The Very Reverend,The Honourable, Oliver William Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes - Church and Chapel
My name is Oliver William Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes I was born in the Houses of Parliament, and very few people can say that. I had better explain that it was not an accident in the Distinguished Stranger's Gallery, but that my grandfather, who was an official of the House of Commons, had a flat there and that was where I was born. My father was a soldier and I travelled endlessly practically from birth. Aldershot was the place I remember best, as I suppose most soldiers' children do. Certainly I remember the experience of going for the inevitable Sunday afternoon walk through rows of tanks on Farnborough airfield because our home was actually at Farnborough. We watched as, for an experimental period, they tried to propel aircraft off the ground using steam propulsion. There was no security at all. There was a good deal of living with grandparents when the Army took my parents to India. My father was posted there and my mother always followed the drum. My mother's parents had two houses, one at Brighton on the seafront which was lovely and the other in a marvellous village called Hambledon, the birthplace of cricket.
The first cricket I ever played was on the Broad Ha'penny Ground. I made one and my brother made a hundred. It was marvellous because it was deep, deep country and we watched the cows being milked and that sort of thing. They also had a town house in London so occasionally I was taken to watch grand processions and things like that. My father's side lived in a castle. Broughton Castle is amongst the fifty best houses in England, according to Simon Jenkins. It isn't actually a castle at all, but a moated manor. There were four acres of ground inside the moat and then four acres of moat. The lovely thing about it was that in the cold weather one could put one's skates on in the hall and walk out onto the ice. My mother was a very good skater and I learnt my threes and eights from her. So, I had a pretty unusual upbringing shall we say? Except that I went, as was the fashion with anybody with a little bit of money - and if you have a very big castle you don't have much money - to a perfectly dreadful prep-school at Reigate called St David's, which was hateful. I survived that for three and a half years.
Then I went to Eton. Now Eton is a very much maligned place or at least it was in those days. I can't say that I enjoyed it all but I found it absolutely fascinating and the time I was there was in itself extraordinary because the war was on. In the flying bomb period we spent a lot of time in the shelters. They were so badly designed that we had to leave the doors open because otherwise we couldn't breathe. This was the time that I began to learn about taking responsibility because the great characteristic of Eton was that it expected boys to be responsible. Even as a boy I (and others) occasionally had to do duty on the top of the observatory. We had to watch for the flying bombs. I was fifteen at this time and I was in charge, with two other boys, of the button which sent them all to the shelters. The whole school, over a thousand boys, could be moved to the shelters in two minutes. One night we heard a terrible noise coming from behind a tree. We had a decision to make as an English bomber came low over our heads burning from end to end. We decided to do nothing. For those two minutes they were better in their beds. The bomber crashed about one and a half miles further on. That was a memorable moment in my life.
The skating I mentioned led to another turning point in my life because one term I went back to Eton with a leg in plaster. I couldn't play games, for which I was very enthusiastic. I was stumping round the place when I saw the Art School. I went in and said that I couldn't do any art really; I couldn't do anything with a paintbrush. The chap said, "You can throw a pot". I was put onto one of the wheels and I made enough pots during that period to pay my way through a term at Oxford later on where I sold them to shops on the High Street. This was after the Army and because I switched from Philosophy, Politics and Economics to Theology I had to do an extra term for which I could not get a grant. So I sold the pots. I still have a potter's wheel here. The next move was into the Army. I volunteered for the Rifle Brigade because if you volunteered you could choose. If you didn't volunteer you might find yourself down the mines. I was rather a good soldier, surprisingly, and I found myself doing some very extraordinary jobs. I passed through all the training and became an expert on bren gun carriers and half-tracks. Because of this they gave me and my platoon four brand-new style carriers so that we could test them to destruction. We managed to write off all four within a week. So that was fun in its way but not popular. I had a lovely time on the island of Sylt off the coast of Denmark chasing Martin Borman, one of the Nazi leaders. He wasn't there because he was already dead. Then they put me in charge of a train taking Italian prisoners to the Italian border. Every time the train stopped we all had to get out and surround it with our sten guns. The German drivers tried to leave us behind. We had to hop on quick. But it was then I learned the value of bribery. When on one occasion the train stopped not only did we get out very quickly but we surrounded the engine driver with our sten guns and then I and my delightful Cockney sergeant walked up with an enormous plate of sausages and mash.
The driver was hungry, of course, and we told him that if he was sensible about starting and gave a little toot, he would get three meals a day, the same as us. We had no more trouble. He also allowed me to ride on the footplate of the train as it went down along the Rhine. I had five years in the Army and I sort of discovered my Christianity there. I found myself on a troopship and I was expecting to sleep on the deck being the youngest officer on board. I looked at the list and, would you believe, I had a three-berth cabin all to myself, one for Twisleton, one for Wykeham and one for Fiennes! I went out into the gangway to see what I could find and I saw a pathetic elderly man in NAAFI uniform looking lost. I invited him in and he turned out to be the founder of the Anglican Franciscan Movement at Cerne Abbas and he was working with disabled Germans. We talked most of the night and I have been associated with the Franciscans ever since. I could not help him in his work because of my uniform which had a black belt, black buttons and a dark green beret. The Germans were frightened of us because they thought we were the equivalent of the S.S. At one stage I had to look after a prison in Hamburg where unfortunately the prisoners were English soldiers. Then I was Guard-Commander at the Ravonsbruck War Crimes Trial. This camp had held 9000 French women and there were many witnesses. Typically there was no provision for tea breaks for witnesses so they joined us in the guard-room where the NAAFI sold buns. The stories they had to tell were absolutely appalling. That was quite educational. So the Army did me very well and then I realised that after the War there would be nothing to do. It is true that the Army in peacetime is very boring for a lot of the people a lot of the time. So I opted out, got a grant and went to Oxford to New College which was founded by William of Wykeham, a forebear of mine. I enjoyed Oxford enormously. I met up with a man called John Wheeler Bennett who was the author of the life of King George the Sixth. He kept asking me to play cricket at Cuddesdon. I was quite a good cricketer by then and village cricket was great fun. This was another turning point in my life as that was where I met my wife. I knew immediately. I had quite a lot of girl-friends about the place and I actually remember that the first thing I saw was her elbow - she was sitting on the ground at the time. I said to myself, "That's a nice elbow"! That was that.
It took us about eighteen months to get married. I was not allowed to get married until I was ordained. The Church couldn't afford it. So we duly got married when I was a curate. Financially I was really a very poor curate. However I had a delightful bachelor Rector with a large garden. I arranged for a caravan to be plugged into the house and prepared to live there. What I didn't realise was that my father in law to-be was quite well-to-do and that when I told him, he would say, "Well, I don't think that will do for my daughter. I'll buy you a house". The house was called The Tiled Cottage and was in the parish where I lived at the time. I went down there about three weeks ago to meet some people and looked at my old house and there were the people we had sold it to, still there. They had been in it for forty-eight years. The parish consisted of four villages, New Milton, Ashley, Bashley and Barton-on-Sea. I was curate of Bashley. There was an old lady sitting in our church which was a tiny little wooden box just short of the New Forest. She sat right at the back and at the end of the first service that I ever took there, she came forward and said, "Mr Fiennes, I should like to introduce myself. I am an actress, an old friend of your father's. I was very interested because you prayed during the service for Christchurch. Christchurch is a nice town just down the road but you know I don't think you meant Christchurch, I think you meant Christ's Church! Would you like to come for training for your voice? I am a trained voice coach. I will teach you to speak". And I did really learn to speak.
Another interesting experience I had was when I saw a track going into the rhododendrons so as it was part of my patch, I went along it and found a little group of caravans. A door opened and a rather dashing-looking lady came out and said, "Hello vicar! What are you doing here"? I explained that I was just going round my parish. She said, "Well, I don't think you ought to be here, this is the brothel"! There they were, eight caravans at the end of this well-worn track. So I withdrew rather hastily. This brings us to New Milton which was a very good training parish. Barton-on-sea was the posh week-endy sort of place with hotels and all that and New Milton was the main village, the shopping bit, and Ashley was industrial with Bashley being in deep countryside even though only a half mile away in the New Forest. New Forest people were different in those days. It was a very good place to learn one's trade and I was very happy to be there. We enjoyed this little house and had it for three years. The Franciscans were very worried at that time about public school chaplains and I was appointed, persuaded really, to go to Clifton College. I was senior chaplain there for five years. This was a place that absolutely demanded change. It was in a desperate state. To give you a little example: I went early, in holiday time, and explored. I went into the vestry and there was a little box in which the white linen for the Altar was kept. In the bottom of the box was a lot of rather dirty linen and two slugs. Everything was in the most terrible state. So I went to the local Bishop and asked what I should do. All the coloured vestments were covered in ink stains and he said to take them to the nuns who did the most marvellous sewing. I went to see the nuns and they were sitting round a vast sewing table with the Mother Superior at the top. Before I unwrapped the paper I warned them that they were in for a shock. "Oh no, Father, we're quite used to having tired bits and bobs to renew". I unrolled it and their faces changed completely. "How long have you been in this place, Father"? I said nearly a week. Anyway they did marvellous work. My fellow chaplain, who was more of a schoolmaster than a chaplain, was very angry and I realised that I had jumped the gun.
But there was a lot of change to be done. It was great fun, a lovely job. We had two small children by now and there were the playing fields for them to play on, which was absolutely great, and lots of other staff with children. Interestingly, we also had a Jewish house of which the overflow was in my basement so I had that contingent to look after as well. We also had a Cadet Force where I was in demand because of my driving experiences. We took them camping once and it was pouring with rain, beastly it was. The Jewish boys, being orthodox, had their own tent and cooking implements and I was asked if I would talk at their Sabbath Day Service. I didn't know what I was going to say so I looked up the Anglican Old Testament lesson for the day and it started off, 'And Israel complained in their tents'! We had an extraordinary experience with the Franciscans again. I wanted to start a series of talks during Lent and I went to the headmaster to get permission. He was a Greek scholar which is not a great qualification for being a headmaster of a public school. He was very solid about religion and disapproving of change. I wanted one of the Franciscans to come and talk but the headmaster said, "What! A monk"? I explained that he, Brother Christopher, was a friar which was quite different. He agreed to meet him and so I took him to meet the headmaster at his house. I left him at the bottom of the steps whilst I went to knock on the door. The headmaster opened the door and then rushed past me to greet the friar. Brother Christopher was also a Greek scholar and the two of them had spent two years in Greece behind the lines during the War blowing up bridges and they had not seen each other since then. I was at Clifton College for five very constructive years when the place really grew and we got the chapel beautifully done, repainted and all sorts of things. Then I was asked to go to be Rector of Lambeth. This was an absolutely fascinating job. Lambeth was a very mixed area of London. We had a lovely house which had been bombed but beautifully restored. Immediately to my right, I had the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Reith, the head of the B.B.C. Across the road was the Walcot Estate where lived nine of the Great Train Robbers. The Kennington Road was in my area and a lot of it was technically my property because I was automatically chairman of a trust big enough to have its own office and its own clerk. Beyond Walcot Square were little cottages which were workmen's dwellings but they were already being infiltrated by M.Ps. At the end of our bit on Kennington Road was a pickle factory where a lovely man named Fred Hanks was the night-watchman. I got to know him and he lived right at the top of this rather eerie horrid place. One night Fred got up to do his work and there was no light and no heat. They had shut the pickle factory and forgotten to tell him. He came to me. I was interested in helping the homeless then and between his coming to me at the crack of dawn - after a sleepless night - and getting him to bed we had managed to turn this little house into two completely furnished rooms ready to use. Fred got the Maundy Money once and I went with him to Westminster Abbey to meet the Queen. I was often at the crematorium doing endless funerals when one day an undertaker offered me a bribe to put in two bodies! I was probably close to a murder! I was coming back from the crematorium once getting stuck in the traffic when my basset hound passed me walking down the white line in the middle of the road. And he got home before I did!
We also had very good connections with St Thomas's Hospital. The sisters used to let our two girls go and play nurses there and the boys were allowed to go and play firemen at the headquarters of the London Fire Brigade. My realization that housing was absolutely vital started at this time and then Christian Action had a mad idea of which they persuaded me to be chairman. They had in my parish a house of eighteen beds and the theory was to take the first eighteen ladies that arrived on the doorstep after eight o'clock at night. There was always a queue after eight o'clock. This was lunatic I thought. Every six months the house had to be cleared and fumigated. It was my job to empty it of the occupants. I had a rather bolshie young curate who had just arrived the day before and I told him that the system was for him to stand close to me all the time, touching, and if I went through a door, he went through the door. It took about three quarters of an hour to do the job and we got the last of the women out and locked the door. He said that he hadn't done anything really and I told him that we hadn't finished yet, we were going down to the Police Station. When we arrived, there they all were laying charges against me. "Now", I said to him, "you are my alibi". The Police were very good. They knew what these women were up to. The Christian Action Council had many distinguished people on it but what I didn't realise was that all this social work was quite minor to the aim of getting Nelson Mandela out of jail in South Africa. I was just a soft cover for their highly political affairs. And they succeeded of course. At this stage I met a man called Richard Carr-Gomm who was also concerned about homelessness and was much more practical than I was. He had been a soldier. He became the only male home-help at that time in London. He worked in the back streets of Bermondsey from Carr Road to Gomm Road - which had been the farm of his family. He then developed the idea of having houses with five or six people in them and in those days they even had a notice saying 'Push' on the door. The neighbours were encouraged to come in at night and socialize. And it worked. I joined in to help run these houses and later on started a lot more and it all became known as St Matthew Housing (named after an old church we used at Norwich for our headquarters).
The only time I have been really frightened at night was when I was about fifteen and this was in our own home at Broughton. During the war lights were limited because there were too many rooms to black them all out. I was on my way to bed. I went along the Great Gallery which had large beautiful windows and in each alcove was a marble statue. It was a marvellous stormy night and you could see the church tower looking beautiful against clouds dashing across the sky. I had almost got to the end when one of the statues turned and looked at me. I had a decision to make. Was I brave enough to go back downstairs and say that I was frightened? I decided to make a dash for bed. Do you know what it was? It was a cat sitting on the head of one of these statues! Living in a castle has its advantages and its disadvantages. I used to have to get up early and tidy my bedroom because the public would be coming into it. On the other hand I learned how to skate there, how to row a boat and how to catch a fish. So now we come to Lincoln. I won't say much about Lincoln as it was a very difficult time. Being Dean of Lincoln then was a devastating job. I moved to Lincoln in 1969 and I was there for exactly twenty years. We had a horrible house just by the Exchequergate Arch. My wife was an asthmatic, quite a bad one, and if any of the children were in bed there were sixty-nine stairs to go up from the kitchen. It was worse than the castle. Everybody thinks the Dean has all the power. In an ancient foundation Cathedral, the Dean was 'Primus Inter Pares' - head amongst equals - and the four canons had equal rights as the Dean except for very minor things. The four canons didn't like me, I was much too young. I think I was actually forty-three. The Crown appoints but it is the Bishop who usually who does the pushing. It was Kenneth Ritchies who was the bishop then and he knew something about me I suppose so I think it must have been he who wanted me. But it was a very strange appointment. I knew nothing about cathedrals and it was a very different business to being a parish priest. I didn't know anything about canons either and they were, I would almost use the word, wicked.
They were absolutely 'no change' people. The cathedral desperately needed change and I will tell one story which will sum the whole thing up really. We made a change which I bullied them into from the Book of Common Prayer to the 1928 version which is not exactly a major change in terms of liturgy. I sat through a sermon which ended, 'Dean Peck, a man of prayer, rejected this service, Dean Dunlop, a man of taste, rejected this service. It has remained for the present Dean to introduce it - In the Name of the Father, etc' - which was very naughty. But I got used to it and battled on and in the end we won. Now it is absolutely beautiful, everything about the services is spotless. Another problem was that the Precentor, a sad old man, Canon Rutter, was unable to sing but he believed that it was his job. One day the organist, who was testy, produced the most marvellous incredibly strident, sharp extroit. When questioned he replied that it was only the Responses but he had played them in the key that they had been sung in and the key that they ought to have been sung in simultaneously! But we did gradually settle things. Another thing that I did was to try to bring the cathedrals together with a new organisation for meeting people from cathedrals world-wide. We had a marvellous do at Lincoln when we had forty American deans. That was a very different kettle of fish. When I was still at Lambeth I had been asked to go on an American preaching tour. That was fun. I started in New York and I had prepared a sermon which I thought I would be able to use at every parish I went to but not a bit of it. It was printed in full in the New York Times! We did have a family colony at Saybrooke in Connecticut. My family, who were violent Cromwellians during the Civil War, thought that they might lose out at the Restoration and so used it as their bolt hole. The Saybrooke people were very conscious of their English connections and I got a marvellous welcome there.
At the end I started travelling with Magna Carta raising money and I did raise a great deal and brought in an extraordinary number of tourists to the Cathedral. The first time round, the Magna Carta went in a Vulcan bomber from Waddington, and we met it at the other end. The Americans were astonished at the neatness of the Vulcan compared with their ugly bombers. I travelled very extensively. We had a box in which was the Magna Carta. We had spent a lot of time shooting at this box, hitting it, and so on to test it. The Lord Chief Justice had to give his approval for this trip because of Magna Carta. There are four remaining copies but only one that is complete and only one that is actually addressed and that is ours. Originally there were probably twenty-five copies. All the Lord Lieutenants of the Counties got one. To add to the amusement I am descended from one of the barons. I am also descended from a knight of the Norman Conquest. Fiennes is a place in France as is Sele, and Saye is a place in Kent. This is the title that my brother has, Saye and Sele, and that is why I am The Honourable. None of which matters at all but it is rather fascinating. Going back to America, I received some extraordinary privileges. I was given a Senator's seat at the take-off of the second shuttle. I sat a mile away which is as close as they dared and the noise was absolutely staggering. I was next to a nice Texan who turned to me and said, "Well, that sure has given God a housing problem"!
After this marvellous feat of rocket science, the bus ran out of petrol on the way back! We went to the reopening of the Statue of Liberty entirely because of Magna Carta. The Americans thought more of it than we do. They had a magnificent firework display but they had forgotten that the fourth of July can be cold, and it was absolutely freezing with a vicious wind! We couldn't get to the food because the tents were blowing down and then they had forgotten to order the ferries to take us back! We got back to Queen's about one o'clock in the morning to find that the taxis were on strike. Juliet and I had a marvellous six months at one time when I was acting Rector of Palm Beach! The local rector went on a sabbatical. It was lovely. We had his house, we had his car, and the house was never locked as the Police cars went round and round all the time. The ladies around there would walk up and down the swimming pool reading books and wearing every piece of jewellery that they possessed because they daren't leave it in the hotel. We were hosted a great deal. It was a great experience. Just before we left a hurricane started and we were in the last plane out, going on the little aeroplanes' route because it was safer. We looked down and we could see the palm trees flat on the ground. I also met Mr Reagan at that stage which was nice. He was a really intelligent man about Magna Carta. He really knew about it.
Now we come to Colsterworth which I love. We chose Colsterworth because we wanted to go further south. We were very fond of Lincolnshire (I am also related to the Earls of Lincoln!) and this is as far away from Lincoln as you can get without leaving the shire. This house was ideal when we had the children here. We have made a lot of changes. When we came here it had two staircases and one bathroom and now it has got one staircase and two bathrooms. I continued to work as Chair of the St Matthew's Trust and started the Friends of St Matthew's Trust here in Lincolnshire. There are a number of homes in the county now which are usually full. Regulations brought in by the Health and Safety have meant that all our volunteers and house managers have to be trained. The point of these houses is to provide shelter and make friends with the occupants. I am still on a committee that helps to raise money and offers it to these Lincolnshire houses. Soon after I arrived in Colsterworth, I became chairman of the Advisory Council of Radio Lincolnshire - a fascinating job, not least because it is such a good station. All I really had to do was to cheer them on. I also found myself involved in the Order of St John, better known as the St John's Ambulance. I have no medical skills whatever but I ran the raffle at their annual 'Fun Day' at Grimsthorpe. Then I was put on the local committee in Lincoln and worked on their development programme. They rewarded me by making me a Knight of the Order of St John. In addition, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service were kind enough to allow me to do 'meals on wheels' which was wholly a delight. Since I came here I have taken services everywhere within a ten-mile radius until recently. At eighty I realise that one has to rethink. Losing Juliet meant that I had to think about learning to cook and things like that. Juliet was a brilliant cook and loved doing it. We practically made the garden here, which was quite an achievement. I intend staying here as long as I can work it although I don't know what the winter here will be like. I walk a lot and do twenty minutes a day on an exercise bicycle. I look back and I do think that the cathedral bit was very difficult. I would have liked to have tried another cathedral! But I do think that I have been incredibly fortunate and this is a lovely village to be in, it has got everything. I have made an enormous number of friends here. I have one daughter in Devon and one in Preston, and one son who lives in London and the other in Wiltshire. I do feel a bit separated from the family, but that's about all I think. I am very happy here and I have liked it ever since we came.