Little of note seems to have happened in the 1980s but the Parish Meeting minutes of the 1990s suggest that the doldrums of the 70s and 80s were well and truly over. There were two crises which brought the village together. One concerned the church and the other the road through the village.
Parish meetings were at this time being held in the barn at Hill Farm with James Garson in the chair. A new decade saw a new chair when Carolyn Brown of Sescut Farm took over the chairmanship in 1990. In this year the community policeman was given a van, rather than a bicycle, bringing him somewhat late in the day into the twentieth century! Local authority boundary changes meant that Elsfield, being north of Oxford, became incorporated into South Oxfordshire, with the administrative headquarters at Wallingford.
One of the first tasks of the new Chair was to try to tackle the problem of the road. A road safety committee was formed and met regularly in the kitchen at Sescut, the home of the Brown family. They expressed themselves thus:
“The Elsfield road is very dangerous. There have been 16 accidents with substantial damage to vehicles, including two injury accidents and one involving the school minibus… These occur as cars travel in large numbers (about 2000 a day) along a 13 foot single track road, often at high speed (at a monitored average of 45 mph) and for 0.8 miles through a village with no speed limit, no footpath, a considerable amount of unavoidable on-street parking, several blind bends and twelve houses within four yards of the road. There is routine damage to parked cars, and pet dogs and cats are regularly killed on the road. (One family had had six cats killed in six years) Most in Elsfield believe that it is only a matter of time before there is a human fatality. Ordinary village life is impossible as everyone is afraid to walk along the road.”
This doesn’t mention the 38 ton lorry which crashed or the post van which was twice in collision with cars or the school taxi which was also in a collision.
They argued for and got a draft order to close the road which would involve installing a gate at the northern end of the village. There was a public meeting in Beckley, whose inhabitants used Elsfield as their most direct route into Oxford. The meeting attracted a hundred people, and a petition against the closure was signed by 700. The people of Woodeaton, the neighbouring village to Elsfield, were outraged, since there would be even more traffic flooding through their village. Similarly the inhabitants of Fencot and Murcott, affected in the same way as Beckley residents, pressed their chairman to pronounce against the move. ‘Otmoor is in revolt’ he announced, while one correspondent of the Oxford Mail pointed out that the piece of road beyond the gate would become unused as a road and would quickly become a haven for New Age travellers. He estimated that upward of 80 vehicles could be accommodated on the land and expressed the hope that Elsfield residents would wake up to reality “before the Sword of Damocles descends upon them!”
In the face of such opposition the local authority backed down and revoked the closure scheme. They did however agree to install traffic calming measures and speed bumps and their accompanying street lighting, which were installed in 1995. This led to a decrease of 30% in the volume of traffic and the speed was significantly reduced from 39% travelling over 30mph outside the Manor to 2%, with no cars travelling above 40mph. A footpath, however, was deemed an expense too far and the village still remains without one.
One of the ways of funding repairs to the church fabric was the money made from an annual plant sale, which rapidly became well known throughout the locality and grew to be an important source of funds for the church.
In 1994, however, the vicar, outraged at the idea of women being ordained as priests, proffered his resignation. He was at that time covering not only Elsfield but several parishes to the north of Elsfield. His departure was accompanied by the sort of muddle which is sometimes caused by a precipitous decision. There was no Parish Church Council, and the churchwarden lived in Beckley and was unknown to anyone in Elsfield. Brett’s Charity, which was linked to the church, had not been administered since 1974 and the key to the vestry had disappeared, along with the church plate. The parish registers and other church documents were unavailable.
The archdeacon informed the village that land had been located at Stanton to build a modern vicarage and that the house so proudly erected by the Reverend Gordon was to be sold. Fortunately, there were many competent and well connected people in the village, among them Eric Heaton, the retired Dean of Christ Church, who along with his wife Rachel, was living at Tree Cottage. He suggested converting part of the church into a village room, a conversion which would give the village a meeting place and help the church with funding towards the fabric of the building.
The church plate, parish documents and key to the vestry were eventually returned. The idea for a village room at first revolved around converting the gallery at the west end but this was superseded by a scheme to take out the pews at that end, build on a kitchen extension and use the back third of the church as a communal meeting place.
A PCC was formed, the church was linked with the parish of St Nicholas in Old Marston and two church wardens were appointed, one from Marston and Carolyn Brown from Sescut.
The plant sale continued to be a major event in the life of the village. In 1996, it raised £2,500 and the following year when bric-a-brac was added an astonishing £4000. By 2001, the village itself had raised £21,000 and that, combined with the many grants from various charities, led to the official opening of the room on 10th May 2003. Carolyn’s magnificent job of co-ordinating and channelling the energies of the village were rewarded with a well deserved MBE.
Current Inhabitants of Elsfield
In 1954, Susan Tweedsmuir wrote:
‘A village may be now only a shell of former things. The church has been joined to that of another parish, the Vicar lives in another place, and there are only services on alternate Sundays, the school has been ‘beheaded’ (by which she means the older children have been sent to secondary school in another village). The manor is in the possession of an industrial company, or civil servants or a school of some kind, possibly for retarded children. A good many of the cottages are lived in by men and women who depart daily to work in a nearby factory. The country quiet has largely gone owing to the mechanisation of the farms, the farmers screech up and down the village streets in jeeps and the roar and clatter of agricultural machinery is heard.’
Quite a tirade! Elsfield may have hung on to its traditional way of life longer than most, but some of what Lady Tweedsmuir wrote had come to pass in Elsfield. The Manor was not taken over by an industrial company or made into a school, but by the 1990s the vicar had moved out, church services were no longer a weekly occurrence and the school had disappeared altogether. It could also be argued that the social life of the village had atrophied and that the housing stock, some of it occupied only seasonally, was deteriorating. By the year 2000, even greater changes were afoot. In that year, Christ Church decided to sell off the cottages. They could not sell them all, of course, because some people had protected agricultural tenancies but several people were given notice to quit the houses they were renting. Because of its proximity to Oxford, good schools and the John Radcliffe Hospital, houses were in great demand and prices were high, which resulted in an influx of new people with considerable incomes who wanted country living and were happy to pay for it.
Four families who had protected tenancies have spoken about the village in the last twenty or so years since they came to live here. It is instructive to see how in every case social networks play an important part in finding suitable housing and how the present preoccupation with how we heat our homes is reflected in the accounts people have given of their daily lives. They also in some cases point up the poor condition of the house they moved into, and the social make-up of the village, which fell into two categories: well-to do employees or ex-employees of Christ Church and casual farm labourers, along with a smattering of long-term residents such as the Bradfords.
Some people had contacts in the village before they moved here, others had none. Anne started renting her tiny cottage in 1970 when she was a student. She shared the tenancy with a friend and got to hear of the cottage from the lab assistant at her school in Oxford who was married to a farm worker at Forest Farm. “The farmer had no workers who needed accommodation and was keen to let it. Surprising, as it might seem, at that time Elsfield was not a fashionable place to live, and the cottage was so small that it would be no good to a family”, she said.
Living next door to Annie and Pat are Richard and Lynn. Lynn’s grandfather, Cornelius Phipps, had once worked as an odd-job man at the Manor and because Richard worked for Christ Church they were already living in a tied house in Abbey Road in Oxford. Richard’s brother was already living in Elsfield.
“Richard knew Rachel Heaton and Tom Buckingham and it was Tom Buckingham who got us our first house. We renovated it and loved living in Abbey Road”, Lynn said. Following a harrowing time with a mentally ill neighbour who abandoned her medication and started hallucinating, they felt the need to move. “She would talk about horses’ heads in the corner and she had a thing about water. She knocked the toilet off the wall and flooded our kitchen”, Lynn explained.
At Christmas, they came up to Dave (Richard’s brother) and Sue’s, who lived at Post Box Cottage and as they drove back down the hill, Richard commented on how much better Lynn looked. “Don’t set your sights on living at Elsfield because people like me just don’t get offered houses there,” he said. However, Richard was wrong. When he went to Christ Church and told them they needed to move, they said, “There’s a cottage in Elsfield and we’ve offered it to several people but it’s in such a poor state that they didn’t want it. And it’s so tiny you couldn’t put a family in it or anything. Do you want it?” The answer was a resounding yes, though Lynn worried about how they would manage to fit their furniture into such a small house. “There was just the one room downstairs and the bathroom on the end. The living space was divided into a tiny living room with the kitchen next to it. It took a year to put it to rights. The irony was that the woman left Abbey Road six months before we moved up to Elsfield”, Lynn concluded.
Their friends, Mo and Keith, have lived in Elsfield since 1992. Both work for Christ Church, and were so impressed with Elsfield they felt they would like to live here. “The house was very old-fashioned, with all the walls plastered over and a false ceiling covering the beams. The house had been empty for months because no-one wanted to live in it but we felt there was the potential to make an interesting home,” they said
Kate and Paul, too, found their cottage through a personal contact. “We came to Elsfield in August of 1984,” they said. “We’d come back from Australia. Kate’s mum worked in the estate office of Christ Church, and she mentioned to Tom Buckingham that we were needing somewhere to live. He offered us this house and we’ve been here ever since.”
When Annie first moved in to her cottage, it had been empty for some time and whilst it was not in bad condition, it did need some attention in terms of decoration and facilities. There was an open coal fire with a back boiler and a side oven – they were never short of hot water because the boiler produced so much. Eventually the boiler burst and it was replaced by a large multi-fuel stove which had originally been in an eight bed-roomed house in Binsey. Now there was even more hot water – they often had to open the taps to release the nearly boiling water. The answer was to install radiators which now warm the bathroom and bedrooms. Despite the radiators and the insulation provided by the thatch and the thick stone walls, the temperature in the bedrooms depends to some extent on the weather. If the wind is coming from the north, or north east, it finds its way through the gaps in the stone and between the beams and seems to draw the warm air out no matter how much fuel they burn.
Since they have been here, the roof has been thatched three times, once at the front, once at the back and in 2000, both front and back. There is a false ceiling in the living roof concealing the original beams, which in the case of Lynn and Richard’s house next door, are all numbered..
Lynne describes living in a thatched cottage:
“Fire is a bit of a worry. The other day a piece of clinker got lodged in the pipe from the fire. When Richard went out to see to the dogs he smelt soot. He came in and checked the pipe which had got very hot. He got the watering can and put the fire out in the wood burning stove. Then he cleaned it out. It needed it. It’s the time of year when we clean the fire out (June). You have to sweep chimneys more rigorously than in other houses. Before we moved in we were told to have a hosepipe connected all the time, and we have a pond outside the kitchen window. It’s prompt action that’s the thing. We worry about bonfire night. We’ve had fireworks really near. Rockets are the things that worry us most but it’s less of a worry in the winter when the thatch is wet.”
The cottage is a listed building, which means that they need planning permission to alter the interior. They had to re-use the doors they had, and in the course of their renovations they discovered that the roof beams were numbered, indicating that they were made away from the site when the house was built. When they pulled the upstairs ceiling down they found there were old newspapers lying among the plaster on the floor dating back to the 1800s. There was one item about a man disclaiming his wife.
Annie and Pat described their neighbours when they first came to live in Elsfield. In the early 1970s, Bessie and Ben Jones came to live in what is now Lynn and Richard’s house, having lived before that in School Cottage. Ben was a keen and very organised gardener – everything was set out with military precision and whilst he was not a regular church-goer for many years he was responsible for maintaining the church boiler. The Beddings – Maggie and Jim – lived on the other side. In contrast to Ben Jones, Jim Bedding was a natural gardener “I does a bit and I dodges a bit” he used to say. He kept an aviary and used to use his canaries to sit on goldfinch eggs to hatch them. Many years ago, Jim Bedding found a silver Edward the Third sixpence on the path that runs down beside Rose Cottage. Pat dug up a clay pipe bowl that was subsequently dated around 1590, and Ann and Pat regularly dig up coins, pottery and an astonishing number of toy cars in their garden. Some years ago Richard found a hand grenade one Sunday morning whilst he was walking the dog – he tossed it over the fence to Pat and for a few minutes they tossed it back and forth before deciding that it might be live and dangerous. Later that morning the Bomb Disposal Team detonated it in the back field – it had been very much alive. Another resident, Jim Maltby, could be seen sawing up logs in the garden of Last Cottage and doing this well into his eighties.
Lynn and Richard admit to a few problems with rats:
“We’d heard them in the roof quite often but we started to hear them scratching in the unit (in the kitchen). There was a hole in one of them where a rat had chewed to get out. Richard heard it one night scratching and came down to investigate. He opened the cupboard door and the rat ran out straight under the dishwasher, so we knew we had a problem. Then last year one got trapped in the house. We had found where it had come in and blocked the hole with wire but it couldn’t get out then and Richard had to shoot it – at three o’clock in the morning. It had chewed through the pipe to the new washing machine we’d installed, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay for damage by rats.”
Richard decided something had to be done to stop them coming into the roof. Poison was not an option because it is not always possible to find where they have died and the smell as they decompose is not an easy one to live with! He decided to shoot them. This year he has shot over fifty in the garden. Feeding the birds attracts them but there are so many beautiful ones that Lynn refuses to stop feeding them. The rats can be seen under the bird table and round the well in the corner of the garden. “We had tried humane traps but they avoided those. The only thing which got trapped in those were birds”, Lynn explained.
There are fortunately more acceptable forms of wild life: larks in the field at the back of the houses, hares, deer of various kinds, muntjac, roe and fallow deer. “The other day there was a sparrow hawk sitting on the gate. They pluck their victims before eating them, which is how you know there’s been a sparrow hawk around,” said Lynn.
All four families make a substantial contribution to village life, supporting the church, the village room and having played a major role in producing the Parish Plan in 2009.
Mo and Keith too have done extensive alterations to their cottage. They described what they had done:
“We stripped out the rendering on the walls back to the stone, the beams and the ingle nook fireplace. This made the cottage more old-world and characterful. We installed liquid gas heating at first but this was very expensive so we now have a large wood-burning stove which heats the hot water and runs the central heating. We are very pleased with it.”
 The widow of the Dean of Christ Church, Eric Heaton.
 Clerk of Works for Christ Church.