It’s all we have

Tuesday July 13, 2004

I’ve often observed that you can’t take a step in this country without walking over history. You’re seldom far from the site of a battleground, or a plague pit, or a royal residence of some sort or another. Some of them are gossied up for the tourist trade; most are, far more sensibly, allowed to settle into a state of quiet decay, surviving just so long as there is a need for them.

I can’t really decide which approach I prefer. There’s something disturbing about a stream of tourists moving through a historic location and being presented with a glossy, picture-book version of dramatic events that took place there. My thoughts, when visiting such places, are of the long periods between the dramatic highlights, of ordinary lives being lived in ordinary, frequently unpleasant conditions.

The duke in his castle may have been a colourful character, leading a relatively comfortable life, fighting battles and jostling with his peers for preference in the Kingdom, and, yes, there is a good deal of interest in that. But who speaks for the scullion down in the kitchens, working at indescribably menial tasks in filthy conditions, clothed in rags, raped nightly by the castle guards, and dying, most likely, in childbirth or of the consequences of abuse? For every duke there is a multitude of scullions. Who writes their history?

So I don’t often go a’visiting grand places and, when I do, I try to go out of season when there’s a chance I may be able to linger and to feel the real history of the place, listen for the whispered voices of the ordinary people, feeling for the faint traces of the lives they led. I can read the lives of dukes and of princes in nice picture books by the comfort of my own fireside.

My preference is for the surviving evidence of the far more every-day. An ordinary parish church, for instance, modest, unexceptional, sitting quietly in an old but unremarkable village. Most of them that have survived through the years are at least a thousand years old, or sit on sites of previous churches that were already old at the time of Domesday. They moulder on through the years, now and then falling down or being damaged by fire, rebuilt or patched up as best as the local economy could manage, and settling back into another long period of slow and steady decay. A church building is never quite finished. There is always work to be done to make good the quietly destructive processes of time.

The history of the fabric of these churches is most often quite reasonably well documented at diocesan level, at least since 1066. Prior to that, who knows? There’s little more than archaeological evidence to write this earlier history, and that’s very seldom available.

Parish records of ordinary folk seldom go back further than Domesday, and even then have most often been lost to carelessness or to mice, destroyed by fire or by religious reformations of one sort or another.

So, the lives of the ordinary people who came to these places, their hopes, prayers and promises, are largely a matter of conjecture. At best, in the best of times, there is little mention of them apart from the dates of their births, marriages, and deaths.

The places where they lived, the vast mass of such people, have seldom survived. Mud huts and straw-thatched sheds have a habit of dissolving back into the soil from which they were raised, leaving no more than an unexplained twist in a country road as evidence they ever existed at all. If you linger by these seemingly random twists and turns late in the evening, you may find that they are populated with ghost-murmurs from the past. When you visit a reconstructed village these signs are absent. You are instead presented with a sterile, clean-brushed version of what they were really like. They were not sterile, that much we know, and I suspect they were seldom clean-brushed.

Some of these ordinary people lay quiet and undisturbed in the churchyards of our parish churches, mouldering silently away, their faith in the certainty of bodily ressurection yet to be realized.

They are undocumented. We know nothing of them but their graves.

So the old parish churches, with their graveyards, are a precious heritage. We keep them up as best we can, as best as can be managed by local funds. And they struggle on through the centuries, still not complete, still needing work, eternally needing repair, and all the while providing the only monument we have to ordinary lives. When you sit quietly in the churchyard of an old church, listening to the bird song, watching the endless sequence of clouds drifting overhead, you can, if you have any sensibility at all, detect the faintest of whispers from the past and, who knows, some of those whispers may come from the memories of ordinary folk.

It’s all we have of their history, the ordinary people, otherwise unrecorded, mostly uncelebrated, anonymous place-holders in the passage of time.

Stickford parish church, Jul,'04
Parish church, Stickford
A thousand years, and still not finished
pencam photo

* * * * *

The photo from yesterday was well received, thanks! In response to several requests, I’ve put up a higher definition (200kbytes) and larger format version, more or less as it came out of the pencam. Feel free to download a copy for personal use. This file will not be available indefinitely—I am far too parsimonious with webspace for that. When I have time I shall see about making an indexed rolling gallery of, say, twelve large size images of what I term ‘calendar’ photographs, selected in response to similar reader requests or level of interest.

* * * * *

My computer system seems happy, stable and content with itself once more. However, in the course of putting it to rights, downloading all those updates and de-worming programs, and reading through all the discussion groups of people who’ve struggled similarly, I’ve used up all but a tiny fraction of the online time my ISP allocates to me for this current period. This has never happened before. The next month starts on July 18 and, until then, I’m afraid I’ll have to take a break here and in all my other online enjoyments. Sorry ’bout that, but it’s only four days. The break won’t do me any harm at all, and I shall spend the time by going out and doing things like cycling, sightseeing, and camera snapping. See you with a nice new entry for the 18th. At least, I hope it’ll be nice. The odds are in favour of its being nice. Take good care, now…



One response to “It’s all we have

  1. every time i dig around in your archives i find numberless entries that remind me why i am addicted to your writings. this entry is one of the best i have ever read about the lives and fortunes of ordinary people.

    thanks for maintaining the archives, they are a precious asset.

    apparently my shift key is not working.

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