Travel Report: Old Amersham, England.
August 2019. I’ve always been just a little envious of people who’ve had the same family house all their lives. That sense of safety and stability I’m guessing you get whenever you return home. Especially in a small town or village, where the changes over the decades are somewhat gradual compared to those in one’s life. Or indeed the world at large.
Not that I would trade this in for all the house hopping I experienced as a child… teen… and even adult. Despite my family’s near incessant vagabonding, there have been a few places that I’ll always identify as home. One of these is the English village of Old Amersham in the leafy county of Buckinghamshire.
Set in a wonderfully green valley of The River Misbourne, Old Amersham is a charming, pre-Victorian market community situated at the foot of the larger and more modern Amersham-on-the-Hill.
My family, consisting of yours truly, mum, dad and sister Natalie, arrived in the mid 1980s from the nearby town of Chesham. I would have been seven or eight years old. While I don’t remember the actual move, I do recall a great deal of the idyllic five years I spent here before leaving for military boarding school in 1990.
We lived in a modest council house on School Lane, just a five-minute walk from the High Street. Thirty years later and it’s amazing how little the lane has changed. It’s still incredibly green and, for the most part, quiet and family oriented. I hate to employ such an overused word but… walking back down School Lane as a 41 year old was… surreal.
This is where my most memorable childhood years unfurled. A house in which I would wake up early on Sundays to prepare puppet shows for my baby sister from behind the living room sofa. Where I watched all those classic Disney films for the first time on VHS. The home where I hungrily consumed books by Roald Dahl and Robin Jarvis. Where I collected He-Man and Star Wars action figures and celebrated numerous birthdays and Christmases.
The house looks much like it did when I was a kid. That’s my sister and the family cat Shelly in the window. Back in 2008 I briefly had the opportunity of passing through Old Amersham. Stopping by my former homestead, I discovered that the current tenants were also Thomases. Not sure if they’re still living there.
St Mary’s C of E Primary School.
Getting to school every day was certainly a piece of cake! In fact, St Mary’s C of E Primary School was right next door! It took me about thirty seconds to walk to the entrance steps each morning. Moreover, I had the option of going home for lunch, while the others had to deal with whatever there was in the canteen.
We used to play football during break time. Usually, the ball would fly over the fence into our garden at least once. “Muuuum” I’d call, “Can you throw the ball back?” The headmaster at the time was a lovely man by the name of Mr. Durrant, while I also remember a few teachers, Mr. Marchant and Miss Coventry. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the names and faces of so many of my classmates. Nevertheless, I can still dig out the likes of David King, James Hart, Lisa Bowler, Lisa Gilbert and Claire Edgecombe.
Our other neighbour was a somewhat temperamental old lady by the name of Marie Last. She had a son called Flossy, who used to come to visit with his own child, Matthew. For a while Matthew and I were as thick as thieves, until we fell out over some mystery disagreement.
Whatever the problem was, we never did patch things up. For the most part we managed to remain cordial with Marie. Although I can still visualise the day she angrily confronted my father, accusing Natalie of “making funny faces” at her. “I was smiling!” my sister protested.
A young family lived next door down from Marie. I can’t remember their surname, but the dad and son were both called Nigel. There was also a little girl and one day she ended up losing consciousness face down in a paddling pool in their front garden. I can still hear the mother screaming and picture my mum rushing over to give the girl the kiss of life. She survived of course and my mum got a bouquet of flowers from the family.
I spent the vast majority of those 1980s summers playing in Barn Meadow with my friends. The green looks rather modest to me now, but as an eight year old it felt like a whole other planet. Our favourite pastime was a game called Bike Spreaders. Mounted on our various bicycles, we’d decide among ourselves who was going to be The Spreader.
Giving us a twenty second head start, The Spreader proceeded to hunt one of us down. To make a catch, all he or she had to do was touch someone. Either by hand, bumping tires or even crashing mercilessly into the side of them. Once caught, you become a spreader too. And so the chain goes on until the winner is the last guy left uncaught.
This is Barn Meadow Pavilion, a multi purpose event venue managed by the local council. Back in our day, my mum and her friend Dotty ran a playgroup from here for local mothers and their children. It was a fairly new building at the time, although before that a cricket pavilion once stood on the spot.
Barn Meadow is also home to a children’s playground. I was sad to note the disappearance of the grass tennis courts that used to lie to the side of the swings. After hours in front of the TV watching the likes of Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg at Wimbledon, I would often hit the courts to nurture my own tennis skills.
To play, you had to put a pound in the metre, which gave you something like an hour. Needless to say my friends and I dodged paying as much as we could. From time to time, an old man by the name of John would keep watch and scold us if he saw we hadn’t paid our dues. The poor guy was a burn victim with a badly disfigured face. I was terrified of him and always promptly paid up whenever he caught me out.
I couldn’t believe that my old youth club still stands, looking much as it did when I was a kid. It was called The 61 Club, run by a lovely guy called Jeff Keedle. Once a week I’d come to play football, hang out with friends and stuff myself at the tuck shop. There were even a few dance nights. Sadly, Jeff passed away in 1996 and now his daughter Denise oversees today’s community hall.
There were more memories whirring around my head at The Maltings, located right across from Barn Meadow Community Hall. Home to both residential and professional buildings, this compound has a long and interesting history. It has been home to a brewery, a fabric print studio and craft workshops.
Furthermore, several episodes of the acclaimed TV series Midsomer Murders were filmed here in the mid noughties. All the buildings are brick and flint creations dating back to the 17th century. You used to be able to walk inside, but an iron gate now keeps riff raff like me out.
As kids, we believed The Maltings was haunted. Hence I wouldn’t go anywhere near the place after dark. In the daytime though, I’d occasionally come to listen to the radio through one of the grates in the wall. Yes…. I was a strange kid. I figured I was listening into a workshop of some kind and can clearly remember hearing Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach for the first time. Although I couldn’t hear the lyrics clearly and ended up singing “poppadum peach”.
A narrow section of The River Misbourne runs along Barn Meadow’s High Street side. This is where I’d come to hunt for minnows with my fishing net. A favourite spot was the wooden footbridge leading to The Eagle, a traditional pub specialising in real ales and craft beer. Many years later, as a teenager, my college friends and I would come for a few pints on the weekend.
The river widens a little further along from The Eagle. This leafy alley connects the meadow to Mill Lane, where my friends Simon and Jono lived. One summer, I built a camp here using whatever sticks and branches we found lying around. Inside, I buried my pocket money and a few treasured trinkets for supposed safekeeping. Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s perhaps something still in there somewhere!
One afternoon, a family friend, the now sadly departed Ray Knight, took me trout fishing by the bridge. I think we caught something significant, but the details elude me.
Right by that bridge, at the entrance to Mill Lane, stands a gorgeous townhouse by the name of Mill Meadow. In my child’s mind this was the fanciest place in Old Amersham and every time I passed it I couldn’t help but stop and stare.
The place was like a damn castle, with its own set of gates and two or three amazing cars in the drive. One summer I actually got to wash one of those cars when I went around town with a bucket and sponge offering my dubious services.
What To See & Do, Old Amersham.
I believe I can trace the roots of my lifelong sweet tooth right back to Broadway Newsagency. I came here countless times to stock up on penny sweets, fizzy drinks, Panini football stickers and the latest copy of the Beano and Dandy comic books.
The owners were a lovely Indian couple, The Patels. I even went to school with their son Yateen at St. Mary’s. In 2008 I took this somewhat hasty shot of the place, unaware that it would be the last time I laid eyes on it.
During my most recent visit, I was surprised to see that the old newsagents has been transformed into Old Amersham’s best-loved cafe. Whether you’re in for craft coffee, a full English, sandwiches, waffles, burgers or the daily special, Twelve Twenty delivers some of the best food in town.
Best of all, they haven’t forgotten the building’s history. In fact, a giant Broadway Newsagency sign dominates the back wall of the tiny interior. There are also old photos of the building and the street, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The Patels are very proud, I’m sure.
England’s parks and gardens are often the envy of the world. Even, it seems, in tiny villages most people have never heard of. In Old Amersham they have a small garden on the High Street that reinvents itself according to the season. In July 2019, just a month prior to my visit, local authorities unveiled the exceptionally endearing Peace Garden.
Bursting with colour and character, local volunteers created a gorgeous space home to magnificent floral displays, animal sculptures, a mini waterfall and a bridge. Local businesses stepped in with donations, while the kids at my old school, St Mary’s, contributed a charming flower box based on the story of Noah’s Ark.
The garden also features a memorial statue to those locals who fell during The First World War. It really is an exceptional space, no wonder the team behind it won a Gold Award at the Britain in Bloom National Finals.
St Mary’s Parish Church.
St. Mary’s Parish Church lies just a few dozen steps from the War Memorial. A house of worship of some description has stood here since around 1140, while the current structure dates back to the 13th century.
As a kid, my classmates and I used to visit for the occasional Sunday service. We also poured in every December for Christmas Carols. One time, I vaguely remember reading something to a packed house of kids, parents and locals. Sadly, I cannot for the life of me recollect the text or indeed the nature of the service.
The church graveyard is really charming too, like something out of a Dickens novel. If you have the time (I didn’t), it could be interesting to seek out the headstone belonging to Ruth Hornby (1926-1955). Known in her day as Ruth Ellis, she was the last woman to be hanged in Britain after she murdered her lover.
Four Weddings and a Funeral.
There are some stunning hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts scattered around Old Amersham. If you can splash out and want something with historical significance, consider The Crown Hotel on The High Street. Built in the 16th century, the building has played host to a number of well-to-do families and comes with a few enduring ghost stories.
In the summer of 1993, film director Mike Newell arrived in Old Amersham with his cast and crew to shoot a number of scenes for his movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. In the flick, The Crown is called The Jolly Boatman. The gorgeous reception area, pictured above, is where Carrie, played by Andie MacDowell, hides from the unwanted attention of sleazy George.
It was here that I asked the receptionist if I could grab a shot of the suite where Carrie and Hugh Grant’s character Charles hook up for the first time. Much to my delight, a couple had checked out of Room 101 that morning, thus I was able to go in and take a quick look.
The room has changed almost beyond recognition. Just the basic structure of the space ringing true, along with a few of the original wooden beams. Nevertheless, it was another wonderful filming location ticked off my list.
“I always worry I’ll go too far. You know, in the heat of the moment”.
“Well… how far do you think too far would be then?”
Exterior shots of The Jolly Boatman actually took place further along the road at the magnificent King’s Arms. This 35 bedroom boutique hotel dates back to the 1400s and features a popular restaurant and pub.
Finally, take a look at the striking Market Hall, a grade II listed structure built by the noted politician and lawyer Sir William Drake in 1682. Drake envisioned it as a covered market and meeting hall for the local council and traders’ guilds.
On that day in 2019 the hall was hosting an antique market. About half a dozen stall owners with a fascinating array of old furniture, jewellery, paintings, kitchenware and general bric-a-brac.
As I explored, there were several enchanting details to pick out. Such as the Drake family arms on the south wall and a grand, stone north wall plaque detailing key historical events and enlightening trivia. For example, I never knew that Oliver Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth lived in the town for a period during the 1650s.
I’m sure I’ll be back to Old Amersham one day. If only to show Sladja where I grew up and to tie up a few loose ends, such as Amersham Museum and The Martyr’s Memorial. If and when I do make it back in between more global adventures, I’ll be sure to keep you updated.
For more on my years growing up in Buckinghamshire, have a read of my article on Chesham.
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