Wycombe on the day of the new King

Mayor and Beadle of High Wycombe, September 2022

Somehow it was so apt to be in Wycombe on the day the new King was proclaimed at the Town Hall two weeks ago. I wondered whether the ghost of Dr Martin Lluelyn popped along. He’d been physician to both Charles I and Charles II, attending to Charles I on the scaffold before his execution and then served as Mayor of High Wycombe in 1671 when residing in Crendon Street. Charles III is bound to Wycombe through this historical thread whether he likes it or not.

As a town it does ceremonial occasions so well with its ancient tradition of the weighing-in of the Mayor and previous heritage of building giant chair arches. I’d expected a sleepy Sunday stroll in the territory of my birth but found the crowds streaming along Queen Victoria Road.

Queen Victoria Road, High Wycombe, 11th September 2022 proclamation of King Charles III
Queen Victoria Road, High Wycombe, 11th September 2022
High Street, High Wycombe September 11th 2022
High Street, High Wycombe
Cafe on High Wycombe High Street
High Street, High Wycombe

There was life in the High Street too, a plush new cafe had opened up next to a restored building that had recently discovered to be the oldest in the town apart from the Norman church. The Octagon Centre was bereft, haunted by the ghost of its fountain where now there’s only a bare sunlit space.

Octagon Centre High Wycombe
Octagon Centre High Wycombe
River Wye High Wycombe
River Wye
Deangarden Wood High Wycombe
Deangarden Wood
Tunnel under M40 High Wycombe
Fennell’s Wood

I followed the River Wye out of the town across the Rye and then along the bottom of Deangarden Wood. Another footpath took me up the steep valley side and through a long tunnel beneath the M40 into Fennell’s Wood. It’s these beech woods hugging the Chiltern Hills, that not only gave the town and its satellite villages their identity and culture but also their industry. Bodgers turned chair legs and piled them high in their woodland camps. In the brick and flint cottages, chair caners wove the seats. On the valley floor, factories assembled the chairs that gave Wycombe the moniker of Chairopolis. This is where your Windsor chairs actually come from. Wycombe Wanderers still go by the nickname of the Chairboys, and my grandfather used to walk through these woods on the way to watch the Wanderers at their old ground of Loakes Park.

Juniper Hill Water Tower, Flackwell Heath
Juniper Hill Tower

My walk was part nostalgia trip and part recce for a piece of writing I started during one of the lockdowns and had reached a dead end. Following the narrative thread from my Mum’s burial in Wooburn cemetery had somehow led me to the location of a water tower in Flackwell Heath on the opposite side of the valley. It occurred to me that I’d never noticed this great looming structure before – even in the years when I drank and worked in the Green Dragon pub nearby and walked down Juniper Lane almost daily. The tower had grown and grown within the shell of what could become a book until it formed a significant block on my progress. I needed to actually visit the site. And here it was – a beautiful brutalist hulk hidden in a nest of residential streets. It deserves a chunk of my book (if I can ever finish it).

Ronald Wood, Flackwell Heath
Ronald Wood
View of Wooburn Green, Bucks
the view over Wooburn Green

I cut down the side of a wood that also features in the book (although I’m nervous to call it that when it currently only stands at six thousand words) and drop across the fields to Wooburn Green. After a quick visit to my mother’s grave I watch a few overs of Wooburn Narkovians at the Park remembering all those happy childhood summers spent scampering around this pitch as my Dad bowled leggies from Church end and smoked Embassy cigarettes while waiting to go out to bat.

Wooburn Town
Wooburn Town
Wooburn Narkovians Cricket Club at  Wooburn Park 11th September 2022
Wooburn Park

A return to Wycombe Wanderers

I hadn’t been to watch Wycombe Wanderers since 1997, when Martin O’Neil was manager and Steve Guppy was flying up the wing being berated by the home fans. Before yesterday that’d been my solitary trip to my hometown club’s new ground. Growing up I’d watched Wycombe at their historic Loakes Park ground with its famous sloping pitch. My grandfather had been an avid Wycombe fan, walking over the hills from Wooburn to Wycombe to watch the blues. My Dad’s cousin, Tony ‘Bodger’ Horseman, is still the Wycombe’s all-time record goalscorer and record appearance holder (a ‘bodger’ is a turner of chair legs – chair-making being the traditional industry of Wycombe).

Tony Bodger Horseman of Wycombe Wanderers
Tony ‘Bodger’ Horseman – photo Bucks Free Press

We had some Wycombe legends playing for our village cricket club, Wooburn Narkovians, captained by my Dad and where I spent all my summers till the age of 18 – Paul Birdseye who Captained Wycombe for many years (and batted No.3 for Wooburn), Geoff Anthony a Welsh Amateur International (and our wicketkeeper), Howard Kennedy who is among the top 10 appearance makers for the club, and Jack Timberlake who went to school with my Dad and ran the village grocers. Jack also helped set up and run Wooburn Wasps, the youth team where I played from aged 9 to 16. At one time the captain of England schoolboys came to play for us and I got scouted by a number of the big London clubs (we regarded Watford as a London club). This is all background to why I took my youngest son out to Wycombe for his first Wanderers match.

The Little Market House, Wycombe – designed by Robert Adam 1761

It was not only Joe’s first time at Adams Park, but his first proper look at the town of my birth (and where one side of our family can be traced back at least to the 1520s). So on the way to the ground I gave him a quick potted history – the Dial House on Crendon Street where Martin Lluelyn poet and Doctor to Charles I on the scaffold had lived, the Red Lion where Churchill sat astride while campaigning, the Market House marking the distances to London (29 miles) and Oxford (25 miles), the curious ancient stone by the Guildhall that someone suggested could be a mark stone from a neolithic stone circle (there’s another behind the nearby Parish Church). We walked past the old Multi-Racial Centre beneath the fly-over where a number of notable gigs took place in the 70s and 80s, on our way to look at Wycombe College where I did my A-levels. It’s now Buckinghamshire New University. It was interesting to find a plaque on the wall pointing out the original course of the River Wye before it was diverted through a culvert during the 1960s town centre redevelopment.

Paul's Row High Wycombe, August 2021 - the pavement shows the original course of the River Wye before it was culverted through the town centre

A later redevelopment, in the early 2000s, had brought me back to Wycombe to work on an art project with my sister, Cathy, that had been inspired by the scheme. Homesick living in Sydney, I’d searched online for news of my hometown and been surprised to see it unrecognisable from the descriptions of the plans for Project Phoenix. You can read about Remapping High Wycombe project here and download the text I wrote. Our walk through the town confirmed some of our fears of what the resulting Eden Shopping Centre would do to the surrounding parts of Wycombe. Many of the shops were boarded up on Crendon Street and the High Street with its historic medieval market was incredibly sombre compared to what it had been before Eden brought its covered mall to the Newlands carpark. Once one of the most prosperous towns in the country, the Guardian recently reported how it has become a ‘food insecurity hotspot’.

The Wycombe Stone
White Hart Street High Wycombe, August 2021 - photo by John Rogers, the lost byway
White Hart Street

But the spirit of Wycombe is strong, this is the town that started the English Civil War after all. And you can see signs of recovery in the town centre, since my last visit at the end of 2019. We made our way out to Adams Park nestled in the foothills of the Chilterns, and even Joe was beguiled by the sight of the hills rising above the stands. The atmosphere outside the ground was good with live music in the Chairboys Village in the carpark. There was plenty of nose inside the stadium – the Wycombe chants being led by a manic drummer at the back of the terraces who was still there banging that drum long after the final whistle. Sam Vokes, with his 64 International Caps for Wales and 113 Premier League appearances, always looked likely to be the difference between the sides, and his 3rd minute back post header from Jordan Obita’s cross proved decisive. Lincoln City played well, to give them credit, and big David Stockdale pulled off a couple of fine saves to keep the scoreline at 1-0.

Chairboys Village, Wycombe Wanderers v Lincoln City 21st August 2021
Adams Park, Wycombe Wanderers v Lincoln City 21st August 2021
Sam Vokes Goal, Wycombe Wanderers v Lincoln City 21st August 2021

After the match we walked back into town. Past the Hour Glass where my sister used to drink and my Dad play darts, then down Mill End Road where my Mum went to school. Then we followed Dashwood Avenue all the way back into town as I told Joe stories of Lord Dashwood’s Hellfire Club and showed him the place on the Avenue where we’d brought him to meet my Aunty Carol when he was just a few months old and she was in the final months of her life. Naturally our trip to Wycombe ended with a pint of Rebellion Brewery IPA in The Antelope (well Joe had to have lemonade).

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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’


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.