Those who have been in the rectory living room over the past three years will have seen the old walnut sideboard that is against the wall opposite the fire. It is nineteenth century Irish, and originally must have had an upper part that has long since gone. We bought it in 1985 at an auction in the town of Ballycastle, then had to work out how to transport it the sixteen miles or so, to where we had recently moved into a large eighteenth century rectory. We had little furniture and little money. The parish, of which I was incumbent was largely rural and it was not difficult to find someone with a trailer, and a couple of hefty bodies all ready to lift it, off we set. Loading it in outside the auction room, the driver was heard to say, “Don’t worry about tying it down, something that heavy won’t shift”. This was the general thought as we piled into the car and set off merrily for the rectory.
Sixteen miles later we turned up the beech-tree lined rectory driveway, the rooks cawing high in the upper branches, the calm of rural Ireland settling into the peace of the fields around. We stopped and went to lift our substantial sideboard from the trailer, to find that a door was missing; torn from its hinges, it must have flown off while we bowled along the country roads - and we had all those miles to search - and we didn’t find it.
What do you do with a perfectly good sideboard with a door missing? Even if someone could make a new one and manage the carved work, how about the brass handle? You would never get one to match. The sideboard lay in an unused room and I put an advertisement in a local paper asking if anyone had found our missing sideboard door.
It was sometime later - about three or four months, I think - a farmer rang us. “I think I have found your missing door.” It was lying in a sheugh - (pronounced ‘shook’ - Irish dialect for a drainage ditch) at a field edge. How could he remember seeing a small piece in the Coleraine Chronicle that long ago? Naturally delighted, I offered there and then to drive to meet him. He insisted on coming to us and bringing it, as he said, “I want to see where it came from.” He brought it. It was a sorry sight. All the varnish was off it, and the corners were all badly damaged where it had bounced over and over along an unforgiving stretch of tarmac before flying into the ditch. I reckoned that that was the end of that, and we put our sorry-looking sideboard into use, with an ever-open cupboard.
It must have been a couple of years after this that the church was having a new table made with a shelf of the right size to accommodate the new prayer books that we had ordered. The craftsman came to measure the space in our very small church, to take the new table. We offered him tea at the rectory, and chatted generally. His eye caught our damaged sideboard, that we had long ago got used to, and he remarked upon it. “Oh, we have the door”, I replied, but it is ruined. “Show me”, he said, and I did. May I take it with me, and one of the drawers too for the colour match? I can’t promise anything, but I think that I can mend this for you.
Again, a period of weeks and the new table for the church appeared. A lovely piece of work, that I am sure is still in weekly use. “And now for your sideboard door”, as he unwrapped the transformed piece of carved walnut, which he proceeded to screw into place. If you look carefully at the sideboard today, you can tell which of the doors was repaired, but you would have to know that this story lies behind it.
Thirty-five years ago, and this rock-solid piece of furniture is still with us, with its interesting burns on its surface. These I had always thought must have been caused by someone at the auction rooms placing a burning cigarette on its edge while looking more closely within, although I did wonder at why the marks are so narrow. Not at all. It is another piece of rural social history. They are the marks of rushlights. In the days before electricity, with lamps turned down for the night and candles extinguished, the final lighting-to-bed would have been a rushlight - rushes from the sheugh, dipped in wax and dried during the summer months would have burned fairly quickly, but gave light for a few minutes in the darkness. Too thin and insubstantial to stand in a candlestick, they needed a special holder, or they were simply lain on the edge of a piece of furniture. Occasionally they would be left to burn right to the edge, damaging the surface of the varnished wood. Our sideboard has more than one story to tell.
This is all leading into the good news for this blog! The earring that Helen found on Godlingston Heath, mentioned in my blog two days ago, is being re-united with its owner - and I think the period from being lost to being found is about the same as our cupboard door. It was such lovely news to hear yesterday, and worth the mention and the picture of the blog.
Sometimes when we think a thing has gone forever, it does turn up……!