There are two villages called Warton in Lancashire, both of them with connections across the Pond. One, just west of Preston, is known for the airfield used by the United States Army Air Forces during World War Two. Further north, the other Warton nudges the border with Cumbria. And there, inside the medieval parish church of St Oswald, you’ll find a Stars and Stripes, flag of the United States of America, hanging in pride of place; and if you visit on 4th July you’ll even see it flying from the top of the church tower. This flag, a gift from American friends in the 1960s or 70s, is reputed to have once flown from the Capitol Building. It replaced an earlier out of date version, which apparently lacked stars for Alaska and Hawaii, and which had in its day been given to the church by visiting US servicemen. Warton has a Saxon name, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and has a long history; but why should this seemingly rather nondescript little village in north-west England be on any American pilgrim’s map?
Well, Warton’s big story is that the Washington family used to call it home and one of their descendants, a certain George Washington, became a great man who helped forge a new nation.
George Washington, first President of the United States, was born on 22nd February 1732 in Westmoreland, Virginia. His distant ancestor was William de Hertbourne, who sometime around the year 1180 took over the manor, and eventually the name, of Wessington near Chester-le-Street in County Durham, north east England. The predominantly 17th century Washington Old Hall still stands on the site of William’s house. Some of his descendents, though, made the great migration across the Pennines to north-west England in the 13th century, where they held land around Kendal and Carnforth in the now defunct county of Westmorland (coincidentally, given GW’s birthplace) and close to Warton. The first de Wessington (or Washington) in Warton seems to have been a John, followed by three generations of Roberts. The last of these, apparently a landowner of some worth, is said to have built the tower of St Oswald’s.
One of Robert’s sons with his first wife, Elizabeth Westfield, was another John Washington – born sometime around 1478. John married Margaret Kytson of Warton Hall and their son, Lawrence (born circa 1500) was a senior estate manager for the Parr family (whose daughter, Catherine, went on to become Queen and Henry VIII’s last wife). Lawrence married the widow of a rich wool merchant in Northampton, was Mayor of Northampton and built Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire. The famous Washington line actually extends from Lawrence’s marriage to his second wife, another affluent widow, Amy Pargiter. Four generations on, Colonel John Washington, son of the Rector of Purleigh in Essex, left these shores in 1659 and ended up in Virginia. Ironically, considering that his great-grandson would help create a republic, the Colonel is reputed to have been a Royalist who found England, which was going through its republican phase at the time, somewhat uncomfortable. If he’d stayed another year, he’d have seen the monarchy restored and perhaps history would have taken another course.
Incidentally, Winston Churchill was descended from Thomas Kytson – brother of the Margaret who married John Washington back in Lancashire: – a surprising place, Warton; must be something in the water. Anyway, the Washington family tree is displayed in the church there, as is the Washington coat of arms – three red stars over two red stripes on a white background – on a very worn piece of stone, originally mounted on the outside of the tower. It’s in the kitchen now for safety, on the wall by the kettle. Some say that the star spangled banner was inspired by the design; who knows?
With the M6 humming to the east, Warton today keeps itself to itself. People often pass through, en route to local beauty spots at Silverdale or Arnside. Warton Crag, rich in butterflies, birds and plant life, is used by climbers and fell-runners. On the crag is the Bride’s Chair, in which girls sat on their wedding day to ensure babies arrived. You can’t help wondering how long they sat there before giving up – and, indeed, whether the Washingtons ever tried this wondrous technique.
Back Lane off the village Main Street gives a particular feel for the past, when Warton was a staging post on the route north, with old stone and long, narrow, gardens like medieval burgage plots extending behind cottages. St Oswald’s church is dedicated to the 7th century Northumbrian Christian king who, amongst other things, beat the pagans at the Battle of Heavenfield. The building dates from the 14th century, but was founded in the 12th, and has one of the neatest churchyards I’ve seen in a long time. The local power in the 13th century resided in a knight who rejoiced in the preposterous name of Marmaduke de Thweng (imagine growing up with a handle like that) and it was probably his family who built Warton Old Rectory, across the road from the church.
Warton Old Rectory is a rare, ruined, 14th century house – parts of which seem to be built into the more recent existing vicarage, which itself looks predominantly Georgian. It was obviously once a relatively grand building; the living of Warton must have been a generous one, and the great hall must have witnessed some magnificent feasts. It was also used as a court. But any stories it could tell are now locked within its stone walls, and it stands, rather forlornly I think, open to the elements, with only the occasional tourist and the cries of children playing in the school behind for company.
Along Main Street are scores of dwellings, some of them very attractive, from the 17th and 18th centuries. One of these is called Washington House and has a date of 1612 above the door; I’m guessing that was a family home, because obviously no one would be so shameless as to name a building merely in the hope of courting celebrity or sordid financial gain. Opposite that is the George Washington pub – formerly the Black Bull.
The last Washington in Warton was the Reverend Thomas, who died in 1823 and whose grave is in the churchyard. It’s a sobering thought that the Washingtons of Warton lived in the area for the best part of 600 years – rather longer than George’s descendents have lived in the US. Nor did his ancestors spend long in the softer English Midlands. No, I’m thinking that the roots of this great military and political leader really lie in Lancashire. It’s an arresting consideration that George could have had a penchant for traditional parkin, parched peas, Eccles cakes and a warming hot-pot washed down with half a gallon of ale. Stoking up the imagination, I now see him as a secret clog-dancer down t’mill (or down t’plantation wi’ t’slaves).
You know the legend of the cherry tree, as told by Washington’s biographer Parson Weems? When our George was about six years old, he was given a hatchet – an ideal present for a small boy. George was very fond of his hatchet and wandered through the garden, gaily chopping anything in sight. Once he’d finished wrecking his mum’s pea sticks, he set about his dad’s pride and joy, a young English cherry tree. I don’t know whether the tree’s nationality was significant but, in any event, George hacked the bark off it and, before you could say ‘Yorktown’, he’d killed it.
When George’s father discovered his recently departed prunus whatever, he was furious and stormed up to the house demanding an explanation. At that moment, George came into the room clutching his hatchet. With commendable restraint, Washington senior asked his son if he knew anything about the demise of his beautiful little cherry tree, which had suffered an unprovoked frenzied attack by an unknown, but fairly short, maniac wielding something very similar to the very instrument in George’s hands. This is the point in the tale where our hero displays his innate courage and integrity and fesses up – though a cynic might say that it wasn’t exactly looking good for him anyway. Be that as it may, our George tells his father that he cannot possibly lie. Father Washington, considerably moved by this display of juvenile honesty, proudly takes his son in his arms and says that the truth is worth a thousand trees, even if they had blossom of silver and leaves of gold.
In the Lancashire version of this story (that we’ve just invented) George’s confession would go something like:
“Eee, ah connut let on a lie, fayther, yow known ah connut let on a lie! Ah did cut id wi’ meh little ‘atchet.”
And his dad would’ve replied:
“Meh son, ‘at yow should not be afraed t’ let on t’ truth is moor t’ meh than a thowsand trees! Yes – though they wore blohsummed wi silver an’ ‘ad leaves oth purest gowd!”
You should have been there when Lancashire George crossed the Delaware: ‘t were a belter.