England, Genealogy, Quebec

To the Lighthouse – Part 1

A fictional homage to my father – and his northern English genealogy

whitehaven to st bees cliff walk

Plaque at St. Bees (from http://josweeney.net/the-cliff-path-from-st-bees-to-whitehaven/ 7 miles to Whitehaven but this is the start of a 192 mile Coast-to-Coast walk that will take you all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay in North York.

(Sound Effects)  heavy breathing, feet pounding earth.

I am Peter N F Nixon, scholar at St. Bees Prep School in Cumberland and I am running, running away back in time.  So stated the boss-eyed academic in the school library last evening, the guest lecturer from the Northern England Geological Society.

“If you take the coastal path,” he said, “from St Bees Head to Whitehaven Lighthouse,  it is as if you are going back in time as the youngest rocks are at Seacote. Early Triassic Age, just 250 million years old.”

Funny how I remember that. I was preoccupied with next week’s big rugby match against the tough cads from the colliery. The geordies.  The coal miners. I attended the lecture only because I knew there’d be a fire lit in the library. Although it’s my right as head prefect to sit on the radiator in my freezing dorm room (with windows always open) it is slim consolation this early in spring.  I could see my breath as I crossed the quad last night to get to the library.

Yes, funny how the geology lecture is all coming back to me as I run and run back in time along the windy coastal path to the lighthouse at Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast where the seabirds are engaged in their noisy mating rituals.

I am leading a penal drill with a few miscreant lower classmen who flung their gas-masks out the window to celebrate the war with Hitler being over.  Who told them the war was already over, just a few months after it was declared?

I am the house prefect and it is my duty to drill good sense into my younger charges’ heads by making them run long distances, whatever the season.  It’s no punishment for me – mickeying-off like this – or for most of them, to be honest. We are battle-hardened prep school pupils here at St Bees. Classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon, every day, rain or shine or snow.

We all wear short pants at St. Bees. It’s our uniform. I run and run and run in my short pants.17 years old, 6 foot 3 and half  and still in short pants.

myfatherugby

Senior XV Rugby 1938-39. Webpage of the Old Beghian Society (see link below). My father is top row, 4th from left.  The scarf must represent his house.

I’m far ahead of the pack.  Truth be told, I am no leader of men. More of a loner at heart. So, I leave the kids to their own pace. I get no pleasure in being a prefect.  I don’t like minging on them. I don’t look for trouble or for a reason to cane.

Let’s see, what else did the lecturer say? “ North of St. Bees there are carboniferous-age coal outcrops and limestone outcrop, south of St. Bees permo-Triassic red sandstone. Moulded through the eons by glacial processes. Glacial means slow, doesn’t it?  Very slow.

I want it all to slow down. This war, despite the rumours to the contrary, is just starting. I can sense it. I am to turn 18 soon. I will have to sign up.

I am running back in time to slow things down, geologic time, historical time – but at a good clip, leaving my younger charges behind. I am one of the school’s finest middle distance runners, but the county record holder at javelin. Vice Captain of the Senior Rugby. I can swim with the best of them, but it’s golf I really enjoy, though, alone on the links of our school’s golf course.

I am running, running into the past.

The Normans, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, the Briton Voltadini and the Celtic Brigantes tribes. Castles up, monasteries down, crusades to the east, crusades to the north. Saint Bega, for whom our school is named, founding the religious site about 1000 years ago by fleeing a forced marriage in Ireland. Or so the story goes.  And then 100 years later the Lord Egremont, the Norman, building the Benedictine Priory, the town parish, over it.

All around me there are fossilized strips of former medieval field systems and other remnants of the ghostly, gory, glorified past. It all weighs one down. Wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere new with no past, no history, no weight?

If I never hear another lecture on Emperor Hadrian and his infernal wall I will be thrilled.  That meandering  Roman monument has only unfortunate connotations for me. I can still hear my grandfather, the Reverend John Forster, a self-educated farmer’s son, berating me at 6 years old for slacking on a long walk, “You are no Border Reiver, no bairn of mine if ye can’t walk the 7 miles from Brampton to the Birdoswol Roman Fort.”

Wouldn’t Gramps be surprised to see me now, one of the school’s most respected athletes, as I run and run, away, swiftly back in time with the myriad sea birds swirling over head riding the fickle coastal air currents coming off the Irish sea on the rugged, austerely beautiful coast of Cumberland, at St Bees Head?

This place is truly in my blood. I have border reiving ruffians on both sides of my family tree, my mother’s Forster and my father’s Nixon side. Brave scoundrels and fearless outlaws, they were raiders of cattle and sheep at the Scottish border in late medieval  times and beyond. Grandfather Nixon bragged about some outlaw Nixons hanged at Carlisle Castle back when he was a boy.

Geologic time, historical time, genealogical time, family memory and family myth.

It was my first week at St Bees. Mr. McFayden, the history teacher, asked me what my middle initials N.F. stand for. “Nesfield and Forster, Sir,” I replied, embarrassed to be singled out. “Ah, Nesfield, he says. “You are then descended from Dagobert, the Merovingian Prince who married Imagne de Nessfield, a Saxon landowner. By the 17th century they were living in Yorkshire. You are then related to William Andrews Nesfield  who designed the gardens at Castle Howard and Kew.”

I wrote home to my mother, in Malaya, all bristling with pride but she failed to take the bait. “Your great-grandmother, Anne Nesfield was the cook in the home of a Yorkshire solicitor, I think.”

Oh, the sin of pride.

Her father, John, socialist and pacifist – and a despiser of comfort  and weak grandchildren– taught her well.

Yes, I can see and hear the seabirds swirling and dipping overhead, over those formidable yet fragile orange sandstone cliffs, home to many colonies of breeding gulls: razorbills, cormorants, guillemonts, fullmars and kittiwakes.

It’s the start of nesting season.  I run and I am comforted by the birds’ loud squawking. I do love nature, her apparent simplicity here on the wild Cumberland coast; not like the bountiful Malayan landscape where I spent my first five years, as my father is a rubber planter, where there was so much fabulous flora and fauna to admire- and to fear – where I once confronted a leopard cat while tricycling near the tennis courts with my little sister.

St Bees. Wikipedia. Photo by Doug Sim

I am running, running back in time which is better than going forward in time.  It is May  9, 1940 and war was declared in September, 1939. The beach is cordoned off with barbed-wire. They have installed radar at the Whitehaven Lighthouse and barrage balloons in the town. I’ve lost 2 stone with the rationing.  New students from London are pouring into St Bees, because they feel it is a relatively safe place to be.  But, everyone over 18 has had to register for this war.  I turn 18 in October.

I am far ahead of the pack now and I like it that way. I am a loner at heart, not a leader of men. And I will soon have to sign up.

I really doubt the war is already over. I suspect it has just begun.

my father and denise

My father and his sister, Denise, in 1978, sent to England to go to school in 1926, as many colonial children were. She was the one who told me the story about the leopard cat.

 

PeterNixonandme

January 1954

 

To Be Continued..
On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked France and the Low Countries.

 

School boy lingo, specific to St Bees (apparently)

 

Minging: Prefect looking for trouble

Boss-eyed: cross-eyed

Mickeying off: to run away

Geordies: Miners

Cad: village boy

 

 

 

Resources :

 

http://www.st-beghian-society.co.uk/Picture%20Gallery.htm

St. Beghian Society Magazines

 

http://josweeney.net/the-cliff-path-from-st-bees-to-whitehaven/

7 Mile Walk from St. Bees to Whitehaven with many wonderful photos of the Cumbrian Coast.

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/47/a3856647.shtml

Growing up in WWII Cumbria BBC

 

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/29816760.pdf

William Andrews Nesfield bio

 

Border Reivers and Sir John Forster

https://wwwborderreiverstories-neblessclem.blogspot.com/

The Geologic Story of West Cumbria

http://www.westcumbriamining.com/wp-content/uploads/26-Geological-Story_C.pdf

 

Genealogy, Great Britain

A Stranger in his/her Bed: An Audio Drama

Here is the first in a series of well-researched creative vignettes I am writing about my father’s side of the family, in Yorkshire and Cumberland and Malaya.

I have written AND VOICED this family story, part fiction, part fact, part family myth that explores genealogy in a different way.

Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s family. This vignette is based on a serio-comic family story about the Reverend John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland who succumbed to that disease late in life.

 

Click here for a 10 minute audio of the story: A Stranger in his/her Bed

The Characters:

John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland

(photos courtesy of Our Primitive Methodist Ancestors website.)

Emma Cowen of Durham, his wife.

 

The Places

Brampton, Cumberland, 1920

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall Cumberland (Cumbria)

The Script

John Forster awoke one night from a rather disturbing dream, stared down upon his wife of 33 years in the bed beside him, and bellowed in his booming preacher’s voice: Old Woman, what are yee doing in my bed?

The wife was jolted awake – but she caught herself and calmly replied. I am sleeping. Well, I was sleeping.

Woman, what are you doing sleeping beside me, repeated her aged husband, punctuating his sentence with a downward stab of his spiky chin.

I am sleeping beside you because I am your wife, the old woman replied. What other reason would there be for me to be sleeping beside you?

But, you are NOT my wife, sputtered the old man, splashing his snowy white beard with little beads of saliva.

I am, most certainly, the woman replied, this time with a slight quiver in her voice.

I am EMMA Cowen of Durham, the woman you married in 1892 .  You are John Forster, former Primitive Methodist minister from Knockburn, Northumberland,  and, she added, playfully, in an effort to pacify him, author of numerous essays on politics and a lovely book of poems Pictures of Life in Verse.

I know who I am,”  the old man said, menacingly. It’s you I ‘ave me doubts about.

Emma Cowen sighed and pulled herself up in the hard-packed feather bed, battling through her many bodily aches and pains.

Her husband was suffering from a softening of the brain, so said the doctor, and this fog took over him especially bad upon waking from a sleep or sometimes even a short afternoon nap.

This episode was particularly startling though. The anger! Where did it come from?

We are married, Emma insisted, knowing full-well  it was useless to argue at these times but somehow not able to help herself.

We have three children, Nora, a concert pianist who teaches music at a girls school in Maryport, another daughter, Agnes, in Carlisle, just two streets away and Dorothy who is a planter’s wife in Kuala Lumpur, thousands of miles away.  Dorothy has two children, Peter and Denise. They go to school here in England and  they visited us in Carlisle just last summer. Do you recall?

I know who Peter and Denise are, John Forster replied, in increasing frustration, knotting his furry brow.

Peter is the soft bairn  I took to BIrdoswal Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall, who whimpered that he was tired before he got halfway there. And it’s not but 7 miles aft. No Border Reiver blood has he!

I repeat, it is YOU I don’t know – but  with the pitch of his voice lowering he asked, “What are you doing in my HOOS?”  This sounded more like a plea. The moonlight coming in through the window in the bare bedroom lit up the watery irises of his eyes – and  not in a comforting way.

The little girl in Emma wanted to check the corners of the room for wicked fairy-folk, malevolent gyests or mischievous boggles.
I live here, said Emma, defiantly.

But, my wife is Mary Chaytor Hall, naw Emma Cowen.  She of the strawberry blonde ringlets. She was fair, you know. Very fair. YOU ARE NOT FAIR! These four words fell like sharp knives upon Emma’s heart

How self-indulgent of her to feel this way!

She shook the feeling and said in a dull monotone, “Your first wife was Mary Chaytor Hall.  You were married six years only. She died, young. Was this the 100th time she had to explain this fact to her husband, she wondered.

Was she the daft one for attempting to knock sense back into this head?

We married in 1892, she continued. It is now 1925. So we have been married 33 years by my counting. And I’ve stood beside you, the busy wife of an itinerant preacher, moving every two years all over North Yorkshire: Carlisle, Crook, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Cockersmouth, Stanley, Helmsley, helping you prepare your sermons. Occupying the pulpit myself when you were indisposed.  Teaching Sunday School.  Tending the infirm and weary in our flock.

And so you too should be able to vote, said John, his line of thought veering into the present.  What has property got to do with it?

Yes, we worked hard for that, didn’t we, in our day. Woman suffrage.

John stared at her with vacuous blue eyes now, the silvery moonbeam having moved. Watery blue, his eyes. He blinked, once, twice, three times.
I don’t recall ye  ‘ever making sermons, woman. ” said John. “Ye didn’t have the head for it.”

Emma frowned. “I most certainly did,” she said.

And Peter was upset because you carried Denise part of the way, but made him walk,  Emma added, by way of a dig.  He is only five years old after all, just one year older than Denise.

As if things were as before and her husband could comprehend a dig when he heard one.

The dig came from her own angry place.

Who was her anger directed against?  Her husband, his first wife, God? No good place among them.

If  Mary Chaytor was the only woman he could remember, at times, would the memory of second wife, Emma Cowen, eventually fade completely from his brain and she become nothing more than a warm body in his bed?

A stranger in his bed.

She who had stood by her husband, as an undeniable equal in life and work, all of these 33 years.

Ahhhhcchhh, I don’t understand, John growled, his frustration swelling.   I don’t understand. He shook his head hard dislodging his nightcap over his right ear in comical fashion.

Emma edged an inch or two away from her husband, feeling guilty.

Then, John Forster suddenly turned away from Emma and lay back onto his hard feather pillow.

The peace and calm lasted but for a brief moment..

Henry Maine! It’s all his fault! John Forster howled, his head still attached to his pillow.

Henry Main? Who is this Henry Main? Emma asked.

He said it all come from the Romans, the Twelve Tables, but he was wrong.  It makes no sense.

Liberte, Egalite,Fraternite,. John Forster’s skinny freckled forearm shot up in the air. We must lift up our voice against classism, materialism, against selfishness in all of its forms.

Emma almost smiled. She could see him for a moment in the pulpit again, preaching to his untidy frazzled flock of North Country farmers and their wives.

My dear, dear husband, you are an unhinged filing cabinet, overturned and burst open, foolscap floating away on the capricious air currents.  I always said you were too learned for you own good. And see, it has all turned back on you, all this old knowledge swirling around in your befuddled brain. If it isn’t this Henry Main, whoever he is, it’s praise for Karl Marx. If it isn’t  about Marx, it’s critiques of St Paul or Cicero.

What er you talkin’ about, woman? Cicero is not a filing cabinet.

Emma chuckled out loud this time.

What should she do? Call for her daughter, Agnes, again? At 2  am? No, let her sleep.

She took a different tack.  Would you like to me to go outside to the pump and get yee a cup of fresh water, Emma asked John.

The doctor  had said dehydration was an enemy of old people. She started to swing her leaden legs out onto the hardwood floor but arrested them in mid air.

No, woman, it is dark outside. The wolves may be out.  I’m not wanting any wife o’ mine to put herself in danger’s way.

She did not ask which wife he was referring to, the old haggard one or the beauteous young one.  It felt good to hear her husband’s concern.

The mischievous fairy inside Emma wanted to ask “What wolves are you expecting to find in the city of Carlisle?”

But, she this time, she checked herself.  It occurred to her, that she could not go on as before.

We are both strangers to each other, now, Emma thought.

The Lord certainly does works in mysterious ways, the loyal wife whispered to the bare bedroom walls, to the  window frame with the peeling brown paint, to the pellucid moon beam bending around the frayed gray gingham curtain. She pulled her prickly woolen blanket up over her chest.

And my poems were fine, weren’t they? John Forster purred. My lyrics of uncommon charm and grace, they said.

Yes, Hinny, your poems were very, very fine.

And with that John Forster, my great grandfather, fell back to sleep. Emma Cowen, my great grandmother, adjusted the cotton nightcap to cover his bony head, as lovingly as she could muster, and steeled herself for the morning.

 

I wrote a story about the Border Reivers of Northern England on this blog. It can be found here.