At Rest

This old stone ark / moored on the hump back / of the Whin Sill, is rock / is rainbow, is anchor / Buttressed against weather, / like hands arched in prayer… From ‘Throckrington Church’ by Linda France.

What do the following three outstanding individuals have in common?

William, Lord Beveridge (1879 – 1963). Liberal politician, economist & social reformer whose 1942 report laid the foundations for the post war welfare state.

Tom Sharpe (1928 – 2013). Satirical novelist and anti-apartheid activist in 1950’s South Africa. Based on his teaching experience in Cambridge, Sharpe’s darkly comic romps – the Wilt series, Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue – becamebest selling novels in the 1970’s & 80’s, and were filmed for TV.

Constance Leathart (1903 – 1993) Daughter of a wealthy Tyneside industrialist, A pioneering inter-war aviatrix, aircraft repairer; later an officer in the Air Transport Auxillary, delivering planes from factories to airfields during WW2.

All three are buried in the churchyard at Throckrington, Northumberland.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Tom Sharpe died, aged 85, at Llafranc in north-east Spain, his home for the previous 20 years. Close friend and associate Dr Montserrat Verdaguer fulfilled the author’s wish for his ashes to be placed near his father’s grave at St Aiden’s. Unfortunately this was done without permission and a consistory (ecclesiastical) court held in Newcastle found against her. The ashes – along with the author’s favourite pen, a Cuban cigar and bottle of whisky – were removed. Unsurprisingly this bizarre saga got a lot of media attention.

Beveridge was briefly MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and had family ties with the area, and his wife Janet is buried next to him. Connie Leathart, who became increasingly eccentric on retirement, moved to live at a nearby farm, where she ran a donkey sanctuary. Her grave is a simple stone, easily overlooked, with the letters CL engraved in it. The churchyard is graced on one side by a carpet of heath bedstraw which adds a glow to the ground. The church porch noticeboard displays a wonderfully worded missive from the vicar that made me smile…

‘This Church is open at all times for the curious or anyone in need of shelter, a breather, inspiration or reflection. Please close the door after you because the swallows haven’t worked out how to lift the latch to get out, and please close and bolt the gate as tups (male sheep) want to be with their mates, not stuck in the graveyard’.

St Aiden’s is one of the oldest churches in the county, dating from 1100. Sitting proudly on an outcrop of the great whin sill, it overlooks wide swathes of open pasture and woods, as well as plantations and wind farms on the far ridges. The chancel walls and its impressive arch survive. Of the medieval settlement at its foot, where a farm and host of sheds now stand, there is no sign, having been long abandoned or simply built over. Legend has it that a sailor returning home in the mid 19th century brought typhus with him, and that eradicated the already declining population of Throckrington village. Today’s parishioners are drawn from the closest clusters of hamlets, farms and an old family run estate or two.

Our exploratory ramble took us (and a number of cyclists) along a little used metalled lane through big fields of rough grazing. After a mile or so we broke away to circumnavigate Colt Crag reservoir, one of a series of interconnecting Edwardian reservoirs supplying Newcastle/Gateshead starting at the headwaters of the River Rede, just below the Scottish border at Carter Bar.

The water level at this remote and peaceful site, after a prolonged period of little rain, was decidedly low. Set in a hollow, the natural feed stream at its highest point snaked down through residual mud to the depleted still waters below. Scrub plants were establishing between stone slabs of its recently exposed apron. The stoic figure of a lone fisherman in waders, standing thigh deep in the shallow waters, was casting his line for trout.

Sheltering woodland and the sandy soil perimeter vehicle access track allow a lively array of various meadow plants to thrive, like this mix of thyme and trefoil.

Returning on a gentle amble along the gated lane to Throckrington we had our picnic on the grass verge after exploring church and grounds. Further entertained in watching the farm’s shepherd co-ordinating quad and border collies to shift a flock of sheep with lambs off on to distant broad pastures.

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