In the beginning

Hodburn Wood started life as a novel about a residential home in the north east of England. I had been visiting my dad who had been staying in one. They are, for me, depressing places filled with those at the end of  their lives; their family either unable to look after them, or perhaps there was just no family left alive or willing to take them in. Either way, there they were wandering around in various states of mind, some lost to the rhythms of their owm making, sitting suddenly on the floor, feet raised in the air, others crouched in their wingbacked chairs, fearful calling out, or else withdrawn eyes blankly staring; and then there were those painfully aware of their surroundings  grimly looking out enduring their fate. There were one or two making the best of it: twin sisters who looked as if they might have walked out of a Dickensian scene busily making ragdolls at a table in the corner, the kindly lady who ran the in-house sweet shop and a curious elderly genteman who dressed impeccably, such as you might imagine a country squire of old to – tweed sports jacket, bow tie, rigorously polished shoes – politely addressing his fellow inmates and seating himself expectantly, as if soon he would be away attending an important event.

It was this character who caught my attention, wondering what his story was… which led me to imagine a tale of murder and intrique in an old person’s home.

Here was one beginning to that story:

It was an imposing house, like a fortress, its grey chiselled stones embedded deep in the earth rising up to the bruised strewn sky in turrets of imperious implacability as if its existence stretched back to the beginnings of time and forward to its end.  Standing on the top of an escarpment, it looked down on the sheep cropped grass which was of the palest green and pockmarked with the neat random piles of mole hills. Casually thrown rock, locally quarried, but uncut, marked the gravel track which wound its way up to the house and the solitary windswept tree, its gnarled finger-like branches pointing west away from the vast horizons of the restless sea that lay just 2 miles to the east.

This was Lethe House an unfortunate appellation for a residential home filled as it was with poor souls wandering the banks of that river from antiquity in various states of forgetfulness before making the final crossing to oblivion. Indeed on recognising the inappropriate connotations of the name, it was the first of many changes the new proprietors, or I should say managers, made when they bought the building in the year 1980 and after much discussion and consultation they had decided upon, ‘Darling House’ after Grace Darling, who in 1838 had rowed into the tempestuous North sea and saved the survivors of a ship wrecked on the forbidding rocks off the Farne Islands. It wasn’t just the stoic heroism they were after – the great feat in fact was performed 45 miles down the coast  – but also the warm pleasant intimacy conveyed by the proper noun’s association with the adjective of the same form. So Darling House it was and to further the homeliness and thereby the attractiveness of the building the letters of  ‘Darling House’ were burnt into a nicely varnished cross section of wood, the edges still retaining the bark for an added quaint touch, and hung by small linked chains from the arches of the front porch. Along with the years of wisteria piling thickly over the arched entrance and the sign ‘Darling House’ swaying gently in the breeze, the effect given was really quite quaint mitigating the otherwise rather harsh exterior of the place and no doubt instilled a sense of home from home for the residents. But to the locals it was ‘Lethe House’, always had been and no doubt as the saying goes, always will be and the joke like all unthinking jokes regarding the unfortunate, was commonplace with the younger inhabitants of the village.

As to why the house was named ‘Lethe’ there were several conflicting rumours which take us back to the early 19c and a certain Hillary Belsingham. Completed in 1828, ten years before Grace was to set out with her father to rescue the stricken ship, much mystery surrounded the owner. At that time, the village of  Figbod  the name deriving from Feigrbod an Old Norse expression  meaning  a settlement  for those fated to die  – indicating  an unusual Viking leaning towards despair and yet another irony with regard to ‘Darling House’ had a population of around 130. It was largely made up of fishermen, curers and smokers of kippers; there were some who worked out at the Lime kiln, small farmers and there was a certain Joseph ‘the smuggler’ Camudon who everyone knew had a distillery hidden away up in the hills. Indeed everyone knew the business of everyone or at least thought as much so the appearance one blustery grey day of a well, if slightly fancily dressed gentleman didn’t go unnoticed. He was seen alighting from a carriage and clasping top hat with one hand and hugging his body with the other had set of along the harbour wall with such a purposeful stride it looked to all and sundry as if the man was hell bent on a meeting with death itself. It wouldn’t be the first time a young man had hurled himself from the harbour walls and for a moment there was an excited consternation coming from the one and only drinking establishment as ruddy and pock-marked and craggy-faced villagers jostled and strained to watch the man on the harbour wall through the sea stained, breath fogged window of the Fisherman Inn.

As you can see, what was meant as an interesting aside about the history of Lethe House had become more substantial than I had intended. Characters appear and the beginnings of plot: is Hillary going to throw himself into the sea? I was supposed to writing about an intrique in a residential home in the 1980s…

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