More famous than Trump?
I happened to be in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury when the preparations for Pippa Middleton’s wedding were taking place. The world’s press and paparazzi were there in their graceless fashion, and my hope was that the future Mrs Matthews would choose to frustrate them by wearing a loose-fitting garment for her big day. To the locals, the occasion brought back memories of her elder sister Catherine’s courtship of a future king, a time when they were thrilled by the attention and appalled by it at the same time.
This week’s transient visitors will have had little interest in the “area of outstanding natural beauty” where the Middleton girls were lucky enough to be raised. But anyone inclined to stay longer in the gently rolling pastures of the Pang Valley will find few corners of England more soothing for the spirit.
Enter the village from Pease Hill and you see six magnificent sequoia trees lining the route. Stop by the medieval fishing ponds on the right and listen to the family of jet-black ravens currently nesting at the top of the tallest sequoia. They mingle in the woods with screeching buzzards and hooting owls. Most times too you’ll hear several woodpeckers, chipping away nearby. And right now the cuckoos are back…and vocal. And you’re no more than 60 miles from central London.
Further down the hill you may hit lucky and catch sight of the Middletons’ exaggerated chimneys. But be sure to take a look at the gorgeous pond outside the lord-of-the-manor’s house. (Yes, they’ve still got one; as if to prove it, his coat of arms adorns the gates). Yellow iris and ruddy gunnera surround the pond’s resident coots and ducks.
The more adventurous might want to go in search of the famous “Coronation Oak” whose canopy was sufficient to shelter “twelve hundred persons” gathered there for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The tree is still very much alive, and by now probably at least 500 years old. Alternatively, head out towards Hawkridge Wood whose spectacular bluebells and wild garlic are just now fading away.
It is tempting to think that nothing much has changed hereabouts over the years. But a young boy evacuated from London in the Second World War remembers that his Bucklebury refuge had no electricity, no water and no sewer. Drinking water was obtained from a well that was opened once a week. The local folk then were all farmers or craftsmen; now they are likely to be financiers or lawyers on a daily commute.
The highlight of the village itself is the Grade 1 listed church of St Mary the Virgin, some bits of which date back to the 11th century. It is a chalk and flint beauty whose solid oak pews have hosted several Middleton bums in their time.
When you leave the church, walk through the graveyard and head to the little humpback bridge (called Foundry Bridge – ‘cos there used to be one nearby). And there watch for the kingfishers that dart around the banks of the River Pang beneath. The river flows down to the town of Pang-bourne and from there into the Thames – “bourne” being an old English word meaning “limit”, or “boundary”.
However, be warned: the village of Bucklebury has no pubs, no shops, and no rooms to rent. But decent coffee is available in a couple of places nearby, where locals meet and gossip (as if!). The Pantry (http://www.thepantryyattendon.co.uk) in Yattendon and The Blackbird (http://www.theblackbirdcafe.co.uk) in Chapel Row could both comfortably host a British version of Big Little Lies, the brilliant American TV series where stay-at-home supermoms Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon bitch endlessly about workaholic rival Laura Dern.
There’s plenty of mumsy gossip to be had too at Bucklebury Farm Park (http://www.buckleburyfarmpark.co.uk) right across from the lord-of-the-manor’s gates. But the place is often heaving with boisterous kids hoping to see the goats, the trampoline and young Prince George. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea/coffee.
And what about the pubs? Isn’t that what life revolves around down there? Well yes…and no. Like everywhere else in England the pubs are struggling to survive. No-one’s making money from old farmhands propping up the bar with a rake and a pint. You’ve got to serve food these days, good food at a good price.
My local favourites are the The Royal Oak in Yattendon (http://www.royaloakyattendon.co.uk), which has plain food well done and a beautiful garden, and the nearby Pot Kiln (http://www.potkiln.org) which boasts the best location, and where the menu is strong on venison and muntjac.
The two pubs in the neighbouring village of Stanford Dingley have had chequered recent histories. The Boot, once celebrated as the Middleton family’s favourite, has been kicked into the long grass since the royal wedding, while its near neighbour, the Bull, is about as unpredictable as its namesake.
The Bladebone in Chapel Row, closest to the Middletons’ first home in the area, seems to be jinxed. Despite oodles of goodwill and some skill, a series of owners have failed to make it work. To be sure of something special you need to travel to the other side of Newbury, to the Woodspeen (http://www.thewoodspeen.com), a classy joint that keeps flirting with Michelin-star status.
No doubt in time there will be blue plaques commemorating various memorable spots in and around the village of Bucklebury. Maybe there will be one saying, “Donald Trump was here. Fake news.”