Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Through the Vale to Aylesbury

I leave Wendover on a lovely summer’s morning, heading for the Vale of Aylesbury.  HS2 will be out in the open here.   Having been in a tunnel or cutting for most of its route from London, once it leaves the Chilterns it can see and be seen.  And I’ve got my proper walking boots on this time.
I soon come upon a row of neat bungalows, where “Green Acres” is the neighbour of “Meadow View.”  They would be right by the line.  At first I see no posters at all, but then, tied to the footpath sign, is the invitation “Say no to HS2”.  It was put up by a group I don’t know.  I check their website.  They are FLAG – the Fairford Leys Action Group.  Fairford Leys turns out to be an estate a few miles away on the edge of Aylesbury.  Although this poster remains, the website tells me that FLAG has now disbanded due to a lack of local support.  I must make sure to visit Fairford Leys in that case.
I’m firmly in crop country today, which offers its own unique challenge as farmers vary in their enthusiasm for reinstating footpaths after ploughing and sowing.  During one particularly challenging sortie through a field of chest high bean plants I realise that 15 miles a day in this terrain will be quite a challenge.  But it has its compensations.  The grass-loving Marbled White butterflies flutter about like miniature flying chessboards, and poppies and field bindweed colour the hedges (pictured below).
HS2 will pass close to the western edge of Aylesbury, within about 400m of both Walton Court and Fairford Leys.  Soon I see the houses of Walton Court beyond a narrow belt of trees.  Will it affect people much there, 400m away?  You’d certainly notice it in the garden, but indoors?  I’m not sure.
Although this is not a wealthy neighbourhood I’m still surprised to see no posters or banners.    I buy a sandwich in the shopping precinct and ask why.  “People lose heart” the lady on the checkout tells me.  “They’ve been promising to do up these shops for ten years but nothing happens”.    She comes out of the shop and points to a lamp-post.  “That’s the only poster we’ve got here”.    It’s a notice for a public meeting, to warn people about the increase in noise they would experience.  The bills on the boarded up Sports and Social Club next door herald the arrival of the funfair, not HS2.  This is all a far cry from the firebrand preacher’s threat of destruction to be meted out in the Chilterns. 
Aylesbury was designated by the Government as an Expanded Town in the 1950s.  These, and the New Towns, were built beyond the Metropolitan Green Belt to house Londoners displaced by the blitz or by post-war slum clearance. It is one of the places where the missing rings on the growing tree of London can be found.  The Walton Court estate was probably built in the early 1970’s, and its neighbour South Court in the 1950’s.  They still feel like north London to me, with the accent and the Tottenham and Arsenal shirts.  And like London they don’t appear worried about HS2.
Before the planned expansion there was an existing town of Aylesbury, but you have to hunt for it today between the shopping malls and the ring road.  There I find the King’s Head, the oldest Courtyard Inn in England (pictured above).  I walk inside to an atmosphere half-way between a pub and a National Trust tea shop and order a pint of bitter.   I ask why Aylesbury doesn’t seem bothered by HS2 when just up the road the Chilterns are in open revolt.  “People are scared of their voice” the young barmaid tells me.  “They ask what twenty people can do against powerful politicians.”  In her opinion HS2 is a waste of money and will destroy the countryside for no good reason.
After I leave the town centre I head for Fairford Leys and soon I am wide-eyed in astonishment at the sight that greets me.  This new estate (pictured below) turns out to be a replica of a Victorian suburb.  Like Prince Charles’ famous Poundbury it faithfully recreates the atmosphere, house types and lack of obvious places to park the car of the 19th century.  But here all is in the brick of Bucks not the stone and whitewash of Dorset.   I’m initially sceptical.  Should I have exchanged my money at the entrance for shillings and pence in case I want to do any shopping?  But people obviously like living here.   The village centre, complete with its Ionic columned colonnade and wooden market cross, is bustling, and the people I speak to are clearly proud of the place.
Anti HS2 publicity is in short supply.  I ask someone in the door of one of the very few houses with “Say no to HS2” posters outside why the community isn’t protesting.  “People don’t know their neighbours” she says.  Even though Fairford Leys looks different, it shares that characteristic of new estates.   Residents have moved down from the midlands or the north to work in Milton Keynes or Oxford, or have moved out from London and still commute back to the capital.  With their own work-based circle of friends and colleagues people are unlikely to form strong ties to the place.  “I don’t expect to still be living here when HS2 is built, but will we be able to sell?” she asks me.   She has read about HS2 Ltd’s Exceptional Hardship Scheme but doesn’t think they will qualify.
She then says something really surprising.  “They’ve moved the line further away from Hartwell House - which is important”.    Blimey, I think.  Further from Hartwell House, half a mile away across the golf course, probably means nearer to you.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I love Hartwell House.  It is my favourite hotel in Britain, maybe in the world actually.  The beautiful Grade 1 listed house with its peaceful park, spa and superb dining is the perfect place for a luxurious, relaxing (if not exactly inexpensive) weekend.  But that is what it is, a place to go to for a couple of nights.  The people on the edge of Aylesbury will have HS2 running past them every day of their lives.   If I lived there I would be asking “Why should the rich get all the breaks?  Why don’t they move it further away from me instead?” 
Compared with the Chilterns people here seem more fatalistic about change, identify less with where they live and perhaps have other concerns which require their energy.  They worry about the impact of HS2 when they stop and think about it, but they don’t think about it that often.
And then I’m over the golf course and down by the peaceful waters of the River Thame.  This is where the estate of Hartwell House, owned for many years by the family of Thomas Cook the pioneer of popular travel, meets the estate of Waddesdon Manor, owned by the Rothschilds.  I imagine the two great men chatting by the river as they inspect their respective lands.  “I’ve just started a new trip to France, viewing all the greatest art treasures.  You’d love it Baron, you must come”.  “Oh I don’t think so Mr Cook, I’ve bought up most of their best stuff already and I can see it from my own armchair.  Who needs to travel?”  That sort of thing.
And it is really easy to imagine it.  I’m still close to Aylesbury, but I feel a deep sense of peace in the still air of this high summer evening, as I gaze back across the fields and copses to the Chilterns in the distance (pictured above).  A high speed train would impact on this tranquil scene more than anywhere else I’ve been so far.  But then again there wouldn’t be many people to hear it.

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