In the Steps of the Great English Catholic Writers

A Summer Experience Exploring Tolkien, Shakespeare & Chesterton in Oxford

 By Beverly De Soto Stevens

Photos: Michael Durnan, Fr. Jeffrey Keyes & Beverly De Soto Stevens

In the summer of 2007, Stratford and Leonie Caldecott founded a unique summer school in Oxford, England to bring together extraordinary writers, lecturers and students of all ages from around the world. Last year, Stratford Caldecott passed away, but Leonie and the Caldecott family are continuing his legacy of excellence in a program that goes from strength to strength, pioneering the way to bring to light the real stories of England’s great Catholic writers – including William Shakespeare. Here, REGINA interviews Leonie Caldecott about the wonders of Second Spring Summer School.

REGINA: Your summer school students spend an unforgettable two weeks in the beautiful and historic city of Oxford, visiting world famous sites and studying with local experts. There, they get to explore the context, writings, and haunts of English authors such as Shakespeare, Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. Why did you start Second Spring in 2007? 

Leonie Caldecott: We had been running conferences and study days/weeks since the Centre for Faith and Culture was founded in the early 1990s, but we ran our first Shakespeare Summer School in 2007 at St Benet’s, with Clare Asquith and Fr Peter Milward SJ. From there we entered into a partnership with Thomas More College in New Hampshire, and began to run summer schools for their students from 2008 onwards. Our journal, Second Spring, and the summer school are closely linked, as both focus on questions to do with faith and culture, though the summer school emphasizes the historical questions arising from the Reformation in England and its long-term cultural effects.

REGINA: This year, your school is based at St Benet’s, the Benedictine Hall of the University of Oxford, only a few paces from the pub where the Inklings used to meet. What have been the reactions of your students?

Leonie Caldecott:  They love it! We have used other centrally based accommodation over the years when St Benet’s has been full, but staying in a Benedictine house with a small chapel and beautiful gardens right next to the ‘Bird and Baby’ definitely gives the course a special buzz – it make the history come alive. The fact that we are based in the heart of Oxford, a place which brings together so many important historical and cultural threads, is very exciting for our students.

“I have to say that Strat and I never considered the question of the market! We were focused on the fascinating material that we ourselves had discovered as Catholic converts, and then Divine Providence drew us into sharing this material with others in the way we have. However, our experience has indeed demonstrated that there is an audience for this. Eight years of summer schools bear it out.” — Leonie Caldecott

REGINA: You explore some fascinating material, such as the long-term impact of the Reformation on Anglophone culture; the vision of the human person were the writers of the Catholic Literary Revival struggling to recover and how writers witness to Christ in a hostile environment. What sort of people are interested in these summer classes?

Leonie Caldecott: We have had participants from all over the world, from Chile and Brazil to Italy and Poland, but the majority of interest comes from North America. This may partly be a language issue (as all classes are in English), but also down to the relevance of the questions we explore for the whole of Anglophone culture. Some attendees are studying in relevant fields, some are teachers, some are retired, but some are professionals who want to take time out of their day-to-day grind and have an adventure.

REGINA: How have your students of all backgrounds reacted?

Leonie Caldecott: Some have been amazed by the vistas of Christian and Catholic culture that the course opens up, and the historical questions we raise have garnered some pretty interesting reactions. The historical material dealing with the turbulence of the English Reformation has only fairly recently been aired so thoroughly, thanks to the work of people such as Eamon Duffy, Alice Hogge, Gerard Kilroy and Clare Asquith – the last three have all lectured for us.

REGINA: What reactions have you gotten from English Catholics?

Leonie Caldecott: English Catholics have shown some interest, but most of our attendees have been from the US or mainland Europe, people for whom this side of English culture is something of a novelty. The English Catholics who have lectured for us, from Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia) to Clare Asquith (author of Shadowplay) have certainly been very supportive of the concept of our summer school. We have had a number of non-Catholics attending too, over the years. One or two have come into the Church and I like to think we contributed in a small way to that process.

“We try to balance lectures with times of reflection and pilgrimage: the human person being both a rational, a spiritual, and an incarnate creature. We find that our students appreciate the experiential mix and the pace. People learn and absorb in different ways, and part of the joy of a course like this is being able to walk the same streets, drink in the same pubs, and see the sights that inspired the figures we study.”Leonie Caldecott

“We visit places of historical importance and also of literary interest as diverse as Saint Thomas More’s cell in the Tower of London, C.S. Lewis’ house, and the White Horse of Chesterton’s Ballad. It’s always wonderful to see these places through the fresh eyes of a group of people passionate about the subjects we study. We particularly love seeing their faces as they realise the man showing them a hiding place for a priest in Penal times is a descendant of Thomas More, or when they are told that they are standing next to Newman’s writing desk which is also, by the way, the altar from which he received his first Holy Communion as a Roman Catholic.” – Leonie Caldecott

“In the early days I did the practical organisation of the summer schools, as well as contributing material. We have faced a few challenges, such as unexpected “heat waves”, which older people attending our courses struggled with – St Benet’s, like many old buildings in England, has no elevator or air-conditioning! There have been occasions when I have felt like Sibyll Fawlty running around trying to solve multiple crises at once…Leonie Caldecott

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TESSA CALDECOTT IN THE GARDEN OF ST BENET’S COLLEGE: “For several years I actually cooked for our students every day, in order to keep costs down. But since our wonderful eldest daughter Tessa has joined us on the admin side, it has been much easier and really rewarding to have relaxed interaction with our students.”  — Leonie Caldecott

“A number of mature people have attended because they were drawn to the material they found on our website. That has been the main portal for attracting attendees, though word of mouth and some coverage in the catholic blogosphere has helped. As we have been working on a shoe-string budget we never used much advertising beyond this. It has grown organically.”Leonie Caldecott

“We have had anything from four students (in the first year of the Thomas More programme they actually stayed in our own house!) to a dozen. As well as the core group of TMC students, other undergrads or recent graduates have attended. It is worth noting that American undergraduates can sign up directly through Thomas More College if they wish to attend the introductory week they run on their own site before their students fly over to the UK, and may obtain credit for our course though them.”Leonie Caldecott

STUDENTS IN RURAL OXFORDSHIRE; “We intend to keep developing the summer school, sticking with the mix of lectures and tours that have been so successful for us down the years. We are open to new partnerships on the teaching side, if these are mutually compatible. With marketing too, we are open to new avenues. But whatever happens, we have to build organically on something that has taken many years to shape and refine. “ – – Leonie Caldecott

RHODES SCHOLAR and lecturer in medieval history Gregory Lippiatt teaches at Second Spring Summer school. More more info visit their website and sign up to their email list at the bottom of their homepage, or follow Second Spring on social media to stay up to date.

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