The Lost Village of Nether Haddon

I’d have made a very bad historian.  That’s a surprising admission, perhaps, for a writer whose plots are grounded in English history, but I’m much more interested in the lives of ordinary people that are caught up in great events than I am in the events themselves.  Talk to me about how the generals manouevred to win a battle, and my eyes will glaze fairly rapidly.  Show me a private soldier’s letters home and I’m hooked.  It’s history on a human scale.

This week, I visited Haddon Hall in Derbyshire while researching my next book.  If you like old English manor houses, and haven’t been to Haddon Hall, then I can thoroughly recommend a visit.  Unlike so much of our architectural history, it has survived relatively unscathed through every threat from the English Civil War to the concrete catastrophes of the late 20th century, and is now being lovingly restored by the same family that has owned the place for about eight hundred years.

But if you go, allow some time to look Westwards, towards the cow pastures on the opposite slopes of this beautiful valley.  The turf carries the imprint of a road, rising towards the skyline.  Hummocks in the hillside show where dwellings once stood.  The discerning eye, I’m told, can see the outline of enclosures for cattle.  This is Nether Haddon, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and in 13th century documents, but at some time in the Middle Ages, the village disappeared.  English Heritage (who list Nether Haddon as an Ancient Monument) speculate that the decline might have begun with famines or the Black Death of the fourteenth century, or even the creation of a deer park by the lord of the manor in 1330.

But these forgotten people left their mark.  Even after seven hundred years, the strip patterns of medieval fields still flow across the hillsides above; regular, gentle undulations of the ground like the slow-breathing waves of the deep ocean.

They also left their mark in Haddon Hall, whose chapel was their parish church.  See if you can sit there alone, in between the guided tours.  It is small enough for the aisle to seem crowded when a party of fifteen washes into the space, flowing round the box stalls and monuments, their heads turning in unison at the intonation of their guide, but each flood soon recedes.  Wait a while.  The atmosphere seeps back into the chapel the way a mouse will creep back into a room it thinks is empty.  Sit still, be aware, smell the centuries.

They decorated their church, the people of Nether Haddon.  The walls are covered in their wall paintings, probably dating from the early 15th century.  Entire walls are decorated in leaf designs and stories from the lives of saints.  Enough people had survived for this still to be a living church, and their exquisite artistry lasted until the Reformation.

Did I say ‘survived relatively unscathed’?  God save us from zealots of all faiths, and the desecration that they do in His name.  After the English church broke with Rome, the wall paintings were plastered and lime-washed over.  Only now are they being restored, and only to pale suggestions of their former richness.

But still, there’s a link.  A road to nowhere between old earthworks, a strip piled into a ridge by an ox-drawn plough, and a simple faith that painted miracles into plaster.

There’s a story in there, somewhere.

Tinkling the Ivories

WW2 musicHas anyone ever noticed how evocative music can be?   The way it takes the mind back to a particular time and place?

I was at an elderly relative’s house recently.  Someone had been helping her clear out old cupboards.  Rescued from the debris was a stack of old piano music, some of it still inscribed with the names of people who were born when Queen Victoria ruled an empire.   Slices of social history from an era before television, when a family made its own entertainment around the piano, or the ‘ol joanna’ as one London great-aunt used to call it.  Some sheets evoked an image of elegant couples dancing foxtrots or waltzes to the sound of big bands with massed saxophones.  The words shone a spotlight on an era that is passing from memory.

‘Here we are, out of cigarettes, / holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets, / Two sleepy people, by dawn’s early light, / And too much in love to say “Goodnight.”’

An image of innocence formed in my mind; young lovers in a past so distant that unmarried cohabitation was unthinkable.

Then one thin, folded compilation caught my eye; on the cover a cartoon showed a British soldier sitting on an ammunition box, tin hat at a rakish angle, waving a torch as he apparently sang along with the music inside.  Copyright 1940.  At least, I think that’s what MDCCCCXL means. Certainly, the songs were of the era when courage and defiance seemed to be the watermark of the British soul.

There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover…’

No one will ever pay me to play a piano.  In fact, when music I’ve never tried is being passed around, people learn only to ask me once.  A tight, polite smile stretches over the listeners’ faces, cracked by the odd wince as I massacre another chord.  But hey, ho, this stuff was too good leave unplayed, so I propped it on the piano and started.

There will always be an England…’

Have you ever felt that an audience was with you?  I mean, totally with you, carrying you, urging you on?

‘And that England shall be free…’

Around me, querulous, reedy voices found a power they hadn’t felt since before the old King died. Their enthusiasm filled me with confidence.  I even started playing better.  Well, at least the noise drowned the mistakes.

‘If England means as much to you as England means to me…’

More!  More!  We were on a roll.  A ninety-two year old clapped her hands over her head before her voice faltered at the memory of the dashing young Major she’d married in 1943.

‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…’

I turned as the singing faded into sniffs behind me, and in the dewy eyes of the older generation, I saw the ones they’ll meet again, some sunny day.

You can have too much of a good thing.  Now where did I put that Flanders and Swann album?

[article first posted on Litopia.com]