Religious centres witness our beginning and our end, moments of intense joy and of deepest sadness almost always in the presence of our dearest family and friends. Even for those of us without strong faith they have so much more meaning than just the stone or brick from which they are built. St Oswalds church, Leathley has become that special place for me.
The picturesque village of Leathley is bounded by the river Washburn, a river which features heavily in my family history. It is an old settlement, established in the Anglo Saxon period, more sheltered than many of the surrounding villages. St Oswald’s Church occupies a piece of rising ground in the centre of the village, across the road from the village green, parish rooms and the almshouses. The tower dates from the Norman period and was enlarged in 1472. It is a simple, serene church surrounded by a peaceful graveyard.
St Oswald’s played an important role in our family for several decades prior to us moving to the village of Leathley in 1988 – this blog brings together some of those stories.
The story starts with my great grandparents, Mary & George Thomas Barrett. When Mary & George Thomas retired in 1948 (passing the tenancy of the family farm in nearby Stainburn onto their son, my Grandpy) they moved to Little London Cottage in Leathley. Sadly their retirement was not to last long. George Thomas died in 1951 and Mary followed in 1954. They were buried, together, at St Oswald’s.
Fast forward nearly twenty years. My Nana & Grandpy, Mary & Walker Barrett watched their two children, Richard & Ann, grow to adulthood. Nana was an active member of Leathley WI and would often have been in and around the church. Then tragedy struck, Richard was killed aged just 22. His funeral was held at St Oswald’s and Richard’s remains buried with his grandparents, no doubt in the hope they would be together.
It is then that our connection takes a more joyful turn – the wedding of Ann (my Mum) & George Christopher Houseman, otherwise known as Bob, (my Dad) on 9 June 1973. Although Stainburn has its own beautiful church, weddings were no longer being held there. Instead the wedding should have taken place at North Rigton. It was St Oswald’s though, that held a special place for the family and so Ann moved in with family friends (Dot & Dennis Beecroft) to be technically within Leathley parish for the three weeks whilst the banns were read. One must assume that this was with the blessing of the vicar!
It was a glorious, joyful, special occasion, a time to put aside the family sadness and celebrate the coming together of two very special people. Mum wore “a dress of palest blue chiffon with ribbon lace bodice and scallop-edged flowing skirt appliqued by flowers” made by Nana. The Young Farmers provided a guard of honour with forks and the tradition of lifting the bride over the lychgate was upheld.
Then it was time for christenings, my own in 1975, and those of my three sisters in following years. It’s a beautiful old font topped by a carved wooden triangular canopy but, no matter how beautiful, the shock of the cold water was still making some of us cry!
Then in December 1984, my Dad was tragically killed in another road traffic accident. Someday I’ll feel able to write fuller stories of my Dad. But it was to St Oswald’s we turned for the solace provided by a final resting place. My brother’s christening, held early the following year at St Oswald’s, was bittersweet.
Although Nana & Grandpy had retired to Otley, it was to St Oswald’s we turned when Nana died in 1999 and she was buried close to her son. The church was overflowing, those planning perhaps not quite understanding how much she meant to so many people. It became Grandpy’s final resting place too, many years later.
Again the cycle turned. When I got engaged to Paul there were all the usual decisions to be made – location for the reception, wedding outfits, photographer, band, but there was only one place I wanted the ceremony to be held – St Oswald’s. I chose to walk to the church through the village providing a strange spectacle no doubt for the cars speeding past. Our wedding was witnessed by friends & family, there was a guard of honour from the Young Farmers (this time with shepherds’ crooks) and, although a little red-faced, Paul continued the tradition of lifting the bride over the lychgate. In amongst all the celebration there was time to visit my Dad’s grave and it helped to know that he was there in the churchyard with us.
Mum, too, chose St Oswald’s when she married six months later – in the church records there is only one other wedding between mine & Mum’s. One of my sister’s, too, chose St Oswald’s for her wedding.
I moved to Leeds and Mum moved to live with her new husband near York. We still visited Leathley regularly but were no longer living in the parish. Then our third family tragedy. On 3 May 2004 my husband Paul was killed, aged just thirty, in yet another road traffic accident. The vicar had changed since we were married and initially questioned why Paul’s funeral should be held at Leathley when we no longer lived in the village. It didn’t take long for someone to share the importance of St Oswald’s to our family. Paul has a small square stone close the second entrance. He’s safe there with my Dad, my Nana & Grandpy, my Uncle and his Grandparents. My family take wreaths at Christmas and bluebells in the spring.
It is the joy and the sadness that makes St Oswald’s hold a very special place in my heart.
With much gratitude to St Oswald’s of Leathley, to the many clergy who supported us through these times and to Amy Johnson Crow whose 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge encouraged me to publish this series of stories.