Secret High Wycombe by Eddie Brazil
One of the pleasures of writing local history is, of course, the research. Yet, even the hardest bitten historian who thinks he has uncovered all that his local area can conceal will sometimes unearth gems and nuggets of the past which will pleasantly raise the eyebrows and bring about a little surprised shake of the head. Such as it was for myself during the writing of my latest book for Amberley Secret High Wycombe.
Anglophile American writer, Bill Bryson, once observed that it was impossible to go no more than a mile in Britain without coming across something interesting, fascinating and worthy of losing an hour for. He could well have been describing my own home turf of south Buckinghamshire.
For example, within a five mile radius of where I am writing there can be found:- The site of a Roman villa, three Iron Age hill forts, the Hell fire caves, the ruins of an 11th century Leper hospital, a 12th century castle which was besieged during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. The Village which gave its name to the American state of Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the military academy which was later moved to Sandhurst, the former home of Victorian statesman, Benjamin Disralli. The home of Geoffrey de Haviland, designer of the Mosquito fighter bomber, the headquarters of Bomber command, where the plan to destroy the Ruhr dams was conceived. And the private school where American band leader, Glen Miller performed his last concert.
If one expanded the area by another ten miles it would include the house where Mary Shelly wrote part of her novel, Frankenstein. The Quaker meeting house which was constructed from timbers taken from the Pilgrims Fathers ship, Mayflower. And the stately home where the exiled Bourbon King Louis XV111, accepted the crown of the restored throne of France.
Yet, it is perhaps those seemingly insignificant people, places and historical associations which we probably pass by everyday without giving a second thought which prove to be the most poignant and arresting. Sadly, many of these forgotten secret pieces of local history are to be found in churchyards dotted across the country. And it would seem appropriate that the peace and tranquillity of a remote graveyard bathed in summer sunshine and lulled by the sound of birdsong, is the most fitting backdrop to such history.
Just a mile from my home in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, in the village of Tyler’s Green, there is the last resting place of Arthur Whitten Brown. In June, 1919, together with his co- pilot, John Alcock, he made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They also carried some mail which made it the first transatlantic air mail flight. Both were knighted by King George V.
A short distance from Tyler’s Green, in the churchyard of All Saints, Penn one can find, not only, the graves of the family of William Penn; he of Pennsylvania fame, but also the last resting place of 1950s, Soviet spy, Donald MacLean, and the grave of David Blakeley. He was murdered outside a London pub in 1953 by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Ellis lies in an unmarked grave at nearby Amersham.
Perhaps the most poignant churchyard grave relates to a story which is the most heartfelt.
Lady Georgiana Curzon, was the eldest daughter of the 5th Earl Howe, who lived at Penn House in the village of Penn Street just outside High Wycombe. In 1934, just 24, she met Roger Bushell, a dashing RAF pilot who’s Spitfire was shot down in France in 1940. He escaped from three prisoner of war camps before being recaptured and, while in hiding sent vital information back to Britain through coded letters, including information about the development of V-bomb rockets.
They fell deeply in love. However, her father, unimpressed by Bushell's social standing did not approve. Consequently, Georgiana was forced to marry the son of a motor racing friend of Earl Howe.
Despite losing her, Roger Bushell told other prisoners that "Georgie" was his true love whom he would one day marry. Sadly, they were never to meet again. Bushell was the mastermind behind the daring, Tom, Dick and Harry Tunnels escape from the POW camp, Sagan, in Poland. Tragically he was captured, and along with 50 other escapees, murdered by the Gestapo in 1944. The story was told in the film, The Great Escape, in which Richard Attenborough played the part of Bushell.
Lady Georgina could never accept that Bushell was dead. Every year for years she placed an, In Memoriam, in The Times on his birthday ending with the words "Love is Immortal" and signed "Georgie". She ended her days in a home for the mentally ill and on her gravestone in Holy Trinity, Penn Street are two lines of poetry by Tennyson:
"Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still."
Stories and histories such as these are the strength of Amberley’s Secret series. It is a strength which is ironic. For it is secret history for those who wouldn’t necessary have the time or inclination to delve in to an area’s past, let alone the wider national picture.
It is history in easily digested bite size chunks. They are books which give the reader a new perspective on their communities, opening eyes and minds to the triumphs, achievements and calamities of their home turf. Perhaps it also instils in one a sense of civic pride.
“I come from the town where this happened”, could be the cry.
And yet, stories, events and histories such as these abound throughout our country. What we need is a new series, The secret county guides. There are thousands of readers waiting to discover their shire.
Eddie Brazil's new book Secret High Wycombe is available for purchase now.