Langton's Long-Lost Dead
I'd been to the site of Langton House a couple of times before, for the Death Of A Stately Home post of 2014 and the youtube video Langton of the same year, but had never succeeded in visiting the graveyard. Having covered much of the ground in the area and expecting an arduous and obscure trek, I set out with directions in hand, or at least in head. The directions said that I should turn at the saw mill, which sets itself upon the ground of the main 'concourse' for want of a better word; the concrete base of the former house. From there you walk to a wall. That's about it, after that you're there. It was barely 100 yards from the main site of the former house, and there through a gap in the wall I took sight of Langton's long-lost dead.
The graves here are forgotten utterly, little dark humped shapes among the weeds and foliage which must in summer render them near invisible. Moss and lichen clings to their inscriptions and eats them away. Odd words poke out here and there, parts of names and locations, one of which clearly shows the name Longformacus. What dates are visible are not so old, late 1800s, some well into the 20th century. Why this should be so is a little unclear, history recording the demolishing of Langton village and church in 1759, when it was relocated about a mile away and renamed Gavinton after the modest landowner. Langton House continued as a stately home until its abandonment in 1920, but the names on the graves do not appear to carry aspirations to be recalled as nobility. They must be the souls who occupied those few semi-remaining buildings, the stables and farm buildings. They were buried there despite the lack of an accompanying church, perhaps through desire to be with their ancestors, and despite the presence of a new church and new graveyard just over the road in Gavinton, where they would have travelled every Sunday.
It would seem difficult to be forgotten more completely than the long-lost dead of Langton. Buried in a graveyard without a church, on an estate that would soon come to be without a house, without buildings, without population. A graveyard without a path, without a sign, with no-one to tend it or recover the worn-away names. But after all, why not? The vanity of remembrance cannot last long, even in exceptional cases. One day we will all be forgotten dead.
The cut trees are all numbered so I climb up onto tree 35, to match my age. The words still echo in my ears - 'one day we will all be long forgotten dead'. What is life, then? Life is but a laugh in the face of it; we're all going to lose in the long run, so let's enjoy what we have while we can.
I walk back across the road to Gavinton and around the replacement church as dusk settles in. It is rather a grand construction when you take the time to look at it. On the road a sign points to the 'Ann Smith Memorial'. It's getting dark, but why not? The memorial is a kind of stone obelisk which bears four marble panels and identifies Ann Smith as a servant to the Lady of the house for 40 years. It praises her in that slightly patronising Victorian way for having been such a good servant to her superior being, and bears the slightly unfortunate phrase "when she awakes, she will be satisfied". Many is the time I have looked upon a sleeping form and thought much the same thing...
The White Wall
Berwick, it would seem, has a castle. Not much of a castle admittedly, one of those 'this was the site of an impressive castle before we knocked it down to build a train station' type of castles, but if nothing else it made sense of why the pub next to the station is called The Castle Hotel. The borderlands of Scotland today are so peaceful and bland, the kind of places where the aged go to eat a scone at a nice garden centre, that it seems impossibly incompatible when you read of the region's history. Take this sentence, for example:
"The castle's location in the hotly disputed border country between England and Scotland made it one of the most important strongholds in the British Isles"
Let's just take a moment there. Berwick, a smallish town of 12,000 people, was one of the most important strongholds in the British Isles. Of course we all know about its history of passing back and forth between Scotland and England for some centuries, but simply saying this doesn't really bring it home. Nor really does the next sentence:
"As a major tactical objective in the region, the castle was captured by both the English and Scots on a number of occasions and frequently sustained substantial damage; Edward I used it as his headquarters during the course of his invasions of Scotland."
'Frequently sustained substantial damage' is another of those throw-away sentences that again skips over the reality. To obtain damage to a castle, you're talking about a pretty major engagement, catapults and siege engines throwing huge chunks of stone, fire and death everywhere. To obtain substantial damage you're talking about a no-holds-barred all-out warfare; we're going to kill you or die trying. To have that situation 'frequently'; what the hell must living in Berwick have been like?
Again, history tends to treat this with rather a light brush. The capture of Berwick in 1296 marked the beginning of the Scottish Wars of Independence when Edward I of England led his invasion force upon the town. They took it, and pretty much killed everyone in sight. The historical narrative blandly states:
"Berwick-upon-Tweed, a Royal burgh that sat just north of the border, was Scotland's most important trading port. The garrison was commanded by William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, while the besieging party was led by Robert de Clifford, 1st Baron de Clifford. Contemporary accounts of the number slain range from 4,000 to 17,000. Then they took the castle."
The modern estimate is of around 30,000 civilian deaths during the Capture of Berwick, more than the entire modern population. You can almost imagine walking into the smoke and destruction of 1296 and finding one person left alive in the town.
"It's umm... it's just you here, is it?"
"Yep, just me. There were 30,000 people here on Tuesday, but they've all been slaughtered."
"What are you going to do?"
"Just carry on, this sort of thing happens frequently."
The wind is whipping in from the Tweed as I make my way along. Coming in the opposite direction is a young man carrying an umbrella that is utterly, utterly wrecked. Besides being inverted, it has been stripped almost entirely of material and looks like a curled up spider upside down on a stick. You could only be carrying this as a visual gag, but he walks past me in solemnity without acknowledging me, umbrella still aloft. Reaching up from the water to the top of the hill above is 'The White Wall' of Berwick Castle, one of those grand Tolkienesque appellations, especially so since the wall is clearly grey. Why has history recorded it as The White Wall? Every source admirably refuses to address this.
"The principal surviving part of the structure is the late thirteenth century White Wall and the steep and long flight of steps known as the Breakneck Stairs."
"Upgrades were made to the castle at this time including construction of a Water Gate and extension of the curtain wall down to the banks of the River Tweed. Known today as the White Wall, it originally projected into the River Tweed providing a secure jetty for landing supplies at the castle."
"When Edward I captured the town of Berwick from the Scots in 1296 the existing castle was strengthened. At this time an additional length of wall known as the White Wall was constructed."
But whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? I can't be the only person to have wondered this.
It's a bit of a windy day, and damp besides, but there are windows and doorways up in that castle structure and I'm not about to leave without scrambling up there to look at them. When I get there I find a little sheltered structure like a tower base which you can climb over the wall into. It has a small little corridor which leads to a doorway with a locked door, on the other side of which I think is the train station car park. There's not a lot else to be seen up here except for a great view out over the broad magnificent Tweed, which sets me to thinking about how in the several years since I hatched the idea I have failed to move a single step closer to taking that canoe trip along its length, unless you count buying a book called 'Open Canoe Technique' and not reading it as a step.
To get back to the car I cross once more the old stone bridge. It certainly is a wonderful thing to be out in the world and alive.
On the drive back from Berwick I'm in no particular hurry so I take a large detour through Paxton and come in to Duns from the Sinclairshill end. On this small country road walking away from Duns is an old lady, who is waving as I approach. I stop and put my head out of the window.
"Are you ok?", I ask.
"Oh yes", she says simply.
"Oh, I see. I thought you were hailing me."
Paying little attention to this she remarks on what a beautiful evening it is and gazes at the red sunset blazing across the sky. I agree with her.
"Where are you heading?", I ask.
"Do you need a lift?"
"It's in the opposite direction" she responds.
"Well that's ok, I'm not in any rush. I can turn round and take you where you're going."
She says that would be wonderful. The car is quite high so I get out to help her in. As I do so she hands me a blue plastic bag she's carrying.
"You know what this is, don't you?", she asks me.
"No", I say, honestly.
"It's mud", she says with a hint of triumph. "I collect it."
As we get onto the road she chatters away, mostly about her son and her husband who died. The slightly odd and disconnected form of her speech I begin to recognise as being that of dementia, or at least some early stage of it. After a few miles we reach the village of Sinclairshill, where the road ends at a T-junction.
"Which way now?", I ask.
"Oh... I don't know. I don't mind"
"But you're going home?"
"So which way is it that you live?"
"Oh... but Duns is back the way we just came"
"Is it? I'm so silly."
By now I'm starting to feel a little afraid for her. She was walking off into the countryside down miles of a quiet road; where would she end up if I hadn't come along? There's also a faint fear... what if she really doesn't know where she lives? What do I do in such a situation? She tells me her exact address, but I don't know the street names in Duns very well and the street means nothing to me. Unfortunately she can't help me with directions, as she appears not to recognise any junction we roll up to.
"So where is it that you said you lived?"
"It's in the Scottish Borders, actually" she says. Come on, I think, we need to break through this.
"In Duns", I say as a prompt.
"That's right, at..." and she says the address again, the same as before. But I don't know where it is and she can't seem to guide me. We're on the Coldstream road when she finally identifies something.
"Oh, that's Pearson's"
"Yes", I encourage, "that's where I go to get my heat logs. For the fire."
"The fire, yes."
"Do you go there?"
"Yes, I do"
"From your house?"
"My house, yes"
"Is your house down here?"
"No, it's back the way we've just come. But it's near to here. You can let me out here."
Is this wise? What should I do? But this is the first time she has seemed to recognise where she is.
"You're absolutely, definitely sure you know where to go from here?"
"Oh yes, just let me out here."
Very uncertainly, I pull over and get out to help her down. She hands me the blue plastic bag again.
"You know what this is, don't you?", she asks again. I do, but I play along.
"No, what is it?"
"It's mostly water actually", she says. I smile, although I feel more like crying. She tells me it was lovely to meet me and I say it has been a pleasure to meet her. Then she sets off very definitely on foot, and I have to hope for the best.
When I get back home I check the map to see where the street she named was. It wasn't far from where I dropped her. I can't help thinking to myself - that'll probably be me one day, heading off into the countryside as night falls with no idea who I am or where I'm going. That's life, I suppose, and all the more reason to enjoy it now during the golden years, because they're not going to last.
I'm not one to make new year resolutions. All the same, they can be handy things if used properly, and the demarcation of time from an old year into a new can bring great opportunity. This year I offer no resolutions, but will drop in two words that I want to focus on throughout the year.
The first is now. I have a tendency to worry too much about the larger picture. I cannot learn a small section of something, I tell myself I have to know everything about everything, and so dart from here to there with such rapidity that I end up learning very little about anything in any depth. You can't do everything in life, and the time has long since come where I need to consider everything in relation to its relevance to my life. In this way, I have started shedding possessions and belongings, little bits of clutter. The past is important, and some essence of it should always be retained. The future is coming, but that does not mean you should attempt to prepare for every possible eventuality. The important time, in a sense the only time, is now. Focus on the small things right in front of you, right now.
My second word is zen. This is highly ambitious. I need to quieten my soul a little. Aby made a passing remark at work about her boyfriend's sister doing lots of yoga but being "not at all zen" because she's always stressing and panicking and running around. I might be a tiny little bit zen, in that I'm generally pretty calm and composed, and become ever more so the more I concentrate on now. But I could stand to be a whole lot more so. This is a difficult path, though. The first step on it is acceptance, and that's a difficult thing. There's also the struggle between wanting to make change and accepting what is, and that's a difficult balance to find. You may accept that someone is a certain way as a result of their experiences and influences and position, that is not the same as accepting that they cannot be changed. So there is a balance, and after the first month in I am definitely struggling to find it. Old habits are so hard to break, default reactions to events and words, default ways of communicating with or reacting to people. Default ways of living, knowing that you want to be achieving x, y and z but to do that you need to be doing a, b and c... and then not doing that, because some part of you craves that familiarity of the old entrenched way of being. But that's ok, I can work on it, and it doesn't have to be achieved in a year. Perhaps it may never be truly, fully achieved. Perhaps it can't. But the destination is never quite so important as the journey.