Sunday, 30 June 2013

White at Wytham

Yesterday, in search of sunshine and solitude, I walked from Oxford to the village of Wytham. This post is a collection of things I saw along the way.

Wytham is a few miles north-west of Oxford, not far from Binsey as the crow flies; but the big Western Bypass divides them, and so if you're not a crow, the path to Wytham is an indirect one by way of Port Meadow.  Port Meadow is one of the loveliest parts of Oxford, within sight of the city, but a real meadow nonetheless: all sky and water.

Wytham is pronounced 'White-m', from Old English Wiht + ham, although the name apparently has nothing to do with the colour but means 'settlement in a river-bend'. This seems odd to me because it's not really in a river-bend at all, but I make a policy of not questioning toponymists. Let's ignore the etymology and think of it as the white village, because that's what it is. And there were white things everywhere along the road; in the clouds and on the river:

In the flowers by the wayside:

In the swans and the river-birds:

And the cows and the horses which roam the meadow:

Even the river itself is white, under a certain sky:

When the road leaves the river, it follows a long straight path to Wytham, through fields with plenty of cows, but no people.

White posts and willows over a stream:

This is the Seacourt stream, once the boundary between Oxfordshire and Berkshire. This evocative entry from the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire, which lists long-forgotten boundary names, calls the Seacourt stream 'the Shire Lake'; we are in Hobbit country here. (Counter-intuitively, this lake is derived from an Old English word for 'stream', a word which the OED claims is etymologically unrelated to lake meaning 'a large body of water'.) The account of the 'ridden boundary' is like an incantation: 'from the eastern end of Magdalen Bridge the mayor and his party followed the river Cherwell to the county boundary, Shire Lake stream, and along that stream across Christ Church Meadow to Trill Mill stream beside Grandpont... The party continued along the county boundary, passing under Denchworth Bow, north of Folly Bridge, and following the river Thames between the Blackfriars' priory and a meadow called Ailric's eyot and so along Hog Acre ditch south of King's mead to Hinksey ferry.' This is a strange mixture of familiar and unfamiliar words, foreign names for a country I know like the back of my hand - what magic there is in place-names!

And this is Wytham, where even the pub (on the right here) is called the White Hart:

A road uphill, between high walls of stone, leads to the church.

The church is not very old, though it looks it. It was rebuilt in the early nineteenth century by the improbably-named Montagu Bertie, Earl of Abingdon (and since we are thinking about names, have a look at wikipedia's list of his children's names - Albemarle and Vere Peregrine and Brownlow Bertie are almost too good to be real!). The Earl apparently thought a church needed a tower, and the existing church was falling down anyway, so he built a new one. But fortunately for those of us who prefer our churches ancient, the new church was built from old materials: the stones of the old church and windows and doorways from the ruins of Cumnor Place, the manor-house where poor Amy Robsart died.

Legend has it that Cumnor Place was pulled down to lay Amy's ghost, but there's no hint of tragedy in this peaceful place, unless the stones themselves remember it. One of the doorways is now the gate to the churchyard; I've never seen a stone church-gate before, but it made the place feel like a walled garden.

Above the gate were inscriptions I could not read, keeping their secrets in the sun.

(The church website can decipher them for you, if you're curious.)

One side of the churchyard is enclosed by an odd crenellated wall, belonging to a house named (without historical foundation) Wytham Abbey. This place is a peculiar mixture of ancient and pretending-to-be-ancient.

The churchyard was deserted. I learned from a notice in the porch that a fair was going on in the neighbouring village, so perhaps everyone had gone there; that's what would happen in a Thomas Hardy novel. Outside the sun was warming the golden stone, but inside the church was dark, chill, and silent:

The inside of the church is whitewashed, and a sign warned visitors against leaning on the walls, for fear of carrying some of it away on their clothes.

The west gallery:

There are a few medieval features imported from other churches, such as these roundels of glass, in white and pale gold:

The church history identified these heads as Richard II and his consort Anne of Bohemia. There's also a scene of a man shearing a sheep (which doesn't look very happy to be sheared), probably part of a series of 'labours of the months':

An eagle:

And you can just about tell that the following is the remains of an Annunciation scene, from the pot of lilies, the open book on the right of the scene, and the beam of light in the upper left-hand corner. The scroll says 'Ecce ancilla domini':

The Virgin again in a twentieth-century window, her dress as blue as the sky outside:

Red and white on St George's lance:

And butterflies below them:

An assortment of glass in a window beside the altar:

Here's a knight and a lady who survived from the old church:

Mysterious initials, set into the wall by the altar, which must have meant a great deal to the person who carved them but mean nothing to me.

This musician erupts out of the wall, a refugee from some other church:

White and pink among the flowers on the windowsill opposite the door:

White-robed angels with golden wings:

Above the angels Mary Magdalen meets Christ in the garden, a star-strewn sky behind them:

On the rafters, some familiar arms:

(Of the University of Oxford and Edward the Confessor, respectively.)

Back out into the sunny churchyard:

There were patches of daisies between the gravestones, but no other sign of life.

And back through the stone gate:

I wandered a little way through the village, where white roses were growing in the cottage gardens:

The road home:

On the way back I stopped in at the ruins of Godstow nunnery, at the north end of Port Meadow, where Rosamund the Fair lived and died. Except for one small shell of a building, the site is little more than an enclosed field, 'a garden walled around'.

In the centre of the field stands one solitary tree, like the White Tree of Gondor:

Its lacy flowers were lit through by the sun, echoing the patterns of the clouds in the sky.

The white stone and whitened trees beyond:

I love this window. The stone is much-scored by the carvings of visitors, like the initials in the heart on the wall of Wytham church, and it looks soft enough to crumble into nothing. Beyond, the trees were waving and blurring in the wind.

And so home.