Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

Forthcoming Speakers:
Chris McGrath  Henry Marsh   Michael Williams

The Peter Frankopan Talk

The Peter Frankopan Talk

As a teenager, Peter Frankopan told us in his spellbinding talk on April 28th, he was uneasy about the narrow geographic focus in history which seemed to concentrate solely on the United States and Western Europe, leaving the rest of the world largely untouched. He told us that he had been taught about the Romans in Britain, the Norman conquest of 1066; Henry VIII and the Tudors; the American War of Independence; Victorian industrialisation; the Battle of the Somme and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

However, there were huge areas of the world which remained untouched. Peter was then given a book which challenged this "lazy" view of history - that Ancient Greece lead to Rome, which led to Christian Europe and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, triggering political democracy and the industrial revolution. Even as a youngster, he realised this interpretation was flawed - and that the regions he was not being taught about at school had become lost by the insistent story of the rise of Europe.

He was taken to see the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral, which had Jerusalem as its focus, and also read about Arab geographers whose work put the Caspian Sea at its heart. Peter told us he was transfixed and this was compounded when he heard of an important medieval Turkish map in Istanbul, which had a city called Balasaghun at its heart - a place of which he had never heard and yet it was considered at one stage to be the centre of the world.

Years later, this reappraisal would bear fruit in his best-seller, The Silk Roads, which has topped lists around the world - and has even sold more copies than J.K. Rowling in China. He said he wanted to know about Russia and Central Asia, Persia and Mesopotamia - and he was fascinated with the origins of Christianity when viewed from Asia and how the Crusades must have looked to those living in the great cities of the Middle Ages, such like Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo. And he was keen to understand how two world wars were seen when viewed - not from Flanders or the eastern front, but from Afghanistan and India.

Peter suggested a great deal of attention is currently given to the impact of economic growth in China, where demand for luxury goods is set to quadruple in the next decade - or looking at social change in India, where more people now have access to a mobile phone than a flushing toilet. But he emphasised that neither offers a viewpoint of the world's past - and that, in fact, for millennia it was the region lying between east and west, linking Europe with the Pacific Ocean, that was the axis on which the globe spun.

To many, he added, countries in central Asia - such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan Turkmenistan and the countries of the Caucusus - are these days seen as unstable, violent and a threat to international security, like in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. He said they have a poor record on human rights and freedom of expression is limited in faith, conscience and sex equality - but whilst these countries might seem wild, Peter said they are certainly not backwaters or obscure wastelands.

Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, he added, these countries lie at the very heart and have done so since the beginning of history. It was here where civilisation was born and where many believe Mankind was created in the Garden of Eden - widely thought to be located in the rich fields between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was in this bridge between east and west that great metropolises were established nearly 5,000 years ago - where the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley were wonders of the ancient world. Inhabitants numbered tens of thousands and had a sewage system that would not be matched in Europe for a thousand years.

Other great centres of civilisation such as Babylon, Nineveh, Uruk and Akkad, in Mesopotamia, were famed for the grandeur of their architecture. Peter added that this region is where the world's great religions burst into life - Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism - and it is the region where the language groups competed. And it is also where the great empires rose and fell. During his research, it showed a world that was profoundly inter-connected - and that whatever happened in the steppes of Central Asia could be felt in North Africa, and where events in Baghdad resonated in Scandanavia.

Peter described the way these "tremors" fanned out in every direction, along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled and goods and produce bought and sold - whilst ideas were exchanged and adapted (although these routes have also carried violence and disease). In the late 19th Century, this sprawling web of connections was given a name of the Silk Road by a German geologist, Ferdinand von Richtofen, uncle of the First World War flying ace, the "Red Baron". Peter described these pathways as the world's central nervous system connecting people and places and yet, despite the importance of its part in the world, he claimed it has been forgotten by mainstream history - partly because of the view of "orientalism", the strident and negative view of the east as being undeveloped and inferior and, therefore, unworthy of study.

He admits that current religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence have tarnished the image of places such as Herat in Afghanisatn, Fallujiah and Mosul in Iraq, or Aleppo and Homs in Syria. But he claimed the present had washed over the past - such as the days when the name of Kabul conjured up images of gardens planted and tended by the great Babu, founder of the Moghul empire in India. In the same way, said Peter, modern impressions of Iran have obscured the glories of its more distant history - when its Persian predecessor dominated everything. Urban centres spurred on rivalry between rulers, prompting ever more ambitious architecture and spectacular monuments, whilst libraries, places of worship, churches and observatories dotted the region, connecting Constantinople to Damascus, Isfahan, Kabul and Kasgar. For centuries, the intellectual excellence in the world was not located in Europe - but in Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand.

Hence, there were good reasons why the cultures, cities and people living along the Silk Road developed and advanced - trading and learning from each other. However, Peter suggested the mantle of progress shifted during the early modern period as a result of two great maritime expeditions that took place in the 15th Century - when the foundations were laid for a major disruption to the rhythm of long established systems of exchange. Expeditions by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama opened up new sea routes and suddenly Europe was transformed from a regional backwater into a fulcrum of sprawling communities and - at a stroke - it became the new mid-point between east and west.

As well a best-selling author, Peter is also Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Studies at Oxford University. In addition to his academic studies, he has both played and sung on several albums and he also chairs a collection of family businesses in several countries, including A Curious Group of Hotels, which he set up with his wife, Jessica, and includes Cowley Manor, near Cheltenham.

He concluded his talk by saying he hoped those reading The Silk Roads might be inspired to look at history in a different way. Over 140 people packed the hall and the level of fascination was reflected in the large number of books that were sold.

"Peter's talk was utterly remarkable. I can't recall when I listened to such a brilliant analytical brain on full-throttle. His assessment was sensational in how different regions of the world have seen their history diluted through teaching concentrating largely on European history. It added supreme detail on how cultures of the Middle and Far East developed in so many areas, often centuries before their European counterparts. Peter's talk was enlightening, incisive, witty and quite astonishing, with no repetition and no notes. What a total star! - Jim Oakley, Oxford


Friday May 26th 2017.

Chris is racing correspondent of The Independent and lives in Combe, near Woodstock. He will be talking about his book, called Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, which was published in 2016 to great acclaim and was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.

In 1704, a bankrupt English merchant sent home the colt he had bought from Bedouin tribesmen near the ruins of Palmyra. Thomas Darley hoped this horse might be the ticket to a new life back in Yorkshire. But he turned out to be far more than that - and, although Mr Darley's Arabian never ran a race, 95 per cent of all thoroughbreds in the world today are descended from him. For the first time, Chris traces this extraordinary bloodline through twenty-five generations to our greatest modern racehorse, Frankel.

The story of racing is about Man's relationship with horses, and Mr Darley's Arabian also celebrates the men and women who owned, trained and traded the stallions that extended the dynasty. The great Eclipse, for instance, was bred by the Duke who foiled Bonnie Prince Charlie's invasion (with militia gathered from Wakefield races) and went on to lead the Jockey Club. But the horse only became a success once bought and raced by a card-sharp and brothel-keeper - the racecourse has always brought high and low life together.

Chris expertly traces three centuries of scandals, adventures and fortunes won and lost, with our sporting life offering a fascinating view into our history. With a canvas that extends from the diamond mines of South Africa to the trenches of the Great War, and a cast ranging from Smithfield meat salesmen to the inspiration for Mr Toad, and from legendary jockeys to not one - but two - disreputable Princes of Wales (and a very unamused Queen Victoria), Mr Darley's Arabian highlights the many faces of the sport of kings.


An excellent history. . McGrath is one of the finest sportswriters of this generation . Brilliant (David Walsh SUNDAY TIMES)

A racing book like no other - a book of remarkable scope (Robin Oakley THE SPECTATOR)

Erudite, wry and astute . .extraordinary horses and a rich seam of cultural history woven into a fascinating book (Melanie Reid THE TIMES, Book of the Week)

A vivid, sweeping history of impressive scope. McGrath's eye for a story and eloquent turns of phrase will delight (Nick Pulford RACING POST)

The introduction made my arms tingle as McGrath recalls Frankels's win at the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in 2011... Racing life, social life and equine life are all neatly pulled together and expertly rendered into a compelling story. each chapter is a satisfying vignette of a Darley descendent, the jockeys, trainers, rakes and rank who were involved. Chance and fortune, deals and dodging - it's like Derby Day on the page (Alexandra Henton THE FIELD)

A racy gallop . . a teeming, colourful survey [with] a great deal to inform and entertain (Nicholas Clee, The OBSERVER)

A dark horse contender (EVENING STANDARD)

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday June 23rd 2017.

Henry is a pioneering brain surgeon and has spent a lifetime operating on the surgical frontline. There have been exhilarating highs and devastating lows, but his love of neurosurgery has never wavered. Until 2015, he was senior consultant neurosurgeon at St George's Hospital, in south London, one of the country's largest specialist brain surgery units.

Henry specialises in operating on the brain under local anaesthetic and he was the subject of a BBC documentary, called Your Life in Their Hands, which won the Royal Television Society Gold medal. Since 1992, He has worked in Nepal and also with neurosurgeons in the former Soviet Union, mainly in the Ukraine, with protégé neurosurgeon Igor Kurilets, and his work there was the subject of the BBC Storyville film, The English Surgeon.

Henry has a particular interest in the influence of hospital buildings and design on patient outcomes, as well as staff morale and he has broadcast and lectured widely on this subject. His 2014 memoir, called Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, was praised widely and became a best-seller. According to The Economist, the book is "so elegantly written that it is little wonder some say that in Mr Marsh neurosurgery has found its Boswell"

In his new book, called Admissions – A Life in Brain Surgery, Henry reflects again on what forty years spent handling the human brain has taught him. Moving between encounters with patients in his London hospital to those he treats in the more extreme circumstances of his work abroad, Henry faces up to the overwhelming burden of responsibility that can come with trying to reduce human suffering.

Unearthing memories of his early days as a medical student and the experiences that shaped him as a young surgeon, Henry explores the difficulties of a profession that deals with probabilities rather than certainties - and where the overwhelming urge to prolong life can come at a tragic cost for both patients and for those who love them.

Henry attended the Dragon School, in Oxford, and Westminster School, in London. At first, he studied PPE at Oxford, graduating with First Class Honours, before later graduating with honours in medicine from the Royal Free Medical School. Henry is married to the social anthropologist, Kate Fox, and spends his spare time making furniture and keeping bees.

If you would like to go on the waiting list please Contact us


Friday September 15th 2017.

His talk is called: The Joy of Railways

Michael is a leading author, journalist and academic - writing, broadcasting and blogging on transport, society and the media. He is the best-selling author of several highly-acclaimed books on Britain's railways, including On the Slow Train (Twelve Great British Railway Journeys); Steaming to Victory (How Britain's Railways Won the War); and his recently updated work, The Trains Now Departed (Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain's Railways). His talk will be packed with nostalgia - and some enjoyable armchair travelling for a winter's evening.

Michael is also a leading travel writer, reporting on journeys around the world for a variety of publications. In his academic role, he is co-editor and author of the book The Future of Quality News Journalism. Formerly, he was Deputy Editor of the Independent on Sunday, Executive Editor of The Independent, Head of News and Features at the Sunday Times; and he was also on the staff of The Times. Michael still regularly contributes to the national media, including the BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, New Statesman, the Tablet, The History Channel, as well as the specialist and business press.

In addition, Michael is chairman of the Springdene Care Homes Group in London and external examiner in the School of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths University, in London. He lives with his family in Camden Town, London.

If you would like to go on the waiting list please Contact us


OX20 1DZ

John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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