VIII.

If you were to mark its position on a map of the country, the village would be just about dead centre, depending, to a certain extent, on your definition. In fact, a tiny little hamlet just to the east along the ridge of hills was always held, around here at least, to be the furthest point from the sea on all sides in the whole country. Middle England, middle earth, middling, mediocrity. The Ordnance Survey disagrees, however, much to the annoyance of certain regulars in the pub who maintain the local claim. Odd, these little points of pride in our own peculiar places, the details which we cling to for comfort, to assure us we are not living out our days of nothingness in a nowhere to match. Every morning I take my first piss of the day in the saloon bar toilets and look up at the wall to my right, which has been papered with a huge OS map of the area surrounding the village. Perhaps in an earlier despatch, I was a little unfair on my father with regards to interests, for he has, in fact, always loved maps. The pub, for instance, contains a small collection of OS Maps of the area, a diversion for drinkers, for visitors from elsewhere, or occasionally for the regulars to indulge their memories, to unfold their pasts along with the paper maps, to show us where they once lived, or where their parents had their first house, where the old school was, where the legendary pub just outside the village used to stand before it was permanently closed and the building altered forever. The collection goes back as far as an old New Popular Edition One-Inch Map of the area from 1945. The area is the Chilterns, of the North Chilterns, or most latterly Chiltern Hills North— Explorer number 181. Some mornings I take one and plot a route out over a long-gone version of the same ground I walk each day. On the old maps, the space seems improbable. Huge expanses of pale fields between this village and the next. I look at how the village has, by now, leached out over the fields, how it has propagated itself alongside the canal and main roads. These changes are essays of their own, essays on commerce, on agriculture, human geography and military history. The hamlet that once neighboured the village along the hills to the east has, over the last fifty years, been swallowed by its RAF base and the expansion of our own borders. On one of the old maps it is simply the big Rothschild house, a couple of farms, a row of cottages on the canal. I think how different the map will look again in a couple of years, with the new high-speed train line completed and a new set of marks on the page, access roads, new track, a copse or two vanished, a meadow re-purposed.

I walk south west, away from the field that has by now been almost entirely peeled back to what looks, in the exacting light of the longest day of the year, like the very bones of the earth. The white of the chalk exposed, piles of grey soil along the meadow’s edge. Along the perimeter fence that has been erected over the last fortnight, one or two tunnel entrances have already appeared under the wooden fencing. Most probably badgers, judging by the material deposited just below the hole. A strange confluence then, in this field, of excavation, of the movement of soil, of the men above ground and the badgers below, mirroring themselves with the bustle and energy of each’s work, the echoes of the other in the piles of earth and stone that mark their tasks. I think of this long after I have left the field behind, when I am up into the woods that run south away from the village, and as I pass the farms and rather remote houses of the next little hamlet. I take some strange comfort in the badgers’ earth-work, in the fact of their own efforts to improve the land for their own sakes. Perhaps my morbid, anthropocentric fixation on our own activity performing some kind of desecration of the earth is a misstep, perhaps I have been wrong about things. It would not, of course, be the first time. Perhaps our apparently rapacious assault on every resource available to us is simply a kind of steroidal nest-building. Dog shit in the bushes. Beer bottles and a Robinsons Fruit Shoot on the floor of small clearing. 

I continue south east across the hills, along a line that repeats itself across the map. The roads, the footpaths, the rivers, the tracks—everything tends in this direction in this little corner of the county. So it is with the patterns of our way-making, overlaying themselves, one on top of the other, replicating some unseen history, or some aspect of topography that eludes the inexpert gaze. Hampdenleaf Wood, Little Hampden Common, Little Hampden Farm. I come to a place overwritten on the map by its human connections, Little Hampden and Great Hampden, the villages to the north and south of Hampden House. Exiting a copse and crossing a couple of fields planted with field beans, it is the road up to the house that becomes visible first—that long, straight driveway that so often attends the English country house, that carried, for so long and with such conviction, the impression of dignity and bearing which obfuscated, in so many cases, generations of swindling, slavery, exploitation and jealously-guarded inheritance. The house here is the ancestral home of The Hobart-Hampdens, a family who owned this land even before the Norman conquest and who finally vacated the house in 1938. They have been earls and politicians, revolutionaries, exiles, plotters, chancellors. The proximity of politics and crime, of power and violence, of wealth and exploitation—it’s all there in the histories of the great and the good. It’s baked into the bricks of these places, trod into the soil. Perhaps the best known of the family is John Hampden, known colloquially as ‘the Patriot’, for his refusal, and subsequent prosecution to pay Ship Money. He was an important figure in the outbreak of the civil war, one of the Five Members whose attempted arrest by King Charles precipitated the outbreak of war, and his death in battle was considered a great loss. The school in the village is named for him, so too the big pond by the church. Look again to the map and you find you are never too far from his name around here. I walk alongside the drive, on the footpath up to the church that sits adjacent to the house. Very beautiful. 13th Century. I find a bench in the graveyard where John Hampden is buried and think of him dying in The Greyhound Inn. And I think of him as he appears on his statue in the centre of the town, sword in his right hand, his left hand pointing. Towards what, do you suppose? The enemy, the battlefield? Or a kind of imagined future, perhaps, a posited version of England without a despotic, unelected royalty, with a more robust democratic process. History, of course, does not always play along and here I sit on the same patch of England, still blighted by a bloated and out-dated royalty, an aristocracy that have used death and disease and austerity and child poverty as no more than markets to increase their wealth. More hierarchies to undermine the pure, exuberant potential of life. This land should read of the verdant beech trees in their pomp, the unseen skylark’s song, the hobby catching dragonflies midair. Instead it is a crudely written treatise on status, on cap-doffing, on titles. I begin to think also of the other statues that adorn the town centre. They were of a very different order. David Bowie, in a multitude of his best-known guises, on a rather hidden-away wall on the way to the Wagamama—a memorial that has, for some peculiar reason, elicited numerous remonstrations in the form of graffiti daubed on the wall or on the floor at the singer’s feet. Based on the constantly updated scribblings, one can only surmise that the people of the town have taken umbrage at Bowie for all manner of imagined wrongs—HS2, food banks, climate change. Or perhaps it is simply the fact of a statue’s existence at all, a symbol of public expenditure, frivolity, waste. The town’s other bronze is Ronnie Barker sitting on a bench by the new theatre, looking up at the building. These two odd icons tell their own tale of the sort of absence of authentic selfhood that has come upon these middle-English towns. The high streets all identical, depressed, slowly emptying. The young drained away to the cities. Neither Bowie or Barker were born here, neither lived here. The town has appropriated their image, in lieu of any more compelling recent history, based on the first performance of Ziggy Stardust and an early turn in the town by Ronnie. There is something poignant about these monuments to the town’s lack. They seem to announce, in their own way, that the town has indeed produced nothing of note save its own ease, its own comfort. No art, no culture, no politics, not even a sports team of any note. Sometimes it feels like as if were I to look closer at the map, that I would find, in fact, that there were nothing there. No stuff.

Hampden house is empty most of the time now and its only use is as a wedding venue. Today it looks out of place somehow, in its emptiness coaxial with its size. Its buttery-yellow paintwork looks garish in the bright sun. Like the pub, its whole function feels suddenly undermined by the events of history. Not just the disease, though here, but perhaps the whole period since the Hampden family left. The financial problems that caused them to have to leave, the South Sea Bubble, the First World War, the Depression. The house stands there like an obsolete piece of machinery. Its connections have become meaningless, its status now is as a symbol of one version of the past. The kings and queens and princes who visited, the oddities of the building—a tower built from ‘clunch’, a vernacular Buckinghamshire building material made of chalk and mud, the place might as well be an entry in a book, a figment of fable. It is hard, even sitting here, looking at the place, to truly believe in it. Whoever honestly heard of this ‘clunch’? 

I remember the wedding of a couple of regulars from the Lantern that took place here a number of years ago. A coach picked thirty guests up from the pub, and my Dad had put on bacon sandwiches and opened the bar for anyone who wanted an early start. The groom was a high-ranking officer in the RAF, stationed at the base in the neighbouring village. The bride was a local girl, very well-liked, and who had in fact worked a little bit in the Lantern when she was younger. As I remember it now, the day had felt almost like something from a previous period in history, as if the whole population of the village had attended and experienced a certain specific ritual exultation, something deeply felt, communal. I had felt, on the day, as if there could be no stronger connection between us, all of our own small and perhaps unimportant little place, drinking and dancing in the rooms of that huge and over-powering house. I thought I understood the function of these rituals, and these buildings, how they transmitted their energy. But afterwards I had felt a strange kind of sadness whenever I recalled the day. All I could ever seem to bring to mind was the sense, in the few days that followed, that what had seemed on the day to be a transformative, profound occurrence had dissolved somehow into a folk-memory made of sentiment and expense. People talked of the cost of it all, of the extravagance, of the show. The couple moved away and nobody heard much from them again. Gossip and rumour. The weakness of masculinity, of ego. Infidelity, waste. Photographs of his dick on another woman’s phone. 

Will Burns

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