Somewhere historic: Stoke Poges
A couple of miles up the road from Slough, and strung out along that road for another two, lies a village with a not especially lovely name. Originally simply Stoke, its extra name comes from 13th century knight Robert Pogeys who married the heiress to the local manor. That manor grew considerably in importance when it was upgraded in the 1790s by John Penn, grandson of the founder of Pennsylvania, using compensation from the confiscation of land after the American Revolution. The end result was a grand Palladian mansion set in landscaped grounds, with lakes by Capability Brown and renowned for its herds of deer. In subsequent years the estate passed to William Bryant (of "and May" matches fame), then to the founder of Corinthian Football Club (who added a golf course and tennis courts to create the UK's first Country Club), then to the founder of Slough Trading Estate and finally to the council, and they now lease it out. You won't be staying any time soon.
Stoke Park is now a luxurious Hotel, Spa and Country Club, one of only 50 in the UK to be awarded the AA's highest hospitality accolade. Overnight stays are expensive, but come with the option of tennis coaching, a splash in the indoor pool, "hot yoga" and a spin round some of the 27 top class golf holes. And it's this golf course you'll likely be familiar with, specifically the terraced holes in front of the mansion, because it's here that James Bond played Auric Goldfinger in their infamous 1964 needle match. Remember the switched golf balls and Oddjob's steel-brimmed hat? Ian Fleming set the action at Royal Sandwich, but the film crew came here instead, in part because the backdrop was more impressive, but mostly because the 007 franchise is based a few miles away at Pinewood Studios. Indeed I nearly ventured there as part of my grand day out, but public transport and muddy footpaths dictated against.
Stoke Park aren't keen to admit riffraff, indeed there's a page on their website which boasts that "there is no public footpaths, or right of way access anywhere over the 300 acres", but members of the public can get excellent views by visiting Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens. These are part of the mansion's original grounds, relandscaped in the 1930s to create a public garden of rest for the internment of ashes, and to fend off the threat of housing redevelopment. And they're quite gorgeous, even in November, with sweeping avenues leading to fountained colonnades, and with "no building, structures or monuments of any kind likely to remind one of a cemetery." Make your way to the Scattering Lawn, or down to the lakeside, for the best sightlines across to the mansion, the golf course and the luxury coaches shuttling up the main drive.
In previous centuries sightseers flocked to Stoke Poges for a completely different reason, to commemorate and revere a poet. The man in question was Thomas Gray whose poetic masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, was written here in the summer of 1750. It's said to have been composed in the churchyard at St Giles, outside which Thomas's aunt Mary had been laid to rest the previous year, and in whose tomb Gray's remains were later interred. The 128-line poem went viral when shared with London society, its themes of landscape, life and loss resonating then, and to this day.
So loved was this work that in 1799 a memorial was erected very close by, in the corner of what's now Gray's Field, and it's this that drew generations of tourists. Gray's Monument is a lofty stone pedestal topped by a sarcophagus, with panels inscribed with selected quatrains from the Elegy. I stood and read a few out loud, there being nobody else within earshot apart for a pair of occasional joggers. The monument is impressive, strikingly located in the shadow of a single oak, though by no means the draw it used to be. This may change next year, the tercentenary of Gray's birth, and plans are afoot to commemorate the event in some way. In the meantime it's perhaps best seen as part of the Stoke Poges Heritage Walk, a leafleted trail which ensures visitors miss no point of interest in this elegiac corner of England. by bus: 335, 353
Somewhere famous: Bekonscot Model Village
The world's oldest model village is in Beaconsfield, behind the Town Hall, just to the north of the station. Bekonscot grew out of the private obsession of accountant Roland Callingham, later shared with the wider world, and is still thriving after over 80 years. And it's brilliant, so naturally I've been before, and you can read that particular report elsewhere.
What made me go back at the end of my South Bucks safari was their special Winter Opening, which sees the village specially illuminated after dark. Between the October and February half terms Bekonscot opens for only six weekends, of which there are two more to go, with cut price admission (just a fiver) for entry after 1pm. During the remainder of the winter maintenance and construction takes place instead, indeed on my visit I caught sight of Bekonscot's latest extension which is due to contain a sloping high street, a funicular railway and an Underground station. They're still to go in, although the concrete slabs are laid, and the Hoover Building (seriously!) is already complete.
I arrived before sunset and departed well after dark, allowing me to make three circuits of the model village in decreasing levels of illumination . The first circuit proved essential for appreciating the finer detail, not least the punning business names painted onto various shop fronts. By my second circuit light levels had dropped to create a particularly atmospheric experience, with I'd say about a quarter of the buildings lit from within. Some were evidently empty, and some obscured by condensation, but inside others various tableaux (including a jam-related talk to the Women's Institute) played out brighter than day.
Bekonscot attracts mostly families with small children, and they made up the majority of visitors in this twilight slot, with one particularly precocious boy intent on chasing his favourite locomotive around the model railway. Another girl stared wistfully through the windows of the full-size signal box, by now the brightest thing on site, wishing she could be inside pulling the levers. She wasn't alone.
By my third circuit the village had become properly dark. Where models weren't lit they were now barely possible to distinguish, but the main town in the corner shone out through dozens of tiny windows, and the racecourse grandstand positively blazed. But there was still action to see, for example inside the circus tent, or else to hear, for example as coal fell from the conveyor belt at the black-as-coal mine.
Most visitors had by now departed, but a sobbing child was placated with a solo trip on the ride-on railway by the entrance, while a large group of adults turned up almost at latest admission time and proceeded to walk around the entire village unnecessarily fast. A fourth circuit seemed unnecessary, and anyway the staff would be locking up and closing the gates all too soon. But it had been an enchanting visit, not quite as amazing as coming on a sunny day, but appealingly atmospheric all the same. [8 photos] by train: Beaconsfield