From The Oxford Mail, 9 September 1955


Haven of serene and bright but busy nonagenarians

by S. P. B. Mais

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‘Does no one ever die at Deddington?’ I am by no means the first visitor to this astonishing village to have posed this question, but I must confess that it was uppermost in my mind as the result of spending a very profitable but extremely energetic morning in the company of Mr W.J. French OxMailPhoto01Frenchwho was Clerk to the Parish Council from its start and held the office for 50 years. Mr French whose ninetieth birthday falls any day now had been chosen to represent Oxfordshire against South Africa at bowls the following day. As he had already played against Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and so far as I could see all the Commonwealth, he wasn’t over-excited by that.

His main interest was to show me the Castle grounds which involved what was for me a lengthy walk and a scrutiny as detailed as any undertaken by an archaeological society.

This magnificent arena, acquired by the Council from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for £600, is a ten-acre field, surrounded by high earthworks that are scheduled and protected by the Office of Works as an ancient monument. Of the original castle, in which Piers Gaveston was imprisoned and from which he was taken by the Earl of Warwick to be executed in 1312, no stone remains. What does remain is a lofty level plateau, 420 feet above sea level, with a view right over Northamptonshire, that has been in time past a county cricket ground, the venue of archers and the scene of much revelry.

It is now the village recreation ground and the sports field on which the Deddington football team, this year elevated to the Premier Section of the Oxfordshire Senior League, have already beaten Didcot and drawn with Marston. We came to a halt many times as we made the circuit of this enclosure, which may well have been in medieval days the scene of joust and tournament.

‘Just here,’ said Mr French at one stage of our perambulation, ‘stood the pavilion at least as large as the marquees erected in colleges for “Commem” balls. A special dancing floor was laid down, there was a musicians’ gallery and of course a buffet and cloakrooms. The balls that were held here during the archery tournaments were very exclusive and attended by all the notables in the County. The ladies changed into their evening frocks at the ‘King’s Arms’ and the ‘Unicorn’ [and] drove to the ball in family coaches, barouches and broughams. The band of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry used to play under the trees during the afternoon and a string band played for the dancing in the evening.’ The grassy banks that surround the arena make an ideal grandstand for spectators of whatever game is being played in the middle of the field, and I was considerably surprised to learn that cricket is no longer played on this ideal pitch.

Most villages would be glad to give far more than £600 to possess so splendid a playing field.

I noticed that there were ominous cracks in the banks behind the goal posts due, I presumed, to subsidence of the earth. ‘No!’ said Mr French, ‘that was due to the Council who had the idea that the ground wasn’t large enough for a full-length football ground.’
At the eastern end of the ground, Mr French showed me the indoor miniature rifle range.
‘That,’ he said, ‘still functions but the tan yard that used to stand here has gone, like most of our other industries.

‘You realise, of course, that Deddington formerly produced the axle-trees for the coaches of all the crowned heads of Europe. The factory where the axle-trees were made is now the headquarters of the British Legion, which is 300 strong. We are very proud of our contribution to the 1914–18 war in which 46 of our men fell. Hanging on the north wall of the nave in the church you will see the wooden crosses of nine who were buried in Flanders.’

Mr French, who lives in a beautiful Tudor ironstone house with stone flags and mullioned windows, showed me a directory of Oxfordshire dated 1852. In this I saw that there were then in Deddington members of the French family whose occupations included those of carrier, baker, butcher, mealman and shoemaker, as well as that of farmer. There were at that time no fewer than 31 farmers in Deddington.

‘Today,’ said Mr French, ‘we have all too few farmers left and they find it increasingly difficult to get labour. The majority of the workers prefer to work in Banbury at the Northern Aluminium Company’s factory or in Oxford for the Pressed Steel Company. Who can blame them? Whereas in the old days they were able to live on a wage of 30s. a week, today some of them are getting as much as £20 a week, and the rents of some of our cottages remain at 3s. and 3s. 6d. a week.’

After admiring Mr French’s magnificent vegetable garden (I was quite surprised when he said he no longer worked it himself), I went to the Mount to call on his daughter, the wife of Mr H.D. Hopcraft, who has just retired from the building firm which has been in his family for countless generations.

OxMailPhoto02HpcraftOn referring to the directory I found that a hundred years ago there was a Hopcraft stonemason, another Hopcraft a brickmaker, a third an ironmonger and of course a Hopcraft, a builder. There is a stability about Deddington that in this world of constant flux gives me great delight.

‘I’d like you to meet my mother,’ said Mr Hopcraft, ‘but she’s upstairs at the moment. She’s 95’. I was by this time getting acclimatised to Deddington. At any moment, I thought I should see Mrs Hopcraft senior come sliding down the bannisters. Mrs Hopcraft junior is one of the leading lights of the very flourishing Lawn Tennis Club.

‘This used to be an inn,’ went on Mr Hopcraft, ‘called “The Hole in the Wall”’. He promptly took me off to see the blocked-up hole at the top of the cellar stairs where the beer used to be passed through to customers. ‘It later became the home of a succession of doctors, among them Dr Hodges, whose wife, under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cambridge, wrote a first novel, Hostages to Fortune, which had the honour of being selected as a Book Society choice. It is all about life in Deddington.’ ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I’ve read it. It’s first-rate.’

From the Mount I went to Park Farm to call on Mr J.G. Bletsoe, who was just home from judging at the Dublin Horse Show. I was slightly disappointed to find that he had not yet reached his 90th birthday. He seemed to be letting the side down.

But he, too, had seen the Victorian era, and entertained at tea more than once Queen Victoria’s great-grandson, the Prince of Wales, to whom he used to sell horses.
‘He was a great gentleman,’ said Mr Bletsoe. ‘I remember my aunt, who was having tea with us, rising to leave the room. The Prince was across the room like a flash, long before anyone else could get up, holding the door open for my aunt to go out.

‘When I was a boy of 12,’ he said, ‘I left home and just when the train was going out my mother said to me, ‘There’s only one thing I want you always to remember, Never miss going to church on Sunday.’ I never have done so except when I have been ill.’ I was not surprised in view of this to learn that he was one of the churchwardens at the Parish Church.

He took me on a tour of the stables. I have seldom, if ever, seen horses in better fettle or better groomed. ‘My cousin Bletsoe, you may remember, won the Grand National on Rubio.’ ‘I knew’ I said politely ‘that the name was familiar.’ The quizzical look that he gave me made me almost risk telling him the year. He told me that he bred mainly sheep, Border Leicesters crossed with Suffolks, that he kept a small herd of Guernseys for his own use, and cultivated 20 acres of oats for his horses. He took me to the barn which has a brick floor laid down in the 16th century that looks as good as new and showed me the place where they used to do the threshing and winnowing after the old method with flails.

At the top of the garden I saw an enormous Saxon stone coffin. ‘It’s not really a coffin,’ he said, ‘It’s the huge stone that they put over the corpse to keep body-snatchers away.’ He went on to discuss the water supply. ‘The Romans’ he said, ‘knew a thing or two. There were two water courses running parallel on each side of the street.  We all had wells about 30ft. deep and the water we drew was crystal clear and sparkling, very different from the water that comes to us now from the volite at Duns Tew. And now they tell me that we are about to be joined up with the main at Banbury, a very expensive job.’

Mr Bletsoe, in his sporting bowler hat and thumb-stick, is a most impressive giant of a man, as tall as Mr French, possessed with the same alertness of mind and quick, genial humour.
I should have liked a day rather than an hour in the company of each of them. Both are grand old English gentlemen, strongly individual in outlook and opinion, friendly and staunch. But while Mr French at 90 cunningly bowls for his county, Mr Bletsoe rides to hounds over this wall country with its flying fences with the Heythrop (Master Capt. R.E.  Wallace), which meets twice every season in Deddington village opposite Mr Bletsoe’s farm.

OxMailPhoto03TibettsAlmost next door to Mr Bletsoe stands the village smithy presided over by Horace Tibbetts, who still, I was delighted to see, uses a hand-pumped bellows of gigantic size. ‘It cost me £18,’ he said, to have it repaired last week.’ He still shoes horses but his main source of income comes from his petrol pump and repairing farm implements. I asked him – for something to say – whether it was possible to work copper and iron. Giving me a look that was part pitying and part withering, he said ‘Of course you can’t. You can braze ’em. So now you (as well as I) know.

He showed me an exquisitely dainty wrought-iron fire-guard that he had forged 20 years ago.

‘The demand for hand wrought-iron work has gone’, he said, lifting two thin rods out of the fire. ‘That’s what I do now, make iron chair legs for London’. Mr Tibbetts must be one of Deddington’s youngest craftsmen. He is still quite a long way short of 80. And he has worked in that forge for 59 years.

In the same street lives Alfred Stanley, last of the old woodcarvers who used to work for the famous firm of Franklins, who did the wood carving for Magdalen and Marlborough chapels. Alfred and his father carved the pulpit in the church with such skill that one guide-book writer was deceived into describing the work as Jacobean.

This church, dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, is Deddington’s chief glory. It is built of that wonderful deep-yellow ironstone, hewn from a local quarry, of which nearly all the village is built. As the result of the first church tower falling down in the year 1635, a crash that brought down the bells and did grievous damage, the present tower is massive, magnificently buttressed and pinnacled. I was struck first of all by its tremendous length, width and height, then by its lightness and the delicate stone tracery of its many large windows. It has a look of being extremely well cared for and, as Mr Wing, headmaster of the Secondary Modern School, who showed me over it, said: ’We pride ourselves on keeping every part of it in repair.’ It has a seating capacity for 800; that is nearly half the population.

 ‘The aisles,’ he said, ‘are late 13th century and the chancel was added in the following century. When the bells fell, Charles I requisitioned them and sent them off to New College to be melted down into cannon balls. We have a close link with the Civil War, because the Royalist army and then the Roundheads were quartered here. After the Battle of Cropredy in 1644, Charles I’s army rested here on its way to Evesham and the King spent two nights in Castle House, which still stands. Then in 1649 the malcontents from Cromwell’s army known as the ”Sea-Green Men” or “Levellers” made Deddington their main rendezvous before they were finally rounded up at Burford.’

‘We later became famous not only for our axle-trees but also for the excellence of our ale.

‘We were also well known for our dough cakes, which are still popular, and for our Pudden-Pie Fair which took place on November 22.

‘Pudden-Pie had a very hard outer crust and the story goes that one of our kings, travelling from Woodstock to Banbury, was given gloves at Woodstock, Banbury cakes at Banbury and at Deddington something between the two. Pudden-Pie Day began with an announcement by the watchman at 4 a.m. Then the Town Band started on a tour of the village, stopping to play outside all the big houses. Large numbers of horses and beasts were sold at this fair, and you can still see the tethering rings in some of the walls. There’s an old weather proverb that runs “What the wind is at midnight before Deddington Fair/So it will be for the rest of the year.” [Editor's note: The recipe for this ancient dish was found and published for the 1973 'Pudden Pie Fair'.


I asked my way to the vicarage of the prettiest girl whom it has been my good fortune to encounter throughout the whole of my travels through the two counties. She had flashing black eyes, black shining hair and a smile that completely shattered me. Her age, I should guess, would be about 16. It wasn’t until I had passed on that I realised how exceptionally beautiful she was.

OxMailPhoto05RevFrostThe Vicar, the Rev. Maurice Frost, like everyone else whom I met, is a character. I was disappointed at first by his extreme youth. He has, I fear, quite a few years to go before his ninetieth birthday, but I remembered Robert Louis Stevenson’s wise comment that youth is a vice that is always cured by the passage of time.


Mr Frost has been Vicar of Deddington for only 31 years, so he cannot be expected as yet to have got quite into the Deddington rhythm. Added to this is the fact that he has two other churches in the parish under his charge – one a mile to the west, at Hempton, the other a mile to the east, at Clifton.
Mr Frost may be handicapped on the score of age but he too, as I have said, is a man of remarkable gifts and outstanding individuality. In the first place he is a craftsman of the first order. When he first showed me ‘The Shepherds’ Kalendar 1956’ with its 12 crystal clear medieval woodcuts printed on thick cream paper I admired it for its originality and exceptional artistry of production. It wasn’t until I turned to the back and read ‘Eighty copies printed privately by M.F. at Deddington Vicarage for subscribers to Deddington Church School, of which this copy is No. 14’ that I realised I was in the presence of a worthy successor to William Morris.


CALL FOR £4,750
It wasn’t until I had conned the pamphlet ‘A Touchestone for This Time Present’ which opens with Charles Lamb‘s famous toast to the memory of ‘Goode Kinge Herode’ and ends with the abrupt command: ‘We must rayse the summe of £4,750 during ye next seven or eyght yeres’ that I realised that I was in the presence of a humorist, a scholar and a first-rate beggar. I then understood why the church is in no need of repairs.
Was there ever an appeal launched more cunningly than this which quotes from Sir Francis Bacon, ‘A man ought warily to begin charges wch once begun will continue: but in matters yt return not, he may be more magnificent [sic].
I am prepared to bet that the response to the Vicar’s appeal that the 400-year-old church school shall continue to provide a Christian education which will be indeed magnificent.


It was in 1555 that Sir Thomas Pope, founder of Trinity College, Oxford, made an agreement with that college to provide a schoolmaster and usher for the free school that he had established five years before. It was just over a hundred years ago that Bishop Wilson, first Bishop of Calcutta, gave the site for the existing church school to be built.
When I read the Vicar’s irresistible appeal to his parishioners to enter into a covenanted  subscription agreement for seven years or life, thereby depriving the Treasury (‘the modern counterpart of Zachaeus’) of incalculably large sums of taxable income I thought that Mr Frost had missed his vocation. He should be instantly promoted to the appeals organiser to the National Trust. Anyway I left his presence poorer in pocket but substantially richer in spirit, clutching my ‘Shepherds’ Kalendar’ to my breast.


Just before leaving the village I ran into a close friend of mine who said, rather unkindly: ‘I expect you have missed the whole point of Deddington.’ ‘I am sure I have,’ I said, ‘What is it?’ ‘It is quite simple,’ he replied. ‘It is this: The families at the top, the old aristocracy who lived for centuries in the big houses, have quietly vanished. They have been succeeded by a retired admiral, a retired general, a retired major, the widow of a one time Governor of Victoria, the head of the Aluminium Company, and so on. They are all right but they have no roots here. On the other hand, the yeomen who have lived here for centuries – the Frenches, the Hopcrafts, the Stilgoes, the Calcutts and so on – are still here, still thriving.


‘And the new stratum, the new rich who live in the new council houses that are not, as they should be, built in the heart of the village but in a separate colony on the road to Hempton, remain segregated, having neither part nor lot with us. It is an odd situation and I can’t see what the future is going to bring forth.’ ‘So long’, I repeated, ‘as the yeomen continue to flourish I really can’t see any cause for worry.’ One last word. ‘Dirty and drunken’ are the epithets applied in the old jingle to this enchanted village. I have never known a village where these adjectives have less justification.

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