Berkamstead

Ray Davies of The Kinks envisaged his ideal lazy sunday afternoon back in the sixties: sitting back and sipping at his ice-cool beer. It takes a lot of beating. How about a walk by the canal, messing about in boats, and sitting by the lock gates sipping a glass of real ale or cool cider?

If the weather is fine a drive through the charming countryside of South Bucks and West Herts is a treat. Through charming old world villages; tiny chalk streams laced with water cress meandering across fields; stately hangers of beech crowning a hill; cream teas in the churchyard at Hambledon; a walk along the Grand Union Canal; and lunch with that leisurely cool beer at a canal-side pub to round everything off.

The ideal place to head for is Berkhamstead. Not only is it an historic town, but a very pleasant one. It was here in the castle, that William of Normandy finally accepted the English defeat and claimed the throne of England.

Nowadays the French are back with their market stalls one sunday a month in the High Street where you can buy cheeses, different breads, and crepes. There is also a stall selling freshly cooked paella and another selling Greek pastries.

It was here in 1852 that a local guy invented sheep dip; a mixture of arsenic and sulphur, which the sheep had to plunge into to get rid of all the livestock that took up residence in their fleeces.

Another local industry was plaiting of straw. At its height, this industry employed over 400 people. The corn industry itself goes way back. The lower mill on the Bulbourne River, which was still working in 1900, was listed in the Doomsday book of 1086.

But hiding away behind the houses is the Grand Union Canal, with several locks one after the other. At each lock is a suitable resting place where you can while away the time drinking some excellent ales. In fact there are three pubs within a half mile walk. Two are conveniently just a hundred yards apart.

The Boat is situated right by a bridge which proudly announces The Port of Berkhamstead. It has an excellent menu, and you can sit outside under an awning and watch the barges chug up and down the canal while you have lunch. I had a selection of tapas, which were not exactly authentic, but still very well cooked and enjoyable. Humous, sun dried tomatoes, olives, garlic, roasted peppers, and pitta bread. My friend had the sunday roast. The vegetables were tasty and imaginatively cooked, with whole roasted carrots, mashed sweet potato, and parsnips, and the meat actually tasted of lamb, instead of the usual tasteless doormat of unidentifiable stuff. Of course there was a good selection of real ales to accompany the meal.

Further downstream is The Rising Sun, which specialises in real ales and ciders. This is a pub which is consistently listed in the top pubs of the area. There were six real ales available when I visited, and no less than 25 different ciders, including a cloudy Somerset scrumpy. Surely a place not to be missed by devotees of real cider.

There is a row of snuff boxes on the bar, so if snuff is your thing, take a pinch and a sniff. They also have a massive selection of board games, and sets of balls for petanque. However, most people just sit beside the lock nursing a splendid drink and watch the boats go by. A perfect lazy sunday afternoon really.

john

Bath

Bath

The world has changed drastically over the course of my lifetime, and one of the great changes has been the burgeoning of tourism. I remember flying on aircraft which were almost empty. I flew to Egypt, there were six passengers on the flight. The only airline which regularly packed them in was Middle East Airlines. It was standing room only on their flights. Now there are aircraft packed to the gills going everywhere every day.

We used to have midnight parties at Stonehenge. In fact we used to enact some low-level witchcraft under the light of the full moon. No-one bothered us. No-one ever visited the place except on the summer solstice. Hey, it’s just a bunch of stones. Yesterday I drove past in the driving rain and there were hordes of people trudging round at a respectful distance under brollies looking exceedingly damp and dreary.

I used to live just outside Bath, and the city was a pleasant place, except at rush-hour, when the traffic was something else. But it was a quiet provincial town. Last week I spent a day there with a friend. I went quite deliberately as a tourist. The place was packed. You could hardly move.

The main square by the abbey was squeezing room only. There was a lady doing some extremely shrill singing to a tape. There were people playing guitars, blowing pipes, and doing all the usual street entertaining. There were groups of tourists eagerly listening to whatever information was being imparted to them.

I’d forgotten how boring the abbey is. It’s just a simple cross with very little else. Perhaps I should have tagged along behind a guide to hear about all the interesting things I was missing. But I’m not a very committed tourist.

We peered into the pump room. It was like the London Underground at rush hour. We didn’t do the baths. My friend wasn’t interested, and I’ve done it properly. Years ago I was a client of a firm of stockbrokers in the town and we had an evening do in the baths, and we all spent hours lazing around in the warm water. Very nice it was, but it’s not something you want to go and look at from a parapet.

There was an exhibition of Chinese paintings about some proscribed religious sect. I know nothing about them, so dont know the story, but according to the paintings they are tortured, killed, and some devotees apparently have their organs removed to be used for waiting patients. Does anybody know anything about this?

We walked the parks, and I showed my friend The Circle, and The Crescent, and she told me the view to one side reminded her of her home town of Minsk.

Then we stopped to listen to a splendid duo playing guitars. I’m a rather severe critic, but I stayed and listened for about half an hour and bought a CD. The Showhawk Duo. They are worth listening to. They put on a splendid show. Thanks guys!

But that’s where it counts; the living Bath, the Bath in the streets, not the ancient stones.

john

What’s Next?

I’ve just deleted this week’s blog on the housing market. It’s a waste of time.

The strongest currency in the world appears to be the Norwegian Krone. The weakest? God knows. The euro? The yen? The US dollar? Sterling?

It’s all become a joke. The US is bankrupt, half of Europe is bankrupt, and yet life goes on. The euro isn’t worth a lot, so they print some more. Greece cant pay its debts, so Greece just takes on more debt. It’s just surreal.

I still think that somewhere along the line common sense has to poke it’s head up through the idiocy. Perhaps not. I still think interest rates in Europe are going to have to go sky-high or several countries are going to have to go bust, which will bring down half the continent’s banking system. Perhaps not.

It is quite possible that sometime soon those holding properties with a high level of debt are going to be squeezed. It is also quite possible that those buying any property in the eurozone with foreign currency are going to see a big loss. Anyone buying in Greece now has to be a lunatic. Probably the same is true of Ireland and maybe Portugal.

Italy’s largest bank is bust. Things will probably get worse in Italy, and maybe in five or six years time, maybe in ten years, then will be a great time to buy. I can wait.

I have always said that now is not the time to make investments in Europe. If you have euros, by all means put them in property, but dont convert into euros and then buy. As Shakespeare once said: “Something nasty this way comes.”

Real estate: what to do with it? Live in it, that’s all.

john

HS2

As long time readers of this blog will know, I am particularly drawn to a part of Buckinghamshire that almost abuts my garden. I have premises on the outskirts of London, and just the other side of the pond that is at the bottom of my garden is the county of Bucks.

I particularly like the rolling hills that stretch away from the Chalfonts, up to Berkhamstead. The area is stuffed with charming villages, old houses, mellowed stone, pretty gardens, rolling fields, hangars of beech crowning the hills, and interesting old houses.

One day we go to Hughenden Manor, the home of Benjamin Disraeli, another day we visit the church at Great Missenden for a cream tea.

Another day we are having lunch by the side of the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamstead. Since the same canal passes right by the other side of my London garden I could chug up the canal to lunch, but I like the serendipity of turning left up some narrow road under an arch of trees, to see where it may lead.

Or watch the ducks on the pond and listen to the band play in the park.

A reader, however, reminded me of the high speed rail link that is to be carved through this pleasant countryside. I looked it up on the map, and I have to admit I was pole-axed. The Chalfonts escape because the route will be underground. The Missendens seem to be in direct line, although there is some consolation, in that the route is just the other side of the hill.

It’s the old dichotomy, the old versus the new. The world we try to escape from by living in the country forces itself upon us whether we like it or not. Where do we go to escape from the mad rush? Should a great swathe of the country suffer so a few folks can get to Manchester a bit quicker?

john

Cream Teas

I have always liked cream teas.

There used to be a splendid place for cream teas just outside Amersham, on the London Road. There was a farm which opened up the farmhouse and the front garden every sunday afternoon during the summer and served splendid teas. Unfortunately they ceased the operation quite a while ago.

Almost opposite that farm on the main road, the local pub now serves cream teas but I have never tried them.

We usually go further afield, into the wilds of Buckingshire. We usually end up at the church in Great Missenden. This is a lovely site, with a steeply sloping garden of remembrance facing south with a view over the Misbourne valley.

The abbey was founded back in 1133, but was ruined following the dissolution of the monasteries. What is left of it is now a school. I’m not sure what the connection is with Poland, but the graveyard contains a considerable number of Polish, and of course, the grave of Roald Dahl. It’s a bright happy garden of remembrance, but for those who like their graveyards overgrown and dim, there is the old graveyard on the north side, under a tangle of trees in the gloom.

As often as not there will be music in the nave. Maybe a guitarist, maybe a choir, maybe the local school children putting on the agony.

If you cant stand the local musical pageant there is plenty of room to take one’s tray onto the grass and sit in the sun. The cakes are all home made and excellent, and there is a wide choice of teas and tisanes.

Further along the valley at Little Missenden the local church offers a smaller version. The scones there are delicious, but there is not so great a choice of cakes.

Once again, the village dates way back, and some of the houses are very photogenic. It’s well worth a trek round. The quaint old villages of Buckinghamshire are a tonic on a sunny summer’s afternoon.