Monday, 27 July 2009
Kentisbeare: angels and tears
I went to Kentisbeare this afternoon. Dad was a boy here, from young childhood to late teens, from about 1926 to 1936. It was a pretty remote country village in his day. There was a bus; but no cars except one driven by a local army major. People walked or rode; not very many had bicycles.
This wasn’t my first visit. I had made the journey several times over the last thirty years. The last occasion was in 1998, when Dad was only 77 and able to walk in fair comfort without a stick. I have a photo of him then, near the former Ponchydown Inn up at Blackborough, standing tall, looking down upon a vast sunny panorama with Kentisbeare at its heart. More than once in the year before his recent death I suggested that we make one last trip to this place that featured so large in his childhood. He liked the idea, but the effort was a lot to contemplate. So we never actually did it. But I could now do it on my own, as a kind of pilgrimage.
The village was much the same. More signs of modernity here and there, but the square in the middle was unchanged. As you came down the hill from The Honest Heart (now a private house, but once a pub of that name) there was the village stores on the right, the Wyndham Arms pub on the left, and the old tree in the centre, with its spreading branches. Further down on the left was the lych gate to the churchyard, where I parked.
I had a look at the gravestones first, then entered the church. I had it entirely to myself. The church at Kentisbeare is rather special is several ways. Outside it has that tall, chequered tower. Inside it has not only a painted gallery from the time of Charles I, when young, but a delicately carved wooden screen across the full width of the nave, an exuberant virtuoso performance from a team of carvers in the time of Henry VII that completely dominates the interior of the church. How it survived the seventeenth century is a mystery. But it is a most handsome adornment to a noble building. There are also numerous plaques and memorials, a prominent font, and an extraordinary number of pews. I had plenty of choice of where to sit.
Once seated, the deeper purpose of my visit filled my mind. I wanted to sit quietly, and pray for Dad. I have no faith; I don't even claim spirituality; and Dad himself wasn’t religious in the slightest. But I needed to express my love for him and wish him well, wherever he now was. He had been snatched away too suddenly. I crossed myself, bent my head, put my hands together like a child might, and then promptly burst into tears. After a moment, I said words from my heart, trembling words. Maybe they were partly for other people too, such as Mum, and my brother, and everyone else - living or dead - whose loss has been unbearable. But they were intended chiefly for Dad, the object of my special devotion that day. Could he hear me? Was he only a dozen feet above me, looking down invisibly? Somehow I thought he was. I certainly thought that a small dark carved angel, watching me from the far left end of the screen, was listening intently and would convey everything to Dad as soon as I had gone.
I dried my eyes and rose. I left a long entry in the Visitor’s Book, beginning ‘In Memory of William Rodney Dommett, 1920-2009’ and ending ‘We never did make it back here together, did we, Dad? I love you and miss you.’ And I signed it ‘Lucy Melford’. I also added an email address for genealogical contact.
Outside in the churchyard, I discovered that my Auntie C---, Dad’s half-sister, was now buried there. She died in 2000, two years after my - our - previous visit.
Grass-mowing men had invaded the place, making noise. Feeling a little foolish, I fled back to the car. I had no stomach for curious eyes and unsaid questions. I had been here on family business, as Lucy, the new head of the family. The next one in line for the touch of the grim reaper.