...a parish in the hundred of Wooton, county of Oxford, four and one-quarter miles West from Woodstock, containing 498 inhabitants. The living is a discharged rectory, in the archdeaconry and diocese of Oxford, rated in the king's books at £4,19,9½., and in the patronage of the Duke of Marlborough. The church is dedicated to St. James.
~Topographical Dictionary of England, 1831.
"We've had enough of Hogmanay," Dave said to me in October. I had spent the last two New Years with him, visiting with his girlfriend and a something-like-love of my own in Edinburgh. We'd gotten tickets for Princes Street both years, and approaching midnight would struggle into our boots and overcoats so we could keep warm in the wind and snow as the fireworks went off above the castle. I would hold her close for those few minutes we had before the smoke cleared, when we found ourselves being jostled, kissed, and vomited upon by a mixed swarm of drunken Scots and tourists wearing funny hats. An experience, to say the very least, and for me, I think, the last of its kind.
She spent the next New Year's Eve with her boyfriend, in London.
"We'll be spending Christmas and New Year's at my place," Dave went on. "With my mum, dad, and sister. You're totally welcome to come."
"Where's your place, again?"
"Near the Cotswolds, near Oxford."
"The Cotswolds? What, you mean like the Shire?"
"If that helps you."
"Yeah. Yeah, maybe." I always said 'maybe' to everything, even when my mind was already made up. Perhaps because I always needed my friends to convince me.
"You should come. My mum's an American. She's tired of being the only one we make fun of."
"Ha. Yeah, well. Maybe."
A quiet New Year's in a tiny village, with my good friends but absent one. No huge parties, sleeping on floors in underheated flats, waking up sick to my stomach. Well, I thought, hanging up, I might have a good time anyway.
If you connected the dots of Burford, Woodstock, and Chipping Norton on a detailed map of Oxfordshire (as the A40, A4095, A44, and A361 nearly do), the resulting constellation would enclose just over thirty small towns and villages, less than a third of which are directly reachable by railway. Seven of these are along the Cotswold Line, operating from Paddington in London to Hereford and Worcester.
Stonesfield is not one of them. The closest railstation is in Charlbury; the nearest major roadway the M40. I was lucky enough to be traveling by car, studying my map in the backseat as Dave and his girlfriend Alison drove us the twelve miles northwest from Oxford. Wiping my breath away from the sliver of window, I looked out into what was rapidly becoming the English countryside of my imagination. Gently rolling hills, isolated houses, tiny automobiles that we passed only once in a while. Landscape approaching the color of gold beneath a rich gray sky. It should have been unsettling to a Manhattanite, but I somehow felt the place understood me. England is the only country in which I smile when it rains.
There are over seven thousand people now living in the City of London alone. Two hundred thousand in Camden. A quarter of a million in Southwark. Seven million in London, overall. In New York City they have eight million stuffed into about 320 square miles. It took 160 years for the population of Stonesfield to triple, to 1500. They occupy a hillside position above the River Evenlode, on the banks of which I am told they periodically picnic and hold village festivals when weather permits.
Tourists, Dave told me, don't come there. To ask what we were going to do would have been missing the point. I understood perfectly well what I was going to do in Stonesfield. I was going to do what everyone else did-- whatever that was.
Dave pulled up next to the gate of a small house, practically next door to the village's only remaining pub--the Black Head.
"We'll be there shortly," he said.
We entered the gate, and I got a closer-up look at a slate-tiled roof. Slate made the village. Stonesfield Slate is the most famous of slates, as slate goes. Jurassic limestone, mined from the hills in and around the village as early as the 17th Century and worked at quarries in the area as late as 1910. It makes up most of the roofing of the Oxford colleges, and appears on many a structure across the country. Now it can only be purchased second-hand, at what for slate is an apparently immense price.
Naturally my interest in slate only went so far. Indeed it didn't extend much past the roof of the house I'd be staying in. But the village newspaper--the Stonefield Slate--served as a constant reminder, as would any resident to whom the subject was broached. You could at any given time find many of them round the Black Head.
We entered through a set of two doors, adding our own to a stack of muddied boots in the space between. The warmth I felt on my face was that enveloping heat unique to a wood-burning fire, the kind that comes in comforting waves when the currents carry it right. The fire was the first thing I noticed, burning in a cast-iron stove built into the original space; brick-lined and, by the standard I'd always known, cavernous. The house was 250 years old. There was a fire burning in its fireplace since before my country was a country. The first embers were smoldering at the same time British sailors were first becoming known as limeys, stepping onto British soil an ocean away, where a twenty-year old George Washington was waiting to carry out their orders.
Dave had to duck beneath the beams, solid masses of wood with ancient seams extending the length of the room, which included both dining and recreational quarters. Christmas cards were tacked along its length; photos of family and friends. I passed safely beneath them as his parents came downstairs. His mother put me to work in the kitchen almost straight away. It was the best thing she could have done.
"Tonight we'll go out to see the dark," Dave suggested at breakfast. Breakfast was toast and the universal English Flora, and of course a glorious cup of tea.
"Finally," I replied. He'd been promising me the dark for two days, but other things had gotten in the way--watching television and peeling chestnuts by the fire, having a pint down the Black Head, nearly but not quite beating his father at some quiz show or other on TV. Whatever it was, it put Jeopardy to shame.
"I want to see the dark." I repeated the phrase throughout the day, once every two hours, to make sure he wouldn't forget. It was very important I not miss it. I hadn't seen it for years. Actual dark, the real thing, a proper absence of light, outside, at night. You can get this in Stonesfield. You might be able to get it other places, but certainly none of the ones I've visited.
"So there are no streetlights in this town, at all?" I asked as the three of us stepped into the cold.
"Dude. VILLAGE. Towns have pavements. Woodstock is a TOWN."
"Still, no streetlights?"
"I can still see, though."
I was lost in minutes. Bare bulbs above doorways cast them in deep, hard shadows; infinitely black rectangles were the only indications of entryways. The texture of the gravel road stood out like a frozen frame of televsion static, and the light seemed to vanish into the sky at better than the inverse square law. We were walking in a noir film. I wanted to watch a trenchcoated Alison in silhouette, exhaling a stream of back-lit smoke as she walked arm-in-arm with a fedora-wearing Dave. I thought of E_____, our missing member, and the long gray coat she used to wear in the winter. We'd always have Edinburgh.
"This way," Dave said. "The dark lives over here."
It came upon me gradually. Somewhere along Church Street, it slowly crept out of itself, appeared on all sides, bounded by a high wall on the left and a dense row of trees on the right.
"Where are you?" Alison's voice. The darkness had apparently eaten Dave.
"Jesus, get off!" He'd snuck up behind me. Right behind me. Amazing, considering he'd been ten feet in front when we went in.
"Hold up your hand."
"I am. And a finger too, guess which."
"Seriously, hold it up."
I put out my hand, at arm's length. And I couldn't see it. I brought it back by stages, until it was three inches away from my face.
There's always light in New York. Even at night, inside, with the windows shuttered and curtains drawn, there's always light. It creeps in around the edges, seeps under the doors, infiltrates the pupil. But it couldn't find me here. Nothing could find me here.
"OK, now everyone be quiet."
He knew what I was after. This was the other part of darkness. No traffic noise, no sirens or rattling bass. Not a bird or a cricket or the sound of wind in the leaves. Only the smell of Stonesfield remained. The smell of earth and stone, damp with recent rain. I knelt down to touch the gravel. I wanted to feel the grit on my skin and under my fingernails. Eyes wide open, I could only locate my body through contact.
Dave was smart to bring Alison here.
"Ok, had enough?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm good. That was great."
He flicked on a lighter, and I followed it out. The next morning, I tried to find my way back, on my own, but didn't recognize any of the streets. Our next night out, Dave took us by a different route. One of my favorite memories of Stonesfield is a place I never saw.
"Come on Moira! Come on, girl!" Dave attempted to coax his car back to life. She coughed the raspy hack of the engine-impaired as a light rain began to fall on the village. Alison and I chatted by the gate, and discussed alternate plans. A stroll to St. James the Great, the 13th Century church in the village center? A quick walk through its medieval cemetery? We could light a candle for Moira.
"Ah! There we are!"
The engine turned over, and we all piled in for a drive. I'd be leaving New Year's Day, tomorrow, and Dave wanted me to see one or two local sites before I left. Moira's windscreen wipers did what they could against the increasing battalions as the gray settled over the earth.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Well," Dave replied. "Blenheim Palace is just a few miles away. Duke of Marlborough's place, hundreds of acres of grounds and what not. They have their own mineral water."
"Yes, well, we're not going there."
"The Roman villas?" I knew the ruins of two Roman villas stood nearby.
"Oh, god, no. No no."
"We're not doing some slate thing."
"Not quite, no. No, we're going to Burford!"
"What's in Burford?"
"A damn fine opportunity to show you how much better Stonesfield is, by comparison."
"Right, Moira, we're off!"
And we went. Burford turned out to be a town with more upscale pretentions than it could rightly claim. Crowds of people were already filing down the High Street at midday, shuffling past overwhelmingly quaint bric-a-brac shops and estate agencies. The so-called Gateway to the Cotswolds had one redeeming quality: Burford Church, where in May 1649 Oliver Cromwell and his men surrounded 340 Levellers. Several had carved their names into the well inside the church. Three were summarily executed. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall against which they were shot. Dave thought I would like it. I did, and that was it. Following a quick stop at the Victoria Inn in Eastleach (I still have the lighter I bought there, a steal at one pound and still on its original supply of butane), we drove back through the hills and rapidly flooding streets to deposit ourselves amidst the locals already collecting for the few remaning open hours of Stonesfield's most singular tavern.
The Black Head was home to a landlord of unexpected (but probably temporary) surliness, given the monopoly he enjoyed over Stonesfield's drinking needs. The original incarnation, the Black Boy, built in the 18th Century, burnt to the ground in the century that followed, at which point the current structure went up. My party did not make use of the billiards table in the second of the two barrooms, but instead entered the warm light of the first, a smaller space with tables the color of stout and walls of amber ale. Dave knew everyone in the room. It wasn't long before a perfect stranger bought me a pint--not much longer before I returned the favor--and offered me a hand-rolled cigarette. His friends quickly became my friends, in a way that would never have happened in New York. They grew up together, knew each other's history, picked up where they left off despite long gaps in communication. Whatever the problems of their real lives, for one week in Stonesfield they were safe at home. We stayed there until the placed closed, when Roger the landlord cheered up demonstrably.
"Where to now?" I asked. An hour remained until midnight. I wanted to be outside for the changeover. Heavy stratus clouds remained overhead but the rain had stopped, and we were all up for a walk. I lit a cigarette with my new lighter as Dave led us past free-standing houses of various ages, from the 17th Century to the 21st. We walked past lit windows behind which people were already raising glasses in anticipation of 2003. Less than an hour left in another year. I remembered asking my father on a similar occasion if it didn't seem to him that 1990 had gone by rather quickly. He looked at me strangely, and said no. I was twelve years old at the time.
It doesn't take long to get to the edge of Stonesfield. Rather, it shouldn't take long to get to the edge of Stonesfield, but Dave took us by circuitous route. I tripped over loose stones and low walls, over slick decaying grass and the occasional patch of ice. We crossed the shadow of the bell tower and knocked on the door of the old medieval lock-up. Dave and Alison were hand-in-hand; I was some sad distance behind.
"Ok," he said, finally coming to a halt. "Here."
The village, it seemed, simply stopped. Ne plus ultra. Just tall wet grass and frost extending toward the horizon.
The bell in the tower struck twelve. I jumped at the first peal, having always been used to a countdown. Dave kissed his girl, I thought of someone not there, and we all said Happy New Year. Then it was quiet. For a second.
I saw the light before I heard the sound. Fireworks in the distance; flashes in the clouds. The displays were over two separate towns, miles away. I thought of noise and smoke, of crowds and celebrations, jostling elbows, confusion, and the blur of time. I stood outside of that in Stonesfield. It was like standing on the shore of a great ocean during a lightning storm--beautiful and strange, awesome but somehow isolated and contained. A private memory replayed in third person. And then it was over. A quiet New Year's Eve, in a tiny village, with my good friends but absent one.
I left them at the station in Oxford. I sat in one of the backward-facing seats as the train pulled away, watching them wave and pull faces. There is something wonderfully simple about them, something fundamentally sound and reassuring. I love those two, and wish I could see them more often.
The Stonesfield village website lists ten local businesses. The latest news was posted on January 8th. There are seventeen registered users, never more than four of which have ever been on-line at the same time.
I'm surrounded by eight million people. I don't know any of them. I live with three people, and I know nothing about them, either. I can't help thinking that if I had a wood-burning fireplace, a few pieces of slate, and some good, honest dark, it would be different.
Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK