Only losers!

Driving from Bridgwater to Langport and passing through Weston Zoyland, a sign at the former parish church announces that it is the Battle of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre. The building that was once used to hold five hundred prisoners from the defeated rebel army is now a place for tourists.

Monmouth’s army were always going to be losers. Many of them were ill-equipped Somerset peasant farmers who had nothing by way of military training, they were men without a hope of military victory when they were faced with the army of King James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July 1685; hundreds of them were cut down by musket and artillery fire. The battle was only the beginning of a tragic period in Somerset history, it was followed by the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffreys, in which more than 300 of Monmouth’s ragged band were condemned to death.

There were no winners, though. James himself would be deposed in 1688 and his armies in Ireland defeated in 1690-91. Soldiers who had fought with him were expendable, as were all soldiers.

Langport had suffered the effects of battle some forty years previously, on 10th July 1645. Crown forces had been routed by Cromwell’s men; Cromwell regarding it as a mercy from God. The retreating Royalist soldiers had set fire to buildings in Langport to try to hamper the progress of the Parliamentarian troops and had been attacked by local “clubmen,” local men who had been armed by the Crown but who had turned on the king’s men in order to protect their town.

The battle of Langport was a victory for Cromwell, but most who participated were losers. The Royalist army suffered heavy casualties, those retreating were harried by the pursuing Parliamentary forces. Many lost their lives along Wagg Drove, many died in the retreat.

But the men of Cromwell’s army were to find that they were losers. Among the officers, the men who had joined in the Putney Debates, the idealists who believed they were creating a new society, there must have been a sense of their hopes having been betrayed. Cromwell was brutal in his treatment of those who opposed his authoritarian rule. Among the men who had fought in the New Model Army, there must have been a sense of disappointment at the grim protectorate that emerged, and a sense of it all having been a futile effort when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

The battlefields within a few miles of here are a reminder that, for nearly everyone who goes into battle, wars only create losers.

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Flickering flames

In childhood years, did everyone stare into the flames in the fireplace and see shapes and figures and imagine tales of long ago – or is it a personal eccentricity?

My Nan lived frugally, but once this week of the year came and the evenings darkened and the first autumnal chill began to be sensed in the night air, she would light the fire. The farmhouse was a place filled with memories and no evening would pass without the recalling of someone whose demise was long past. Perhaps it was the conversation that provided the aural stimulus for the imaginings shaped by the flickerings in the hearth.

The logs would have been cut mostly from fallen trees, their size and shape would vary, and so would the rate at which they burned. Some were seasoned and would quickly ignite, others still retained sap and would hiss and spark and necessitate the fireguard if they were not to damage the hearth rug.  Staring at the fire, there seemed moments of timelessness, as if one could stop the passing of the days and seize a moment; as if the onset of autumn could be halted and the magic of summer could be forever held.

A fire now still has the capacity to connect thoughts with the rambling ideas of those closing days. Perhaps it is the nature of the experience that has the evocative power. Did the people who lived in the caves in southern France find inspiration for their wall paintings from sitting watching the movement of light and shadows against the rock that surrounded them? Did the people who lived in the medieval farms that shaped the progress of this part of England stare into the fire and wonder what country future flames would see? Did the forebears who lived within the thick blue lias stone walls of the farmhouse ever wonder who might in the future sit at the fireside?

Look for fires now, and they are becoming scarce. Even those burning logs or coal prefer stoves and ranges to the inefficiency of the open fire, but, in the progress, an ancient element of human experience is being lost. No longer will future generations of young people sit at firesides and feel a sense of community with the people of past millennia, no longer will they see faces and figures and unfolding tales as the logs burn to ashes.

Of course, it might all be personal eccentricity, maybe everyone else looked at the flames and saw just – flames.

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My Dad knows how to use the web properly

My eighty-two year old Dad is an enthusiast for things online. His day begins with his iPad and a tour of the morning news stories before he switches to Facebook to catch up with friends and comments on the issues of the day. Afternoons are spent at his desk watching YouTube videos; he is an enthusiast for black and white war films and Westerns.

The Internet is something he uses; it is not something he regards as authoritative. Occasionally, watching some video on some aspect of military history, he will say, “that is not right,” and he will turn to one of his collection of military history books to see if his objection is a valid one.

My Dad always treated books with the utmost respect. A book was never something to be treated lightly, or misused, or carelessly discarded.

Books always had a feeling of security and trustworthiness, perhaps that feeling was initially derived from the attitude to reading of my parents, but the idea has a logical basis.  Books are tangible, solid; hard copies, in contemporary parlance.  For a book to be in your hands demanded a whole chain of human action and presence, ending in the location where you happened to  be.  There were the printers and distributors and sellers, and while the first two were anonymous and remote, the bookseller was very tangible flesh and blood. A bookshop might be wary of selling material that would bring the business into disrepute,

My Dad would happily acknowledge that electronic communication is wonderful.  The ability to click a mouse and immediately access news stories from every imaginable angle brings a whole world of knowledge unattainable by turning to the pages of a book. But the international is impersonal and intangible.

The process that leads to a book being in your hands gives those books a sense of authority, a sense that they can be trusted.  Web pages can be changed in a moment; stories believed and trusted can disappear. The permanent nature of books demands that they be reliable.

The easy access to the web and the ability to post just about anything means that material that has been posted online has not the same authority as books because it has not demanded the process of writing and printing and distribution that gives authority to books.

My Dad readily picks up the phone to the broadband provider to complain if the speed of the connection is slow, but he does not rely on that connection for his understanding of the world. Turning to his shelves, he knows what he reads is more trustworthy than what he encounters online.


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In country churchyards

My parents fell heir to a number of his books, a selection that included local history and archaeology writing on Gloucestershire, Bristol and Somerset, a number of books on church architecture, and at least half a dozen on churchyards.

Looking at the shelves, the number of books on churchyards seemed to be larger than the number on church buildings. He had been a Quaker, so perhaps the buildings had not seemed so important, but perhaps there was another reason for the interest in the ground that lay outside the solid wooden doors of the medieval churches. His wife was a bell-ringer, perhaps there had been occasions when she had gone to ring in other towers, as is the wont among ringers, and he had travelled with her to explore the headstones and memorial monuments that were to be found in the grounds.

Churchyards can be places apart, places of deep peacefulness.

Among evangelical Christians, it used to be said in the days of Communist rule in the old Soviet Union, that people who were unable to attend the sort of places of worship that they might have chosen would instead go and spend time in graveyards and cemeteries. Perhaps they did, but perhaps the reasons were far more complicated than people simply being unable to attend a church of their choice.

The churchyard in our village is crossed by a public footpath from the gateway at the south side of the churchyard to a small gate that lies to the north-west of the church. When I was young, children would have been afraid to have used the path in the dark – there was a fear of ghosts.

It would be hard to imagine a place less frightening than the village churchyard, the chief danger on a dark night would be to stray from the path and trip over one of the stones that is in a state of disrepair.

Lying at the north-west corner of the saltire shaped village green, the churchyard is ancient and its very antiquity probably means that it has many stories to tell someone who came searching.

There are people commemorated whose lives were long and full of years, there are others whose lives were tragically short.

The churchyard is fascinating because it is a closed book. For the past century, burials have been in the village cemetery, the occasional interment of ashes in a small plot against the south wall of the yard are the only burials that have taken place in recent times.

Perhaps one of the books would explain how to read a churchyard, how to discern stories that are written in the soft sandstone.


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Bring back the bobbies

It is said that the men responsible for smashing the windows of a neighbour’s vintage car did so in frustration that they could not remove the car from the shed in which it was stored. It is said that the same men were responsible for burning a nearby hay barn at the end of the summer of 2017, a barn that was filled with three hundred tons of hay bales that were for winter fodder. The men are not outsiders, they are not strangers, their names are recognisably ones from the local community; people know their families and their backgrounds.

Have we become a lawless place? Were we more honest in times past?

I doubt it. Why would there have been police station at Langport and Somerton and a police house in Long Sutton if there had been no work for the officers to do?

Police Constables Pearce and Sparkes were based in Langport station. They were household names. They were men who spent time out in the neighbourhoods, calling at farms, known for responding directly to situations. They seemed to possess almost divine qualities in their omniscience and omnipresence. Their networks must have been very effective, for there seemed little that they did not know. Perhaps the compact area they were expected to cover enabled them to be familiar figures.

In memory, PC Sparkes is like a policeman from the television series Heartbeat. He wore a black peaked crash helmet with goggles, a leather coat and big gauntlets and he rode a big motorbike which went down the road with a throaty roar.

It seems remarkable now, but the local police force felt able to be entirely open about their activities. The FM waveband was used for their radio communication; the radiogram in our house included FM in its wavebands and it was possible to sit and listen to stories as they unfolded, or, sometimes, to the idle chatter of officers working the hours of a quiet shift.

A police presence has all but disappeared from our community. No policeman has lived in Long Sutton for at least forty years. Langport station was closed and sold a generation ago and the site redeveloped. Somerton police station is used as an administration building. If there are police officers assigned to our area, their names are a mystery.

The answer to rural crime is not more security measures; it is not expecting people to phone reporting lines; it is not to blame trends in society; it is to look at what was good practice, what kept crime to minimal levels. The spirit of Pearce and Sparkes needs to be revived.


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