Chalfont St Peter

20 Feb

Buckinghamshire
While still in NZ, years before we, oops I mean I, was seriously considering travelling abroad, I happened to listen to an interview on National Radio between the excellent host, Jim Mora and a New Zealand woman who along with her husband travelled through the UK, employed by a House Sitting Agency.  This sounded like a great idea to me so when Dennis finally managed to convince me to imagine the idea of living somewhere other than in our comfortable home in Wainuiomata and leaving the security of a steady income, I once again remembered this interview.  And so I began to look online for opportunities.
And I came up with quite a few different Agencies.  I settled on this particular one because they employed non-UK residents.  The idea is that while the clients are away from their homes on holiday or business, we move in.  Sometimes it is to look after their pets, sometimes their insurance policy demands it because their antiques hold such a value, sometimes they prefer to have the house occupied while they are absent or a combination of all three.  The Agency employs Dennis to do this at $NZ40 per day, he has an Ancestry Visa but I am unable to secure employment.  Between clients we live in our motor home, touring around the country.  The main advantage with this system is that we have no accommodation costs while working and minimal camping fees while travelling.
We had just started our first house sit in October last year, when we were called back home unexpectedly.  It has taken some time to receive another house sit so we were pretty excited to hear that we had a three-week stay in the small village of Chalfont St Peter.  This village is actually listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086!  Then, it had 20 houses and now it has a population of 13,000.  It is a very upmarket area, 15 miles NW of London.  

The main street....

We are often under the flight path in and out of Heathrow, which I love.  I have inherited my father’s interest in watching low flying aeroplanes!  He was always pointing out to my long-suffering mother the make and model of the plane and where they may have come from or where it was going to.  We didn’t have that many holidays when we were kids but when we did go to another city invariably we would go and sit near the airport to watch the planes for a treat!  It’s so interesting to watch these huge airliners fly so slowly down towards Heathrow, stacked up one every 90 seconds.  Heathrow has two main runways and they have a policy that they use one for 12 hours then the other, to give their near neighbours a break.  We are far enough away not to be too disturbed by the noise but close enough to marvel at the spectacle.

When the skies are clear there are always jet trails. Rob counted 26 on one occasion!

 

We have four cats, four tropical saltwater fish and one brightly coloured shrimp in a huge indoor fish tank, complete with growing coral, to look after.  Outdoors there is a beautiful fish pond, in the shape of the number eight with a lovely Japanese bridge spanning it, also with 12 large carp.  The deep end is around six feet deep so the fish can live in the depths when it freezes.  They take care of themselves out there, with no imput from us.  The four cats, however, do take a bit of effort!  One is 19 years old and requires medication twice a day, two like to be taken on regular walks around the acre garden, in a clockwise direction, and they all have their own feeding sites and schedules!

A very shy but beautiful reef fish

The house is enormous and very comfortable, especially the lovely spa set on the upper back deck.  The valuation for this house is $NZ4million.

Looking back at the house

No swimming in winter!

On the very first day, after the introduction to animals, fish and machinery with the owner, we walked into the small shopping area to stock up the fridge and pantry and get a feel for the village.  Narrow streets lined with very old buildings, very picturesque.  Dennis has a saying, ” Never use the same road twice” and so he took a short cut on the way home.  “How do you know it’s a short cut, when you have never been here before?” “Trust me,” says he “this way you get to see so much more of the place. We’ll go behind the houses, using roads we wouldn’t see if we just travelled in the van!”  So off we went, using roads that he thought would run parallel to the road we actually needed to be on.  In a short time, we were out of the village and walking along rural lanes, laden down with our groceries.  Walking, walking, and getter darker by the minute!  If we would just leave the lane now, because obviously we had gone too far away from civilisation, and use the public pathways that criss cross the countryside, maybe we’ll be fine!  Eventually, we had lost our way entirely and it was now pitch black as well.  There were many, many rabbit holes and huge holes that Dennis assured me were the openings to badger tunnels, that you had to make your way around or wrench your ankle.  One thing about night-time though, is that from time to time you do see lights of houses and vehicles and so we began to guess where the road our house was on might be and make out the general direction of how we might get there!  Under low hanging branches, over barbed wire fences, through paddocks hoping they were free from bulls, and all the while hugging the bags of groceries to our chests!  By this stage I was laughing hysterically at another shortcut gone wrong!   On one occasion I dropped my bags and spilled out the contents all over the show.  Cue: Dennis’ turn to laugh.  We eventually emerged onto the correct little, narrow lane and found our house further back down the road.  All in all it took ten minutes to walk into town and over an hour to get back!  

Dennis is following me during his shortcut adventure! That light is my cellphone!

This is what I mean by a narrow lane! It's the lane where we're living at the moment

As soon as I got inside I dumped my bags and set off to use the convenience of one of the four toilets.  Coming back into the kitchen, the first thing I saw was a KFC carry bag with half eaten contents inside, sitting on the bench!  It was definitely not ours!  Who had been here while we had been traipsing around the countryside?  Was there anything missing?  Were all the cats alright?  OH, how frightening!  A new house, with lots of fancy stuff and an intruder in the first couple of hours!  It took Dennis some time to calm me down and convince me  that when I had bent down in the dark to retrieve the spilled groceries I had inadvertently picked up the KFC bag as well!  It was the only conclusion.
This house has had two additions built around the central, 200-year-old original building!  The doors in the oldest part are so low that Dennis needs to bend down to get through them.  One of these doors we keep shut permanently and the cats just have to walk around the long way, but the door into our bedroom is just as low and it was slighty amusing to hear Dennis stumble out of bed in the middle of the night, only to try to remove the top section of his head for the first few times until he figured it out in his half asleep way.
This general area of England is well-known for its Quakers and we have a meeting-house very near here.  It was built in 1688.  We biked down and took a walk inside the grounds, finding the grave of William Penn and his family.  The State of Pennsylvania was named after him, although he only lived there for four years on and off.   The Librarian came out of the House to greet us and invited us to in for a guided tour.  What an interesting hour we spent with her!  She was very knowledgeable about the history of the region, the Quaker Movement in general and the history of this building in particular.  Part of this Meeting House was burnt down, (sounded like the wardens employed to live here were the culprits!) in 2005 and a large new section has been integrated with the old to create a beautiful complex.  They have advertising placards up on the fences to encourage new members.  The woman described the modern Quaker system as “more of a political movement than a religion now” as to her knowledge many of the members did not hold to Jesus as the Son of God but rather tried to live life in a good way, not bound by confessions or creeds.  When the Movement began it definitely was based on Scripture and the founder was never seen without his Bible under his arm.  In those days, they rebelled against the hierarchy of the established Church, especially being upset that the clergy were paid by the commoners and privileged above them.  They suffered terribly for being non-conformists.  The fact that Barclay’s Bank, Lloyd’s Insurance and Amnesty International were some of the institutions begun by the Quakers was news to me.  Up the hill, a few metres away stands a huge barn built using planks from the Mayflower ship, another interesting fact.

With the new addition: Library, hall, foyer & kitchen

Jordan's Quaker Meeting House

The Meeting Room

William Penn's gravestone

Most days we either take a walk through another side of town, cycle along narrow country lanes or take a trip via van or train to a nearby attraction.  This way we hope to really explore the  region around the house sit thoroughly.  We have really been surprised by the state of the roads in the Greater London region.  The patches are patched, but also huge holes in the tarmac maybe two or three inches deep!  The locals tell us that repairs to the roading network has come to a grinding holt in the last three years or so.  They are just as upset as we are!  It must be one way the governments, local and central, have decided to save their precious, dwindling funds.

The English love their dogs! This is a competition to win a photo shoot for your dog, up to the princely sum of $10,000!

In the village next door, called Chalfont St Giles, 10 miles down the way, we came across Milton’s Cottage.  Milton shifted in here with his family in 1665, hoping to avoid the Black Plague!  He finished “Paradise Lost” while living hereUnfortunately, the museum inside the house was closed….till Easter.

Milton's Cottage

The day after we arrived here the Gardener came for the day.  I invited him in for morning coffee but he was a bit unsure at first.  He did eventually agree to come inside but would not sit down!  He stood in the doorway, holding his cup and slowly warmed to the idea of talking to strangers.  Over the time we have stayed here I think he has come to view us as “part of the staff” and is now happy to sit and chat.  He is a wealth of information!  You can well imagine Dennis peppering him with questions!  Local history, history of this house, the owners, plants in the garden, his role in developing the garden, etc, etc.  Keith would be in his sixties, I guess, and he comes from one of the longest surviving families in Chalfont St Peter.  He knows everything about this village, a lot of its people and the surrounds.  Keith tells us that our neighbours down the lane are Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne, (she of Britain’s/America’s Got Talent judging fame) we often see his helicopter overhead, commuting to and from work.   Two members of the Bee Gees live in the next village and Cilla Black nearby!    The farm down the lane was a POW camp for Germans during World War 2!  He warned me about snakes out there where we had been walking around in the dark, (I had no idea that there were snakes in England!) and horse flies whose bites/stings can apparently be very painful!   Warned me not to encourage the foxes into the property, in fact they had a system of red blinking lights around the section at night to fool the foxes into thinking there is a dog living here just to discourage them!  I have since seen foxes through the wire netting fence along the back of the large section during the day.  They also have a particular Japanese water feature in a small pond, with a large hollowed out section of bamboo that slowly fills with water then tips, banging the edge of another bamboo pipe, just to frighten the herons and discourage them from fishing the carp!  The garden is beautiful, even in the bare state of winter.  Huge trees, rose gardens, rhododendron walks, huge wisteria, summer-house, ponds, in ground swimming pool and herbaceous borders along with a well manicured lawn.  The gardener comes twice a week and brings his son on Saturdays as well.  He has a really broad accent that Dennis had trouble understanding,  I find myself repeating Keith’s words to Dennis often!  He also has a slight stutter, which doesn’t help and often says “Watchadymecallit” while he’s thinking of the next thing.  It’s hilarious.  I was talking to him about how the seasons seemed to have shifted in time somewhat.  We had noticed in NZ that summer time comes late in February and March nowadays and he was bemoaning the fact it was not a white Christmas in England this year.  I was thinking “Could this be climate change?”  but he gave me this long drawn out idea that the Pakistanis in Pakistan have underground chambers where they are continually detonating atoms bombs which has shifted the earth’s axis!    

Cyclamens - the only colour in the garden at the moment! The frost doesn't worry them!

The cleaners come once a week.  They really surprised me when they drove through the electrically controlled gates, with their own radar “key”, in  their Mercedes station wagon.  They are such good workers, two of them (maybe Spanish husband and wife?) go through the entire house in one hour!
The heating in this house is unbelievable!  Down in the cellar there’s a huge network of pipes, boilers, water softeners, computer controlled this and that.  It’s also where the washing gets dried, no outside lines here.  There’s underfloor heating in the newer additions and radiators in each room, and in one reception room and one TV viewing room they each have a heat pump!   I am used to wearing thermal underwear, long johns included, since arriving back in England but in this house I am wandering around in bare feet!  I must be diligent in donning my thermals, coat, hat, gloves and scarf when I leave the house though or else I will definitely come down with the flu or something, the contrast is so great.  It actually makes for unpleasant sleeping in a highly heated  bedroom.  But we must not touch the thermostats as this is all for the benefit of four cats!  All but six of the 19 rooms are heated and open for the cats’ pleasure……I find this so wasteful of resources, it’s staggering.

Some of the hardware in the cellar


The water in London is very hard and full of lime.  When you leave water in a glass or in the bottom of the kettle for a little, you soon see small, white flakes – that’s lime!  Once your coffee or tea-cup is drained there’s a brown sludge all down the inside!  Yuk!   Normally, using dishwashers and washing machines you need to regularly descale the machines using store-bought preparations.  But in this house, they have a water softener down in the cellar that all the incoming water goes through, using salt in some way I can’t explain.  Then all water used for drinking, cooking, the fish tank and cats has gone through a double action osmosis “thing” that I can’t understand either in the laundry!  But, it comes out beautiful!  Makes a grand cup of coffee in my new machine!  

Inside the new trains there are no divides between the carriages, just like the ones in Hong Kong. Great fun when you go through bends and curves on the tracks

We have been travelling in to St Helen’s each Sunday afternoon for their 6p.m. service.  Although it takes us 75 minutes each way on the tube, then two hours at Church, it is well worth the time, effort and money getting there.  Rev. William Taylor has been preaching a series of sermons on Matthew 24 & 25, (a series called The End) which has been very encouraging.  It never fails to move me when I join in worship with 500 mainly young people, singing and listening to the Word.  If you are interesting in listening to the sermons just click on to their website: http://www.st-helens.org.uk/resources/media-library/src/series/4567/title/the-end-6pm

Hoar Frost

We found this painted on the boarding around a half built high-rise very near St Helen's. Wondered if it's a Banksy?

We do get some great frosts around here!  We biked to the site of an Open Air Museum, when the ground was still very white and crunchy.  We had seen the road sign a couple of times for this and wondered what it might include.  When we got there it was naturally closed!  Till Easter!  But being intrepid travellers we walked right in anyway.  During summer it is a working museum showing how people lived, farmed, worked and socialized from the Iron Age onwards.  We found  three volunteers repairing things during the downtime and had a good conversation with them.  Two of them were surprised but pleased to see us but one man was not at all pleased to think we had just wandered in!  If we happen to be in the area after Easter we shall certainly return.  The little we saw was fascinating!  We had only just got back on our bikes when I got a puncture in the front tyre.  Dennis decided to bike home (fast) and get the van to pick me up.  He gave me detailed and strict instructions to walk home using the same route we had come by and he would meet me in the van.  You could say the instructions were precise!  So off he went and I began to walk pushing the said bike along.  In just a few more minutes the front tyre completely came away from the rim and rammed on the brakes!  This left me with no alternative but to lift the front section and virtually carry the bike!  Every few minutes I had to stop and change my position and carry with the other arm as it was so awkward.  I walked bedside a large hospital, dedicated to Epilepsy.  We found out later that years ago, if you suffered from epilepsy you could come down here from anywhere in England and spent the rest of your life here.  It was not so much a hospital but a quite substantial community living together away from normal society.  Lots better than being burnt at the stake for demon possession!   As time went by with no sign of Dennis in his trusty van I began to think that maybe he had misunderstood, when I said I would walk home, and maybe he was heating up the chicken soup for lunch, as we had discussed earlier?! ” No, that couldn’t be,  he wouldn’t do that?! Would he?”  I was having little discussions with myself inside my head, debating whether he would in fact have done that, as it was now 55 minutes since I had last seen him!  But all of a sudden, someone behind me on a bike, bumped into my bike….young Dennis with a big smile on his face…he had lost his way and at the first corner had taken the wrong turn!!

Walking past a farm gate, with my bike under my arm, I was astonished to read this

On our way to the Open Air Museum, we passed through this suburb


Barn with thatched roof and oak woven walls, c 1500 made using cruck construction

Replica Iron Age House, c AD50, thatched roof and wattle and daub walls, no chimney the smoke just filters through the thatch

This is frost not snow!!

We were driving down the main, narrow road in the shopping area, when the man in front of us stopped completely and got out of his car, turned to us and pointed at Dennis!   It took us a little while to recognise him as the man we had bought the motorhome from!  He lives in the next village, maybe five minutes away!  It was so funny.  He just hopped back in his car and off he went.
One evening we took a Walking Tour in London, along the banks of the Thames, through the suburbs there and ended up in the first tunnel ever built for the Underground.  Built by none other than Isimbard Kingdom Brunel!  Walking Tours are a wonderful way of hearing about the history of a place.  The tour guide is usually very enthusiastic and dramatic.  This particular night it was so misty, which added to the atmosphere.  We were basically just below and along from London Bridge on the foreshore and you couldn’t see the Shard building!  The talk at that stage was about how people were sentenced to hang for “trifling” offenses,  and how the Judge came to his favourite pub (still there right next to us), and watched them hung at a site directly opposite us on the other bank, meanwhile we had mist swirling around us and the site opposite.  Eerie…

In NZ we are familiar with Clothes Banks, but not ones for shoes...

... or bras! Now I have seen EVERYTHING!

The day before the owner arrived back the lovely shrimp moved to the opposite corner of the fish tank.  This was unexpected as he had always occupied one small section of the tank.  The following morning he was looking decidedly dead stuck behind coral, way down the back!  I was nervous to tell the owner about him but he assured me that shrimps shred their skins periodically and although he was nowhere to be seen at this time he’ll be fine in a couple of days!  Surely hope so, he didn’t look to good to me…..
Some  odd  facts:
*I’ve noticed that the larger houses just outside the village boundary (where we are) do not have a numbering system but rather each house has it’s own name!  Very posh!
*The first time I saw a sparrow in England was on 9 January 2012!  We had been here for nearly six weeks altogether!  London has ordinary pigeons, ravens, crowa and English magpies on the whole, with a few green parakeets, thrushes, starlings and blackbirds thrown in.  It wasn’t until we came to this “small”  village that you could see and hear the smaller birds actually living and flying within the hedgerows.
*Front loading washing machines are awful!  You can’t open the door for the inevitable sock left out and they take up to two hours per wash unless it’s one that has a 30 minute fast wash option (I’ve only seen one of those!).

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