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Buckinghamshire: Where old and new sit side-by-side


Buckinghamshire is an ancient county with flowing rivers, Iron Age trackways, Roman roads, and the Chiltern Hills cutting their path across it. Where its woods once hid outlaws and highwaymen and its proximity to London made it popular with royalty, now busy motorways and new towns allow new residents to settle and make the stories of the future. In the north of the county, the new town of Milton Keynes sits, which far from being filled with the rhetoric of newness is also home to many an old tale.

Being such a big county, one might naturally assume that there would be an abundance of stories to draw from; especially considering its diverse landscape that has inspired awe, romance and heroism over the years. However, unlike its neighbouring counties, Buckinghamshire did not draw the attention of folklorist who scoured the countryside for fables, fairy and folk tales. Collectors of songs and stories such as Cecil Sharp, Ruth Tongue, and Katherine Briggs seemed to bypass this large county, with only three stories apiece directly connected to Buckinghamshire in the well-sourced collections of Tongue (Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties) and Briggs (Dictionary of British Folk-Tales). Today collecting the folk tales of Buckinghamshire comes with a particular responsibility to readdress the absence of interest in this county’s stories for so long, and to encourage any future story-hunters or national collections.

Folk tales of a place are much more than charming vignettes of a bygone age, but stories that can connect us to both space and past giving us a sense of place and heritage. Stories of locations provide a voice to the place that we live, to make it a home we can connect to, and give a sense of shared experience within the communities we live in. Folk tales are the story of people, everyday people, so the stories that happen to us may one day become the folktales of the future. It is because of this that folktales are important to tell and listen and rediscover, they share experiences of what is to be human. Stories are often thought of as a folly for children, yet tales can be an essential tool for life. Storytelling is an ability accessible to virtually everyone, whether sharing with others or to oneself. Through stories we learn, we inform, and we change, even transforming the world around us through the way we view it or through transferring powerful ideas in simple and familiar concepts. Stories can provide a haven to escape to, or a promise of dreams to chase, giving us the ability to think beyond our current situation. Telling a story can prepare you for an encounter you have never experienced before, they can remind you that other people have shared similar experiences to you or help us process and experience which we may find challenging to deal with. In this sense, folktales are not stale things of the nostalgic past, but an essential part of our cognitive and emotional development in the quest to become better people. They also challenge us and help us to re-evaluate our preconceptions, for stories have a habit of making the ordinary into the extraordinary and making the fantastical familiar.

Buckinghamshire is famously home to the Hellfire Club with many tales of sordid, mischievous and even murderous behaviour linked to it. However, there is much more magic to be found once the surface is scratched. As might be expected so close to London and Windsor there are many histories concerning kings, queens and nobleman, or brave soles winning honours and riches by impressing kings. It follows that with so many wealthy nobles travelling the highway and byways which cut across Buckinghamshire connecting it to London, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge, the county has its fair share of Highwaymen stories. A romanticised version of Dick Turpin runs amuck across the county whereas the dashing Claude de Val keeps to the south of the county using violence only when necessary, but usually tricking and charming his ways to riches. There are guardians of the Buckinghamshire roads too, Green Men, Ghosts, and Black Dogs have all been seen loitering on the side of the road, some say these spectres come to give a warning, some say they are there to cause harm.

Of course, all counties throughout Britain can spin a good ghost story often followed by tales of witches, and Buckinghamshire is no different, but some of its witches, the ‘little witches’ are more like fairy or fey-folk. These small figures with large heads and long arms love to dance and hypnotise sheep, while the more traditional witches are found to be casting spells or using herbs and sacred springs to heal. Where Buckinghamshire offers something different for the folk tale enthusiast is through its stories of aliens in the 19th century, a centaur in the 20th Century, a rolling stone, dragons, and vampire (12th century). These stories mark the county out as having more than a touch of the mysterious, where its size perhaps help to keep hidden some remarkable secrets.

Talking of secrets, perhaps the biggest secret of all in Buckinghamshire was Bletchley Park during the second world war. Not only did the men and women who worked there ‘keep mum’, but the entire town of Bletchley did too, despite the rumours that surrounded the strange goings-on. Keeping such a secret may seem like a remarkable feat to our present-day social media fixated culture. Bletchley Park now resides within the boundaries of Milton Keynes, and many believe that the home of the code-breakers is the only heritage, if any, that the new town has. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, through its abundance of folk tales, it is possible to revise the notion of newness surrounding Milton Keynes and see its rich history balanced with the contemporary.

The character of this enchanting county will be known all the better, for visiting and native alike, though it’s stories.

By Terrie Howey

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