The leaving of the shire
After 14 years, I've left the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Why would anyone do that?
Corny but magnificent: Rectory Hill
In the huge cornfield it looked as if a tornado would arrive any second.
The sheaves popped electric green and sand-yellow, stretching into the far distance against a brooding grey sky. The air was close and cool. The land felt unsettled and insane as a horror movie.
The twister didn’t arrive, even though I was in a place where there are, according to the University of Manchester, more tornadoes per area than any other country.
That area, incredible to relate, is England. The reason you rarely hear about an English tornado is because they are, frankly, a bit pathetic. An English tornado might make you think about locking the greenhouse door and securing the bird feeders, but they are not the stuff of the Midwest’s Twister Alley.
Turning my back on the cornfield, the horror-movie scene changed to Midsummer Murders. I was standing on Rectory Hill above Old Amersham, as comforting and cosy and English country town as you could hope to see. Wooden gables and warm tiled roofs peeped discreetly over the trees. The River Misbourne – no wider and no noisier than a brook – trickled beneath the benign shadow of the solid Norman church tower before winding past a large building in that distinctive architectural vernacular known as Tesco Gothic.
The supermarket aside, this scene could have been captured by my two favourite painters of English life and landscape, Samuel Palmer and Stanley Spencer.
Stanley Spencer's Cottages at Burghclere
In the High Street there was plenty of post-lockdown footfall: the feet of tourists, Londoners and locals picking through the bric-a-brac under the eaves of the medieval market place building.
Amersham: very much England. The county of Buckinghamshire: very, very much England.
And I thought, what a wonderful and underrated area this is. If I were a visitor from overseas staying in London for a few days, I would definitely make the short trip – under an hour – out here and stroll through these fields and cobbled streets, drive (or, better, get driven) from village pub to village pub, get lost in the beechwoods and intimidated by the prices in the estate agents’ windows.
Then I thought: I’ll soon be that visitor.
The backbone of England
Buckinghamshire, Bucks, sits neatly like a vertebrae within the spine of England. Or like a quotation from the map: like England, it it taller than it is wide, slightly stooping or surveying its neighbours rather haughtily (if you’re the kind who likes to anthropomorphise cartography: which I am).
I knew next to nothing about Bucks before I moved here. I thought it was Bowdlerised country, fake-rural suburbs mostly populated by ageing primetime TV stars living in neo-Georgian mansions. I dimly associated it with Bucks Fizz, a cocktail popular in the 1980s and chosen as their name by a made-up Eurovision song contest-winning group, who were doubtless from Beaconsfield or Denham.
In fact, Bucks Fizz (the drink) and Bucks Fizz (the group) have nothing to do with Bucks (the county). No matter: fake tan, blonde highlights, frothy celebs singing frothy songs – that felt like Bucks to me. I lived in Islington, after all.
It was the topography of Aylesbury Vale that first entranced me as I killed time with a pub meal in Mentmore, a few miles from Cublington, before a flight from Luton. I said the map is like a quotation, a précis, of England. That’s especially true here. To the north, the flatlands of the Midlands begin as the dual carriageway cuts across arable land to Milton Keynes. To the East, and Ivinghoe Beacon, the hills are rounded and the grasslands begin to take on an East Anglian aspect. To the south, there are rich valleys and prosperous villages. To the west, dense woods and the stone villages that lead into Oxfordshire.
This microcosm of a landscape is what the poet John Betjeman (himself quoting Henry James) called ‘midmost, uttermost England’.
It’s commuter territory, to be sure: Leighton Buzzard, just over the Bedfordshire border, has a direct line to London, while my green hamlet of Chartridge was 10 minutes away from Chesham station, in the London Underground’s furthest outpost in the semi-mythical Zone 9.
But the much-used term ‘green belt’ is misleading. Buckinghamshire is farms and woodland. In living memory, the villages of the high Chilterns were cut off from the outside world. At the start of winter, mothers would smear their children in goose-fat and sew them into their clothes.
Bloody-minded of Bucks
At the beginning of June there was a big political shock when the Liberal Democrats overturned a huge and seemingly unshakeable Conservative majority to win a by-election in my constituency, Chesham and Amersham.
I don’t know why people were surprised. Bucks people have a long history of bloody-mindedness and a distinct aversion to being taken for granted. This was solid Parliament country during the Civil War. Before that, Lollard dissenters were burned at the stake in Amersham.
And my old village, Cublington, was the centre of what was arguably the first mass protest in Britain to successfully overturn a government decision. In the late 60s, the third London airport was destined for Cublington and the nearby village of Wing (geddit?) A mass campaign with the aforesaid Betjeman at its head made life hell for the Government lawyers. They backed down, and it ended up in Stansted – or Instead Airport, as I like to call it. There’s a little smithy on the Cublington - Stewkley road with a small monument in the shape of a Concorde marking the feats of these unlikely rural rebels.
Bucks on the march: the combines survived, Concorde didn’t
‘It’s very Buckinghamshire…’
'It’s like a gleaming five-star hotel with cushions plumped and candles lit. It’s very Buckinghamshire'. So said a posh person on visiting the Duke and Duchess’s Norfolk home. That snide little line prompted me to write this defence of my county in the Daily Mail.
Candles and cushions: never seen in Norfolk, apparently
The written landscape
Dahl at home, a few decades before the bulldozers showed up
The best guide I can give you to the spirit and landscape of Buckinghamshire is to point you to the books of the writers who lived there. There is John Milton’s cottage where, in this quintessential Chilterns village of flint and stone, the most elevating of English poets finished Paradise Lost. But politics are never far away in Bucks: Milton was fleeing not only the plague but persecution after Charles II was restored to the throne.
Then there’s Enid Blyton. The children’s writer lived in Beaconsfield. The surrounding landscape of rolling hills, secret woods and bucolic villages was the backdrop for the Famous Five's adventures. Hers was an innocent land of picnics and the kind of adventure that always had you home in plenty of time for tea. Did I say ‘innocent’? Her land may have been; she, even by the standards of her time and the overwhelmingly white society she inhabited, was not.
But the true spirit of this contradictory, sometimes fractious and distinctly magical place is best found in our third Buckinghamshire author: Roald Dahl. They are currently bulldozing huge tracts of country around the author’s Great MIssenden home for the HS2 rail project, a white elephant every bit as fantastical and deluded as anything in his stories. Would that we were still around to skewer the masterminds of this fiendish plot.
I’ll soon be that visitor. We’ve left. HS2 was a factor. The roads are becoming chaotic and the bad temper and ill-will that the project has caused seems to have seeped into the bones of the place as well as into the faces of the motorists. I’m writing this from a house 350 miles north, in a different country. More on that next time.
Chartridge and Tall Oaks: heading home for the last time
Songs that take you places
John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett
For a Bucks song, I had in mind something English and dreamy: Delius maybe, or Percy Grainger. But instead it had to be the Bard of Aylesbury, John Otway, and his 1977 proto-punk song, Really Free.
There’s Otway’s authentic Bucks accent, for a start: a kind of suburban burr. And the fact the song and the performance are a bit rubbish. Aylesbury is a bit rubbish too, and I rather like the fact that the posh people in the smarter parts of the shire have to rely on this sprawling, unlovely market town for their provisions.
And I suppose as we approach Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’ we should all be singing Otway’s one and only hit. Maybe we can add a question mark to the title.
The full Marklands playlist is here.
Let’s end (appropriately) in the churchyard of a Buckinghamshire village
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
The churchyard that inspired Gray’s immortal ode is in a south Buckinghamshire village with the fine name of Stoke Poges. These days, it's almost swallowed up by another place celebrated – if that’s the word – in verse: Slough, which John Betjeman invited the friendly bombs to drop on.
But Gray’s 18th century Buckinghamshire is a place of deep rural traditions and obscurity. That ‘immortalised’ is ironic: his work is a soft plea to remember genius unrealised, talents uncelebrated and good lives buried under the yews. No wonder that first line inspired Thomas Hardy.
In its time and its own way, the poem is the work of a radical.