Shade of grey
IF THE greater coronatide lockdown offered the opportunity for long walks along the Isis in the baking summer heat, its lesser cousin came with the promise of autumnal rambles in fallen leaves and low sunshine that disappeared somewhere between nones and vespers.
One of my outings took me to the ruins of Godstow, a former community of women suppressed without great fuss in the second Henrician dissolution of 1539; the nuns complied, and the abbess (the sister of one of Cromwell’s cronies)was handsomely pensioned off.
The site is said to be haunted by the ghost of Rosamund Clifford, a mistress of Henry II and the great love of his life — a fact not much appreciated by his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Legends abound of Rosamund’s life and death, and of her subsequent appearances as the phantom Grey Lady of Godstow.
Alas, Rosamund did not appear to me. Nor did Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, although I fell into a burrow of my own soon enough. Glancing at my iPhone to get a bird’s-eye view of the convent’s ground plan, I spotted a name in the village of Wytham, about a mile to the west, that immediately caught my attention.
“CHRISTMINSTER” sounded familiar. Zooming in, the satellite images presented an enormous house with a double courtyard, and a smaller church at its gates. Obviously, this was a former foundation — probably made up of canons — dedicated to our Lord, with the present edifice raised on the ground plan of a fine community church, and the people’s church now serving the parish.
I couldn’t understand how, after all these years in Oxford, I had never been before. There were signs here and there of older stonework; one building that might perhaps have been a tithe barn; no mention anywhere of the great minster that had once dominated the skyline. The light was beginning to fail, and so I headed home in confusion.
Back at my desk, the fog cleared. “Christminster” turned out to be the name of a business whose registered address was one of the flats that have been carved out of Wytham Abbey, built on the site of a nunnery abandoned even before it could have been dissolved. I was half-heartedly congratulating myself on having been partly right when it suddenly dawned on me why “Christminster” had sounded familiar. It was the name given by Thomas Hardy to Oxford, in Jude the Obscure.
TIME moves on apace; one of my oldest friends, James Davy — now Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chelmsford Cathedral — has turned 40. We first met at St Chad’s College, Durham, at the turn of the century, and immediately became partners in crime. He was organ scholar across the street, and I spent many happy hours in the cathedral loft, turning pages and pulling stops.
During one big event, the procession passed by just as James engaged the 16-foot pedal open wood; suddenly, the loft was full of incense, drawn up the huge pipes in the south choir aisle. On another occasion, we tried to work out how we might discreetly have a pizza delivered during choral evensong.
With James, I discovered the steak-and-eggs breakfast in Durham Market Hall, chased down with strawberries and thick double cream on the banks of the River Wear. Through him, I encountered the Atherton Society, led by our friend Sam Venn — now a fellow of a Cambridge college — which met to sing 18th-century catch-songs over wine, more wine, and then some more wine.
Thanks to James, I also know the punchline to a medieval joke about the difference between a maid of Kent and a syllabub.
MY LAST column generated correspondence; it seems unlikely that I shall be invited to open any parish fetes in the diocese of Truro. Nevertheless, Anne Eyre, the widow of a former Dean of Exeter, was so delighted by my affinity for Exeter Cathedral that she invited me to return for tea, “or something stronger”. I have already written to accept. I have since learnt that the redoubtable Mrs Eyre was planning to abseil from one of the cathedral towers on her recent 80th birthday, for cathedral funds. Alas, the plan was scuppered by Covid-19; it may yet go ahead, but, either way, donations are still being accepted.
OTHER lovely things that lightened lockdown included, from Mgr Robert Mercer CR, In Concert Sing: A Mirfield bedside book. This is full of entertaining tales of the ups-and-downs of the Community of the Resurrection’s life at home and its derring-do in the mission-field, accompanied by evocative photos.
Meanwhile, letters continued to arrive from the American congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist, while students made a point of being in touch. It all made me feel very much part of something bigger than the edges of my desk and the walls of my little college flat.
Mind you, the unsolicited box of Cornish pasties which appeared went straight to the lab for testing.
Serenhedd James is Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and author of a history of the SSJE, The Cowley Fathers (Canterbury Press, 2019).