THE Woman In Black, Turn Of The Screw and any number of other ghost stories... they can all count on an atmospheric old house and grounds for that extra eerie frisson. But would you really want to stay there on a weekend break?
'She became a religious recluse, never leaving her cell, praying night and day beside her own coffin lid to remind her of her own mortality'
When Joanne Harris, best known for her novel, Chocolat (she’s also, 15 years, on about to publish a chocolate cookbook spin-off), was appointed writer in residence at last year’s Oxford Literature Festival a house went with it. Well, for one week she was put up in Iffley Old Parsonage, one of near 200 historic properties usually rented out to holidaymakers by the Landmark Trust. They just happened to be festival sponsors.
Joanne’s response to this gratis idyll was to try and do justice to the place in print. “A building can be a character as complex as any human soul. And the Old Parsonage has a soul; something almost tangible, which the Landmark Trust has brought back to life. I wanted to try and articulate, not just the beauty of the place, but some of how it made me feel.”
So she produced a ghost story, The Boy With The Borrowed Face. You can read it online. Which is what I did recently before staying at the same property, whose attractions included a sweeping garden down to the the Thames, accommodation that reflects its 15th century heyday without sacrificing essential creature comforts – oh yes, and it’s dog-friendly.
Spectral intervention? Ancient things that go bump in the night? Sorry to disappoint. Even with candles lit and shadows cast against dark wood panelling and faded portraits, it just wasn’t happening. It would be harder to discover a more benevolent feel to an old house so many generations have lived and died in. Rarely did big events shatter the calm of its setting alongside the ancient church and graveyard of St Mary’s in the serene enclave of Iffley.
There was a kerfuffle in 1830 when the “Swing” rioters were bound for the village. The agricultural workers’ main purpose was to wreck the threshing machines destroying their livelihoods, but it was rumoured no establishment figure was safe. So the vicar, fearing for his life, armed his domestic staff and prepared for battle. Fortunately, the malcontents swung past.
Mostly the Parsonage was the base for diligent clergy tending their flocks. Occasionally richer incumbents leased out the house, preferring the creature comforts of their Oxford colleges. Today’s vicar, the personable Rev Andrew McKearney is more hands on – and told us he had never felt the presence of a ghost, even though he and his family live in the 12th century southern end of the Parsonage. This was sold back to the Church of England after the Landmark Trust had sensitively refurbished the north, pre-Reformation wing. The one we were staying in so comfortably.
We had run into the vicar as he was closing his splendid Norman church for the night. Too late to look inside. There was always tomorrow. We contented ourselves with circling its 1,500 year old yew tree and Celtic cross, while trying to work out where lay the staircase that allowed medieval lepers to attend service without infecting the congregation.
St Mary’s was also home to a mysterious anchoress (female hermit) who lived for nine years enclosed in a cell beside the church in the 13th century. Annora was believed to be the daughter of a powerful baron who fell foul of King John. Her mother and brother were consequently starved to death in Windsor Castle; after her own imprisonment she became a religious recluse, never leaving her cell, praying night and day beside her own coffin lid to remind her of her own mortality – one of some 92 anchoresses active (if that’s the right word?) in the 13th century. If you crave more spiritual detail, the church’s Annora booklet costs just 50p.
Cherry tree in the graveyardThe great joy of St Mary’s, beyond its almost European Romanesque carved front, is the sublime 20th century stained glass window called The Tree Of Life, created by artist John Piper, he of the classic Shell Guides. Those were books that led you to explore the ancient, quirky and half-forgotten constituents of our landscape. From this first Landmark trust property visit, I sense their contemporary mission is much the same. One thing leads to another; life slows down.
Even with magnetic Oxford just a 30 minute walk away down the towpath, we were happy to mooch around the village of Iffley, dropping in at the (dog-friendly) Prince of Wales pub or searching for the rare Snakeshead Fritillaries on Iffley Meadow (actually the less idyllic sounding Berry Mead floodplain). These purple flowers bloom suddenly and fleetingly each April in very few places.
No joy in Iffley, but we caught up with them later in Magdalen College’s Meadow, after we had finally succumbed to the lure of the Dreaming Spires. Which you can glimpse in the distance from the Parsonage’s attic bedroom.
“Sermons in stones and good in everything” as one Bard character said. If the church was illuminating, it was also mellow to lounge on a window seat in the Old Parsonage sitting room and contemplate the age of the shored-up mulberry tree on the lawn. Then read the Latin text (from the Vulgate) inscribed as a frieze beneath the original 16th century ceiling. It translates as “For we know that, if our earthly house and tabernacle were destroyed, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens; (2 Corinthians 5:1) I will walk in my house with a perfect heart.’'
To walk outside was lovely, watching the sun steal up the grass from the river, catching the vivid blue of borage and bluebells. Our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, had claimed the walled garden as his own fiefdom, hurtling down to the stone mooring at the river’s edge. Be warned, though, the drop is sharp into the Thames, turbulent hereabouts from nearby lock and weir. Chihuahuas are canny. Small children might be at risk.
This river stretch up to Sandford Lock (known as the Sandford Slasher) has claimed many victims – notably JM Barrie’s adopted son, Michael Llewellyn Davies, the inspiration for Peter Pan. Aged just 20 in 1921, he drowned there, in suspicious circumstances, in the company of a male friend.
On the other side of Iffley Lock, along the beautiful path to Folly Bridge and Oxford central, the waters are calmer. There’s a beautiful riverside cafe cum hostelry called the Isis Farmhouse, which once hosted the river’s victims on its mortuary slab. Today, in less macabre times, it hosts a swarm of weekend visitors who delight in the fact it can only be reached by boat or walking. Note: for some typically arcane reason the Thames gets rechristened as the Isis around Oxford.
An excellent alternative way of viewing this section of the “Isis” is to take a Salter’s Cruises 40 minute round trip from Folly Bridge to Iffley Lock and back, finishing with a pint of Fuller’s in the Head of the River pub. You pass flotillas of ducks, the rowing club boat houses and Christ Church Meadow with distant views of the Colleges.
On our trip in we dropped in on the fascinating Cezanne and The Modern exhibition on at the Ashmolean Museum until June 22, and lunched just up St Giles at the other Old Parsonage – it seemed appropriate – a hotel that, like the Ashmolean, has just benefited from a major makeover. Lovely food on a lovely terrace after a walk on the Parks. So quintessentially Oxford.
If you must venture further afield, Blenheim Palace, eight miles away in Woodstock, is quite magnificent in a bombastic kind of way.the Blenheim Palace Flower Show (June 22-24) promises to be a great celebration of British gardening. If you like Tatton, multi-faceted Blenheim is for you.
Best place for lunch in Oxford is the terrace (pictured below) of the beautifully refurbished (sic) Old Parsonage Hotel at the beginning of the Banbury Road. See below.
Other great deas about what to do in Oxford visit THIS LINK.
The Landmark Trust
The Landmark Trust is a 50-year--old charity that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost. They take on historic places in danger and carefully and sensitively restore them, then make them available for holiday lets. They have in their care nearly 200 buildings in Britain and several in Italy and France. They include picturesque pavilions and medieval long-houses, artillery forts and Gothick follies, clan chiefs’ castles and cotton weavers’ cottages, the homes of great writers and the creations of great architects, from Browning to Boswell, from Pugin to Palladio. Pugin’s own residence, The Grange in Ramsgate, Kent in is a Trust property as is 45a Cloth Fair, in London – once home to that great champion of rescuing historic buildings, Sir John Betjeman.
Landmark Trust founder John Smith conceived a simple but original model through which the buildings he saved would not become museums, to be peeked at over a rope, but would be living places which people could inhabit as their own for short spells.
The Trust bought Iffley Rectory from the Church commissioners in 1979. The idea was not just to carry out essential repairs and provide visitors with an exceptional place to stay, but also to reorganise the building so that it could still benefit the Church, without being a problem to it. This was to be done simply by dividing it in two. For full details about the renovation visit this link.
Landmark Trust’s Old Parsonage sleeps six, one double, two twin rooms. Two bathrooms, fully equipped kitchen. Four nights from £692 (equivalent to £28.83 per person a night). To book visit this link.
Fishing room, Old Parsonage HotelThe other Old Parsonage, the hotel is at 1 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6NN. It has 35 luxury rooms and suites, all recently redesigned by Sally Conran using 100 per cent natural materials, while retaining features of the original 16th century building. Afternoon teas a speciality. Rooms from £182 a night; suites are considerably more. Set menus, £18 for three courses are a bargain. www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk.
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