“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.”
As a general rule my families have been of the usual sort – the shepherd, his wife and their children. That’s all. And in some cases that’s enough. Especially the large families with six, seven, eight or even more children all busy growing up and bouncing around on my floors and shaky old stairs. In the very largest of my families, the eldest girls had often left home before the last baby had been born – out into service at twelve years old, perhaps at a neighboring farm or at a local ‘big house’. The eldest boy might well stay on living here at home, helping his father, ‘learning up’ as a shepherd; becoming more useful with every year that passed. But the younger boys would also often be gone by age 12 or 13 – usually to be farm labourers but sometimes to learn a trade as a carpenter or thatcher. It seems to me that all my children were loved and welcomed inside my walls but as they grew they became a mixed blessing. As they got older they were more able to help to be sure but they were also more of a burden – hungry all the time and always growing out of their clothes and shoes. Often I have seen my Hoar Oak parents torn between having to say goodbye to their children and gratitude that they were gone. To be someone else’s responsibility. To be fed and clothed in return for lodgings and maybe a bit of a wage – most of which would be sent back home to help out their Ma look after the kids still back here at Hoar Oak. Money was always short for my families. Always. The older children out at work were quite happy to help out. For a while at least. Until they had needs and wants and financial demands of their own.
But today I want to tell you about one of my families who were a bit unusual. A tidy family of father, mother and daughter. An ‘up together’ sort of family who weren’t shepherds. Richard was employed as the dairyman up in Furzehill and I was the cottage tied to his job. He lived with his wife and their daughter Mary. There were sheep up here at Hoar Oak in those days but they were looked after by the young shepherd living over at Benjamy, the little cot two miles away, higher up on the boggier part of the moor. Richard and his little family had lived in my walls for several years and for them I was more than big enough to hold them all, comfortably and with space to spare. Food was plentiful as Richard often brought home spare produce from the farm, as well as flour and, if an animal had been slaughtered, some meat. He was given a supply of ready-cut peats for the fire and they had a cow to run on the Hoar Oak allotment. He had a small wage and like all of my families they had chickens and ducks and snared rabbits on the hills and caught fish from the river. They had beehives and knew how to find good things to eat off the land. Even on this bleakest part of the moor – hawthorn buds in the spring, watercress from the river, wortle berries in the summer and shiny red hips in the autumn. They were comfortable.
In their day, my parlour was often used, kept warm and dry and cosy with a fire lit in the grate throughout the winter. But as with every other family, my kitchen was the centre of their lives. Not crowded with too many children bouncing about but a quiet, welcoming place. Mary and her mother had busy but sedate days – cooking and baking; and productive evenings – spinning and stitching as the family sat together in front of the fire. Richard enjoyed a read but the tallow candles didn’t give much light and I’d watch him doze off in the warmth of the fireplace at the end of his busy day. I could see how Mary was loved and pampered, a grown girl allowed to stay home in the way that an only child could be. Her Ma and Pa had enough money to manage and there was no need for Mary to go off into the world. Into service. The young Benjamy shepherd had had his eye on Mary for some years. He called into Hoar Oak most days and Richard’s wife would give him a drink or a bite to eat but never leave the two together. She and Richard had higher things in mind for their Mary. A local farmer’s son perhaps. Someone with prospects and land and a bit of money. I often heard them say “us’ll try and get a good life for our Mary” but, by the age of 18, I could sense she was beginning to get very itchy feet. I’m sure she was wondering when anything good – or bad come to that – was going to happen for her. It was change she was after. Something new and different. I’d hear her angling for a trip up to the big farms, over to Barbrook, across to Benjamy or into Lynton. Anything that would lead her away from Hoar Oak, away from the confines of my walls, from this bleak bit of moorland and from the quiet, dull, ‘sameness’ of each day. She’d grown into an attractive, intelligent young woman and I looked on with every sympathy. For even I, every now and then, had the feeling that I wanted to get away. So I could certainly sympathise with Mary.
Time went on. One year? One month? I don’t know. A cottage can’t tell the time. Can only sense that it has passed. But one day, Richard came home and said, “Ma, we’ve been asked to take a lodger in. The farmer’s employed a thatcher from Dorset and he needs somewhere for him to lodge while he’s doing work on all the farm cottages. I think we’re even getting a new thatch put on here.” I perked up at that. My roof? My thatch to be taken off and replaced? No. No. No! I hate change and all the banging and kerfuffle it involves. My thatch is home to birds and bugs, spiders and swifts. Dry enough for them but it sounded like the recent drips through into the bedrooms had alarmed my humans and a new roof it was to be. I felt my old roof trusses slump at the thought but I carried on listening intently. Richard seemed pleased at the idea of a lodger and his wife, as was her way, launched into a one-sided conversation about this new departure.
“Well,” said Richard’s wife, “we could make the parlour up as a new bedroom for our Mary. She’d like her own nice little room with a bed and her own chair. It’d be cosy for her. And the man could sleep up in the small front bedroom. Out of the way of things. Would we get paid to have him as a lodger? I’m not feeding an extra mouth for nothing. And what about washing his clothes. I’d not like Mary to have to deal with a strange man’s whatnots. But I guess I could do that it. She’d not have to bother with him. And, I think we’d have to………” But before she could finish saying what she thought they’d have to do, Richard cut in to his wife’s stream of chatter. He knew she could turn a single piece of news into a week’s worth of speculation and chatter and silenced her by saying, “You do whatever you think is right Mother. He arrives Monday week and I’ll bring him home with me that first night.” He saw his wife’s eyes open wide and mouth snap shut and like any sensible chap dodged out my back door saying, “I’ll just go check on young Sam from Benjamy. See if the sheep are doing well.” He’d hoped to be gone before she could reply but that old door never opened or shut easily. As he followed the ritual of a boot kick to the bottom of it, a shoulder shove to the top of it and a strong flick of the hand on the latch, his wife caught her breath enough to say, “What did you just say Richard?” But he’d gone and she was left to her own thoughts.
In those thoughts she conjured up the Dorset thatcher. A bit stooped perhaps. Hard working she hoped. Hard gnarled hands, toughened from his trade. Probably quiet. Maybe a bit lonely away from his family back in Dorset. Someone who’d be grateful for a good dinner, clean clothes and an early night in a comfortable bed. She could do that. Easily. And earn some extra money to be put aside for Mary. Money that would help when she finally found a suitable young man to marry; to buy material for a lovely new dress for her wedding or help her to set up her own first home. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And here was a heaven sent opportunity to find that extra money. With a happy heart and thoughts all in a whirl she knuckled down to the business of preparing. She only had a week and such a lot to do. Mary helped of course and they created a neat and pretty little bedroom for her in the downstairs parlour. They made a comfortable nest for the thatcher, in the small room tucked away upstairs in the oldest part of my walls. The ceiling was low. There was no fireplace. But it was big enough for a comfortable bed and was warmed by the main chimneybreast which ran through it. And finally, I saw the two women fire up the bread oven and make some fresh loaves and two pies – one savoury and one sweetish using the apples from the old gnarled tree in my garden – ready for the new lodger’s arrival. Wednesday was the normal baking for this family but on this special occasion, on the Monday that George the thatcher arrived to lodge at Hoar Oak Cottage, the bread oven was fired up on a Monday.
The two women had been sat quietly, all prepared, all ready, the flurry of their work died down, waiting for Richard to arrive back from Furzehill. My kitchen looked especially nice that day, clean and tidy and warm and cosy with a fire in the grate and the kettle gently steaming, ready to make that first welcoming cup of tea. Mary was knitting and looking industrious and slightly puzzled at the pattern she was attempting and her mother was stripping thyme leaves into a china bowl. The bunches of wild thyme had been picked off the moor a few weeks earlier, tied and hung high in the chimney to dry slowly ready to be stored for winter use. Now as the shepherd’s wife pulled the dried leaves away from the stalks and into her bowl my room filled with a sweet, smoky, herby fragrance which George would forever associate with his first sight of Mary. The two men had come in quietly as the cottage door had been ajar on this pleasant autumn evening. It was a pretty image that greeted them and I watched as George the thatcher from Dorset looked over to see the lovely young woman sat by the fire. He took in the sweet look of concentration on her face as she puzzled over her knitting and saw how the fire gave her hair a golden glow. “Well, Mother” Richard said, breaking the spell and causing the women to look up. “Here we are. Put your bowl down and meet George.” I looked on as the new lodger came further into my kitchen. The old, stooped back thatcher from Dorset with gnarled hands was, in fact, a tall, straight backed lad with curly black hair and a smile that lit up the room. He politely nodded to Richard’s wife and said “thank ‘ee Mam for havin’ me to lodge with ‘ee” before turning that smile onto Mary and saying, “and thank ee too maid for having a big old galumph like me in your home”. He laughed a soft laugh that made Mary’s eyes light up with pleasure and, I have to tell you reader, made my old walls quiver with joy.
In the July of 1837, they were married. George and Mary. My Mary and George the lodger. They were the happiest young Hoar Oak couple I think I ever had. They’d fallen in love and won everyone’s hearts, even Mary’s mother who had perhaps hoped for better than a thatcher but knew a good man when she saw one. She was strict about their courting arrangements. They were allowed to walk together outside in my garden or a little way onto the moor where the wind and rain and cool air would put pay to most thoughts of ‘hanky panky’. They joined Richard and his wife by the fire of a night but sat closely together at my big kitchen table – playing cards or a silly game of some sort. Mary’s cosy new little bedroom in the parlour was out of bounds. Strictly out of bounds. At least until the day of the wedding when I’d seen them all set off, early in the morning, for the long trek across the moor to Lynton. To St Mary’s Church to be married. Later that day, I heard the chattering little party returning. They were coming down the track from Furzehill where a slap up wedding lunch had been laid on by the farmer and his wife at South Farm. I heard them talking about George’s brother, come all the way from Dorset for the great day. And I heard them telling about having to make their mark, scrawl an X where their signatures should go on a new-fangled thing called a marriage certificate. “Look Mary,” George had said with a proud grin, “our certificate says ‘number one.’ We’m the first official married couple in Devon.” I saw Mary look up at and laugh at her new husband and say, “you’m a daft ol’ husband to be sure.”
Back here, back at Hoar Oak, my sweet little Mary walked back inside my walls as the new Mrs Lancey. Mary’s mother and father kissed them both with kindness and pride and before the young couple slid off – through the door and down the three shallow steps that lead into my parlour. To Mary’s bedroom. Ooops, I should of course have said, to Mary and her new husband’s bedroom. Richard shouted after them, “now lad, don’ ‘ee forget to carry that lass over your threshold. Tis bad luck not to” and they all laughed. Later that night, as Richard and his wife sat quietly by my fireside, I heard him say, “Well Betty. A good days work I’d say.” And Betty nodded, a tear in her eye and a catch in her throat, too happy to be able to speak. We all smiled quietly to ourselves that night. Me and my human occupants. Such a happy Hoar Oak marriage.
If you’d like to learn more about George and Mary go to http://www.hoaroakcottage.org/SaundersLancey
Hoaroaktalking Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016