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Potterspury

On my 50-minute bus ride yesterday morning, I noted the village names and one street name that flashed by: Bletchingdon, Middleton Stoney, Marsh Gibbon, Goddington, Newton Purcell, Tingewick, Gawcott, Skimmingdish Lane. How I love these ancient names. We chugged past thatched cottages galore, turned into the medieval market town of Bicester (rhymes with ‘sister’) amid green, green fields over which were hanging, of course, dark rain clouds. I got off in Buckingham, where David Marks was waiting for me. And thus began my marvellous day journeying back into my mother’s history.

A dozen years ago, Mum’s eldest sister Margaret nee Leadbeater went with her daughter Barbara and grandson Stephen on a last visit to England. They drove to Potterspury, and when they knocked on the door of School House, where the Leadbeater family had lived for over 20 years, David and Rosemary Marks answered. They had bought the house in the late seventies and raised their children there. I was able to reconnect with the Marks, and because David is a history buff, he was delighted to share his time and work with me. He helped write and produce a book about Potterspury, had contacted the school where my grandfather was the headmaster through the Twenties and Thirties to let them know I’d be coming, and volunteered to show me around. I could not have had a more energetic, cheerful and knowledgeable guide.
On the way, he drove into Stoney Stratford, a stunning medieval village to which my mother Sylvia Mary used to ride her bicycle, and showed me the origin of the term “cock and bull story” – in the village are two pubs, the Cock and the Bull; anyone with a tall tale would go from one pub to another and the story would get more elaborate. And then we entered Potterspury – so much prettier than I had ever imagined. It’s tiny – one main street, High Street, with a few side streets. One pub, one church, one shop – and many very old, thatched houses. 
How extraordinary it was to walk into the house where my mother was born, in an upstairs bedroom, in 1923.  David thinks the core of the house dates from the early 1700’s. Its ceilings are low with some of the original beams; the casement windows throughout are original. The Marks have added a sunroom at the back, which I’m sure the Leadbeaters would have greatly enjoyed had such a thing been conceivable back then. Rosemary brought out an extensive lunch and we sat in the kitchen, now renovated but still, the kitchen of the house where my grandmother, Marion Edith Alice Leadbeater, raised her 3 girls. The garden was full of flowers and trees, and on the other side of the fence was the school where Pa taught and was the choirmaster. We looked over the fence, and the Marks’s granddaughters waved. Two of them go to the school and were playing in the schoolyard.
We went out the garden gate to the school, as Mum and her sisters Margaret and Dorothy did throughout their childhood. A friend of the Marks’s, Jack Clamp, another historian, had brought me a book he wrote about the school, in which there’s a page reproduced from the school files – Percy Harold Leadbeater the headmaster had meticulously noted how often and for what reason he had caned students.  “Very untidy – careless work (3 warnings) – 1 stroke.” “Stealing lunch – 2 occasions – 2 strokes.” Percy was doing his job; that’s how students were punished in those days. 
What a different place it is now. I was knocked out by the current headmaster, Mike Langrish, and his second-in-command, David Tebutt – their joyful enthusiasm, their interest in and attention to the children. Mike was running a big school when he decided he wanted to focus again on children and teaching, and applied to run this small village school. The school was suspicious – why would he want to downgrade this way? But they chose him and he’s as good a school headmaster as can be, that was instantly visible. 
They were having an assembly to celebrate “Math week.” The parents had been invited, and I was asked if, as a special guest, I would distribute the prizes. Talk about Queen for a day – there I was, bending down, handing presents to little children and saying, “Congratulations.” I felt underdressed for the occasion. And couldn’t resist making a little speech, telling the students that in my grandfather’s day, school was not fun, but that now, how lucky they were to have such joyfulness inside their school walls. 
After my queenly duties were done, Dave and I drove to Bletchley Park, “Home of the Codebreakers,” as it says now on the sign in – though during the war, the work there was top secret. My mother was one of more than six thousand women working at Bletchley in 1943-44, helping to decode German submarine messages as the brilliant Alan Turing developed the first computer, the Enigma machine, that eventually helped the Allies win the war. They’ve made a museum there, with replicas of the machine, and pictures and explanations of the work done. Not much is made, naturally, of the appalling end of Alan Turing’s life – in the early Fifties, the man who singlehandedly helped defeat the Nazis was arrested for soliciting sex with another male, and rather than endure the humiliation of a trial, he laced an apple with cyanide and ate it.
On the way out of town, Dave pointed out the inevitable Enigma Pub.  
Back in Potterspury, we had a delicious cup of tea and then, as the sun broke through and bathed the village in soft late afternoon light, we tramped across the glistening fields. I marvelled again at the diversity of my parents – my mother a Church of England girl with this most pastoral childhood – the house never had indoor plumbing, and one of my mother’s greatest fears was of the spiders who lived in the thatch –  and my father, a Jew who grew up in high-rise Manhattan. 
Then Rosi, Dave and I walked a few houses down High Street to the pub, the Cock, for supper. “Plain pub fare,” Dave said, and it was perfect – bubble and squeak, liver and bacon, chips with gravy. The pub was full, warm, noisy – the fishing club was meeting there that night, and there were still mourners from a funeral at the village church earlier in the day. We talked about our children and their grandchildren, four of whom they see on a daily basis. The Marks have an admirable life – this historic village house, a camper van in which they travel, a house in rural Burgundy they bought and renovated with two other families. David never stops – he is building a variation of the Enigma machine, he has created a huge doll’s house with electric lights for his granddaughters, he learned to play the banjo late in life and made one. Rosi is beautiful and interesting, a former teacher who cannot stop buying childrens’ books. I could not have liked them more. 
Now I have many photographs of and books about the village and Bletchley Park to send to my mother who’s 85 and her sister Do, 89, who are waiting anxiously to hear about my visit.
Today was my last day in Oxford. I wandered through Trinity College and a few of the many other colleges – in the Trinity chapel, I leafed through a heavy leather Book of Common Prayer, published in 1816, just sitting on a pew – to the Sheldonian Theatre designed by Christopher Wren and up into its cupola for a view of the fabled spires of Oxford, and later, took a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in the world. Oxford’s an odd place, because all these tourists are wandering around gazing at the hallowed walls while inside, young people are writing exams and getting on with their studies. Everyone rides a bicycle. I envied these kids not just their great education, but the setting for it, each college with its own glorious ancient buildings and spectacular quadrangle with flowers and trees. Though I did see how the beauty is created, as at one college, a man in a gas mask was spraying pesticide on the vast, perfect, weedless, bright green lawn.
A lot of Harry Potter was shot here. Talk about fabled. Enough said.
A quiet evening in anticipation of the next phase – off by train to Sheffield tomorrow, to meet Penny. As I sit now in my dorm room at the Yarnton Manor, I can hear a cuckoo singing amid many other birds. The birdsong in England is rich and unforgettable. As has been my journey, so far.
  

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One response to “Potterspury”

  1. penny says:

    Welcome to the rest of England. And welcome to Wincobank.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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