"Mummy", confided a small child, writing a postcard home to the East End of London in 1937, "This must be a very holy place. . She was in the midst of a glorious fortnight of hay-making, sheep shearing and milking while studying nature first hand at Hill End Farm at Wytham. Her life-enhancing experience was due to the generosity and humanity of a man whose origins are obscure, being born with the name of Schumacher and later assuming his mother's name of ffennell, wanting, it appears, to be "a proper English gentleman."
Having made a considerable fortune from gold mining in South Africa, ffennell came to England with his wife and daughter, bought the vast Wytham Estate (including Wytham Mill, still working as recently as 1901) from the Earl of Abingdon and proceeded to use it for the public good.
He initiated day schools and holidays for city children, camps and training schemes for unemployed men at Pinkhill Lock and music scholarships at the Guildhall. He was also instrumental, together with such doughty figures as Sir Arthur Evans, in the foundation of the Oxford Preservation Trust and made substantial gifts of land to the City of Oxford, in exchange for promises that they would leave the historic parks and the floodplain unblemished with crass and thoughtless development.
His touch is everywhere. A holy place, then, is pretty much what even the most irreligious of us feel walking in Wytham Woods today. Since 1943 these woods, described in The Times as ".. traversed by broad rides, some of them being the pack-horse roads along the ridges which carried most of the traffic of medieval England .." have belonged to the University of Oxford, part-gifted, part-sold, part-bequeathed by ffennell.
The Times, aware of the immensity and the obligations of such a gift, points out that no comparable endowment had been added to the university since the Middle Ages. Allowing for the passage of time and the effects of inflation, one might argue that nor has it since. And, given the origins of the ffennell fortune, might one wonder about the possibility of a ffennell scholarship for deserving South African students?
The Times sounded a significant warning that ".no-one at this stage will seek to bind posterity, It is sufficient that the University has acquired a colony, so fortified that it is inviolable by the pressure of traffic and industry, in which the life of learning and contemplation may be finding its best opportunities of enrichment for a thousand years to come."
The story of the bequest is a long and complicated one, and, ironically, the good fortune of the university was due largely to a personal tragedy. Part of the woods are denoted 'The Woods of Hazel' in homage to the ffennells' only child, "a girl of rare promise" according to her Times obituary in July 7, 1939, who was kind, funny, musical (she initiated and led a smartly uniformed Wytham Village band) and with "a strange and beautiful genius for the understanding of birds and animals, which before her early death she had begun to express through the gift of sculpture."
It is hard to ascertain the reason for Hazel's death and one senses a reluctance on the part of the family and local villagers to entertain intrusive questions. So we are left with the facts that Hazel died as a much loved and vibrant young woman and the indirect beneficiaries of a personal tragedy were the city and the University of Oxford. . To visit Wytham Woods you need a permit: contact the warden, Nigel Fisher, on 01865 726832 or e-mail nigel.fisher@ admin.ox.ac.uk