There is something ineffably romantic about vanished villages.
I might mention Hampton Gay, near Kidlington, or Shorthampton, near Charlbury, or Widford, near Burford — but one of the best is to be found at Wheatfield, near Watlington.
Peering through the Georgian windows of the locked church, set in a lonely field with only mounds in the earth to mark where the nearby great house once stood, is like peering back through the ages.
And the business of peering had added poignancy this week when my wife Anne and I visited the place for a New Year’s Day picnic: for the manor house burned to the ground on New Year’s Day 1814, as a result of an accident while the family — one of whom was a daughter of that keen amateur dramatist, the fourth Duke of Marlborough — had been celebrating with some genteel play acting.
Now only glorious trees, including a magnificent holly oak, mark the sweep of the old carriage drive that once led to the mansion; but of course the bold contours of Chilterns countryside remain as beautiful as ever. The 18th-century Picturesque Views of the Principal Seats of the Nobility and Gentry stated unequivocally “that for the beauty of the situation and the charms of nature which owe little to the touch of art, few places exceed this small but elegant seat”.
According to an excellent entry in the Victoria County History, the fire at the early Georgian house on that fateful New Year’s Day was particularly devastating because severe frost had frozen all the available water — which meant that the efforts of the villagers, organised by a French officer and his men who were prisoners of war on parole in Thame, and fire engines from Watlington and Shirburn, failed to save it.
Apparently, the officer’s proposal to blow up half the house in order to save the other half was rejected as such action might have endangered onlookers or damaged the church. As it is, only the stables, now a farmhouse with an imposing cupola, and the church, remain.
But what a church; a real find for inveterate church crawlers like us. Peering into the exquisite arched windows you are somehow looking through the 18th-century Renaissance and back to medieval times, for the Grade I listed church of St Andrew’s is not purely Georgian but is instead a 14th-century building that has been clothed, so to speak, by an architect who had surely studied Palladio’s Quattro Libri with care and probably also been on the Grand Tour.
Certainly, to see a perfect Venetian window in the rolling Chiltern landscape, such as the one at the West end of the church, was edifying for fans of Palladio who, like us, had recently been to Venice.
The village itself had by the time of the fire already shrunk to a mere handful of cottages, thanks to the combined effects of Black Death and 16th-century enclosures. But the mansion destroyed in 1814 was built by John Rudge, MP for Evesham.
He bought the estate in 1727 and his elaborately baroque monument still stands in the church that he remodelled. Lord Charles Spencer, MP for Oxfordshire — whose son, confusingly enough, also married a cousin from Blenheim — bought the house and park in 1770 for £21,000.
But what exactly, we wondered, were the family acting at the time to cause the fire? Probably nothing boisterous. After all, New Year celebrations in England (though not in Scotland) have traditionally been muted, since the start of the English legal year only changed from Lady Day (March 25) in 1752 when the country finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar — something seen as suspiciously Roman Catholic and foreign by some members of the Church of England. Indeed, January 1 only became an official holiday in 1974.
Certainly the only sign of the modern world that we could see as we munched our way through our smoked salmon sandwiches was a distant view of the M40.
Funny old thing is time.