Village tales are stranger than fiction

WHAT connects the Wall Street Crash and Benjamin Franklin with Hollywood stars and an English rake with a reputation for arranging underground orgies?

The answer lies in a picturesque village of wobbly roofs and hidden passages where time seems to have be standing still for centuries.

FROZEN IN TIME: the picturesque village of West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

And as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers, the story behind the extraordinary village of West Wycombe really is stranger than fiction.

Today it looks like a film set, though it was once an important stop for stagecoach travellers heading to and from London, with more than a dozen public houses vying for the custom of weary passengers.

Yet this is a place of scandal and innuendo, thanks to the antics of an 18th-century politician whose Hellfire Club was notorious for orgies and black magic.

RUMOUR AND INTRIGUE: history comes alive in West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

In the latest instalment of her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns, Mary finds out more about Sir Francis Dashwood and the story behind his parties, his wonderful park and his imposing mausoleum, which still dominates the landscape after 250 years.

It’s just one of a continuing series of stories about the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Bus stop which brightens journeys

NOT many bus stops can boast their own Facebook page, or receive fan mail.

But then the Bradenham Road bus stop on the outskirts of West Wycombe is no ordinary bus stop.

With more than 550 followers on Facebook, the bus stop launched its social media presence a year ago when it was being relocated – so that the Essex contractors involved in the move could let their partners know what they were working on in darkest Buckinghamshire.

By October it was open again, complete with books, comfy cushions and even a dog bowl and bottled water for anyone out for a stroll.

The summer displays might have faded, but there were winter pansies in place and daffodil bulbs planted. By December it was time for festive lights and Christmas decorations to be attracting the attentions of passing commuters.

Over the months it’s been only too clear from online comments and handwritten letters just what a delight the bus stop has been for queueing motorists and those taking refuge from sun and rain.

In July 2019 a grateful cyclist wrote a letter of thanks after escaping from 34-degree sunshine to mend a puncture, while a passing walker described it as “an awesome place of rest, respite and peace”.

After the March lockdown, the bus stop geared up for Easter with a seasonal children’s drawing competition, with prizes of Easter eggs – not to mention a bottle of Prosecco and top-quality steaks for two provided by a local butcher.

Those artistic offerings were soon followed by posters thanking the NHS and key workers.

By May there were Union Jack flags on show to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the summer saw a return of the dramatic floral displays for which the bus stop is best known.

It was quite a while before local resident Emma Copley admitted to being the driving force behind the clean-up, once neighbours started to spot her in action.

She says: “I’m a great believer in reclaiming space that’s been neglected … nice areas attract good behaviour and respect.

“It’s all made worthwhile by the lovely comments and people stopping to look. I even had a lady give me money (donated to charity ) and a coachload of Japanese tourists stop to take photos.”

Of course the concept of brightening up bus stops and providing reading material for weary commuters is not a new one, with experiments around the world from Singapore to Greek and Turkey.

Back in 2011, a pair of Israeli artists launched a project in Haifa which spread to a number of cities providing bookshelves at a number of stops to see if travellers would swap books and replenish the shelves.

Installation artist and lecturer Daniel Shoshan envisoned that the initiative could serve as a new way of connecting people and possibly even improve literacy rates. Might authors one day give public performances at bus stops?

A couple of years later, bus commuters in Sydney and Melbourne were pleasantly surprised by a Christmas campaign that set up bookshelves at various bus stops to encourage Australians to read and buy local books. The creative move, which enabled commuters to take home free books, enticed so many people that they often missed their bus in the process.

West Wycombe’s glorious community bus stop may not be quite on the same scale, but there’s no doubt of its popularity with passing motorists – and the idea is clearly contagious, as it has now “twinned” with another local bus stop boasting bookshelves, looked after by the Piddington & Wheeler End Parish Council.

Whether it’s the sense of community spirit that captures the imagination or the beauty of the floral displays, it’s clear that fans of the Bradenham Road bus stop enjoy the simple things in life – and if a humble bus stop can put a smile on the face as well as providing shelter from the storm, that sounds like a winning idea that deserves to succeed on a wider scale.