Wandering through Doncaster today, we noticed that the Minster was open to the public. As we stepped inside, a kindly woman handed us some xeroxed pamphlets and launched into a practiced spiel on the history of the church. All was quite interesting; we nodded politely, punctuating her words with Oh really?s whenever felt appropriate. The church seemed to us, avowed atheists, and to her, with such a prepared presentation, but a museum, a piece of history, an “excellent example of Victorian gothic” set between a motorway and a Tesco’s.
But as we were leaving her to begin taking in the sun through the stained glass and memorial plaques affixed to stone, a young man snuck in behind us. He was in his early twenties, in a black t-shirt and ballcap. He had spots and seemed tired. He looked a stereotypical “youth” one might cross the street to avoid were it after dark and no one else were around.
At the sight of him, the woman lost interest in us. He looked abashedly to her. He asked quietly: “Am I allowed in to pray?” Her rigid countenance immediately softened. “Of course,” she murmured, “Of course.” She ushered him through like a mother bringing all her children to the dinner table.
Later, as Husband and I wandered through the church, we saw him, sitting quietly in one of the back pews, head down in his lap.
Still we linger in Doncaster. Things, however, have taken an interesting turn. In his ongoing efforts to delve deeper into the eccentricities of British history, Husband stumbled across an interesting fact about the town in which we are currently staying. In 1822, it was reported in the London Observer that “more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones” were imported into England (via Hull, because of course Hull), from towns that harboured the sites of Napoleonic battles and were thus littered with the bodies of soldiers and their horses. From Hull, these bodies were sent chiefly to Doncaster, where they were “[reduced] to a granularly state.” Why? Because dead bodies make good fertilizer and Doncaster was the seat of agricultural trade in Yorkshire. As this 1822 reporter said: “The good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.” Firstly, this explains all the French-speaking ghosts. Secondly, this has given me a great title for a work of historical fiction: The Bone-Grinder’s Wife. With a sepia-tinged photo on the cover, cropped so as to just cut out the eyes, the title in italicized serif type, a blurb telling you what Ann-Marie MacDonald thought, and a purple sticker, Heather’s Pick, it’s what everyone’s mom is getting for Christmas.