The village of Hogsthorpe has a welcome plaque stationed at the intersection of Thames road and High street, which welcomes the people whizzing past the village on the A52. It sports a heraldic device with the charge rendered as an azure boar standing rampant over three fleur-de-lis. Hogsthorpe, I thought. Of course. Native Hogsthorpian Mike Blanchard, who runs the Orchard Farm Riding Center, doesn’t like the sign.
“The name has nothin’ to do with pigs. Do you know what a hog is?” he asked. We were walking through the graveyard at St. Mary’s, Hogsthorpe’s 12-century church, looking for the headstones of my great-great-great grandparents George Freeman Holmes and Mary Waterman Holmes.
I said no. If a hog isn’t a pig, then I don’t know what a hog is. (Also, I’ve been misled by my great-granduncle Harold C. Holmes, who claimed in an posthumous autobiography entitled “Some Random Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Bookseller” that the village was named after a Viking settler named Ugga.)
“A HOG,” Mr. Blanchard said with energy, “is an uncastrated sheep or pig! Under the age of twelve! They shouldn’t use pigs on our signs! Not unless they use BOTH ANIMALS! UNCASTRATED!”
Hogsthorpe, for those of you who might be confusing it with a certain magical school, is a pleasant little village in the East Midlands of England, in the county of Lincolnshire. My great-great grandfather Robert Holmes left there in 1867 at the age of twenty-two. I decided to visit Hogsthorpe and arrived there on a dark November evening, courtesy of the #449 National Express coach to Mablethorpe. The bus driver did a double take when he saw he had a drop-off there. “Hogsthorpe!” he exclaimed incredulously. (Most people don’t go to Hogsthorpe.) I felt a little shaky as I stepped off the bus. Happily, the Saracen’s Head, Hogsthorpe’s oldest pub, had accommodations that were spacious and clean. I woke up the next morning feeling cheerful and walked to a farmhouse, known locally as Charity Farm.
Charity Farm is where Robert, a quick-witted man, was born in 1845 to Mary Waterman Holmes and her husband George Freeman Holmes. In the 1851 census Robert was living with his mother and father, his siblings Susanna, George, Joseph, Charlotte, and John, his three-day old sister, his grandmother Anne Waterman, his cousin Elizabeth Waterman, and one house servant named Jabez Harriman. His father cultivated crops and pastured animals on one hundred and two acres of land.
Mr. Chandler remembered John and George Holmes, the last Holmes men on the farm, working in the fields with their Fordson tractors and Lincoln red cows. He even remembered how they farmed. “It’s called Norfolk rotation. I don’t know why,” he said wonderingly. “It’s a rotation. Weeds, grass, potatoes, barley, or sumthin’ like that. I can’t remember. I ought to! I’m really a farmer. It’s not practiced today. Everyone uses fertilizers.”
The name of the farm isn’t meant to be picturesque, but descriptive. The Holmes family didn’t own it. They were extremely long-term tenants—“they were there a couple a-hundred years,” Mr. Chandler told me—of the village of Hogsthorpe, and paid about one hundred and twenty pounds annually in the mid-eighteen hundreds as tenant farmers. The last owner, a gentleman named Thomas Goodwin, left the farm to the village, under the care of trustees with the following instructions:
Thomas Goodwinne, in 1639, bequeathed 34 acres of land, augmented by subsequent inclosure allotments to 55 acres, and producing annually £90, of which £20 are paid to the minister, with £5 for repairing the church, £35 applied to the apprenticing of children, and £5 distributed among the poor.
The profit that the farm produced was intended to pay apprentice fees to master craftsmen who trained young men to become wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopers, brewers, whatever. Robert Holmes may have been a Goodwin apprentice. (He had a first cousin named Robert William Kirk who was apprenticed to a miller in 1887.) At the time of Robert’s departure from “the land of fens and wolds” he was apprenticing at a wholesale and export firm of drapers, or a dry goods firm, in Manchester. Who paid for Robert’s apprenticeship? This, along with the specifics of my family’s tenure, can only be speculated, and is perhaps impossible to know.
“Records went missing,” Dave Kirkham, a current trustee with Charity Farm, told me. He allowed as things like accurate bookkeeping might not have been perfected when my family began their two to three-hundred year history as tenants. It was put about in my family that the Holmes family owned Charity Farm: this pride of place now registered a note of evasiveness. “Were the Holmes’ squatting?” I asked him, alarmed and wondering if we owed back-rent on Charity Farm. “No, no! Nothing like that,” he assured me. Later, I ran into a church warden, and asked him about the Holmes’s, and what kind of family they were. They were a good family, he replied.
Hogsthorpe is quiet in the manner of small seaside villages in the fall and winter. I was assured by Scott, the ebullient bartender at the Saracen’s Head, that both Chapel St Leonards and Hogsthorpe are bustling from April to September. “It is absolutely MENTAL in here,” he assured me. “I couldn’t sit here and talk to you then.” In the dark of the winter, the villages are the opposite of mental; they feel crestfallen and spent, energetically. There is little for a tourist-wanderer to do, but smell the brine of the North Sea and wonder when it will rise again.
Hogsthorpe is surrounded by other villages with equally magical names like Mumby, Thorsthorpe (my favorite. Hail Thor!) Ingoldmells, and Burgh-le-Marsh. I feel certain that many of these names popped up on an inspiration board in J.K. Rowling’s office: they are impossibly quaint. All of them are governed by the East Lindsey District Council, a pale remnant of the ancient Kingdom of Lindesege. It has a regnal list which claims Wodan, the Anglo-Saxon version of Odin, as an ancestor of Aldfrið, the earliest king of Lindesge. This divine influence did not help the marshy kingdom from being absorbed into stronger Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By the time the Vikings sloshed ashore in the 10th century, the kings of the marsh were gone. The real ruler of the land, water, was still there. The small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh are reclaimed from the ocean and the rivers that thread through the region. There’s some idea that perhaps the marsh plain might have been semi-detached at times, almost an island, before sea walls were built, and the drainage ditches were dug.
The entire marsh plain has been systematically de-saturated. Rain and runoff water flows through tile drains, then to dykes, which are maintained by the farmers, and into basins, which are maintained by the drainage board. And then the water goes out obediently into the North Sea. “Every twenty-two yards, machines lay pipes. You put some gravel on top of it, so the water gets through quicker,” Mr. Chandler told me. When he was a boy, the drainage basins were de-silted by hand. “There were no pumps in those days,” he said. Now, pumps express water from the landscape, in a mechanical echo of the process by which farmers milk their cows. Mr. Chandler gestured to the fields behind us. “There were thousands of acres of marsh between Hogsthorpe and Burgh le Marsh.” So proud are the people of East Lindsey of their efforts to drain the marshes that they have a museum, the Anderby Drainage Museum. It houses two diesel engines which, until they were replaced in 1992, drove the centrifugal pumps that pulled 4,500 liters a day of water out of the soil.
Hogsthorpe is at sea level and yet Mr. Chandler doesn’t worry about floods. “It doesn’t flood in Hogsthorpe anymore,” he told me. “And yet we got stupid ER signs, evacuation routes. Ridiculous! It doesn’t flood. We got a damn good drainage board, we got pumps every two or three miles along the coast, one at Chapel Point, one at Anderby and one at Ingoldmells. We are never flooded,” he reiterated. “We got a damn good drainage board.”
He and I were having no luck finding George and Mary Holmes. In a fit of tidying, the church pulled up the old headstones and leaned them against the walls that line the graveyard. The vicar had helpfully given me a map of the sites where the headstones used to be. According to it, George and Mary were buried directly north and west of the Norman entrance to the church. Mr. Chandler and I looked at the headstones against the north wall, which were being reclaimed by thick ropes of English ivy, propped against the wall. I found Mary’s father, my great-great-great-great grandfather Simon Waterman. But there was no sign of George or Mary.
There are no Holmes left in the village now. John Freeman Holmes, his brother George and their sister Mary, all of whom died between 1944 and 1981, are interred in the newer part of graveyard. Mr. Chandler knows where his family is. He strode over to a particularly thick mat of nettle and ivy and pointed down. “My grandparents are right there,” he said. “When they took the headstones up, they asked us if we wanted the headstones moved.” He pulled up the mass of ivy root, which came away in a single sheet. Underneath were two flat headstones.
“There they are! Those are my grandparents,” he said. He dropped the ivy back into place. “That’s fine. I know where they are.” They stayed put, along with George and Mary, Simon and Anne, and many others. But Robert left.
It’s a big deal to leave a small village. Robert made a last visit to Hogsthorpe to say good-bye to his family the year he left. There’s a picture of him looking young and sort of tough, newly arrived in Guiana, where he got to work, managing the dry goods store and marrying up, in 1872, to my great-great grandmother, the magnificently named Emily Augusta Culpeper Massiah. Robert had a lot of energy. He moved his family back and forth between Guiana and England for about ten years, before moving to Canada in 1877 and opening a general store in Toronto, and later in Winnipeg in 1880, after moving there. It was in Winnipeg that Robert lost the remainder of his and his wife’s fortune speculating in real estate.
He and Emily flipped a coin, and moved to California, arriving in Oakland in 1882, cash-strapped with five children in tow, an ignominious entry that wouldn’t survive the harsh scrutiny of today’s fevered anti-immigrant conservatives. (Robert was forced to ask for credit in order to pay his hotel bill.) He began yet again, working at this job and that, before opening a bookstore in 1894 at the age of forty-nine. It was called the Holmes Book Company and it was located on 702 Mission street in San Francisco. He went on to open six more in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. He never became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Neither did any of his children.
Robert and his two daughters Emily and Marion visited Hogsthorpe in 1911, staying for almost one year. Emily went again for several months in 1922, and was making plans to return once again in 1936 (it’s unclear if she did). Neither Robert or Emily, his eldest daughter who never married (and who, I was told when I was small, flew the Union Jack from the Holmes house on Haste street in Berkeley) ever really detached from the place. It’s very easy to memorialize England, especially small villages with rotund and cozy names; harder is to be able to distinguish between inherited nostalgia and actual memory. It’s not clear how well Hogsthorpe would have fared in family memory and opinion if Robert hadn’t left.
Hogsthorpe may or may not be making its own departure in the next one hundred years. It, along with Chapel St. Leonards and all the other small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh plain, lies along a “rapidly eroding” coastline and is inside the official Coastal Risk Flooding Area, as defined by the East Lindsey District Council. The ocean could reclaim land that it lost to industrious farmers, inundating the place in the cold waters of the north sea. There’s less land to reclaim: Hogsthorpe is below sea level, in part due to de-saturation, which subsides the earth. But Mr. Chandler’s faith in local government is not misplaced. The East Lindsey District council (happily) doesn’t have its head buried in the sand when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Actually, sand is used to “nourish” the beach, helping it accrete sediment and gaining elevation.
Hogsthorpe has a chance of surviving all the incursions—the ocean, the tourists, curious outsiders—during the frenzied summer months, and the still winters, existing as it has for many years: solid, weathered and so, so old.
It doesn’t feel as though it plans on doing anything but staying put.