NESTLING almost within the shadows of the Hambleton Hills, the village of Coxwold is full of interest, part of which involves a couple of mysteries involving famous people of the past.
In addition, there is a splendid and historic church, a former priory that is now a noted country house, some interesting almshouses, a former grammar school dating to 1603, an old house called Shandy Hall that was the home of a famous if eccentric vicar and an interesting small lake in the grounds of Newburgh Priory, its waters being alongside the road to Crayke.
My wife and I are regular visitors to that lake – there is adequate parking at the roadside. We go to watch the birds because the lake is noted for its variety of water fowl. Many are residents although some interesting visiting species have been noted. The resident birds include lots of mallard ducks and a pair of beautiful mute swans who, the moment a car arrives at the parking area, will paddle to the edge of the lake hoping for titbits from visitors. Some visitors and children arrive especially to feed the ducks although many others do not come equipped to feed them.
Some years ago, an osprey was observed in the lakeside trees, probably resting on a migratory journey from Scotland to Africa.
Then around five years ago, local wildlife artist, Jonathan Pomroy, noticed an American green-winged teal among the other flocks of teal on the lake whilst our own observations have been much less dramatic! Certainly, however, some interesting water fowl visit this lake and we have noticed shelducks, shovellers, widgeon, pochards, gadwalls and various gulls among the resident mallard population. On one occasion I spotted a heron in the reeds whilst occasionally a pair of buzzards soars above, often revealing their presence with a distinctive mewing call.
One of the famous residents of Coxwld who created something of a mystery is the former vicar, Laurence Sterne. He arrived in 1760 from Sutton-on-Forest where he had begun the first of his two famous novels – The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. His second famous work (interspaced with other writings) was The Sentimental Journey through France and Italy which he wrote following his visits to those countries.
His writing has been described as bawdy, witty and zestful, hardly the kind expected from a clergyman but he was also known for his sense of humour. One of his lines was I do not know what my father was about when he begat me, and he advised his congregation that if they liked him, they should face him in church whilst those who did not like him should face the other way. My favourite tale about him is when he was called to York Minster for a meeting with the Archbishop.
Whilst making his way along a very narrow passage, a senior cleric was heading towards him. The cleric stopped and said, “I never give way to fools!” whereupon Sterne replied, “But I always do,” and stepped aside.
He enjoyed his life and work at Coxwold commenting that he was as happy as a prince. However, with his strength weakened by his tour of Italy and France, Sterne died at his London lodgings in 1768. He was buried at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London but very soon a rumour circulated that his remains had been taken from the grave by body-snatchers, Not long afterwards, a body was being dissected for anatomical research when someone recognised it as Sterne’s remains. It was quickly re-interred but the top of the skull had already been removed.
Nothing further happened until 1969 when that London cemetery was being cleared. As a consequence, the Laurence Sterne Trust sought permission to transfer Sterne’s remains to the Coxwold graveyard and this was approved. However, when the grave was opened it contained five skulls and a number of bones, but one of the skulls had its top missing. Expert assessment assured the Trust that the skull and some bones were indeed those of Laurence Sterne and so they were re-interred with due ceremony in Coxwold churchyard, almost within sight of Shandy Hall.
But when I went for a look, I found two memorial stones….
A second body in Coxwold that has raised questions is believed to be that of Oliver Cromwell and it is said to be entombed in a large brick-built coffin in the roof of Newburgh Priory.
The supporting story is that following the execution of Oliver Cromwell, his headless body was exhumed and hung, minus its head, at London’s Tyburn. Cromwell’s third daughter, Mary, was married to Viscount Fauconberg of Newburgh Priory, Coxwold and she was highly concerned that her father’s remains would suffer further horrors. She decided to secretly travel to London to retrieve his remains. And she managed to smuggle his remains to Coxwold.
They were placed in a secure brick-built tomb and hidden in the roof of part of the house but when the roof was raised, the tomb was discovered. Since then there have been many requests to have the tomb opened and examined, but the family has refused all attempts.
It was even targeted by Edward VII when he visited Newburgh Priory as the Prince of Wales. He persuaded the Estate’s stonemason to break into the tomb but the plotters were discovered in the act and prevented. Oliver Cromwell’s tomb remains intact to this day and its secret is safe.
So are both Oliver Cromwell and Laurence Sterne buried in Coxwold - or neither of them?
A WELCOME VISITOR
My wife and I were enjoying the afternoon sunshine in our garden when we heard the curious call of a bird that was obviously flying around neighbouring gardens, halting from time to time and being well camouflaged by leafy trees. This was not its song but more of a call in flight, and it sounded like a sharp, loud and very piping tszing.
We considered all our regular garden birds, but this one did not seem to match any of their calls and songs. Without seeing the bird in question, it was difficult if not impossible to identify either the bird or its call.
But then modern technology came to our aid. My wife’s Ipad has an app full of identifiable bird songs and calls, and so we sat in the garden playing most of them which, I am sure, disorientated many of the local songbirds. We received responses from some but eventually we heard a call that matched that of our puzzle-bird.
It was a member of the finch family, one of that group’s smaller birds known as the siskin. Although these greenish-yellow birds favour coniferous woodlands, they are regular visitors to our bird feeders where they eat a range of different seeds. It seems the planting of coniferous forests has helped this lovely little bird to flourish in our landscape and there is such a forest within sight of our house. I guess our visitor came from there.