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Photograph copyright ©1999 - 2018 Denis Waugh.

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When Charles II crossed the river at Medmenham in 1678 it will have been by means of ferry, this being the site of one of two such that plied the river hereabouts until relatively recently. A monument here was erected by the 1st Viscount Devonport in 1899 to commemorate his success in proving in court that the Medmenham Ferry was a public amenity. It was probably a relief both to the public, who could feel very free to drop their lolly wrappers and to his Lordship, who presumably no longer had to fund its upkeep.

If only there were a ferry still, but for a view of the building on your left with the ancient-looking stone arches you must cross the river by going east on the inland path to Hurley or west along the river bank to Hambleden. We choose Hambleden, where the sound of meadow pipits larking it up in the fields is soon drowned by the tons of water cascading deafeningly down a welter of terraces and a long string of walkways conducts one through that intoxicating smell of water crashing through air.

Medmenham was the site of St Mary's Abbey, founded by the Cistercian order in 1200. The Cistercians (`White Monks') stemmed from the Benedictines (`Black Monks') but whereas the Benedictines were known for their hospitality, their teaching and their charitable works, the Cistercians were more concerned with personal salvation and their order was strict and severe. The motto for both could still perhaps be the words of St Benedict: `Laborare est orare' or `To work is to pray', but unlike St Benedict the Cistercians seem to have taken little joy in their work. They had no servants, tending to their own agricultural labour and raising their own sheep. They eschewed participation in parish affairs and refused to get involved in estate ownership, which would bring with it the responsibility of providing knights to fight for the king. The life of a Cistercian on the banks of the Thames here would have been hard in the winter months: living in an unheated cell, eating a minimum of meat and not a lot else. Of course, leading the simple life in summer months could have been idyllic, but this was not the idea of joining a Cistercian order.

By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII there were only the abbot and one monk left at Medmenham, and the abbey passed into the hands of the Duffield family.

It is tempting to imagine these arches remaining from the Cistercian's cloister but all of this is illusion, a scene set in eighteenth-century Gothic style by Sir Francis Dashwood, at various times Chancellor of the Exchequer and Postmaster General. Dashwood's home was at High Wycombe, but he was granted the lease of Medmenham by Francis Duffield and proceeded to turn it into a high-class brothel where he and his wealthy, aristocratic and totally reprehensible cronies of the infamous `Hell Fire Club' could dress up as the `Medmenham Monks' and whoop it up in their inimitable way.

Philip Heseltine, otherwise known as the composer Peter Warlock, was one of their number, as were a number of self-righteous public figures like John Wilkes. Wilkes is credited with being a major force for parliamentary reform and so he was - whatever his motives. In 1776 he pleaded for the political rights of `the meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer', pleading that some share in the law-making process should be allowed `even to this inferior but most useful set of men'. But his real interest was in furthering the influence in the City of wealthy merchants and tradesmen. `Do you suppose,' he purportedly asked his opponent on the hustings as the throng cheered him on to electoral victory, `that there are more fools or rogues in that assembly?' But actions have longer-lasting consequences than motives and the group of men who are popularly remembered as evil reprobates were really just rather silly. The decor during Dashwood's days defied the imagination, but we are reliably informed that the place has been redecorated now and judging from these decorously manicured lawns, it seems very likely that it has.

Text copyright ©1999 - 2018 Priscilla Waugh.

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