© 2021 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 21st June 2019; updated 16th February 2021
Length: ~1,300 words
I skirt the town centre to Banbury Quaker Meeting House, and after checking for walkers it's time to head-off cross-country to Adderbury – via the ‘alternative route’. Flooding prevents use of the shorter, prettier route (pretty precisely because it crosses the flat, wildflower-rich flood meadows). There's a brisk wind and the animated cloudscape promises heavy rain. I'm going to get wet!
Friends meet at Adderbury Quaker Meeting House four times a year. The Summer meeting is Adderbury Gathering, when we have a speaker to give us inspiration. This year we have Amrita Bhohi of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, talking about ‘spiritual ecology’.
The Grade II* listed Adderbury Meeting House is something rather special. Pretty-much unchanged in three hundred years, going there is a step out of the vicissitudes of everyday modern life. For that reason I find I can’t ride there; I have to walk. When you walk there, you begin to appreciate how those who used the meeting house centuries ago would have found it.
Of course, today it is not nearly as risky to travel to a Quaker meeting. I can do so without risk of being ‘distressed’.
I speed through town and out into the fields beyond Bodicote. The route is a little drier today as the rain has held off – though the gusty wind and animated clouds promise more, soon.
The paths I take between Banbury and Adderbury would have been the same paths that Quakers trod in the 1650s and 1660s, when the Society first established itself in this area. The present-day Oxford Road, which was once the turnpike road, wasn’t constructed until the early Nineteenth Century. The route I normally take to Adderbury, via Upper Grove Mill, was the Medieval main road. Today though it's impassable due to flooding.
Passing Lower Grove I decide to check out the small lake as at this time of year frogs spawn there. Sure enough, though the water level is half-a-metre below normal, the edge of the water is fringed with small bulbous black tadpoles engaged in frenetic paddling. Some have legs already.
Then I notice that the small black stones on the bank of the lake are not stones; they're moving. Small frogs are already making their way off into the undergrowth.
Initially Friends in Adderbury walked to the meeting in Banbury, which began in 1657 in what is now Broad Street. In 1666, Friends began meeting at the present site in Horsefair.
Our locally zealous Puritans objected to this. Not simply because they thought it a violation of the Sabbath to travel, but because they were not travelling to an ‘established’ church. As a result many early Quakers in this area were persecuted for their beliefs, up until the end of the Seventeenth Century when the Act of Toleration was passed.
Have you ever wondered about the word, ‘distressed’?
Distraint was a Medieval legal principle. If someone was found doing wrong, they could be summarily prosecuted and a fine levied according to the value of the goods they carried. It was a more immediate equivalent of today's on-the-spot fixed penalty notice.
Of course, having your belongings taken away when out on the road made people feel rather unhappy. People who had been found and summarily prosecuted in this way were said to have been distressed, and over time the meaning for the resulting feeling persisted even when the legal practice fell out of fashion.
For local Quakers, one of the favoured penalties for travelling to Banbury Meeting House was the confiscation of their horse. Records from the time list how friends local Friends from Tadmarton, Gaydon, and Radway, all had their horses taken on their way to Banbury. As Quakers traditionally refuse to swear oaths, local magistrates would also ‘administer the oath’ (of allegiance to the Crown) and when they refused they would be distressed of their goods. This is recorded as happening to James Wagstaffe, one of the founders of the Banbury meeting, in lieu of a forty shilling fine.
The practice rather backfired though. To avoid the penalties for travelling to Banbury, and serve those unable to travel long distances, local Friends instead began to meet in their own villages – at first in people's houses. As well as meetings in Adderbury from 1656, there were meetings in Brailes (1657), Radway (1659), and South Newington (1663). These communities would later build their own meeting houses.
The wind is gusting strongly. The clouds keep promising rain, but at the last moment the dark mass seems to break and revert briefly to blue sky again. On the edge of East Adderbury I pause for a late lunch, watching the animated atmospherics take place above the tall spire of Adderbury’s ‘steeplehouse’ (as early Friends called them).
Every now and then a large splot of rain hits my head; black clouds are gathering above the spire. I pack up and press on, through the village and across Sor Brook into West Adderbury. I arrive, and just as I get into the meeting house the heavens open and the rain pours down hard for five minutes. Well timed!
The community of Quakers that established itself in Adderbury built their meeting house in 1675. George Fox himself attended the opening, and would pass this way again on another of his cross-country journeys. The costs were borne by the local landlord, Bray Doyley, whose house – Little Manor – still stands opposite the small triangle of land where Horn Hill, Cross Hill, and Manor Road meet.
Originally the mezzanine floor at the top of the stairs was enclosed as a separate meeting room. Around 1700 the rest of the gallery was built as it stands today, and a separate women's meeting room was built opposite (demolished around 1958/9, all that remains today is the small toilet block and storeroom). The present-day elder’s benches were added around the same time.
Normally there might be a dozen or two people at the quarterly meetings. For Adderbury Gathering we always have a full house; sixty or more. As usual there was well-provided tea after the meeting. When the visitors depart we pack away, though it seems to take a while today as everything is wet from the rain.
Time to head home. I’ve already done the western route back into town this week, and so I head eastward back through the village. By the mill leat there's a lovely stand of yellow iris, and beyond the church in Church Lane a small buddleia bush has clad in earnestly foraging bumble bees.
I pass through the ancient village, and the Sixties sprawl of Twyford, and I’m back in the fields again. The path brings me alongside the M40, busy with the Sunday-evening rush, and then I go down the road to Twyford Wharf on the Oxford Canal. Here I pause on the bridge, taking in the view across the flooded Cherwell valley.
From Twyford Wharf I’m on autopilot – having walked the towpath back into town so many times before. I reflect on the meeting, and the idea that people today don’t have enough contact with nature. I watch the swallows screaming over the surface of the canal, and listen to the call of the chaffinches in the hedgerows and the rooks in the fields beyond, and I think, “just walk!”