On most Sundays, we set out in the car on a ‘magical mystery tour’ to explore places we haven’t been to before. Not many are left within a day’s reach, so we returned to another part of the ‘ings’ or flooded water meadows by the Derwent, now a vast silent mirror of the skies. We found another small twelfth-century stone church replacing an earlier timber one. It would have been built soon after the date engraved on England’s historic memory of after centuries of Viking invasions, 1066. That was when Normans, under William the Conqueror, invaded from northwest France. Here in the north-east, invasions arrived from the Scandinavian north of the nearby continent.
The church was open and empty, prayer books jumbled back into their box. At the west end, to one side of the bell tower, a toilet booth had been inserted next to a parquet floor placed over the ancient stone slabs. It warmed the feet of the congregation gathered there to chat by the twelfth-century font where the earliest worshippers had been baptised eight hundred years earlier. Outside, round the church walls were wide flower beds with rose bushes, some already sprouting, shoots dark red at the edges, green nearer the stem. A sign of a very early spring or of climate change?
We were about to leave when the most ancient inhabitant in the village approached us, the very embodiment of the site’s history. Seeing the guidebook in my hand, he exclaimed,
‘He isn’t in there!’
We were standing in the graveyard where all the stones had been flattened – perhaps because of fear they might fall over and injure someone. The one at my feet was covered in moss. I scraped bits of it away with my shoe, aware that he had come up behind me.
‘That died on 30 February 1898 a’ 91 years.’ Thereafter followed a muddled discourse while our ancient interlocuter bent to clear away the leaves and moss on the flattened tombstone.
‘They git dates an years muddled in them times,’ he continued. ‘No date ‘ov birth. Febrary always problem. Better not be born at tail end ov Febrary.’ A Pause. ‘Or die ‘en. No proper date.’
Something, sadly, that can’t be avoided. A man with a birthday only every four years but here without even a date to die.