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The Explorer and the President

The Abbey  Aston AbbottsThe front door of the mainly 18th Century house, The Abbey. It faces North.

In Aston Abbotts is a house that’s had two men of note living there, though many years apart.

The first was polar explorer Rear Admiral Sir James Clark Ross. The second was president of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš, in exile with his government during World War 2.

The house is The Abbey, so called because the lands it was built on belonged to the abbots of St Albans Abbey until the estate was confiscated by Henry VIII. The Abbey is mostly 18th Century, though it might well have an earlier core, perhaps 15th or 16th Century.

The Explorer
Born in 1800, James Clark Ross’s first polar exploration was in 1818 under his uncle John Ross, who led an unsuccessful voyage in search of a Northwest Passage, a route from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific, around the coast of Canada.

It was the first of his many voyages to the coldest parts of the globe. Between 1819 and 1827 he served under the explorer William Edward Parry on four Artic expeditions, and took particular interest in natural history and magnetism.

While with his uncle’s second Artic voyage in 1831, Ross led a party on to the Boothia Peninsula in the far North of Canada. 

It was there he located the Magnetic North Pole and planted the Union Jack on that spot; where the North end of a compass needle wants to point straight down.

But this spot is not fixed; in 1903 the explorer Roald Amundsen found it to be in a slightly different place, and it moves all the time, though slowly; since 1903 it has moved hundreds of miles North.

The Abbey and outbuildings  Aston AbbottsAnother view of The Abbey, with some of the outbuildings.

True North
You’ll find that Ordnance Survey maps state its direction relative to the map grid and true North on the date of publication. They also estimate how much that heading will change every year.

There was a popular rhyme about Ross a few years later, when he was knighted in 1844:

“Sir James Clark Ross, the first whose sole
Stood on the North Magnetic Pole”

This suggests that finding the Magnetic North Pole was his most well known accomplishment, and still in the public mind after 13 years.

At The Abbey
Between 1839 and 1843 Ross, now a captain, led a two ship expedition to Antartica, in pursuit of ”magnetic research and geographical discovery”. The ships were HMS Erebus, and HMS Terror.

Less than six weeks after returning to England from the expedition he married Anne Coulman, his sweetheart, and in 1845 they moved to The Abbey.

There is a lake in the grounds; “The Moat”. Ross named the two islands in the lake Erebus and Terror, after his expedition’s ships. The Moat is by the road but barely visible through the hedge, even in winter.

 Anne and Sir James had a contented and happy marriage raising four children, but Anne died of pleural pneumonia in 1857; she was just 40. Sir James was distraught and never recovering from her loss became reclusive and passed away in 1862, aged just 62.

He was buried with his wife in the Aston Abbotts churchyard, and their tomb is on the North side of the church. Their only daughter Anne Barker was also laid to rest there in 1922.

Grave of James Clark Ross  Aston AbbottsThe tomb of Sir James Clark Ross in the Aston Abbotts churchyard.

The President
As Nazi Germany’s ambitions grew in the 1930s, they turned their attention to Czechoslovakia. Born in 1884, Edvard Beneš had been president of Czechoslovakia since 1935 and opposed Germany’s 1938 claim to the Sudetenland, regions of his country mainly occupied by German speakers since the Middle Ages.

President Beneš did all he could to protect his country, but after the Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom but without consulting Czechoslovakia, he was forced to resign.

He went into exile in England in October 1938, living first at Putney in London. In late 1940 Beneš moved to The Abbey to avoid the London Blitz, with his wife, nieces and household staff.

His secretary and chief of staff moved into Wingrave manor in the village of Wingrave, two miles away. His military intelligence staff went to Addington Manor, a dozen miles away to the North West, just on the other side of Winslow.

Nissen hut used by Czechs  Aston AbbottsThe last remaining Nissen hut used by the Czech guards of President Beneš in WW2; it’s tucked away in a back garden. Note the stove and chimney in the front left corner.

Czech Soldiers
During his stay Czech soldiers were stationed in three Nissen huts by the edge of The Abbey’s grounds, just off Norduck Lane. One Nissen hut is still intact, in the back garden of a house where the leader of the local Home guard then lived.

Jeff, who has owned the house for nearly 25 years, took me into his garden so I could photograph the hut and gave me some extra information (Thank you Jeff).

He told me that the Czech soldiers patrolled the three roads into the village, and he thinks there were 16 men living in each hut. I expect they also guarded The Abbey more closely and controlled access to the grounds. If the president went out, he would be escorted by two to four guards.

The other two huts had gone by the time Jeff moved in, but one concrete base remains; it’s now the floor of a barn.

A stove is in the corner of the remaining hut, used to produce hot water that was piped to each hut. It’s on the outside of the hut (see the photo) and Jeff thinks that’s so that it could be tended to during the night by the men on duty.

Bus stop given by Edvard BenešThis bus stop was donated to the villages of Aston Abbotts and Wingrave by President Edvard Beneš.

Village Life
The soldiers became part of the village, playing football with the villagers in the winter and cricket in the summer. At least one of the soldiers married a local girl.

When the president returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945 the huts were used by the Red Cross as a repatriation centre for Italian prisoners of war. They were from the tented POW Camp 268, set in the fields alongside Norduck Lane.

After the war Beneš returned to Czechoslovakia and resumed his presidency. He passed away in 1948, aged 64.

He had often seen villagers from Aston Abbotts and Wingrave waiting for buses in all weathers at the Wingrave crossroads. So he donated a brick bus shelter which is still in use today, midway between the two villages.

The villagers fondly remember their Czech visitors, and when Jeff went to the Czech Republic they were very pleased to learn he came from Aston Abbotts.

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