At first drive-through, this busy Buckinghamshire town is not a pretty sight. Aylesbury is town that has kept it’s historic heart well and truly hidden, marooned on a little island cut off by busy roads full of traffic rushing through on their way elsewhere.
Perhaps you are familiar with Aylesbury because of its association with ducks? Not as obvious is its historic association with the nearby Chilterns as this town played an important role in the English Civil War, very much in support of the Parliamentarians against Charles I and presents one of the most visible links with the Chilterns due to its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden: his silhouette on the emblem used by the district council and his statue prominent in the market square.
A town that has grown too quickly, concrete, traffic and ugly shopping centres are the hazards to be navigated before finding the charming Georgian old town.
A way in, is through an easy-to-miss arch that leads from Market Street into the restored 15th medieval coach inn yard of the Kings Head inn, busy serving food and beverages since around 1455 no less. Now owned by the National Trust, the popular Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site has been run by the Chiltern Brewery since 2005. Follow the cobbled passageway into the courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century when it was the original busy market square.
The enclosure of the quiet courtyard with additional stables to the one at the rear once provided stabling for nearly thirty horses, hard to imagine now.
The old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline.
Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need.
To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age. These multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents can be found all over England, the Netherlands and Norway. Established from the 10th century, the first recorded almshouse in England was founded in York by King Athelstan with many of the medieval almshouses established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family. As a result, most were regarded as chantries (saying prayers for the soul of the benefactor to speed their way to heaven), and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.
There have been almshouses in Aylesbury since before the 12th century and the provision for assisting the poor typically came from the church, local hospitals and various private benefactors. By the late 17th century, demand grew, due to increased migration from the countryside that continued to put pressure on the Aylesbury parish. It was during this time, that the Thomas Hickman charity was founded, along with other new almshouses including; the Weeden almshouse in Chesham, the Drake almshouses in Amersham and Lady Dodds cottages in Ellesborough and the even older Ewelme Almshouse Charity in Ewelme amongst others (blog post follows).
These simple dwellings provided space for one person to live in a single room – normally as part of group that stipulated how many where intended for men and how many for women, all of whom received an allowance, or pension that could be money and goods, such as kindling. The Thomas Hickman houses did not follow this pattern and you can enjoy the many sizes and styles alongside one another, that reflect that there is unusually no prescribed limit on the number of occupants, normally one per dwelling.
It is remarkable that such an old welfare system still survives today, is testament to it’s valued place in building communities and giving recipients independence and dignity with a stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town.
Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. Worth the effort I’d say, once past all the concrete to explore this oasis and I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.
“The white Aylesbury duck is a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad, deep breast and ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. ”—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
You can still buy Aylesbury ducks from the last breeder, Richard Waller, whose family has been breeding them since 1745.
The Thomas Hickman Charity, A Tercentenary History (author Hugh Hanley) is an interesting accompaniment to this feature.
Bucks County Museum is worth a visit and is open throughout the year.
To enjoy Chiltern Brewery finest beer and ale, visit the Kings Head pub.
For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration VisitChilterns.co.uk