Creative Non-Fiction by Roger Robson
Excerpted from The Understanding: Rural Tales of Northumberland, Bookcase, 2019
For two weeks each year, round Christmas time, I used to catch moudies with my father as a change from school, university or teaching. Nearly always at this time he would be working at Twizell Home Farm and in the grounds of Twizell House, ten miles North of Alnwick. We always had our bait in the kitchen at the Home Farm where Dave Fife was an old crony of my father’s, and his wife, Poll, was distantly related. They talked affectionately about the Duke of Northumberland popping in for a crack and some bread and dripping before he went fishing at the lake which lay just below the moor edge.
We were privileged visitors to a beautiful world of parkland, hidden woodland ways and rich farmland. I remember picking up huge pine cones from a specimen tree “Pinus Pinaster” in front of “the big hoose” and taking them for the nature table in Alnwick C of E Primary School beside Pottergate Tower. Nothing ever seemed to change in that sheltered world behind the band of screening trees which lined the Great North Road, until one year Twizell House, a massive Georgian mansion, disappeared without trace.
1968. Warenford. North Northumberland. Two men walked side by side through the Twizell House woods, and two small hairy dogs, Cairn Terriers, ran cheerfully round them. On all sides the massive beech boles, with their metallic sheen, rose up to support the bright canopy of leaves through which the sun periodically filtered. The dogs in their running disturbed last year’s leaves which were spread round in the meagre undergrowth, and the rustling and crackling was louder than the voices of the men as they walked steadily through the wood.
The strength of the older man was easy to see in the thrust of his chin, the broad shoulders and neck, and the heavy hands. But his hair was white beneath his cap, his walk had lost its spring and he breathed deeply as if he were concentrating. His square face was more than tanned. The cheeks had the tiny red veins which come from fifty years of sun and wind and rain. As he walked, his eyes were alert to every detail around him: he smiled at the terriers as they fought their twentieth battle in half an hour, he noted the small bird, a tree creeper, as it nervously scuttled round the tree trunk, he glanced at the tall man at his side, but above all he noted every disturbance on the ground, and when he saw a slight depression in the path, he stopped and abruptly sank on one knee, released his spade from the string and traps, and began to chop into the mole-run. The spade, polished to a rich lustre by twenty years of constant use, sliced down unerringly to the hidden tunnel.
The younger man stopped short and turned to watch; the dogs stood round with pricked ears and twitching noses until they were gently kicked aside while the old man shaped the hole to take a trap.
“We’ll set it.” So the young man disentangled a trap, cocked the two springs and handed it to his father. “If they were all like that we’d have an easy time. Do you see how polished the soil is in the run? You can even see the claw marks.”
The young man watched as the old man’s hands made their claw marks as he scratched the soil onto the trap. His own hands were slight and pale like some degenerate version of his father’s, and his face was just beginning to respond to a week of working outside in the Winter sun. Like the old man, he carried a back-load of Duffus patent mole-traps, with their double springs, and
under his arm a sheaf of thin hazel switches to mark the set traps. His spade was fifty years old, fashioned specially for the job at Bolton Smithy. The slender shank had been a gun barrel, the heart-shaped blade was specially graded and tempered so as to sharpen with use. He wore a leather knee-pad specially ordered from Jobsons the Saddlers right next to Hotspur Tower in Alnwick. His hob-nail boots, half turned up at the toe, were from Rogerson’s in Rothbury High Street. But whereas his father wore bib and brace overalls and an old overcoat, the son wore old flannels and a green sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows, for his real job was teaching at Barnard Castle School.
Soon the old man’s brisk stumbling walk began again, the dogs tumbled into their thirtieth brawl and the young man strode easily at his father’s side. Before myxomatosis these woods had heaved with rabbits: black, white and pied ones, and a few proletarian brown. Even the moles were exotic, for every year the trappers caught a few white moles with their golden pelts and ginger bellies. Tiny pink eyes appeared if you knew where to blow the hair at the side of their heads.
Only in the grounds of the big country houses do you find a wood like that with the huge trunks like Gothic pillars all around; with gaudy pheasants strutting to cover in the rhododendrons; and with the grassy rides in the midst of the trees. Sure enough, the pair came before long to a gamekeeper’s house set deep among the trees so that the flowers in the small garden had to crane their necks up to the light. But here, by the house, to the sharp eyes of the molecatchers came the first signs of decay. The tidy garden emphasised how wild the undergrowth was elsewhere; the tarmac road was mossed over, and weeds grew there. The man in the garden was no strong-stepping keeper, but a frail stooping man capable only of tending his garden.
At every step the sense of decay deepened: the cobbled stable yard grew ragwort and dockens two feet high; the walled garden, except for one meticulous and tiny plot was a wilderness of weeds and rotten fruit trees, crumbling walls and skeletal glass houses. While the father set another trap the young man peered into the wrecked interior of a summer-house which had once been a horse-drawn tram in Gosforth. All that was recognisable in the debris was a single croquet mallet……no sign of parasols and boaters and strawberry teas; and nothing remotely resembling a lawn.
By now the massive shape of the hall dominated the two figures, and before long they stood squarely in front of the house where they looked up the steps to the elegant portico. As they looked at the huge blank of the open front door, a figure appeared on the parapet and flung down a lump of lead to the growing heap at one side of the house. From the interior came a loud crash of breaking glass, while a contorted voice sang the latest love song in an American-Northumbrian accent. The demolition workers had arrived.
Even in decay, the grandeur of the rooms persisted. The molecatchers talked to the dusty workers inside, and roamed round the spacious drawing rooms. They heard how a gold pen had been found behind the bookcase that the Duke had bought; they poked their noses into the dingy kitchens and back rooms, noticed the steep-turning maids’ staircase, but chose to climb the elegant sweep of the main stairs, and to flit from bedroom to bedroom as the demolition men stripped the coloured glass from the roof light over the staircase. The two terriers sniffed about half-heartedly and did not wander far from the young man’s heels.
For several minutes neither man spoke.
The old man’s mind went back to the days in his own village when he played cricket for the squire’s team in Netherwitton, and went – a farmer’s son – on his little black pony to the meets in front of “the big house”. He had skated on the squire’s lake and sledged down the road behind the hall. One frosty Christmas, the hall was dimly visible at midnight as he stood beneath the storm lanterns with the village choir as they sang, “Lead Kindly Light”, outside the house of a dying girl. The maids had been courted at the kitchen door and in the village dances. He had roamed the woods as much as a man whose brother is gamekeeper dare roam the squire’s woods. And he had touched his cap as the squire’s motor car passed him and had choked in the dust that followed.
He remembered the thrill of being recognised and acknowledged by the gentry. They had trained the village lads to play cricket and tennis; they kept an eye on the school and church; and their women-folk attended to the needs of the old and ill in the village, the deserving poor. But he remembered also, the blank fear he had when their tempers were roused and he recalled the arrogance of their manner.
In 1915 four of his brothers, the village football team and the gentry’s sons had all gone to war. A simple memorial between Netherwitton School and the bridge listed their names: the sons of farmer and labourer and cobbler and gentleman. That stone spelled out the death of a generation and the beginning of the changes which led to the empty drawing rooms and to the lead- stripped roof of Twizell House.
The younger man wandered idly round, noticing the graceful proportions of the rooms and the remnants of the moulded plaster round the ceiling and at the fireplace. These faded rooms were meant to be full of opulent furniture, the newest fashions, and graceful, cultured people.
But Frank Schofield at the Duke’s Grammar School in Alnwick had taught him that these great houses were built by the wealth of the exploiters. For these stones and trees, negroes had suffocated in thousands in putrid ships; children had crawled through the festering mine-tunnels. In the New World, native tribes had been massacred, robbed, abused and enslaved. At home, country-dwellers starved as their Commons were grabbed and the ancient allocations of land were arrogantly terminated. Of course, the smell of the rotten source of money never penetrated the subtle, rain-sharpened scents of the quick- rising woods and the lush parkland. There were no mills or slag- heaps within the iron palings and the high walls.
And yet the young man looked wistfully around him at the elegant facade, the pillared portico and the wide rise of steps. The gentry had scoured the world for the seeds for those huge trees in the park. They had let loose the talents of local lad Capability Brown to shape the landscape. They sought out the best architects, the best craftsmen. They filled their houses with Italian marble and moulded ceilings. Chippendale furnished the rooms, Gainsboroughs hung on the walls. Many of the old landlords had ruled their domain with a benevolence and interest which no state system could emulate. Despite his socialism, the young man regretted the passing of a way of life. In his mind he knew that the privilege of wealth and birth had to be demolished; but his heart saddened as he left the dusty, empty rooms and watched as more lead fell to the waiting pile.
Beyond a newly felled strip of trees, a stream of cars, petrol tankers and heavy lorries moved along the road. Together and silently the two men and the dogs crossed the overgrown lawn till they merged once more into the trees and returned to the work in hand.
Roger Robson’s father was a molecatcher for seventy years; his mother was a shepherd’s daughter from a remote valley in the Cheviot hills. That obscure rural culture resonates through The Understanding, his collection of short stories, based on his family’s oral history and published originally in The Northumbrian magazine. For forty years he has written every week in the Cumberland News about traditional wrestling, and he has published A Documentary History of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling.