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Fortunately, however, in the s, when they were still on the cusp of living memory, there was a nationwide project to record them.
Schoolchildren were deployed, and by March the Brent Pelham parish magazine could report that Miss Prior, the local headmistress, and her pupils, had managed to collect them all by interviewing farmers and labourers. The names and accompanying maps were gathered from across England and stored in University College London, where they were all destroyed in the blitz.
Luckily, there are copies of the Pelham maps in the church chest at Furneux Pelham, the next parish to Brent, and Hadley is soon poring over them. So it goes in the snakes-and-ladders process of research. The past you find depends on the present you start from, for history is always on the move.
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Evidence is found and lost and found again. Some details, like the field names, get more sparse over the centuries, while others multiply suspiciously as the outline of a legend is filled in with the retelling.
In the cast expanded again. The version published in The Reliquary is the literary equivalent of the most drastic kind of Victorian church restoration, in which all that remains of the Middle Ages is obliterated in the name of improvement. It is a scene from a Burne-Jones tapestry and so, like all the versions of the story, if it gets us no nearer to Shonks, it opens a window on the world of the teller.
Taking another tack, Hadley pursues the origins of the tombstone itself to the Isle of Purbeck, where it was quarried from open-cast mines. Purbeck marble is not a true marble, but polished and inset among stone columns; it is one of the glories of medieval architecture. Here then are underground hollows that bear traces of dragons of a sort, which may have got twisted into history.
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As Hadley shuttles to and fro between contemporary evidence and the researches and speculations of later centuries, the big events of history roll by in the margins. The Reformation does away with purgatory and prayers for the dead; the civil war does away with statuary and stained glass; and the rationalism of the Enlightenment tries hard to do away with folklore.
He pieces together what remains and gradually, like a jumpy piece of early film, time speeds up. The Swing riots rage through the countryside in the s; antiquaries come and go, drawing the tomb; Pelham is startled by surveyors working on the first Ordnance Survey, who appear with a vast horse-drawn theodolite, until gradually modernity dawns.
Hadley wears his scholarship lightly but at the heart of this antiquarian wild goose chase is an ingenious meditation on what history, in all its complexity and unevenness, really is.
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