Birmingham Post 2014

Birmingham Post

Writer creates new chapter in history about village

When Sarah Hosking embarked on the story of her village she was determined it would be more then a parochial pamphlet. Alison Jones hears how she rewrote the rules for such books.

Sarah Hosking and Sebastian Flyte the cockerel on the River Stour

Village histories can often be well intentioned yet rather uninspiring affairs.

Researched and written by a local enthusiast, they seldom trouble the best-seller lists and can amount to little more than a thin paperback for sale in the village shop or church.

It was precisely this kind of lacklustre pamphlet Sarah Hosking had in mind when she embarked on the background of the corner of Warwickshire that she calls home – as an example of what not to do.

From its burnt orange front cover to its willfully eclectic content to its contributions from respected academics and authors, Round The Square & Up The Tower: Clifford Chambers, Warwickshire, is clearly superior in its genre.

“I love churches,” says Sarah, who runs a trust set up to encourage women writers.

“My dad was a John Betjeman sort of a man and we went to churches together. I go compulsively and get their little booklets and they are nearly always poor, really poor.

“Even if there is good research there they are unimaginative. And in these days of wonderful colour printing it is entirely unnecessary.

“I have long wanted to write the history of a church as I think it should be done, in conjunction with an area of humble houses where working people lived.”

There was a financial motivation behind her plan to put together a stand out book, not just in terms of sales, but because it could act as calling card when Sarah was in pursuit of grants.

As the founder of the Hoskings Houses Trust – which offers a bijoux residence on the Square for women writers over 40 seeking a “period of financially protected domestic peace” in which to focus on a project – she wanted to publish something to show the people with deep pockets what they were about.

“Our money comes from fundraising, nearly all from the big charities and trusts.

“Now when I go for money I am going to be putting that book in to say ‘this is our scholastic and aesthetic nature’.

The cottage in Clifford Chambers, near Stratford, that Sarah Hosking lets women writers use.

“I have spent my career (in arts administration and exhibition organisation) setting grants and a book like that – I’d put the person to the top of the pile.

“I am modest,” she adds with a characteristic burst of laughter.

Clifford Chambers is a cul-de-sac village that is mentioned in The Domesday Book as Clifort, meaning cliff or steep bank by the ford. Likely dating back to Saxon times, it had two mills which were given to Gloucester Abbey around 1099 and by 1266 had passed to the office of the abbey chamberlain. It was his tenure that resulted in the Chambers rather than the more conventional ‘on Stour’.

It has only one main road that ends at the Manor.

It says something about the unconventional approach to Round The Square & Up The Tower that, despite it running to 88 size A4 pages, the manor and the rectory get just passing mentions and are stories saved for another tome.

One nugget it does yield about the manor is that it is supposedly cursed, the work of the Abbot who refused to leave the abbey during the dissolution until he was driven out by fire. He said that no one who lived in the Manor would ever be happy. When it was rebuilt following a fire in 1918, a bible and coins were laid in the wall cavity to placate any ghosts.

Instead the focus falls more upon the church, St Helen’s, the Square (where the Hosking Houses Trust house is number 35), Duck Lane and The River Stour which runs along its border and when in flood can come lapping up the lane.

Clifford Chambers is undeniably influenced by its near neighbour, Stratford-upon-Avon.

It meant in the two years that Sarah has been working on the book that she has been able to call on experts in their fields to write about particular subjects.

“Stratford is a funny little town. It is almost like a university town. It has very good people living in it and around it.”

Vanessa Whitburn, something of an authority on rural communities after two decades as editor of The Archers, supplies the book’s foreword.

Dr Roger Pringle (former director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), who lives locally, writes about Michael Drayton. A Tudor poet born a year before Shakespeare, his muse Anne, married the man, Henry Rainsford, who inherited the manor and came to live there. Drayton was a frequent visitor and became friends with her husband. The location found its way into his poetry

“….dear Clifford’s seat (the place of health and sport)

Which many a time hath been the Muses quiet Port.”

St Helen’s Church, early last century

Stefan Buczacki, broadcaster and prolific author, is a village resident and lets his words flow about the Stour.

Dr Nat Alcock, offers an architectural study about the houses in the Square. The oldest dates from at least the 16th century though most are early to mid-19th.

One used to be a smithy while no.28 managed to squeeze a pub into its rooms while still functioning as a house.

A building that once stood at the end of the square was the school house. By 1882 it had more than 60 children in the morning and over 70 in the afternoon but only had desk space for 30.

A new school was built and opened in 1883. A rather poignant picture in the book shows the last class on the day that it closed in 1976.

The Norman church of St Helen’s church and church yard were in the hands of Val Horsler, an expert in archeological publishing. The church is named for the wife of a Roman emperor who was also the mother of another, Constantine. A convert to Christianity, she visited places connected with Christ and reputedly discovered the true cross.

“We did interview a lot of local people and their reminiscences are sort of popped around the place, knitted into the fabric of the whole thing,” says Sarah.

Naturally, it has all been done with more than a dash of literary flare, starting with a quote from Shakespeare and enlivened by pepperings of poetry from the likes of Wendy Cope, Felix Dennis and Philip Larkin.

There are photographs old and newish of the buildings and village events. There are no headshots of the residents. Instead there is a spread of just the eyes of people who lived in the Square or in the houses mentioned in the text.

“Although people find them a bit spooky they pore over them, saying ‘that’s so and so’,” says Sarah.

“People can dip in and out. I wanted it to be a book where an interested child can look at the pictures and an interested adult can read bits of.”

The village has been supportive of her efforts and the results, barely raising an eyebrow when her photographer was stooping to take pictures of their exhaust pipes to show how even a one road village has been monopolised by motor vehicles.

“Someone asked him if he was an MOT inspector,” reveals Sarah. “When they realised it was something to do with me they’re really very tolerant.”

The church’s reception to Sarah’s approaches about the book seems to have been somewhat more cautious.

However, she maintains one of the reasons she wrote it was to alert people to what an asset they have in it, even though it is no longer the dominant force in local lives.

The Square in Clifford Chambers, taken around 1901

“There was nothing else to do (other than church). It was all the music there was, it was all the colour there was, it was all the entertainment there was.

“One of the reasons for going along was because of sex. Church was where men and women could meet and see each other at their most attractive, tidied up and wearing their Sunday best, and have a quiet time to study each other.

“Nowadays you can get in your car and go anywhere, life is far, far richer. I’m not surprised the church is stumbling, but I think in general it could make a better fist of things.”

She also looks at what the future might hold for Clifford Chambers, which she accepts has become a dormitory for Stratford.

“Once the school and the shop go it really does knock the stuffing out of a village.”

However, she and others are doing what they can to try and preserve and encourage a sense of community identity.

“We do have fun. We have good parties and good concerts. The village hall has got a really good committee running it. We’ve just started a film society. I run the little newsletter with a colleague, Sally Abell. So we beaver away.”

The community came together for the launch of the book, which was held in the hall.

“It was absolutely heaving and we sold and sold. One person came along and she said ‘Sarah, we are making history aren’t we?’ and I nearly kissed her.”

Ideally she would like to do a second book covering the manor and the rectory, the lives of the priests who have come and gone at St Helen’s, and the local agriculture.

“They should be there but I had sort of run out of puff and I thought (the first) was long enough.”

* Round The Square & Up The Tower: Clifford Chambers, Warwickshire is £9 plus £2 postage and packaging. There is a companion calendar for £1.

* It is available from Sarah Hosking on 01789 262924, and in Stratford from the WH Smiths, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Henley Street, and Holy Trinity Church. It will also shortly be available on Amazon.