Open Doors weekend in Iffley with Living Stones, 9 and 10 September

Cleo, who is six, gave a contented sigh at the end of the Open Doors weekend, organised in Iffley by Living Stones, and said, ‘I am happy!’

Iffley Church is a place Cleo already knows well but, like the rest of us, she finds there is always more to discover and to delight in. First, as Lesley, visiting from Wantage, commented, it was a ‘Fab day! Very interesting! Great tea and cake!‘ and, ‘Everyone was very warm and welcoming’. It was impossible to resist the enthusiasm of our fifteen volunteers who devoted huge chunks of time and energy to making the weekend so memorable.

Their generosity and excitement was matched by the team of conservationists who had been working for some weeks on the 12th century stonework around of the church. The great west doorway was still hidden behind corrugated iron sheets, but Lee, Gavin, Lucy and Tom gave up their Saturday to guide our visitors safely up the scaffolding to see what they had been working on. The biggest surprise was coming face-to-face with the carvings of St Matthew, the Holy Spirit and those extraordinary beakheads that curl around the arch in awesome bands. The conservation team explained some of the intricacies of caring for the stonework, not least the rather startling whiteness of the limestone before its final layer of protective sheltercoating and its eventual mellowing.

Having been nose-to-nose with the beakheads, visitors had a chance to sculpt some of their own in clay. Lee’s drawings of ‘beastly beakheads’ inspired young and old, and the resulting clay models are really rather spectacular.

Almost all our visitors ventured over the wet grass in the churchyard (yes, the rain, hail and high winds added to the sense of adventure) to ponder the ancient Yew Tree. They pitted their wits against a quiz composed of questions such as: Walking past a yew tree could cause you to hallucinate. True / False and they enjoyed the accompanying fact-filled answer sheet. Cleo wasn’t sure whether to crawl inside the hollow ‘doorway’ at the base of the trunk, but older children explored it in the time-honoured way by climbing. When you have decided that your 106-year-old great-granny is the oldest living thing it is truly shocking to discover that this tree has lived on this spot for roughly 1,500 years. The timeless quiet of the Glebe Field just across the road from the church was almost undisturbed although the gate was open through the weekend. It was just too wet to think of outdoor picnics!

Our visitors were mostly fairly local. They came by bike with the Ride and Stride challenge in aid of Oxfordshire Churches. They came because they wanted to explore ‘Hidden Places’ that were specially open through the Oxford Preservation Trust’s Open Doors initiative. They came from Summertown, Headington, Abingdon, Witney, Wantage, Basingstoke, Aylesbury, Windsor, Didcot, and they came from Iffley, Rose Hill and East Oxford. Like Cleo, they found more than they had expected, stayed longer and ate more cake!