This in one of the most important areas in the story of Grace Dieu Abbey. Living in Ealing, EJO would have many opportunities to visit this area, walking in the hills around High Wycombe and getting to know the Chilterns. It includes parts of both Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Chinnor, the village that EJO called Whiteways and the village of the Abbey and Abinger Hall, lies in Oxfordshire, but walking along the Bledlow Ridge to Miss Macey’s school in High Wycombe Joan and Joy would soon cross the boundary into Buckinghamshire. In 1992 we had wonderful weather for the few days in which we explored the area. EJO used real names for real places in most cases – the only fictional names are Whiteways (Chinnor), Darley’s Bottom (Flowers Bottom) and Broadway End (on the site of Chequers).
See also attached articles: Val T's Idea of the Manor
Nowadays Chinnor falls into two distinct halves. Part of it looks industrialised and uninteresting but the other half near the church has probably changed little since the days of the Abbey girls. When we went on a warm June afternoon, it had the right atmosphere, especially when two ladies in garden party style straw hats stopped their car to ask if we were waiting for a lift to the Mothers Union Strawberry Tea?
EJO must have visited Chinnor and realised that it was an ideal site for the Abbey – far enough away from the hamlets mentioned in Girls of the Hamlet Club not to have been visited in that book but near enough for the Hamlet Club to go there on one of their rambles. There was, in 1992, plenty of space for the Abbey and the Hall in an area slightly above the village and to the right of Keens Lane as one faces the hills of the Bledlow Ridge. Although there were still some old cottages in the village, what were most striking were the high red brick walls which show where the larger houses used to be, and the church, dedicated to St. Andrew, where most of the Abbey girls were married.
There were few changes in the village until the 1950s. The railway line from Princes Risborough, where the station was on the main line from London, to Watlington was closed in 1957 although it was used for freight as far as Chinnor until the 1980s. There have been plans to re-open it as a tourist attraction. From the 1960s onwards some of the larger houses were demolished to make room for housing estates. In the local library we found references to a Tudor farmhouse in the area near to Keens Lane but this was demolished about 1880 – was this the inspiration for Abinger Hall? In Girls of the Abbey School, we learn that the Hall ‘though an old building of Tudor days, had been brought up to date by Sir Anthony...’ A document compiled by the Chinnor W.I. in 1929 comments, ‘In the farmyard of Keane’s farm, a beautiful Tudor farmhouse stood...’ This document also records that ‘Folk dancing was started in the winter of 1927 by the Institute and is flourishing’. We also discovered that a minor historical novel, To Right the Wrong by Edna Lyall, published in 1883 and set in this area is about John Hampden, presenting the Parliamentarian viewpoint. We rest our case!
This is now a busy conurbation and although the traffic, which can be horrendous during the day, had died down when we went there in the evening, we could see why Jen and Rosamund found it stuffy – the hills seem to tower steeply over the town to the north.. It must have changed a lot since EJO knew it and, apart from one or two interesting Georgian buildings and the church, it is hardly worth a visit. We didn’t attempt to locate sites for Miss Macey’s school or the Dairy!
We spent more time in nearby West Wycombe. Driving along the B4009 we spotted ‘the tower and ball of West Wycombe Church’ that Joy sees as she walks to school and we walked up the hill to take a closer look at the splendid golden ball. We had coffee and cakes at a Garden centre, an enterprise worthy of an Abbey girl – perhaps a few generations later Rosamund would have been running a garden centre as well as a craft shop and tea room? Nearby is the entrance to the caves that must have given EJO the idea for all those underground passages she describes. Not far away is Hughenden Manor, the home of Disraeli and now owned by the National Trust. Hughenden is one of the hamlets mentioned by EJO but she did not appropriate it for one of her stately homes. There is another National Trust property at West Wycombe, with connections to the notorious Hell-Fire Club. EJO rightly ignored this – not at all in keeping with the ethos of the Abbey books!
These are best described in Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which Cicely visits many of them to see the members of the Club in their own homes.
This is a long straggling village just as EJO describes it. Marguerite takes Cicely to see the church and ‘the brasses of the Penn family – the row of little boy figures in their quaint costumes and of little girls in ruffs and hoods and long skirts, all with folded hands or holding Bibles, ranged behind their parents in order of height.’ We found no mention of Edmund Burke and his school for orphans of the French Revolution but later research has uncovered these..
We approached this via a very narrow road, going carefully at a sign that read ‘ducklings crossing’ and paused by the pond to feed the ducks with some rather tired sandwiches. This is a real hamlet, just a few houses and the duck pond.
We reached this via Penn Bottom. The church is an interesting shape, looking quite square with a nave that is short in proportion to the chancel and the transepts. We walked a short distance into Penn Wood and found that the description in Girls of the Hamlet Club was still hauntingly true, ‘Long aisles led into the wood, with heavy shadows giving an impression of mystery...the ruddy heart of the wood opened to them and took them in, and they found themselves in a glowing golden splendour of autumn leaves, with shafts of sunlight playing on the grey-green trunks and mysterious silence everywhere’ (p.60)
There are many ‘bottoms’ in this area. Darley’s Bottom, important in the books as the home of Dorothy Darley and the location of the first Hamlet Club Barn, seems to be the fictional name for Flowers Bottom; this would make sense of Cicely meeting Dorothy as they cycle to school and of the walk home that Joy and Joan have after their first visit to the Hamlet Club. Cicely is described as riding up from Darley’s Bottom to Kingshill and turning to look at the view. We did the same and what we saw ties in with what Cicely saw.
Georgie Gilks takes Cicely to visit Little Missenden ‘where the oldest church that Cicely had ever seen faced her as she entered the village,’ (p.161) so we went to look at it and found a beautiful old church with wonderful wall-paintings and old woodwork. It is very much the sort of old church that EJO appreciated and she must have spent some time there enjoying the building and its atmosphere.
The Church and Hampden House stand next to each other – the church was locked and the house was not open to the public although we had a close look at it (and with all the experience we subsequently had we could probably have gone to the door and peered in and someone might have let us look round). It was used as offices in 1992 , but you could apparently hire the Great Hall for a special occasion. The theory has been put forward that the interior was the model for Broadway End. Broadway End was almost certainly situated on the site of Chequers. For obvious reasons we couldn’t visit this!
Another church not to be missed; when we visited there was a special exhibition about John Hampden – it was here that on the 9th January, 1635, that a parish meeting with John Hampden in the chair, resolved to refuse to pay the Ship Money that was being imposed by Charles I without the consent of Parliament.
This is the village where Miriam lived – it’s easy to miss it as there are just a few houses along the main road. One is a little thatched cottage with a colourful garden, which we would like think was Miriam’s cottage although that is described as being ‘far back from the road’.
This is the village where Cicely lodges when she arrives in the area in the hope of being asked to visit her grandparents at Broadway End. We sat outside the pub in the sunshine and admired the newly thatched cottages opposite. Although there are a few ‘modern’ houses, it’s probably not changed much since EJO imagined Cicely living there nearly a century ago.
The Whiteleaf Cross is best seen from the road between Chinnor and Princes Risboroug, but we found a convenient car park near to it and sat on one of the arms of the Cross to look down at the Risboroughs (Princes Risborough and Monks Risborough ‘beyond lay miles of flat country, meadows, hedges, golden woods, glistening water...one little town with a pointed spire...and another even smaller...with an ancient square tower.’ (p.6)
In 1992 this was still an attractive market town and well worth a visit. This must have been well known to the Abbey girls who changed frequently changed trains here when they travelled from London to Chinnor (Whiteways).
Ewelme appears briefly in Maid of the Abbey when Maidlin and Jock slip into the lovely old church to give thanks after they have got engaged. The fifteenth century church and almshouses, founded by Geoffrey Chaucer's son Thomas, are well worth a visit in their own right. Ewelme is quite a distance from Wycombe and the Chilterns but is in Oxfordshire so is included here.
This section is based on visits made by Sheila Ray and Stella Waring.
For pictures of locations see the Abbey Picture Gallery