Thursday, 29 May 2008

Beckham, Zeppelin, 007 and Evita

Having not been away for a couple of weeks, let alone the last few days where it was difficult because of the weather to even get out (it has been flooding in some parts of the country), we needed to go somewhere, anywhere. However, because payday is still a couple of days away it was also important to consider petrol costs, so somewhere close by was imperative. Given that we had to email some scanned documents to Ipswich (in order to have our belongings, which had travelled here by sea, delivered this week) we first went to the library in Hoddesdon. Once our tasks had been completed we set course for the county of Buckinghamshire, heading down to the M25 before planning to head to the west.

As we moved on to the roundabout, which provides the link to the motorway, we looked down and saw that the M25 was fulfilling the common local description as the ‘world’s biggest carpark’. In a mild state of panic we continued around the roundabout and headed back toward home. Before getting back, however, we turned left and headed cross country through some lovely little villages; Goff’s Oak, Cuffley, Northaw and Potters Bar. These days Goff’s Oak is largely famous for being home to the Adams’ family (unfortunately not the Addams family of Uncle Fester, Lurch, Cousin It, Thing, Wednesday, Pugsley, Morticia and Gomez; but the parents of Victoria Beckham nee Adams). However, there is more to the village than that. As the name implies, it was owned by the Goff family and featured an enormous, century’s old, oak tree. Sadly, the prophecy of ‘My Fair Lady’ that ‘in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen’ came true in 1987 when a hurricane hit the area and brought down the famous old oak. The village is still quite beautiful and features some lovely homes which we admired as we drove through.

Cuffley (only a couple of miles further away) has a totally different claim to fame, dating back to the Great War. One Sunday morning, in September 1916, the locals woke to find a Zeppelin crashed into their village. 14 Zeppelins had been used in the largest attack of its kind during the First World War and this one was shot down by Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, for which exploit he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Lieut. Robinson lived through the rest of the war only to die of influenza on December 31, 1918, only a few weeks after the Armistice. Like Goff’s Oak, Cuffley is a very attractive village with some glorious looking homes that, due to the presence of a Learner Driver, we were able to appreciate. It also has some glorious large parks and huge farms which seem out of place in this country where the residents constantly complain about overcrowding.

Northaw is smaller still, but it does boast the oldest Women’s Institute in Hertfordshire, established in 1917. Northaw also still possesses a village green, bounded on one side by the church. We all noticed the church as we were driving through the village, because architecturally it is very different from others in Hertfordshire. It has a rock facing and four pinnacles on the tower which draw the eye as you drive toward it. Apparently there is a fifth pinnacle next to the tower in the church grounds with a plaque stating that it belonged to the previous church which burned down in 1881, however we did not stop to confirm that this was true. Much of the rest of Northaw is the Northaw Great Wood, which is a country park open to everyone, and which hosts markets on some days of the week (although this week they had been cancelled because of the wet weather). King James I used to come hunting here when staying at his holiday home at Cheshunt (then called Theobalds) and as you drive through the woodlands you can imagine people charging around on horseback chasing deer or foxes.

Potters Bar has some uncertainty over the history of the name. Some maintain that it is the consequence of Roman aged pottery which was found there (certainly it is one of the local areas with evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain). Other people claim that the name comes from the Pottere family who were part of the nearby South Mimms parish. Sadly, the name became known more recently as the site of two significant train crashes. On the night of 10 February 1946, a local train hit buffers at the station, became derailed, and two express trains travelling in opposite directions struck the wreckage. On 10 May 2002 a northbound train derailed at high speed, killing seven and seriously injuring another eleven. On a happier note, those of our readers who are older might remember the clarinetist Acker Bilk who owns a home at Potters Bar (as well as one in Pensford, Somerset). The golfer Tony Jacklin, who won both the British and US Opens and captained the English Ryder cup team played his golf at Potters Bar Golf Club. As we drove through, on our way back to try the M25 again, we saw a town that was much more industrial in feel than any of the villages around. This is unsurprising, given that the town is part of the London Commuter belt.

Back on to the M25 we ventured for what was to be a frustrating next part of the journey. It is not really that far from Junction 24 (where we reentered the M25) to Junction 18 (where we wanted to exit), a little over 12 miles, or 20 kilometres, but the traffic was stop start the entire way. There were no accidents or road works, not even a picket line (which there was elsewhere in London, as the radio kept reminding us), just average everyday drivers who had absolutely no idea how to merge when new traffic joined the motorway. Those of you who have driven on the Gateway Motorway in Queensland will know how frustrating this can be, and anyone who has been in a car with Wayne for any length of time will know that this (along with traffic lights: ‘the spawn of Satan’) is one of his pet hates. Meg and the boys managed to keep the mood light, although with some difficulty as first Brock and then Quinn realised that they needed to find a toilet. We eventually made it to Junction 18 and turned off toward Little Chalfont and Chorleywood looking for a services for the boys. Sadly, service stations seemed to be in short supply, unlike temporary traffic lights for road works which appeared on a regular basis. To add insult to injury we were stopped by the police (along with hundreds of others) at a road block and questioned as to why Wayne’s identity did not match the recorded owner of the car. Given that Meg had spent a few days, after we returned from Cornwall, sorting out this issue we were perplexed by this. However, PC Webb of the Thames Valley Police (badge number 5795) was very understanding. He offered to let Brock get out and walk the 200 metres down to the nearest public toilet and, when Brock declined, hurried the paperwork through for us so that we could drive the short distance required to find the boys some relief. He also demonstrated how to use an extendable baton, much to the boy’s delight.

At last we made it to the Chilterns, which was declared an official Area of Natural Beauty in 1965. The official blurb says that ‘the Chilterns lie only a few miles north-west of London and yet they are an unspoilt area of rolling chalk hills, magnificent beechwoods, quiet valleys and charming brick and flint villages. A wonderful mosaic of woods, fields, hedges, sunken lanes and clear streams’. This was certainly true of our experience in the region. In particular we were aiming for the town of Amersham, largely because Meg’s mother lives in a house on Amersham Street in Kippa Ring, Queensland, and we wanted to see what the place looked like for which the street was named.

As you would expect from a place in the Chilterns, Amersham has a long history, dating back to pre-Saxon times when it was known as Egmondesham. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 it was called Elmodesham and is described thus:
Geoffrey de Mandeville holds Amersham. It answers for 7 1/2 hides. Land for 16 ploughs; in lordship 2 hides; 3 ploughs there. 14 villagers with 4 smallholders have 9 ploughs; a further 4 possible. 7 slaves; meadow for 16 ploughs; woodland 400 pigs. The total value is and was £9; before 1066 £16. Queen Edith held this manor.
Queen Edith was the wife of Edward the Confessor and sister of King Harold (who fought the battle of Hastings in 1066). Get rid of Geoffrey de Mandeville and substitute Loretta for Edith and so far the similarities between Amersham, UK and Amersham Street, Kippa Ring, Queensland are quite apparent.

As we approached the town we drove past a large building dedicated to GE Healthcare which, Wayne recalled, had originally been a scientific research establishment called the Radiochemical Centre during World War II set up to make luminous paint, based on radium. Amersham was also one of the very few places north of London to be attacked by V1 and V2 rockets (otherwise known as ‘flying bombs’ or ‘doodlebugs’) near the end of the war. This was unfortunate as many of the children of London were evacuated to houses in the area when their homes were destroyed or under threat of destruction, partly because of the excellent schools available in the area. These included Dr Challoner’s Grammar School the alma mater of, among others, Sir Roger Moore (aka Meg’s favourite James Bond), which has hugely impressive grounds now on the hills north of the town but which originally was housed in a building on the main street which dates the school back to 1624. GE Healthcare, meanwhile, is now one of the largest employers in the area.

When we first arrived in Amersham, we dropped Meg off at the Post Office, while Wayne and the boys headed toward the market square looking for a place to park the car. As you no doubt know, one of the things which distinguishes a ‘town’ from a ‘village’ is the granting of the right to hold a market, and this was done for Amersham by King John in 1200, stipulating that the market was to be held on Fridays and a fair on September 7th and 8th. In 1613 this ‘charter’ was updated so that market day became Tuesday and the fair was moved to September 19th and 20th. Despite the fact that this was a Tuesday, when the boys drove up there was no market in evidence, however there were some buildings with impressively low roofs and The Crown Hotel, which was used for a number of indoor scenes in the movie ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’ including the scene with the Four Poster Bed. We later discovered the market (as we were driving out) was being held in ‘Amersham-on-the-Hill’ (another part of the village separate but linked to ‘Old Amersham’ where we were) and a number of the roads were closed as a consequence. The other thing that wasn’t in the market square was any parking, so we drove back to park at Tescos and walked up to meet Meg outside the grounds of the Grade 1 Listed St Mary’s Church of England.

The parks, grounds and cemetery connected to the church were beautiful, so we decided to walk down along the River Misbourne back to Tescos (which had been built on a former Bowyer's / Brazil's meat factory and bus garage) to buy some lunch which we then carried back to eat in the park. Fans of British television crime shows might have recognised where we were, as 7 episodes of the series ‘Midsomer Murders’ were filmed in Amersham and made extensive use of the grounds, cemetery and fields around St Mary’s and Old Amersham. On our walk beside the river we had noted a sign which pointed toward a ‘Martyr’s Memorial’ so, after lunch was finished, we decided to find it.

Trying to follow the directions proved to be difficult, as there was no evidence of any memorial between the two signs which pointed towards one another. Instead we looked around the cemetery, noting the amazing restoration work which had been done to many of the graves and gravestones. Just as we were planning to leave we met a lovely weimaraner (that had been in a fight with a maltese terrier and had a bloodied ear as a consequence) whose owner pointed us up the hill along a path ‘which would not be slippery’ where, she said, the walk to the martyr’s memorial would take `4 or 5 minutes` and the view back to the rest of the town would be very good. Very quickly we discovered that we would have been better listening to the weimaraner even if his instructions had mostly been to do with scratching behind his ears and patting him.

We set off up the hill on a path between two wheat fields, alongside a hedge. The path was simply a dirt (read ‘mud’) track, about 15cm wide, with stones scattered through it and Meg soon discovered that she was wearing the wrong footwear to cope with such a trek. We laboured onward and upward with Wayne in front holding Meg’s hand and the boys walking behind in case she slipped. After a while Brock grew frustrated and attempted to pass by jumping across into the field, he rapidly found out that this was a mistake as he sank into the ground and was stung by various nettles and plants as he scrambled back on to the path. 20 minutes in and we made it to the top of the path where there was no sign of a memorial, just a path heading north toward the Rectory Wood which looked dark and foreboding and continuing to the south towards a group of houses. The one thing which the lady had got correct was that the view back over Amersham was glorious, so we took a number of photos before walking up toward the woods. Wayne was full of admiration for the cast and crew of the movie ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’ (a 1958 movie about the Battle of Britain) which was largely filmed in these fields.

Meg sang ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ happily as we walked up to the woods which reminded her of ‘The Secret Garden’. Quinn had already run off ahead while Brock complained that it looked scary and was worried about monsters. When we finally entered the woods it was cool, green and lovely, just as you might have imagined woodlands in England to be. All of the stories that we read in childhood which featured English woodlands seemed to be encapsulated in this place. There were large ear shaped fungi growing on some of the tree trunks and, while it was dark, there was enough filtered light coming through to make it easy to see. Posts had signs which indicated that this was a public walking path through the wood and there was even a tyre swing from a tree at one end of the wood. During World War II the woods had been used by troops as shelter and trenches had been dug there, but there was no sign of this today, in fact the boys felt that even camping in the woods would not be a pleasant experience. Not to our complete surprise by now, however, there was still no sign of the memorial so we decided to head back down the path by which we had come.

By the time we reached the main path we had come up, Quinn and Wayne decided to take a quick look down the southern path toward the houses. It didn’t take long before they couldn’t see Meg and Brock at all because of a dip in the field, but by the time they got to the fence there was still no sign of the memorial, only houses and a couple of large trees, so they went back. While they had been waiting, Brock and Meg were able to look across the town to the beautiful mansion of Shardeloes. Shardeloes was the ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt Drake family, the Lord of the Manor. The Tyrwhitt Drake family had a great influence on Amersham. By marrying well their fortunes grew through the 16th to 19th centuries. This enabled them to have a large say in the appointment of Amersham's Rector, who often was a member of the family. They also acquired many properties in Amersham, letting them to sympathetic supporters enabling the MPs representing Amersham to either be Tyrwhitt Drakes or their supporters. The Tyrwhitt Drakes were also benefactors and built Alms Houses (1657) and the Market Hall (1682). During the 19th and 20th Centuries their fortune declined, particularly because of the need to pay high death duties, and as a result of the Reform Act of 1832 which removed the ‘rotten borough’ of Amersham. In 1928 much of their property in Amersham was auctioned off in what became known as "the auction of a town". The Tyrwhitt Drake family are still Lord of the Manor of Amersham, but no longer live there.

Going down the hill proved to be almost as difficult as going up, at least for Brock who managed to do the splits at the bottom as one of his feet slipped in the mud. Sadly, the rest of us missed this because we were overtaken on the path by another lady out walking her dog. The advantage of this was that the parents of the lady passing us had ‘lived at the memorial’, although as she sheepishly explained, ‘not AT the memorial, obviously, but backing on to it’. As it turned out, it had been on the other side of the trees the Wayne and Quinn had come to previously, so they scooted around the bottom of the field and up the far side which was a much easier path. As you can see by the photograph, the monument itself was large but otherwise not hugely impressive. What was amazing was what it was there to commemorate. Back in 1521, in the dip in the field only a hundred yards from where the memorial stood, a group of men were burned at the stake. This was part of a movement happening across Europe, which came to be known as the Reformation, where people resisted the Catholic Church’s attempt to impose their understanding on people. In particular, people wanted to be able to read the Bible in their own language, rather than the Latin stipulated by the Catholic Church. As the monument made clear, there had been people executed for similar reasons before then, and within 40 years men and women on both side of the argument would be killed. It was hard for the boys to comprehend that people took reading the bible so seriously that they would be willing to die or that it would be the government who would be punishing them. Meg and Wayne were able to answer their questions on the way home.

Fortunately, the trip was a lot less eventful than the drive over. Had we had the soundtrack with us, we might have listened to the music of ‘Evita’ or any of the other musicals that Tim Rice put together with Andrew Lloyd Webber. This would have been appropriate, because Tim Rice was born in Amersham. We did, however, pass under the railway line that ends at Amersham which was labelled as ‘Underground’. Despite being above the ground at this point, it is part of the London Underground Railway system which demonstrates Amersham’s place as a commuter town, which is has been since 1892 when the line was first constructed. Indeed, it might have been so earlier had not local landowners objected so strongly to the building of the line. While lacking the notoriety of some of the other places that we have visited, Amersham was a good place to visit and all of us had a great day.

Thanks again to everyone who has been keeping in contact with us. We are looking forward to having our first visitor from Australia this Friday. Julie Boyd, one of Wayne’s former workmates from Southbank TAFE, is coming over to visit. It will be nice to talk to someone about what is happening back in Australia. We hope you are all well and look forward to hearing from you.

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