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The Oxford Sausage

October 20, 2023
by the gentle author

We are getting very close to our target now after raised an astonishing £33,960 to relaunch Spitalfields Life Books. The crowdfund page remains open until we reach £35,000.



I am proud to publish these extracts from THE OXFORD SAUSAGE by a graduate of last spring’s blog writing course. The author set out to write a spicy mix of Oxford stories from a house once belonging to a city sausage maker.


I am now taking bookings for the next writing course, HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ on November 25th & 26th. Come to Spitalfields and spend a weekend with me in an eighteenth century weaver’s house in Fournier St, enjoy delicious lunches and eat cakes baked to historic recipes, all catered by Townhouse, and learn how to write your own blog. Click here for details

If you are graduate of my course and you would like me to feature your blog, please drop me a line.

In 1785



In truth, I do have a bit of a soft spot for the yew tree. And therefore on a bright, sunny day this week I made a pilgrimage in its honour. I wanted to pay homage to this age-old tree. And I knew just the place to go.

Yews have lifespans of up to 3,000 years. In fact it must live to be at least 900 years before it can be considered ancient. In order to see one like that, I am told by the gardener at the Oxford Botanic Garden, I must head to St Mary’s Church in Iffley. That is where I will find Oxford’s oldest tree.

You can cycle all the way to Iffley along the river, whose banks at this time of year are high with Himalayan balsam and meadowsweet. It may be just under two miles from Carfax tower but I fancy I am off on a trip to the country. Though Iffley now forms part of the city’s suburban sprawl, it still calls itself a village and its pretty cottages and local shop make it feel that way.

Across the water at Iffley Lock and up the hill and you find yourself in the churchyard of the Romanesque church of St Mary the Virgin. It has six yew trees in its grounds but there is no mistaking the one I have come to see. It is a giant amongst its kind, its top dwarfing the tower, its massive branches reaching wide, and then bending over to hide ivy-clad monuments and gravestones, its inner shelter dappled in sunlight. There you can see that the trunk is hollow, its bark rust red, furrowed and covered with large knots and nodules. But there is still a vigorous growth of evergreen needle like leaves that are laden with berries.

This one is thought to be over 1600 years old, so more than double the age of St Mary’s which was built around 1170. The church was almost certainly erected on a site of pre-Christian worship – druids considered the evergreen sacred – and there are references to pagan imagery on the building’s southern doorway in the form of carvings of centaurs, beak heads and the green man.

But there are more practical reasons for its inclusion as well. The yew’s poisonous berries prevented people grazing their livestock on church land. And its strong, flexible wood was perfect for making longbows, a stalwart of medieval weaponry. After 1252 it was mandatory for everyone to engage in archery practice, so great was the need for bowmen.

It is awe inspiring to think that the magnificent tree here ‘must have been full-grown long before the first Oxford spire was raised in the vale below’ – so reads an entry in Chambers Journal written in 1892. Here it is described as ‘an ancient tree, whose furrowed half-prostrate trunk seems ‘weary worn with care’, and as we stand beside its bending form, a feeling of sympathy, akin to that which we extend to a fellow human being stooping low with a load of years, rises within us.’ Hurrah to that, and here’s to another thousand years.

Lewis Carroll is thought to have often visited St Mary’s, Iffley, and it is said that this drawing he made for ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ was inspired by the great yew.


Antonia Hockton has been coming to New College twice a year for twenty-six years. She arrives as the students leave for the long vacation. For this is when her work as a stone conservator with the many statues, memorials and monuments can be undertaken without interruption. And so it is, late in the summer that I have managed to catch up with her. I wanted to find out more about her ancient profession. But I was also interested in a particular set of statues that once stood overlooking the city at the foot of the spire of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Replaced at the end of the nineteenth century, after languishing in the basement, they were bought here to New College fo rehabilitation.

I came across them when, after attending evensong in the chapel, I had taken a wrong turn. I found myself in the fourteenth century cloisters. There was no lighting and, despite only a gentle breeze, the rafters seemed to move and creak. Feeling spooked, I was just turning to go when a shaft of moonlight, hidden before by a cloud, illuminated the face of what looked like a seven foot giant. And there were nine more of these huge stone figures, some with staffs, others with croziers, crosses and mitres. They were arranged as sentinels on the corners and along the aisles of the covered walkways. I was totally smitten.

Returning in the daylight they have a gentler presence. Here are the saints of their day, St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, St John the Baptist wearing a wool shirt, St Hugh with his tame swan, St Edward the Confessor and St Cedd. Also, St Mary the Virgin with baby Jesus, St William of York, St David, St Thomas à Becket and St Cuthbert holding the head of St Oswald. ‘They’ve become like old friends,’ explains Antonia, as she takes a break to introduce them. ‘I think it must be their stance. They are like biblical soldiers. I feel they are protecting me.’

These are not the original fourteenth century statues, which was when, according to Antonia, ‘the level of skill amongst stonemasons was at its peak.’ When Victorian architect TG Jackson took them down in 1896 to install these reproductions by George Frampton (famous for his Peter Pan statue in Hyde Park), his report was damning. Centuries of inclement weather, bad patching with totally inappropriate materials, and several inferior replacements had – he claimed – made them and much of the masonry a public hazard. There were finials and crockets that had fallen from above, piled around the church. Jackdaws had made nests behind the saints’ hollow backs, their once wooden croziers had rotted away and the metal bars that held them in place were completely rusted. On Sunday March 17th 1889, there was ‘serious alarm caused by the fall of the face of one of the statues close to the north door of the church, just after the congregation had entered for the University Sermon.’

‘There were bits missing and they were pitch black,’ remembers Antonia when, after a century of neglect, she was commissioned to perform her magic. Apprenticed at Lincoln Cathedral, working with stone was something she had always wanted to do. ‘Way back in my ancestry on my mother’s side there were French stonemasons ,’ she explains as we pause to admire the figure of St Cedd, her very first patient all those years ago. ‘Stonemasons were always journeymen, going from building to building, just as I still do. And I believe they came from France to the West Country and then one came up to the Midlands where I am from, where they happened to meet my great grandmum. Some of his work can still be seen on the Coventry Town Hall. ’

Dexterity and patience are the most important requirement for the job. A steady hand is essential too because a slip of the wrist could ruin months of work. What Antonia is doing is sympathetic restoration. ‘I was asked to put features back to how they would have looked,’ she explains in front of an imposing St Mary and a rather grumpy Christ child. Both have alarmingly large, out-of-proportion heads – apparently so when seen high up on the church they did not look too small. ‘For this one, I had to put a whole new head on the baby,’ she smiles. ‘People have said to me, ‘Couldn’t you have made him a bit prettier?’ but I had been given photographs from Jackson’s time as reference, so I can’t put my personality in really.’

When the statues were first carved, the stone came from local quarries, no longer extant. The belt of limestone is still there, running down from Lincolnshire, snaking across Oxfordshire and then under the channel to Northern France. As there was not enough height in these beds of stone to make the tall stature needed, they had to either be carved in sections or by what is known as ‘off the bed’. This is when they turn the block upward so the layers are stood on end. But this creates a vulnerability which explains the deterioration of the pieces. It was rain seeping in through the head that caused the face of that archbishop to fall off.

Antonia uses lime mortar to mould the shape. ‘It’s the same components as the blocks in the wall behind are made of,’ she says of the warm stone used to build the new college founded by William of Wykeham in 1379. ‘It’s just the seabed really. The bones of millions and millions of sea creatures. It’s amazing to think we dig something out of the earth that was once miles under the sea and carve it.’

Next to her stands St Hugh of Lincoln, the place where her work first started. He is my favourite figure, lovingly caressing the neck of his pet swan. And as I take my leave I cannot help but feel they both look serene and happy. St Hugh in his retirement with Antonia at hand should he require attention.

St Cedd, before and after

St Thomas à Becket

St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland

St William of York

St John the Baptist

St Hugh with his pet swan

St Edward the Confessor

St David, patron saint of Wales

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Linda Granfield permalink
    October 20, 2023

    CONGRATULATIONS!! I just checked and you’ve reached your crowdfunding goal.
    The presses will roll!
    The people will be happy to get new Spitalfields Life publications!
    I will no longer ask you “when will ‘A Christmas Story’ be available in book form!”

    Today’s blog about saints? Did it have anything to do with the goal attainment?
    Was the Fellowship of Saints listening…and hearing?

  2. Dave Hall permalink
    October 29, 2023

    Yew berries are not poisonous…..but the stones are…..and who eats stones ?

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