As I have said before, Burnthorpe is a small town of remarkable age with an old history of invasion and creation, followed by invasion and destruction and more to-ing and fro-ing through the Civil War. Generations of competition as to who were the original settlers, which family surname survived or was depleted by rank outsiders.
Enclosure had some effect and the early days of Industrialisation meant even closer ties between the outliers of weavers. Following the advent of cotton mills in the region there was further thinning, or rather distribution, as those more desperate or adventurous moved away for work at those rising cotton factories.
The high hills around the town were scarps of chalk, remnants of the ocean life that covered the area millenniums ago. If you travelled a few miles away and a few hundred feet into those stiff hillsides through the white smokey chalk and flints you would have found the thin seam of coal. Enough for a peasants winter fires. Follow it vertically and the seam spread wider into a compressed forest. Coal that was easy digging and firm enough to rouse local industry.
Water power as good as succumbed to steam except where the milling was fine or the engine housing could not be built on the weavers mill. The farmers brought in static engines to their timber yards and steam tractor could plough a larger field in a day that might take a man and plough-horse five days.
So the town, with its occupants, ebbed and flowed like the sea, a just-visible line on the horizon from the hilltop. Always there, always full of undercurrents, flotsam, jetsam and people trying to stay afloat.
The two churches stayed, emptying as the years rolled on. The Elizabethan inn remained, re-daubed and propped up on the old stable wall. They did not demolish the stables in the yard, they just fell away. The narrow bricks finally crumbling back to their Dutch dust though the Elizabethan oak beams were usefully carried away to their final resting places as heavy mantelshelves, lintels over fireplaces, by an enterprising builder in the mid sixties.
New houses, a new area built almost as a giant lintel itself to support the old market town. Or more like a great balloon of houses with crescents galore sitting along the top line of a capital T and the original High Street the bole with short roots protruding at its base which were the original lanes and footpaths into the depths of the country. Terraced houses wound up the hillside with their neatly tiled roofs as a legacy from the early NIneteenth Century. Always changed but never moved.
The Burnthorpe and District Local Historical Society was assembled in the large back room of the Jolly Puritan. Busie Warboys, publican, sat on his high stool behind the bar and absent mindedly wiped the brass edging with a cloth while he listened to the meeting in progress.
The vicar sat back in his chair, cigarette in the fingers of the hand that his chin was resting on. The smoke from the tip of the cigarette curling up into his eyes and hair. He blinked, shook the half inch ash onto the floor, took a final long draw and stubbed it vigorously into the saucer by his pint glass. He was there as a pillar of the society rather than for History, though the Civil War did have some attractions.
Madelie Carew sat beside Walter Copper, the policeman. Both were regulars to the bar and sat in the meeting as a matter of politeness. Busie now considered them a bit of an odd couple as they sat together whenever they were both in but never seemed to speak. One bought the other a drink, the other passed money for a few choices on the juke box that was in the public bar but loud enough to seep into the back-room where they all now sat.
Angel came through the gap between the service area of the bars and collected four bottles of tonic water from the shelves behind the publican said feet. He fidgeted them out of the way.
Angel looked across at the group and studiously avoided the eyes of Walter. He was trying to decide if she was old enough to work behind the bar. Vicar’s daughter or not, it might not be legal. But then he knew she wasn’t drinking, Busie would see to that, so maybe just knowing where she was was enough.
The librarian continued talking, “So very little has happened in the last year. We have re-visited the Danish Camp and done some more measurements to map out the site more fully. There has been a request that we investigate the old timber yard. It was suggested that we might have an old charcoal burners camp there.”
“More like it is old Joe’s camp fire.” Walter threw in the comment to break the rhythm more than be useful.
“Not exactly in the yard but up in the woods a bit. There is a small clearing that fits the criteria.”
“Is that where they did the training during the war? I recall there was exercises all round there. Caused havoc with getting the timber out.”
“That was the 14-18 war?” Queried the librarian.
“No, ’44, it was. Mind you timber was a bit ropey anyway, only useful as logs, most of it.” The gamekeeper, Sam Roach, was the fount of knowledge on his acreage, attending the meetings as a duty to his work and his employer. Big, bluff and ruddy outdoor complexion he was a stalwart of the village. The vicar, as the others did, knew him also as a deputy undertaker and pall-bearer. Despite his size and strength when dressed in the sombre black of his second trade he was a symbol of consideration and care. In the fields he could wring a neck in the flick of a wrist but beside a grave his handshake wrought nothing but sincerity and consolation.
Several others sat in a half-circle set away from the main table, each man and woman a mainstay of the Society too, but as they lived in the new town and visited the Jolly Puritan only for such meetings they had felt honour-bound to take the outer seats. Anyway, they were nearer the door so could make their excuses to leave when the business was done.
Last round the table was Lady Matilda, widow of the late estate owner……..SIr Mortimer Rissome. She was a loyal supporter of the Historical Society, especially where the research entailed members traipsing across her acreage or entering the old estate church now seemingly buried in its own private copse of bramble and ivy. And tonight it seemed the old timber yard was even considered particular in maybe having a remnant of charcoal burners. “Hardly historic”, she thought of this last item. She looked across fondly to the gamekeeper and was sure he would look out for the estate and herself. Then returned her mind to the librarians reporting voice.
“So we ought to continue writing up the results from the Danish Camp for the County Records and get together a group to investigate the charcoal burners site.”
“You might find it wuz gypsies”. Said a voice from the back row.
“Maybe, but no harm in checking the site.” Replied the librarian, “A couple of us can volunteer to visit there.”
Lady Matilda closed her eyes briefly and sighed quietly.
“I will have a careful poke around if you like. Said Walter, realising too late his wording could have been better for the librarian, ” My beat takes me up there so an extra ten minutes ferreting about wont be missed”. More errors in choice of language, maybe. Heignored the warming glow spreading into his neck. ” I will read up on it, and take notes.” Hoping this would retrieve the situation for the librarian.
“Thanks, just a careful recce. then. We can get a full group up there after you have reported back”
Matilda’s eyes closed briefly again to hide her heavenward look.
The meeting drew to its anticlimactic end. The librarian replaced his briefcase, the outlanders called out cheery goodbyes as they slid out. Sam Roach held the door open for Lady Matilda to follow her to the car in which he chauffeured her home and the librarian downed the last half of his beer and rushed out to get home in time for his radio programme.
“Last orders everyone. Get Busie busy for once” the vicar raised his voice and glass as a sign for refills and went to stand at the bar. Busie pulled him a pint. Vicar dropped silver and copper coins onto the slop-mat.
“I’m off home.” Said Madalie.
“I’ll do the same.” Said Walter. They both called goodnight as the door closed on them.
The Puritan, swinging on his sign above, one side with hand on a Bible, other side with hand firmly on a tankard, rocked gently and wondered when the young man and woman walking down the short steep to the road would start listening to each other. He took a crafty pull from the tankard and tucked the Bible more firmly under his arm.
PC Walter Copper called out for Joe as he rounded into the old yard. Surprisingly Joe was not around so Walter abandoned his bike to the ground, called out again to no reply and so decided to wander into the trees in search of the charcoal-burners remains.
He followed the directions in his notebook from the recent meeting. There was no need really as he had been there several times before to quiet the local youths having there late night party and bonfire. Oddly enough, it seemed to have been exactly the same place as the old charcoal pit was alleged to be. Looking around the black scarred circle, the bare earth with its tussocks scattered about and the few old logs was depressing enough. The beer bottles and a couple of the new seven pint beer tins, all empty, were scattered about. A few screwed up bags and paper plus a plentiful supply of cigarette butts complimented the scene.
“Charcoal burners aren’t what they used to be”, he tutted. He had no real idea of what to look for but found the semi-clearing just into the woods they had talked of. The big black circle that dipped into the ground had obviously had years of fires in it but whether it was a slow burn, carefully stoked by watchful burners or just where years of men had kept themselves warm between cutting the war- timber, he had no idea. Bits of rubbish spread even here and he collected some of the more obvious cartons and match boxes from the scattered area of undergrowth and threw them into the centre of the ash-black circle.
At the further end of the clearing, if you could call it that, he found three large stones sitting in the ground that reached knee height. They were surrounded by tall wild ferns and lichen covered the tops and sides like thick velvet and only visible as he stood beside them and bent down to remove fern spores from his uniform trousers. He stood straight, hands on hips and studied them.
Too large and heavy to be your average or just old gravestones. Too small to match the towns symbolic large boulder at the end of the HIgh Street yet could be as old and as oddly placed. Three, close together would be a coincidence too far for dear old Mother Nature, he thought.
It’s not an outcrop. Not part of a building as far as he could judge.
He looked around for more. Parting the ferns with rustles and more spores clinging to the serge of his trousers.
‘Dammit’ he said, looking at the myriad of green spores clinging to his legs, bent down and tried to brush them off. Bent lower as he found he had to pick them off, one by one. He sat down on the end stone and twisted the nearest stalk out of his way, out of the ground. The first came easily so he pulled at another to get them away from his clothes, it too flicked out of the ground easily, the clump of root flinging the layer of loose mulch around. One more cleared and he could sit and pick the green spots off his legs. With the confidence of previous success he grabbed two close stalks with both hands, fronds waving in his face and pulled mightily. They flew out of the ground and the sudden release of their tension flung him backwards. The change of angle from shoulder to hip, the auto-countering reaction of his body and the lush deep padding of the slippery lichen surface sent him crashing onto the ground, face down onto stalks and fern leaves and all.
Your perspective changes quite radically when you are suddenly lying on your side. In Walters case he could see the skeletons of curled ferns and the rising stems of this year’s growth. To his surprise he even noticed a few ants progressing up one of them to the black aphids secreting at the branch of the leaf and a lone ant descending from them, clambering over the ascending ants with no thought that it might be vertically challenging. He twisted onto his knees, mentally checked that he wasn’t hurt more than he was embarrassed. Hesitated as to whether to grab at a stone to haul himself up or just push up off the ground. Looking to put his hands in a flat, cleanish place he picked at a small stone that dug into his palm. ” Flint most likely”.
Walter could have moved his hand an inch or two but the complex of curiosity, a stubborn eccentricity as to why he should move one hand from his chosen spot (!) and the shape of the flint encouraged him to scrape at the dirty stone. Determined, he took out his jack-knife and applied the tool for taking stones out of horses hoofs. “One day I will learn what it is called, might even use it on a horse if the worst really happens,” he muttered as he prodded and scraped a hole round the seemingly growing flint.
He never minded the dirt on his knees or the scores of bobbed spores all over his uniform but looked around carefully before he stood up. Shutting the tool away with a spring-snap and shoving it into his pocket, he then took out his handkerchief and wrapped the object. It was blackened with the ingrained mulch and charcoal dust, the size of a large coin. Convexed each side with caked mud and the size of a cartwheel penny. Which was his guess as it was quite heavy but did not feel as solid as flint. Checking that no one was watching, he stuffed the protected token into his tunic pocket. A quick brush of his knees and he strolled back through the trees to the path and his bicycle. Climbed on and pedalled on the road home. Whistling as he pedalled, returning the wave of the woman in her garden hanging washing out.
At a special meeting of the Historical Society they all sat round the small table, tightly shoulder to shoulder so they could all get a clear view.
“It will have to go to the Coroner.”
“It’s a museum piece.” Confirmed the librarian.
“Where did you find it?” Asked Matilda.
“I was looking at the charcoal burner site. Found by accident really.”
“So it was on the estate, then.”
“It will be in the report to the Coroner, I shouldn’t say more exactly in case people get wind of it. It looked like a gathering of the clans up there with all the rubbish.”
“It’s the party-place.” Put in Angel from behind the bar. “Everyone goes there for a drink and a bash in the summer, most weekends anyway. ”
“I didn’t know that,” said Walter.
“Everyone else does.” Said the vicar.
Walter picked up the the object. ” It was black with dirt. I assumed it was an old copper coin. One of those large penny things you might get at a jumble sale.” He turned it in his hand so the lights from the electric candles in the candelabra above their heads could catch the amber set in its centre. The insect inside seemed to wriggle a little at the movement.
“I washed it in the sink and thought it was some sort of copper clasp but that colour washed off as I rubbed it. Well, shaving brush and soaped it. Anyway, the green bits floated away and a bit more warm water finished up with this.” He weighed it in his hand and they all looked harder, as if it had cleaned itself as he spoke.
“It’s not copper, its Viking gold” said the librarian. “I think it is a clasp for a cloak, that is why it is so big. And when I looked at illustrations in the library I am certain it is a Viking design. It looks Celtic but the dragons heads and twining round the stone are similar to confirmed Viking designs.”
“Is it worth much?” Asked Matilda.
“In itself? Maybe if it can be linked to a king or somebody particular. Obviously a few pounds but most importantly if it can be linked to Burnthorpe history in some way and not just a bit of lost property it will be valuable to the town”.
“Well, I suppose we will have to wait and see. Have a proper look at the site.” Said Walter, putting the clasp back on the table.
“I can see the headlines now,” said Busie, ” local copper cleans up in Burnthorpe”
“Maybe: ‘Copper clasps gold at last’ ”
“Amber lights for golden copper”
“P.c’s copper becomes Viking gold”
“Copper turns up gold”
“Copper wants another drink!” Walter picked up the clasp, stood and moved to the bar to forestall any more headlines.