Discoveries

On the beautiful, fine Wednesday morning we visited Winston Churchill’s family home, Blenheim Palace, I had come across a model of one of Woodstock’s streets in the palace grounds. I asked Blenheim Palace’s model-maker, “What does this have to do with Blenheim Palace?” He replied, “Well, the township was a part of the Blenheim estate, and this is where some very famous people once lived.” The model-maker pointed out the model of Thomas Chaucer’s Cottage, second from the end of the row opposite to the one on which he was working (below). Thomas Chaucer, a Speaker in the House of Commons, is said to have almost certainly been Geoffrey Chaucer’s son.

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The following day (the Thursday of my last post,)  was cold and wet. Nevertheless, after we had  visited the Banbury canals and returned to Woodstock to eat supper in the warmth and comfort of our Inn, the rain and the freezing cold night air did not stop us from taking a walk through the town to search for blue plaques on the fronts of buildings. [1] To help us in our search we asked around, got chatting with various of the locals, and learnt that Coleridge had once rented a house in Woodstock town, almost opposite the house of  an old Mariner, a retired sea-captain, with whom he had made friends. According to the locals, Coleridge used his  friend as the model for the Ancient Mariner in his poem of the same name.

On our walk to find blue plaques, we didn’t find either Thomas Chaucer’s Cottage or the house Samuel Taylor Coleridge had once rented, and it was too wet and windy to take photos anyway. So we made our way back to our Inn and stumbled across a tiny restaurant that served the most delicious hand-made gluten-free ice-cream and gelato.  I told myself that I would hit the diet trail on my return to Australia. I may not have found Chaucer and Coleridge, but what I did discover was that no matter how good a very decadent desert may be, no matter how good it was to sit down to a bowl of gluten-free ice-cream (three different flavours topped with gluten-free sauce and cream and fresh strawberries), it could not overcome my disappointment at not being able to find that which I had really wanted to  find.

The next morning, Friday, was clear and sunny. We were leaving Woodstock to travel on to Shakespeare country and further, and decided that before we left we would visit the Oxford Museum as Edward had urged us to do. But since the museum didn’t open until later that morning and we were packed ready to move on, we also decided to hunt down Coleridge’s residence and Chaucer’s Cottage first.

Below: We did not find Coleridge’s one-time residence, but we did find the old Mariner’s house. This private residence doesn’t bear a blue plaque, rather it has a stone sign on the wall alongside the front-door.

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Below: To my delight we eventually found Thomas Chaucer’s Cottage. Originally, the cottage had been the servants quarters to Thomas Chaucer’s House. Once again I had been looking for a blue plaque, but as we discovered the cottage is a private residence that doesn’t wear one. Instead, it wears Geoffrey Chaucer’s signature tile (Chaucer on his horse) on the wall next to the front door, and the words “Chaucer’s Cottage” scribed into the decorative stone plinth across the top of the front door.

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Above left: Thomas Chaucer’s House. Above right: Chaucer’s Cottage sits to the right of the arched entry between the two houses.  Wisteria in bloom climbs across the fronts of the large, pretty cottage of coursed  limestone rubble. Thomas Chaucer’s entire house complex sits directly opposite, and facing, the back gate entrance of Blenheim Palace, and almost diagonally opposite the old Cardinal’s residence and complex which was once a part of the Blenheim Palace estate.

By the time we had found Thomas Chaucer’s Cottage the morning was getting away, but we made a flying visit to the Oxford Museum before leaving the area anyway.

In Lifting the Latch, Old Mont talks about the fact that he is getting very old:

… I could pop off any day. They asks me if I’ve made a will. I got nothing to will, ‘cept this old pocket-watch, my shepherd’s crook, my folding-bar, my wheelbarrow. They’m like me now, out of date, ought to be in a museum. (Lifting the Latch, p.p. 212-13)

Od Mont left his few belongings to the Oxford Museum. Edward had told me that Old Mont’s treasures had been on display for some years, but he didn’t know if that was still the case since museums have many items, too many for displaying all at once, so they store the various items and rotate their displays from time to time.  In the museum I hunted around for the shepherd’s crook, the silver old turnip pocket-watch, the folding-bar, and the Oxford wheelbarrow that had belonged to Old Mont.  I could not find any of these items, but one of the items in the museum that did catch my eye were pictures of the Oxford Roadless Barrow. These barrows looked not unlike the wheelbarrow Old Mont had owned.

Below: No matter how I tried I couldn’t get a clear shot through the covering pane, and decided that the photos I had managed to take would just have to do. I suppose that in a way, trying to photograph old, faded images through a pane of glass or Perspex is a bit like trying to gain a clear glimpse of a distant past–it is virtually impossible, everything is obscured by the mists of time, and all that is possible to gain is an impression, a sense of the thing that belongs to the past.

On that Friday morning, while we were in the museum, another item that caught my interest was an installation bearing a photo of Oxfordshire’s darling, the deeply insightful author Flora Thompson. Press the button on the bottom right corner of the photo and you could hear Flora Thompson talking about her life and times in small villages in Oxfordshire.  Looking at her photo, I imagined that this pretty, dainty woman would have an equally pretty voice. Not so!  I pressed the button and heard the deep, strong voice of  Flora Thompson: she spoke in broad, rough dialect.

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[1]  See: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques  

 

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