*(And a review of the Betsy Wynne Gastropub)*
We all like a ghost story, don’t we. That’s not a question, by the way, rather a statement of unquestionable fact. Or opinion. But all semantics aside, Swanbourne must enjoy more mysterious ‘happenings’ than most villages of its size.
There’s only four ways in and out of Swanbourne. The Winslow way, or from Aylesbury; from the neighbouring village of Mursley, or down a long lane which doesn’t really start anywhere. More on this later, but let’s start with the road from Winslow.
As you enter the not-really-notorious collection of thatched cottages and often bizarrely adorned small homes (most are rented from the ‘estate’, identified by a weird fascination with green guttering and pipework) you pass the first of three schools all of which cater to younger children. There’s the nursery school, on your right, then the village primary on your left and finally, opposite the splendid church, is Swanbourne House, a smallish prep school. There are only about six children aged under 13 living in the village, but when it comes to their formative education, they are catered for like royals.
*Phantoms in the Mist*
But it is not this plethora of schools which interest us, rather the old Manor House which nowadays is occupied by the youngest children of the prep school. Formerly, this rather ugly one-time home housed nuns, a leper colony and even, in the seventies, became a residence for the elderly. It is these senior folk who most famously tell of the ‘Green Lady’ and the ‘Cloak-ed Man’ The gentleman in question is most probably none other than Thomas Adams, a senior resident of the village who unfortunately decided one Sunday to undertake the fifty mile trip to London, a journey he regularly made. Back in 1626 this could be a treacherous undertaking. Somewhere between Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable he was accosted by unknown highwaymen, robbed and murdered. Little changes. At least in the vicinity of Dunstable. The story goes that his wife, Elizabeth, became so distraught upon hearing of her beloved’s death that she visited St Swithun’s, Swanbourne’s church, twice a day for her remaining years, gradually wasting away in the process. The Adams lived in the Manor House, and she’s still regularly spotted crossing over to the church, and passing through the locked wooden door to the bell tower, her green dress glowing (a neat accompaniment to the paintwork on the houses). Fortunately for her, she is often accompanied by a man in a cloak, and he is generally believed to be her husband.
Although, it might not be quite so innocent. Other stories present Elizabeth as a bit of a goer, who rather than wasting away following her husband’s untimely death promptly dedicated herself to bedding as many men as possible. Not that this sort of thing is really very likely in a village such as Swanbourne. Perish the thought.
Next to the Manor House is the rather more splendid Swanbourne House, which was built by Sir Thomas Fremantle (see below) for his wife, Betsy (see even further below) and himself, when he could drag himself away from either the seas or his London office that is. Sadly, during the mansion’s construction, a labourer called Isiah England fell from the intricately balustraded roof, crashing to his death. The house became a school just over a century ago. Pupils down the ages have reported hearing movement through the house at night. In fact, adult members of the Fremantle family eschewed living in the property, probably because of Isiah’s frequent visits. This is why it became a school in the first place. Ten year old children are made of sterner stuff than landed gentry, it seems.
In fact, Isiah is commemorated with a headstone in St Swithun’s. It is under a tree, just before the new houses and by the gorgeous stone wall which marks the edge of the cemetery. If you take a look at that, then go inside and into the chancel, where you’ll find a brass set in the floor dedicated to the above mentioned Thomas and Elizabeth Adams.
That’s not all the ghostly stuff haunting Swanbourne. Not by far. Barrack Row, probably the second oldest building in the village (the oldest is a white cottage in Nearton End, although Nearton was a village in itself when this was built) is now a series of thatched, whitewashed and rather attractive cottages in the evocatively named Smithfield End. Rumour has it that a ghost likes to visit the small homes one at a time, but will happily pass through to a neighbour if requested to do so. The old barn near Brook Farm hosts a ghost, as does The Old School House on the road to nearby Mursley (long standing feuds exist between residents of these two neighbours, dating back to the days of Cromwell. Best not to go into these now. Just remember, if you do visit, don’t mention the war.) The Old School House’s phantom likes to haunt the upstairs. Hensman’s Farmhouse once had its windows nailed up to keep the spectres at bay, and you are likely to have your bedclothes ripped from you if you find yourself staying the farmhouse at Dodley Hill. To be fair, it’s unlikely that you will, since it is a private residence. Although, like the Barrack Row inhabitant, this ghost obligingly desists in his or her endeavours if so requested.
*Murder (Probably) Most Foul (Possibly)*
Then there’s the unnamed man, a visitor of some sort, found hanging in a barn on the outskirts of the Parish. He was cut down from the stout wooden supports, assumed murdered (very possibly by a close associate – friend even – of Navy Hero and the village’s Third Most Famous Son, Lord Sir Thomas Fremantle. Actually, he’s probably the most famous son, since the other two – best left nameless, although one is a once (still, he’d probably say) leading politician, and the other a successful cricketer – were born elsewhere even if they live in the village now.) Apparently, a famous actress also resided in Swanbourne, although one not famous enough for her name to be easily discovered.
The mysterious but deceased (read on, it gets interesting) gentleman is a bit of a curiosity. Having been cut down from the beams of the barn, and transported to the local church, he immediately began to sweat and tears formed in his eyes. With remarkable haste, the local vicar (aided by other notaries of the village) pronounced him dead, killed by a visitation of God, they decided, and buried the poor chap without a moment to waste. Suspicious, or what?
All this can be verified on the excellent if brief ‘Ghost Sightings’ page of SwanbourneHistory.co.uk or you could just this as easily ask a local enjoying a pint in his or her, umm, local. That is the Betsy Wynne, named after Sir Thomas Fremantle’s splendidly authoritative wife. (She managed to persuade the railway to divert via the outskirts of Swanbourne, thus finding a London market for local farmers’ butter and milk. Queen Victoria was a big fan, apparently.) The village used to be home to a veritable plethora of pubs, but gradually they were all turned into private homes. Now the Betsy upholds the tradition, if its appeal stretches a lot wider than the likes of the hostelries of yesteryear.
*We Need a Pint after that*
The Betsy Wynne is certainly not haunted being, in pub terms, extremely young. Still a teenager in fact. Despite its youth, it is a nice ‘modern rural’ looking building, with a necessarily large car park. Because the pub now has a fine reputation for food. Lots of locally sourced produce, and a convivial, if busy, atmosphere. It is the Betsy which, finally, takes us to the core of this blog.
We took three generations of the AB Peters’ clan there recently for Sunday lunch. We booked about four days in advance, and already our preferred time was gone, although we managed to find a slot close to it.
We eschewed starters. The pub’s reputation for large portions isn’t quite as true to life as it seems, but we knew from past experience that consuming three courses would be too much. I went for the roast beef. It arrived served with roast potatoes (very good), roast parsnips (also perfectly cooked), fresh, crispy and spot on kale (I’ve never tasted this occasionally bitter veg so well prepared and presented although to be fair, I’ve probably only eaten it about twice previously), Yorkshire (tasty, but disappointingly thin) and gravy (good). The beef rivalled the kale for the best bit of the meal. I didn’t think it was possible for meat to actually melt under the knife, but this not overly thinly cut selection certainly did. Grandpa opted for gammon egg and chips, which he declared to be splendid, and the wife and daughter decided, as they often do (we’re reasonably regular visitors), to share a margherita pizza and tomato side salad. The pizzas are prepared and cooked onsite – as you’d expect but not always find these days – and look delicious, with plenty of topping and a neatly bubbled and charred base. Both this and the salad were declared to be first class. It is really nice, I think, to find a pub which will serve its full menu on a Sunday and not just stick to the ubiquitous roast. Our previous meal out on this day, again with Grandpa, was at a pub in Lutterworth. It served a carvery and little else, with the meat dried out and on the cold side of luke warm. Very disappointing.
We’d saved room for puddings, and if the main courses are very good, then these sweet treats are even better. Wife and daughter once more decided to share, and their chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream was more than adequate for two. Light yet rich was the conclusion, it certainly looked a treat. Grandpa had bombolone, described as a mini dessert, but this not so small hillock of crispy fresh Italian doughnut with a chocolate sauce dip will fill most stomachs. I went for Panettone bread and butter pudding with brandy custard and vanilla ice cream. Well, somebody had to. It genuinely was one of the best puddings I have ever eaten. Light, perfectly textured (always a risk with bread and butter pudding), not overly sweet and the brandy custard really is dessert gold.
We didn’t have wine. Grandpa enjoyed a half a lager, while I managed a pint and a half of Seafarer, a pleasant bitter. I had to wait a bit longer than ideal for the top up half, but otherwise service was excellent, especially so given the place was heaving. The others had soft drinks. The bill, including a not particularly generous tip (sorry, there’s a cost of living crisis on) came spot on the £100 mark. A lot for Sunday lunch for four, but given the quality of the food, well worth it. Highly recommended.
*Time for a Stroll*
What to do next? Well, Swanbourne is littered with footpaths which lead through verdant, if occasionally muddy at this time of year, fields, woods and copses. Or, if you want to keep your trainers clean, then why not wander round the village streets? Forty five minutes will cover every tarmacked cranny of this little wonder of north Buckinghamshire, and there’s more than a bit of fun to be had by searching out the haunted houses which abound. This is particularly good fun as the dusk begins to crawl in. Swanbourne looks stunning in the sun, especially down the lane to nowhere mentioned at the beginning, but oddly it is even better on a darkening, dank late afternoon or early evening. Due to a geographical quirk the village is built on a small rise of land which captures fog, and often this comes in and settles over the surrounding streets for an hour or two. With coats wrapped tight, glove covered hands deep in pockets or seeking comfort from a fellow rambler, the old houses take on a Dickensian atmosphere which makes those ghost stories suddenly, maybe even frighteningly, seem true. (Which, of course, they are.)
So when a green glow peers through the gloom at the junction of St Swithun’s and the Manor House, it’s not a traffic light – there’s none in the village. More probably, you’re looking at the Green Lady making her way to say her prayers.
Maybe it’s time to say yours too.
*Finding Swanbourne and its Surroundings*
Swanbourne is located in North Buckinghamshire, smack in the centre of a triangle between Milton Keynes, Buckingham and Aylesbury. From the south, take the A413 until a mile before Winslow, where the village is signposted on a right hand turn. From the north and west, it is best to head along the A421 and take the turn to Mursley at the roundabout. Turn left as you enter Mursley, then as you leave the village turn right to Swanbourne. The Betsy Wynne is one of the first buildings you reach as you enter the village.
For a more sobering experience, turn right in Mursley, exit the village and travel for about a mile and a half, then just before the railway bridge turn left into Station Road. Here you pass the new East West rail line, which follows the route of the original railway. Until recently, you could walk beside the track, have a sit down on the old platform and look at the old Station where two brothers had lived for years. (Their dad was once the station master.) Of course, progress, greed and lack of consideration play their part especially in our current, profit obsessed Britain, and now the railway side is overgrown with messy weeds. Soulless green fencing deters friendliness and the station and its platform are gone. So are the brothers, one with distressing finality. Still, you can imagine how bucolic it all once was. And regret. Thanks EWR. You’ll probably feel the damage just before you enter Swanbourne itself, as the lorries of EWR – thankfully gone now – wrecked the road and never bothered to repair it. The company never offered compensation to the cars their lorries damaged on their unwanted journey along the tight little country track.
Carry on for another mile, past the ghost-ridden Dodley Hill Farm, and enter the village that way.
There’s now nowhere to stay in Swanbourne (the B and B closed recently) but there is accommodation in nearby Winslow, a pretty little market town. A short drive away are Claydon House and, a bit further afield, Waddesdon Manor for those who like National Trust properties. Milton Keynes contains a number of exciting sporting opportunities, such as Go Karting, Pirate Golf, indoor sky diving, some lakes with watersports and various sporting venues. Bletchley is home to the absolutely wonderful Bletchley Park Museum – allow yourself a day for this treat. Mead Open Farm, the narrow gauge railway in Leighton Buzzard (check opening times) and zoos at Woburn and Whipsnade are all (well) within a forty minute drive. Oxford is only a little further on (the railway, if it ever opens, will have a station in Winslow and will go to Oxford). For retail lovers, Bicester Village is about thirty minutes to the west. Mursley has an outstanding farm shop, and the Deli in Winslow offers treats galore, as does Swanbourne’s own post office and stores. Enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry there if you are early enough. For those after a free but wonderful taste of this part of the countryside, Quainton Hill is one of the last hills in the Chilterns, and offers terrific views across the vale of Aylesbury out towards Oxford. Head into Quainton and find somewhere to park. Walk out past the church and turn up the lane towards Denham. Just keep walking.
Like an awful lot in this largely undiscovered part of the world, it’s worth it.