diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 29, 2015

Beyond London (10): South Bucks (part 1)

Next up, the district adjoining the western edge of London. It's also, possibly uniquely, an abbreviation. Formerly known as Beaconsfield, in 1980 councillors voted to rename the area South Bucks, presumably to be more geographically inclusive (but decided against the full South Buckinghamshire, presumably to be more chummy). Spread out between the A40 and the A4, this affluent district stretches from pristine commuter towns in the north to the immediate outskirts of Slough in the south, with a swathe of less populated woodland inbetween. Getting around by public transport wasn't always easy, but I found a way, and so can bring you tales from four contrasting locations. [20 photos]

Somewhere pretty: Burnham Beeches
Somewhat unexpectedly, this 500 acre oasis of woodland a few miles north of Slough belongs to the City of London. They bought it up in 1880, this "land suitable for the erection of superior residences", specifically to protect it as a public open space and wildlife reserve. Well done them, it's gorgeous. The plan was to give Londoners somewhere to escape the grime and misery of the capital, and for anybody else who happened to live nearby too. Day trippers arrived via Burnham station, originally called Burnham Beeches, then faced a further couple of miles to reach the forest edge. I suspect I was the only Londoner who made the effort yesterday. I took the bus.

Autumn is possibly the best time to visit, so I just about got in with time to spare. Lovely scrunchy beech leaves underfoot, with a scattering of nuts (and mud) beneath, form a matted carpet of brown. So long as you've not come in your best trainers, it's a delight. The main access is from the east, a short walk from the long village of Farnham Common, where a large car park awaits more Bucks-style visitors. Most have brought a dog or two, it's that kind of place, but the city authorities are one step ahead. They've divided the Beeches in two, one allowing dogs to run free but the other only on a leash, which means one half is thick with exercising hounds and the other mercifully free.

Make sure you stop off at the Beeches cafe by the car park, if not for refreshment then for the extensive selection of maps and leaflets available in the attached information centre. The City of London's not short of money or influence, so there's an impressively extensive selection - I plumped for the Geology Trail, but you could instead pick up a guide to fungi, a historical trail or a full colour map. This led me off down a steep beechy valley carved through the clay by a narrow stream, amusingly named the Nile, then back up to the gravels above. The stream doesn't flow far before disappearing into a swallow hole, essentially a small pool with its own plughole formed by dissolved chalk, and therefore probably somewhere to keep your dog away from.

The longest track at Burnham Beeches, approximately medial, is Victoria Drive. Broad and beechy with wooded slopes to either side, it's also on the dog-leash side so I managed to walk all the way down without seeing a soul. I also got the nagging feeling I'd seen the place before, because I have, and so have you, because it's a popular filming location. The City allow cameras in for no more than 20 days a year, but that's included Time Bandits, The Princess Bride, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. TV companies have got in on the act too, from The Avengers to Merlin, whose nobles were always always riding chargers along this very trail.

The site has an intriguing history, ranging from the Iron Age (some earthworks from an Iron Age fort survive) to World War 2 (most of the vehicles used in the D-Day landings were stored here before use). Many of the trees are seriously old too, thanks to a tradition of pollarding (that's having their tops lopped off) which continues to this day. But most of all Burnham Beeches is simply a lovely place to walk, be that down by the lakes or up among the trees, crossing paths with squirrels and wood pigeons and golden retrievers. Blessed with considerably more depth than your average woodland, I loved the sweeping trails and scrunchy solitude.
by bus: 74

I took the hourly bus from Slough, alighting in the cosy dormitory village of Farnham Common. Aren't buses in Buckinghamshire expensive - I paid £3.80 for 4 miles - but that's subsidyless travel for you. Meanwhile a very short distance from the woods on the opposite side of the Beeches is George Osborne's grace and favour mansion, Dorney Wood. The National Trust allow taxpayers inside only on a handful of days a year, generally in late July, so plan carefully. (Oh bugger, the NT's updated its website to a new mobile-friendly template, which means minimal info per screen, and general sighing from those of us with proper screens).

Somewhere retail: Tesco, Gerrards Cross

In 1996 supermarket giant Tesco sought a way to open a large store in the middle of Gerrards Cross. It's more a Waitrose/M&S kind of place, this wealthy commuter 'village', but Tesco turned up first, and residents were appalled by their proposed solution. A tunnel would be created over the Chiltern railway line immediately to the west of the station, creating a large flat platform to fill a gap in the high street, and Tesco would then place a supermarket (and extensive car park) on the top. Planning permission was controversially agreed, and the construction eventually began in 2003. A 320m-long arch was created using precast concrete sections, and the space above filled in with tons of soil to create a sturdy structure. Unfortunately it proved anything but.

On the evening of 30th June 2005, just after the rush hour was over, two dozen of the concrete segments collapsed onto the tracks below. A train driver leaving Gerrards Cross at the time noticed something was amiss and applied the emergency stop, his swift realisation allowing the next westbound express service to be stopped one station up the line. The consequences could have been considerably more unpleasant, but in the end were limited to two months of disruption for everyone on the line being forced onto rail replacement buses. An enquiry suggested that the cause of the accident was too much soil being laid on top of the arch and not enough down the sides, possibly coupled with heavy rainfall a few days before. Tesco apologised, and then proceeded to build again using a safer and more sturdy design, with the new store opening in November 2010.

Walking down the high street in Gerrards Cross today, five Christmases on, Tesco stands out as the largest retail outlet by far. The other shops are mostly single frontage, targeted at a moneyed demographic in need of fashion, "fine furnishings and gifts", and a little pampering. The local bakery serves "artisanal breads", and I wasn't entirely surprised when the first three properties I saw in an estate agents' window were priced at two million and something. Tesco by contrast looks a very ordinary store with its multi-gabled roof and brick construction, although closer inspection reveals that the scarlet panels out front where the security guards go for a fag are in fact trickling waterfalls.

The interior looks airy and lightweight, which I guess is important given the location, with no attempt made to cover up pipes and vents across the ceiling. In total there are thirteen aisles, which may have been tempting fate somewhat, and an army of assistants generally rather younger than the clientèle they serve. Shelves of festive foliage are lined up by the doorway to act as impulse buys, and I was amused to find the children's book at the heart of Sainsbury's Yuletide TV campaign on sale amongst the magazines. And all was busy, from the meal deal counter to the freezer cabinets, just as you'd expect on a Saturday afternoon. The people of Gerrards Cross appear to have embraced the store they so repudiated, contentedly pushing their trolleys across the chasm that so unexpectedly opened up ten years ago, without even a thought for the railway tracks below.
by train: Gerrards Cross

(part 2 tomorrow)

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