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Word from Wormingford

18 November 2016

Ronald Blythe thinks of the lives of those named on a war memorial

WHILE John, our Vicar, conducts the Remembrance service at the war memorial, my mind wanders. Who could the three Ernests named on it be? Where did they live? How did they die? They were born when The Importance of Being Earnest was being written. Their brief lives were important to them — they were all that they possessed, at a time when such lives were undervalued by society at large. Labourers were what they were called.

Once, in a Suffolk parish, and unusually, I found a red notebook by the side of the war memorial, which gave little biographies of the young men named on it: what they worked at, when they volunteered, where they went to school, and who their parents were. And at once they became more than names: a shepherd, a postman, a carpenter, a farm worker.

Too late now for our war-memorial names, although a dedicated parish historian might find out if they were redheads, or had a bike. At Wormingford, Barry, a bell-ringer, can claim cousins and great-grandparents; for his family has been here almost since the Reformation.

They are laying down water pipes in the lane to what was the ringing chamber in the church, and white bones gleam among the rubble. John Constable’s family graves are only a yard or two away. The great artist once stood outside in the lane to draw these tombs. Its wild hedge separates them from the lane. Hardly suppressed by tarmac, the little stream which is part of the water table of the River Stour breaks the surface perpetually. Nothing can stay a river and its source from flowing. The streams and brooks which fed the Thames run below Fleet Street.

This year’s autumn is extra colourful, and the leaves are late in coming down. Now and then I consult past diaries to find out what happened in December 1795. I’m reading the Revd James Woodforde’s diary — that very hungry parson. And it says that, on 9 December, “we had for dinner fish, pea soup, boiled neck of mutton, and capers, and a goose roasted, and a hot apple pie.”

I had for dinner something easy from Waitrose, on this summery November day. Such days were not unique: for instance, on 22 December 1790, “it was remarkably warm this morning”. This Norfolk priest had caught such a bad cold the previous winter that he was afraid to go to church, and so he sent his curate instead.

I love a wintry church — the candles wavering, the trapped scent of altar flowers, and trapped time itself. And then I am with the organist and the old friends. The organist is playing the introit, “Toll for the brave! The brave, that are no more! All sunk beneath the wave Fast by their native shore.” The Royal George had tipped over at its launch, drowning “twice 500 men”. But the years have washed away all the suffering, leaving just the date. The war memorial mentions a sailor or two among all the soldiers.

As for the local British Legion, I was told when I got there that it had vanished last year. “Time, like an ever rolling stream, Bears all its sons away,” leaving just a name or two for us to dream about.

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