A-Z of the East Midlands: N is for Newstead (Part One)
You take the rough with the smooth around here. I’m sitting overlooking the cricket field at Nuncargate and contemplating Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of local hero Harold Larwood. I am approached by a man who seems to encapsulate violence in its purest form. From the military fatigues to the stretched earlobes. From the aggressive gait to the face like a throwing knife. He indicated that he wished to join me and I made room for him on the bench. Without preamble he started to talk about how England’s greatest ever fast bowler came from a mining community like Nuncargate. He had a mellow and gentle voice and knew his stuff. We talked for a long dozen minutes of cricket and coal mining and the way the recession hits places like this first and deepest. I enjoyed his company and was delighted to discover that memories of Harold Larwood were alive and respectful in the village where he was born 110 years ago.
Larwood had been a brilliant cricketer, a fearsome fast bowler and a loyal member of the team. History has some putting right to do. He is remembered as a villain on both sides of the world. This is a wrong. He was as much a hero as any sporting great to come out of this country. He followed the instructions of his aristocratic captain so successfully that he was the main reason why England beat Australia in 1932-3. The series became known by a single word; bodyline. The instructions were to aim at the leg side of the batsman and, to complete the tactic, the leg side field was filled with fielders in catching positions. It caused consternation and even heated the telegraph wires between the diplomats of the two countries. Larwood’s faults were that he followed the instruction given to him, by his captain Douglas Jardine, to the letter and that he was a good enough, and quick enough bowler to do it very well. In the 1980s the West Indies side won test series after test series using very similar tactics. Their fast bowlers are rightly considered to be some of the greats of the game. The English cricket authorities cravenly apologised to the Australians for the manner in which victory was achieved. They put all the blame on the man from Nuncargate. Though still at his peak, he barely played for England again. His fortune waned, he left cricket to open a sweet shop in Blackpool and when that too went against him, he emigrated to Australia; the land where he was supposed to be the devil. He lived a good age but was never fully reconciled with the English cricketing world. The Australians however accepted him and recognised his achievements. There is a statue of him hereabouts, which pleases me.
Well informed as my new friend was, he had never read anything by the yet more famous son of the area. Over the line of trees from Annesley Woodhouse (Nuncargate is contiguous with this town) lie the grounds of Newstead Abbey, one time home of England’s finest poet (my opinion) George Gordon Byron. I share a line or two and he laughs at the thought that the lines were written two hundred years ago about a member of the British cabinet.
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
“Aye. I can see that he comes from round here if he writes like that. I always thought it was going to be a load of thees and thous.”
Poetry is supposed to be elevated, uplifting, deferential and respectful. Or so a common misconception implies. People who looked like my new friend were supposed to be people to fear, but he was in fact eloquent and gentle. Aristocratic poets are supposed to explore the abstract concepts of love, honour and valour. Actually Byron did these things better than most but his wicked wit made him a fellow with a huge appeal; a nineteenth century superstar whose light is fading but who should be as widely read, and as truly celebrated, as Shakespeare.
I consider the pair to be on a par. Shakespeare being so much more accessible because he largely wrote plays and his words are spoken for us now on film and on the stage while his poetry remains largely unread. Byron wrote line after line, verse after verse, canto after canto of supremely brilliant verse; funny, rude, disrespectful, acutely observed and directed against the great names of his time. Not many people read poetry these days. Go to a poetry reading and you will have this, as well as having the answer as to why this should be, confirmed for you. If he’d written plays (he was a master of dialogue) he would be far better known today. If he had taken up the new literary form (the novel was about 100 years old when Byron was writing but had yet to make its breakthrough as the dominant literary form) he would command shelves in bookshops in the way Shakespeare does. He was loved, read, admired, despised, hated and adored during his lifetime. Thousands cried all over Europe when he died. There is a simple reason for this. As a man he was famously regarded as being “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” As a poet he was very, very good.
I move a few miles to Newstead Village. It’s a quiet place with long rows of terraced houses, a primary school, a playground where a sign tells children under 13 not to play on the play equipment, a church, a miner’s welfare social club and a railway station. There is also the unmistakable shape of a colliery spoil heap and a small industrial estate in the former pit yard. The one pub I see, the station hotel, is boarded up and for sale. It is a wonderful building. It must have been a glorious pub in the past and could be again. Its position, literally ten yards from the station platform, make it ideal for the drinkers who don’t want to drive their cars. (Just outside Exeter is a village pub (The Beer Engine in Newton St Cyres) that has built a mighty reputation on exploiting the trade of those who wish to arrive by train). It’s a weekday afternoon in the summer holidays. Hardly anyone is about. A forklift truck trundles through the industrial estate and some council workmen mend the roof of the school. The village used to be officially called Newstead Colliery Village. When the pit closed in 1986 it took the heart out of the community. It is still a pleasant place to be but there isn’t much happening. Outside the school weird doll like mannequins stand in place of real children. They somehow symbolise the village.
In Annesley the same story can be told. The pit wheels proudly stand above the site of the colliery. Large tin sheds of industrial estates offer some employment but they add little to the beauty or the grace. A lot of new housing has been built using off the shelf architecture that could make this Folkstone or Peterlee. Everything built here in the last twenty years fights against the natural character of the place. The village has survived two world wars and a century of working at the coal face but has suffered badly from the politicians and planners of more recent times.
A mile or so from Annesley Cutting I find what I set out for. I needed three sets of instructions from three intelligent and obliging people. The first said I might have difficulty parking. The second said she didn’t know how I was going to actually get in as it was so overgrown and the third merely wished me good luck.
I’d been looking for Annesley Old Church and with it I knew I should find Annesley Hall. I knew one to be a ruin the other I had no expectations of. Wiki had told me it was in private hands. I’d come to find the church.
I pull up at the wrong lay-by. I’m by a lodge that has obviously served some grand manor in its time. The pathway into the woods smell a little as though the local youth have taken Byron’s advice for Castlereagh’s grave. I don’t know it but I’m on the “dog and bear path”. It will lead me into the grounds of the Newstead Abbey if I follow it all the way. There are more ghost stories attached to this path than almost any other in Britain. There are also stories of battles and even a Robin Hood narrative. Empty beer cans and numerous signs forbidding motorcycles (together with plenty of motorcycle tracks) betray the nocturnal hangouts of the young and the bored. I can understand them coming here with a few cans. It is a beautiful place to be and a heck of a place to exchange stories.
I get different views of the ancillary buildings attached to Annesley Hall but not a sign of a church.
The next lay by proves more successful. I’m parked and wandering slowly under the tower that DH Lawrence described in The White Peacock.
“The church is abandoned. As I drew near an owl floated softly out of the black tower. Grass overgrew the threshold. I punched open the door, grinding back a heap of fallen plaster and entered the place.”
and Lord Byron wrote with some relief that childhood sweetheart Mary Ann Chaworth remained nothing more than a childhood sweetheart.
“Hills of Annesley, bleak and barren,
Where my thoughtless childhood stray’d,
How the northern tempests warring,
Howl above thy tufted shade
Now no more, the hours beguiling,
Former favourite haunts I see,
Now no more my Mary smiling,
Makes ye seem a heaven to me.”
It is a truly magical place.
(To be Continued)