by Ruth Jenkins
Watch your feet! You tread on the history here. You see the grave slabs eroding underfoot? You would not know that these people were never buried here in the first place, would you? Nor that these stones were recycled from the churchyard 100 years ago. There is only one body under the floor today, a four month old child in a lead coffin, now carefully encased in a tiny concrete tomb.
Those choir stalls moved once too. Not in their early history from Cockersands Abbey, as some say, but in the war around 1940. The cabinet makers came and removed the canopies, imprisoned them in the castle dungeons for the duration.
The seats hold other secrets too, if you have the courage to remove the cushions and lift them up. It’s different world under there, dancing figures with duck tails, a two bodied lion with a man’s head, monks and kings. It all jumps from the woodwork, so solid and earthy, and to a modern eye, inappropriate for a monk’s mercy seat, where the ageing or infirm could lean their aching bones.
Look closer still and these strange creatures have another story to tell. Their faces, though they could never fight, have seen a war. It has given them deep unhealable scars. War can reach even inside a church. With a country torn in two, the castle was taken by Cromwell’s men and so the church was punished for its ungodly appearance and the faces, that could be reached, removed.
History sings here every week, apparently, though I have never heard it. The choir sings Evensong in Latin like so many have before. But this is not my place, I don’t belong in a church, it has never been a part of my life. So let’s leave it behind and go into the fields that have been empty for a thousand years. Empty but not unloved.
I leave the space behind the cake stall and excitedly join hands with my family. The only way to stay together is to hold hands so, as one chain, we wind ourselves through the crowd past the food vans and stalls.
The crowd gets thicker as we pass through the Priory gates and leave the shadow of the castle behind. We know the spot we want to get to, the railings by the beacon, the perfect view and no tall people, or big hats in front of you. The crowd is made up of small huddled groups chattering, rubbing gloved hands and stamping feet to keep warm, the trick is to find your way between them. We stop when the field is too thick with people but we are near the brow of the hill.
‘This place okay?’
We arrange ourselves: Mum and Dad behind, me and Hannah in front, all looking up expectantly at the sky just to left of the beacon.
The clock begins to chime and the chatter hushes. As the last bell fades away the first bars of Rule Britannia whisper over the crowd, barely disguising a faint fut fut sound. There is a shimmer of golden sparks and everyone lets out the breath they didn’t know they were holding in a wonder filled awww.
The music builds, Vivaldi, Handel and the rockets too until we are straining our necks back to see the riot of colour straight above us. The gasps and cheers release a little tension but the music is there to build it up again, ‘Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. When everyone is sings along but no one hears the end the bangs are defining thunder.
Smoke drifts over everything and cheerful applause provides an encore. People start to drift away, but who would miss the proper finale?
A pole with a long taper is used to light four pieces of cloth around the base of the beacon. Quietly, the fire spreads until yellow flame blossoms above and red sparks blow from the sides. It is calm, understated and beautiful.
We wander home with the crowd down the hill. No one walks on the pavements – tonight we take over the roads.
‘IT’S NOT FAIR. YOU TROD ON MY EGG.’
‘NO, I DIDN’T. IT JUST BROKE ROLLING DOWN THE HILL.’
The purple and white painted face contorted into a pout at the injustice of egg rolling.
Hard boiled eggs had been carefully painted in primary colours that Easter morning, before being nestled back in their boxes for the journey to Priory Fields. Once everyone was gathered on the hill top, picnic blankets set out and face painted as brightly as the eggs, The Games began.
They stood in a line in height order, eggs in hand or lifted to a mouth so words of encouragement could be whispered. Only then was an adult necessary so the start could be officiated properly.
‘Right. On your marks! Ready! Steady! … Careful now stay on line. Go!’
The eggs were released. The race was on. Slipping, sliding, rolling and running they followed the eggs trying to make sure they were the first to announce their egg the winner. It was a scramble at the bottom of the hill, grazed elbows and grass stained clothing unnoticed as the eggs were claimed.
‘Mine went further than yours.’
‘But mine is only has three cracks so it will last longer.’
The inevitable argument resolved in the attempt to race back up the hill, egg in one hand and the other hovering near the ground to keep from falling. Painted faces glowed with breathless excitement at reaching the top and joyful anticipation of starting all over again.
I was inspired to research any part of Castle Hill history between the end of the Roman period and the Tudor period because I wanted to try and discover an interesting story. I did not know anything about that time in Lancaster, it seemed invisible and undervalued.