Stories to break your heart, from an English country churchyard

We went for a walk this afternoon, after lunch in the Giant’s Rest pub, and happened to pass through a churchyard. There a tombstone caught my eye, and I paused in the misty rain to run my hand over the metal, trace the words and read the story. It broke my heart. It does again now, writing this.

Elizabeth lived in these parts, around the mysterious Long Man figure in the Sussex countryside, in the 1700s. She and her husband Thomas had 11 children: four sons and seven daughters. Then, over a period of five years, she lost six of them.

The first was Jane, in 1725. She was three years old. The next was Stephen in 1726, also three years old. That same year, Elizabeth also lost Frances, who lived for only three months.

Three years passed, then Thomas died, age one. Richard was next, in 1730, when he was nine months old. That same year, her teenage daughter Mary died, aged 16.

A year later, Elizabeth lost her husband and their father, Thomas.

I don’t know why any of this happened. I don’t know who they were. I feel the need to mark their existence though, having met them like this. Here’s to them. Jane and Stephen and Frances and Thomas and Richard and Mary, and their Dad Thomas. They were here, long ago. They lived. I also want to honour Elizabeth, who somehow found the strength to go on living for 26 more years.

This is the kind of place where time stretches. The tomb is overlooked by a mighty, twisted yew tree whose weary arms are held up by posts and chains. It is said to be at least 1600 years old, which means there is a chance it was alive when the Romans were in Britain, before the legions withdrew.

Time stretches and time spins.

And in another corner of the churchyard there is a memorial to a pair of sisters, Pattie and Catherine, who died 97 years apart. That feels astonishing to me.

Ninety seven years. Pattie in 1894, aged 15 months. Catherine in 1991, having witnessed the First and Second World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Space Race and the dawning of the age we live in now. She was 93 years old.

Their surname is Ade, which in Sussex is a contraction of Adam, a name that links us all. Walking away, one of us says they must have been related. I go back and check the tombstone and find that yes, it’s true of Elizabeth and Thomas, who lived and loved and raised and lost their children more than a century before the sisters were born. They were called Ade too.