‘Once a King in Narnia’

The undergraduate history degree at Oxford has never been intended as a narrow vocational training, fit only to produce professional scholars or school teachers. Yet among the majority who do not pursue further academic study, what they learnt and enjoyed from the Oxford history course may provide lasting interests and cherished items of intellectual and cultural furniture. Caroline Stanford, of the Landmark Trust, describes how her professional career has led her back to her undergraduate historical enthusiasms.

‘Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia.’ I suspect I am not the only Oxford historian for whom the words of C.S. Lewis’s professor at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe strike a chord – ‘Once an Oxford historian, always an Oxford historian.’ Of course we all guard against the dangerous tendency to see our years at Oxford as an interlude spent in some kind of magical kingdom, but visits to Narnia were also typically as challenging as they were life-enhancing. ‘But,’ adds the Professor, ‘Don’t go trying to use the same route twice.’ Reading history at Oxford opens doors into many other worlds and Oxford days may seem lost forever. Yet wardrobes notwithstanding, there is more than one route of finding your way back to being a historian in Oxford.

In my current role as Historian for the Landmark Trust, I am at last able to say when people ask what I do, ‘I’m a historian’ – though never without a sense of slightly incredulous pride. Few can consider themselves more than apprentice historians as undergraduates; for myself, I did not follow my heart on leaving Oxford and it took me twenty years to get back to the field I should never have left. A cautionary tale, perhaps, but one which also shows that there are other ways to be a historian in Oxford.

Coming up to Jesus College in 1977, I was of the last of the generation who made their way to Schools in gowns to be instructed by Hugh Trevor-Roper on the merit of Gibbon, and Macaulay’s lack thereof. Mr James Campbell at Worcester managed to bring Bede and early medieval history to life but, despite the gentle ministrations on eighteenth-century nonconformity of Dr John Walsh, my moral tutor at Jesus, I took a modernist slant, choosing ‘British Foreign Policy and the Coming of the Second World War’ as my Special Subject.

A D.Phil. could have followed, but the problem was that I had found all periods studied in the broad Oxford course equally enthralling. While sorry to leave Oxford, the wider world beckoned. A trip to the careers centre, on the Banbury Road, brought a chance encounter with a pilot scheme for careers assessment. I completed a questionnaire full of five-point scales and psychographic attributes and among the careers the computer spat out was market research. On such chance encounters are career decisions based at 21.

Ten satisfying years followed in international market research, but it was not long before I found I missed the academic pursuit of history. After six years, still travelling Europe in pursuit of higher sales, I enrolled for a part-time, taught M.A. in Early Modern History with Dr Michael Hunter at that beacon of hope and excellence for thwarted academics, Birkbeck College, London. The sense of reinvigoration and relief was immediate. Yet by now, years were passing with a bewildering acceleration worthy of Narnia. The next decade brought four years lived in Spain and America, the birth of three children, and the renovation of a late fifteenth-century timber-framed house. And here at last architecture, so much a part of my role today, makes its first appearance.

This house required significant work doing to it, which in turn led to my discovery of a completely new aspect of history. Old buildings represent primary sources no less than manuscripts: amid the carpenters’ marks and timbers of a late medieval roof space or contemplating the perfection of an Adam interior, we are as much in touch with the past and its people as we are among shelves of books and boxes of documents. In the purest historical sense, buildings are an expression of social and economic forces and can be read as a commentary upon them, informing our understanding of those who lived in them. Even the humblest structure brings its own aesthetic and craft of design and materials. They are the most democratic of historical sources – given access, anyone can wander round a building and make their own connections. Above all, even the oldest of buildings can be lived in, now as then, if properly cared for – and it is this proposition that lies at the heart of the Landmark Trust.

To complete the story, as my interest in historic buildings and architecture grew, I found that Oxford could once again supply what was needed. I went on to take an M.Sc. in Historic Conservation jointly at Oxford Brookes and at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education in Rewley House, where Professor Malcolm Airs keeps architectural history alive and well in Oxford. The need for a case study brought me to the Landmark Trust, where I discovered a fusion of cultural commitment with a practical business solution that was instantly appealing. A few years on and the rest, as they say, is history.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Landmark Trust is a building preservation charity that rescues and carefully restores interesting and significant historic buildings which otherwise might not survive and gives them a new future by offering those that are suitable for holidays. While we must fundraise specifically for each restoration we undertake, once let the buildings become self-supporting. Even better, anyone can take a Landmark property and, if only for a short while, live there as if it were their own.

In fact, Landmark owes its very existence to an Oxford historian. It was founded in 1965 by John Smith (New College) and his wife Christian (St Anne’s). Sir John was knighted in 1985 for services to historic conservation. A feature of every Landmark property has always been a set of books carefully chosen to illuminate that building, its history, and its surroundings. And, in a very enlightened way that says perhaps more about the Trust’s objectives than anything else, Landmark had a dedicated Historian at its heart from its very inception in my predecessor, Charlotte Haslam, who died suddenly and tragically in 1997. Born out of the passion and commitment of a handful of individuals, Landmark’s success illustrates the quiet way the force and fascination of history continues to animate our society, often in ways unlooked for.

Today, the Landmark Trust owns around 220 properties across Great Britain that it has rescued from neglect. Almost all are available for holidays. Two are in Oxford – one in the former residence of the Steward of the Oxford Union on St Michael Street, the other the old parsonage in Iffley. Every year, several more are added and it is my happy task to research their history, inform their restoration, write up a ‘history album’ for each and maintain Landmark’s archives. The job is at once highly practical and strongly research-based. As projects and centuries fly thick and fast, I often find myself reminded of the old three-essays-a-fortnight routine, even if now I am as likely to find myself on site or up scaffolding as behind a desk – and I love it.

As an undergraduate, did I really notice my architectural surroundings? Everyone knows Oxford is a beautiful city, but it is so easy to take surroundings for granted, to forget to stop and stare, to register their layers and harmonies, to question their creators and their motivations. Oxford’s architecture is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The walk down Brasenose Lane, which I did so often during my time at Jesus, still never fails to make me catch my breath as I reach Radcliffe Square, with the Camera hunkered down in faux antiquity in front of the theatrical backdrop of Hawksmoor’s All Souls. And the secret self-indulgence of my role at Landmark is that it gives me full licence, even requires me, to do what, in my heart of hearts, I always loved best: taking that route down Brasenose Lane and past the Camera, through the quadrangle into the Bodleian, up the stairs and through the door into the Upper Reading Room – where Narnia awaits.


- Caroline Stanford

(Jesus 1977-80)