We needed to get out and about a bit…not somewhere we would have to be ‘out’ for too long, as the day was chilly and overcast. but just enough to stretch our legs and catch our interest. We started with a photo of the seventeenth century cottages that once served ale and became known as the Royal Oak. In 1803, the pub changed its name to the Trooper, in honour of the local rumour that the Duke of Wellington, victor of the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo, used the pub as a rendezvous where he could meet his soldiers to discuss battle plans and tactics . Today the inn is known as the Valiant Trooper.
In the spirit of fleshing out our background knowledge of some of the churches and places that feature in our books, we decided to have a walk around Aldbury. The church there was one of the first places we had visited and, although we expected it to be closed, we already have interior shots from that and subsequent visits.
Being so early in our explorations, though, we had not learned to walk around the outside of the church, not noticed the rarity of the priest’s room tucked away above the porch. That, at least, we could rectify.
You never know what you might find when you leave the designated path, from unusual graves to priest’s or devils’ doors. While the priest’s door generally leads in to the chancel, the devil’s doors tended to be small and cut into the north wall to allow the demon to escape when banished during the rite of baptism.
To our surprise, we found the church open and were tempted to go inside… but as it was open for private prayer, we did not wish to intrude. Some of the places of worship are opening in this limited way to allow the faithful to pray on ground sacred to their beliefs. Covid has robbed many of their ability to pray with access their places of worship and take part in the communal rites of their various faiths. It is not for us to impose our presence at this time, much as we would have loved to renew our own connection to the art and history of this building.
Close to the church, you catch a glimpse of a tall and elegant chimney. This was once the communal village bakehouse but now sits half hidden behind a garden hedge. Not that the village wants for historic buildings. With more than its fair share of timber frames dating back to the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, Aldbury may be familiar from many productions on screen, from Midsomer Murders, The Avengers and Inspector Morse, to The Dirty Dozen and Bridget Jones.
Some of the buildings with a more ‘interesting’ history are also linked to screen and media. One Norman manor became well known as the site of the notorious Stocks House, owned by Victor Lowndes, who founded the Playboy Club in London. The house had been built in 1772 by Alfred Duncombe. In 1832, it was bought by best selling writer, Mary Augusta Ward and her husband Thomas Humphry Ward by whose name she was known. Many of the great names of literature at the time were guests there, before it became a girls’ Finishing School in 1944.
For a time the house knew wilder parties as a Playboy Bunny ‘training camp’. Parties, which could last for over a day and night, were visited by stars of screen and music, from Tony Curtis to Mick Jagger and by Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire. In spite of the scandal in a small, Hertfordshire village, Lowndes was much liked in the area for the support he gave to local projects and events. For a while, the house became a hotel after Lowndes, then became the home of jockey and racehorse trainer, Walter Swinburn, until his death in 2016.
Behind the cluster of houses rises Tom’s Hill, the scene of a terrible plane crash involving a Vickers Valetta in 1954, where 16 out of the 17 airmen on board were killed. The hill climbs to Ashridge woods, where Nick and I had gone to see the bluebells, one truly magical May Day, followed by an even more magical ‘dance’ on the top of a localperhistorc landmark by the five-thousand-year old Ridgeway, a track that has always featured in our books and on our journeys.
To see the village at its best, you need a sunny day with no cars… and the latter, a least, is rare. The village has spread out from the green and the village pond for at least a thousand years. Old houses mix with new… families whose ancestors watched the village grow are buried here and their descendants still live here. There is a real sense of community and continuity… from the presence of the Greyhound pub overlooking the green…
…to the old stocks and whipping post, still preserved on the bank of the pond. The stocks were a common sight in our villages until they began to fall out of use and many are still in situ. It s not believed to be strictly illegal to use them for punishment, by an odd oversight in the law, but they have not beem used since 1872 and the last use of the whipping post or pillory was in 1830 and they ere outlawed in 1837.
From warmth and acceptance, through life and death, a community grows by its shared experience and here, in the chocolate box prettiness of Aldbury, you can see that progression, from prehistoric earthworks, through decandence to tragedy and recovery. It is the story of so many villages, throughout the world. The picture and details may differ, but at heart, we share a common thread of life, woven in a tapestry we can all recognise.