Sometimes life holds out a little magic, and all you have to do is grab it.
Looking back into my family history, I’d reached the late 1700s, and I seemed to be stuck there. Digging into a different family history site recently, I struck lucky. Suddenly I was tumbling back and back through time. All the way to 1545, in fact. 250 years in a day. It felt like being the Doctor, but without the life-threatening adventures, Daleks, or sonic screwdriver.
I discovered that my family has in roots in Westow. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s a tiny village (current population 339) near Kirkham Priory, and five miles from Malton. 1545 was the first Nickson birth recorded there, but keeping births, marriages, and deaths in Parish Registers only became law in 1538; they could well have been there for centuries before that.
John Nickson was the first, then his son Thomas, born in 1587, and his son Thomas, who arrived in 1617. William came in 1660, Richard in 1692, another Richard in 1729, And then Isaac in 1752. One of his children – had had seven – was yet one more Isaac, who came squalling into the world in 1785, hanging around until 1857.
That Isaac is pivotal to the family tale. He certainly broke away from Westow. Around 1720 he ran an inn called the Golden Lion in Malton, five miles from home, and somewhere around the middle of the decade decided to try his luck in Leeds, taking his wife and children with him. That’s how we came to this town.
The descendants remained. Isaac himself went back to Westow to die in 1857, so the pull of the place and his forbears must have been strong. Or perhaps he’d simply had enough of life in a noisy, dirty town that was growing by the day, with its dark Satanic mills, industry, and crime.
On Saturday I visited Westow. A pilgrimage of sorts, if you like. I needed to see the place, to sense if there was any atavistic tug. It’s barely a village, really more a hamlet. There’s a pub, but no shop. Some old buildings along the main street, which is pretty much the only street. It’s peaceful, bucolic, surround by fields, deep in the heart of arable farming country.
A number of the places look as if they were probably standing when Isaac struck out for Malton. Did he live in any of these houses? There’s no way to tell, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many other generations of stories will have filled the stones since then.
And there’s an old hall, of course, as there should be in every village. Safe to say my family never lived there.
The church is about a mile away, equidistant between the two villages it serves. The old Norman tower still stands, I’ve read, but the rest is newer, rebuilt from the original stones. It was locked, but what I wanted was outside: the graveyard.
It was always hopeful thinking to imagine I’d see a Nickson headstone. Maybe Isaac’s after he returned to die. But no, not a single mention of Nickson. Yet, that was fine, I realised as we drove away. I’d seen the place, I’d walked some of the same earth they did all those centuries before. Now I knew.
From there, to Malton. The Golden Lion still stands in the marketplace. It’s been empty for a few years, apparently, but still in good condition. I stood across the street as I took a picture and looked up at the two floors above the bar, thinking that Isaac and his family lived and slept there. They had joy, they had pain there. That single upward glance seemed to cross 200 years in a heartbeat.
That’s what I try to do as a writer. I try to bring the past alive, to make the people breathe in the here and now. It’s a way to try and commemorate people who would otherwise be unremembered. Many are fictional, of course, but some did live.
Like all writers, I love hearing from readers who enjoy the work, for whom the people who spring out of my head seem real (so please keep the emails coming). And good reviews are heartening. Two that arrived in the last week for On Copper Street, out in America as an ebook on June 1) made me happy. Booklist gave it a starred review and call the series “top-notch,” writing: “the story features meticulously researched period detail; a strong sense of the social, economic, and political situation at the time.” Publishers Weekly noted: “Nickson successfully creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader by showing, with each successive book, how his protagonists grow and change as they face life’s milestones: marriage, children, promotions at work, and the death of dear friends.” And past is place as well as people. The Fully Booked blog wrote: “When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy.” It’s not the first time someone has said I have Leeds in my core. But it’s probably true. I came back here after almost 40 years away. Isaac Nickson had his Westow, the place that called him home. I have Leeds.
Yes, those reviews make me feel I’m doing something right in my writing.
As I said at the start, sometimes life holds out a little magic.