There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Buckingham and Stowe

My parents moved to Buckinghamshire when I was five and stayed there fifty years, so it might seem surprising to those who do not know the county that I had never been to Buckingham. Buckinghamshire is long and thin and we lived in the south, a stone's throw from what was then Middlesex and is now Greater London, while Buckingham is in the far north, and there was just no reason to go there; it is not on the way to anywhere, it lost the title of 'county town' to Aylesbury in the eighteenth century and with 12,000 inhabitants it is hardly a major centre of population.

By chance our daughter now lives near Aylesbury (a town of little charm where even the duckling connection is only historic) so whilst cat sitting we decided it was at last time to visit Buckingham - it is only twenty miles away.

Our arrival was inauspicious, a new suburb under construction south of the town will apparently require an inordinate number of roundabouts and the road works were tedious. Then there was a deviation in the town centre where a road was closed for repairs.

Whether Stowe is part of Buckingham is a moot point - the approach road starts within the town but the long straight drive quickly reaches parkland and heads straight for a Corinthian Arch, another Arc deTriomphe for my collection. Disappointingly the road swings right instead of passing beneath it.

The approach to Stowe's Corinthian Arch
In the eighteenth century fashionable people travelled the country to see grand gardens and Stowe, as the National Trust slogan runs, is ‘Gardening on a Grand Scale’. Viscount Cobham was proud of his great estate and wanted to show it off, so in 1717 he built the New Inn to accommodate visitors. Fashions change and the New Inn closed in 1851, but it has recently been restored and now looks as it might have done in its heyday.

Lynne at the New Inn, Stowe
Beyond the modern reception area, we joined the path behind the Corinthian Arch, and walked down Bell Gate Drive to the estate.

From the (not noticeably octagonal) Octagon Lake there is a magnificent view down over the water and up across the sward to Stowe House. This is a garden of landscapes rather than flowers, and over three generations the greatest landscape gardeners of the age, including Capability Brown, spared neither expense nor effort in transforming natural countryside into a fake natural countryside matching the fashions of the day.

Lynne, the Octagon Lake and Stowe House
The Temple family made their money from sheep farming. In 1571 Peter Temple leased the Stowe estate and by 1584 his son could afford to buy both the estate and manor house. The Temples became baronets and grew wealthier and in 1683 Sir Richard Temple started to build the current Stowe House. Like the garden it was worked on over several generations by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir John Vanbrugh and Robert Adam.

His son, also called Richard, was a soldier and politician. He became Viscount Cobham and married into even more wealth. Lord Cobham created the garden, though work continued for a generation or two after him. He was the richest man in England, richer than the king, so cost was no obstacle.

The lakes and walkways are populated by shrines, monuments and temples in classical style. Between the Octagon and Eleven Acre Lakes a cascade is crossed by a bridge bearing an artificial ruin. Ruination can result from malice or neglect and a well preserved ruin, like a Cambodian temple (neglect) or Glastonbury Abbey (malice), is always of interest, but I dislike purpose built ruins. Two have previously appeared in this blog; the chocolate teapot that is Mow Cop and the small temple on the Sandon Estate which is undoubtedly regarded as an aesthetic highlight by the grazing sheep. To me, these say 'more money than sense' and are grounds for questioning the taste of the builder.

The Ruin on the Cascade, Stowe
On a circuitous route to the house we passed the rotunda which houses a copy of the Medici Venus. Much of the garden involves fakery and copies, though occasionally it rises to the heights of 'derivative'.

The Rotunda, Stowe
For two generations the owners failed to produce heirs and the estate passed from uncle to nephew. This, and the family’s tendency to enrich itself by marrying heiresses and collecting their money, titles and names led, in the mid nineteenth century, to Stowe being owned by Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 2nd Duke of Chandos and Buckingham. While marrying into wealth and climbing the ranks of the peerage from Baron to Viscount, then Earl and finally Duke, they spent as though money were infinite and earned a reputation for arrogance which was unhelpful when the wheels came off. Four generations after Stowe’s owner was the wealthiest man in England, the 2nd Duke of Chandos and Buckingham was the country’s biggest debtor owing £1.5 million. (Well over £100 million by today's standards). An auction of the house contents in 1848 raised a paltry £75,000 and he skipped off abroad and the house was left to deteriorate.

By the 1920s it was facing demolition, but was saved by JF Roxburgh who wanted to found a school and needed a building. Most of the country's great 'public schools' - which are of course not open to the general public - are old foundations; Stowe is probably the only twentieth century foundation among them, but it has been a remarkably successful venture. Well known 'Old Stoics' include David Niven, Richard Branson and George Melly.

Stowe House
The school has outgrown Stowe House, though additions have been sympathetic, but it still uses the old building so only a few rooms are open to the public – Stowe School was closed for the summer, but they were hosting several summer schools.

The Old Library, Stowe House
The Old Library remains a school library. The old books went in the sale of 1858, but the restocked mahogany bookcases still line the walls and look down in bemusement at the reading lamps and laptops of modern library life. The ceiling has been recently returned to its former glory with more gold leaf than we have seen since Mandalay.

The ceiling of the Old Library, Stowe House
The music room has good views over the park and some interesting murals. I do not know who painted the beings with dragon's hind legs, a woman's upper body and wings, but when he decided to balance a vase of flowers their heads did he not think this might be a step too far?

Music Room murals, Stowe House
The Marble Saloon is said to be the masterpiece of Vincenzo Valdrè (I thought I had never heard of him, but I had been looking at his paintings on the ceiling of St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle only a month before). The columns are scagliola made to look like Sicilian jade and the statues are plaster replicas of 'the sort of statues that would have been here'. The design is 'inspired by' (does that mean 'copied from'?) the Pantheon in Rome, but the Marble Saloon is elliptical instead of circular.

The Marble Saloon, Stowe House
This shape caused enormous problems for the builders of the dome and added even more expense - but money is no object to those on the fast track to bankruptcy.

The Dome of the Marble Saloon, Stowe House
Back outside we walked through the park, past the Temple of Easy Ancient Virtue…

The Temple of Ancient Virtues
… and Captain Grenville's Column - there are columns to all sorts of odds and sods dotted around the landscape -….

Captain Grenville's Column, Stowe
and down to the Temple of British Worthies, a curving roofless exedra displaying busts of the good, the bad and the ugly. The eclectic selection involves several monarchs (including Alfred the Great - who seems to be stalking us at the moment - and Elizabeth I as the token woman) a couple of pirates (Raleigh, Drake) one or two genuine greats (Shakespeare, Newton) and some who induce the question 'who he?' The name of eighteenth century Whig politician Sir John Barnard has not come winging down the centuries.

Lynne (who is not worthy) [Oh yes I am! L] and the Temple of British Worthies, Stowe

Continuing towards the river we caught sight of this monstrosity.

The Gothic Temple, Stowe
Called the Gothic Temple it was designed by James Gibb in 1741, right at the start of the Gothic Revival. I doubt any Goth, original or revived, would recognise it, though it does seem to foreshadow Hollywood gothic. It is smaller than it looks from a distance and is available as a holiday let - a strange but interesting place to stay.

Returning to the river we crossed the Palladian Bridge, which has featured in many costume dramas as well as on National Trust membership cards, and made our way back to reception for a cup of tea and a sandwich before making the short drive back into Buckingham.

The Palladian Bridge, Stowe
It is impossible not to be impressed by Stowe, but perhaps not in the way the builders intended. It was the product of great effort and expense over several generations by people who had a lot of money, little sense and even less taste. It is well worth a visit, but is best not taken too seriously.

Nearby, Buckingham's small centre is largely Georgian. In 1725 fire destroyed a third of the town and provoked much rebuilding.

The White Hart, Buckingham
The market square has several jarringly modern shop fronts but is dominated by the town gaol. The gothic-style building was erected in 1748 and paid for by Viscount Cobham. The rounded front was added by George Gilbert Scott in 1839. Sir (as he became in 1871) George Gilbert Scott was a local boy who made good and designed, among much else, the Albert Memorial.

Buckingham Old Gaol
Having lost the status of ‘county town’ it was hoped the refurbished gaol would help keep the county assizes in Buckingham, but they followed everything else down the road to Aylesbury.

The gaol was later used as a police station, a fire station, an armoury, an antiques shop and a café before becoming the town museum in 1993. The cells now house an interesting exhibition covering local history, rural life and the Buckinghamshire Military Trust.

The cells, Buckingham Old Gaol
On the ground floor around the worryingly small exercise yard, once open to the sky but today rather hot under its modern roof, is an exhibition of the life and times of Flora Thompson, writer of, among other things, Lark Rise to Candleford. The book, and to a lesser extent the recent television series, was partly autobiographical. Flora Thompson was born Flora Timms (the heroine of Lark Rise was called Laura Timmins) in 1876 in the hamlet of Juniper Hill (fictionalised as Lark Rise) just 8 miles from Buckingham. Candleford is based partly on the larger village of Fringford, and partly on Buckingham. The exhibition includes a collection of costumes from the show.

Flora Thompson's typewriter
George Gilbert Scott also designed Buckingham’s workhouse, which has been demolished, and made 'improvements' – as was the Victorian wont - to the church and to the fifteenth century Chantry Chapel, the oldest building in the town. A chantry chapel is one built and endowed for the purpose of saying masses for the dead to speed them through purgatory. It is now a Quaker meeting house and part time second-hand book shop and cafe. Manned by volunteers its opening hours are limited, indeed it closed fifteen minutes before we got there.

The Chantry Chapel, Buckingham
So now I have been to Buckingham. Stowe apart, there is not much to see, but I am glad we made the effort - and the town has some pleasing corners.

A pleasing corner of Buckingham
Just out of the picture to the right is a modern terrace, built in the same red brick and designed to blend in with the older buildings (an idea that never crossed the planners minds in nearby Dunstable).

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