There were grey skies above, as members of the Stroud Civic Society gathered with rain coats, picnics, umbrellas, fleeces, gilets and scarves all ready to board the coach! Richard our driver, Tim Mars our guide and Juliet Shipman our leader, welcomed and counted us, then we were off to explore Oxfordshire.
Fields sped by – kaleidoscopes of green interspersed with blocks of yellow oilseed rape. Rivers, brooks, canals threaded through fields, factories, houses, towers and schools – then suddenly we were passing through Dorchester to Ewelme – the first of many of the day’s ‘delights’.
Here we were to see a church founded by Alice de la Pole, Chaucer’s granddaughter, Duchess of Suffolk, with its 600-year-old history. The adjoining school and cloistered almshouses are all part of the medieval cluster. Although Juliet had forewarned the vicar of our arrival and been assured that the Church would certainly be open – it was, for the first time in five years firmly locked! All the keepers of the keys, plus the vicar, who had one in his pocket, were unreachable.
Undaunted we settled happily to admire the exterior of the church with its red brick battlements and patterned mix of flint and stone; then on to photograph the gravestones of Jerome K. Jerome, his wife and daughters. Slowly we passed under a bulging-eyed demonic corbel, down steps into a cloistered quadrangle of herringbone red brick almshouses. They were built in 1442 to house twelve old men, poor bachelors, overseen by a thirteenth. All wore black tabards with red crosses and were required to attend daily Matins. Modernised now, with bright flowers, eight elderly people live there – though single women, unless widows, are still excluded! Walking on we heard children singing ‘Happy! Happy! Happy!’ with feeling. The school, like church and almshouses, is the oldest building still in use as a local Primary School. We were experiencing, briefly, the rarely felt, rooted continuity of an ancient way of life.
Next came the small town of Dorchester and the 12th century Abbey Church with its 14th century Jesse window. Tim pointed out, among other details, the spaces where the Virgin Mary with Jesus and Christ above had been smashed in the Reformation. The other carved figures – to me very like maquettes for Chartres Cathedral – were beautiful in their simplicity. We were all drawn then to the tomb figures, in particular one of the knights, who was unusually full of life with crossed legs, and damp fold swirling tunic and shield. With delicately wrought chain mail helmet, and poised to draw his missing sword, he was undoubtedly the knight in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. His world of ‘virtu’, unlike Ewelme’s world, now quite gone.
Last came Kingston Bagpuize, an early Georgian house built in 1720. The owner, Virginia Grant, welcomed us – a lively woman, now managing alone, since her husband’s unexpected death. She was – she told us – very busy with the property and with her GCSE-taking youngsters: we nodded sympathetically, we all knew about the latter!
In two groups we were guided first up the magnificent cantilevered oak and pine staircase to the Drawing room, with its pair of Queen Anne cabinets in laburnum with walnut stands. There too were family portraits by Gainsborough and Romney. In one of the bedrooms we were fascinated to hear the tale of a one-hundred-year-old hand-embroidered Indian coverlet. About to be sold by Liberty’s, it was saved when a box of dusters was sent in its place! Every room was bright and alive, although its furnishings varied in style, doubtless because Miss Marlie Raphael had bought the house in 1939 as an empty shell.
Tea and cakes followed and then we were out in the herbaceous borders and in grassy swathes full of scented blue, red and purple surprises.
By 5pm we were on our way home – by a shorter route, as it so often seems on return journeys. Speeches of thanks were made; to Juliet who had once again transported us to magical worlds; to Tim for his thoughtful guiding and to Richard our intrepid driver.