|Author: Bilco||Title: THE TORCH OF CROMWELL By Bilco|
|Date: 2012-02-07 21:29:42||Uploaded by: Archie|
THE TORCH OF CROMWELL By Bilco
I SUPPOSE the first time I noticed something strange about the old Nunnery in Thetford, Norfolk, was when I stopped by there one fine early summer afternoon many years ago. I had a battered old Enfield 350 in those days, was single and fancy free, and was out training my old birds for a bash at Lerwick. that Thetford was right off the line of flight for my loft is true, but I had been throughly imbued with the theory that all round tossing was the correct thing to do in those days, so Thetford it was.|
After pulling on to the verge of the Common that skirted the left hand side of the road to Bury St Edmunds in those days, opposite the old Spike or Workhouse. I carefully placed the basket on a small grassy mound while i prepared to relax for a while, then I noticed the birds. They were all facing the rear of the basket, every last one of them, staring out of the wicker, unmoving, rigid, almost as if watching a hawk, or cat. As I lit up a Woodbine I stared long and hard in the direction of the Nunnery, some three or four hundred yards away, but seeing nothing amiss I sat myself down on the soft grass and enjoyed my smoke, stretching out my legs and balancing one booted foot on top of the other.
I suppose I must have relaxed there for bout 10 minutes before stubbing out my cigarette, then, after arching my back to get rid of the crick in my shoulders, I prepared to let the birds go. they still stood, unmoving, facing the old Nunnery and not so much as a coo or a peck between them. I was pussled I can tell you.
They were all old birds, all over 3 years old, fit and fresh as good grub and fresh water, plus hard training, could make them. There were a couple of hard cases in there, birds that would have a crack at any other pigeon at the drop of an eyelid, and it was definitely odd to see them standing so quite and still. I must have looked at them for about four or five minutes, I couldnt make it out. Then I poked my fingers into the top of the basket and wiggled them about to see what the birds would do. They ignored me. I prodded a couple of them and they ignored me, so - getting a bit worried - I opened the basket and hauled them out, one at a time to look at them, but apart from turning their heads to remain looking in the direction of the old Nunnery as I moved them around, they remained motionless. I put em back, still puzzled, and finally dropped the front.
I literally had to lift those birds out in order to make them fly, finally tipping the baskets up. they went of like bullets, due south, right away from home. When almost out of sight altogether, they started to circle, then after a couple of circuits they struck of west for home. Apart from thinking that pigeons could be damned queer at times, I dismissed the incident from my mind and, strapping the basket back onto the pillion, set off for home.
The next time I happened that way was a year later, I again arrived at the same place with my basket of trainers, and set them down for a few minutes while I had a smoke. Believe it or not, the birds behaved exactly the same as they had the previous year. this so intrigued me that I walked the 300 yards over to the low grey stone wall that bordered the Nunnery, and peered over to see what it might be that so rivetted the birds attention.
I could see nothing unusual, Id better explain that the place is still called the Nunnery, even though there have been no Nuns there for many years, having been sacked and ruined by Cromwellian troops in the war against the Roundheads centuries ago. today it is a thriving farm, and the great grey stone walls, some four feet thick, now house - or did when I last saw them - some excellent stables and an indoor riding school. I must have stood there for some 20 minutes, looking the place over, but for the life of me I could see nothing wrong. The same reaction was shown by the birds though, and after tossing them I set off home, muttering rhubarb or something similar to myself. The following year again I found a decided mystery about the Nunnery, and the reason for my birds strange behaviour during the two seasons when released near there.
Its funny how Fate ordains things you know! Id had reason to notice the Nunnery twice in two years, and the third year I went further, I moved jobs and started to work there. The owner kept a large and quite useful string of race horses there, exercising and rearing them on about one third of the 1,000 acres that are part and parcel of the property. My father went there as Stud Master and I, as the bone headed idiot who knew better than to work seven days a week for a few shillings pocket money my unlamented sire allowed me, went to handle the coal black stallion that held court there at the time. I remember this horse well, he had been a middling good handicapper up 1 1/2 miles, and was a Christian with me handling him.
He detested the sight of my father though, and would charge him every time he set foot in the doorway of his loose box. This kept me in stitches - as I too detested my father with as much, if not more animosity and to see my charge handing out the sort of treatment to the old man that I would dearly liked to have given, was balm to my soul. id have done the job for no wages at all for that pleasure alone, and as I only had mere five shillings out of my $4 wage at the time, that wouldnt have made much difference to me anyway. Anyway, back to the tale, and to the pigeons.
Id been at the Nunnery for about six months when I decided it was about high time I built myself a loft and re started in the sport. Id sold, or given away my team before moving to Thetford, and it took me a month or so to get together enough of them to re-start with. Building a new loft took only a few evenings, and it was not long before I had the place fitted with nestboxes, perches, drinkers and a feeding hopper. The sandy soil of that area only needed to be turned over in the suns strong glare for it to dry out, and it made an excellent deep litter I built a wire aviary on the top of the loft and the birds loafed about in it all day long. When I had YBs strong enough to fly up on the trap I let them laze about for a week, then one Friday evening I took down the whole issue and let the babies have the freedom to fly as they wished.
They did. Every last one of them took to the air and made a beeline for the town a mile away. I saw them perched on every roof, but nary a one ever returned to me at my place. Deciding this catastrophe was more than flesh and blood could stand. I then tried to break the old birds in, so - choosing the next calm evening - with the birds full of grub, I let em out. They did exactly the same as the YBs, scarpered, every last one of them, and all I had left in the loft was some three or four pairs of eggs and a couple of babies not yet old enough to fly, or feed themselves for that matter.
Now, to lose a few babies first time out is not unusual, but when the lot fly it makes you think, or at least it made me think. When you are breaking old birds in to a new location it is usual for them to at least fly round the place, even if only a half dozen times, but you almost never see the lot vanish like mist in the summer sun, theres always one or two that will settle after a spin or two of the new loft. Not this lot though, not one of them, so I did a bit of thinking.
Coming to the conclusion that i must have been rearing and housing a loft full of idiots, I then went the rounds of the local lofts in an effort to either recover whatever of my stock had gone in them, or to acquire more birds, preferably local stuff that would be acclimatised. I got both, since almost every youngster and half of the old uns had found themselves a perch in one another local loft, and it was higher hopes and much relief that I took my birds home again and restored them to their perches. The evenings following I tried again the wire cage, feeding and watering the birds on the roof for a couple of days in an effort to get them used to their surroundings, and on the next Saturday evening I again let them out. The same thing happened, just as before, and every bird shot of like the clappers and disappeared from view in the direction of Thetford.
Now this narked me a bit. I got the birds back again and a couple more that had trapped in after a weeks hunger, and I bought in a dozen YBs from local fanciers at very reasonable prices I lost the lot again!
So it went on, week after week, right through the season. I had birds given to me, loaned to me, and sold to me, left, right and centre, but I couldnt get so much as even one of the blighted things to even circled the damned loft, let alone return to it. I investigated every square yard of the garden round the place, even digging it all over in case there was unsuspected smell in the ground that might be the cause of it, but no. Not a haporth of difference as the advts say. I moved the loft 50 yds, laid gin and tunnel tarps, in case I was being visited by varmints that troubled the birds. I sprayed every square inch of the loft against every known pest, just in case parasites were the reason for the hasty departure of the birds, and still they wouldnt stay within half a mile of the place. I was foxed. more than that, I was damned well beat by phenomenon and I didnt like it one bit, then - just as I was getting to be completely down hearted about the whole thing - I discovered the reason why no pigeon ever stayed on the place a second longer than it took to get the hell out of it.
Dont imagine that all the foregoing took place in a few days. It might have taken you only a few minutes to read it, but these activities were stretched out over a period of months. Right through Spring, summer, autumn and into the winter to be precise.
When winter came I had re-stocked again, and was determined to keep the birds in for a full year, if necessary, in an effort to break them in. A calm, if foggy, November faded into December and though the weather was cold it wasnt bad. Snow fell thickly early on in the month, and we had great fun around the place. The two rivers that ran through the farm were well stocked with fish, and wildlife flourished in abundance, with ducks and geese feeding on the rye stubbles at night, returning at dawn to the extensive marshy reebeds that bordered the Little Ouse for quite a long stretch. Rabbits multiplied on the farm, and this was well before the days of the curse of Myxomatosis, we had a hell of a time with gun, dog and ferret. Profitable too, and the farm hands wage in those days needed some bolstering I can tell you, still does in fact. The only thing that ever cast a shadow on these many excursions, was that our dogs (we had three of em) would never ventured out of the house at night. When we let them out for their bedtime walkies theyd nip to the nearest corner of the barn, lift a leg and then scoot back faster than you could say knife. As one who had been used to picking up a fair number of rabbits and hares with my black lurcher *expletive removed* Lucky after dark, I found this a bit disconcerting. Mention of it to the locals brought forth nebulous tales of ghosts, bogies, things and the like, all of which made me roar with laughter. I mean damn it, theres no such thing as ghosts is there? Mind you. I have felt uneasy on more than one occasion when I made my rounds of the stables at night, and it was not an infrequent occurrence to shine the lamp along the row of opened loose boxes in the walled yard, and find every horse had its head out of the door, while they stared intently towards the main building of the old Nunnery. I put it down to rats, wind, noises off and so forth, but it was an uncanny experience at times I can tell you. Foxes yapping in the converts didnt help matters much, and if youve never heard a vixen give her mating call on a November or December night, youve missed a hair creeping sound I can tell you.
It was not that we went out to the stable yards at night from choice you understand, but that we had several brood mares heavy in foal, of which some five or six were due to drop their offspring early in January, and it didnt do to let Mother Nature do it all on her own all the time. She can and does make mistakes which can cost the life of an expensive animal. So it was then that I trudged my way through the fresh fall of snow on the evening of December 24th, cold, teeth chattering - not entirely from the crisp air and keen to get back inside again where it was warm, snug and dry. My battered old Smiths pocket watch reckoned it was just on midnight. the stallion was pounding his fore foot at the bottom of his stable door, a bad habit of his, and I could hear the swish, swish, swish as our ten year old grey mare Vanity trudged round and round in her box, the deep rye straw clinging to her hooves as she pcrambulated. the feel that she was soon to bare must have been giving her a touch of the boot, because she was definitely uncomfortable and thrashed her tail ever and anon. you could hear her clearly from 50 yds away, the night was that still. I started chuntering to myself as I approached her box, so that she could hear me coming and not be startled, and a moment later shone my torch into the gloom of her box. She heaved a huge sigh at me, nodded her head and blew a great sort of warm air in my face, and closed her eyes as I rubbed my hand across her forehead. a nice old girl she was, a proper lady to handle and no trouble at all
Wish they were all like her, some can be proper savage when they please. I nattered away to her for a few moments, then she suddenly started out into the darkness of night. I heard it too, the clatter of may horses feet, steel shod hooves ringing on the flint cobbles that paved the yards and driveway of the stud.
M first impression was that our Yearlings had got out. We had a dozen of them, all well grown, then i realised that the sound I heard was unusual, there was thick snow on the ground and there should have been no more than a muffled thumping. Then there was a flickering of light, like those old lanterns that are more trouble than they are use, and the shouting of many voices, harsh, coarse bellows, that rang on the night air like some mob of hooligans on the rampage.
Running feet sounded, coming nearer all the time, the clattering of steel against steel, excited neighing of horses - though none of them ours, I prided myself on knowing the voice of every horse we had - and over all the bellowing orders, curses and someone roaring with laughter, a wicked, cruel laughter. A bell started to toll, and that was strange for there was no bell on the place, but I heard it peeling like the knell of doom, a deep mellow chime that boomed forth like a funeral toll. Then, the most chilling of sounds, the screaming of womens voices, dozens of them, and the sound of coarse robes rustling, as their wearers ran to escape the strike of gleaming sword blades that were suddenly visible in the ands of bearded, mail-clad soldiers, the source of the noise of the clattering steel.
There was suddenly a flame that ran like a living thing, right up the vast soaring roof of thatch that crowned the great hall of the Nunnery, and I knew as well as I know my own face that that foof was slated, not thatched, yet I saw it burn like some great pyre, flames leaping into the sky with sparks spiralling upwards hundreds of feet. I was petrified with fear, the hair on my head crawled like some malignant living thing, and I shook with the knowledge that what I witnessed was not real, but was an echo of the tragic fate that the Nunnery had suffered so many ages ago. To add to my already gibbering fear I could hear the sounds of dogs howling, and I saw - as clearly as the living day - a woman running, her black robes trailing fire as she darted from the doorway of that great hall, her white cowl fluttering about her head like some demented butterfly, then the figure of a man, dressed in some sort of armour on his chest and a sharply doomed helmet atop his head, striding towards the fleeing figure, and he struck her down with his sword like some helpless animal at slaughter.
Stopping over her prostate body, the man seized her in his muscular arms and tossed her over his shoulder like a rag doll, then - striding back towards the now blazing structure - he flung her body into the showering hail of burning reed thatch that fell from the roof. As he was about to turn away from the leaping flames, there appeared in the doorway another black - clad figure, her robes also burning, the creeping flame flickering at her back and crawling along her left sleeve. Her face was still in shadow, but bearing expressed none of the fear and terror that typified her unfortunate companions.
Stepping slowly forth into the flame-lit yard, she held her right hand high to heaven, and the silver crucifix she held shone like some brightly gleaming star. The armour clad man turned towards her, raising his right arm with its gleaming sword clenched in his massive fist, the blade striking a shaft of light as he swung it with no more compassion than if it were felling a tree, he smote the Holy woman square across her cowled head. She staggered back but did not fall, her arm still extended to the sky and the blazing stream of sparks cascaded round her in a fiery golden shower. She was still holding the crucifix aloft, her face upturned towards the sky when, with a massive rumbling and crashing, the entire corner of the great hall crumbled away and fell about her, burying her under a hail of stone. The man roared with course laughter and turned away, running towards other figures evident in the smoke and gloom across the yard.
As the masonry began to crumble and fall, I involuntarily looked upwards at the great tower that soared towards the snowfilled sky, and heard above the awful thunder of that roaring fire, the cluttering of wings as dozens of Doves poured forth into the night. Their wings were burning as they vainly tried to cleave tha air, and their bodies contorted with agony as they fought to escape the roaring inferno that reached ever higher to engulf them. I watched them fall, like living torches, their scorched and burning pinions still scribing circles of fire in a vain endeavour to escape from death, and this new horror wrenched a cry of anguish from my very soul.
I ran. Im not ashamed to admit it, I was terrified, and I ran as if all the demons in hell were after me. When I burst through our front door I broke the frosted glass panel in it as I passed and reaped the curses of my father and the strength of his muscular right arm in the process. Despite my babbling tale, my assurances of what I had seen, I received another tremendous cuff across the head that sent me sprawling again, and turning away from me with a stream of oaths issuing from his scowling face,my father strode to the broken front door and gazed forth into the still quiet depths of Christmas Eve, where, apart from the gently falling snow, nothing stirred.
Believe me, it took all my strength and courage to enable me to return to that yard the following morning, nothing on earth would have persuaded me to have returned that night.
All was as it should have been, and there were no traces of the holocaust I had witnessed the previous evening. Nothing I could say or do would assure my parent that I had not been drinking, and I was docked my meagre pocket money until the window was paid for. It was some days before I could force myself to walk right up to the place where I had seen that Nun struck down, and even when I did finally make it, I had reassurance from the sloping heap of earth and rubble that still lay at the base of the corner of the once great hall, now centre piece of our inside stables.
Never a religious man. I did however seek out our local parson and told him of all I had seen that night. He was skeptical at first but after thinking it over for a while, he asked me to stay a little longer while he dug out some musty old tomes that gave - at length - the history of the Thetford for some hundreds of years. the books, great heavily bound volumes, are now in the Museum at Norwich, and from their yellowed and fragile pages the Parson finally dug out the story of the sacking of the Thetford Nunnery, by Cromwellian forces on Christmas Eve. They had been to destroy any hiding place, or refuge, for Roundhead troops, or place where they might make a stronghold. The parson went further, he came up to the Nunnery the following week, where I showed him the place Where I had stood, and described again what I had seen. That my story tallied with the known history of the place so many years ago convinced him i was not lying. he then sought permission of my employer to conduct what amounted to an exhumation of that gently sloping mound of ancient rubble that still lay at the corner of the hail.
The work was slow, but after a couple of days, at three feet blow the surface of the rubble, a glimmer of white struck the eye. The work was then conducted at a gentler pace and finally, a complete skeleton was exposed, that of a women. Her skull was cloven across from front to rear, proof that indeed she ad been struck a mortal blow, and in her outstretched right hand was still grasped a blackened silver crucifix! Tarnished by time, but still firmly held within the hand of its one time owner, whose death had not been sufficient to make her release her grip of the symbol of a Faith and belief as old as time.
They removed this evidence of the grim fate that had befallen the Thetford Nunnery, and laid her to rest in consecrated ground where no doubt she found the the peace that she so richly deserved. Apart from being a seven day local wonder, my life soon returned to normal-if you can dismiss one strange occurrance as normal - that is.
I went down to feed my birds the next day, and found a whole crowd of pigeons on the top, most of which I recongnised as those lost during the previous years, youngsters and old ones alike. For the sheer hell of it I let all the inmates of the loft out, snow or no snow. They circled about for ages, twisting, turning, ranging and larking about like birds do when they enjoy their exercise. I never lost so much as a single feather of them!
Like I say, it only takes a but of time to settle a team properly doesnt it?
Article Written By Bilco
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