One of the things we love about this part of Northumberland is sensing the nearness of history, ancient footsteps beneath our own. Every day as we trundle along the beach, the imprint of the past provides our pathway. Saints Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert travelled around this area all the time and knew the ways we walk; in our own humble way, we feel we can reach out and touch them when they come to mind wherever we are, but also that they are still reaching for us long after our selfish concerns have forgotten them. One of our standing jokes is the idea of finding a precious, previously undiscovered jewel in the sand, or some untarnished Anglo-Saxon torc coming to light on an incoming wave after centuries wrapped in seaweed offshore. Something to form a tangible bridge between that world and ours: that would be something indeed.
On what was the battlefield of Waterloo, where thousands upon thousands fell on a rain-soaked June day – this very day, two hundred years ago – the detritus of war is turned up daily: musket balls, bayonets and the bones of the warriors are so commonplace when the soil is turned over that it is hardly worth mentioning. Where fields of beans now grow, in a flat landscape marked by a vast mound from which the battlefield can be viewed, the past pokes out repeatedly, reminding the locals of that terrible but deeply significant day, when more fell than on the first day of the Somme.
Before the confrontation began, the Belgian fields bounded by the farms at Hougoument and La Haye Sainte, the woods, the country roads and paths were as peaceful as our little bit of Northumberland, where the yellow rape harvest forms a covering for nesting pheasants and darting hares, and young cattle breath clean, sea air beside freshly-shorn sheep watching over their maturing lambs. In The Dynasts, his long dramatic poem about Waterloo, Thomas Hardy is characteristically sensitive about the utter confusion wrought on the innocent flora and fauna of the battlefield when he writes:
Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,
And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,
And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.
The mole’s tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,
The lark’s eggs scattered, their owners fled;
And the hedgehog’s household the sapper unseals.
The snail draws in at the terrible tread,
But in vain; he is crushed by the felloe-rim
The worm asks what can be overhead,
And wriggles deep from a scene so grim,
And guesses him safe; for he does not know
What a foul red flood will be soaking him!
Beaten about by the heel and toe
Are butterflies, sick of the day’s long rheum,
To die of a worse than the weather-foe.
Trodden and bruised to a miry tomb
Are ears that have greened but will never be gold,
And flowers in the bud that will never bloom.
We things of nature, simple and expendable, feel the suffering although we cannot understand it. As Wellington said, when he saw at what cost the day had been won, but thanks to the trust the allies placed in each other, ‘I would wish for no more fighting’.