Types and shadows
I HAVE the feeling that my fellow campers on this compact little site in Ryedale regard me with a mixture of curiosity and benevolence. I am the Lady in the Van — minus the hygiene issues, of course. Mine has both a loo and a shower. I would like to make that clear.
The other campers nod and smile and wave as they shoulder their rucksacks and depart for the day. As the coffee aromas waft from my open door and they see me settling down at the laptop, I can imagine them saying to each other in sympathy, “There she is again, poor soul. This lovely sunshine and she’s stuck at that computer all day.”
But, oh, the bliss of it. The glorious solitude of it. I’m finally putting the finishing touches to a full-length play about the Synod of Whitby that I’ve been trying to write for a decade. It’s taken me so long because I do it only up here on the North Yorkshire Moors — the region in which I grew up, and a place inhabited by the characters I’m writing about.
The presence of Hilda and the rest is almost tangible. Always, when I’m working here, I’m reminded of Robert William Buss’s painting Dickens’s Dream. The novelist is asleep in his study chair, the air around him thronged with the wraiths of his invention: Little Nell is on her deathbed; a black-veiled woman cowers away from a villain; figures are engaged in conversation on the writer’s desk; and there’s a graffiti of sketches on the walls.
THE campsite borders on the tiny church of St Chad’s, Hutton-le-Hole. Chad was brother to Cedd, who founded the monastery at nearby Lastingham, and was the translator at the Whitby Synod. Chad became Abbot of Lastingham and, finally, Bishop of Lichfield. It seems eminently fitting and quite wonderful that Bishop Bill Godfrey, a missionary bishop in South America for much of his life, is now the incumbent minister to the benefice of Lastingham with Appleton-le-Moors, Rosedale and Cropton.
I start each visit with a lift of the heavy latch and a tiptoe into St Chad’s. I light a candle for my husband, dropping the match into a bucket of sand. We holidayed here in the van together, and I thought that I would not be able to bear coming back. But six years of widowhood have taught me that you can build on something treasured without diminishing or dishonouring what has gone before. Now the van is my mobile study. I kneel here in St Chad’s, and I thank God for it.
Repeat ad nauseam
THERE is no escaping history for me, this month. As part of a Heritage Lottery- funded project, we have had archaeologists trying to establish the footprint of our 13th-century church at Bramcote. Most of it was demolished in the mid-19th century to build a new church down in the village, leaving just the square and beautiful old church tower on its prominent site. With only an indeterminate photograph and a single painting to go on, the precise outline has remained a puzzle.
I’m assigned to a group of visiting schoolchildren with bags of enthusiasm for the tasks they’ve been given: riddling soil, and scrubbing “finds” with a toothbrush. Their shoes are filling with earth from the mounds, and goodness knows what their mothers will say. I marvel at the quickness of their minds as they translate the Roman numerals on ancient tombs, and do the maths that will tell them who died when, and how big a tragedy it was.
A girl sprawls by the warm, flat stone of Elizabeth Farnsworth’s resting-place, tracing with her finger the sandy grooves of eroded lettering which reveal that Samuel and Elizabeth’s five children all died before she did. We speculate on what might have killed them in those mid-19th century years. “The Black Death,” she suggests, with relish, adding, “When was that?” I tell her: it started in 1347. She pauses, clearly reluctant to give up the drama of bursting boils and daubed crosses. “Well,” she says firmly, pencil poised above the clipboard. “I expect there was another Black Death later.”
Dulce et decorum est
DEATH is very much on all our minds in this anniversary year of the ending of the First World War. I have just taken delivery of four WW1 soldiers’ jackets from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s costume-hire department. They join the pile of gas capes, tin hats, trench caps, and boots that have turned my house into a quartermaster’s stores. Fifteen men from this community died and were to be remembered in a service of commemoration in the park on Sunday 1 July.
I’ve immortalised them in a drama that was to be part of the service, set against the peaceful backdrop of Bluebell Hill, our local beauty spot. Finding 15 men and boys of the appropriate age to play the soldiers has been a challenge, as has costuming a cast of almost 40 from our tiny budget.
I ask one of the younger cast members to model one of the heavy gas capes and caps, so that everyone can see the look that we are trying to achieve. He’s a tall Scout and quite bashful. He puts on the cape, and I give him the cap.
The whole room is suddenly silent. There’s a lump in my own throat, and I can see others swallowing hard. Because, before our eyes, a boy has become a man. We are convicted afresh by the implications, and know for sure why we are doing this.