Aldbury, The Avengers and me

Something this week has compelled to go off on a tandem somewhat – please indulge me as I tell this little story….

I was born too late to appreciate the 60s, but I’ve always had a very strong interest in all things to do with the era, and I know it stems from one evening as a child looking through my parents’ vinyl record collection and coming across an album with a cover which fascinated me – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. I played it, played it and played it until I knew every word, every drum fill, every nuance. I can honestly say I was totally hooked. This developed into a small obsession (as much as an obsession can be small…) with The Beatles, the music, fashion, film, television, history and absolutely anything else that happened during that decade in Britain and more specifically, London.

In 1983 I was at school and in the midst of my obsession. Channel 4 began repeating a series from the 60s called The Avengers – and I was hooked from the first episode! I adored the faded colour of the film, the quintessential Britishness of the series, the cars, the clothes they wore, the surreal storylines and the locations they used for filming - I absolutely loved the look of 60s Britain. Living at the time in north London, we were a long way from the studios where the series was filmed (Elstree) but they had sometimes ventured into the city to film and there were many places I recognised – it was great to see places as they looked in 1967. Oxford Street, the Blue Star House building (just down the road from where we lived), tucked away parts of Camden Town and Highgate Village – more specifically the Highpoint building (where Mrs. Peel lived in a very stylish apartment) were all places I recognised.

There was one episode in particular called ‘Murdersville’, set in the fictional place of Little Storping-in-the-Swuff (all the villages in The Avengers had brilliantly eccentric names) and told the story of villagers that had witnessed a murder in the local pub and who had consequently been bribed by the murderer to stay silent in return for £1 million pounds. Having become greedy, they began to offer this deadly service to others. The villagers had become totally corrupt and hostile to newcomers, for obvious reasons. It was a great episode, typical way-out Avengers fare. It also included an amusing section where, on the order of the head crook, Mrs. Peel is placed on a board and plunged a few times into the village duck pond in an attempt to get her to confess who else knows that she’s been in Little Storping before planning to do her in!

Two weeks after this memorable episode had aired, my family and I went out for a long summer’s day drive in our Mini Metro (remember those?) and we got lost. We ended up driving down a long steep tree-lined hill and quite suddenly we happened upon a small village called Aldbury, which I later discovered sits nestled and protected in the Vale of Aylesbury, near Tring. As soon as I got out of the car, I felt I had been there before. After a few minutes of peering around, I realised why I had such a strong sense of déjà-vu. This was Little Storping-in-the-Swuff - and just by pure chance (but I’m a great believer in coincidence…) we had come across it. It had hardly changed in the 16 intervening years since the episode had been filmed in 1967.

Aldbury is a perfect example of what The Avengers was portraying as the quintessential English village…the hedgerows, the garden gates, the footpaths that disappear temptingly around a bend, the pubs with their strangely named ale, the village shop, the church with its tower or spire, with gravestones so weathered they can barely be read and the picturesque period cottages with ivy growing around the windows. You can stand by the duckpond in Aldbury on the very spot that Diana Rigg was dunked in the water and be transformed back to any era of your choosing – it really never changes and I think that’s why I particularly love Aldbury.

I’ve had a soft spot for Aldbury since arriving there on that day in 1983, and when I finally realised my ambition of owning a classic 1969 MGB sports car a few years ago, it was the first place I headed for a long drive, with a soundtrack of swinging sixties incidental music playing in my head the whole time (specifically, think of anything by Sounds Incorporated or the John Barry-penned chase music from the zany 1964 film ‘The Knack’. Or hey, just anything jaunty played on a hammond organ….)

Fast forward and now we come up to date. Last Sunday I met with Pia and Ian to shoot an e-session before their wedding later this year. Pia had suggested we go to The Ashridge Estate, which I know very well – it also has Aldbury at the foot of its hills. I made a note of the fact and filed it away in my head.

Sunday was a beautiful day - just like it always was in The Avengers (they perpetuated a mythical, perfect image of Britain and never filmed in rain). When I arrived at the meeting point of the Earl of Bridgewater Monument, there was a classic car rally just starting – MGs, Jaguar e-Types, Sunbeams, Morgans, Austins and even a classic Racing Green Bentley – just Like John Steed’s! In my element, I was…

The shoot over, I got in the car to drive home and decided to go back through Aldbury, just for the sake of it. I wasn’t planning to stop - the one thing about Aldbury is that it’s very busy in the summer and there’s never anywhere to park. Today there was a space by the duckpond and it was shaped just right for my car, so I parked up, got my camera out again and went for a wander in the beautiful sunshine. Everywhere the bunting was out because the village was hosting its annual May Fair the next day, an event to which I knew thousands of people would flock. It looked beautiful, as it always does. I stopped and chatted to a lady who’s lived in Galleon Cottage for the last 26 years. She told me she has seen much filming done there over the years and seen many famous faces which means it obviously remains a very popular spot for film crews. Much as I love London - being where I was born and grew up - I’d love to live in Aldbury and just have time stand still in 1967.

Now this is a very long-winded explanation of why I’m blogging these images, but it is my blog and I fancied a bit of self-indulgence and sharing a bit of myself with you, just for a change.

My love of the 60s continues (it’s been downgraded - I don’t class it as an obsession any more) and still lives in me. I still settle down and watch The Avengers now and again (I have the whole set on DVD, natch) along with the almost as fab The Prisoner, which is whole different ball game – don’t get me started.

As far as I’m concerned, The Beatles, The Avengers and a certain small, village with its duckpond ARE the 60s. The end.

To begin with, here are three screen grabs from  the Murdersville episode…

These are the stocks, which strangely never featured in the episode. They must be protected so I suppose that’s one reason why Mrs. Peel never ended up locked in them….

A view of the duckpond from the opposite side to the screengrab - Mrs. Peel was dunked just to the right of the tree there. you can see a small clearing in the rushes…

This is Galleon Cottage, whose owner I chatted to. It actually (very fleetingly) features in the Murdersville episode - a Police car drives right past it. The galleon is the weathervane - Isn’t it beautiful?

See the old red phone box on the right? Glorious!

And over towards the little church…(I’d LOVE to shoot a wedding here)

I LOVED this….

Some beautiful calligraphy, something I used to do when I had more time on my hands ;-)

You can see the top of the Earl of Bridgewater Monument in this image….yes you can…look VERY carefully….

This was taken earlier in the day up on the top of the hill overlooking the village - I love the fairly plain, almost brutal squareness and sharp angles of the design. It’s a monument to the ‘Father of Inland Navigation’ - built in 1832 to commemorate the third Duke of Bridgewater, one of the pioneers of 19th century canal-building. The word ‘Navvie,’ meaning a general labourer, comes from the men who built the canals - the ‘Navigators’

And one showing the monument more in its surroundings of the beautiful Ashridge Estate…

Any comments on any aspect of this blog post are very welcome. Thanks for allowing me to be a bit indulgent and waffle on…back to work now! :)

2 Responses to Aldbury, The Avengers and me

  1. I was having a browse through your beautiful photography when I spotted the name ‘Ashridge Estate’. I live in Ireland but I’ve been there lots of times with my sisters (who live in Hemel Hempstead) - it’s a beautiful place!
    Have you ever been to the little flower nursery at Potten End? It’s a magical place for a coffee and traybake. Take that Canon 5D along - it’s worth photographing!

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