We had arrived in the north, checked in at our accommodation, and, after a coffee, as we still had a couple of hours to spare before we were all to meet, we decided to stretch our legs and explore a little of the village where we were staying. The pub in Beadnell, The Craster Arms, would have to be visited at some point, especially as it is housed in a sixteenth-century pele tower, whose five-feet-thick walls were designed for the watch tower to warn of approaching danger, and as a refuge when it arrived.
With the Walk and Talk weekend still ahead, though, we stayed clear of the inn; these things need to be approached with an unclouded mind. Instead, we admired the cottages and old manor houses as we headed for the rather unusual church. The tower alone was worth a look, sporting, as it does, an octagonal pierced stone screen at the base of the spire. But what struck us most was the arch of the door that was decorated with poppies and beside it flies a flag that reads simply, ‘Lest we Forget’.
It would be difficult to forget that 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the first World War. Across the country, poppies are blazing in every village church and by the roadside, in town and country, are silent silhouettes, the almost-lifesize representations of those who served in that terrible conflict. We had seen many of them on our journey, and they are deeply moving when you see these lone shadows in the green land they gave their lives to protect. “The war to end all wars” was just another chapter in the violent history of mankind, and it was sobering to reflect that our weekend would revolve around medieval structures whose primary purpose was might.
The church is dedicated to St Ebbe, a sister of the saintly King Oswald, whose relics had once been housed in the area. It is a fairly modern building, dating from 1746, with renovations in 1860. It was built to replace the original chapel, founded by St Æbbe herself in the seventh century, which had fallen into ruins by that date.
It is a simple, small church, exuding warmth from the pink-tinged stone and welcome from its door which, as far as we could see, even stood open at night, with the sanctuary light casting its glow through the stained glass of the east window. It would be a beautiful little place at any time and well worth a visit, but this year, the parishioners have done something remarkable as an act of communal remembrance.
Every window weeps poppies, each one hand made, knitted or crocheted, each one telling a story. There are red poppies for the soldiers who fought and died in the trenches and on the battlefield.
White poppies for those who served but who carried no weapon…the ambulance drivers, stretcher-bearers and those whose belief in peace was stronger than the command to kill.
There are purple poppies for the animals who served our need, without their consent, and yet were maimed and killed …the eight million horses, the donkeys, carrier pigeons, cats, canaries and dogs.
And there are poppies, red and white, for those who were shot at dawn… many who would today be diagnosed as suffering from acute PTSD but were simply condemned for cowardice when they ran from horror.
This little church includes everyone, from the soldiers to the nurses, from those who tilled the fields and fed the country to the mothers who waited and wept.
The WWII Roll of Honour on the wall bears the names of villagers who served and died, but also the names of those who were included in the prayers of this tiny village which, even today, holds only around five hundred souls.
For such a small community, it is a long list… and in every village church there is a similar Roll of Honour. At St Ebbe’s, even the reredos behind the altar is a memorial.
The kneelers are some of the best designs we have seen, including some unusual designs which seem to have been specially made for the occasion…and one with the Tarot ‘Tower struck by Lightning’, which also seemed oddly appropriate.
I should probably talk about the beautiful stained glass with its unusual depictions of saints, and about the carved screen that separates the nave from the chancel, but all the fabric of the church pales into insignificance beside what its people have created within its walls.
A hundred years ago, one murderous conflict ended. My great grandparents served in that war, and some were still here when my own children were young, and still passing on a legacy of memories. A hundred years is not so very long and the legacy of those who lived through those days was passed down to a generation who also took up arms. Their children…our parents…raised us in the aftermath, with memories of their own.
“Lest we forget”? It is not ancient history. Their legacy is a living one, still part of who we are, and will continue as long as humankind takes up arms against each other, seeking still to resolve our differences with the shedding of blood.