“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. ”
Often, on Christmas day, people will walk out across the moor and along the valley to visit me. I know it is Christmas day because I hear them say as much. They stand inside my walls and wonder what Christmas was like here at Hoar Oak in, what they call ‘the old days’. I don’t know what that means because all days are the same to me – I’m an old cottage and the days just come and go. But I think they must be talking about when my families lived in me. When my walls were full of grown-ups and children. When I was full of fun and laughter as well as sorrow and poverty and every day was dictated by the needs of the sheep and the newest baby. There’s little difference between the needs of sheep and small children and the Lord knows those needs must come first, even on Christmas day. I’ll tell you about one Christmas from those ‘old days.’
It wasn’t the sort of sunny, bright winter day that I tend to have visitors. When people come out on the moor for a walk. People who have a choice and almost always choose good weather. My shepherd families had no choice – they had to be out and about in all sorts of weather – and this particular Christmas started as a day of bitter winds, icy temperatures and drifting snow. The snow was piling against the hedges, up against my doors and walls and, if they stood still for too long, up against the sheep out on the moor. Sometimes they would become buried in the drifting snow and lost for days on end. Sometimes they died. Ice had formed on the river and a spade was needed to smash through it to get a bucket of water. My shepherd had been up early that particular Christmas morning and was already out with Samuel the eldest boy, Jimmy, the next boy down and even Marion the oldest girl. They were all out checking on the sheep and taking them extra hay to eat. A sheep would always do its best to try and get a bite of grass hidden under snow but when the snow was deep and the grass frozen they didn’t get much to eat. “Daft beggars”, the shepherd had said to his children, “there’s no sense in sheep at the best of time but in the snow they need our help more than ever.” In the outbuilding at the back of me he’d scooped up a big armful of hay and bundled it up with twine before hefting it up onto Sam’s shoulders where it was held precariously in place with more twine. He did the same for Jimmy and Marion but their bundles were slightly smaller. And finally, the shepherd scooped up a huge, heavy load, bound it with twine and hefted it onto his own shoulders. “Come on then” he said, “let’s see what we find.”
Sarah watched them from the kitchen window keeping her concerns for her husband and older children to herself as they set off into the snow and wind. “Bleddy weather,” she muttered under her breath, “bugger off an’ leave us all in peace.” Agnes, having dragged herself up onto her shaky, little legs, was clutching at her mother’s skirts. She looked up and hoped the words her mother was mumbling had something to do with food. She hadn’t had her breakfast yet and, although a stolid little creature who already knew not to make a fuss, Agnes hoped her Mam hadn’t forgotten her. Her tummy rumbled noisily and she tugged at her Mam’s skirts just as the new baby in Sarah’s belly did an energetic, cartwheeling turn. Sarah smiled to herself – one little child reminding her that she needed to be fed whilst another, as yet unborn, reminding its mother of their imminent arrival. “I know,” Sarah said as she rubbed her apron-clad bulge, “but please, baby, not in this blizzard. Wait a bit longer” and with that she grasped Agnes’s hand and said, “right, little miss, time for porridge I think. What do you say?” And Agnes, of course, agreed it was certainly time for porridge.
Outside I had watched the shepherd and the three children leave my outbuildings and go off up and onto the hills, lugging their heavy loads of hay. It was hard going. The shepherd sunk into snow up and over his boots and his children followed, trying to step into his footsteps in the snow, but still managing to sink up to their knees. I could see the snow was blowing almost horizontally and they struggled in the teeth of that dreadful wind. But they kept going – a dogged, hardy group driven on by their worries about the sheep and the need to get hay out to them. I strained to keep them in my sights but after a little they became smudges in the landscape and then they disappeared.
Inside, I looked down to see Sarah and Agnes had been joined by Jeannie – another wee girl who was nearly two years old than Agnes. Old enough to know about the worries of sheep and snow but too young to join the others out on the moor. Together they were quietly eating their porridge at the kitchen table. They knew it was Christmas day and had looked forward to it with a simplicity that would surprise my modern-day visitors. They might hope for a gift or a visit from Father Christmas but they certainly didn’t expect one. Celebrating and presents weren’t for people like them – simple shepherd folk out here at Hoar Oak – but they were young and could always hope. They knew there would be a bit of a special dinner. A nice piece of gammon saved from when ol’ piggy had been stuck and butchered at the beginning of autumn. And they’d watched their mother creating a wonderful sweet concoction of raisins and apples and nuts and honey, that had been tied tightly in the family’s old and well-loved pudding clout. They knew the story of this special bit of muslin cloth because their Mam had told them as they’d watch her make the pudding. “I brought that all the way down ‘ere from Scotland. It was the clout my own mother – yer Granny – gave me to bring away south.” Now full of fragrant ingredients, the clout was tied tightly into a ball and was steaming away in a pot of bubbling water in the fireplace. Sarah had knitted everyone new socks. She had made little Agnes a dolly from an old sock and, with some of her precious egg money, had bought a length of blue hair ribbon for Marion. Her husband would have to make do with a small twist of tobacco as his present and the boys each had a new handknitted scarf as well as their socks. As Scots they didn’t really celebrate Christmas – Hogmanay was the big celebration for them – but here they were living in the south now. Most of the children had been born here. Sarah thought of them as her “wee English bairns” and this year she had decided to make an effort to celebrate Christmas with a special meal and a few little gifts.
I kept watch on them all – inside and outside my walls – and after an hour or so saw the shepherd and the children coming back, floundering and struggling through the snow. They went straight ‘round the back to the outbuilding and re-loaded their weary shoulders with more bundles of hay. Sarah heard them and pushed the door from the kitchen to the back yard open and shouted; “Be you all, all right? Shall I brew some tea?” They just managed to hear her above the howl of the wind and Sam poked his head around the barn door and shouted back, “not just now Ma but get something ready for when we get back next time.” She heard her husband add; “and mebbe have a bite ready for us. We may have to do another slog up onto the hills.” Sarah said to herself, ‘my heavens, it must be bad out there if they need to do three trips.’ But it was good to be busy and I watched as she shut the door and shouted to the other children; “us have got to get a bite and some tea ready for yer Pa and brothers and sister.” I returned to watching how the shepherd and his three young helpers were getting on. I saw them retrace their steps, out of the barn, around the front and following the path of the flattened snow, up onto the hills. They slipped out of sight once more but I fancied I’d been able to see them for a little bit longer. Was the wind dropping? Was the snow not falling quite so heavily? Who knows? I’m only an old house. I can only look on and watch and do nothing but try to keep my walls warm and my roof tight and dry but I have seen a fair few snow storms in my time. And on that day, I thought – no, I was sure – that the weather was starting to ease a bit as they set out again on their second trip to the sheep.
When they returned, hot drinks and a good few slices of bread and dripping were ready for them. Sarah made a fuss. Her husband quietly ate and drank. The boys said “stop making a fuss Mam.” And poor Marion, wet and cold and exhausted, straightened her shoulders, flicked wet hair back over her shoulder, tried to look brave and fooled no one when she said, “I’m perfectly fine. You concentrate on the lamb Mam.” Because sure enough they had found a poor, wee lamb struggling in the snow lost from its mother and needing warmth and care. The shepherd had tucked it into the big hessian bag he always had slung around his shoulders for just such an eventuality and had carried it back to be handed over to the capable hands of his wife. Agnes and Jeannie, who had been peeping out of the back door, were enchanted by the little creature and eagerly took it off their mother and put it in the ‘lamb box’ by the fireplace kept for just such an occasion. “One more trip Sar,” the shepherd said gently to his wife and she raised her fingers to his cold, rough face before he turned back to the outbuilding, loaded everyone up with more hay and off they went again. I watched, as one more time they headed off and this time the wind had definitely dropped to a gentle murmur. The snow was still an obstacle but they’d ploughed on, their step lighter with the knowledge that this was the last trip. The sky was clearing a bit and on this late Christmas afternoon on the moorland hills the sun was trying to shine through. It made for a strange but beautiful light that made the snow shimmer and take on a sort of pinkish glow.
Inside my walls I could see that the two little girls were busy with their job of looking after the lamb. They took it very seriously. It was their contribution to this hard day as the youngest members of a busy shepherd family. Whilst Agnes and Jeannie were quiet and occupied, Sarah decided it was time to prepare for their planned festivities. She wrapped her large and well-worn tartan shawl ‘round her shoulders and went out the back door and along to the outbuilding where she snipped some ivy off of its old, rugged walls. She laid the tendrils of greenery down the middle of their long, kitchen table and got out her mother’s candle sticks – handed down to Sarah for just such occasions – and fitted in some candles she had made from dipped tallow especially for Christmas. Usually, candles out here at Hoar Oak were poor, thin things made to last for an hour or so, but these were nearly an inch thick and burnt with a lovely strong glow. At each place around the table, I watched Sarah lay out the gifts she had for everyone and at the head of the table she placed her husband’s present of tobacco carefully between his knife and fork. She got the food ready, laid more peat on the fire so it roared up my chimney – hot and welcoming – and then went out to feed the chickens and the pony and then came back inside. To wait.
She sat in ‘faither’s big chair’ next to the fire to wait for her family’s return. The younger children were still fully engaged in looking after the new lamb – petting it, calling it sweet names and leaning over the box to give its little black nose the occasional kiss – as well as carefully holding a bottle of warmed milk for it to suckle on. Sarah smoothed the apron over her belly and tried to calm the unborn baby who had been enlivened by all its mother’s Christmas exertions. All was quiet and still and both Sarah and the baby dozed. The wind had finally ceased its howling and it wasn’t long before Sarah was awoken by the sounds of her husband and elder children – speaking low and slow but sounding pleased with their days work as they crunched through the snow. They went around to the cobbled yard between my back door and my outbuildings and I watched them stamp away the snow clinging to their boots and dust off stray bits of hay stuck on their clothing. They burst in through my back door – exhausted but full of fresh air and satisfaction at a job well done – before removing wet and snowy outer garments and kicking off their dirty, wet boots. Any rebuke jumping to Sarah’s lips was forgotten as she saw their reaction to the pretty scene before them – the table and its candles, the ivy and their gifts. At the same time Agnes and Jeannie had jumped up from the serious business of tending the lamb and caught sight of the Christmas table for the first time. The warmth and light and savoury smells of the bacon dinner and sweet pudding caught everyone’s imagination and James said, with a catch in his voice; “Well, Sar, you’ve done us all proud for Christmas this year and there’s no mistaking.”
The children shyly sat down at their places around the table and eyed with pleasure their carefully placed gifts. They waited for their Mam to serve up their Christmas dinner and when Marion went to help her mother, as she always did, Sarah laid a gentle hand on her arm and said; “You’m alright m’dear. Yer Mam can do dinner. You’ve had a hard day and you’ve worked like a lad. I’m proud of you. Now go and keep the others company. Tell ‘em one of yer daft yarns that makes everyone laugh.” And that’s precisely what she did. Marion was full of funny stories and they laughed and sang silly songs and ate a good meal and finally stopped just looking in wonder at their presents. They began trying on their new socks and scarfs. Agnes introduced her sock dolly to the lamb and Marion – good lass that she was – shared her beautiful ribbon by making two little bows to go in Agne’s and Jeannie’s hair. The wee girls were thrilled. So thrilled, in fact, that they remembered those Christmas hair ribbons for the rest of their lives.
When all was quiet and the children were settled in bed and the lamb was asleep in its box by the fire – exhausted from being ‘cared for’ so diligently – the shepherd and his wife sat quietly, enjoying the last glow of the fire. “You’ve had a day of it haven’t you James?” Sarah asked her husband. “Will the flock be all right do you think?” He paused from tamping some of his precious Christmas ‘baccy into his little white clay pipe and looked up to say; “I think it’ll be fine Sar. Won’t know for sure ‘til tomorrow, but I think it’ll be fine” and she smiled and stretched out a hand to him. He smiled at her and said; “Did ‘ee think I’d forgotten ye woman? Forgotten it was these southerners’ Christmas?” She looked up, startled, and said in all honesty; “Why no, James, it hadn’t occurred to me at all.” And it was true. Sarah never thought of herself and truly hadn’t expected anything so didn’t feel in the slightest forgotten. Her surprise was, as a consequence, truly genuine when James pulled a little parcel out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Well, you’ve done well to make us a Christmas celebration Sar. Our bairns are being born and brought up down here in the south so I thought I’d best try and be a southerner too and be giving you a Christmas present.” He paused and looked at her with love and said, “Happy Christmas lass.”
It was a charming scene by my old fireplace down in the kitchen. A scene that I remember and think of as the time that Christmas truly came to Hoar Oak Cottage. But there was rarely time inside my walls when peace and calm came – and stayed – and so it was to be on that Christmas night. After they’d all gone to bed Sarah lay awake, stroking her swollen belly, feeling the pains and knew that by the end of the night, or maybe by the morning, another new little boy or girl would be joining the brood inside my walls. But for the moment she stayed snuggled in the warmth of the bed with her shepherd husband sleeping soundly beside her. She knew all about having babies and knew that for a few more hours she could lie still and ride the gentle waves of pain that meant the baby was on its way. She was too happy and too warm and clutched in her hand the lavender bag that James had given her as her ‘southerner’ Christmas present. It was so beautiful. Made of pretty, rose coloured silk, edged in lace and full of the smells of summer lavender. She brought it to her nose and inhaled deeply and I think even I could detect the wonderful fragrance that night inside my cold, winter walls. Outside, the night was quiet and full of shimmering snow and glittering stars and sheep were going quietly about their business. Inside, my shepherd family slept, full of good food and relishing the simple contentment that new socks and scarves, a wee bit of hair ribbon, a twist of tobacco and the smell of lavender could bring to make a happy Christmas at Hoar Oak.
If you’d like to learn more about Hoar Oak Cottage and the people who lived there go to www.hoaroakcottage.org
Hoaroaktalking Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016