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Queenhithe

A few weeks ago I wrote about a fourteenth-century ancestor living on the Lincolnshire Coast. At the weekend I was in London to see my mum – staying just across the river from the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern – and revelling in a bit of history of some centuries before my ancestor’s ancestor even arrived in this country (perhaps).

I have loved London for so much of my life but these days I am often wearied by the rampant inequality and deadening, decadent consumerism which seem inescapable in the city. I’ve turned unfaithful late in life and fallen for lovely, empty Lincolnshire.

But I still love the River Thames, vast and tidal like the sea, a workaday, working river, and full of ghosts: of long-dead boatmen, dockers, playwrights even. And here in this unprepossessing part of the City is this piece of ancient history; such a gift.

Queenhithe is the only surviving inlet on the modern City waterfront. It was probably a Roman dock or harbour and later a Saxon one. It got the name of “Queenhithe” when Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, was granted duties on goods landed there.

Two thousand years ago people unloaded goods on this dock; more than a thousand years ago they came to market here. And a thousand years from now, something else will be here: perhaps nothing that we would recognise, except, I guess, the mighty Thames. And so, what a sense of liberation and of hope there is in contemplation of my smallness, seen against the tide of centuries. I watch the iron-grey river and say, ‘this too shall pass;’ and I am light as a feather from the wing of the seagull shrieking overhead.

Alfred plaque

Distant relations

February sky with church

Two hundred years ago a great-great-great-grandfather of mine left Kirmington in North Lincolnshire to become a non-conformist minister in Cheshire. I know this because my grandfather and a cousin wrote an account of their research into the family’s history going back many centuries.

At different times over the years I have dipped into this family story; but I began reading it again with more interest after arriving in the county that my ancestor came from.

When George the young non-confirmist left home, the family had been living in Lincolnshire for nearly five hundred years. When Heckington’s church (pictured above against a late afternoon sky) was being built during the second half of the fourteenth century, my great-times-16 grandfather was living at Ingoldmells, now a holiday resort on the long, flat, sandy coast north of Skegness.

The church at Ingoldmells is Norman, with a square tower, not a pointy one like Heckington’s. But ancestor Thomas would have seen churches like this being built in his lifetime. He could have seen winter trees and stone spires like this against vast Lincolnshire sunset skies.

It’s a tenuous link, one male line threading back through the years, traced by the accident of a name. There are tens of thousands of great-times-16 grandparents to whom I am as much or as little connected and of whom I know nothing.

But it is a connection, a link with our medieval past that I feel nearer to since moving here. It really gives me a kick.

A sense of history: in Boston

Boston Stump

Boston, Lincolnshire is not often in the news but was last week because of a terrible storm and flooding. Boston was a very important medieval port but the silting up of the River Witham, which empties into The Wash brought decline. It is still a watery town, with the river and big man-made drains carrying water from the Fens, running through it.

I was in Boston the day before the storm. It’s a half hour walk from the station to Pilgrim Hospital, grey and overcast on my way there and brilliant sunshine on the return journey (the latter sadly painful, after laser treatment on my eyes). My route took in St Botolph’s Church (otherwise known as Boston Stump and visible for miles across the fenland fields), Maud Foster Drain, Maud Foster Windmill and a lovely footpath through winter allotments. All the photos are on the Facebook page.

Medieval England feels very alive to me here in this part of the country, as it did when I was growing up near Cambridge. I don’t know why it holds such a spell for me; and I know that perhaps it makes little sense of speak of half a millennium (from the 11th century, say, to the 16th) as one period. But when, as on Saturday night, I sit in my village church, built in the 1300s and listen to a carol from the 1500s, when I lay my hands on the massive stone pillars, I feel I touch, across the centuries, the hands of those who built the church or who came, generation after generation to worship there.

On that day in Boston, crossing bridges, river, drains, I had a powerful, vivid sense of another Boston, in its twelfth century heyday, waterways full of boats and men and ropes and shouting; it seemed very near me, almost seen, as though through a veil.

I could have been sad, for what has passed, but I felt instead an exciting sense of timelessness, of today’s Boston containing still that other town, as we each hold all our past and all our future.

Maud Foster Drain

Fruits of my labour

So much work, such little jars!

It is gloomy-grey and pouring with rain outside. The conservatory is the only place in the house where there’s enough light to photograph all these jars. It’s a day for conjuring up the sun, in thought if not in fact, as I said in my rose petal post in June:

That’s the magic we make with preserves, we bottle summer, make ourselves a memory and a promise it will come again, for when we are lost in depths of winter.

This is my last preserving post for the time being, just as the rosehip syrup of Monday’s post was the last outing for bottles, jars and jelly bags – until February and marmalade-time come around again. I thought you might like to know what I have been making this year.

Jams: rose & rhubarb, redcurrant & gooseberry, black & redcurrant, plum with cumin, blackberry & plum and fig & plum.

Chutneys (made by self or partner): courgette & apricot, green tomato, damson & apple and spicy mixed vegetable.

Also: cucumber pickle, hawthorn ketchup, rowan jelly, black hedgerow jelly and plum & apple mincemeat for Christmas.

Then there was the membrillo or quince cheese, which kept me up, watching and stirring, until 3 o’clock in the morning. And jars and jars of fruit compotes and sauces, mostly apple, with blackberry, quince or plum. Our one apple tree was laden and we couldn’t bear to throw away such good food, even onto the compost heap.

I love this laying down the bounty of summer and autumn against winter’s scarcity, even though it’s no longer necessary. It connects me to the changing seasons, the turning year, and to centuries of people doing this before me. It gives me a comforting sense of prudence and providing; and feeds my sense of history.

I must remember all this next time I am swearing and sweating in the kitchen over a pan of fruit. Next year perhaps I will remember to invite friends to share the work and bounty both – though not to stay up until the early hours!

Tap the photo for a bigger version if you want to read all those little labels.

A sense of history

So far only a few people have posted comments on this blog. I’m hoping for more as time goes on, since I’m loving the ones that have arrived. I’ve enjoyed friends making connections with places I’ve mentioned in my posts on Heckington Windmill and Skegness.

But most of all I like all the comments on my post called this too shall pass about the sense of perspective or wonder or groundedness that comes from the presence of the past around us in landscape, buildings or objects. I loved history as a child, at school and later at university and I am still always prodded into musing and wonderment when I find myself in an old church or gazing at ancient hedgerows and fields. Most of all I find myself pondering on the ways in which people living, say 400 years or 800 years ago were like or unlike us living here today. Which, again, is part of my enduring interest in what makes us human and makes us like other humans, and in the connections and divisions between one part of humanity and another.

And I’m interested as well, reading the comments, on how for some of us it is landscape or buildings, the physical environment, that give us that sense of roots and history, whereas for others it may be found in ancient tools or household objects.

So if you’ve not looked at this too shall pass and the comments on it, go and have a look now. You can get to the individual posts with their comments via the links in the text above.

This too shall pass

image

I’ve had an unsettled week. After Doncaster on Wednesday, I went on to Manchester for the night and a tasty Chinese meal. Thursday began with an early walk with friend and her dog; then most of the day was spent with daughter and grandchildren. It was very odd to be back so soon when I don’t live there any more. I’ve been walking with dogs in that park for nearly twenty years and know the house where I stayed overnight almost as well as if it were my own. Everything felt overwhelmingly familiar; I felt like some sort of imposter and everyone was kind and lovely.

To London on Saturday for mum’s birthday party. It was good to catch up with family, my friends, my mum’s friends – much warmth and good conversation – but I come back feeling disconnected. A slight panic sets in that I will not recapture that sense of being home that I have had so strongly since we moved. Monday afternoon I manage, in my distraction, to give myself twice the insulin I needed, a massive dose; and the afternoon is lost in prolonged and disorientating hypoglycaemia.

Something warmer, more alive stirs in my chest when I walk through the churchyard and again, coming home with the dog, across a snowy field, with the church tower black against a sunset sky and a crescent moon hanging above.

I love these medieval buildings being part of the everyday landscape here, as they were in the landscape of my childhood. The presence of the distant past gives me a crazy sense of hope, wrests power from despair. I think that people have not changed that much; I think of how we are connected more than divided. There is peace too, a letting go, an expansiveness to be had from these reminders that life and other people were here before us and will be after, that we are neither the beginning nor the end.