Recalling those who are no longer with us.
On a hill in Sussex there is a glade of chestnut trees where moss-covered stones mark the site of an ancient castle. On one side is the town of Midhurst, on the other water-meadows. At the foot of the hill stand the ruins of Cowdray House where Queen Elizabeth once stayed and (allegedly) shot a deer with a longbow and arrow.
Historically very little is known about the castle, which was probably only a fortified manor-house. The Norman conquerors of England in 1066 constructed a timber and earthwork castle there and later Sir John de Bohun built a house, abandoned in about 1280.
After that Midhurst was in the hands of Anthony Beck, Bishop of Durham, whose agents are said to have dismantled the site to use the stone elsewhere. Even so “the chapel of St. Denis within the former castle of Midhurst” was still in use in 1291, and was referred to in 1367 as standing “in a place called Courtgrene”. The castle sank into graceful oblivion – disturbed only by deer, pheasants, and curious visitors.
In the town below, the novelist H. G. Wells attended Midhurst Grammar School and later taught there. Wells briefly worked in Samuel Cowap’s chemist shop in Church Street, where (in his own words) he “rolled a few score antibilious and rhubarb pills, broke a dozen soda-water siphons during a friendly broom fight with the errand boy, learnt to sell patent medicines, and dusted the coloured water bottles”. Wells is commemorated by two blue plaques, one on the chemist’s shop and the other on the school, now a listed building, where he taught.
Commemorations of a different kind take place on the hill above, where a natural shrine to the memory of friends is marked by small stones and other mementos. The ashes of at least one old Midhurstian lie nearby and ghostly presences are seen to linger between the trees. It would be fitting if there were an international day of remembrance when families and friends everywhere could recall and voice the names of those no longer with them.
Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his passionate poems of the First World War, but there are lesser known works, among them “Memory” written in February 1918, evoking a lost world:
“When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.
But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
And silence; and the faces of my friends.”