Explanatory note: recently, I've been trying to trace my ancestry in villages in the midlands – Hugglescote, Ravenstone, Edingale – traipsing around churchyards. The Hatchetts were farmers and bootmakers, in a rural area close to the Leicestershire coalfied. The countryside is not pretty, but it's not ugly. Most recently, I visited a place called Croxall on the Derbyshire Staffordshire border. There's no village there now; just a manor house and a Medieval church. Very picturesque. The church is hidden in woodland; the River Mease, which is little more than a brook, runs by it. It's a shared church, without a congregation. Winter evening. Lengthening shadows. Masses of gleaming white snowdrops. No Hatchetts.
Close to Bosworth Field, I finally arrive
At the village of Croxall, a lowering sky
Broods over the manorial estate –
Woodlands, a muddy farm track, a gate.
The neat woodstacks and twisted chimneys
Show an enclosed order, alien to me.
Somehow, I am oppressed by the fields and trees.
I am a stranger here. I seek patrimony.
Maybe an ancestor trod this narrow track
A church warden, perhaps; now I'm back.
The church beckons me. Am I going home?
England is written in its soft grey stone
Faded and creased, like an old diagram.
Perhaps it will tell me who I am.
With its carved alabaster, it's a relic
Of pious times, a Gothic antique –
Breathing, from an exposed gaping crypt
The musty residue of the departed.
The church is halfway towards ruin.
Straining at broken panes, I peer in.
On the old graves, where the past is frozen
A carpet of snowdrops – a white explosion.
I seek meaning, trying to disinter the dead.
Nothing. Sometimes, the past cannot be read.
With a sense of regret, I close the book
Return from the crumbling church and the brook
To the car. Often, the past hides from us
In wild places, smothered by moss and rust
Wherever we go, however hard we try.
The ancient village is lost, so am I.