Shadows of the chapel?

The evenings have noticeably drawn in: a quarter to nine and the sun is setting. The shadows stretch long along the road and memories come of childhood games of trying stepping on the shadows of others and imagining, Peter Pan-like, being able to lose our shadows.

Walking down the road, I tried to recall the names of each family who lived here when we moved here fifty years ago, those whose summer evening quietness would have been disturbed by the shouts of children. The end house belonged to Maggie Barnard. There was  the terrace of four newer council houses: Clark, Hawker, Brooks and Cullen. Then came the chapel and Small’s farmhouse. Finally, the six semi-detached older council houses, built in 1926: Peppard, Gardiner, Upham, Duddridge, Mitchell, and ourselves.

The chapel always seemed an odd presence. Only two houses would have existed on the road when it was built; had anyone ever gone to it?

The British History Online website gives a brief history of the building:

Bible Christians were using private houses in the parish from 1824 and Siloam chapel was built in Eastfield Road in 1841.  It was licensed in 1847 and registered in 1854.  In 1851 the Census Sunday congregation numbered 30 in the morning and 60 in the afternoon, though the afternoon average was 80. In 1907 it became part of the United Methodist church and in the Glastonbury circuit. In 1967 services were held every Sunday evening and on alternate Sunday mornings. The chapel was closed c. 1972.

By 1972, we had lived at the end of the row of houses for five years. I can remember details of Sunday life. In the morning, the paper man would deliver our copy of the News of the World, with all the football scores from the previous day. There would be roast dinner, with pudding afterwards. The Wall’s ice cream van would come down our road at about four o’clock. Sometimes, Mr Lloyd from Low Ham would call to deliver a free newspaper, Challenge: The Good News Paper: the paper never had anything interesting to read, but he was a polite man and we would never have refused to take a copy. Television viewing was meagre, Arthur Negus on Going for a Song and Jess Yates on Stars on Sunday.

Now, I wouldn’t presume to pit my memory against the website entry, but I have no memory of the chapel doors ever being open.  A couple of hundred yards from home and it was still open in 1972?  The chapel has left no shadows in my memory.


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The last generation to be forgotten?

Clifford was probably a cousin of some degree. In this village, he might have been doubly a cousin, related on both sides of the family. Yet, if he was, his name has been unknown.

Walking in the cemetery, where the grass has been freshly cut and where all the headstones were visible, it was noticeable that there had been a sequence of deaths in 1948, among them people who had died long before their time. Clifford had died at the age of 20, nearby a young mother had died at the age of 33.

The mother young mother’s son had died at the age of 60, in 2008: had his mother died in childbirth, or some ensuing complication? The headstone tells no story, why would it need to do so? Everyone around would have known the circumstances. Communities were places where everyone could tell the story of their neighbours.

The inscription on Clifford’s headstone reflects a community where no explanation would have been needed. “In loving memory of our dear son:” there is no need to explain who was remembering, no need to include parents’ names for everyone would have known who they were.

Yet in a village where the old ties of community have faded, who is there now to remember? My mother, who would have been eleven years old at the time of Clifford’s death and who possesses a wealth of oral history and genealogical detail, tried to recall his name, concluding that he was possibly the brother of the husband of one of her second cousins.

Strangely, whilst community ties have faded, it is more likely now that people will continue to be remembered long after their death. People leave increasingly large virtual footprints, online presences.

Facebook may choose not to delete the accounts of deceased users, but rather to memorialize them, to freeze them as they were in memory of the person. Other social media presumably have their own ways of dealing with the presence of those who are no longer present.

Websites will presumably continue as long as someone continues to fund their hosting and make such technological changes that are from time to time necessary.

Had Clifford died seventy years later, he might have left a vast virtual store of information about himself, a trail of posts and profiles telling his story to anyone in the world who might have asked. Perhaps those of Clifford’s generation are the last of those who can be forgotten unless care is taken to remember them.

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A legionary at the back door

When the house was owned by Langport Rural District Council, there was a scullery at the back. It was a lean-to containing a kitchen sink and the back door. Beyond the door a concrete path to the left led to the toilet (the 1926 builders of the row of houses had built them with bathrooms inside, but had decided that toilets were properly left outside). To the right, the concrete passed the kitchen window and went down the side of the house.

The house was small and anyone calling would generally just knock at the front door, the living room and kitchen were both just off the small hallway. The only people who came to the back door were the baker, who would open the door and leave the bread inside, and the hardware merchant who would call with paraffin for the stoves.

It was the rarity of callers to the back door that made the sightings a cause for comment. Various people including my sister and a neighbour caught sight of someone passing the kitchen window and said someone had come to the door, only for the door to be opened and there to be no-one there.

Being sceptical about figures that appeared and disappeared, and firmly disbelieving in ghosts, the claims concerning the figure passing the kitchen window became silly when it was suggested that what had been seen was a Roman soldier.

Not that there weren’t Roman soldiers here at one time. From the front window, the site of a major Roman villa can be seen. At the speed a legionary might march, it is no more than twenty minutes away on foot. Roman coins have been such plentiful finds that their presence is hardly a cause for comment.

If a legionary was to be posted among the cold and damp of Britannia, there were probably worse places to be. It would have been much milder in Somerset than in postings further north, and the local tribes appear to have been peaceable people. Arriving among these undulating lowlands, among hills that became island in the winter floods, what might men from southern Europe have thought of the countryside in which they would serve? If good health endured, they might have been here for years to come. If they completed twenty years here at the edge of the Empire, they might have been granted their citizenship and pension. How might it have seemed to live out one’s years so far from home?

When the soldier walked across  the land on which this road was built, what future could he have imagined?



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Facing down the taxman

Turning off the road, I stopped at the gate to my uncle’s yard. The gate was fastened to an adjoining gate by a piece of red twine, not an unusual occurrence, gates and twine frequently combine in these parts. However, last week there was a gatepost with a metal catch. As I opened the gate, I caught sight of the former post, which had been snapped off at its base. In one of the bays of the Dutch barn, there stood a long steel trailer stacked high with straw bales. The trailer must have accounted for the gatepost and be the explanation of the red twine.

Walking through my uncle’s door, I said, “expensive straw out there.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, it’s cost you a gatepost.”

“You don’t miss a thing,” he said.

“Grandad would have noticed it straightaway.”

“He would – and have had a few words to say about it.”

“He was a very straight man.”

“He was. Did you ever hear about the time the taxman called him in?”

“No, what happened?”

“Well the Inland Revenue told him he had to come to see them. Anyway, they looked at him and said, ‘Mr Crossman, we have looked at your tax return and have decided that you must have income that you are not declaring – no-one could live on such a small income.”

“Grandad wasn’t happy with what they were saying. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said, ‘you come and stay in my house, have bed and breakfast with us for a month, or better still, six weeks, and you will see how we live.’”

“Grandad explained that there was fresh milk from the cows and fresh eggs from the hens every morning. He told them about growing their own vegetables and potatoes. He told them about Nan cooking for he and the seven of us every day. ‘Do you know,’ he said to the taxman, ‘my wife phones Mr Shepherd, our butcher, every Saturday  evening and he tells her what joint of meat that he has left over that she can have cheaply – that’s our meat for Sunday dinner.’”

The story was one that even my mother had not heard before. Very gentle and softly-spoken, my grandfather had the capacity for a principled fairness and the name for absolute honesty. It must have hurt him to be thus accused by the Inland Revenue.

“What happened?” I asked my uncle.

“They never came for bed and breakfast.”

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Unwanted steam

Four vehicles ahead, a large green tractor was moving slowly, its orange hazard lights insistently emphasising its presence. It seemed odd that such a modern tractor was moving so slowly, on country roads they can sometimes reach speeds beyond which it would be unsafe to drive. Stranger than the slow progress of the tractor was the pall of smoke it seemed to be leaving behind it. It would have been a poor investment by someone to have bought such a machine and then to allow it to burn oil at such a rate.

As the line of traffic came into a right-hand bend, the reason for the slowness and the smoke became apparent. Ahead of the big green tractor was one of greater antiquity, a black steam tractor being by two men very active in its control. Around the corner, a gateway allowed space for the steam tractor to pull over and to allow the traffic to pass. The big, green tractor raced ahead up the road, as if to make it clear to other drivers that it was not responsible for the delay.

It is the season of gathering for traction engines, and steam rollers, and vintage tractors, and miscellaneous other vehicles from past decades. Participants in the steam rally in our village this past weekend will move onto other events next weekend.

The machines at vintage vehicle rallies up and down the country are testimony to the extraordinary levels of commitment of those who drive them. Some of been through years of painstaking restoration, all of them demand many, many hours of maintenance. To bring a vehicle to a rally is no mean feat; it frequently demands considerable time and expense. It is easy to wander along a line of engines or tractors and not to give a second thought to the commitment required for a vehicle to be present.

Yet, while admiring the beauty and the craftsmanship of the vintage machines, and being pleased that the delay on the road was not caused by anything so mundane as a big, green tractor going slowly, but was due to a vehicle worthy of note, there is an awareness that the very reason these vehicles survive only as relics of a former age is that they were not wanted for daily work. They were slow and cumbersome and difficult to use and limited in their mobility. As soon as Fordson and Ferguson and Field Marshal appeared, the days of steam and iron were numbered.

The speed at which the big, green tractor moved away was, perhaps, a metaphor of the fate of the steam engines.

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