The guide at Chichester Cathedral is interested to find me skulking about in the St George’s Chapel, camera at the ready. Am I a student of military history, he wants to know.
I am enchanted at the thought that I might look like a military historian but have to confess that I am just a humble volunteer working on the Great War Project (click on the webpage link on the left
for more information) who has been drawn to the chapel because I need to see the name of Ernest the Farm Boy commemorated therein. Ernest, regular readers will recall, is the subject of one of the case studies have been researching for the project which
reaches its culmination on 4 August 2014 with the launch of a website on which Ernest – among many others – will be featured.
My friendly guide is
keen to hear all about the project. He tells me that when he first became a cathedral guide, many years ago, visitors to St George’s Chapel, where the men of the Royal Sussex Regiment who fell in both World Wars are commemorated, could almost always
tell him about an ancestor or two (or more) who had fought for their country. These days, he tells me with a certain sadness, those with stories to tell are few and far between. I leave the cathedral even more determined to help bring stories from the
past alive before the curtains of memory are finally drawn.
I certainly chose a great day to travel to the County Archives Office. The rain was pouring down as
I waited for the 9.59 train at Durrington station. Mr B, who had kindly driven me to the station, said it was a “Drawbridge Day” if ever he saw one. He didn’t actually say I was quite, quite mad to be venturing out in such weather when I
didn’t really need to, but then he didn’t have to. I can read minds, especially Mr B’s. It comes of being with someone for fifty years, I suppose.
I did really need to visit the Archives Office because today is December 30 and tomorrow is December 31 – and deadline day for submission of my case studies. With a few loose ends to be tied up, my trip was absolutely necessary, nay even essential.
There was hardly anyone else in the Search Room. Presumably all the family historians who usually take up places at the tables were having fun with their current families
– which is just as it should be. There is nothing like researching the past to make you appreciate the present. I plugged in my computer, filled in some document ordering forms and settled down to yet another fascinating day with Ernest the Farm Boy
and his brother, Albert the Gardener.
Regular readers may remember how, the first time I looked through the records of Albert the Gardener (or Albert
Thomas Richardson to give him his full name) I was overwhelmed to come across an envelope addressed to his mother, Louisa, full of pressed wild flowers gathered in the Italian countryside. Nearly a hundred years since they were lovingly pressed by Albert the
Gardener, some of the flowers stand out still noticeably blue amid the fragile brown leaves. I ask if I might take a photograph for my case study and – permission granted – arrange the flowers, with the “On Active Service” envelope,
on the desk. I hold the camera as steady as I can, take three photos for luck and hope to goodness that at least one will not be too blurred to be used. Fanciful it may be, but to me nothing else quite sums up how Albert came to terms with his
four years at war by still finding beauty in the comfortingly familiar flowers and plants – primroses, snowdrops, rock plants - found in a strange land.
I emerge from the Records Office at 4 p.m. the rain has stopped, but it’s starting to get dark. The lights in the city shops and streets remind me, with surprise, that it is still Christmas. I have spent the day in Egypt, France and Italy and it
isn’t easy to click back into the present. I walk to the station, slowly dragging myself back into today's world.
I miss my train. The battery
in my mobile phone is running out so I can only make a hasty call to Mr B to tell him I’ll be on a later train than I’d planned. I buy myself a small skinny latte and sit in the station cafe people watching.
Tomorrow is the last day of the year. I will be with the Youngest of the Darling Daughters and the horrors of war will be far from my mind as we will be watching my third eldest grandchild, Hazel
Bagel, in pantomime.
Oh, yes, we will...