Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Yaay! In Oxford Again! Kelmscott Manor & Fairford Church

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
The Cotswolds and Oxford

          Today, I made a 30 year old dream come true—again, a small one, but a dream nonetheless. I finally visited Kelmscott Manor, home of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Morris. But let me get back to the beginning.
            I arrived in Oxford on the X-90 coach—the first time I was using this service, but it was the most economical. I had left Battersea at 7.00 am, then taken the 7. 15 bus, arrived in Victoria at 7. 35 and got on the 8.00 am coach. Wifi on the coach allowed me to catch up with some work for an hour and a half. It was drizzling and mist made visibility poor on the M40 to Oxford. But before I knew it, we were on Magdalen Bridge and, as always, I recalled my first arrival in this glorious city almost 30 years ago—and how excitedly that tight knot of happiness had sat in my tummy—for then too, I had been experiencing a dream come true—that of studying at Oxford!
             My friends Sue and Tony live in South Oxford (in Grandpont) and in about 10 minutes, Tony arrived in a spiffy red car to pick me up. He took me over to his place where I had a nide reunion with Sue. We had a glass of elderflower water (which I really like) and then we were off—there was no time to lose as we were headed for Kelmscott Manor which is a good half hour’s drive away.

On the Road to Kelmscott Manor:
            When I was a student at Exeter College in Oxford, almost 30 years ago, an excursion had been organized to Kelmscott Manor, home of William Morris and then on to the Cotswold Village of Burford. Ignorant Me had never heard of him then and I had opted not to take the excursion. It is a decision I regretted through all that time because, as the years rolled by, I grew familiar with Morris and his great contribution to Art History as a founder/practitioner of the Arts and Crafts Movement and of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement with his Exeter College, Oxford, buddies Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones (of whose work I am a dedicated fan).
            Well, like most such historic homes in the UK, Kelmscott Manor sits in the middle of nowhere—literally in the heart of the country in Lechlade in Gloucestershire, which is on the edge of the gorgeous Cotswolds. So every time I have attempted to get to it (on repeated visits to Oxford, over the years), I have never been able to as there is no public transport to get there and they keep the house open only for a few days a week. Well, long story short, this time, with Sue and Tony having a car, we could get there easily. So I was very excited, once again, and I could not wait to see the inside of the house.     

Finally Inside Kelmscott Manor:
            Entry to Kelmscott is 9 pounds for adults. You get a self-guided tour and the services of volunteer guides in each room as well as a printed guide leaflet that takes you through the rooms and points out its features.  I will try to keep the history of this house brief—so that I can remember it myself. It is a Tudor home, originally built in the mid-1500s, and belonged for generations to a Turner family (they made the turning rings for corn mills—hence their family name!). There are several members of the Turner family buried in the near-by church. The original home (so-called because it is in the village of Kelmscott) is small and dark with tiny rooms and low ceilings. In the mid-1600s, the Turner family came into some money and put an extension on to the house—this part is clearly different with higher ceilings, bigger rooms, larger fireplaces (one bears the family’s coat of arms that features mill-turners) and much more light.
           In the mid-1900s, when William Morris was looking for a country retreat away from his Red Lion Square home in London—a place where he could paint undisturbed—he got to know that the Turner family wished to rent their place near Oxford. Morris took a look at it—it was love at first sight. He co-rented the place with his best friend, the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and moved into Kelmscott Manor with his family—wife Jane and their two daughters, Jenny (an epileptic) and May (who became an artist in her own right). It proved to be an extremely creative and productive phase in his life although it was marred by the romantic relationship that developed between Jane and Rosetti of which he was aware. The Morrises stayed married but every single painting you see featuring a beautiful young woman in it by either Rosetti or Burne-Jones or Morris himself is Jane.
            Kelmscott Manor retains the look of a simple domestic Tudor interior combined with decoration by an Arts and Crafts artist. There are wall-hangings that were designed by Morris and either embroidered by him (yes, indeed, he did embroidery!) or Jane, curtains made from fabrics whose patterns he designed, loads of wall-paper, lots of paintings—either by him or May. His style is distinctive in the close (some might say ‘busy’) patterns featuring flowers, fruit, vines, leaves, branches—all inspired by Nature and the profusion of plants in the neighborhood. There is a grand old bed in Morris’ bedroom that he loved so much that he wrote a poem on it. His wife Jane then embroidered the lines around the valance of the bed and his daughter May embroidered a counterpane for it. It is simply splendid. There is also a very unusual stairway—the only one of its kind I have ever seen—a sort of dual staircase. You put one foot on one side of it and the other on the other side. Unfortunately, no pictures could be taken in the house so I will have to try to commit it to memory. The décor is purely minimalist—remember those famous words of Morris: Do not have anything in your home that you do not consider both beautiful and useful. Words that we could all live by, aren’t they? Especially in these days when all you hear about is de-cluttering.
            At Kelmscott, Morris who adored books, founded the Kelmscott Press which brought out The Complete Works of Chaucer, among others. It had illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It kept Morris busy for years as well as financially successful.
            The gardens at Kelmscott are also famous and quite beautiful for Morris was a passionate gardener. They completely surround the house and although small are impressive in their order and their beauty. It is a lovely place and I was so glad I finally had the chance to visit.
            Morris loved the house and passed away in it. He is buried in the neighboring village churchyard besides a bay bush. His wife and children were subsequently buried in the same plot. You can visit the old Tudor church which is in itself fascinating in its antiquity and then wander out into the churchyard to see the gravestone that is withering rapidly with age. After Morris’ death, his widow and daughters continued to live in Kelmscott Manor until Jane passed away. May became guardian to her sister Jenny and moved to their London home in Hammersmith where she lived until Jenny died. May ultimately returned to Kelmscott Manor and, watching it fade away, willed it to the Rector of Exeter College who held on to it for sometime. When it was found that maintenance was too expensive, the college passed it on to a London company of Antiquarians who restored it and have run it as a museum. Indeed it is thanks to May that her father’s memory lives on so vividly. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement was a brief moment in time but it left us a wonderful modern vision for the future that was both practical and beautiful.

Seeing Morris’ Grave:
            We walked down the lane outside Kelmscott Manor to the village parish church to see the graves of the Morris family besides a bay bush. The church itself is old and plain but memorial plaques to the Turners are all over the wall. Most visitors come in now because of the association with Morris. It is a rather plain grave and the lettering is fast fading through wind erosion—but it is worth seeing especially if one has read the account of his burial by his friend Murray and seen the portrait of Morris on his death bed by the same artist.             

Heading on to Fairford:
             Sue and Tony were keen for me to see the Parish Church of Fairford which is about a 15 minute drive away because it contains the only completely intact set of medieval stained glass in the UK. Indeed, the drive through the Cotswolds on the edge of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire was simply delightful and brought back to my mind memories of the lovely drives Llew, Chriselle and I had taken through the Cotswolds, several years ago—one of our loveliest family holidays. There were the narrowest pathways through the fields which made it difficult for two vehicles to pass together—but thoughtful bypass areas made it possible for cars to pass back and forth. Fields lying fallow lay on either side of the road and with the sun shining golden upon the earth, it was a delightful drive past the village of Lechlade and into Fairford.

The Stained Glass of Fairford Church:
            The church at Fairford dates back to Tudor times—the times of Henry Tudor who is also known as Henry VII, father of the infamous Henry VIII.   As a patron of the church, the stained glass panels that were designed and fitted in his time feature his daughter Margaret (in disguise and in Tudor dress) in two panels. They are full of the most exquisite detail because all stained glass windows were used for ecclesiastical teaching—as catechism tools at a time when few people could read.
            We encircled the church with the useful book that the lady at the entrance handed us and we were able to interpret the depictions from the Bible on glass. Of course, a large number of the windows have been restored through the centuries but it was still pretty remarkable to be in that space. Other Tudor features of the church are also noteworthy—a Baptismal font that dates back centuries, a carved wooden choir screen, pews and choir stalls. Indeed it was atmospheric and I am so glad my friends suggested we see this church to which people from all over the world come to catch a glimpse.

Drive Back to Oxford:
            The drive back to Oxford was wonderful—again, the Cotswolds are special and I feel thrilled to return each time I do. But while Tony and Sue relaxed, I headed to my next appointment.

Drinks with my Former Oxford Landlords:
            Five years ago, when I had a Fellowship of sorts at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, I had stayed with retired dons, Elizabeth and David Longrigg in their grand old North Oxford English Gothic mansion at 23 Norham Road right off Norham Gardens about which the English novelist Penelope Lively wrote a novel called The House at Norham Gardens. I had occupied the sun room just above the car port and I have the happiest memories of my time there.
            When I informed Mrs. Longrigg (which whom I have stayed in email contact) that I would be visiting Oxford, she invited me over for drinks. The long walk from South Oxford to North Oxford took me 45 minutes but I passed through some of my most beloved parts of the city—St. Aldates, Carfax, Cornmarket, The Martyrs Memorial, the two pubs that the Inklings popularized: The Lamb and Flag and The Eagle and Child, the War Memorial at St. Giles—and then I was at Parks Road and admiring the architecture of the North Oxford homes. How lucky I have been to have lived in such places and what warm and happy memories that have left in my heart!      
            The Longriggs were just lovely and I had the nicest time with them. They had drinks all set out—wine, elderflower water (which I had), and nibbles: taramasalata on crackers, chips with guacamole, pickled olives. It was so very nice of them. We stayed and chatted—there was so much to catch up on. I find them intensely interesting and their stories of family successes and their travels kept me enthralled. I discovered that their grandson Arthur Bowen, their daughter’s son, played Harry Potter’s son Albus Potter in the last Harry Potter movie and was interviewed in various magazines that they proudly display on their piano! How marvelous! Indeed, it was a fabulous evening and after spending over an hour with them, I left for the 45 minute walk back to Sue and Tony’s where I arrived just in time for dinner.

Dinner at Home with Sue and Tony:
            Sue had cooked salmon quite expertly indeed with chilli and fresh ginger—delicious! There were a variety of vegetables grown in their ‘allotment’—a patch of land not too far away where they grow their own veg. There were beetroots, broad beans (what Americans call Lima beans), boiled potatoes with mint. It was a very colorful plate indeed and everything was delicious. For dessert, there were fresh raspberries with Greek yoghurt—so healthy, so fresh. We chatted a whole lot and tried to plan our days together.
            And soon it was time to say goodbye and go to bed after what had been a tremendously productive day and one I will long remember.    
              Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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