Berkhamsted

In which I venture out alone into the Hertfordshire countryside…

Mrs. P is not always as enthusiastic about my ‘research trips’ as I am. Sometimes, even the promise of lunch at a country inn and discovering quaint little shops in country towns is not enough to rouse her from her bed for a two-hour trek across the country to visit a remote hamlet because someone once wrote a sonnet there.

So it was, on a bright Friday in late October, that I set out alone. I say ‘bright’, by which I mean that it had stopped raining for the first time this week, and the sun did start to peep through the clouds as I left. It looked like it was shaping up to be quite a pleasant day, as I traversed the beautiful, rolling countryside on the borders of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. By the time I was on the Leighton Buzzard Bypass, however, the rain had started to spatter the windscreen

Ivinghoe beacon signals that the ground is rising to meet the Chilterns. It dominates the countryside for miles around, as, I suppose, beacons are supposed to do. It was dotted with walkers taking in the stunning autumnal views across the low lying countryside. Maybe not as breathtaking as the lakes or the Scottish Highlands but impressive in its own way and well worth the gentle climb to take it in. Not today, though.

Lace Cottage, Aldbury, Herts

I was headed to Aldbury. A village near wonderfully named town of Tring on the South-Western peninsula of Hertfordshire that protrudes into Bucks. Aldbury is a lovely little village that sits in a steep wooded valley. there is a very pretty pub on the the village green, opposite the duck pond; crowded with cars on this busy half-term Friday (the village, not the duck pond). As I drove through the valley, part of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate, the sun briefly peeked out from the leaden sky and caught the trees; the wood shone copper and gold in its autumn ensemble.

I parked up and walked down the village towards Lace cottage, where Louis MacNeice spent his last days. He was part of the ‘Auden group’: a group of poets that met at Oxford in the 1920s and became the foremost English poets of the 1930s. Along with MacNeice and Auden, the group included Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis. MacNeice started his career teaching classics at the University of Birmingham. He disliked students, however, and sought the company of working men in the local pubs: a love of pubs he brought with him to Aldbury.

If you want to read MacNeice, his most interesting poetry is from the period just after the loss of his wife, in 1935. He had been blissfully happy in the early years of their marriage, so, when she left him for an American student he was, as you might expect, heartbroken. The collection he published in this year one of the best collections of his writing.

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with one pulse

Louis MacNeice, Meeting Point
The Greyhound, Aldbury

In 1937, he went on a trip to Iceland with WH Auden and the book they wrote together, Letters from Iceland, is well worth a read. By 1958 when he moved to Aldbury, MacNeice was twice divorced and working as a BBC Radio producer. He had begun a relationship with the actress, Mary Wimbush (older readers may remember her as Julia Pargetter in The Archers). They shared some very happy years together here until MacNeice’s death in 1963.

The Greyhound Inn is a few steps from the front door of Lace Cottage; I headed there now. MacNeice liked to sit under the clock in the public bar. I wasn’t able to explore properly because of lockdown regulations, but I did have a look in the front bar and saw the clock, over a stove which would have made a very cosy nook in cold weather. It was grey and overcast, threatening to rain. I was shown to an outside table by an extremely friendly young woman. All the staff, in fact, all female, were very polite, very smiley and extremely well organised. She quickly brought me a pint of Ferret (a lovely tawny bitter brewed in Dorset) and took my order. My steak and ale pie was brought out quickly (a little TOO quickly, if I’m honest) but it was hot and came with chips and gravy, which is all I want from life these days. It was pleasant in the courtyard dining area: not cold and the rain held off long enough for me to finish my lunch and read for a few minutes before heading off to Berkhamsted.

M&Co. Berkhamsted. The site of William Cowper’s School

I had never been to Berkhamsted before. I had passed it many times, as the A41 bypasses it. Its position at a gap in the Chiltern ridge has led many main routes through the town and, with them. people, trade and wealth. First, a Roman Road, Akerman Street ran through the town. This became the main coaching road from London to Oxford and Birmingham went through the middle of the town. Later, the Grand Union canal cut its way right through the town. Then, in 1834, construction began on the railway, led by chief engineer George Stephenson. The plan to build a railway through the town had been subject to many protests and the large number of working men the project brought overcrowded the town and their behaviour frequently offended the locals.

I parked just to the north of the railway by Berkhamsted Castle. Built in the 11th Century, the earthworks of the motte and Bailey are still there, as are some later, stone buildings. I took a quick walk around the perimeter. It was quite steep and very wet and slippery underfoot but many families were enjoying the open air; children running at full speed along the bank, seemingly unaware of the long fall into a defensive ditch if they should miss their footing!

I wandered towards the town along the towpath. Boats look particularly warm and cosy in the autumn, with smoke coming out of the chimneys and I’ve always found the idea of living on one very attractive. I imagine the reality of early winter mornings in a cold metal shell must be quite a different experience; Mrs. P would never countenance such an idea. Along the high street were the usual collection of shops but the buildings were very pleasant. I sought M&Co., not for shopping you understand (I’m still not completely sure what they actually sell!). The poet William Cowper was born in the town in 1731 and the school he attended as a child occupied some of the buildings above what is now the store. I tried to find his birthplace: his father was rector here but the rectory is a Victorian building which must post date his birth by several years and the original rectory is long since demolished.

The Gatsby bar, Berkhamsted

At the South end of the high street is a very trendy bar called The Gatsby. It is set in a fine Art Deco building, that houses the Rex Cinema. It was saved from closure in the 1980s by a local campaign that allowed the bar, along with some houses, to be built around the cinema. It is of interest to me as, when it was first built in 1936, it was on the site of a grand Victorian manor called Egerton House. This was the home of the Llewelyn-Davis family, who had been friends with JM Barrie, for whom he had written the Peter Pan stories. He is known to have visited them here on at least one occasion.

Berkhamsted’s other favourite son is Graham Greene. His father was headmaster at Berkhamsted school, so Graham was born in one of the school buildings. It is now a dormitory, so I was thankful for school holidays as I photographed the large, austere Victorian building. Graham attended the school here, so I walked on to the main school where he lived. He was horribly unhappy here: so much so, that he attempted suicide on at least two occasions and was given psychotherapy as a result. He recalls the town in both volumes of his autobiography: A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape . Afficianados tell me that the town and its buildings are frequently recognisable in his novels. Greene writes in a huge range of genres, from romance to spy fiction, all of them touched by his profound catholic beliefs. The most famous are probably the best: The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana.

Graham Greene’s birthplace, Berkhamsted

Young Graham’s primary method of escape from childhood unhappiness was to explore the common on the hills to the north of the town. Here he could let his imagination run free, surrounded by the sounds and the beauty of nature. All his happy childhood memories are connected to this large open space above the town. Now dominated by a golf course, I went for a walk there. The light was fast failing and the ground very wet underfoot. I wasn’t able to explore as well as I’d hoped. A constant stream of golfers also made walking a precarious affair. I walked as far as the First World War practice trenches, still clearly visible on the hillside. From here views towards the town over autumnal wooded valleys but the light was failing now and I had a long drive home.

Berkhamsted is a nice town with an eclectic mix of attractive buildings, including a large church and a great deal of Victorian development. There is a nice balance of conventional high street stores and characterful local shops. There are pubs and caf├ęs that I would have liked to explore, had lockdown restrictions made life a bit easier. I would like to return in summer and see the town in all its glory. Mrs. P will love it.

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