Another friend, this time not connected with the Church, was an old man who lived in one or a little group of cottages at the very edge of the forest, some two or three fields beyond our house. This area was known as The Bailey, probably a name of great antiquity. The people who lived "up the Bailey" were very poor and uncouth, and the cottages were squalid and dirty. The villagers always looked upon the Bailey folk rather as outsiders, and owing to the remoteness of their position they were quite a group apart. Mother was much concerned with their poverty-stricken condition, both material and spiritual, and, with Dr. Bruce’s approval, she started a little service for them in one of the cottages, which she conducted on Sunday afternoons. Dr. Bruce was by then becoming too old and feeble to manage the long walk from the village, and could only manage to visit at these cottages on very rare occasions.
Mother and I often went up the Bailey for our walks in the forest, and became friendly with an old man who kept a few sheep. I proceeded to make pets of these sheep, and we would take baskets of windfall apples and other tit-bits, till eventually they became so tame that there would be a concerted, bleating rush as soon as we appeared, which would nearly knock me off my feet. We soon learned to distinguish between the woolly faces, and gave names to our special pets. One of them, Dame Trot, would always come up behind me and. nibble the ends of my hair, and the sudden tweaks from the rear were most disconcerting to me when deeply occupied in stuffing morsels into all the other clamorous mouths around me. Old Mr. Harper was delighted at our interest in his sheep, and would always give us a warm greeting. Conversation, however, was extremely difficult, as he spoke and as our speech was equally unintelligible to him our friendship had to progress by means of smiles and gestures, almost as if we were speaking different languages. The old Forest speech has almost entirely died out now, and on visits to the district in recent years the decay of the accent and dialect has become most noticeable.
Two very nice little boys whom we first knew as toddlers, later on made their way through college and have become teachers. During a conversation with them as grownup men, it was most curious to hear occasional touches of the broad speech of their youth breaking through the veneer of the carefully acquired “standard English”. A brother of these two boys bore the Christian name of Forest, which was quite common in the district in the early days, and was probably a survival from past centuries.
Another unusual name, and as it was borne by a girl, an extremely unfortunate one, was Leman. It was naturally invariably pronounced Lemon, and it was many years before I learned the real meaning of the word. It is very unlikely that anyone in the village knew the real meaning, but in any case Leman was quite an institution. She must have been about twelve or fourteen at this time, and had a very red, pointed nose, and nutcracker jaws, and was, I believe, slightly “wanting”. May passed me the astonishing information that Leman had “fishes’ teeth”, which she went on to explain, are very small and pink, and set very far back in the mouth. May was perfectly seriou4s in this, for Leman was one of her most faithful henchmen, and had told May this surprising news herself.
The Severn Bore
The Severn Bore was an ever recurring source of interest to us. The river fills up at every tide, but it is only when the moon and the wind are right that the great wave comes up, which is the true Bore. This often occurs round about the Easter full moon, which very obligingly fell during the Easter holidays when my brothers were at home, and we would often make an expedition down to the river bank to watch it. Out favourite vantage point was on a stretch of flat road running alongside the river and separated from it by a wide grass verge.
There is always something uncanny about the Bore. The river drops down to its emptiest and the huge stretches of sand are laid bare to their widest limits. There is a curious ledge of rock which is only exposed at very low tide, running from our side of the river almost across to the sands on the Arlingham side, leaving only a very narrow channel down which the water races and swirls at sickening speed. There was a local legend that some man had once, for a bet, attempted to ride his horse across this ledge, but that the sands on the other side had given way and the current had sucked horse and rider under the shelving rocks, and neither was ever seen again.
As we waited for the Bore a curious hush would descend on everything, giving a most eerie feeling. Suddenly a chilly little wind would spring up, the forerunner of the Bore. Then in the far distance
could be heard the roar and rush of water, and presently the cry would arise “Here she comes”, and there in the distance would appear the
great wave racing up the full width of the river at the speed of a galloping horse. It is a most
awe-inspiring sight and one which never fails in its ever-recurring thrill. After the crest of the Bore had passed, we would wait for a couple of hours, regaling
ourselves on buns and pop, while the river rose and rose with the weight of the
flood tide behind it. When there was a really big tide the water would rise right across the wide grass verge and flood over the road and lap against the high garden wall of a big house that stands on the inland side. Then was the time to persuade the old ferryman to row us across to the Arlingham bank. He
could sometimes be coaxed into doing so, but he knew every mood and humour of the river
and if he knew there was any danger he would bluntly refuse. At these high tides the river runs up till it is nearly a mile wide, and the water comes raging up, tossing and heaving, so that to cross in a little rowing boat was an adventure of a very high order.
A long straight road runs from the ferry up to the village of Arlingham, and the fields on either side used to be carpeted with the most magnificent cowslips I have ever seen. In the churchyard there was a very old and much obliterated tombstone, and I have recently come across a scrap of paper, on which is written, in a very childish hand, a copy that I made of the inscription. Incidentally the paper is chaired and water—stained, having, by some amazing chance, survived the blitz in 1944 in which almost all our other possessions were destroyed, It runs as follows:
I always felt very sorry for Mary Beedle. Elizabeth Vimpany had a long and eulogistic epitaph, and poor Mary Beedle’s name seemed to have been added as a mere afterthought. Who were these two girls? Was it a headstrong young lady who insisted upon taking a mad risk and was she accompanied by her devoted maid who refused to let her young mistress go to certain death alone? We shall never know. I have not visited Arlingham churchyard for close on forty years, and I often wonder if the inscription is still at all legible, for it was extremely difficult to decipher even when I made that copy.
Three huge beech trees
When we first went to live near the Forest there were three huge beech trees which were visible for many miles round, their great tops showing as three distinct tumps on the skyline of the forest from far off along the road and railway on the way to Gloucester. At the beginning of the 1914 war a great deal of timber was felled in the Forest, and used for props in the Flanders trenches, and these three magnificent trees were among the victims. But for some reason or other they were never used, and the great beautiful things lay there for years and years, till at last they returned to the earth which had fed them for so long, all their age and dignity and loveliness ruined and wasted. The largest of them was so huge that as it lay on the ground the cross section of the trunk towered high above the utmost stretch of Jack’s arm, and he was by that time full grown to his six feet of height. We clambered about among the fallen branches, each one as large as any ordinary beech tree, and in a position that must have been well over half way to the top we found a sapling mountain ash, growing in the crotch of a branch, the roots penetrating down into the body of the old tree. With great difficulty we contrived to remove the mountain ash, and took it home and planted it in the middle of the lawn. It flourished there for over twenty years, becoming a big, sturdy tree, and for all I know it may be there now.
The village and district round had its full quota of ghosts and eerie stories. The Hall, a lovely old Tudor mansion, had the great dining room panelled from floor to ceiling with beautiful oak linen fold drapery. It was said that at the time Charles I a Royalist was shot through the window by a Roundhead, and that the blood-stains on the panelling could never be washed out. The wife of our water-carrying neighbour had been a housemaid at the Hall in her younger days and she told me that, during spring cleaning, a large piece of furniture which always stood in front of the bloodstained part of the wall, used to be moved out, and that she had actually seen the stains.
Another story about the Hall was that a ghostly gardener was frequently to be seen in the long,
tree shadowed drive, unceasingly sweeping up the leaves and May set the village by the ears by reporting that, while passing the high wall which surrounded the Hall grounds late one evening, she had seen a ball of light rolling along the top of the wall. This ball of light was corroborated from other quarters, though no one had any explanation to offer.
The Old Grange
Some half mile or so from the village, down another valley, stood the ruins of what must have been a magnificent old house, called the Old Grange. The roofs had fallen in, the lake was choked with weeds, and cascades of ivy and brambles tumbled over the crumbling walls. It was in a very dangerous condition and Father always forbade us to go near the place. May, of course, used to scramble madly all over the ruins, and never came to any harm, but then May always had a charmed life. The story behind the desertion of the Old Grange was that there had been no mention of repairs in the clause of a long ago lease. Neither landlord nor tenant would give way in the ensuing law suit, with the result that the old place had been allowed to fall to pieces. I believe it was a ninety nine year lease, and it has probably run out long ago by now, but as the families concerned have also in all probability expired, the Old Grange will continue quietly to crumble away, till it forms an interesting site for excavation by future archaeologists. What, however, caused me to give the place a wide berth far more assiduously than any parental orders, was the story that the children of the most recent occupiers used to play ball in the grounds with a human skull. This charming plaything had been dropped into the lake, and as the lake was now dry and weed-filled, I would always turn my eyes aside when passing, lest I should catch a glimpse of the horror.
I saw a ghost...
There were no ghost stories connected with our own house, or if there were I never heard them. Strangely enough, however, it was in our own house that I saw a ghost, and stranger still, I was not in the least alarmed, and did not realize what I had seen for quite a long time after. I was standing by my dressing table, and my bedroom door was open immediately alongside. It opened on to a turn of the staircase which led to the later part of the house. Something made me look up, and I saw an elderly man with a short pointed beard, wearing a Norfolk jacket and knee breeches, come quietly down from the upper landing and pass my door, disappearing down the stairs to the hail. He looked as if he were made of thin grey smoke and I could see the wall and stairs right through him, but he was perfectly clear and distinct and so near that I could have touched him. At the time I merely thought “How funny”, and of course never thought of mentioning the occurrence to anyone.
One of our favourite picnic places was a Wishing Well about a couple of miles away in the Forest. It was a lovely spot on the side of a hill buried in trees. The spring was enclosed in ancient stone work, and bubbled up into a little stone-lined basin with a big slab above it to prevent it becoming choked with leaves. From here the water ran through a short culvert into a large stone-lined tank sunk into the ground. This was about eight or ten feet square, and about the same in depth, and had a flight of stone steps leading down into it. Some of the masonry here was said to Roman, as was the much smaller well nearer home, but I believe the main part of the work, and the big tank, had been erected by the monks of Flaxley Abbey in the Middle ages. At the far side of the tank the water overflowed through another longer culvert, and cascaded down the hillside in a waterfall, forming a series of pools and a stream down the valley. It was a charming, fairyland spot, and the well was dedicated to St. Anthony. Local legend said that to obtain your wish it was necessary to drop two pins into the spring and drink out of a silver thimble, obviously the survival of an ancient pagan rite. I observed this rite with all due ceremonies upon a number of occasions, and certainly on one occasion my wish was granted. It was that Jack should pass his entrance examination for Cambridge, which he did with flying colours, though as Jack has never been known to fail in any exam in his whole life, I am still uncertain as to whether my well intentioned wish had any real effect.
The Romans have left many traces round the district. In another part of the Forest there are the remains of their iron workings, and huge pits, known locally as “scowl holes”, are common in one area. These scowl holes were extremely dangerous as they were unfenced, and no one knew how deep they went. Forest ponies and cows were quite frequently lost down them, and they also claimed an occasional human victim. As recently as 1934, when George was curate in the neighbouring small mining town, one of his choirboys fell down one of these scowl holes, and was only rescued with the greatest difficulty from a ledge on which he had been caught about sixty feet down. I saw the poor little fellow soon after, his face still cut and bruised, and his nerves badly shaken by the ghastly experience. Despite warnings, we loved, as youngsters, to throw stones down the scowl holes and hear them bumping from side to side down the great shafts till at length we could hear the faint splash in the water far below. I have never been able to trace the origin of the name “scowl hole” in connection with these ancient workings, but it is probably a survival from great antiquity. Scattered about over a wide area in the vicinity of the scowl holes are huge masses of half-worked iron ore, which are believed to be of Roman date, and to have come from the early workings.
Perry and cider making
A perennial source of interest was the perry and cider making. Almost every cottage had its own orchard, and enormous quantities of
apples and pears were grown. It was not till many years later that I learned that perry is quite a rare drink by comparison with cider, for the hard, gritty little pears from which the perry is made were even more common
than the cider apples. One of the big farmers of the district owned a horse drawn cider-mill and press, and these were erected in any convenient spot, and all the
local people would bring their fruit along in huge farm wagons. One of the favourite sites for the erection of the mill and press was the little piece of green which separated
our front garden from old Bill Smith’s cottage, and it was a never-ending delight to me to perch precariously on the corner of our high fence and watch the proceedings. The mill was on the principle of an enormous coffee grinder, with a hopper at the top into which the fruit was shovelled from the wagons. It was turned by an old horse yoked to the overhead beam. There was only one horse in the district who could turn the mill, and that was an elderly mare of the carthorse breed, commonly known as
“Voylet”. Old Voylet never did any other work and was much prized on account of her capacity for walking in a constricted circle for hours on end without becoming giddy. Other horses had been tried, but they all would sooner or late become so giddy that they would stagger and sometimes fall down, with disastrous effects on the mill. Prom my perch on the fence I could reach out and pat Voylet as she passed. She was a most solid and imperturbable old lady, and would quite often go to sleep while continuing her steady and unvarying pace. This led to difficulties when the supply of fruit temporarily ceased, while a wagon was emptied and another full one pulled, into position, for it was damaging to the mill if it were kept turning while empty. Yells, and smacks on her large rump were required to wake old Voylet up and bring her to a halt. She would also snatch occasional mouthfuls from the hedge, always without stopping, for, waking or sleeping, she never varied her pace. That was another great advantage about Voylet, for a horse
that goes sometimes fast and sometimes slow is useless for turning a cider mill.
There was a certain amount of difficulty in disposing of these sheets of pulp, as it rapidly fermented and if left where animals
could get at it, it had the most devastating effects. Cows and poultry had been found at different times, staggering about dead drunk after having eaten the fermenting mass. The stuff was accordingly usually thrown in the ditches alongside the lanes, and for weeks afterwards the air was pungent with the smell first of fermentation and then of decay.
Maids and Toys
There was never any difficulty about getting maids, and they never seemed to leave except to get married. They were all local girls, and it was only necessary for Mother to mention that we were requiring either a living in maid or a daily girl, for a series of mothers to appear on our doorstep, each with a more or less shy daughter in tow. Two of our maids were particular friends of mine, and they initiated me into the local games and amusements. We would sit together on the steps of the yard while I assiduously practised “Jacks”, at which I never became adept, but merely succeeded in breaking all my finger nails. “Jacks” was played with five small pebbles which had to be juggled on the back of the hand, and is, I believe, the same thing as “Knuckle-bones”. One of the girls was extremely clever at this tricky performance, and could bounce four stones on the back of her hand while picking up the fifth, with a deftness and aplomb which filled me with admiration.
They also made a popular toy for me which consisted of the lid of a cocoa tin, with a hole punched in the centre, through which was knotted a length
of string. When trailed behind you at the run, the lid would bowl along on its edge in the most fascinating manner. I have recently seen this toy mentioned in a most interesting book entitled “Welsh Country Upbringing” by D.Parry Jones. The author states that he has never seen these toys since his own childhood in a Welsh village, but I remember them well, and they were most popular with our village children.
The main shop in the village was a wonderful place, where sides of bacon, tin lanterns, hymn books and paraffin all mixed comfortably with the more orthodox groceries. A great deal of bacon was cured locally, and the killing of a pig was a great excitement. I always kept carefully out of the way when I knew a killing was to take place, but George invariably attended the ceremony, and retailed the horrid details to me with fiendish glee. Some of the cuts were sold as “pig meat” which I have never met elsewhere. This was neither pork nor bacon, but was prepared in some way which made it more utterly delicious than any meat I have ever tasted. There were also home-made faggots, at which our next door friend was an absolute past-mistress. After the killing she would collect the scraps and bits of “innards” and chop them with various herbs and flavourings, and produce faggots of such mouth-watering toothsomeness as makes me hungry to remember. The ordinary faggots which can sometimes be bought in pork butchers shops are miserable, feeble travesties, and not worth eating by comparison.