Chilterns Walk from Princes Risborough to West Wycombe

Rarely have I gone to track down a view glimpsed from a train, but in July I headed back out from Marylebone to Princes Risborough bound for a wooded ridge that fizzed past the train window on a journey to Birmingham in April. I’d quickly screenshot the map on my phone showing that the hill was rising above Hempton Wainhill near Chinnor and vowed to return.

Lodge Hill Princes Risborough

Lodge Hill

It was a walk that delivered with almost every step, picking up the Ridgeway just south of Princes Risborough and following it past the tumuli on Lodge Hill. There I met a young man walking the length of the Ridgeway and I plugged him for tips for when I eventually set out on my 25 year old plan to walk this ancient path. The Ridgeway is ridiculously rich with prehistoric sites – I passed five Bronze Age tumuli in the space of a couple of miles around Bledlow Wood. The sense of walking into the past is profound on the Ridgeway and here it intersects with the equally (if not more) ancient Icknield Way.

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The westward views from Chinnor Hill were stunning and here I walked off my OS Map 181 onto a much smaller scale older map I bought on ebay years ago. The previous owner evidently shared my interest in prehistoric sites and had circled all of them on the map.

The Ridgeway

Walking along a chalk ridge path through Radnage flicking tall wallflowers childhood Chilterns memories flooded back in a rush of images and feelings, a mashup of out-of-sync recollections – driving round lanes with my Dad listening to John Peel, coming home from backpacking wondering what to do next, racing our Jack Russell to the pigeon Dad had shot from the sky, sunsets over the M40 towards these hills from further down the valley at Wooburn Moor.

St. Mary's Church Radnage

A chance encounter with a lady in a lane led me across her field to St. Mary Radnage with its restored 13th Century wall paintings. A beautiful, mystical spot to stop and reflect.

West Wycombe

I’d run out of food and water by the time I ascended West Wycombe Hill and the famous Golden Ball and Hell Fire Caves. I was shown around Dashwood’s Church as they closed up after a cake sale and told how it was a collage of architectures Sir Frances Dashwood had seen on his Grand Tour in 1763 including the now destroyed temples of Palmyra.

West Wycombe Church

I took refuge in the haunted George and Dragon on West Wycombe High Street dining on beer and crisps before slogging along the A40 into Wycombe. Before hitting the town centre, I stopped off to pay homage to the sacred River Wye as it flows gently through Mill End Rec near where my Mum went to school all those many years ago.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Cyber Busy-bodies or enabling community engagement?

I was interested to see the Fix My Street site linked on the new Labour blog thing Labour List. Basically you just put your postcode in and report any problems you see in your area – marking them on an annotatable map e.g. street lights not working, remove graffiti please (nice that this is one cyber forum where manners are still the norm).
In 2004 I met the Urban Planning Department in Wycombe to discuss the derives we were doing in the area – particularly the algorithmic derives that led people into areas where they wouldn’t normally wander. We pitched it as a way of fostering a renewed engagement with the local environment, of increasing civic pride. The planners and environment department read this as an excellent way of getting people to photograph and report fly-tipping and graffiti rather than the mass exercise in psychogeography that I had envisioned.
Fix My Street therefore has me caught in two minds between being beguiled by the poetry of low-level community concerns and the fact that the site seems well used and disappointed that the entries aren’t more guided by ambiences and that there aren’t posts along the lines of ‘strong resonances of the 16th plague pit in Lever Street’

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Return to Wycombe – No escape from Eden

Returning to Newlands was a peculiar experience. I always thought it would be – maybe that’s why I delayed it so long. I attempted to adopt an air of professional detachment which was only partially successful as the remapping high wycombe project was always a personal journey – as Cathy had printed on the large scale Significant Sites map ‘This is no project – this is my life’.

Eden they have somehow branded this red brick consumerist behemoth, a moloch that will devour our children. A retail concentration camp, shoppers with bar codes burnt into their retinas, the whole scene directed by George A. Romero or John Carpenter – the no-comedy, spoof-free remake.

The development process that we documented in our project was one of ultra-artful deception from start to finish – a slick PR-savvy campaign by arch corporate colonists, like the alien invaders in the 80’s sci-fi earth invasion ‘V’ who adopt the guise of friendly attractive humans in order to seduce the human race and offer us amazing visions of the future they will bring us – then once we have given ourselves over to them, lowered our defences they remove their masks revealing their reptilian form and their true intention to farm us for food to feed their insatiable appetite. David Icke would probably close the circle and claim that the head honchos at Multiplex and the quisling Council Leaders who sold out the town are in fact lizard-like shape-shifters, a genetic throwback to a master race who aim to enslave us poor innocent homo-sapiens.

(a recreation of the orbital tour of the site that I did with Cathy in 2004)

I don’t agree with Icke about the lizard thing for the record. I met many of the people responsible for the ‘Horror of Newlands’ and they just looked like perfectly pleasant corporate suits, in much the same way that British colonial viceroys were often urbane, cultured souls. This didn’t prevent the brutality of imperialism – merely meant that it was administered by men who could relate it to the relevant precedent in the classical world. The mark of the colonist was to change the names of local landmarks, towns and villages. And so the Octagon has gone, that dark noxious place full of wonder – a piss-reeking reminder that shopping malls are places to be avoided at all costs. There was no deception with the old Octagon – it spelt it out for you ‘Shopping is Shit’. Where the Octagon still stands now the name reads ‘House of Fraser Eden’. The Octagon is erased from the collective memory – now there is only Eden. Shopping as Soma.

And so the Eden Shopping Centre was rationalised in terms of jobs and economic benefits. The havoc it would wreck on the psyche of the town, the scar it would gouge into its flesh was a concept they were unable to engage with. I presented this idea to both the architect of the scheme and the fella at Mulitplex – they simply didn’t have a vocabulary for the experiential qualities of space and place. That a building, especially a large lump of buildings could effect the way you feel, could influence your psychology. They had sophisticated models showing how to drive footfall through the mall, of how to enhance the shopping experience to maximise the consumer spend. But when confronted with the idea that a person might have an emotional response to such a place they were at a loss.

The evidence is there now – the gormless zombies listlessly perambulating from one chain-store to the next. The minimum wage jobs barely paying enough to cover the price of a double-caramel frappucino at BigBucks. The traffic on traction gliding from home to parking-space located conveniently close to the anchor store. The bus delivering you to your retail heaven. This other Eden that looks a lot like Hell to me.

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The Lunchtime Derive – video

This is a video that I made with Cathy Rogers back in 2004 capturing the experience of the Lunchtime Derive. This was one of the first interventions in the Remapping High Wycombe project and engages in a kind of playful-constructive activity
aimed at tinkering with the psychogeographical articulations of the town and its primary economic motors – work and consumption. Our grand plan was to roll this out en-masse and get large town centre employers involved and then study the changing relationship that people have with the town once they have been jolted out of their regular routines. The idea is still very much alive.
The maps and notes recording the derivistes pre and post derive movements and the text reproduced below were published in ‘Remapping High Wycombe: journeys beyond the western sector’

The aim of the LunchTime Dérive was to study how, by following a simple instruction, a group of workers could re-experience the town during their Lunch Break. The daily hunt for a prawn sandwich or Chicken Tikka Marsala Ready Meal will be replaced with a drift motivated by following a basic algorithm provided Dutch psychogeographers Social Fiction.
In an email to Cathy I sketch out the theoretical background to the exercise and how we might go about organizing it:
According to geographer David Pinder (1996) part of the purpose of the dérive was to allow “participants to drift from their usual activities and to become more aware of their surroundings while simultaneously seeking out ways of changing them.”
Our intervention is in part in reference to Chombart de Lauwe’s study of the movement’s made in a year by a Paris student. Guy Debord referred to the data produced by this study as ‘a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions.’ By asking the office workers to map their usual lunchtime routines we may find that this precious hour of free time is also similarly limited.
Debord describes the dérive as a period when one or more persons “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” We will be asking people to drop their usual lunch-time routine of the trip to M&S for a sarnie or surfing the net a their desk and to follow an algorithm wherever it may take them and experience the town as they find it.
We will employ an algorithm to jolt people from their routines and drive the drift most likely taking them into areas they wouldn’t normally consider going to at lunch-time. Debord suggests that the dérivers may discover new ‘psychogeographical attractions’ to which they may be drawn back, in this way our intervention may have deeply subversive consequences in changing the lunch-time habits of a group of office workers, the hunt for grub between 12 and 2 being one of the town’s primary motors. By mapping this dynamic then by interfering with it we can start to truly understand and interact with the ‘psychogeographical articulations’ of the town.

Process:
1. Organize an initial meeting with the workers 1 week or so before the derive. Ask them to map their usual lunchtime movements.
2. On the day of the derive meet the volunteers outside their workplace. Issue them with: notepad, disposable camera, piece of paper containing the algorithm.
3. Make sure that everybody understands the instructions and send the groups of 2-3 people off in different directions.
4. We will accompany the groups to record the event but not intervene. The groups record their route, observations etc. on the notepads.
5. The derive finishes after 30 minutes and we reassemble for lunch and debrief.
6. We collect in notepads and cameras and process the results creating maps of the routes followed.
(we could give them a small amount of money to collect food along the way for the lunch at the end)

Rules for a Dérive
1. One or more persons may dérive
2. The most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several groups of two or three people.
3. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another.
4. Drop your usual motives for movement and action, relations, work and leisure activities.
5. The average duration of a dérive is a day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep.
6. The times of beginning and ending have no necessary relation to the solar day.
7. The last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.
8. A dérive seldom occurs in its pure form.
9. The spatial field of the dérive may be precisely delimited or vague.
10. The spatial field depends first of all on the point of departure.
11. The maximum area of this spatial field does not extend beyond the entirety of a large city and its suburbs.
12. The minimum area can be limited to a small self-contained ambiance (the extreme case being the static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station).
Extrapolated from Guy Debord’s 1958 Theory of the Dérive

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