Fenland

Fenland

My daughter lives in Fenland, which is boringly flat. I like to see a bit of undulation, but in Fenland there is none. It’s the home of agribusiness. The fields contain rich black earth, and food grows everywhere on a large scale. Large tracts of land are owned by the Coop, and there is a brisk turn-round in trucks on every road in the area. Wind turbines dot the landscape, and remind me of that concrete poem by Iain Hamilton Finlay:

The Horizon of Holland is all Ears

He is, of course, referring to the blades of the windmills sticking up. Obviously we must think of the ears of hares poking up. I’ve tried to find a photo of the construction which has the words reaching upwards like windmill sails, but cant find one. My own copy is in storage back in London. (By the way, it’s worth visiting his home in Scotland, where he constructed his concrete poems in the garden.)

Somewhere to the east is the lost treasure of King John, sucked down into the Wash. The wind races across the vast open spaces from Siberia, and in the winter the temperatures sink seriously low. My daughter tells me they hit -17C last winter. That is colder than I was one awful february night in Bulgaria when we were walking from the hotel to the local night-life all of 200 yards down the road. Half-way there we stopped, so cold we were seriously thinking of turning back.

Inside the rather nice little club we eventually reached we were served by tall thin girls with ridiculously short skirts and socks, with long bare white legs showing. I have never before noticed how cold legs can look. But I digress.

The only point of interest for me is the river Nene and it’s so-called valley. It must be the flattest valley on the planet. But it’s a charming little river. And somewhere running along the valley is the old railway line, once used by dear Freddie and Queen to record one of their singles while riding the wagons. Nice base line, guys.

Just to the south of this table-land is the town of Godmanchester and on the other side of the river, Huntingdon. The towns straddle one of the many rivers in the UK called Ouse. Quite why so many rivers are called Ouse is probably due to downright laziness. Apparently the name derives from the Celtic word for water or slow flowing river.

It’s one of the rivers that has been constantly altered and treated almost like a canal, with navigation being possible right the way to Bedford. The river was first modified way back in 1236. After the coming of the railways traffic on the river declined and by the end of the nineteenth century the navigation was virtually non-existent, and the river was subject to continual flooding.

Godmanchester is an old settlement dating back to pre-Roman times. Apparently there are 130 buildings there listed for special architectural interest, so if that is your baby, you really should drop in and wander around. The place is very picturesque.

The town is situated at an important crossing point, where the Via Devana and Ermine Street cross the Great Ouse. The Romans called it Durovigutum, but it changed to Godmundcestre in the 11th century, and the spelling moved about a bit until it settled on today’s version.

Just across the river is the more industrial town of Huntingdon. This is another of those places plagued by government boundary commissions. The town was once a county town, but Huntingdonshire no longer officially exists. Maybe things will change again. I note that Rutland is back again despite once being amalgamated with Leicestershire.

Famous (if that’s the right word) as being the birth-place of Oliver Cromwell, it was also for a time where Samuel Pepys was secretary to the Earl of Sandwich. However, I prefer the other side of the river.

The property market out here is very slow. It’s a rather depressed region of the UK. There is very little work about, and what there is happens to be poorly paid. With petrol prices so high it also means that if you live in an outlying village it costs a fortune getting to work. That all tends to depress house prices in the villages.

I had to make a trip across country, first to Somerset and then to Birmingham, which meant I escaped the fens along that great artery that runs from the East Coast ports to central England, the A14. The route goes through some interesting countryside but the road itself is clogged with trucks.

I shall be driving west next week.

john

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

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.

Salisbury

After visiting my friend Jill in Brockenhurst I had to go to Somerset. I usually travel by the A 36 which is a pleasant route squeezed between the Wylie valley and Salisbury Plain. However, this time I decided to go north-west to Salisbury up one of the side roads. (A3078 and A3080.) I immediately drove into more forest followed by the heathland with a scattering of ponies.

However, the real treasure on the trip was the village of Hale. The village lies a few miles south of Salisbury on the river Avon, which seems to be coming from everywhere. I assume there are meandering alternative courses to this river, and very charming it is.

Alongside the stream there used to be a large tannery, which has now been converted into a block of flats and a whole estate of houses.

There is a large preponderance of thatched cottages in the village, one of which was being re-thatched as I passed.

There are charming old world cottages, friendly hostelries, and a quaint school building with an interesting bell tower. It is a village to wander around leisurely, dream by the river, and maybe stop awhile for an unhurried meal.

And just to the north is the ancient city of Salisbury, with its cathedral looking for all the world as if it sits amongst the fields.

The A 36 along the Wylie valley is a pleasant road, but this is better.

Wickham

I am particularly fond of this part of England. It is rural England at its most beautiful and romantic. One of my favourite roads is the A272 from Winchester to Uckfield. It is inspiring in spring, it is picturesque in summer, and it is magnificent in autumn. But on this journey I merely cross the road at what is known as The West Meon Hut.

The name is thought to go back to the days when a building here was used as a shelter for drovers. There are indeed other places with similar names, such as the Leckford Hut. All part of a more ancient history when this part of the world was even more rural than it is today.

At last I come to Wickham. I stop here as there is a certain resonance for me in this place. At the age of ten my mother did something awful. She sent me off to boarding school, and the school she chose was supposedly the best in the country, Winchester College. It was a truly horrifying experience for a small child: to have one’s bed soaked with a bucket of water so I had to sleep huddled in my raincoat, to be dangled on a rope outside a window, to be scared to ever use the lavatories. It was a relief when my parents separated a year later and I entered the state school system.

We old boys are called Wykehamists, for the simple reason that the school was founded in the fourteenth century by the bishop of Winchester, who was born in Wykeham (as it was spelt back in the time of Chaucer), and was therefore known as William of Wykeham. I thought I ought to stop awhile a have a look around.

It’s a large village, and most of it looked a bit boring to me. The centre is more interesting, but what I found more interesting still was a website with a whole mass of pictures taken over a period of nearly ninety years covering almost the whole of the nineteenth century.
http://wickham.jalbum.net/Stan’s%20photos/

There is also a music festival in the village during the first weekend in august. Good grief, they even have Sandie Shaw performing. Streuth! That’s going back a bit. Does she still do her act without shoes?

Ladies War Effort

Just up the road is a vineyard. It is supposedly set on the site of a Roman vineyard, so the tradition of wine making goes way back.

About twenty-five years ago I was approached by Ivor Samuels, who was trying to drum up support for a vineyard venture in the Duras region of France. That’s next door to the Bordeaux region. The idea was for a group of us to put up money for the purchase of a run down vineyard, and in return we became members entitled to buy 30 cases of the wine produced at a reduced price. The project was called Wineshare.

The idea appealed to me, and I joined up. I didn’t make it to the inaugural celebrations as there was a bit of a scene at the bottom of the stairs. The event was held in the RAC club building in Pall Mall, a poncey establishment. I turned up as the usual John Clare, and was stopped at the bottom of the stairs by some officious geezer in a silly uniform. Apparently I had committed the cardinal sin of appearing through those hallowed portals without a tie. I laughed. You’re joking. I haven’t worn a tie since I left school.

I decided to use my belt as a tie, and a bit of a scene ensued, and I went home. Ivor, rather kindly came over a few days later to Ealing, where I was then living, and brought a couple of bottles of wine from a neighbouring vineyard so I could gauge the type of wine they would be producing, and I duly joined up. Wineshare was formed. Four years later we started drinking the wine. And rather good it was too.

25 years later Michel, the vintner at the vineyard, is retiring, which is alarming, as he has over the years consistently produced first rate wines which have garnered gold and silver medals galore. The red is a classic, the whites are superb, and the rosés have a quality which makes them wonderful quaffable summer wines when young, but they also manage to mature into something more akin to a lighter red wine as they age. I only hope Michel’s successor can keep up the standard.

Back to the plot. About three years ago the owners of the vineyard at Wickham bought out Wineshare and thus became part of the group, and I thought it was time I popped in to taste their wines.

I trudged through the vineyard, which, despite the rain, was well drained and not too wet. I noticed they have stoves in the vineyard to keep the air warm when there is a fierce frost.  I peeped into the small chais, and then repaired to the shop to taste the wines.

I have to admit I have not yet acquired a taste for English wines. I did buy a couple of bottles of one of the whites to try out with my evening meal, but that’s another story.

Selborne

Continuing my trip through Hampshire, I passed close to the famous village of Selborne. Back in the eighteenth century the vicar of Selborne was a keen observer of the local flora and fauna, and kept copious notes on his observations, which were eventually published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in 1789. I was surprised to learn that this small book has become the fourth most published book in the English language, and apparently it has never been out of print, running to nearly 300 editions.

These days you can get the book for free as it is published as part of the classic collection for Kindle by Amazon.


The old vicarage is now owned by a charity and can be visited by the public. The gardens are open as well, and on certain days there are some interesting events which take place on the premises. Last weekend I had intended to go back and visit the Rare Plants Festival, which takes place every year on the third weekend of June. Unfortunately the weather has been so appalling that I decided not to bother. On the saturday we had bursts of sunshine interspersed with torrential downpours of rain, and it was seriously cold. On the sunday there were still intermittent showers, but also a fierce cold wind, and we were all trotting about wrapped up in pullovers, coats and scarfs, and waving umbrellas. What a dreadful summer.

The house also contains a small museum devoted to Captain Lawrence Oates. Let me quote from an article on the house website:

“Captain Lawrence Oates is best remembered as the man who walked willingly to his death on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912 in the hope that his comrades might have a better chance of surviving. Oates famous last words, “I am just going outside and may be some time” were uttered before he stepped out into a blizzard never to be seen again. His body has never been found.  2012 will mark the centenary of his tragic death.”

The stuff of legend. His action has become a parable for the once famous British spirit. Presumably next year there will be celebrations to mark the centenary. It would be petty of me to finish by saying that I hope the weather for that event will be kinder. Perhaps instead I had better hide my head in shame that I complain so much when the summer temperatures dont make it above the mid teens. I feel suitably ashamed. But isn’t that what these legends are all about. Captain Oates, I salute you!

 

Devil’s Punchbowl

Just to the south of the A31 is the A3, the old Portsmouth Road. Approaching Hindhead, which is the highest village in Surrey, the road winds around the top of a large depression called the Devil’s Punchbowl.

There are several silly legends about this picturesque hole in the ground. The name dates back at least to the eighteenth century. One story has it that the Devil became so irritated by all the churches being built in Sussex that he decided to dig a channel from the sea through the South Downs so as to flood the area. As he began digging, he threw up great mounds of earth which became local landmarks: Mount Caburn, Rackham Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, and so on. Apparently he got as far as Poynings (a place called Devil’s Dyke, naturally) when he was disturbed by a cock crowing. Apparently St Dunstan was praying for all the cocks to start crowing early that day. As a result of this the Devil thought dawn was coming, and he jumped into Surrey, and made a great hole where he landed. That hole is supposedly the Devil’s Punchbowl.

Quite why Surrey was a safe haven I dont know, presumably there were not many churches there. Perhaps the Devil even lived in Surrey in those days. Obviously this is a tale that originated in Sussex, and the blame is put on Surrey for everything that goes wrong. I dont know who makes up this rubbish, but it is at least entertaining.

Another legend has it that in his spare time, the Devil hurled lumps of earth at the god Thor to annoy him. The hollow he scooped the earth out of became the Punch Bowl. The local village of Thursley means Thor’s place.

Even better is the story that two giants clashed in the area, and one, scooping up earth to throw at the other, created this great hole, and then missed the other giant, instead creating the Isle of Wight where the earth landed. (I’d like to see someone fit the Isle of Wight back into the Devil’s Punchbowl.) Anyway, it’s all good fun.

john

Hampshire-Alton

As I am back in the UK I am going to continue with my occasional series of Clare’s Counties.

Last week I travelled down to The New Forest to see a friend I’ve known since my schooldays. Having cleared the western straggle of London I hit the A31. This is quite an interesting road.

Between Guildford and Farnham it runs along the crest of a ridge for several miles with wide-reaching views on both sides. It’s called The Hogs Back.

The other side of Farnham the road runs down to Alton, over the border in Hampshire. It’s just another small country town, but it does have a special interest for me. To show why, I have to go back to when I was about nine years old.

My cousin and I were keen fans of ancient record players. We amassed quite a collection, and I’m only sorry that it seems to have been lost over the years. We had a nice wind-up gramophone which was shaped like an attaché case. Another was quite large, and had an enormous detachable horn. Another was so old that it took records shaped like jam jars. They came in highly coloured containers. Unscrew the top, slide out the jar, and slip it over something shaped like a shortened rolling pin so it revolved vertically. In short, this machine played cylindrical records instead of disc-shaped records. This machine was called a graphaphone.

Graphaphone

I’ve managed to find a picture of one. As you can see, it’s pretty old. They were first invented in 1881, and were originally worked by a foot pedal. Later versions were powered by a handle.

With these machines came masses of ancient records. We had a whole heap of Victor Silvester, the Savoy Quartet, loads of Harry Lauder, and the prize item, a one-sided shellac recording dating from 1908, made by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Treloar, which was a plea for donations to help him start up a hospital and school for crippled children in Alton. The museum at Alton has a copy, and I have a copy. I dont think there are any others in existence.

Just off the A31 is the village of Selborne, made famous by the eighteenth century vicar who wrote his Natural History of Selborne, which was first published in 1789. It is believed to be the fourth most published book in the language after Shakespeare, the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary.

But I’m going to leave Selborne to next week’s episode as there is The Rare Plants Festival being held there next weekend (18/19 June). If the weather can get itself together I shall be there. Maybe we’ll meet. You cant miss me with that tangled hair-style of mine, and I wouldn’t say no to an offer of a cream bun.

john