The view from the hill – a walk to Wooburn

I feel Old old Wooburn more and more every day – the village where I grew up and where a recent family history binge showed roots running deep through the chalk and flint. The sense of it was almost overpowering as I crested the hill marked by Hard-to-Find Farm and approached Bloom Wood. ‘Always was a cold wood, Bloom Wood’, my Dad had said on the phone when I called him on the walk out across Wycombe Rye. And as I discussed my route he could only imagine it coming from the opposite direction – the way from Wooburn, despite the amount of times I reminded him I was approaching from the opposite direction.


Bloom was indeed a cold wood, dense and dark. I was fascinated as a kid by the stories of ‘devil worshippers’ dancing round fires seen from below on Sheepridge Lane. I can’t recall ever entering Bloom Wood. I liked the idea of stumbling upon a coven of Satanists, but it was no longer the 1970’s and too early at 7pm, midsummer. It was exactly where I wanted to be, pushed off the sofa in Leytonstone, out on the edge of East London, mid-afternoon watching Dr Who with the youngest teenager I saw myself on a hill at sunset and knew where the hill would be, more or less. This dappled wood was exactly where I wanted to be right now.

I dropped down the hill and emerged at the edge of the wood where the corn fields had been given over to pasture with a smattering of sheep. Below was Sheepridge Lane where my Nan had lived as a girl in a cottage behind the Crooked Billet earning some coins picking flints from the fields and providing the pub landlord with fresh stinging nettles with which the thrash his wife to ease her rheumatism. The footpath led out into the narrow lane that would have been Nan’s way home, the workers cottages now appeared to be knocked all into one and carrying a hefty price I imagine. The old man had instructed me to have a pint in the Billet garden looking across the lane to the fields rising on the far side, a garden where he told me he’d encountered what must have been one of the last traveling minstrels, an old fella who went from pub to pub singing for beer and a bite to eat kipping down in hedgerows and barns at night. By then, the 1960’s, these old travellers were an unwelcome feature of the countryside.

Wildflowers Chilterns

Flackwell Heath field near Sheepridge Lane

The pub was empty, the landlady the same as when my sister had worked behind the bar thirty years or more ago. I took my pint of Brakespears (brewed nearby in Henley) out into the garden and looked across at Noel’s fields. Red Kites, wing-spans wider than my outstretched arms, rode the thermals in great wide arcs and dove down on fresh roadkill.

The hill in my mind was just across the road, topped with a spinny above Pigeon House Farm. A legsore  winter sunset, I was walking back over those fields with my Dad, must have been four of five years old and I’d just raced to pick up a pigeon he’d shot. He hoisted me up on his shoulders, a drop of blood hung from the pigeon’s beak and I marvelled at the impossible beauty of the colour of the feathers around its throat. I passed the orchard the Old Man planted beside the lane and then rang him from the top of the hill, the view stretching out across Marlow to a wide bend in the River Thames. He remembered that day clearly, and told me a funny story about the burial of a beloved cow in the spinny behind me.

Flackwell Heath

I moved on through Flackwell Heath, echoes of teenage years bouncing off the pavement that followed me over the golf course and down to Wooburn. There was a beer festival in the garden of The Falcon, calling me, tempting me, but my way ahead was along the A40 in the dark, past the Highwaymen’s cave in Cut Throat Wood to the station at Beaconsfield and back to a sofa in Leytonstone.

Chilterns Walk from Bulstrode Camp to Wooburn Green

The Queen and Albert pub in Wooburn Green wasn’t were I expected to end up when I boarded the 3.15pm train from from Marylebone to Gerrards Cross the week before Easter. Notre Dame was burning down on the TV on the pub wall, an event that had been unfolding whilst I’d been walking over the Chilterns unaware. It was good to hear the Bucks accent from the chatter between the friendly lady behind the bar and the two other punters. It was great to be back in the village where I grew up.

My intention that day had been simple – to take a look at the Iron Age earthwork at Bulstrode Camp, Gerrards Cross. I had a vague childhood memory of people talking about this ancient site but no clear memory of having visited. And with my interest in earthworks and burial mounds it seemed natural to seek out Bulstrode Camp, situated as it is just beyond the borders of Greater London.

© OpenStreetMap contributors  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright

© OpenStreetMap contributors Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright

Bulstrode Camp is the largest hillfort in Buckinghamshire, spanning over 26 acres (other notable Bucks hillforts include – Whelpley Hill, Ivinghoe Beacon, West Wycombe, Bolebec’s Castle). A ‘plateau camp’, it sits atop a steep escarpment and is today encircled by a private housing estate. Dog walkers perambulate the perimeter as if repelled from the interior by a magic spell. I strode straight across in a bisecting line – better to take in the scale of the earthwork from its interior. It’s a powerful site, even more imposing in this age of bits and bytes.

Hedgerley Bucks

With the site surveyed and recorded on camera I still had around 3 hours of daylight left so headed out over the fields of Bulstrode Park to Hedgerley Village where the parish church sits high on a hill surrounded by a bluebell wood. At this point the temptation to strike off for Wooburn was too great.

The lowering sun sliced shafts of light through the pine trunks in Egypt Woods as the pheasants gave out their evening call. My Dad would have had a field day and we briefly spoke on the phone discussing the best route to Wooburn (he thought I was way off course).

My chosen path took me over Littleworth Common and now the journey took on the feel of a return to a childhood home as Wooburn Common (the land of the ‘fuzz hoppers’ as my Nan would call them) showed itself nearby on the map.

Egypt Woods

I arrived beneath the Radio Tower at the top of Farm Wood at the hour of sunset. This tower loomed over my childhood as a mysterious structure poking out of the dark wood above Wooburn Park where I spent all my summers with my Dad as he played for Wooburn Narkovians Cricket Club. I had only been this close twice before (at night with the Scouts and with my kids about 10 years ago).

From the edge of the wood, in the last light, I looked down across Wooburn, the river valley carved out by a glacial flow that deposited a rock that still sits idly on the Green by the bus stop. The River Wye gently trundles along its floor. I stood there as day slid into night before making my way across the park to the pub.

 

Along the Silt Road from Eden

Oxford Street Wycombe

Wycombe on a wet half-term Monday. I’m here for a lunchtime concert at All Saints Church of music by poet and composer Ivor Gurney by Jacobine van Laar and Marisa Thornton Wood. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Gurney since I discovered his connection with the town during the Remapping High Wycombe project – not just that this fascinating overlooked cultural figure had lived and written some of his most haunting compositions in Wycombe either side of the First World War, but that he was inspired by his long walks, manic fugues from London to Gloucester and the walk I plan to recreate from Wycombe to Gloucester which he did over two days in late February 1920. I’d tentatively planned to carry out the walk on the anniversary but lack of planning and my inability to cover the 60-odd miles in two short February days meant  postponing till summer.

IMG_1442
I killed some time wandering familiar childhood streets, devastated by the building of the Eden Shopping Centre – a place that must win the award for most misnamed location ever, perhaps they were playing opposites day in the planning office. We’d feared this when doing our project in response to the redevelopment over 2004-05 but to see it first-hand was depressing. The once thriving High Street dead, Poundland, Iceland, charity shops. The Octagon Centre – the town’s original shopping mall now relegated to the back door of the new scheme with empty units and a few bedraggled shoppers sheltering from the rain. White Hart Street shops boarded up, vacant, the same pattern creeping like a weeping rash round Oxford Street to Frogmore. The Kebab Centre has somehow survived the retail blitz but little else. The guts totally ripped out the town by a covered mall with a particularly big Marks and Spencer, a muffin shop and bowling alley.

IMG_1440
In the new Waterstones I picked up a copy of a book I’d seen reviewed a while back and placed on my To Read list purely on the basis that it was the story of a man’s relationship with a stream somewhere in England. At the cashdesk I opened the cover to find that the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road wasn’t just any stream anywhere but the river that ran through Wycombe (pretty much under the Waterstones in fact) and along the valley floor through the village where I grew up – the sacred River Wye that gave its name to the town and the road where I spent my formative years. The river that drove the mills along its course from West Wycombe to Bourne End. Near its banks was a holy well, a site of pilgrimage. Romans seeded oyster beds in its clear spring waters. I used to paddle in it as a kid and we rode inner-tubes over the weirs by the viaduct. I’ve played Poo Sticks with my children from the bridges that cross the river where it skirts the perimeter of Wooburn Park.

Gurney Concert
After Jacobine and Marisa’s haunting Gurney recital I set out along the stream in the driving rain. I’d left home in my trainers for some reason, well my boots were still caked in mud from my schlep across Gilbert’s Slade the day before and I didn’t want to wear muddy boots to the recital. Pretty soon my trainers were soaked through and several balletic slides in the mire crossing the Rye coated my feet in thick mud.

IMG_1444
The rain would ease up, I was sure. I’d been sent Silt Road as a gift from the book genie and a message to make this pilgrimage. By the time I reached Kingsmead the rain was coming down in thick watery rods smashing me across the head and shoulders. I remembered my Nan’s saying that Dad had told me on the phone just the other day, ‘February fills the ditch, black or white I don’t care which’. My Nan would have been chuffed to bits – the ditch was full to the brim.

IMG_1445

I skated across the swamp-like rugby pitches heading for shelter on the far side only to get there and discover it had been built by someone with an odd sense of humour – the sunken floor filling up with rainwater like a fish pond.
It couldn’t be any grimmer or greyer as I approached the viaduct at Loudwater – unrelenting hometime traffic kicking up plumes of water. I started to regret embarking on this river walk – it’s not as if I haven’t done it hundreds of times before. I pass into Wooburn, past the street where I grew up – Wye Road. A number 37 bus pulls up at the bus stop bound for Wycombe and the train back to London – too much to resist.

IMG_1449

On the turbo powered train into Marylebone I open Silt Road. What on earth compelled this award-winning nature writer to pen an entire book about a short stream running through an industrialized valley on the outskirts of High Wycombe?

The book opens under the grey M40 viaduct at Loudwater with a two-page monochrome photo, “Standing under the motorway along which the cars and trucks drummed and rushed and from which the rain spilt in a streaking line, I felt a fascinated longing for this imprisoned stream. And now I feel this stream running through me.”

Autotopobiography

Whilst hoofing it down to Soho the other night I put together a few more fragments of my autotopobiography (a fantastically unwieldy term mis-remembered from Phil Smith’s essay ‘Dread, Route and Time: An Autobiographical Walking of Everything Else’) of the area. I suppose it starts with Barnstaple Mansions on Rosebery Avenue. My parents moved to Barnstaple a few years back. Mulligans pub in the same street also serves up a decent pint of Brakespeare’s which comes from my native Thames Valley and is the brew that I cut my teeth on as a teenager.
Further down I stopped to note down the brown LCC plaque on 22 Theobalds Road to Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield who was born there in 1804. I was born in High Wycombe and Disraeli launched his political career with a disastrous speech from the balcony of the Red Lion Hotel in Wycombe High Street, he lived up the hill in Hughenden and said that there was something in the air of Bucks that leant itself to politics. I studied politics at City Poly.
Not far away at 64 Red Lion Street WC1 there’s a nondescript 60’s seven-storey block of flats called Beaconsfield (probably because of Dizzi’s birthplace round the corner) and Beaconsfield was where I got married, where my first girlfriend lived and where I spent much of my teens drinking that Brakespeare’s.
The rest of journey to the Curzon was free of associations and I spent an hourin Chinatown looking for a small white fortune kitten to replace the one my son had lost and pined for.

Coming home I get drawn off Guilford Street down a dark Doughty Mews to the Duke pub (more of that another time) which sits on the corner of John’s Mews and Roger Street – my name minus an ‘s’ on the end. A previous John Rogers was famous for printing the second complete Bible in English. He used to preach at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre-without Newgate on Holborn Viaduct and was eventually thrown in Newgate prison over the road, tried as Lollard heretic and burnt at the stake in Smithfield in 1555 (ish). All places on my daily drifts.
Lollards have a strong association with Bucks and one leader Thomas Chase was tortured to death in the village of Wooburn Green where I grew up.
I was back down that way last week interviewing this lovely old couple for a psychogeography project I’m working on connected to the area http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com. This couple are practising Methodists and halfway through the evening David presents me with a book he co-authored, ‘250 Years of Chiltern Methodism’. I open it on the train home to read that John Wesley, founder of Methodism, used to worship at the Moravian chapel in Fetter Lane where I walk nearly every day. He went on to open his first Chapel just down the road from me in City Road where he lived.
Now I’m building up countless new associations with Islington and around, each day triggers off echoes of feelings from other times and experiences. My mood map of the borough already has its warm spots glowing yellow and red; the high corner of Highbury Fields where I used to go to soak up the spirit of the French clowns I saw perform there (gave me strength in my own performing days), and the house on Liverpool Road where my son was conceived. Like a lot of stuff on this blog this is a work-in-progress, it’ll change depending on my mood. Martyrs and Heretics just seem to be on my mind at the moment.

london