Gerrards Cross is a commuter town in south Buckinghamshire, although last time I went it was a commuter village in South Bucks, which just goes to show how much can happen in six years. It's comfortably wedged between the M40 and the M25, conveniently linked to Marylebone by train and regularly tops lists of Most Desirable Places For Broadsheet Readers To Live. Before the railway arrived there wasn't much here, just a hamlet round the common and a few houses on the Oxford Road, but after 1906 came a sprawl of private housing estates aimed at London’s upper-middle class. It's no tourist trap, more an extensive dormitory with nice shops, but this never stops me going gadabout.
The jewel of Gerrards Cross is the Common, a 60 acre triangle that early property developers sensibly left alone. Wander down the high street and a grassy fringe suddenly opens up, then beyond that a deep expanse of thick beechy woodland. This is criss-crossed by desire line footpaths that over the years have become well-trodden tracks, so is never especially wild but ideal for a good long dog-walk. Stumble the right way and you might find a small pond, but more likely Jasper on his bike or Lady on her lead. I stumbled out by the Lutyens war memorial. A very GX sight: The owners of several convertibles absolutely loving getting the opportunity to drive round with their tops down in March.
Sir Edwin Lutyens designed 40 war memorials, the most famous of which is the Cenotaph, but only here in Gerrards Cross did his structure have a dual purpose. The vicar donated his stable block and Lutyens duly transformed it into a community centre for the new village, fronted by a pillared portico where the names of the local dead are inscribed and wreaths are laid. Today the building houses the offices of the local branch of the Royal British Legion and/or a gym, it was hard to tell, and the surrounding buildings form the town's social hub. Today they're putting on eco-puppetry for children, whereas yesterday an arch of Friesian-coloured balloons welcomed little princesses bearing gifts to Riya's farm-based birthday party. A very GX sight: The party caterers firing up their burger grill in the back of a horsebox.
Stumble off the common another way and you're met by the fine sight of the Church of St James with its octagonal dome and campanile tower. It was built by two sisters in 1859, long before it had a parish worth serving, in memory of their brother who died while serving as a non-local MP. Had you been here in 1969 you might have witnessed the wedding of Lulu to Maurice Gibb - somewhat of a drunken whirlwind I understand - or in 1972 the burial of screen great Margaret Rutherford. I found her pink granite headstone round the back, almost in pride of place, amid a whirl of primroses and daffodils. A very GX sight: A red kite circling in the sky, like it was the most normal bird to be flying above a Home Counties town.
Beyond the church is Buckinghamshire's largest hillfort, Bulstrode Camp. It's thought to have been built between 500BC and 50AD and consists of a double rampart earthwork surrounding a large oval space up to 300m in diameter (which thus far has delivered little of archaeological substance). The middle's quite featureless (and mostly full of exercising dogs), while the encircling ditch proved much harder to walk round than I assumed it would be. This being Gerrards Cross the camp has subsequently been surrounded on all sides by private housing, so must be quite the feature to have at the bottom of your garden. A very GX sight: A poster campaign decrying Network Rail's proposal to replace the high level Edwardian footbridge because "half of the adult female population will not be able to see over the bridge parapets."
The most infamous shop in the high street is the Tesco superstore built on top of the railway cutting in 2005. During construction the tunnelcollapsed and dropped thousands of tonnes of backfill onto the tracks below, thankfully missing an approaching train, and halted all traffic on the line for several weeks. Locals pledged never to use the store, but were busy flooding into it yesterday afternoon for groceries and Mothers Day treats. That said there is a Waitrose round the corner for true refuseniks... but no longer an M&S Simply Food because that's being transformed into a pub. A very GX sight: The owner of a 1949 open-topped Bentley parking by the trolleys and disappearing into Waitrose.
The high street is partly coffee shops, partly interior design boutiques and partly in flux. The town's longstanding jewellers is currently morphing into a barbershop, Lisa's ladies clothes shop is pivoting to dog grooming and the Post Office appears to be housed in a former Thorntons. Gerrards Cross's children are fortunate enough to have somewhere they can buy Lego, and their parents spoiled for choice regarding silver and grey objets d'art to decorate their homes. As for Lighting Matters, purveyors of Total Lighting Solutions, its owner was inexplicably standing in his shop doorway wearing a bowler hat with a lightbulb on it and playing Molly Malone on the accordion... attracting nobody. A very GX sight: A one-man band sporting a top hat, drumkit, purple vuvuzela, plastic chicken and bucket of champagne, walking across Packhorse Road bridge.
But Gerrards Cross is mostly houses, great big lovely ones up leafy avenues. They don't all have high laurel hedges and entrance gates, many are just four-bedroomed detached piles with a magnolia and multiple parking spaces out front, but they do all scream 'comfortably off' from their gabled rooftops. If you live in a semi in Gerrards Cross you've done very badly for yourself, relatively speaking. Gardens are often extensive, and homes generally named (Beechwood, Silver Birches, The Dells) rather than numbered. It all means housing density is remarkably low - barely 8000 people live here - and the encircling Green Belt means hardly any new homes are being added anywhere. A very GX sight: A delivery driver with a luxury bouquet buzzing on the intercom at the top of the drive while being yapped at by a chocolate labrador.
If you keep walking north and keep your eyes open, it doesn't take long before the bins change. The boundary between South Bucks and Chiltern districts cuts across several residential streets, being a leftover from when all this was fields and it didn't matter, but then the village of Chalfont St Peter spread south towards the railway and merged to create a suburban megaplex. Administratively it's a ridiculous state of affairs, or was until April 2020 when all the former local councils were subsumed into a new Buckinghamshire unitary council, and if you keep your eyes open you can see their bins starting to appear too.
Gadabout: CHALFONT ST PETER
This is the ancient one, the Chalfont that's neither Little nor St Giles, and now a similarly desirable suburban bolthole. The heart of the village must have been charming in its day, as the parish church and a couple of very old pubs suggest, and the parade of shops rising up towards Goldhill Common has full Metroland charm. But check out the plaques on the heritage trail and a lot of them show prettier views along with the caption "...demolished in the 1960s to make way for the bypass", which'd be Amersham Way. This wiped out a significant chunk of the high street and has also despoiled the river valley all the way down to Gerrards Cross, so has been a wider success and a local disaster. Whoever plonked a row of flats on stilts beside the old coaching inn didn't help either.
On Saturday afternoon the shops were busy, every outside table was taken and the counter staff at Mr Crusty were winding down after the lunchtime rush. In the Market Place a group from the Rotary Club wearing yellow jackets and blue trousers were waving to traffic and collecting for Ukraine. The sorriest sight was the River Misbourne because it wasn't there, just a dry shallow channel weaving across the park and disappearing under the high street. I checked it out again a bit further downstream and found a few disjoint puddles but nothing more, which might be because this is what chalk streams do in dry weather or might be evil water companies draining the aquifers. All in all CSP felt a tad more affordable than GX, but the longer trek to the station probably cancels that out.