Tag Archives: Nixon

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

Venus and Adonis by Titian. This Renaissance painting is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but it once graced the Hall of Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. I know this because of a precious little volume from 1829 I found on archive.org, A Description of Duncombe Park, Rivalx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.

As it happens, my father’s  paternal ancestors are from Helmsley, today a picturesque market and tourist town on the River Pye in the Ryedale District.

helmsley

Duncombe Park  was once an imposing structure in the Doric style built in 1718 overlooking Helmsley Castle not far from Thirsk where the vet who inspired All Creatures Great and Small worked. It was the seat of the Earls of Feversham.

My grandfather, Robert Nixon (1890-1967), was born to Robert Nixon Sr. and Mary-Ellen Richardson.

helmsleynixonhouse

This stretch of very unimposing row houses is where the Nixons lived in 1911, according to the UK Census.

abbott'swellcottge

Mary-Ellen was from nearby Rievaulx, a village famous for its cathedral ruins. She was born in this quaint cottage, Abbot’s Well. Her dad was a tailor.

RobertCENSUS

According to this census, Robert Nixon Sr. was a delver in a quarry in Rievaulx in 1911.

The same census page says my grandfather, Robert Jr.  21,  was a footman, likely at Duncombe Park. Robert was a strapping 6 foot 4 inches tall. The gentry liked their footmen to be fine physical specimens, but this was not always a good thing if Nixon family lore can be counted upon.

According to an English ‘auntie’ of my  father’s, the daughter of ‘the local earl’ went ga-ga for young Robert back in the day, so the love-struck girl’s powerful father sent him away, far away to Malaya.

I have no picture of Robert, but I recall seeing one decades ago and he looked like my dad, Peter.  So here’s a picture of Peter in 1958 holding our new puppy, Spotty, a coonhound. My father was also 6 foot four inches tall.

father

This myth might be true, as employment in Malaya was only offered to young men from well-off families, not delver’s sons.

I see that the sitting Earl of Feversham had four daughters, but they were much too old for Robert. Maybe it was Feversham’s granddaughter who fell in love with my strapping grandfather. I hope so, because I like this family myth. This is a Vanity Fair pic of the Earl from Wikipedia.

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

According to travel records, my grandfather, Robert took a boat to Malaya (willingly or unwillingly) in 1912 to work at Batu Caves Estate in Selangor, just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

He returned to England after WWI to marry my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, from County Durham, whose father was an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher posted in Helmsley between 1912 and 1914.

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

Dorothy followed him to Malaya in December, 1921 and my dad was born ten months later on October 24.  Robert later became Manager of the estate. Both my grandfather and grandmother were interned at Changi Prison during WWII.

According to the 1829 book, Duncombe Park was  home to a treasure trove of classical paintings, among them the Titian shown at top, but also a Da Vinci, a Reubens, a Rembrandt  as well as Discobulus, described as ‘the finest statue in England.’

My grandfather never did get to see these great works of art in person because most were burned in a fire in 1879.  Back then, some of these paintings were worth five thousand pounds.

The Discobulus and the DaVinci work were lost in the fire but Titian’s Venus and Adonis was saved to eventually find its way to California and the Getty Museum.

Duncombe was rebuilt in the Baroque Italianate style and used as a backdrop to the 2012 British mini-series Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch.  I love that mini-series, so it is all very appropriate.

Duncombe

Dunscombepark1

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 a 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..

To the Lighthouse Part 11

 

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