Simon Smith takes a contemplative walk around the grounds of Margam Abbey.
Etching of the remains of the cloisters of Margam Abbey, Glamorganshire, by Henry G. Gastineau, circa 1831. Digitised by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales.
Anyone who visits the grounds of the church of St. Mary nestled within the ruins of Margam Abbey will find some residual sense of recognition. When a place has been on the Earth for nearly a millennium, sitting and watching silently over an ever-changing landscape, time, memories and echoes are bound to simply accumulate like wind-blown leaves in all its dark corners.
Running an eye and a hand over the ruins of the abbey, it is still possible to see the tool marks and striations where the original masons who built this place dressed the stone. In some of those niches most protected from the elements, some of the columns and arches could, in appearance, have been laid only a month ago, so fresh are the marks of their creators, almost making you believe that they’ve nipped off for a quick cuppa somewhere rather than having passed on, joined now even by their great grandchildren many times removed, centuries before I appeared.
Moving closer to the door of the church itself, I stop awhile to do the same thing with the grand chestnut tree that stands sentinel outside the church door. Gnarled, scarred but resolute, its canopy spreads out over the browned leaf litter blanket that muffles the approach to the church door, offering different things to the people who have come here – kissing spot, picnic area, climbing platform. Many have been here before me and they too, like those ancient masons, have left their mark: people like Suzie who, some time ago, felt the need to share with the world the fact that she LVS Keith and, more recently, Ffion and Finley, who declared their affections on 11/4/14.
Time has moved on, and some of the etchings have healed over, becoming knuckled and scabrous over the years. Just as I have wondered about how many generations of builders and monks have since gone to meet the God for whom they built this place, I also ponder these old loves – did they marry? Are their children now running around somewhere? Are they even alive? Or maybe their love was a mayfly of the affections, lasting only for that one summer day in which they stood and took the time to carve each other’s names.
I remember one day, lifting my daughter up to the lower branches and watching her climb, monkey-like, along their length, passing by some of those old names as she went. We started a game: ‘Reaching Joe’, one who dared more than some of the others and climbed much higher up to make his mark on virgin wood. She sits there now in my memory, no longer a tech-savvy fifteen-year-old, but a five-year-old again, legs dangling either side of a thick branch in a should I/shouldn’t I indecisiveness for a few minutes before deciding against it. “Catch me, Daddy” she would call, holding out her arms and sliding from the branch into my waiting embrace.
The spell is broken; the dam bursts and all those halted days tumble past once more, restoring my daughter to her social media wanderings and leaving Joe, whoever he may be, the benchmark for others still to come.
I pass on, moving briefly through the church and away from most of the warm weather crowds. After being outside for an hour the air inside the church is wonderfully cool and laden with the heavy after-aroma of incense following the morning Mass, hanging over the pews and the sleeping marble effigies of the Mansel family that lay across their tombs.
I move through the aisles, toward the rear of the church and back out into the sunshine through the rear doors and on into the attached graveyard, trailing idly between the tumbledown assortment of stones, some leaning with the fatigue of ages, others liver-spotted with white and green splotches of lichen and others still, keeping the secret of their inhabitants’ identity, their names eroded from posterity forever by the actions of wind and rain. These repositories of those long gone have never bothered me – I have always found them fascinating places with their spare, simple poetry of lives lived well and not so well, a sentiment shared by my wife, who even grew up in a street wedged between two different graveyards – one Anglican, one Catholic – often using them as playgrounds.
Many of the graves here, particularly those of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, bare their facts starkly in a simple Born ~ Died ~ format but occasionally, especially in the older stones, there were traces of family stories and the grief, sudden and debilitating, behind their development.
One, the grave of the Loveluck family, was particularly poignant. In 1781 their two-year-old son was taken from them. Young graves always draw an involuntary gasp or comment, particularly as we, in our age of medical advancement, are far less able to imagine a child carried away by a fever or a bout of flu. And what killed this little boy? Many years have passed since there was anyone alive who would have any idea of what ignited their raw grief.
They must at least have taken some solace in the fact that their older son would go on, surviving them to bear the family name through the years. Except, he wouldn’t. In 1787, only six years after the death of his brother, the elder of the Loveluck siblings was to die at the age of eighteen, just as he was stepping through the gates of manhood.
Loveluck…Loveluck…the name rings a bell for a short time until it finally comes to me. A past student, a girl I had taught at various times throughout her school life, bore the surname Lovelock. Such a simple change of one letter, and very appropriate, judging by their lack of good fortune. Too similar to be coincidence, this slight alteration made at some point over the previous two and a half centuries illustrates perfectly how people, families, or even just their names, are scattered across space and the unfolding years, some taking root and staying put, others adapting to circumstances, and some passing into history like shadows.
In many ways, this is all that any of us are doing – moving quietly through life, our existences forming tiny, intricate parts of the immense timeline that’s unfolding around us every day. In the grand narrative of this country park I have played a minor role or two – I have come here both as child and father, but I’ve also spent time here as a teacher and an angler, these last two combining on a number of end-of-summer term school fishing trips to the tiny fishing lake tucked away in the far corner of the park.
I recall one session in particular, in a beautiful little corner peg on a day upon which I felt older than my years, settling down into the shade beneath an overhanging alder to fish gently for tiddlers, using a tiny float and miniscule hooks amongst a scattering of sweetcorn and breadcrumbs. The group of boys we had brought certainly did not feel this a good time to keep silence, choosing instead to swarm in excitement across the banks as though lifted from a page of Lord of the Flies, their hunter-gatherer instincts going haywire. One of these boys set up two swims down with a larger bubble float and big bait tactics, going all or bust for a big fish and the glorious adoration of his mates.
After four hours my quiet meanderings were shattered by the sudden disappearance of the boy’s float and the hooping of his rod as a large swirl erupted on the surface of the water out in front of him. All the other boys suddenly seemed to appear from recesses, branches and a myriad other hidey holes to gather around him and to watch on as he fought and landed the fish, a lovely carp of around eight or nine pounds, punched the air with a triumphant YEEEESS! and cast a very satisfied and superior look in my direction as one of the others gathered it into a waiting net. Off they went to weigh and photograph their prize, leaving me content to continue wading through my stream of tiddlers.
I couldn’t help but smile at his smugness, recognising in it the pride of the young. He had made his mark on the day and he fully deserved to enjoy the moment and every flutter of excitement it offered.
I was reminded of that trip, and the boy’s name, recently, when I parked up and popped into some local shops. When I emerged again and pulled off in the car there he was, now what… twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? A man now, with his friends, chatting about work or life or relationships, or a million other things that adults think about.
Seeing him brought it all jostling back – that fish, the day, the place – the reminiscences swarming through memory like that troupe of excited boys, but I was left wondering whether he remembered me at all, or that lovely carp, or that moment. Who knows – maybe he even now had children of his own, and had already taken them to their first lake, seamlessly passing on a special moment, just like his own, that would linger and last for an age, like the recollection of a first big fish, the enduring fragrance of incense or a name carved clumsily into a tree.