“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. ”
I’ve watched the comings and goings of all of my shepherds and their families. I’d hear the low mumble of voices first and then catch sight of them coming across the moor, down from the ridge, across the river and then start the short climb up to me. In just this way, I’d watched a new shepherd called John and his wife Helen arrive. I detected the unfamiliar burr of their accents and knew these were another Scottish family who’d made the long trek south to farm sheep on the moor. I could see that Helen was plump with a pregnancy and that winter, their first winter at Hoar Oak, I heard the telltale sounds of a new baby. And that winter, when little Marion Renwick was born, was an especially brutal one. It was freezing cold – day after day. It snowed most days and in the cold air the snow settled. It piled up out here on the moor, getting deeper and deeper, and drifts formed that could trap the sheep. Sheep were lost in the snow that winter; lambs were born early and many were born dead. Baby Marion struggled in that harsh first winter of her life. But she survived. Her parents called her a tough wee lass and I was proud of that new little life at Hoar Oak. But Marion’s father, John, took that first winter very hard.
It is true when people say of shepherds that “the sheep are their lives” and it was true for all of my shepherds. They all cared deeply about their flocks. But it was also true that these hardened men of the land also knew and respected the power of Mother Nature and knew their own limitations in the face of her. They could draw a line under a disaster and move on. But John was different. He didn’t just care. He worried and suffered deeply when a disaster – big or small – befell his sheep. He had a dark side to him and suffered the destructive acid of guilt when something went wrong. I’d heard his wife Helen say that he had a gentle spirit. But when the blue devils of worry and depression visited John it could overwhelm their lives and I’d hear Helen mutter “that man’s too gentle for his own good”. Helen could recognize when those devils had come to visit but she never learnt how to predict their arrival or prevent the damage they would inflict. But she was a busy wife and mother. It hadn’t been long before another baby – a little girl called Mary – had arrived to swell the numbers inside my cold and drafty walls. So, she coped. John coped. It is what people do. It is what my Hoar Oak families did.
Two years on and once again I sensed the telltale signs of another baby on its way and I worried. Can an old cottage like me worry? Who can tell but the one thing I did know was that this new little life would be born in the teeth of yet another bitter, moorland winter. The baby was born in the January of a vicious winter of cold and snow which had exhausted John. He had been working day and night to protect the flock as well as caring, as best he could, for his pregnant wife and the two little girls. My windows and doors had rattled non-stop with the furious blasts of wind coming down from the hilltops. My stones were cold. No amount of peat burnt in my hearth would warm me up. The mortar between my stones was frozen – a dangerous freezing which threatened to crack the stonework of my walls. The woodwork around my windows and doors was stiff and shrunken and let in the icy air. The water in the spring by my front door was frozen and water had to be fetched in buckets from the river and carried back up the hill.
I’d heard Helen laboring long into one of those terrible January nights. I heard baby Annie’s first cries at the dawn of another cold, snowy, windy day and that little girl struggled from the start. She cried piteously and had a hard, rough cough – a terrible thing to hear in such a tiny baby. My walls and doors and windows were letting in the cold and damp and through those days John kept the fire in my grate burning, hot and bright, but it wasn’t warm enough. Nowhere inside my walls was warm enough. I watched on as Helen and the baby barely left my fireside. Marion, the eldest girl, born just four years earlier in this self-same spot, stayed by her mother’s side and keeping close to Marion was the other lass – wee Mary, only two years old and wide-eyed with concern. John did his best but he struggled. Out here, at Hoar Oak, we were always on our own but no more so than in terrible weather when no one passes by casually and there are no neighbours in easy hailing distance. So we all coped, me and my family, during those dreadful few weeks and all held our breaths as the baby struggled with hers. And, at long last, just as a whisper of spring warmth started to fill the valley and leak into my walls, little Annie began to turn the corner. I was lucky to catch the sight of a trickle of sunlight fall through my front window, onto the cot and to see a sweet little smile form on Annie’s face. I think we all relaxed a bit and smiled a bit that day.
And soon after, on a day when the weather looked like staying dry for a few hours, I watched as John set out across the moor. I’d heard him telling Helen that he was off to register baby Annie’s birth and arrange for her to be baptized. All of my families, over all of those long years, had been raised in the church and were good people to the core but none of them were what you’d call big churchgoers. It was a long walk for adults to attend a Sunday service and an impossible one for small children. Don’t get me wrong, some of my families were dedicated chapel goers. They’d hardly ever miss a week and some of the shepherds even liked to try their hand at preaching a sermon or two. But, generally speaking, most of my shepherds used to say, “the good Lord’ll have to come and hear us pray here out at Hoar Oak.” When John set off that day I knew he’d be away for most of the day. It was a long walk and if the minister wasn’t at home John would have to wait for his return. But home he came eventually, happy and smiling and said to Helen “It’s done. We’re all fixed up for next Sunday after morning service and when that’s done her name will be down in the book. She’ll be there in the record with our Marion and Mary. Our three wee Scottish lasses all born so far from home.” Helen, who had spent most of the day sat quietly in the chair by fire with the baby in her arms and her other two girls playing quietly nearby, reached up to catch his hand and bring it to her cheek.
The weeks rolled on and the promise in that early spring warmth began to fade and I began to feel the incessant rain walls seeping in and making us all damp. Outside, the sheep and the shepherd were struggling with the wet conditions and lambing was not going well. Inside, my humans were struggling with the damp. The day to day washing and cooking produced clouds of steam that clung to my walls and ceiling and all day my windows wept with condensation. I began, once again, to hear little Annie cough. But this time she didn’t stop. Within a week the little girl was dead. The two remaining sisters, still too young to truly understand, were sad and confused. Helen was distraught and the blue devils came for John. “Tis all my fault Helen” he kept saying. “I should never have brought you here. We should have stayed in Scotland. We should never have had children. I gave little Annie life and now I’ve as good as killed her.” On and on he would rant and I watched as poor Helen silently held his hand, listening and waiting for him to relax enough to finally slip into an exhausted sleep. She had no energy and no words to help him. She too was heartbroken. She had Marion and Mary to care for and, every now and then, I’d see her go over to the crib and stroke the baby’s face and tuck the blankets around that small, still body. But she coped. She had to cope and after a couple of days I watched as she quietly stepped out through my back door and began the long trudge across the moor to the village. From the ridge of my roof, from the top of my chimney pot, I kept her in my sights but she eventually dropped down the other side of the ridge and was gone. I’d heard her tell John to look after the girls because she was going to see the minister and to get a message to the Head Shepherd. I knew that she would shortly be saying to the minister, “No, Sir, there’s no money. There’ll be no headstone” but who knew what she’d be saying to the Head Shepherd. How would she find words to say what all of us at Hoar Oak knew – that John could no longer cope.
It wasn’t long before the Head Shepherd and his wife came out across the moor to visit my family. They were a kind couple, slightly older and certainly more worldly than most of the shepherd families on the moor, and they tended ‘their families’ with the same care as they tended their sheep. It soon became apparent to them that the young Renwick family were in need of a lot of care. Seeing John so prostrate with grief the kindly Head Shepherd stepped in quickly. He arranged that same day for the eldest son from one of the nearby farms – a young but quite competent shepherd – to come and take over caring for the flock. The Head Shepherd’s wife stayed on here for a few days to help Helen and under the older woman’s careful hand something like order was restored inside my walls. On the day that the baby, poor little Annie, was buried the Head Shepherd returned across the moor carrying a pitifully small coffin. Made by the men at the nearby sawmill it was light and painted white and carried the signs of their tears. I watched Helen and Marion and Mary pick a small bunch of the small wild flowers off the moor. I watched John and the Head Shepherd lay the tiny body in the coffin and eventually the family, the Head Shepherd and his wife set off. John carried his daughter in her coffin for the three long, desperate miles across the moor to the nearby church and Helen and the two girls followed behind carrying their sad little bouquet of wild moorland flowers. I watched them for as long as I could and when I could no longer see the little group trudging across the moor I looked inside my walls and realized that I had never felt so empty or silent as the day my family went to bury little Annie Renwick. Nothing would be the same again and I knew that when that little bunch of flowers withered and blew away there would be nothing to mark Annie’s last resting place.
But the days went on. I’ve noticed that over my long years. Whatever happens – to me or my families – the days keep marching on. But as the days went on I could see John, poor man, falling deeper into a disabling despair. And I watched as the harsh realities of sheep farming raised its insistent head. The short term help of the neighbour’s son wouldn’t be enough and a few days after Annie was buried, the Head Shepherd came back out across the moor to see my little family. He walked through my front door without a knock or hesitation and I could see how shocked he was to see John huddled by my cold and empty fireplace. ‘Master Little’ as all the shepherds and their wives called him, was a compassionate man. He too was a Scot, a long way from home down here on this English moor and there was little doubt his heart was sore when he saw John and Helen and the two girls. His sorry little charges who were such a long way from their families and life they knew back in Scotland. But he was also Head Shepherd, with responsibilities for the sheep as well as his shepherds and that day I saw him take hold of Helen’s hand and gently say, “I’m afraid we must arrange for something to happen here Mrs. Renwick.” And that is precisely what he did. Within one short week everything changed. I’d seen the doctor come riding out over the moor on his horse and heard the arrangements made for John to be taken to Exeter. To an asylum. To get help. And a few days later Helen and the girls were also gone. Once again, Master Little and his wife came out to Hoar Oak. But this time it was with railway tickets for my family to travel back to Scotland and a horse and cart to transport their few belongings and cases to the railway station. They took so little with them and my rooms still held some of their furniture, much of their bedding and most of their pots and pans and paraphernalia of ordinary life.
On the day they left the sun was shining. It was hot and dry and the sheep were noisy and the birds in full song. As she left Hoar Oak for the last time, Helen put her hand on my old stones and whispered to me, ‘look after our things – maybe they’ll bring the next family a bit of comfort.’ I felt her touch and watched them go in the sunshine and warmth of that last day. I was sad. But I was also angry. Angry at my damp walls and the damage they had inflicted just a few wet weeks earlier. I was sad for John and his suffering, for poor wee Annie and for Helen and the two little girls heading off so far away from their husband and daddy. But I did look after Helen’s belongings. And they did bring my next family a bit of comfort. No one ever arrives to live at Hoar Oak Cottage with much and anything left behind was always a bonus for the next family. I never knew what became of John and Helen and turned my attentions to providing shelter for my new shepherd family – another man with a wife and two children and a third one on the way. I hoped, I really hoped, that this time I would do a better job of sheltering my new family.
Exeter Asylum, Wonford opened 1869 (www.exetermemories.co.uk)
If you’d like to find out more about the Renwicks at Hoar Oak Cottage go to this link www.hoaroakcottage.org/Renwick
Hoaroaktalking Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016