Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: July 2022

The Fair Maids, the Knight Templar, the Diarist and his Wife

The church at Norton Saint Philip boasts a clock by Vulliamy and Frodsham dating from 1848. It is not the oldest church clock in Somerset, but it is one of the few still wound by hand. Twice a week clock winders  winch up three weights in a pulley system and as they descend the clock strikes the hour, the half, and the quarters. Every sixth week we take our turn on the clock winding rota, climbing the narrow spiral staircase up the tower to a point where we look down on the bell ringers but up to those charged with care of the flagpole.

The clock winders eyrie
The winding mechanism
A clock winder
The weights
The minutes are the easiest wind

The base of the tower at the west end of the church is not its most attractive feature: here behind closed doors spare chairs are stacked, vases and watering cans jumble together, notice boards superfluous to current requirements lean drunkenly against the walls, plastic boxes spill electrical odds and ends, and what looks suspiciously like a hostess-trolley lurks in one corner. It has in truth a desolate air, the  few memorials lining the walls  have known better times and  they look down disconsolately on the dusty impedimenta. But these memorials  are the survivors: they were moved from the floors of the nave, chancel, and aisles to the tower walls during Gilbert Scott’s reconstruction of the church in the 1840s,  when others disappeared entirely. And high on the north wall are the  sisters whom I always greet: two small female heads, crudely sculpted with  flicked up hairdos reminiscent of Millicent Martin on TW3 in the mid-sixties, they are roughly attached to the wall.

They have no words of their own but beneath, in a shabby frame, a faded notice recalls a quotation from the diary of Samuel Pepys:

At Philip’s Norton I walked to the

Church, and there saw the Tombstone

whereon there were two heads cut,

which the story goes and creditably,

 were two sisters, called the Fair Maids

of Foscott, that had two bodies upward

and one stomach and there lie buried.

Pepys and his wife visited Philip’s Norton in June 1668. Foscott, now Foxcote, is a hamlet a few miles from Norton and when Pepys saw the tomb the effigy of the conjoined twins was cut in stone in the floor of the nave. Later the Somerset Historian John Collinson recorded in the third volume of his History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset  published in 1791 that “In the floor of the nave…are the mutilated portraitures, in stone, of two females, close to each other, and called, by the inhabitants, the Fair Maids of Foscott, or Fosstoke, a neighbouring hamlet, now depopulated. There is a tradition that the persons they represented were twins, whose bodies were at their birth conjoined together” and, he adds gruesomely, “that they arrived at a state of maturity; and that one of them dying the survivor was compelled to drag about her lifeless companion, till death released her of the horrid burden.” Today nothing  remains of the tombstone  save for the heads, the rest probably destroyed during Gilbert Scott’s restoration.

Pepys also noted that while in the church  he “there saw a very ancient tomb of some Knight Templar, I think.” The latter still lies in the south aisle but is now identified as a lawyer of the fifteenth century wearing a barrister’s gown. More loved than the Maids he is often in receipt of tribute, near disappearing beneath greenery at Christmas and well supplied with apples at harvest.

The Lawyer
His feet resting on his dog

Just a year after this visit Pepys himself had cause to erect a memorial: his wife, Elisabeth, died and he had a marble bust of her installed at Saint Olave’s in the City of London where he was a regular worshipper calling it “our own church,” and which was later described by Betjeman as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane.” Elisabeth’s bust was positioned on the north wall of the sanctuary so that Pepys could see her from his pew in the gallery, and in 1703 he was buried next to her in the nave. His own memorial  on the wall of the south aisle faces hers, and from their elevated positions they receive their many admirers.

Elisabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Not so the Fair Maids, a little lonely these days in their tower with only the clock winders, flower arrangers, bell ringers, and flag hoisters passing busily beneath them as they go about their business. So, if you are in Somerset, follow Pepys’ example: come to this country church in Norton Saint Philip and visit my friends the Maids, say hello to the lawyer too, and listen to the hand wound clock striking the quarters.

Daniel Defoe

A year on from the first Covid lockdown I turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to compare notes. His plague year was very much like ours: the first signs in Holland and  rumours  regarding the possible origins in Italy or the Levant, mirrored our own experiences watching Italy and Wuhan. The gradual spread from St. Giles and the West End  to Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, and the City reflected our monitoring of Covid hotspots. The flight of the court and the well-heeled to their second homes was  familiar; likewise, the first deaths and the sudden desolation in the streets with shops closed, Inns of Court shut up, theatres, alehouses, and diners all dark. Attempts to control wandering beggars resembled our own government’s sudden concern to house the homeless. The sick were either sequestered and died apart from their families or whole households were shut up in their homes, as happened in our hospitals and care homes. When Defoe bemoaned the lack of enough “pest houses” he might have been speaking of our own shortage of Covid wards leading to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. Quack medicines appeared,  just as hydroxychloroquine and the possibility of injecting bleach into our veins to wash out our lungs found favour in certain quarters in the twenty first century. Defoe recorded people moving to live on boats in the Thames or to camp in Epping Forest, and similarly at the height of Covid caravans and camper vans occupied green sites, sometimes received sympathetically by locals, at other times not. During the plague year the government forbade movement to second homes once people were sick, but some went against the rules; no need to labour the parallels. Daily and weekly recording of illness and death rates confirmed that then as now, the poor, living in overcrowded conditions  with inadequate ventilation and unable to  avoid the breath of others, sickened more than the wealthy. It became apparent that asymptomatic people could carry the plague. There were disruptions to trade and the closure of ports. As the plague intensified people rushed to stockpile provisions and there were shortages; they soaked their money in vinegar there being no contactless cards to replace cash. The poorest in the community found themselves out of work, unable to purchase food or pay for their lodgings. Charity, like our foodbanks, stepped in to supplement the parish relief which like our universal credit proved inadequate. Servants were redeployed as nurses, sextons, gravediggers. In Defoe’s London burials took place before sunrise and after sunset and neighbours and friends could not attend church funerals; when people died in the streets  their bodies were removed in deadcarts to mass graves. Similarly in our own times government regulations limited numbers of mourners requiring them to be socially distanced, and as morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed in 2020 contract workers wearing hazmat suits dug mass graves on Hart Island off the Bronx in New York. When, at last, the death rate began to decline JPs issued certificates of health to permit travel anticipating our own vaccine passports. Then as people became careless the rate rose again. Plus ça change…

There were differences, not least the greater presence of religion in Defoe’s Britain: sects, fortune tellers, and astrologers flourished; Solomon Eagle stalked the streets, naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head, calling on the populace to repent; though some clergy fled, others kept their churches open; and when the plague ended Defoe gave credit for the recovery to god. Conversely there was less respect for the medical profession and far from clapping for carers Defoe wrote of nurses finishing their patients off and stealing their goods. And while, notwithstanding some fear of interspecies transmission, pet ownership increased during lockdown, Defoe’s London witnessed the wholesale killing of cats and dogs.

Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the vivid “eyewitness account” which he recorded originated with his uncle Henry Foe, supplemented by Defoe’s own meticulous research. A man of many talents – merchant, spy, novelist, poet, political pamphleteer, and activist – Defoe’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement, achievements, and disasters. In 1685 he participated in the Monmouth rebellion against James II but escaped retribution in the Bloody Assizes, and when William III came to power became a secret agent in the pay of the latter. His poem The True Born Englishman defended William against racial prejudice, reminding xenophobic readers that they were all descended from immigrants. William’s death and the succession of Queen Anne led to the persecution of nonconformists and Defoe’s arrest in 1703 for pamphleteering, political activity and producing satires directed against high church Tories. Prior to his removal to Newgate, he was placed in the pillory for three days but his poem Hymn to the Pillory putatively resulted in the pillory being garlanded, flowers rather than rubbish thrown at him, and his poem sold in the streets. With the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories he was able to resume work for the Whigs. Over five hundred works have been attributed to Defoe: away from the world of politics, these include Robinson Crusoe,  Moll Flanders,  A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain and of course A Journal of the Plague Year. No stranger to the debtor’s prison during his life he died, as he had often lived, in debt.

Defoe was buried in the Non-Conformist Cemetery at Bunhill but the original stone which marked his grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken in 1857. James Clarke, the editor of Christian World,  a children’s newspaper, encouraged his readers to donate 6d. each for a new memorial, setting up two rival subscription lists, one for girls and one for boys. An obelisk, raised in 1870 bore the inscription:









Defoe’s obelisk at Bunhill Fields
Inscription on Defoe’s obelisk

Samuel Horner, a stonemason from Bournemouth, erected the obelisk and took the original stone home with him, selling it as part of a general load from his yard. It became  part of the paving of the kitchen floor at Bishopstoke Manor Farm until the farm manager, Frederick Stiles King, moving to a new house at 56 Portswood Road in 1883, took the stone with him, where it remained in his front garden for over 60 years. Charles Davey acquired it in 1945 and thirteen years later gave it to Stoke Newington library. There it lived in a glass case in the entrance lobby, an appropriate final resting place as Defoe had lived in Stoke Newington from the age of fourteen while he attended the Dissenting Academy  under Charles Morton at Newington Green. But when I arrived at the library in search of the stone there was no sign of it. Happily, the librarian knew of its whereabouts: having been vandalised several times it had been moved to more secure premises in the delightful local history museum  in Hackney where, beside a bust of Defoe and backed by a wall display of the famous pillory, it keeps company with other Hackney  radicals, revolutionaries, and immigrants, not to mention a Saxon longboat  and a complete reconstruction of a pie and mash shop.

Defoe’s original gravestone in Hackney museum

A Brief Encounter with Laura, Alec, Helen and Sofie

The promise of “an immersive theatrical event” lured me to The Mill at Sonning. The theatre’s Waterwheel Bar had been transformed into the refreshment room at Milford Junction  in 1936, and as we finished our supper at a table in the bar we witnessed the first encounter between Laura and Alec in Noel Coward’s Still Life. After he had removed the grit from her eye they occupied the next table and their repressed romance took its course with a magnificent supporting cast of steam train effects, Banbury cakes dropped on the floor and returned to their plate on the buffet counter, and curling cheese sandwiches on sliced white, the latter carefully preserved under clingfilm at the end of the evening for future use. It was an unforgettable piece of theatre.

Before this I had been more familiar with Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of the play with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Of all the wonderful black and white films of the forties it is the one I love most. It engenders nostalgia with steam trains, the station buffet, Boots circulating library, the Kardomah coffee house, a service flat, Laura’s tailored suits, Alec’s trilby and a phone call made from the tobacconist,  all wrapped up in the swelling Rachmaninov score, the swirling fog, and the pent-up passion. Ultimately of course Nothing Happens, and it is hard today not to smile at the cut glass accents and the stultifying morality as the deeply conventional middle-class housewife and the married doctor battle with their intense emotions before parting, he to a new life in S. Africa, she to her home and husband. Alan Bennett satirised the film affectionately  in The History Boys where Posner and Scripps in one of the most delightful scenes in the play re-enact an emotionally charged exchange between Laura and her husband, Fred.

And yet…while others finding themselves in north Lancashire may head for the Lake District, my own footsteps always tend towards  Carnforth. For Carnforth is the real-life Milford Junction on whose platforms David Lean shot his film  when it was impossible to film night scenes around London because of the blackout. And Carnforth celebrates the association: in summer months flowers blossom extravagantly amongst the  vintage suitcases and trunks which decorate the platform  along with railway posters and porters’ trolleys beneath the famous clock. The refreshment room serves tea and Brief Encounter Cakes, and the railway museum offers a mini-cinema with tip-up seats showing the film on a loop.

The refreshment room at Carnforth

Such is the seductive power of the film that I can barely distinguish between Laura and Celia, Alec and Trevor. So, when I found  Celia Johnson’s grave in the trim churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s,  Nettlebed, in the heart of rural Oxfordshire, next to that of her husband, Peter Fleming, and surrounded by older headstones, many commemorating other members of the Fleming family, I was not at all surprised. It was just where I would have expected to find Laura. Her Wikipedia entry records that  after the war Celia Johnson focused on family life, just as Laura did, and died after collapsing with a stroke while playing bridge – just how Laura would have gone. And Nettlebed itself, quaint, sleepy, and manicured, a village so ridiculously pretty with its handsome houses, thatched cottages, and charming gardens that it regularly stars in Midsomer Murders, is just where Laura would have lived.

Grave of Celia Johnson
Grave of Peter Fleming

To find Trevor Howard/Dr. Alec Harvey then I should have boarded a Union Castle liner from Southampton, or at least a BOAC aeroplane from Croydon stopping to refuel every few hundred miles, to S. Africa. There I should have found him in some dusty, neglected graveyard outside Johannesburg, beneath a stone extolling the compassion and selfless dedication of a caring doctor. The reality was a little different: I travelled to the end of the Northern Line at High Barnet and after negotiating the roadworks, caught the number 107 bus to Arkley. There  behind the austere, brick, Victorian church of St. Peter I located a few stone slabs resting against the wall bearing  stark lists of those interred. But no graveyard ever disappoints for long, and beside the stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name there was a card with red roses from Helen and Sofie. The ink a little smudged by the rain despite a careful plastic covering, it read,

Dearest Trevor,

Thank you so much for all the happiness

you have brought to us with your

excellent performances.

One of the greatest actors that ever lived.

Thinking of you with lots of love.

xxx      Helen and Sofie     xxx


St. Peter, Arkley, memorial stones.
Stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name
Trevor Howard 1913-1988
Tribute from Helen and Sofie

I would have travelled the length of the Northern line a hundred times for the pleasure of meeting Helen and Sofie. I imagine them on a raw winter’s evening, drawing the curtains against the damp, grey nightfall, settling down on the sofa with a glass of red, and selecting a DVD starring their favourite actor. And when the choice falls on Brief Encounter, I’ll join them in raising a glass to Trevor and Celia.


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