01 May 2022

A stroke that was my first
health crisis since I was
diagnosed with sarcoidosis

A magnolia tree in a courtyard in Milton Keynes University Hospital … a reminder of nature in a confined area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

It was quite a surprise to experience the trauma of a stroke on what should have been an extended weekend. I was in Stony Stratford, one of the towns that form part of Milton Keynes, when it became obvious that something was deeply wrong.

It was supposed to be a beautiful day. I went for a 5 km walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and I enjoyed a late lunch in the sunshine. But my speech became incoherent, my words were making no sense, and although I knew what I wanted to say no-one could understand what I was trying to say.

I was rushed to Milton Keynes University Hospital, and after more than a week, I was transferred to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. As I went through the first major medical crisis since I was diagnosed with sacrcoidosis in 2008 and a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency. I reminded myself of the beauty of the outside world with a magnolia tree in a courtyard in the hospital in Milton Keynes and a window view in Oxford of the rolling countryside. But it was the first time in over half a century that I can recall missing being at church on two successive Sundays.

Dr John Radcliffe … a copy of a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John Radcliffe and
a king’s dropsical legs

I was moved from Milton Keynes University Hospital to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, one of the world’s leading centres of medical excellence and teaching hospitals. Informally known as the JR, this is the main teaching hospital for Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University.

The JR is part of the Oxford University Hospitals (OUH), a world renowned centre of clinical excellence and one of the largest NHS teaching trusts in the UK.

The JR first opened half a century ago in 1972, and the distinctive large white-tiled building stands on a prominent position on Headington Hill, about 5 km east of Oxford city centre. It replaced the Radcliffe Infirmary, the main hospital in Oxford from 1770 until 2007.

* * *

The hospital was built on the estate of Headington Manor, bought in 1919 from the executors of Colonel James Hoole, who died in 1917. But it was only in the 1970s that the first block of the present hospital was built on this land, dwarfing the old Manor House, which was first used as a training school for nurses and later as offices. The Radcliffe Infirmary completed its move to the old manor in 2007 and the Oxford Children’s Hospital opened in its grounds.

John Radcliffe (1650-1714) played an important role in the development of Oxford, albeit posthumously, through a large bequest to the university of £140,000 which became known as the Radcliffe Trust. He gives his name to the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Radcliffe Observatory, the Radcliffe Science Library, the John Radcliffe Hospital and, of course, the Radcliffe Camera, a landmark building in Radcliffe Square in the centre of Oxford.

Radcliffe’s main intention was to create a new library, the Radcliffe Camera. But after it was completed enough funds remained for many other buildings that now have the Radcliffe name.

Radcliffe always attributed his success to his Oxford education. He acquired a large fortune and as a private London doctor he had the rich, the royal and the famous among his patients. He was the physician to Queen Mary, King William III and Queen Anne.

Radcliffe once told Queen Anne, who thought she was ill, that her trouble was only ‘imaginitis.’ He too know about dropsy: he once offended William of Orange by referring to n his dropsical legs, saying ‘Sir, I would not have your two legs for your three kingdoms.’

The Radcliffe Camera in Radcliffe Square, Oxford, built in 1749 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eagle and Child,
Bird and Baby

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who was Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857-1867, first described Oxford as ‘the city of dreaming spires’ in his poem ‘Thyrsis.’

Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, was Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1989-1994 and was an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College. Other professors of poetry with Irish backgrounds include Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, Cecil Day-Lewis, Robert Graves and Paul Muldoon.

Once in the past, I tried to soak in the literary legacy of Oxford at the Eagle and Child, a pub in Saint Giles’ Street, between Pusey House and the Radcliffe Observatory. The pub was the venue for meetings of the Inklings, a group of writers who included JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Charles Williams.

The Inklings met on Thursday evenings at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen, where they read and discussed their unfinished manuscripts. Their lunchtime gatherings in various Oxford pubs became a regular meetings over lunch at the Eagle and Child, also known affectionately as the ‘Bird and Baby’.

The Eagle and Child … the venue for lunchtime meetings of the Inklings, including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Cock and Bull stories
in Stony Stratford

Eventually, when I left the John Radcliffe Hospital, I returned to Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes, where I woke each morning to the bells of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles.

Those bells did not make up for missing church on two consecutive Sunday mornings, one after another. But they reminded me that these post-retirement days ring out new changes and are filled with joyful promise.

Radcliffe’s fortune came from the rents collected from the Wolverton Manor estate, which he bought in 1713 for £40,000. This included 2,500 acres of farmland and the whole east side of Stony Stratford’s High Street, where there were several large inns, including the Cock and the Bull.

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford dates from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

* * *

Participants in pub quizzes and those who debate geographical terms may ask whether this part of Buckinghamshire is in the South Midlands or in the Home Counties. It seems appropriate then that Stony Stratford claims to have given the English-speaking world the original ‘Cock and Bull Story’.

At the height of the great coaching era, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Stony Stratford was an important stopping point for coaches travelling between London and Birmingham and on to the North and even to Ireland. Coach travellers were seen as a source of current news from remote parts of the country – news that was shared in the town’s two main coaching inns, the Cock and the Bull on the High Street.

The Cock Hotel has stood in one form or another on the current site since at least 1470, and the present building dates from 1742. The Bull is certainly older than 1600, and the present building dates from the late 18th century.

These two neighbouring inns rapidly developed a rivalry, seeking the most outlandish and scurrilous tales from travellers. Perhaps the Cock and the Bull became better known for their stories than the literary output at the Eagle and Child.

Stony Stratford maintains the tradition of spreading exaggerated yarns today with the recently revived Cock and Bull Story Society. But visitors these days may only get to hear half the story: the Cock is open, but the Bull has been closed since the Covid lockdowns.

The Cock Hotel … one half of the Cock and Bull stories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


Frank Callery said...

Lovely to read, Patrick, thanks.

Anonymous said...

You are an inspiration, Patrick. I truly hope that you are feeling better, resting and taking care of your health.

May God bless, Patricia Egan (Margaret Comerford's great granddaughter) Stillorgan


Patricia Egan