yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

while searching for the nightingale’s grave

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It snowed on Thursday night. It was unexpected. For the most part the Northumberland coast had missed the snow that for the last week or so had hit the rest of the country and eclipsed the recession, British jobs for British workers and the relentless destruction of Gaza in the six o’clock headlines. But on Thursday night at about midnight it snowed for about half an hour and turned the landscape white. I joined De Kooning behind the curtain to watch the torrent of snowflakes ticker-taping through the blurred chambers of orange streetlight.

It took me about three times as long as usual to get to work on Friday morning. I crawled with a slow caravan of hatchbacks, 4×4’s and white vans up the temperamental incline to the Laverock Hall roundabout. Going north up the Spine Road to North Seaton I joined another cautious procession and after that a few more jittery queues down the hill into Ashington.

By lunchtime it was sunny and the main roads had cleared. I’d spent all morning authorising stuff on the computer and answering emails and I needed to get out of the office for a break. I put my Canon compact in my coat pocket and decided to drive over to Horton churchyard to find Tom Clough’s grave – The Prince of Pipers, as he’s known among the Northumbrian piping fraternity, to me The Newsham Nightingale.

After crossing the River Blyth at Attlee Park and climbing out of the misfit valley, the old Horton road snakes south along thebroad ridge between – to the west – the valley of the river or its tributary the Horton Burn and – to the east – the long slope down to Cowpen and Newsham and the North Sea. Horton Church sits on the high point of the road just before it drops a little to the Three Horse Shoes pub and High Horton farm. The pub sits opposite the farm close to the crossroads of the ridge road on its way to Seaton Delaval and the Heathery Lonnen as it becomes the road down over Horton Bridge to Bog Houses. The crossroads is close to the line of the old Plessey wagonway which leads over the fields and straight down to the river at Blyth. The eastern end of the wagonway’s route is now Plessey Road. 

Bog Houses sits at the point where the up until then relatively steep sided valley of Horton Dean opens out into what was a large flat area of marshland, now for the most part drained and built upon. The slightly shabby little row of pebble-dashed terraced houses stands near the southernmost practical crossing point that the wagonway could follow. The remains of the old raised causeway across the burn are still visible in the field near Horton Bridge, between the old road and the new dual carriageway. Nowadays, we are most of the time disconnected from topography and the way it shaped the lives of people and communities in the days before motorised travel. Walking is a good way to discover why old routes went the way they did. It reconnects us with the shape of the land, the form of the earth beneath our feet. It shows us why places are where they are.

My guess is that both the Horton ridge road and the Plessey wagonway follow the lines of quite ancient routes and that the Shoes sits at what was probably a reasonably busy and significant crossroads at one time.

North of the river the Horton road becomes Bedlington Front Street and goes up to the next hilltop crossroads at the Red Lion pub in Bedlington. The road heads off west along North Ridge and eventually leads to Stannington and Morpeth. Perhaps it was a salters route joining up eventually with Salters Road itself to make its way across Northumberland to Rothbury and Alnham and on into the Cheviots to join with Clennell Street before crossing the border at Hexpathgate, just north east of Windy Gyle.

The road north from the Red Lion crossroads leads to Guide Post, Choppington and Scotland Gate. Perhaps this was a drove route followed by drovers who brought cattle and sheep down from the borders and beyond to take to market at Tyneside. Perhaps they were heading south towards common land at Shiremoor to rest and fatten up their stock after their long journey. Perhaps on their way south the herds or flocks stood a night or so earlier on Longhorsley Common, the night before that perhaps somewhere on the moors up around where Thrunton Woods are now. Maybe the area just north of the river at Bedlington was a stance for cattle too. It’s interesting that there are two old pubs at the south end of Bedlington Front Street: the Dun Cow and the Black Bull. I read somewhere that pubs called The Black Bull often occur on old drove routes.

When the Plessey wagonway was constructed a tavern at the crossroads above the Bog Houses causeway might have picked up custom from the men leading the coal wagons up and down from the river. It’s easy to imagine an old public drinking house here as it filled up at midday with drovers and miners and wagon men, farmers and agricultural workers and assorted itinerant travellers. Perhaps clerks and priests stopped in as they made their way between the church lands of Bedlingtonshire and Tynemouth. This may indeed have been the main purpose of this route, which after going through Seaton Delaval makes its way to Tynemouth through Holywell, Monkseaton and Preston Village, all place names with something to do with religion. So maybe the old inn got more than its fair share of ecclesiastical custom. Perhaps even the gravedigger from Horton churchyard too took a break from his labour and strolled down for a pint of strong ale.

This invisible history would help explain the siting of Horton church itself, which nowadays seems almost stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It sits in a elevated and very visible place, a place which might even have been a significant prehistoric site, perhaps for a stone circle or a burial cairn. There’s no evidence for that, so far as I know, of course, but it’s unlikely that on a site on arable land so close to a highly populated urban area much evidence would survive in any case. And yet this place was once wild. That too hard to see now. So who knows? We do know, however, that Christian churches were often built on the sites of important ancient pagan or pre-Christian monuments and constructions, as a sort of colonisation.

The standard references say the place name of Horton is first recorded more than 750 years ago and that the spelling has remained unchanged since that time. They state that its origin is from the Old English horh-tun, which means a settlement on muddy land. This suggests that the marshland in the valley of the Horton Burn gave its name to the settlement, the marshland the line of the road steadfastly avoids. I had wondered if the origin wasn’t hoh-tun, which would have made it the settlement on the spur of a hill and perhaps fit better with the location of the church. The historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise, however. It seems clear the original settlement was around High Horton farm and it was probably a crossroads town. But either way, high on the hill or down beside the marsh, perhaps hundreds of years ago another piper sat at the back door of his cottage playing old reels and airs in the evening sun in the summertime.

But I’m rambling. Let’s leave this imagined place for a while and get back to my search in the snow for the Nightingale’s grave.

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There aren’t any parking spaces on the road at Horton church. But there is a narrow footpath at the side of the road. I squeezed my car up on to it and against the wall far enough down the road to be visible to cars coming both ways.

When you go through the graveyard gate you see a jumble of old graves ahead of you. Battered and weatherworn stones. They don’t stand straight anymore. Many lean, some have fallen. The ground has settled and sunk and shifted over the long years since these first graves were dug. I was reminded of Hugo’s front garden. You could imagine that passers-by might have simply dumped these graves here at random over the decades and centuries. Here was mortality’s junkyard.

Of course the place has a structure, a superficial order – paths laid out around the graveyard, even though these are for the most part overgrown with grass and difficult to discern, especially in the snow. This is not a particularly well tended or much visited graveyard, it seems. Perhaps most of those that lie here are now more or less forgotten. And as it turns out this attempt at order is no more than a quixotic gesture against the wilful randomness of the universe.

I tottered in my smooth-soled work shoes through the crispy thin snow on the concrete path next to the church building, before heading off through the more sparsely scattered graves to the north and north east. These all seemed like old stones. In many cases wear and moss had left them almost unreadable. The Newsham Nightingale died in 1964, as I recalled. It didn’t look like his grave could be in this part of the cemetery. I wove my way over and between the graves over the snowy slope back up to the church. Have you ever noticed that when you walk across a grave you try to walk on tiptoes, as if to avoid disturbing the occupant, or perhaps because you fear you might sink in, as if a grave is filled with a sort of dreadful quicksand?

I crossed under the line of rugged bare trees into the southern part of the graveyard, where it seemed space was being used somewhat differently: it seemed more crowded. There also seemed to be some graves that had flowers on them and were still got visitors. At the edge of the area of graves, just before the area of still undug earth, I found the most recent group. I went methodically along the tightly crammed rows. In places this group of graves appeared to some extent (although not entirely or very exactly) to follow chronologically, according to year of death. I found the graves of fathers and mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers. There were children’s graves. Some were infants who had died very young. One was decorated with toys and storybook grave guardians – Winnie the Pooh, a grey resin Peter Rabbit and a black and yellow bumble bee on a spindly wire wand. I felt sure that Tom Clough’s grave would be somewhere among this group, but it wasn’t. There had to be another set of relatively new graves in another area of the graveyard.

I went around the church again and back to the far north eastern corner, where I could now spot the flowers and ribbons of a still visited grave. But this wasn’t the Nightingale’s grave either. Close by there was a grave on which someone had planted a tree. It had grown and its thick, sinuous, muscular roots now curled like the arms of a great octopus and seemed to be delving deep into the owner’s grave. Somewhere six foot under these roots were wrapped around the occupant’s skeleton as if in a gesture of desperate love or overwhelming grief, as if they could not let the buried body go.

I was beginning to notice things about graveyards. First, that there is no strict order in force about who is buried where. A graveyard isn’t like a library – there is no index and the bodies do not lie in a particular order; there’s no sort of Dewey Decimal system for the deceased. You’d think it would be possible to lay them down in strict chronological order. But as we all know death comes unpredictably. The reaper can call at the oddest hours. There’s not one of us who couldn’t turn the Tallulah tomorrow. And a chronological system – although it would help the visitor to find the dead person he or she wanted with relative ease – would potentially not let the dead from a family lie together. A wife who outlived her husband by thirty years might find herself lying fifty yards away from him with a motley crew of strange bedfellows between herself and her dearly departed. Loving couples would have to conspire to pass way together if they wanted to avoid eternal separation in the burial ground. That would never do, obviously. And of course there’s also only so much space can be kept for one family, so eventually some grandson or niece is bound to wind up exiled to yonder end of the yard on their own.

I had wondered if the alphabetical graveyard wasn’t a good idea. There’d be distinct areas set aside for families whose surname began in a particular letter, so the Forsyths would lie down with the Fergusons, the Turners with the Thirlwells, and so on. Again this plan is likely to be disrupted by the Reaper’s arbitrary and sometimes quite profligate ways. It would just take a couple of Smith families with fifteen kids between them to be struck down by some previously unknown strain of a strange new plague to throw this plan into disarray. What would you do then – allow the S‘s to lie down among the R’s and T‘s? Or designate a new area for the S‘s on the undug land at the top of the cemetery? But that would defeat the object of the plan.

I wondered if another plan might be to order them according to age at death, setting aside the most space for the ages at which most deaths occur and proportionately less for the others, in strict accordance with probability as determined by actuarial tables. But this plan too would be easily defeated by the Reaper who one morning could decide to take a busload of fifteen year olds on a school trip and have them all drowned by launching their bus off the Kitty Brewster bridge and plunging them into the muddy river. These things happen, and they must be a nightmare for graveyard managers.

So at the end of the day the graveyard turned out to be a bit of a jumble, an appropriately complex mixture of order and chaos. They aren’t very user friendly for the stranger searching for a strange grave, but their disorder tells us something and reassuringly tells us that, while death will come to us all, some of us might be around a lot longer than any human filing system can readily anticipate.

A last thought on this – and something about which in this day and age perhaps something can be done – is around the permanence of gravestones. Old stones all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the erosion and eventual erasure of the name by wind and weather. Trying to read these stones and discern who lies beneath them – although it might entail a pleasant and meaningful philosophical or poetic contemplation – is time consuming and frustrating for the time-poor twenty-first century grave finder. Surely there are modern composite materials which resemble granite or marble or another stone and which have a guaranteed erosion free life of at least 500 years. If there isn’t there should be, because I’m not only sure that the prospect of their name vanishing from their memorial stone appals and scares many people, I am also, by the same token, sure there would be a good market for such a material. If the market economy does the job the way they say it does, any day now these new long-life – yes, I know, I know, but what else would we call them, “eternity-proof”? – materials should now be becoming available to the bereaved and to those who like to plan their own funeral arrangements in advance. An epitaph should be forever, not just for as long as it takes an engraving in sandstone to lose it legibility.

I turned from contemplating the octopus rooted grave tree and saw just a little way up the slope a dark simple cross, probably made of metal but very much resembling a wooden cross. This might be the Nightingale’s grave, I thought. It would befit a man who has taken pleasure in the simple joy of music to have such a simple marker, and a one with arms upon which small birds might perch too. As I got closer I could see that this wasn’t Tom Clough’s gravestone. But it did seem to be Tom someone, and to my delight as I got closer it seemed to me that this was cross marked the burial place of one Tom Tremble.

‘Bloody hell,’ I said to myself. ‘This is Tom Tremble’s grave.’ 

Not that I knew who Tom Tremble was, of course: what I liked was the fairy tale sound and connotations of this name. Unfortunately I was to be disappointed. The name was difficult to discern easily from a distance because of the glare of the sun on the snow around it. When I got up close I found that this was in fact the grave of someone called “O.M. Tremble”.  I was struck by the formality and terseness of that marking, of a gravestone that doesn’t tell us the first names of the buried person. When was this person born, when did they die? Were they not the beloved offspring or spouse or parent of anyone? Clearly this person or those who buried him or her (initials don’t disclose gender) favoured a sort of formal if inevitably ambiguous minimalism. This grave gives us only a name and nothing else, not even an epitaph. This tombstone decision throws an interesting light on that of Keats. In this case we see that a name on its own is intriguing but unhelpful and ultimately anonymous. O. M. Tremble is now nothing but a name, as they say. A name on its own might as well be writ in water as in stone. What a name needs is a story. What a name needs is a life.

O. M. Tremble’s modest cross contrasts well with the Leviathan stones some of the long dead have in this graveyard, and it’s true that the size of the stone doesn’t necessarily tell is anything about the worth of the life the dead person lived or their value to society, even though we tend to think it does. O. M. Tremble begins to look like an embarrassed, disgraced or self-effacing nobody, a clerk or a storekeeper perhaps, a criminal even, lain in a field of lawyers, captains of industry and lords of the manor. A grave is like a house and land: we think it tells us something about the importance of whoever it is dwells there.

I made my way back up to the church and looked again back down over the slope. I noticed that all the graves appear to face east. I seemed to recall then that this is a Christian thing, symbolic of the dead awakening into the dawn of a new life, a new day in heaven, or something like that. It isn’t a bad view for them either, out over the fields and the Spine Road to the town and the mouth of river – the pale grey wind turbines on Cambois pier, the Indian red Alcan bauxite silos, the gaudy yellow gantries at Battleship Wharf – and to the deep blue North Sea beyond. They must indeed see some grand sunrises here. The town has the same sort of junkyard look as the graveyard itself does at first glace, and in some way echoes that same ramshackle development – a mixture of opportunity, accident and design – that same mixture of chaos and order. It has the sort of look people like to call organic, by which they often mean unplanned and accidental but somehow also functional and good.

I left Horton graveyard without ever finding the Nightingale’s grave. I drove back down between High Horton Farm and the Three Horse Shoes, where despite the snow there were still a fair number of cars of people who were there for lunch. I knew the Horton gravedigger wouldn’t be one of them, of course.

I turned on the Radio 4 one o’clock news as I accelerated down the slip road on to the Spine Road. It was clear now. I drove back to the office quickly. I was thinking about Tom Tremble. How did he live? Who did he know? What things mattered to him? I was wondering about the story of Tom Tremble’s secret life. I was wondering what he looked like. I was wondering how Tom Tremble died.

 

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