Why am I doing this? Who will ever use these?
So ran the thoughts of Brother Gregory as he stood in that freezing workshop, the icy draughts penetrating beneath his black monk’s habit and spiralling around his bare legs concealed beneath. His hands were sodden with clay and his flimsy protective tunic, hardened with spatters of clay, was streaked with uneven lines of colour where he had tried to wipe the tile glaze off his hands, bringing a garish brightness to the small, dimly lit outbuilding.
“My Lord”, Gregory prayed, “I joined this Monastery three years ago - in 1425 - to serve you. I knew things would not be easy. I was prepared to sacrifice a life of comfort, of companionship, even of physical pleasure to devote myself instead wholeheartedly to you. I try to remain focussed and to obey the Prior. Yet here I am, in the middle of Bedfordshire, unable to speak - save for an hour each Sunday or when reciting the seven services held in chapel each day - cold, clogged with clay and attempting to produce something useless. My Lord, help me to understand why”.
Pulling the rough wooden
frame towards him, he began transferring the wet clay to its interior patchwork
of squares, smoothing it down and wiping the excess off the edges. Satisfied
with content and consistency, Gregory reached out for the wooden embossing tool.
He wondered just how many clay tiles had he embossed with this rosette and
Those negative thoughts
again. Could he never banish them? Why did he have to question everything? What
was there inside him trying to make itself felt? It wasn’t, creativity: he had
been assigned this work by the Prior to help keep his mind from wandering.
Unfortunately, the repetition - mixing, smoothing, stamping, bisque firing,
glazing, firing again, stacking - had afforded ample opportunity for his
thoughts to drift. He had managed to control some of his brain’s wildest
meanderings and he always managed to return to the here, the now - Beadlow
Priory near the village of Clophill, in the fifteenth century; a monastery
existing to honour God and to offer prayers for the living and dead. In his
heart, though, Gregory knew he wanted to do something
to make a real difference. Even if it was for just one person, he would feel
justified in the path he had chosen.
With these feelings of
frustration, Gregory heard the rhythmic chiming of the chapel bell warning of
the next service. Laying aside his tools he prepared to
Gregory never returned to the
workshop. That night he started shivering violently. It was not the cold which
had eaten into him; it was something more serious, more deadly. His fellow
brethren gathered round him, enfolding him in thick blankets, lifting him bodily
to sit before the blazing, open log fire.
Gregory never lived to see a use for his tiles. He never lived to see that day, 100 years later, when Henry VIII swept away, with comparative ease, all the monasteries and convents from this land, for them not to return for centuries. Gregory would never have believed that Beadlow Priory would crumble and disappear so completely that even its precise location was forgotten and that by the end of the millennium nothing whatsoever remained to be seen above ground.
Gemma loved exploring the past. As a young girl she was unusual in enjoying history lessons at school, diligently learning dates and battles and lists of Monarchs. From an early age she knew she was different to the other girls somehow and, reaching her teens, she began to feel inside her something she couldn’t quite pin down. It seemed to manifest itself as a need to try and achieve something which she could put to really practical use in her forthcoming adult life.
Always a bit of a loner and, like many such individuals, something of a bookworm, she was browsing one day in the school library when she discovered a book about mediaeval monasteries. Quite out of the blue, something tugged at her: was this the field in which she could become a specialist? She decided there and then it was and her determination and diligence drove her on to gain a Doctorate in Mediaeval History.
Well known in her field, Gemma
was often called in to advise on archaeological excavations and when, in 2005,
Bedfordshire County Council decided to investigate the site of a former
monastery called Beadlow, located somewhere near Clophill, Gemma’s specialist
knowledge proved invaluable.
She knew without doubt that
these would have been made at the monastery and she wondered who had filled the
moulds and performed the embossing and glazing.
Gemma turned it over and saw a scratched-on date – 1428 – and a letter G. She wondered about the monk who had left his mark this way. She tried to visualise his sense of calling, his vocation, his commitment to be part of a religious community, living a detached and difficult life of prayer, service and obedience.
In that instant, everything became clear. She knew. That was her tile - G for Gemma - she was meant to find it. That disembodied feeling inside her which had never really gone away, that yearning to have a purpose, which had masqueraded as her professional drive, was now blindingly obvious.
Nine months later, Gemma
stood before the front door of an impressive building outside the
© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire February 2016