Sir Patrick Cormack, long serving Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire and a passionate advocate of heritage and history, recalls his youthful affection for the churches of his native county.
I cannot remember when I was not fascinated by the past. When I try to locate my point of departure, the time when that fascination became a conscious sense of history, my mind goes back to a sunny day in 1942. I see myself, a very small boy, sitting in a garden with my father. He had just given me my first box of lead soldiers. They were Scotsmen in kilts, brandishing bayonets and wearing feather bonnets. I had them for years and they formed the nucleus of a collection built up after the war, and proudly drilled and marshalled – until smashed by my much younger brother in the 1950s.
My father was very proud of that particular box, found in a toyshop in Prestwick, the last legacy of pre-war stock. The bright red tunics and gaily coloured kilts contrasted sharply with the Air Force grey uniform he was wearing, and sparked a series of questions which he was only too happy to answer. He was besotted by his love of history. He was not an academic. He had left his Grammar School at seventeen and gone off to sea, getting his Master’s Ticket when he was thirty. But from early boyhood he had devoured historical novels, and biographies. Henty was his early favourite.
After the war, on a winter’s evening, he would read to my mother and me. I vividly remember Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the deluge of ‘period’ questions they provoked. By the time he came home with the very first issue of History Today, to which he subscribed until his death, I was well and truly hooked on history.
By then I was a choir boy at the ancient parish church of Old Clee, near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, and already aware of its most remarkable treasure, a contemporary tablet on one of the Norman pillars, recording the dedication of the church by the saintly Hugh of Lincoln in 1192. So it is clear to me that by the early 1950s I was indeed hooked, and conscious too of the power of place.