A HUNDRED years ago, John Buchan, his wife Susie and their four young children, moved into Elsfield Manor, just outside Oxford, writes Ursula Buchan.

So began 15 very happy and productive years for the already famous novelist, non-fiction writer and journalist, publisher and later Conservative MP.

So happy were the Buchans, that only a compelling sense of public duty drew them away to Canada, when the newly ennobled first Lord Tweedsmuir was appointed Governor-General in 1935.

John Buchan, a Scot brought up in Fife and Glasgow, had loved Oxford and Oxfordshire ever since his carefree days at Brasenose College in the late 1890s, when he walked or cycled in the flower-rich valleys and gentle uplands beyond the city, or canoed or rowed on the Cherwell and Isis.

In his book of memoirs, Memory Hold-the-Door, published soon after his death in 1940, he vividly recalled arriving in Oxford during the winter of 1894 for his college examinations.

“In that hour, Oxford claimed me, and her bonds have never been loosed,” he said.

So when the Buchans decided to leave London at the end of the Great War, for their children’s health, no one was surprised that they gravitated to Oxfordshire.

Elsfield was ideal, for it was still then deep in the country yet just three miles or so from Oxford, where there were fast commuter trains to take Buchan to London, where he worked as literary director for Thomas Nelson and Sons, publishers, in Paternoster Row.

He was always intensely loyal to Scotland, but saw no conflict in also developing a strong devotion to his adopted county.

After the Great War, much of the land in and around Elsfield was bought by Christ Church, but the college was happy to sell on the Manor, a part-Jacobean, part Victorian mish-mash of a house right on the village street, with large gardens, a small wood, a couple of meadows and a commanding and serene view over the spires and towers of Oxford and beyond.

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The place particularly appealed to the Buchans because it had associations with Dr Samuel Johnson. John referred to himself as a “minor country gentleman with a taste for letters”, but, lacking inherited money, he had to work seriously hard to afford the upkeep of this establishment. In 1932, his most intensely active writing year, he earned £9,000 – more than half a million pounds in today’s money.

At Elsfield, he continued to write both fiction and non-fiction, including the Richard Hannay adventure/spy stories, that had proved so popular with all sections of society, adding The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, written during the First World War. And he set his compelling and atmospheric Tudor historical novel, The Blanket of the Dark, in the countryside around Elsfield.

The Buchans threw themselves into local community life. Susie founded the Elsfield Women’s Institute (sadly now defunct) and John was president of the Oxfordshire branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, because he was so concerned about rampant and unplanned urban sprawl in the 1930s.

He was also an active president of several university clubs, including the Exploration Club, and gave valuable help to those wanting to explore very remote places. In term time, the Buchans held open house on a Sunday afternoon for undergraduates, who would walk up the hill to Elsfield for tea.

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Many students remembered with gratitude and admiration the trouble taken with them by the Buchans, at those friendly, unstuffy but intellectually rigorous occasions.

John Buchan died aged 64 in February 1940, in Canada, and was given a state funeral in Ottawa.

His ashes were brought back to England secretly (since it was wartime) on a British light cruiser, HMS Orion.

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They were buried in the churchyard at Elsfield, under a circular stone designed by Sir Herbert Baker. On the top is a Greek inscription, which translates as ‘Christ will prevail’, most appropriate for a man whose religious convictions were central to his life.

Around the stone’s edge is a Latin phrase: ‘His own earth holds a man, who cultivated the muses, served his country and was loved by countless friends.’

Even today, 80 years after his death, people still make the journey up from Oxford – and from much further afield – to pay their respects to one of the most successful, and appealing, public figures of the early 20th century.

  • Ursula Buchan is a granddaughter of John Buchan.
  • Her book ‘Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan’ is out now in paperback from Bloomsbury, price £10.99.