“The centuries have come and gone and so have the many shepherd families that used to call me home. All around me the moorland hills, now quiet and deserted, were once abuzz with the men, women and children living in this isolated spot. Once I was the centre of their lives. Now I am a ruin. But my old stone walls still echo with their voices. I am a home with a story to tell.”
Back in the day, before I was a home to families, there were never any children living inside my walls. A seasonal shepherd, tending a flock up here for summer pasturing and using me as a temporary hut, might have one of his sons with him. But these boys weren’t children. Then, a boy of 12 would be a serious lad being trained and working long, hard days. No, they weren’t children. Not like the ones in the families who lived in me when I was a full-time home for a full-time shepherd with a wife and children. Back in those days, I got to know all about children living in me. Babies, toddlers, lolloping young boys without a care in the world and anxious wee girls trying to be helpful little women. Some came in small families of two or three children and others came from bigger tribes of five, or six, or seven. They called them long families in those days and the longest I had living in me was one of thirteen children. ‘Good Lord’ I hear people say nowadays when they come to look around inside me and learn about such big families living inside my walls. If only they knew! If only they knew that that was the exact same expletive the father of those thirteen children used every time his wife told him another babe was on the way. But that’s another story. For another day. I want to tell you about how my children used to hide up the trees.
I always loved seeing my Hoar Oak children playing outdoors. It happened most days throughout the year but it was especially joyous on a warm summer’s day when my doors would be open wide, swinging on creaky hinges or propped open with a heavy stone. The children, rarely with shoes on their feet or barely enough clothing on their thin bodies, loved being out and about in the warmth. They ran wild and free, played silly games, chased chickens, cuddled lambs or leaned over the door of the pigpen to scratch “ol’ piggy’s” nose. The older boys and girls would have their fun curtailed a little bit with chores to help their Ma, but even they made the most of the chance to be outdoors. And to be honest it was easy to see why. My rooms were small, my windows were small, my ceilings were low downstairs and even lower upstairs where the pitch of my roof was also the ceiling to the bedrooms. If the fire was drawing well the smoke went nicely up my chimney. If it wasn’t, the smoke spread into my rooms making for a choking atmosphere. In the summer it could be quite unpleasant. In the winter, when it combined with the smell of burning tallow from my families’ homemade candles, it could be very unpleasant. No wonder my lot were happy to swap a cramped, musty indoors for the fresh air of the outdoors. One of my housewives called her brood ‘a bunch of little savages’ and she was proud to do so. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I too was proud of my little savages.
Those little savages lived a free life in their isolation. The nearest neighbor was several miles away but everyone knew everyone ‘round about on the moor and could easily recognize each other, often from quite a distance. But if it wasn’t someone they recognized my family went on alert. If the children were outdoors they’d shout in through my door, ‘Ma! Stranger passing Ma’ and my housewife would race to the door and take a good long look. She was always very careful about strangers. Some were welcome but many were not and until she’d worked out which they were she’d say to the children, “Get up those trees and hide. Now. And not a peep out of any of you.” And that is exactly what they did – the bigger children helped the smaller and one after the other they’d disappear into the branches. I remember watching it happen. I remember how easily the older children would shoot up into the trees dragging or pushing the younger ones up with them. It was quicker for them to disappear in summer when the leaves were on the trees but even in winter, when the trees were quite bare, those kids could still manage to vanish. From my chimney pot I could see them up in the trees, at the back of my garden, some giggling, some a bit frightened and the youngest ones being shushed by the eldest ones. I’d keep an eye on them and was torn between smiling at the circus of it all and worrying in case anyone fell. Only the baby and maybe the tiniest child would stay with its mother and in this way the approaching stranger would see a simple countrywoman stood outside of her cottage with a babe in her arms and a toddler by her side.
The type of strangers that my people seemed to welcome were the likes of the young gentlemen taking a walking holiday on the moors. ‘Ooniversity Men’ I heard them being called. Polite, kind and educated fellows who would be happy to call by and have a natter and maybe take a glass of water from the well or perhaps a cup of tea and maybe a bite of bread and cheese if there was any to spare. If the stranger was one of these chaps, my housewife would quickly shout out ‘OK kids, down you come’ and the visitor would be treated to the sight of the beech trees begin to shake and quiver as any number of children scrambled down and went racing over to surround them. The children would be shy at first but it didn’t take long to revert to their usual lively, boisterous selves and start asking the poor strangers a hundred questions. These young men were a window into the outside world they knew so little about. A sort of walking, talking book that the children knew they must delve into quickly before the stranger passed out of their tiny orbit and took their fascinating knowledge away with them. Some chaps were very interested in my families’ remote life on the wilds of the moor and I can recall one asking the shepherd’s wife if he could stop a while and make notes. He wanted to record her story. “For a book I’m writing.” he’d told her. Shyly, but politely, she declined. “Oh no” she’d said, “no one would want to hear about us lot out here and, to be honest with you Sir, I don’t think I’d like strangers to be aknowin’ about us neither.” And that was that. Although for years after I often heard her telling visitors that a ‘Ooniversity Man’ had once asked to write her story up in a book.
These were the strangers that everyone liked. But sometimes it became clear that the person walking up the path was likely to be what the shepherd’s wife would call a ‘bleddy ol’ busy body’. Someone in smart clothes and hat and briefcase. Someone coming to check on her and her shepherd husband and their children. To ask questions about how many children there were, how much money they earned, did they have a toilet, clean water, enough to eat and how often did the children drink milk. To my resilient lot, surviving out here at Hoar Oak, these were thought of as daft questions and the people asking them were labelled as ‘government snoops’ or ‘interfering church-types’. When these sorts of strangers came by, my housewife would not summons the kids down from the trees and up they stayed – quiet, wide-eyed and fearful. I’d watch my housewife keep those strangers on the doorstep, saying very little and answering most questions with a polite but firm, “I don’t know, I’m sure, Sir. You’ll have to ask my husband and he’s away across the moor. You must come back another day.” She’d quietly stand her ground until they turned and left. No drink or bite offered to them and after they’d gone, when they were safely out of earshot, my housewives would spit away her fears by saying, “Bleddy nosey arses. Bleddy people with too much time on their hands. Bleddy bugger off and leave us alone.” Each of my housewives had their own turn of phrase but each shared the silent worry about how much trouble these unwelcome strangers might be able to cause them. Perhaps they’d threaten to take her children away – such things had been heard of – or just upset their quiet lives out here on the moor. These people had ‘powers’ and she’d learnt how to sniff them out. After a bit, when she’d stood and watched the strangers disappear over the hill behind me or around the bend in the valley in front of me she’d shout “Come on kids. You can get down from they trees now. And don’t tear yer clothes fer Gawds sake.”
Many years later, when I was empty and a ruin, a man came walking out with his two children to visit me. I heard him tell the children that his father, their Grandad, was born inside my walls and had told him about how, when a stranger came by his mother would tell him and his brothers and sisters to get up the trees and hide. “But why?” the children asked. “Why did Granma make her children hide up the trees?” It was a good question and one I’d heard asked before by visitors to my old walls and to this day I’ve never heard a proper answer. Some say it was to keep the family out of the sight of the ‘snooping’ authorities – those worthies who were probably just trying to make my families’ lives a bit better. It was a hard life out here at Hoar Oak and often there were too many children and not enough food. My walls were damp and unhealthy and the wages were low and it was hard for the children to get to school. But my lot were independent and proud and sending the kids up the trees was a way to keep the truth from the unwanted eyes of these ‘busy-bodies’. Others say that it was just the sensible thing for any woman – on her own out in this remote moorland spot with several young children to care for – to do. Her shepherd husband could be anywhere out on the moor and unlikely to hear if she cried for help. All of us, house and humans, lived an isolated life then and all of my mothers could, and would, call on her wild knowledge of how to be cautious and protect her tribe of little savages. The real reason will never be known – probably a mixture of several things – but one day the strangers came by, asked their questions, made their decisions and life did indeed change for all of us. My families couldn’t live in me any longer and no amount of hiding the children up the trees could stop it.
Nowadays, I occasionally hear the voices of walkers who stop by – maybe to have a picnic lunch and investigate the remains of my old walls – before they continue their tramp across the moor. I sometimes hear them say “I wonder whatever they did when a stranger came by? It’s so remote here and isolated. Would they have been frightened or pleased to see a new face?” I smile to myself and remember those far off days when I’d hear my housewife shout out ‘get up the trees and hide’. I wonder if my modern day visitors can sense my memories? Can they hear the ghostly rustlings, just behind where they are sitting eating their picnic, of my now long gone children hiding up in the trees? I’ve seen them look up to the trees, wondering at the rustling noise. But usually they say something like, ‘it looks like the winds getting up’ or ‘I guess it’s time to move on.’ They’ve still a long walk ahead of them before they reach another building, find other people, a shop, a road, and finally leave this remote bit of the moor behind. And off they go. Leaving me to settle back into my silence. To watch over the rustling trees and listen to the echoes of my wild children from so long ago, giggling and shushing and hiding up the trees.
If you’d like to learn more go to www.hoaroakcottage.org
First published July 7th, 2016 Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016