The shadow of Profumo: visiting Cliveden

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Cliveden in the spring sunshine

Cliveden will forever be associated with the Profumo affair of the early 1960s. Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign after lying about his brief affair with Christine Keeler, which began one summer weekend at Cliveden, the then home of the Astor family.

Cliveden today is a luxury hotel, with the lovely National Trust grounds open to the public. Owen and I cycled here on Sunday on our tandem, making the most of a glorious early spring day. As we arrived by bike, we were both given a £1 voucher to use in the excellent cafe.

I doubt that Profumo or Keeler arrived by bike, but Cliveden does make an excellent destination for a cycle ride.

PS: Profumo died 10 years ago this month. He remains the role model for how public figures should behave after a scandal, as I blogged a decade ago.

Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

My fastest century bike ride

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

On the last day of 2014, I blogged that 2015 would see me riding 100 miles in a day: a cycling century. Yesterday was the day. I repeated my 2005 century route through Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, stopping at Buckingham for lunch.

The cycling guides give helpful and sensible advice on how to prepare for a century. They tell you to build up your stamina with regular long rides. I certainly did a lot of cycling in the three weeks before the big ride, making the most of the long June evenings to get on the bike. But none was more than ten miles…

That lack of long distance experience no doubt contributed to the fatigue I felt as I finished. It also explained my usual failure to eat before feeling hungry, the curse of the ill-prepared long distance cyclist. But I finished strongly, powering at 17mph or more along the A413 from Wendover to Amersham and beyond. (I love quiet roads, but after 85 miles I like to avoid unnecessary hills…)

When I got home, I was delighted to find that I’d completed the century at an average speed of 13.7mph. For me, that’s a miracle: my fastest century. On my first century in 1995, I was pleased to maintain 13mph for the first 75 miles. (I finished at around 12.75mph.) True, this time I had the benefit of a wonderful road bike, my eight month old Specialized Roubaix. In 2005, I was riding my trusty Dawes Super Galaxy with a pannier full of maps and an SLR camera. But I had just got back from a 315 mile cycle tour of the hilly west country.

Here are my reflections of my fourth century. Continue reading

General election 2015: the humble act of voting

Voting generations

Poll position: voting generations

Britain elected a new parliament today. I always feel humble and emotional when I vote. Men and women have died for democracy – and I recall those long ago battles when I place a cross on a ballot paper.

Queuing to vote, 2015

Queuing to vote, 2015

As I write this, the BBC’s exit poll suggests the Tories have done better than expected. We shall see.

As we took Owen with us to the polling station in Chalfont St Giles, I explained that his paternal great grandmothers both waited a long time to vote – because women were deprived of equal votes with men until 1928. I think my dad’s mother was 38 before she voted in 1929.  Her last vote would have been in the 1992 election.

If you didn’t vote, don’t complain if you don’t like the government that results from today’s election.

PS: I turned the car radio on for the 8am news headlines as we went to vote. The main story on BBC Radio 5 Live was tomorrow’s 70th anniversary of VE Day. An important day from his grandparents’ early days.

Costa Coffee takes over Captain Mainwaring’s bank branch

Captain Mainwaring at The Crown

The Crown as Martins Bank, Walmington-on-Sea

I don’t imagine that Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring ever tasted a frappucino. (They came long after 1940.) But the Chalfont St Giles, Bucks pub that posed as Mainwaring’s bank in the Dad’s Army film is about to open as Costa’s latest coffee shop.

Costa Coffee Chalfont St Giles

The Crown becomes a Costa

Sadly, the much loved Crown closed last year, as I blogged in May. It was one of our favourite venues for anniversary and birthday dinners. (I took my very first iPhone photo on one such occasion in 2008.) Losing a pub is always a sad event, but if we have to swap dinner for coffee a Costa is a good choice. (Make mine a skinny latte and tiffin…)

The Crown Chalfont St Giles pub sign

Sign of the times

PS: we paid our first visit today, 20 December. They’ve done a very nice job converting the pub. The coffee’s great too!

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles

Burnham Beeches: London in Buckinghamshire

Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire, owned by City of London

Woodland wonderland: Burnham Beeches

Burnham Beeches is a lovely part of the City of London. Actually, it’s a corner of Buckinghamshire that the City of London bought to save it for the nation in 1880.

Curiously, this woodland wonderland is almost the same size as London’s square mile. But that’s where the similarities end. This is a precious corner of south east England, with ancient woodland and nature habitats thriving under the benign stewardship of the City of London Corporation.

We visited on the May Day bank holiday, yet the place seemed wonderfully quiet, despite a busy car park. We saw Exmoor ponies running joyfully through the wooded tracks. We loved the wood sculptures (below). We’ll return with our bikes to explore the Burnham Beeches trails.

Burnham Beeches trail sculpture

Burnham Beeches wood sculpture

To add to the geographical oddities, there’s a sign here pointing to Egypt! (Egypt Bucks: barely a hamlet, never mind a country.)

Egypt, Bucks

Egypt in Buckinghamshire

Finally, here’s the City of London’s rather nice video about Burnham Beeches.

Dad’s Army and The Crown, Chalfont St Giles

Captain Mainwaring's bank, The Crown Chalfont St Giles

Captain Mainwaring’s bank: The Crown, Chalfont St Giles, Bucks

I blogged last month about the sadness of seeing a closed bookshop, the Lion & Unicorn in Richmond, Surrey. It’s just as sad to see an abandoned pub. The Crown in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks, has a famous past: it posed as Captain Mainwaring’s Martins bank branch in the 1971 film version of Dad’s Army.

Captain Mainwaring at The Crown

The Crown as Martins Bank, Walmington-on-Sea

We really miss The Crown, as it was a favourite venue for birthday and anniversary dinners. We celebrated our fifth anniversary there on a beautiful summer evening in 2008 – our first night out since Owen arrived some eight weeks before.

The Crown Chalfont St Giles pub sign

Sign of the times

The owners have applied for permission to turn it into a cafe, and locals are hoping for a Costa. It won’t be the same, but as a Costa fan I’d much rather that than the sad sight of a closed pub.

Hodgemoor Wood’s Polish past

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Memorial to the Polish village in Hodgemoor Wood, Chalfont St Giles

Hodgemoor Wood is one of my favourite local spots. I love cycling through the woods, near Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, as I’ve blogged before. Today I took five year old Owen up there for an Easter Monday walk – and to my surprise came across this memorial. I was amazed to learn that some 600 former Polish soldiers and their families lived in a camp here for many years after the second world war.

The families had stayed in Britain after 1945 to avoid returning to their Soviet-occupied homeland. The camp closed in 1962, but there’s still a thriving Polish community in the area, including one of Britain’s most successful Polish centres at Raans Road, Amersham.

As Owen and I walked on from the memorial, we found outlines on the ground of one of the many buildings, which included a church, a shop, post office and hall.

You can read more about the camp at the website about the UK’s Polish resettlement camps.

Today, Hodgemoor Wood has returned to nature.

Hodgemoor Wood today

Hodgemoor Wood today

Snowy Hodgemoor Wood, February 2012

Snowy Hodgemoor Wood, February 2012

Flintshire detached: remembering our old counties

Flintshire detached county

Flintshire detached: our old blurred county lines

Forty years ago today, many of Britain’s most cherished counties disappeared under local government reorganisation. The changes also ended a curious historic anomaly: ‘Flintshire detached’: the area of Flintshire, Maelor Saesneg, which was detached from the rest of the county of Flint and surrounded by the Welsh county of Denbigh and the English counties of Shropshire and Chester.

Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’) was one of the very last ‘exclaves‘: detached county territory. Most of these exclaves were tidied up in the 19th century. For example, much of Minety, Wiltshire, was part of neighbouring Gloucestershire until 1844, the year parliament started the tidying process.

I remember being curious about ‘Flintshire detached’ on childhood maps of Wales. I had a reminder of those long-gone days last Sunday on a bike ride in Buckinghamshire. Near Amersham, I passed a handsome property called Hertfordshire House. Its name reveals that it was once in an exclave of Hertfordshire in neighbouring Bucks, centred on the village of Coleshill. Centuries ago, the house was owned by Thomas Ellwood, who held illegal Quaker meetings there, safe in the knowledge that it was too remote for Herts justices of the peace to interfere. (It was Ellwood who rented a cottage for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles, where the great poet lived during London’s great plague of 1665 and completed Paradise Lost.)

Back to 1974. An even greater historical anomaly was Monmouthshire. Until 40 years ago, that border county was regarded by many as technically part of England rather than Wales, having been annexed as an English county following the forced acts of union in the 16th century. The 1974 local government reorganisation in Wales put an end to such nonsense. Never again would acts of parliament refer to South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Early morning, Richmond Green

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I love those early spring days. The hope that sunshine and warmth brings after a hard – or just wet – winter. The colour of daffodils relieving the winter monotones.

Today was a beautiful day. But it started with a thick fog in the Thames valley. I stopped the car to take this photo of a foggy Richmond Green minutes before getting to my riverside office.

The photo below is of Black Park, a lovely Buckinghamshire country park near Slough, on a beautiful sunny Sunday last weekend.

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