Thursday, May 29th 2014
The market town in question is of course Aylesbury. We had already visited this town but that was back in 2008, so it was time to go again. I described our previous visit in Aylesbury Ducking, and thereby managed to upset one commentator who felt that I had not been fair to the town. Is the following account any fairer? Probably not, because, given the short amount of time spent there, all I can do, as usual, is to remark on a few of the things that caught my eye.
Not having (or wanting to have) a car, we travel by public transport and arrived at Aylesbury by train. We recently invested in a Two Together Railcard, which allows us to buy rail tickets at a discount as long as we travel together. This is worth having because if you travel a lot, as we do, savings soon begin to mount up.
Aylesbury first appears in the record in the 6th century as the Anglo-Saxon Æglesburh or Æglesbyrig, from burh, a fortified place, and a personal name, thus “Ægle’s stronghold”. If Celtic people lived hereabouts, they seem to have left few traces or these traces have been covered by later populations.
Set in the wall on the outside of the station I found this post box bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria. On the frame below the door the maker’s name is embossed: W T Allen & Co London. This firm was contracted in 1881 to make post boxes and the fact that this one must be at least 113 years old shows how sturdy their design was.
The railway reached Aylesbury in 1868 but the original single-platform station has been replaced. The present building was erected in 1926. The small turret adds a nice finishing touch and I wonder whether it has always been empty or whether it once held a bell. The age of the station shows that the Victorian post box must have been moved here from somewhere else, possibly from the old station.
Aylesbury has had a market for centuries, probably from Anglo-Saxon times when it lay on the main trade route to London. Its Market Square is large and provides a bustling centre for the town. On one side of the square is The Bell, which took its present form in the early to mid-19th century though is stands on earlier remains.
One side of The Bell faces onto Walton Street where this sober-looking building stands. The foundation stone was laid in 1928 and the structure replaced a previous, now demolished, County Hall. Curiously, the words engraved over the door read “COUNTY OFFICES” as though those who commissioned it could not quite bring themselves to recognize it as the County Hall. That role has now been taken over by a modern County Hall, whose design helped give me such a poor impression of Aylesbury on my first visit.
At the next corner of the square we find what at first sight looks like an impressive gatehouse, with two passages for pedestrians and a central one for vehicles, though these days, that seems to serve as a lurking place for taxi cabs. If one were tempted to think this was once a town gate, that impression is countered by the date above the central arch: 1865. This Victorian structure, designed to impress with its seriousness, is in fact the Corn Exchange, set up as a place of trade for grain merchants.
The façade is decorated with two sculpted reliefs inside circular frames. A human head is shown with long hair into which are mixed ears of corn and various fruits. I am guessing that this is intended as a representation of the Classical goddess Abundantia, familiar from pictures where she pours out the fruits of the earth from her cornucopia or horn of plenty. It is a symbol of the claim – and boast – of those who traded within that their activities brought prosperity to the community as well as to themselves.
I will make no secret of the fact that my favourite items in the square (and perhaps in the whole of Aylesbury) were the two sculptures of lions, one awake and the other asleep.
The sculptures are embossed with the name “A. DURENNE”. Antoine Durenne (1822-97) established an iron and bronze foundry in Paris, which was active from 1847 to 1930 when it was absorbed in a merger. It specialized in animal sculptures like these lions and its products proved popular in Britain as well as in France. So far, I have been unable to find out who the sculptor was. Or were these lions perhaps stock pieces, chosen from a catalogue? The question also remains as to where they were installed in the first place and why. The lion that is awake looks the observer straight in the eye, though without any threat or ferocity. It’s almost an interrogative gaze. Both sculptures are of an animal that is relaxed and peaceable. This makes me wonder what the artist took as his model: not a fierce wild lion, surely. Did he perhaps take his sketchbook to the zoo and find his sitters there?
Between the lions, the cattle trough pictured above has its current location. I express it thus because cattle troughs are rarely found in the position in which they were originally installed. I think some councils have collections of troughs and have a job finding some use for them. This usually involves filling them with earth and using them as planters to beautify an area. I think this trough may also have been elsewhere before ending up here.
This is a standard trough produced the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association whose name appears on the side. The invariability of the design makes it hard to discover the date of the trough or of its installation unless there is a memorial or donation inscription. This one bears an inscription at one end that is worn and hard to read but appears to be “J. H. BUXTON ESQ”, presumably the name of the person who paid for the trough to be installed. I have found scattered references to a J.H. Buxton in the late 1800s and early 1900s in connection with Aylesbury but the name is hardly uncommon and there is no guarantee that they are all the same man or that he is the J.H. Buxton Esq who donated the trough.
The impressive clock tower stands where the old market house used to stand. This was demolished 10 years earlier. It was only when I started to photograph what I thought were simply decorative panels on the four sides of the tower that I realized it has an unusual feature: it incorporates a drinking fountain. Such public sources of clean drinking water would still have been important at this time in the middle of the Victorian era.
There are several statues of famous men around Market Square and none more dashing than this one by Henry Charles Fehr, celebrating John Hampden (c1595-1643). While I understand why Aylesbury (which supported the Parliamentarian side during the Civil War) would honour Hampden, the dedication of the monument nonetheless puzzles me. First, let’s note that Hampden was active in the Parliamentarian cause (see here for details of his life), and died as a result of a wound sustained in a skirmish between his group of Parliamentarians and a Royalist force led by Prince Rupert. This is, I think, underlined by a plaque on the plinth showing a battle scene.
The picture seems to show a man with long hair, presumably a Royalist cavalryman, being dragged from his horse by a soldier wearing a Cromwellian helmet and surrounded by others in the same uniform. It is not entirely clear what this depicts but it might be inspired by the Battle of Aylesbury, when the Royalists, who had occupied the town, went out to meet their advancing adversaries and a militia force from Aylesbury attacked them from the rear. Either way, it is clear that it celebrates the actions of the Parliamentarians fighting the Royalists.
Now let’s look at the dedication plate. This shows that the statue “was presented to the County of Buckingham by James Griffin of Folly Farm, Long Marston, the representative of an old Bucks family”. However, it also tells us that it was presented “In commemoration of the Coronation of Their Majesties King George V, & Queen Mary, 22nd June 1911”. What deep irony is here in the commemoration of the King’s Coronation with a monument dedicated to John Hampden, a Parliamentarian hero? Was this designed as an intentional slight to the King or was it merely done without realizing the implications?
Just opposite John Hampden’s statue, a bank occupies a fine corner position. Despite working in the Victorian period, the architect had eschewed the more usual Gothic Revival style and produced an Italianate design. I think its neat but confident appearance suits a bank perfectly. The first – and for a long time only – bank in Aylesbury was founded in 1795 by William Rickford and inherited by his son, of the same name, who was also the local MP. As the engraved timeline on the façade indicates, the bank became the Bucks & Oxon Union Bank in the present building, erected in 1853. Subsequently it became part of the Lloyds group.
We passed on the Kingsbury Square whose most notable feature is what is simply called the Kingsbury Water Feature. The photo shows just a part of it and it is a complex device whose functioning I do not altogether understand. I think it has been controversial and has suffered problems of a technical nature. Will it survive or end up in the White Elephants’ Graveyard? Time will tell.
A more promising vista is offered by the picturesquely named Pebble Lane. Was this indeed once paved with pebbles or does the name simply derive from someone’s poetic imagination? Either way, the pleasant thoroughfare is enhanced by the sight of the spire of St Mary’s peering over roofs and foliage. We decided to take a look at the church but first went into the Buckinghamshire County Museum which is also along here.
We had a look round the museum and – a point in their favour – photography is allowed. In the event, there was little to stir my interest and I took the above photo more as a token gesture than anything else.
According to English Heritage, St Mary’s was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon church, and is mainly 13th century but “extensively restored between 1804 – 1809”. It is surrounded by houses in a setting what English Heritage describes as “in effect similar to a Cathedral Close on a small scale”. Finding the church door open, we decided to go inside and explore.
We found the door open, apparently inviting visitors, so we went in…
In the main part of the church, a concert was in progress. We therefore kept to a further parts of the church so as not to disturb anybody. We had time to take a few photos before someone hurried across and required us to leave, bringing our visit to an ignominious end.
The church has a cafe and outside it we found a cat stretched out in the sunshine, the very symbol of relaxation, so we left him to it and tiptoed away…
We took a last look at the church and turned for the station, first passing along Parson’s Fee, a street of 17th and 18th century houses where we found the house in which John Wilkes once lived.
John Wilkes (1725-97) is usually described as “a radical politician” and was MP for Aylesbury during the years 1757 to 1764 when he lived here. This is the rather splendid (and listed) gateway to his house which is now divided into apartments.
We walked up hilly Castle Street, lined with 18th century houses, many of which have steps leading up to their front doors. The name suggests that there was once a castle here and excavations have revealed possible traces of an Iron Age fort and indications of a Norman motte and bailey structure.
In George Street, number 20 still has the words “READER’S AUCTION ROOM” engraved above the front door and window. I can find no references to it, suggesting that Reader and his auctions are long gone. What did they sell and when was their heyday?
The Literary Institution and Club, complete with ground-floor reading room and library above, was built in 1879-80, showing that the town had some pretensions to intellectual pastimes and development. These seem somewhat attenuated in modern times and the premises now include a separately run wine bar, no doubt for economic reasons.
This visit gave us a different view of Aylesbury, a more positive one. Although we covered some of the same ground as last time, we discovered parts of the town that did did not see then. From the Anglo-Saxons through the Normans to modern times, Aylesbury has been living its history as an important market town and like all towns is now facing the challenges of the 21st century.