When I told my two eldest children, aged nine and six, that we were going to spend the weekend in a 15th century parsonage outside Oxford, they looked wary. When I explained that we would be going back in time to enjoy simple pleasures – family meals, walks, maybe a few parlour games – their faces grew almost mutinous.
So I left it a few days before revealing the full extent of our destination’s resistance to modern life. No telly. No iPad. Nope, not even wi-fi. Forget screens for the weekend, I told them. Let’s imagine what it would be like to be a family in the old days.
‘That sounds like a punishment,’ my nine-year-old concluded gloomily. But off we went one sunny Saturday in early November, and by the time we arrived, the excitement of a vast, historic house to make ours for a couple of nights had overwhelmed any misgivings about how we would spend our time.
The boys raced up two flights of creaky wooden stairs to find their twin room at the top of the house with its own bathroom and views over Oxford that would prove ideal for watching fireworks.
Our seven-month-old baby found a good spot clambering along one of the window seats, where she could take in charming views of the garden, sweeping down to the river Thames. My own favourite base was stretched out on one of the squishy sofas in the living room next to the enormous fireplace. With dark wood panelled walls and unusual moulded plaster ceiling, this room was also deemed awesome by the kids, although there was disturbing talk of how it would be improved by a massive telly over the mantelpiece (‘instead of that spooky portrait from the old days’).
Definitely time for some historical education. To bring their new home to life the boys raided the Explorer Pack box; containing activity packs, including puzzles, games, a general knowledge quiz, and even local recipes. With Halloween just passed, they were particularly entranced by the ‘create’ section with its macabre suggestion that they design their own grave.
They spent ages drawing headstones and thinking of pithy epitaphs for each other, while we made tea and offloaded the food into the kitchen. When we returned, the smaller of the two brothers had come up with his: ‘Here lies Owen, who never let me into his bedroom.’
That evening, we played Sardines – another thumbs up for the window seats, which, hidden by thick curtains, proved luxurious hiding spots for sleepy parents and even suitable for wriggly babies who don’t know how to stay quiet.
Most thrilling of all, as twilight fell, we realised we would be sleeping over in this beautiful house, largely untouched by time, yet tweaked for our benefit to include central heating, fluffy towels, power showers and hotel-standard linen.
It felt like staying behind in the kind of place you usually traipse around with lots of the general public, ushered along by stern looking volunteers ready to pounce if you touch anything. But here we were settling down to supper and then up for baths and stories in the soothingly spacious bedrooms.
The next day, we set off down the river for a two mile walk into Oxford, playing ‘I Spy’ and stopping for biscuits when we flagged. Fortified by lunch, we made it back to the Parsonage and popped into the church next door to appreciate its stained-glass. One window showed a gory depiction of Herod killing a baby which made the visit more exciting than the boys had anticipated. But this time it was our baby’s turn to look unimpressed.
On our final morning, the garden was covered in the first frost of the year. The boys crunched in the silvery grass, finding frilly iced leaves and communing with local birdlife. A friendly robin darted back and forth inspecting their activities. The baby sat on the floor of the dining room surrounded by wooden spoons and saucepans (who needs toys?) while my husband and I made a pot of coffee and steeled ourselves for our return to real life. It had taken a few days to adjust to life without toys and technology, but it felt even more of a wrench to leave it behind.