and was able to keep her birds on land there for a year until the pub got planning permission to expand. By then, word had got around about her rescue work, prompting one farmer she also worked for to offer her the chance of establishing a proper base in the country.

That move in November 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to set up Corvid Dawn as a more spacious sanctuary able to offer a proper rescue and release service.

“We were in desperate need of a new base and the farm is run by a lovely older couple,” says 36-year-old Aimee.

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WOOLLY FLOCK: the lambs were too small to thrive on the farm where they were born

It’s a perfect location for her centre and it’s been a busy few months working on new accommodation for the growing family. It’s hard to keep track of exact numbers, though, with new arrivals most weekends. That all adds to a pretty demanding work schedule – not to mention proving a costly exercise, with so many mouths to feed.

The aim, wherever possible, is to rescue and release birds back into the wild, although some of the more badly injured will be longer-term residents, along with cruelty cases who may have been mistreated or neglected.

Eventually, Aimee hopes the centre will also be able to perform an important educational role, introducing school children to the birds through talks and displays at locations like the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.

Her mission is to demonstrate just how intelligent and perceptive birds can be and, by sharing her experiences of rescuing and rearing corvids, promote a better understanding of  British wild birds among pupils.

“They are fantastic judges of character. It’s bizarre – they show jealousy and they have favourite objects,” she chuckles.

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SAFE REFUGE: spacious cages provide a home for a variety of rescued birds

Providing sanctuary to her family of animals and birds has involved some rapid cage-building, although one day she would love to have a free-flying flock of rooks.

For now, large cages will have to suffice. But partner Dario, 33, has been a willing worker, even embarking on a carpentry course to hone his woodworking skills.

An Italian with former experience in the military, he came to the UK to improve his English and had a job locally working with horses when they first met.

There are signs of his hard labour everywhere, from the fencing and cage construction to the newly turned over patch which will soon become a vegetable garden.

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MENAGERIE MANOR: Dario with the chickens and turkeys

It’s clear that he loves animals too, despite the hard work involved in almost every aspect of their care.

Alfie is looking down from a lofty perch inspecting us as we wander around his territory, a reminder that establishing such a close relationship with him has been no easy task.

Bred in captivity for the pet trade, he was angry and suspicious and it has taken many, many hours of cajoling – and plenty of slashes from his razor-sharp beak – to win his trust and establish the sort of easy rapport that we are able to witness.

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RULING THE ROOST: Alfie keeps a beady eye on what’s going on

But despite the tough times – the tales of animal cruelty and the trauma of dealing with ill and injured animals – Aimee finds people’s compassion and kindess a huge compensation.

The weekend after our visit sees an influx of new arrivals: badly injured baby blackbirds mauled by a cat, a jackdaw with an eye infection, an almost paralysed crow hit by a car.

“The saddest was three newborn baby blackbirds that came in,” she posted on the centre’s Facebook page, where some of her 1400 followers are quick to offer their support. “They all died one by one, despite antibiotics and heat.”

Yet almost in the same breath she is posting: “Can I just say what wonderful people I’ve met through these birds this weekend, really kind driving them to meet me or even bringing them here, really touching to see people show such compassion, thank you so much xx”

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FEATHERED FRIEND: Aimee with one of the hens

Alfie is far from being the only star of the show, of course – there’s Ratchet the rook grabbing an impossibly large twig for nest building, Dara the one-legged crow recovering from an operation at the vet’s, and a dozen other assorted corvids clamouring for love and attention.

Not to mention the animals too, of course. “We are busy with farm animals – we are suckers for it, to be honest, Aimee admits. “We have two little pigs – that was an emergency thing – and two lambs, and some rescue turkeys. And about 23 birds, mainly corvids.

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FEEDING FRENZY: Dario with the pigs

Out here in rural Berkshire, there’s quite a substantial population of wild animals too, including hundreds of rooks, jackdaws and starlings in nearby fields and woods, along with foxes and badgers.

The wild rooks may be a little perplexed by Alfie’s decision not to stray too far from home – but so far the fencing has proved a sufficient deterrent to keep the hens in and the foxes out.

Not that the education process is restricted to children. Many farmers regard crows and pigeons as pests, and dozens of fieldsports videos are dedicated to the merits of different guns and cartridges for disposing of the birds, citing their damage to crops and potential spread of disease as key arguments for pest control.

Aimee doesn’t mind discussing such matters with anyone, as long as they can keep the debate civilised.

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HOME FROM HOME: the rescue centre takes shape

“I’m just a normal girl who loves animals,” Aimee insists. Maybe so, but it takes a pretty dedicated individual to lavish this kind of time and attention on such a large and demanding family just for the fun of it.

All the hard work doesn’t go unappreciated, though, judging by the reactions of her feathered friends. And it’s Alfie who has the last word, of course, cackling loudly as we start making moves to leave, and even standing out there on the road to see us off…

For more information about Corvid Dawn, see the centre’s Facebook page.

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Slow train back in time

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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TO THE TRAINS: the approach to Chinnor station