yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

Archive for the ‘tom tremble’ Category

the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

leave a comment »

stott bobbin mill corner lakeside windermere

I was on holiday in the Lakes all last week.

On the Friday before I went off I was talking in the corridor to John Sultan, a senior manager from Morpeth. John’s close to another of the managers based in my office building, Edith Joicey – or Jackboots, as she’s sometimes known. Edith is the directorate’s prima donna. Meg Bomberg dislikes Edith intensely. She had a nightmare one night in which Edith had been promoted and was managing her. Next day she almost handed her notice in.

John is a curiously anonymous man. People call him soulless, and if I believed in the soul I’d have to agree. He dresses like a bank clerk, favouring the dependable dark blue of his Marks and Spencer single breasted suit most of the time. Oddly enough some women see him as almost handsome, although to others this perception is so inexplicable that John’s handsomeness has become the perennial subject of what is in essence a metaphysical debate among the female members of the workforce.

Morally, John is an even queerer proposition. Most of the time his ethical functioning appears to be approximately at the level of a ticket machine, or perhaps, to be more exact, of one of those machines you find in an amusement arcade where you insert fifty pence and get the chance to try to grab yourself a fluffy panda using joystick-controlled silver jaws. John is infamous for shameless petty machinations.

John had heard about our suspected MCTS case, Pearl Twichell, and wondered if there had been any developments.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although one of the mice has gone missing.’

‘Which one?’ John asked.

‘Maybellene tells us it’s Penelope. She says that one’s gone missing before, though, and she’s sure it’ll turn up.’

‘Is she telling us the truth?’ John asked, invoking the inclusive corporate entity of the first person plural.

‘We have no evidence that she isn’t, John,’ I replied. ‘But truth, as we all know so well, is more elusive than a mouse in a mountain of mattresses.’

‘Hmmm,’ John said, nodding intelligently. ‘You’re right. But to me a lost mouse is not necessarily a mouse that has become a child.’

My turn to nod intelligently. ‘Yes, exactly, John,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

‘Okay. Keep me up to date on this one,’ he said and ambulated away noiselessly, without another word of farewell, his neat black leather document case neatly tucked under his neat right arm.

When I got in from work that night Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing her jigsaw again. There was a big pan of sweet Spanish onions bubbling on the cooker.

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ I said.

‘Your cat’s nicked some more pieces and buried them in the garden somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point in going on with it.’

I looked down at De Kooning, who was sitting near the door cleaning his face.

‘Cats don’t understand jigsaws,’ I said. ‘Or if they do they obviously find them more intriguing if there are pieces missing. And they’re right, of course.  I think we all do. He’s probably just trying to be helpful.’

Margaret ignored me. I got myself a pizza out of the fridge and put it in the oven.  I picked up De Kooning and carried him out into the garden.

‘So what’s the idea of pinching the pieces from the jigsaw?’ I said. ‘Where are you stashing them?’

De Kooning was looking over the fence into Hugo’s burgeoning junkyard.  The water was trickling down the waterfall feature into the dark pond. The heron still peered unblinkingly into its depths.  I noticed a new blue owl had taken up residence a few feet away from the heron and that an oranges and lemons coloured two seater garden swing had been installed close to the decking and the platform clock, which still hasn’t been brought forward into British Summer Time.

‘So just where are you stashing the jigsaw loot, my little bandit friend?’ I said, walking him around the lawn and gazing down into the lilies, the pinks and the marigolds. De Kooning stared down too, joining with me in my curiously forensic scrutiny of the borders. We found no evidence of the jigsaw burials Margaret had suggested and I began to wonder if the missing pieces hadn’t in fact simply been deposited in a little pile somewhere, perhaps under the tangled honeysuckle or down behind the dense dark laurel bush.

Because I was going away the next day, after I’d eaten my pizza I rode along to Seaton Sluice see my dad. We talked about South Newsham mostly. Some time ago my dad told me that when he was a kid the people who lived in South Newsham – which the people in Newsham called “New Newsham” – used to call the place “Spike Island”.  He has no idea why this is as it is not an island and although there are many small burns running off the fields into the sea, there is no evidence that it ever was, although it may have sat among marshy ground. My dad, who has a tendency to pursue such questions slightly obsessively until he gets to the bottom of them, had tried to find out something in Blyth library and spoken to a couple of local historians. Both of them knew of the place being called Spike Island, but neither really knew how it got its name. One suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a pit pond close to the Hannah Foster Pit in South Newsham and suggested that perhaps there were ‘spikes’ – railings of some kind – around the pond to stop people getting too near and falling in. There is no evidence for this hypothesis, of course.

I had Googled “Spike Island” and discovered that one of the places with that name is an island in Ireland near Cork. It has been inhabited for many centuries and the place name is said to mean “island of the Picts”. Saint Mochuba started a church there when Christianity first came to Ireland. In the eighteenth century the island was bought by the British and Fort Westmoreland was built there. In the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia, this fort became a prison where so-called “convicts” were housed awaiting deportation. Other websites tell us that it was in 1847 that “Spike”, as it is called locally, first became a convict depot and that only male convicts were kept there. By 1850 it is said over 2,000 people were being detained there. In 1848, in the middle of the potato blight, John Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on Spike on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel had powerfully expressed the widely held view that the famine in Ireland was due to “the greedy and cruel policy of England”.  Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.

When the Industrial Revolution gathered steam it was largely fuelled by coal from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham, and because there was very limited local industrial labour much of it was drafted in from remote rural agrarian populations, including significant numbers from Ireland, most emigrating to escape the Great Hunger and the mess that British land ownership had wrought to their economy. My dad told me that at one time there was an Irish Club in Blyth, which perhaps gives an indication of just how many families of Irish origin there are in the area. I suggested to my dad that maybe there had been a particularly high number of Irish families in South Newsham and that they called the place Spike Island as a kind of black joke or homage, in much the same way as people talk about certain parts of some towns as Little Italy or Chinatown or Downtown Delhi. Maybe the name of Spike Island was simply meant to say something about life there, that it was not much different to being in a penal colony.

‘What we’d need to know to see if it might be the reason are the names of the families in South Newsham who were brought in to work in the pit,’ I said.

‘Well, I can remember there were Duckworths, Murrays, Latimers, and Sullivans there.  Your granddad was very friendly with one of the Sullivans. That’s an Irish name.’

‘I think Murray is too,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, it is. I think I’ll go down the library and look at some of the old newspapers. They’ve got the Blyth News back to about 1850, I think. That should give us some idea.’

‘Maybe there was a sort of tribal patriarch there, a man called Spike Sullivan,’ I said. ‘A local hero, a sort of giant Irish republican pit-yacker who ruled the roost over there. If there wasn’t there should have been. Maybe it was his island, a bit like Craggy Island is Father Ted’s island.  Maybe this was a metaphorical island in the poetic imagination of the immigrant labouring families of South Newsham – a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, maybe, a metaphor for lost Ireland itself, as so many fictional islands have been. Maybe there was a time when the Mighty Spike Sullivan – a sort of pitman Cuchulainn, wage-slaving to survive in a strange land – stood on the shallow highlands of South Newsham and dreamed of the home he was exiled from and of becoming the master of his own land. This would have been wishful thinking, of course, because he was never going to own this land any more than he ever owned his own land in Ireland.  But people do dream. Maybe he stood in the shadow of the pit that had taken possession of his life, on a low mound between hope and despair, and imagined the sea rising all around him and this place becoming his very own island – Spike’s Island. Maybe he imagined growing his own corn there one day, grazing a few cows along the shore. Maybe Spike himself named this place, in the same way that the Swiss Family Robinson named their island “New Switzerland”, as an act of ownership and possession, as a way of saying “This is my new Ireland”. Maybe this is the story of the place that the people have now forgotten.’

My dad looked at me as if to say I might be taking things just a teensy weensy bit too far here.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

As I rode back home along the track through the sand dunes I was thinking that the story of Spike Sullivan, like the story of Tom Tremble, was one that cried out to be told.

One afternoon last week I was sitting under a parasol at a table outside the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge. I was looking over the River Leven at the point where it drains out of Windermere to wriggle and snake its way into the Irish Sea at Morecambe Bay. It was sweltering. The air was claggy, the light hazy and intense. A Chinese woman came and sat opposite me. She was slim, in her thirties. Her  fashionable red-rinsed dark brown hair was mid-length, straight and spiky, as if it had been cut with a sickle. To me it had the look of a hay stook about it. She was wearing big black sunglasses – they reminded me of a bluebottle’s eyes – black walking shorts, lightweight walking boots and a short lime green t-shirt. I was drinking a long cold ginger beer. She was drinking sweet cider and ice. The ducks sailed casually to and fro on the idly flowing water. Swifts and swallows swooped and flickered across the stream.  The trees and green rushes stood still all along the banks.

‘Are you staying at the hotel too?’ the woman said to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m in a house up by the lake.’

‘Ah, ‘ she said. ‘Do you know a place called Finsthwaite?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, and pointed over to the signpost near the bridge. ‘It’s up that way too. Are you going there?’

‘Yes. I want to see the grave of Clementina Douglas. Have you heard of her?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Should I have?’

The Chinese woman told me the tale of Clementina Douglas, who is also known as the Finsthwaite Princess. She was buried in Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, her full name being recorded as Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglas of Waterside, a spinster. It turns out that the story is probably apocryphal, but one which has some historical truth as its basis and which has fascinated many locals for more than a century. 

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had a long term relationship with Clementina Walkinshaw, his mistress.  Rumours grew that she had a daughter to him, and that this daughter was subsequently shipped off to some remote and secluded place. Local people say that Clementina Douglas was this daughter.  The evidence is slim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had any daughter other than his acknowledged daughter Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, born in 1753, and even slimmer that if he did then Clementina Douglas was that daughter, living in concealment. Some have suggested that she may have been the daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw but that the father may be a different man. What we do seem to know for certain is that Clementina Douglas did live in Waterside, with a man called Captain James Douglas, who it is believed may have been her father. The rooms in Waterside had been rented by Captain Douglas since at least 1752. The historical evidence that she may have been the child of Clementina Walkinshaw rests on an ambiguous passage in a letter to James III’s secretary. That evidence would put her date of birth somewhere between 1745 and 1747.  The age of Clementina Douglas at her death in 1771 is not known, although clearly if she was the supposed daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw she would have been only aged about 25 when she died.

‘So she died young,’ I said. ‘Do we know what she died of?’

‘I don’t think so,’ The Chinese woman with the sickle cut hair replied. ‘But her dying young seems at odds with parts of the story which has been passed down. In the story she is described “a grand lady”.’

‘Maybe that just means she was posh,’ I said. ‘You know, not just an ordinary person like you or I. Maybe someone more like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson or Joanna Lumley.’

‘Yes, maybe. It is said she was very involved with a family called the Backhouses, who lived at Jolliver Farm, who do seem to have been members of the gentry.  A fellow called Ned Fell said he reburied Clementina’s remains in the grave of a certain Miss Backhouse when the old church was demolished. Others say however that it was a man called Joseph Charles Hunter who dug up and reburied the remains of the princess. They say that among the remains there was some of her fair golden hair and some blue ribbons with which it would have been tied.’

At that point a local man who had been standing behind us came forward and joined in the conversation. He was a tall, broad and grey haired. He had a pot belly. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a lattice of dark blue lines across the fabric and a little porkpie sunhat.  His trousers were held up by a broad brown leather belt. It turns out he had been a farmer in the area all his life and was now retired and living with his wife in a house up at nearby Canny Hill.

‘You’re talkin’ about the Princess, I see,’ the pot-bellied farmer said. ‘I don’t believe myself that she was the daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but I know there’s a lot that do. Of course, I know the tale about the mysterious stranger coming and planting a Scottish thistle on her grave and how as the years passed the churchyard became thick with these foreign invaders. But you go up there now and I’ll lay you a pound to a penny you can’t find one Scottish thistle.’

The Chinese woman in her big sunglasses and I both nodded.

‘But they do say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Kendal in 1745, so he obviously knew the area,’ she said to the farmer.

‘Oh, yes, but you two are sitting here today. Does it mean in a hundred years time that’ll be reason enough to say you had a daughter and hid her away somewhere up in the woods yonder? I think not. Folks around here like a good yarn and they’re not ones for letting the truth get in the way of their enjoyment.’ The farmer pushed his pork pie hat back on his ruddy forehead, put his pint to his lips and looked out over the river. The conversation then took an unexpected twist.

‘Of course,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll know the tale about the escaped murderer who holed up in these parts and believed she really was the Finsthwaite Princess?’

We both shook our heads.

‘You don’t? Oh this happened when I was just a young un’. It was a lass called Florence Nelson. She had been imprisoned after murdering her lover’s girlfriend by running her over with a steam roller. You’ve never heard about her?’

The Chinese woman shook her head. But I was delighted at the prospect of hearing more about Florence Nelson and said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard bits of that story. The Bowness Steamroller Murderess. She murdered Sharon Sweet, a red-headed woman. Her lover was Ned Perfect.’

‘That’s the one,’ the farmer said. ‘Spot on. Well. You might know then that Florence escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a table spoon. Took her years by all accounts. And it seems that while she was imprisoned and working on her escape she came to see herself as an imprisoned princess of some kind.  Florence believed in rebirth and reincarnation and all that codswallop, and she eventually came to believe she had been Mary Queen of Scots in a previous lifetime. The prison authorities were aware of this, of course, but they had already marked her card as a woman who was bonkers and who would never return to society and so they were happy to humour her. The wardens began to call her Your Highness and M’Lady and to bring in pictures of Scottish castles and West Highland terriers for her, which she stuck up on the walls of her cell with Sellotape. Some even used to bring her back presents from their holidays, such as Edinburgh rock or a haggis from Dundee or some shortbread biscuits from Inverness or a woolly Tam o’ Shanter from Hawick. It seems that nothing in the whole world delighted Florence so much as getting gifts from Scotland. It’s said that during the years she took to dig herself out she read all of Walter Scott’s novels several times over. She had to all intents and purposes vanished into a make-believe world of being reborn Jacobite royalty.’

‘My God,’ the Chinese woman exclaimed. ‘So did you ever meet her yourself?’

‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I didn’t, no. But I remember when they eventually found her and hearing all about it from my mother and other folks who lived around here.  Florence Nelson really did exist, we know that for a fact, believe me.’

‘I thought you said she believed she was the Finsthwaite Princess,’ I said. ‘But surely the Finsthwaite Princess wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ the farmer replied, putting his pint down on the table. ‘No. When she was eventually apprehended again, just after the terrible events up by the ferry, she was wearing a wig of long golden hair tied up with blue ribbons. When the policeman asked her for her name she said, in a Scots accent, that it was Clementina Douglas, and from that day onwards, even when she was returned to prison to serve out the rest of her life sentence, she refused to be known by any other name.  Some time between escaping from prison believing she was a reincarnation of Mary Stuart and being arrested again she had convinced herself that it was a different Scots royal she had been in her previous life, the so-called Finsthwaite Princess. My mother told me that as Clementina sat in handcuffs in the back of the Black Maria that took her back to prison she sang The Skye Boat Song for the whole journey.’

At that point the pot-bellied farmer’s mobile phone rang in his shirt pocket. He had The Archers theme tune set as his ring tone.

‘Oh, hello Billy,’ he said. ‘How you getting on? Is it buggered? Do you need me to come over and give you a hand?’

It seems it was buggered and Billy did, and so the pot-bellied farmer drank down the last of his beer, bid us farewell and made his way round to the car park, from where he emerged a couple of minutes later in a shiny black Landrover Discovery.

‘So do you think that’s all true?’ the Chinese woman said to me. ‘All that stuff about the woman who thought she was Mary Queen of Scots and dug her way out of prison with a spoon?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It might be. I’ve heard about her before and how she murdered people with a stolen steamroller. I’d never heard about her believing she was anybody’s reincarnation, though. Still, if the stories about the Finsthwaite Princess are true than why shouldn’t those about Florence Nelson be?’

The Chinese woman nodded and smiled, the spikes of her hair twitching like the red-brown elements of fibre optic lamp. On the quiet Leven mallards cruised from bank to bank in the relentless heat. White butterflies twirled by.

‘I think I might have another drink,’ she said. ‘Would you like another ginger beer?’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’

On the day after I went to Finsthwaite churchyard it was again hot and humid. I drove over to Coniston and for a few hours walked the high fells. It was glorious. There is perhaps no experience in the world during which anyone will feel more alive and human than walking the mountains in summer.

Early in the afternoon I walked back down through the village and followed the Cumbrian Way down to Coniston Hall and on through the campsite to the lake shore. I sat on a big stone beneath the trees looking out over the lake to Brantwood, thinking about Ruskin. A group of four giggly teenage girls in bikinis pitched themselves on the shore not too far from me. They immediately noticed a group of boys in Canadian canoes a hundred yards or so further up the lake. In inflatable watercraft – gaudy airbeds and a shiny blue dolphin – they set out on the water, constantly giggly loudly to lure the canoe boys closer.  The strategy took about twenty minutes to work, but eventually the boys arrived.  Two of the girls had just climbed into one of the canoes as I set off to walk back to the village. I imagined Ruskin’s ghost with binoculars at a window across the lake wondering how it was that such sirens as these could complicate paradise. There is evidence that when he was alive Ruskin had a bit of the Humbert Humbert about him and it seems reasonable to assume that the ghost of a man will have the same character as the man himself did, although as I passed by Ruskin’s grave later I admit I began to wonder if I shouldn’t apologise for even thinking that someone like him would ever contemplate perving at those Coniston Lolitas.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen peeling some carrots. Her jigsaw was on the table and at first glance appeared to be finished.

‘Is it all done?’ I said.

‘It’s as done as it can be,’ Margaret replied. ‘But there’s a big hole in it. There’s something very strange about your cat.’

I walked over and looked at the jigsaw. It was indeed completely done except for the area from which De Kooning had taken the pieces. It so happened that the pieces he had taken turned out to be those from the cab window of the steam roller. De Kooning had removed all traces of the driver and his face.

‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing!’

‘That’s spooky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a message of some kind, I’m sure of it. I’m going to get Brenda to come and look at it.’

‘It’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘Pure chance.’

‘Are you trying to say that by pure chance a cat has taken nine pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw that just happen to fit together and that are the only nine pieces that include any part of the driver?’

‘Hmmm, that does seem remarkable,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Spooky is what it is, spooky. Do you know what I think he’s done? He’s taken one piece for each of his nine lives. Piece by piece he’s stolen the soul of the steamroller driver for himself. I’m going to ring Brenda and see what she thinks. I’m sure I’m right.’

I put the kettle on and poured a sachet of instant cappuccino into a mug. De Kooning wandered in from the garden and jumped up on my rucksack, as he often does when I return from holiday.  I picked him up and gave him a stroke.

‘No, I’ll tell you what he was doing,’ I said. ‘He was attracted to the pieces with pink in them. That’s what he did, he selected the pink pieces. He didn’t know that the only pink was the pink of the human face and hands. He just likes pink. That’s all this hole in your jigsaw means, nothing more mysterious than that. De Kooning simply likes the pink pieces.’

Margaret shook her head sceptically. She wasn’t buying it. She was going to ring Brenda whether I liked it or not.

.

Advertisements

while searching for the nightingale’s grave

leave a comment »

horton-church-and-graveyard-window-72dpi

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.

horton-graveyard-graves-72dpi

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.

 

 .