My penchant for writing down the names of the inns and pubs of In Pursuit of Spring (more than seventy by the end of the book) is only matched by Edward Thomas's obsession with noting the names and epitaphs in churchyards, and it is something that has really made me pay attention.
I wandered across to the village church (in Sydenham Damerel, the neighbouring parish to ours but nearer to home) a few days ago with a notebook in hand. We can see the church from here and on a high summer's day it looks quintessentially Devon ...
I'm envious because this parish has an original copy of its tithe map framed and on display in the church and thankfully it can't have been in there when the church suffered the devastating fire in 1957. The tower and the bells survived but only one chancel was rebuilt.
I walk over to St Mary's several times a week, and I frequently amble between the graves, reading the headstones and wondering, but I have never taken notes before. Well, after a very engrossing hour with my notebook I realised that if ever I have a novel in me (very unlikely) there was surely a story to be written here, though it might be a bit miserable..
I could include James and Elizabeth Giddy Jasper whose son Robert died on April 2 1858 aged three months followed by another son Richard aged 2 3/4 in 1859. I usually feel sad when I see these gravestones, but I spent some time imagining their lives before the sadness...much better.
In fact perhaps there was an epidemic of something in 1859 because Richard and Eliza Freeman lost Mary Ann that year too, born in April, died in July. " Cease to grieve for children taken early from a life of pain. Ripest fruit is quickly shaken, Death to them must needs be gain."
And what on earth happened in the Serpell household...
Eliza wife of Samuel died on January 25 1879 aged thirty years along with their son Samuel aged six days
" Not dead but sleepeth."
But maybe there was some happiness in the preceding months, just a bit in the midst of the hardships.
And I'm thinking all these people probably knew each other, were friends and neighbours with the church at its centre, because unlike ours it is a tiny parish, a very knowable community and one that, unlike ours, didn't benefit from the benevolence of the Duke of Bedford. The Duke slowly bought up vast tracts of land in Milton Abbot and provided copious employment; I always envisage the Sydenham Damerel-ites having to fight for their livelihood in comparison. In fact I imagine a bit of rivalry, maybe a touch of envy because if you worked for the Duke you at least had a modicum of security.
'The names of the local families - gentle and simple - what histories are in them, in the curt parish registers, in tombstones, in the names of fields and houses and woods.'
And with it comes the encouragement to make notes and explore...
'Better a thousand errors as long as they are human than a thousand truths lying like broken snail-shells round the anvil of a thrush.'
I'm not a historian, I'd be dangerous if I was, so I suspect I'm going the long way around the hedges to discover what I am about the local field names along with the people who lived here in the mid-nineteenth century. Hours spent online in the library where I have free access to Ancestry and cheap printing, so the Textithe project has my full attention now I have a stitching method that feels right.
I've finished the piece about the fields surrounding us here and it is now hanging on the kitchen wall, but one of the things I noticed on the 1842 tithe map were a number of farms around us that have long since vanished, swallowed up by their neighbours, no longer in existence, their names unknown by all but a few in 2018. It seemed a natural progression to quilt some of them back into life so I am currently busy resurrecting Newton Farm on the banks of the Tamar (owned by the Duke of Bedford), with its four long-gone dwellings and home to twenty three people on the 1841 census yet no trace of the farm by 1871.
I've been to visit our neighbours who now farm the land and we spent a fascinating hour poring over old maps and making then-and-now comparisons. They have also very kindly given me permission to hop over the gate and walk the fields whenever I want to. My Tex-tithe version of Newton is now tacked and ready for quilting and I am really looking forward to settling down with it and a good audio book (suggestions welcome).
Which book would I like to quilt into this...
What I'd give to find an old photo album, but who could afford that back in the day, so who can know what happened to farm labourer John Geake, his wife Elizabeth and their children John, Jane and William who lived at Newton in 1841...
Well in fact we do know because by 1851 our house has been built (about two miles across the fields) and they are living here with William and two more children, Alice and Ann.
Isn't that an amazing thought.
I hope the children played in the garden, and with thanks to Edward Thomas, still providing the inspiration a hundred years on.