Kennington is a large village situated on the edge of Oxford. Unlike our neighbour, Kennington is an unassuming almost private place. Oxford and the nearby Cotswolds team with tourists – you won’t find any in Kennington. We like it that way because our village is in a beautiful part of Oxfordshire and we have it all to ourselves. But I decided I should share some of its Thames side delights with readers of The Oxford Times as a fun way to connect children with nature. There are pics on the link and scroll to the end of the blog for the most recent.
From time to time, I’ve introduced some well-known people to our hidey hole. Roger Bannister had never been here before although Pembroke College, where he was master, was only 1.5 miles away. I invited him to open the Bagley Wood Fun Run.
I also brought Folk Queen, Peggy Seeger here. We used this video filmed by Kennington resident ,Philip Hind, to open a fundraising event for the Nasio Trust to build tanks in which to grow Spirulina in west Kenya. Currently a group of us in the village are raising money for another of their projects – the first community library in that part of Kenya. Driving through the village, as we do in this video, you would be forgiven to think this an average place. The video shows that the people who live here have made it unusual.
https://vimeo.com/64536645 Fifties Fandango
I’ve decided to make it the location for my next novel.
I won’t call it Kennington because the characters are NOT Kennington people but it’s inspired by it’s unusual social makeup. Many districts in England seem to be socially exclusive. Kennington is the OPPOSITE. Everyone is here but no one will boast about it. There are cleaners, office workers, factory workers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and gardeners: there are nurses, doctors, teachers, librarians and writers like me. There’s a professional sculptor, a professional inventor, website designers and computer engineers. One of the first British e book book publishers is based here too. We forgive Andy Severn for calling his business Oxfordebooks. At one time, almost the entire Geology Dept. at Oxford University lived here. There are still academics from Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities, lab technicians, and scientists who work at Culham and Harwell, postmen and policeman and lots of independent businessmen and women. It’s an independent and diverse place and the housing stock reflects that. There are three mobile home parks on the edges of the village, a manor house and thatched cottages at the centre near the Tandem pub. There’s a small area of council housing surrounded by thirties bungalows and a few streets of fifties semis and seventies builds in & around Playfield Road and Forest Side. The old road to the town which boasts the oldest settlement in England, ABINGDON, wound its way through Bagley Woods. Bagley Wood Road has large older houses, some set in woodland gardens. Scattered in among the various houses on Kennington Road and Upper Road and tiny bungalows- cabin like dwellings-from when land in Kennington was auctioned off and where artisans built their own houses.
In my recently published Memoir Food of Love Cooling up a life across gender class and race. I started a chapter set in the village like this,
Kennington is two miles from the beautiful city of Oxford and four miles from Abingdon, which claims to be the oldest town in Britain in continuous settlement. The village is squeezed into a narrow track of land between Bagley Woods and the River Thames. The ancient woodland was first mentioned in an Abbey Charter of 955 by which King Eared granted certain lands including Bagley Wood to the Abbot of Abingdon Abbey. It must have been a lawless place in the 13th century when men were frequently assaulted and sometimes killed in Bagley Wood and, in 1327 the prior of the abbey was carried off into the wood and threatened with a horrible end unless he did the prior-napper’s bidding.
It’s not that interesting honest people don’t pass through Kennington –it’s just that they are quiet about it!
Bertrand Russell and his wife Dora lived in Bagley Wood Road for a while. Simonetta Angelo Hornby and I became friends when we were both young mums in the village. Although she moved to London, we remained good friends ever since despite her now being famous in Italy and awarded the star of Italy by the President! This pic of her was at the launch of my first novel in Blackwell’s. My son Justin on her right lived with her for six months. My friend Felicity on her left is one of those Oxford tour guides !
In my memoir I tell the story of getting to know Steve Jay Gould when he lived in the village for a year.
Betsy Bell was an artist and her husband, David, a geologist and they had a son, Sam, who was the same age as Justin. Kennington was the village of choice for Oxford University’s geology department, including Keith Cox, Steven Moorbath and John Dewey, who was one of the geologists behind plate tectonics. When the Bells had a sabbatical, they let their house to Steve J Gould and his first wife, Deborah. There are few scientists famous enough in their life time to be canonised by the US Congress as a ‘Living Legend’ but that happened to Steve. In 1997, he even voiced a cartoon version of himself on The Simpsons.
Steve and Deborah joined the babysitting group, and Atam and I invited them to dinner and they returned the compliment. Atam and Steve discovered they had common interests in evolution and in wanting to expose scientific racism. Atam was hoping to get the opportunity to work on his longed-for PhD. The delay was auspicious because Atam’s interest had turned towards quantitative genetics, and that would be his means of exposing the frauds.
In the 1960s, Steve was active in the civil rights movement. In 1963, he had attended Leeds University as a visiting undergraduate and organized weekly demonstrations outside a Bradford dance hall, which refused to admit black people. Unsurprisingly, the Goulds were against the Vietnam War, which was still raging, the US-backed overthrow of the democratic government of Chile and installation of General Pinochet, and what appeared to be the Belgium and the US alliance to overthrow another democrat, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a dark time.
I asked them, ‘Given American foreign policy, wouldn’t you prefer to stay in the UK?’
Steve gave such an effective put down of the UK in relation to the world that I remember it to this day. ‘Why would you want to ride the tiddler if you can ride the whale?’
For someone of my generation, this was a staggering perspective. It left me literally breathless. Britain: a tiddler.
I want to share with you the walk which I took this morning .
I headed along Sustrans to Kennington Meadows where I came across rabbits foraging in the early morning sun. I stopped for breakfast at Proof Social. Who’d think that a bakery /coffee bar would choose to site themselves in an industrial estate on the edge of this modest village? Well Proof Social has proved that it knew a secret that we villagers know. It’s a welcoming place for small business.
After coffee and a chat, I headed for Sandford Lock where they were setting up for a World Championship! Yes. It’s the World Pooh Sticks Championship today. Two lazy swans didn’t show much interest.
The meadows are filled with wild flowers and Sandford Hydro is happily settled in the landscape- welcomed like everything else.
The Cormorants look down from their tree over it and all human activity with distain. So much so I had to write a poem about them. (See below) Tomorrow I may walk in Bagley Woods or Radley woods or Kennington Pit – so much choice of beauty without any crowds. I’m enjoying setting my latest novel ‘Currents’ set here.
Girls on paddle boards,
Raucous Canada Geese
but none rival
Still and silent
King of all he sees
looking down on
humans looking up.