The London Gliding Club that is not in London
The very first powerless flight across the English Channel was made out of Dunstable in 1939, by club member Geoffrey Stephenson. Founded in 1930 by a group of enthusiastic aviators who were based in London, the London Gliding Club is in fact based at the foot of the Dunstable Downs. The oldest in the country, one of their early bases was on Ivinghoe Beacon, but the resulting interest caused so much disruption, they were asked to find a new home. Many moves later, they settled in their present home, known as the ‘bowl’ which remains an iconic landmark in the gliding world.
Famous aviator, Amy Johnson visited the club in 1937 and took up gliding with much enthusiasm.
Weighing the Mayor
The mayor and corporation of High Wycombe are weighed in in full view of the public to see whether or not they have been getting fat at the taxpayers' expense. This annual custom dates back to medieval times and is unique to this market town. It has been captured by British Pathe
and takes place in May each year.
Weight is no longer an election issue, but for custom's sake the new mayor is obliged to sit on a specially erected scale to have their weight recorded and compared with the previous year. The macebearer is dressed in tradional costume and rings a bell before calling out the weight. When he adds the words "And no more!" the crowd cheers as a sign of their appreciation and gratitude for hard work done for the community. But if he shouts "And some more!", it means the mayor has been indulging in too much good living at ratepayers' expense and the crowd jeers and boos. In years gone by they would have pelted the offending person with tomatoes and rotten fruit!
England is full of quaint customs – some funny and others frankly bizarre. Some with origins lost or simply re-invigorated to suit modern tastes and bank holidays. Swan Upping is neither.
Firmly routed in the 12th century, it is both necessary for conservation of mute swans and acts as a gentle reminder of just who owns them. A hot July afternoon beside the river Thames at Marlow is always to be savoured. Panting dogs, bored children, enthusiastic mothers, white linen-clad ladies, zoom lenses and bulging camera bags in evidence and pensioners all gathered to see HM Queen’s procession of Swan Uppers make their way upriver on their five-day journey to record the swan population on stretches of the River Thames in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
The Witches Beech
This ancient beech with a massive girth of 6.39 metres, is what gives this local landmark such a striking appearance. Perhaps the Witches Beech has some connection to the infamous Dunstable Witch, Elizabeth Pratt who lived nearby? She was accused on 1667 of bewitching the two children of the landlord of the Nags Head, touching both on the head after visiting the pub for bread and ale. After her visit, the two children grew sick, with a strange distemper, and died, screaming that they had been murdered by the witch.
Elizabeth was tried as a witch and burned at the stake. Her fate is now remembered in a poem called The Bottled Curse by Alfred Wire. At her death, she is said to have cursed the churchyard, leading the local people to avoid it, lest her magic attack them, and causing the church to fall into disrepair;
“Thus the churchyard goes to ruin
Graves and fences getting worse:
Everyone devoutly wishing
Not to free the bottled curse.”
Park in Whipsnade Heath car park, walk to the seat in central glade then turn left and follow circular path, at northern corner, turn left to the tree
The Chilterns' Crosses
THE gigantic Whiteleaf Cross stands on the edge of the Chilterns silently watching all that goes on in the Vale below. The cross has given away almost none of its secrets throughout the years and defied archaeologists to even guess at its true age or purpose. It was first accurately recorded in 1742 by the Rev Francis Wise who claimed it could be seen from Uffington, 30 miles away. But in fact the cross was not as big then as it is now. The cross cannot be accurately dated any older than that but tantalisingly there is a reference in a Saxon charter of 903 AD to a boundary mark at Whiteleaf called Weland's stock (or pole).
More convincingly is a clue discovered by Michael Bayley who noticed a drawing of it cut into one of the tiles of Monks Risborough church at the foot of the cross. The tile is 14th century. It is unlikely the cross was copied from the tile (rather than the other way round) but of course it cannot be ruled out. As to its purpose - that has been open to much conjecture. It faces exactly West which suggests an astronomical alignment (most ancient hill figures face West). Others have suggested it was cut to commemorate a battle or used as a marker for travellers. It sits beneath an Iron Age barrow, so the site has some significance.
Nobody really knows but what is for sure is that a spectacular view across the Vale can be had from the picnic area at the top of the cross. It is said you can see seven counties from the vantage point. Count them and see! To get to the cross drive north out of Princes Risborough. Turn right at Monks Risborough (the cross is signposted) and drive up the hill through the village of Whiteleaf. The entrance to the picnic area is on the left but is not clearly signposted.
LESS well known is Bledlow Cross, which can only be dated to early 19th century. It is smaller than Whiteleaf and was last scoured in 1991. You will have trouble finding it but drive to the end of Hill Top Lane above the village of Chinnor (on the Bledlow Ridge road) and then walk northwards. After about half a mile the cross is above you on your right. The Revd. F. Lee (1883) conjectures that the Whiteleaf Cross near Princes Risborough was cut as a memorial for some victory by King Edward the elder over his enemies. There is, however, no evidence for this.
Thank you to the Strange Britain website for the Markstones and Chilterns' Crosses information, you will find more of the weird and wonderful there.
This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off to explore one thing and in fact discover something quite different and delightful.
Anonymous initials, an evocative place name and the ghost of a Celtic tribal chief? It seems fitting that such a place, whilst no longer occupied, still draws visitors who wish also to leave their mark, and a former first century tribal chieftain reputedly still there, marking his presence from the sky.
A dot on the Chilterns landscape; somewhere you wouldn’t even pass through as the busy Leighton Buzzard road bypasses the hamlet. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.
Legends of Amersham
A highwayman, a green lady and an axe all figure in legends of Amersham.
Dick Turpin, people say, gave his name to the row of cottages at the far end of Amersham High Street. To evade his pursuers there, didn’t he dash upstairs in one cottage, through a row of connecting attics and down the stairs of another dwelling where he escaped out the back into Barn Meadow? Well, that’s how the story goes but as far as we know Dick Turpin never came to Amersham. The cottages were probably called after Thomas Turpin who owned them in 1742.
At the other end of the town, Gore Hill is supposedly named after a 9th Century battle with the Danes, so fierce that the blood ran down the hill. There is no record of such a battle in the area but it’s a good story.[Editor's note: the name ‘Gore’ probably refers to a triangular enclosure of land between various large fields south of Bury Farm.]
Another bloodthirsty legend tells how the Drake squires of Amersham got a hatchet in their coat of arms. A seafaring Drake is said to have murdered his cabin boy with an axe and as a punishment had to incorporate a permanent reminder of his crime into his coat of arms. Our Drakes, who first came to the Amersham area around 1600, were not seafaring types but are said to have liked to think they were related to Sir Francis, the Armada hero, and adopted his crest, murder weapon and all.
As the Martyrs' Memorial recalls, in early Tudor times, a group of Amersham townsfolk were burnt at the stake for holding unorthodox religious beliefs. For centuries afterwards it was said that nothing would grow on the site of the fire.
In a town with so many old houses, ghost stories are rife. Reputed hauntings range from Raans Farm over to Woodrow and spread out along the A413 from The Chequers Inn to Shardeloes. Woodrow High House has the ghost of the ‘Green Lady’, Helena Stanhope, who killed herself after her lover died for his part in Monmouth’s Rebellion. The ghost of a monk is reported to have been seen at The Gables, a house near the Market Hall, the site of which may have belonged to Missenden Abbey before the Reformation. There is also rumoured to have been an underground passage leading from The Gables to the Old Rectory (some versions of the story take the passage only as far as the Church).
Thank you to Amersham Museum
for this information, worthwhile visiting to explore more of this historic market town's stories.