Originally published on Pages Of, January 2014.


On Christmas Eve I set off for an afternoon walk with my wife. The apparently straightforward aim was to walk from my parents’ house in Chesham Bois, in which they have lived since before I was born, to the nearby village of Great Missenden and back. It’s a walk my father has done every Saturday for as long as I can remember, and one I must have done a hundred times. And yet… Within minutes of leaving the house I’d missed the turning for the right footpath. It was not a good omen.

Discussing a host of future plans as the crisp wintry sunlight glinted through the trees, I rather forgot that I was supposed to be leading the way. Soon we came to a road: the wrong road. We decided on a change of tack, walking along the pavement, across the common at Hyde Heath where I play cricket each summer Sunday, through the woods and across the extensive lands of Hawthorn Farm.

As we walk, dozens of recently reintroduced red kites wheel and swoop overhead. And then it occurs to me: whilst I have a vague sense of the direction home, I haven’t a clue how to actually get there. We hit a road and I have no idea where it will take us. Eventually we arrive in the town of Chesham – I recognise the allotments and the parish church. We end up, hours later, walking along a narrow road in the pitch black, cars glaring by only inches away from us.

Until moving to London eight years ago, I’d lived here my entire life. This is home. And I hardly know it at all.


Writing about place seems now more popular than ever: men (and it is so often men) alone with nature and their thoughts. So often this kind of writing is tinged with a yearning after a lost childhood, or, if not a yearning exactly, an undeclared assumption that it is our childhoods that shape us, the places we grew up in permanently central to our identity. All these budding little nature writers wandering through the woods, spotting birds and picking wild flowers. Then moving to London, railing against the glass and steel of free-market modernity, identifying the weeds at the side of the road. Reading graffiti tags and fox tracks and calling it psychogeography.

I read such works with my own sense of loss, or rather, of missed opportunity. If only I’d had one of those childhoods – filled with hours of carp-fishing or building forts in forests. But Amersham, or more specifically Chesham Bois where I grew up, never felt like that kind of place. As a young child, the back garden provided my environment for adventure – but curtailed by always-already-internalised convention, and laurel hedges. A gap in one hedge in the back left-hand corner of the garden provided a threshold of unbridled excitement. On one bold day, I even ventured through – only to find that the neighbour’s neatly mown lawn and flowerbeds were exactly like those on our side of this no-longer great divide.

Instead, my memories are of helping to dig the local pond – my first (and still only) use of a pick-axe on frozen mud; of chatting happily to Roger the Butcher; of defending the ewe-tree from marauding aliens; of the lady in the fruit and veg shop with her mittens that were also fingerless gloves. They blew my mind. But not for me those formative adventures – alone amid the vast mystery of an unknown nature. No wilderness. No sublime. Not here in this not-quite-suburbia.


Old Amersham, with its ramshackle rows of sixteenth century cottages and the wide high street of a coaching town, is a beautiful place for a Saturday afternoon stroll. Today, its high-end jewellers, tailors and womenswear shops have been supplemented by generic chain restaurants and cafes. All the pubs have been ruined. As a young child, Old Amersham’s Tudor gables and pubs and shops were of little interest, and the only time I was keen to visit was for the annual Christmas fair, with its bustling crowd and fairground rides. One year, catastrophe almost struck as one of the generators exploded, and a local man became a national hero by leaping into the blazing lorry and driving it to the safety of a nearby field. But that’s another story…

The only other occasion for a trip to the old town would be for a haircut. “Bomber” Harris had his little barber shop on Whieldon Street, just next to an upmarket silversmiths. Their emblem was the glis glis, a sort of cross between a dormouse and a squirrel, accidentally introduced by the 2nd Baron Rothschild, whose collection forms the basis of the nearby Tring Museum. It’s not the only strange species roaming the proudly mown gardens of Buckinghamshire. Muntjac – like squat little deer – are a regular sight in my parents’ garden, always chastised for nibbling the wrong flowers. Red kites, too, are a common sight in the skies across both Bucks and neighbouring Oxfordshire, following an intensive re-introduction programme by the RSPB. In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economics of the collector.

The Amersham of my childhood was therefore “top” Amersham, Amersham-on-the-Hill, or simply “the new town”. The early years of the twentieth century saw the town grow up around the train station, which was built in 1892. Today it’s served by both Chiltern Railways and the Metropolitan Line, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. In a pop-up shop on Hill Avenue, devout fans could buy cushions in the same pattern as Tube seat upholstery if they so wished. I wasn’t tempted. Trains to Baker Street and Marylebone leave regularly and take little more than half an hour. This is prime commuter-ville.

It’s hard to see how anybody could have strong feelings for a place like Amersham. It is simply a satellite – a place for people to live and raise families. Whilst, at one time, the growth of suburbia was an arrow to the future (according to the prophet Betjeman), now it seems in terminal decline. No new restaurant lasts more than a year. The charity shops and estate agents slowly multiply.

When I was a child, Dad used to drive me into London and we would potter together round exhibitions at the Tate, Hayward or Royal Academy. Rather touchingly, he would always ask me to explain things to him. As soon as I could, I’d buy a travelcard and head into London for the day, meet up with friends, order adult drinks – brandy, cocktails– leaving Amersham and its environs far behind. This adolescent ennui was almost certainly exacerbated by my education. Being sent to boarding school from the age of eleven must prevent the formation of a close relationship with any particular place. By the time I was fifteen I knew only a handful of local people. Perhaps that’s why we all converge on London eventually.

Or maybe I was just never particularly observant. Richard Shelton has managed to write lyrically about childhood fishing trips in Chiltern streams, but even his writing feels foreign to me. By and large, my attention was directed not outwards to a world of dark forests, wild animals and adventure, but inwards to books, thoughts and a growing obsession with fantasy cricket. But who wants to read about that?


On the prow of the hill just behind Amersham station stands High and Over, a pristine white tranche of continental modernism glimpsed through the trees and the 1960s dwellings of Station Road. It was built in 1929 by acclaimed architect Anyas Douglas Connell for Bernard Ashmole – war hero, archaeologist and art historian. It was featured in one of those Phaidon architecture books with all the nice pictures. “The last great British country house,” it said, “and the first modern house in the English countryside.” I never noticed it.

Strangely for somebody who is still yet to learn to drive, I was far more interested in the turquoise Chevrolet we used occasionally to see parked in one of the driveways. Usually all that was visible was the fleeting glimpse of an all-American tail-fin glowing in a dark garage. One memorable day it was parked out on the road in all its ludicrous exotic glory. After that, I never saw it again.

A more lasting fixture is just around the corner from the station: my father’s office, with its stuffed owls, ten-tonne fax machine and the strange smell of old filing cabinets. On the wall, a black and white photograph of a young boy running around with arms outstretched, clearly pretending to be an aeroplane. “Can you ever remember anyone playing chartered accountants?” reads the caption. No, was dad’s advisory answer to the rhetorical question. His was not a profession I ever seriously considered.


Perhaps the closest engagement with place that I achieved came at the age of eleven, when we were instructed to carry out a research project on a church of our choosing. While some at my smart little prep school went for grandeur (St George’s Chapel in Windsor was a popular choice) I plumped for St Mary’s, Chesham, where my previous – less well-heeled – prep school had held its annual carol services. It was a close call though between that and St Mary’s in Old Amersham, with its exquisite fifteen century vaulting in the porch. The clincher was Chesham’s Norman Romanesque window, or rather, half a window – embedded in a wall that it predates. Its jarring presence provides a way into the overlapping layers of history that gradually build up in 1,000 year-old buildings such as this. The project left me with a lasting love of the more esoteric features of church architecture – sedilia, hagioscopes (or lepers’ squints), bosses, buttresses, piscinas and the like – and a grisly tale of martyrdom, that I have only just discovered to be apocryphal.

The Amersham and Chesham area has a long history of nonconformist Christianity, among which the Lollards were a particularly prominent subgroup from the fourteenth century up to the English Reformation. Although they had no central belief system, Lollardy was characterised by a critical attitude towards corruption in the Catholic Chuch and a desire to translate the Bible into the vernacular. The term ‘Lollard’ was originally a derogatory term used for those without an academic background.

During one of many crackdowns, local Lollard Thomas Harding was arrested for his heretical beliefs, trialled by the Bishop of Lincoln, and convicted. In my memory, he had then been imprisoned in the “spirit loft” at St Mary’s and left there until he died. In fact, he only spent one night there before being chained to a stake in order to be burnt. Before the fire was lit, however, one of the spectators struck him over the head with a piece of firewood and he died instantly. In the circumstances, it was quite a kindly act. Today, the Thomas Harding Primary School in Chesham is named after him – a low, red brick building just across the road from a patchwork of attractive allotments. It was accidentally arriving here that helped me find my bearings home on Christmas Eve.


For a place that holds so little intrinsic interest to me, it’s odd how regularly I return here. My parents still live there of course, in the same house that I was brought up in. The other main draw is village cricket. I’ve played for the nearby village of Hyde Heath since I was fifteen, but it’s only been in the past six years or so that I’ve started to play so regularly. From early May to mid September, I’m there almost every Sunday, embarrassing myself on the village green, afterwards reliving it all in the downbeat surrounds of The Plough just across the road.

People always ask what the appeal of cricket is, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure. But I’ve come to love the club. Last year I tried playing for a team of London journalists, but spending hours standing around in a field with a bunch of people you don’t know is simply tedious. The fun is sharing in the success of friends you’ve known for years, but also revelling in the fractious arguments of people who know exactly which button to push to piss each other off. Lately, I’ve discovered wild garlic in the surrounding woods and started bringing bunches back to London. As soon as he found out, our strike bowler, whose parents live right on the common, promised to piss on it whenever he remembered.


For an area so shaped by its transport links, it’s interesting to see how extreme has been the response to HS2 – the proposed high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. In a sense, it’s hardly surprising. A friend at the cricket club has had huge sums wiped off the value of his house and some of the area’s most attractive little cottages are due for compulsory purchase and demolition. My father has taken to wearing a Stop HS2 sweatshirt wherever he goes.

It’s funny what transport can do. Old Amersham is a town shaped by the horse-drawn carriage; Amersham-on-the-Hill by car and rail. What might HS2 bring? London. Spreading faster and wider. Phase 1: London to Birmingham in under an hour. Phase 2: London to Manchester in one hour, eight minutes. Unlike earlier transport projects, though, it’s difficult to imagine how HS2 might reshape the areas around Amersham and Chesham. With no stops planned between London and Birmingham, what benefits can the project bring to the area? Nothing but disruption and noise: I’ll probably be able to hear the trains roar by as I play cricket each Sunday afternoon. But, then again, it might never happen. As the Conservatives see their own heartland rebelling, the chances of the whole project being scrapped seem to rise by the day. For the moment, it’s just a line on a map, slicing through woods and villages that I’m only now beginning to explore.