Tag Archives: Writing

The Village Snowbound – The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

A little while ago my brother posted one of our father’s poems, illustrated with some recent photographs, I have decided to do something similar, as our village is snowbound like the village in the poem – there the similarity ends – I hope!

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The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

 

For many years, according to an old New Forest Legend, there stood at the crossroads, known as Marlpit Oak, on the high plain between Sway and Brockenhurst, a great double-armed gibbet. Visible for miles around, and frequently bearing a grisly load, it must have been a fearful sight, brooding over the remote and lonely countryside. It was, therefore, a matter of widespread satisfaction when, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the gibbet was at last demolished.

However, superstition was very powerful in those far-off days and strange stories soon began to circulate among the Forest people.

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When I was young and not long from school
Like all braggart youth I was brazen and brave,
And I laughed him to scorn and called him a fool
Who spoke of the dead that returned from the grave.

 

‘When they are dead, they are dead -so much mouldering day’
‘And he who says not is drunk or insane!’
And the wager seemed nought in the bright light of day
To spend that night, alone, by the knoll on the plain.

 

By the time evening came and the winter sun set
In a great blood-red glow over Wilverley Hill,
Every soul in the village had heard of the bet,
And my arrogant heart had felt the first chill.

 

For I knew the story, like all of us there,
Of the Marlpit Oak Gibbet which, many years gone,
Had stood, high and grim, in the very place where
I’d boasted I’d spend the whole night alone.

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A hillock of bare earth is all that remains
Standing just a few yards from the well-trodden way
Which, crossing the miles of gorse-covered plain,
Brings the traveller at last to the village of Sway.

 

Even in Spring, when the moorland glows gold,
And the warm-scented furze calls the foraging bees,
The ground at this place stays mortally cold
And no skylark nests here, no pony takes ease.

 

No sun-loving lizard, no close-crouching hare,
No adder, loose-coiled, seeks this chilly mound.
No beast of the Forest, no bird of the air,
No grass, gorse or heather, is here to be found.

 

And a tale was told by the old men of Sway
Of a travelling merchant who would not take heed,
Who had to reach Lyndhurst by early next day
And who swore his two pistols were all that he’d need.

 

They said he was found with his hair turned quite white,
Eyes fixed and staring, and mouth open wide,
Silently screaming at some ghastly sight,
And no mark on his body to show how he died.

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Just tales? Superstitions of foolish old men?
But my heart filled with terror that pride would not show,
And I drank deep and waited the dread moment when
Someone would say it was time now to go.

 

Too soon came the moment, and into the night
Drunken and singing we lurched through the snow,
All close round the lantern, whose pale yellow light
In the menacing darkness cast scarcely a glow.

 

And I sung the loudest of all of us there,
And shouted with laughter at each feeble jest,
And I threw out the challenge that I didn’t care
If the Devil himself came -I’d soon give him best!

 

And then we were there, and the merriment died
As, suddenly sober, we stood in the snow,
But still I obeyed my obstinate pride
And in confident tones urged the others to go.

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The sound of their voices died quickly away,
The gleam of the lantern was soon lost to Sight,
As they hurried thankfully back home to Sway,
To bolt cottage doors and to shut out the night.

 

The air, when the snow stopped, was bitterly cold,
The darkness intense, the stillness profound,
And the whole world was silent as, no longer bold,
I fearfully stood by the old Gibbet mound.

 

Trembling, I looked to the left and the right,
While the terrible cold froze me through to the bone,
Then I suddenly knew, though no soul was in sight,
That, beyond any doubt, I was not alone!

 

How can I describe that unreasoning fear,
That primitive terror no thought can prevent,
Of knowing that someone, or something, was near,
And directing at me its evil intent.

 

Filled with blind panic, I turned and I fled,
Stumbling and sobbing and cursing the night,
Until, just as my strength was beginning to ebb,
Far ahead I discerned a faint glimmer of light.

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Faltering now, and filled with despair,
Like a desperate fox hunted over the moor,
Heart beating wildly, and gasping for air,
I staggered at last to the furze-cutter’s door.

 

Exhausted, defeated, I sank to my knees,
A pitiful, tremulous, cowering wreck.
And then, with infinite horror, I felt
Long bony fingers encircling my neck.

 

I remember no more -I fainted away
With that fearful pressure unbearably tight,
And they say that I lay there, half-dead, half-alive,
Till the furze-cutter came in the grey morning light.

 

I’m told that for weeks I was kept to my bed,
Mumbling and muttering and never quite sane,
Then at last came the Spring, and with it my strength,
And I became part of the village again.

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But the fear has remained, throughout my long life,
And I sometimes awake in the depths of the night
And though it be Summer my blood turns to ice,
And I cry out in terror as reason takes flight.

 

I was only a boy but my memory stays clear
Of that dreadful night, now so far and remote.
But you don’t believe me? Then what is this scar,
This ring of dead flesh like a noose round my throat?

 

And who among you, on this black Winter night,
When the fog is so thick and the village snowbound,
Will go out from his house, leave the fire and the light,
And keep vigil, alone, by the old gibbet mound?

 

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Filed under Ghost story, New Forest, Poems

Monday’s child

Another poem illustrated by Regency pictures (and later genre pictures). A classic nursery rhyme.

 

Charles Amable Lenoir - The Pink Rose

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Eugene von Blaas — Feeding the Pigeons

Tuesday’s child is full of grace;

Frédéric Soulacroix Dissapointment

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Emil Brack - Planning the Grand Tour Emil Brack

Thursday’s child has far to go;

Leslie, George Dunlop, 1835-1921; The Gardener's Daughter
Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Marie-Denise Villers Self-portrait Young Woman Drawing
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;

Charles Haigh Wood - The Time of Roses

But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

 

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Filed under Georgian, Poems, Regency, Victorian

Regency Pot Plants, or Learning to Love a Hyacinth

On her first morning at Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland came down to breakfast, Henry Tilney was already there, in order to prevent him teasing her about her fears of the night before she changes the subject by looking at some flowers.

“What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“And how might you learn? By accident or argument?”

“Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom Street; I am naturally indifferent about flowers.”

“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?”

Catherine had arrived at Northanger about the middle of March, so the hyacinths were probably not cut flowers, but ones in pots or glasses. Glasses for hyacinths were available at the time, William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829) advises;

In water-glasses, the hyacinth makes a very agreeable show in the house during the most dismal part of the winter. Get blue glasses, as more congenial to the roots than white ones, fill them with rain water, with a few grains of salt in each, and put in enough water to come up the bulb about the fourth part of an inch. Change the water carefully every week, and place the plants in the lightest and most airy part of the room, or green-house, in which you keep them.

 However by March, and particularly in a house like Northanger Abbey which had large and extensive glass houses, the bulbs would probably have been grown in pots, so that they could be changed as soon as the flower began to fade.

Flowers were often grown in pots and, if you had a large collection, could be displayed in a fashion that seems strange to a modern reader, as Louisa Johnson in Every Lady her own Flower Gardener (about 1840) describes;

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We recollect once seeing a very interesting collection of more than two hundred species, growing in a high state of perfection, in the house of an amateur living in Brussels. The room containing them was fitted up much in the same way as an ordinary library, with abundance of light shelves round the walls, and a large table in the middle of the room, on which were placed the pots containing the plants. At night, the room was lighted up by an elegant glass lamp, and it was heated by one of those ornamental stoves which are so common on the Continent, Altogether, it had a very handsome appearance.

However, in smaller room she advises to use pot stands rather than stages, (the pretentious term jardinière didn’t come into England from France until the mid-nineteenth century). A Regency, or perhaps a facsimile of a Regency, plant pot stand is to be found in Lytes Cary, a country house in Somerset.

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Courtesy National Trust

I didn’t have the material to make a curved front, so settled on an angular form. Painted black with a gold chinoiserie pattern.

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Cobbett says that there were over a thousand varieties of Hyacinth available in his day, so I felt justified in using a range of colours, to give an impression of the display admired by young Catherine Morland.

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Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Reconstructing the Regency

Picking Darcy’s Pocket – Sealed and Delivered

In May 1812, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is walking down a London street. As has been his practice of late, he had been turning over the words of Elizabeth Bennet in his mind. ‘Had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner’. Distracted, he doesn’t notice a shabby young man in a long coat brush past him. Israel Fagin, at the beginning of his long and disreputable career (which was to lead to literary fame and the condemned cell at Newgate), had taken something from his pocket – but what?

Now you have written your letter, and dried the ink with ‘pounce’ powdered chalk, crushed cuttlefish bone or something similar. Blotting paper did exist but was expensive and little used until late in the nineteenth century. Rather powder was shaken over the writing with a ‘pounce pot’, a little container that looked like a pepper pot. The excess was then shaken off, creating work for the housemaid who had to dust and sweep the room.
The letter was then folded before being addressed. Envelopes as we know them didn’t exist, references to envelopes in contemporary writing refer to a second sheet of paper wrapping round (enveloping – hence the word envelope) the first. However unless your letter ran to two pages you didn’t use a second sheet as letters were charged by the page.

Seals and Pounce Pot

The folded letter was then sealed to keep the contents secure. There were two ways of doing this, first using wax. A hard material, known as sealing wax, was melted, often in a little ladle, and a small amount poured onto the letter. Left to cool for a few moments the seal was then pressed into the wax to make the seal secure. Seals would be engraved with initials, coats of arms or other devices. In the nineteenth century there was a fashion for ‘motto seals’. It was considered impolite to use a motto seal on letters to anybody other than very close friends, a very wise restriction considering the trouble that Bathsheba Everdene caused in sending a valentine card to Farmer Boldwood, using a motto seal.

Wafer Seal, Wafers and Letter sealed with a wafer

The other way of sealing a letter was with a ‘wafer’. There were two types of adhesive wafers, the simplest and earliest were usually made at home. A sheet of very thin paper was coated with paste (the old fashioned flour & water paste works very well) and left to dry hard. The paper is turned over and pasted on the other side. When hard and stiff the paper is cut into half inch squares. To seal a letter the wafer is moistened with the tongue on either side and placed between the two papers to be sealed. A ‘wafer seal’, a seal with a cross hatched end, was pressed down and so sealed the letter. The second sort of wafer was only glued on one side and was placed over the two sheets and pressed down with a flat seal. This type of wafer continued in use to close envelopes as they developed, sometimes with mottos. They were collected in the nineteenth century.

Wafer Seal and album of Wafers

Now your letter could be posted. It was taken to a local post office and left there. It would then be dispatched to the recipient who had to pay for the letter. This was one of the issues that would be addressed through the genius of Rowland Hill a few years after our period.

I am currently working on a project called Picking Darcy’s Pocket, where I will be using objects that might have been found in the pocket of a Regency gentleman, to discuss various aspects of the period. In due course I will be doing this as a lecture/ performance, but for now I am just collecting the objects real or facsimile

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Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Picking Darcy's Pocket