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Memories of Christopher Fry in Shipton

christopherfryandwifeinshiptonChristine Murphy recently drew my attention to the following interesting passage in the book, Muriel Spark, a Biographical and Critical Study by Derek Standford.

“In the early summer of 1950, I decided to write a book on Christopher Fry. He was then the rising hope of our stage ……living then in a farm-labourer’s cottage in the Cotswold village of Shipton-under -Wychwood. Christopher invited me down to see him and I asked Muriel if she would come too. So all in high-heels, she climbed with us to the burial mound on a hill above Shipton where the playwright practised outdoor inspiration. The next day, Christopher took us to what he called his private swimming-pool. This was a lake covered in water-lilies in what had once been part of the estate of a now shuttered country mansion. The paths were overgrown and the grass was long, but roses, running wild, still preserved the sweet haunting scent of a high civilisation. Shipton, with its stratas of history, mostly buried from outward gaze, appealed to Muriel and she wrote a poem (later to be described by Christopher as the finest fruit of our visit).”

The poem, under the title ‘Shipton-under-Wychwood,’ opened with the line:’ Prebend plunges over Plantagenet.’

Christopher Fry and his wife, Phyllis Hart and son Tam lived in a rented cottage at The Buildings belonging to Percy Holloway who owned Grove Farm. They can be seen at the end of the long straight lane to the right of the A361 on the way to Burford. The local farming family, the Stoters, occupied the other tied cottage. At that time the burial mound was surrounded by thick woodland. There is a very detailed description of the Fry’s life and their relations with the Stoters in an article by Trudy Yates in the Wychwood History Society Journal Number 28 of 2013. The photograph here shows Christopher and Phyllis walking away from the Buildings and towards the A361.

John Hartley, who knew Tam Fry when he was a schoolboy in Shipton, has also told of seeing Christopher communing on the burial mound. The late Gordon Duester too described to me his surprise on coming across this statuesque man meditating in the sunshine by the mound.

Christopher Fry was celebrated as a poet and playwright before and immediately after the War. He is perhaps best known today for his verse dramas such as The Lady’s not for Burning. His first plays included The Boy with a Cart, written in 1938, which provided Richard Burton with his first starring part. He became Artistic Director of Oxford Playhouse.

He lived until the age of 97 and died in Chichester in 2005. His neighbour during his last years in Sussex was his lifelong friend, the poet Robert Gittings, whose son, John Gittings now lives in Shipton.

Alan Vickers

June – July 2017