“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 who lived in this isolated spot. 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”
On a chill spring afternoon many years ago I heard the low rumble of mens voices outside. I was still a small and simple building then. Just one room. Built on the slope between the Hoar Oak valley below and the bleak, boggy moors of The Chains above. I have grown out of the rocky ground that I stand on. I am built from stones, hard won, from that unforgiving rock. My stones are cemented together with the sticky, peaty soil that lays all around me. I am thatched with bracken and gorse off the nearby hills. Then I was a shelter for the shepherds bringing sheep up onto the moorland hills for summer pasturing. In late spring, I would begin to see them slowly heading towards me, shepherd, sheep and sheepdogs made silent by the distance. They’d drop down off the ridge, into my valley, splash across the Hoar Oak Water and then I’d begin to hear the noises of man and beast as they finished the long, tiring climb up the hill to the grassy pasture around me. The sheep were settled in and I’d hear the creak of my door – stiff through a winter of being unused. The shepherd would come in and, if he was a kindly sort, the sheepdogs too. Back then, I was just somewhere to shelter, somewhere to light a fire for warmth and cooking, somewhere to sleep, somewhere where every action was set against the background noises of the moor – sheep, birds, deer, rain, wind and the scratch of mice and beetles in my walls and thatch. I served those single shepherds well for many years but when the married shepherds started to arrive, with their wives and children and furniture, things started to change and on that day long ago when I heard the mens voices outside of my walls I listened carefully. I listened and came to understand that they were talking about making me bigger, building a proper chimney, putting in a staircase and bedrooms upstairs.
Their task was a challenge out here at Hoar Oak where people tend to use what materials come to hand rather than try and carry building materials this far out onto the moor. Workmen try to work fast before the season changes and the wind, rain and snows of winter make any building work impossible. And that summer they did work fast and I began to grow. Rocks were dug and broken into building stones. A large flat stone was used to keep a constant gluey mix of peat, water and a bit of cement on the go. Not the ideal mortar but good enough for Hoar Oak. My walls grew upwards and outwards and a new roof of timber and slates went on. But it is the chimney I want to tell you about today.
That summer my lovely new and spacious chimney was built. Outside it was broad and high and strong. Inside, the fireplace was wide and spacious and a slab of slate formed the hearth. A bread oven was built into one side of the chimney and on the other side gaps were left to form simple shelves that could hold boxes of spills and tapers for lighting the fire. It was good and I was proud of it and the first family to live with its benefits were delighted. I enjoyed watching it come alive – the fireplace and bread oven full of burning peat and wood, the chimney carefully drawing the smoke up and my walls filled with warmth and the smell of baking. It did its duty for many, many years that chimney – even when an iron cooking range was fitted into it and the fireplace and bread oven blocked up and forgotten.
Whether my chimney was home to an open fire or iron range it was always the heart of the home. It watched over sickness, births and deaths. It cooked celebration meals as well as meager pots of stew. The newborn – human and sheep – were laid tenderly in front of its warming comfort and there was always a chair nearby. ‘Faither’s chair’ it was usually called. Sometimes ‘the big chair’. It was simple but comfortable, a wooden comb back chair that had often been hand made by the shepherd himself. Mothers would pull it up close to the fire to feed a young child, nurse a baby or try to do some mending by the flickering glow of the flames. The shepherds, at the end of a long day, would pull it close up to the dying embers of the fire for a last bit of quiet and a few soothing pulls of pipe tobacco. Most of those shepherds followed the old ways of smoking a clay pipe – cheap to buy and with a small bowl which made it easier to ration their precious weekly allowance of ‘baccy.
James was one of my shepherds, on of my shepherds all the way from Scotland, and he too enjoyed a bit of quiet time in the evening when everyone else was in bed and he could smoke his clay pipe sat by the fire. James and his wife Sarah had thirteen children inside my walls and so it was that many times James shared this precious quiet time with one of the smaller children on his knee. He might be telling a tale to induce sleep or perhaps keeping a sickly child comforted – a father’s lap, the warm fire and the smell of ‘baccy. James may have foregone his quiet time for a child in need of comfort but he didn’t give up the comfort of smoking his pipe at the same time. And I think he knew, as anyone watching on could tell, that the smoky cloud had a very soothing effect. On numerous nights I’ve seen many and child nod off soothed by the warmth of the fire and a bit of tobacco smoke. All of the children equated the smell of tobacco and the little white clay pipes with their father. The eldest three children would occasionally have a moan about ‘Pa and his pipe’ – seen as the cause for them having to make a long trek to Barbrook to fetch more ‘baccy. The middle children grew up with gentler memories of the smell of tobacco which could transport them, as adults, back to those special times with their Pa. The babies never really knew their father or the smell of his tobacco smoke but they heard their older siblings talk about it and felt as if they had actually been there, could remember it, as if from first hand. I’m only an old house but I’ve learnt from watching my people through hundreds of years all about memory playing tricks. But my memory is very clear about James and his clay pipe. I must concentrate now as I want to tell you more.
Soon after James and Sarah’s last baby, little Agnes, had been born – it was just after a hard winter and spring was just edging onto the moor – James died. He’d been unwell for a while. He never said a thing but Sarah could tell. She saw his increasing lack of breath, how his lips would go blue and how his once strong stride across the moor was slowing to a laboured, heavy pace. Pneumonia laid him low that spring, that final spring, and a bed was made up for him in front of my fireplace which was kept burning day and night to try and keep him warm. The younger children crept about and tried to be quiet. The babies knew no different and cried and were fed and slept in the way that babies do. James would still, when he felt strong enough, cuddle them up in his arms and share the warmth of the fire. The older boys and girls did their very best to help and grew up quickly, behaving like little adults and taking turns to sit with their father and read to him. Telling him stories and helping him to fill and light and smoke one of his clay pipes. Smoking did him no good at all and the world of good. It aggravated an already harsh, unstoppable cough whilst at the same time giving a bit of nicotine-induced relief. It offered the easy pleasure of doing something normal and Sarah said, “Go on. Give yer Pa a pipe. Can’t do much harm.”
I watched over them and tried to wrap my walls more tightly around my family. I snarled at the wind when it was wanting to blow through the cracks in my doors and tried to make sure my windows caught every bit of weak spring sun so that James could feel it on his face. An old house like me can’t do much when the dreadful calamities of our occupants are playing out inside my walls but I tried my very best and when James died I, like everyone else fell silent for a while. My family were exhausted and sad and wept quietly as they sat beside him lying, finally at peace in front of the fireplace. I’ve seen many sad times inside my walls but the passing of James, so far from his native Scotland and surrounded by a loving wife and his thirteen children, was one of the saddest. I know their story is remembered because I hear visitors retelling it. I hear them mention James from Scotland and talk about his wife Sarah left with all those children. They talk about his death with love and respect and sadness. He is remembered by many. As are Sarah and all those children and so one day, not so long ago, I decided to give up my final secret about James and his family.
It was when, many years later,men were once again wandering about my walls, prodding my stones, looking at my windows, talking about the chimney and fireplace, muttering and making plans. They would, I heard them say, “lower my walls, clear out my insides, make me safe”. Safe? Safe from what? But just like all the other times I could only look on as men began working on me. “This”, I heard them say, “would be the last time anything would be done to Hoar Oak Cottage”. Well, I laughed at that I did. How many times have I heard men say “We’ll just do so and so to Hoar Oak and then that will be that. Never again.” Never has never been never out here I guess we will all just have to wait and see. But I digress. I wanted to tell you about the day, not so long ago, when men were working on me and had started in on the iron range that had been bricked into my fireplace. Do you remember? The bricking in that had hidden my old fireplace and the bread oven. I perked up and paid careful attention. I wanted to hear and see what was being done. I watched and listened. The hammers bashed away and the dust flew and after some grunting noises and words that I don’t often hear inside my walls the old black range broke away and fell forward. They did a good job those workmen. It was hard and dangerous work and they did it with respect and skill and when the grunting and ‘words’ were done with there – for the first time in many years –my old hearth with the chimney soaring above it and the bread oven tucked off to one side came into view. All a bit dusty but just as I’d remembered them. Just as all the women over the centuries had cooked in them would have remembered them. Just as all the men who’d tended them and all the children who’d been warmed and fed by them would have remembered them. I was pleased. So pleased that I decided it was time for me to share my last big secret about James and what happened after he died.
The secret was held in one of the little gaps up inside the chimney. Remember? Remember the gaps in my chimney that has been built to hold boxes of spills and tapers? It was this that held the secret. It was this that I let the men discover as they rootled about in my chimney. Let me explain. It happened on the day that James’s family were leaving me. Leaving because James had died and Hoar Oak is nothing without its shepherd and a new shepherd must come and the old family move out. On that day, I watched one of the children sneak into the chimney breast which by then had been swept clean ready for the new arrivals. It was one of the older girls. Emily I think. Certainly one of the older girls who had sometimes been called upon to trek across the moor to fetch ‘baccy for her Pa’s pipe. As she crept into the chimney I saw she was carrying a little stool which I watched her place down on the hearth in order to climb up inside the chimney. I began to feel her fingers fishing about near one of the gaps that had held their spills and tapers. I felt her brush away the sooty dust that had settled there and with thumb and forefinger worry away at the crumbly mortar between the stones to make a small opening, a tiny ledge. I felt her tuck her father’s last unused clay pipe onto the ledge. It was a particularly nice pipe. One that James had been proud of and reluctant to use because he’d only recently bought it and enjoyed admiring the clean white of it and the elegant bird’s claw design around the bowl. Alongside it she tucked a small screw of paper containing a bit of tobacco and then finally stepped back off the stool and looked up at the spot. She could see the job was done well. The pipe was completely hidden, the screw of paper unseen and I heard her say quietly, “There you go Pa. Yer favourite pipe and a screw of ‘baccy so you can have a bit of a smoke whenever you like. We’ve got to leave now, over to Brendon, but you enjoy a smoke and think on us all and we’ll remember you. I’ll try and come back soon to visit.”
She never did. And she never told the story of the hidden pipe to anyone. At least not ‘til she was a very old woman and had forgotten it was meant to be a secret and one day Emily told her daughter Maude. “Twas one of my Ma’s superstitions you see” she said. “Ma was Welsh and Pa was Scottish and they were properly superstitious about all kinds of things. Ma used to say ‘you should always leave something behind for those who have died. It keeps ‘em happy. Stops them feeling forgotten’ and so that’s exactly what I did when we left Hoar Oak.” Maude, being something of a modern young woman thought it was all a bit of nonsense but she too eventually passed the story on to her own children and when they walked out to visit me years back I heard them recount the story of Granfer Johnstone’s old clay pipe. I watched them have a bit of a search ‘round for it but with no success. Of course, they wouldn’t because the old pipe was all bricked up in the chimney. There was no chance they’d ever find it. But I knew. I knew it was there and so I made sure, on that day when the men were bashing away at my bricked up chimney that, at long last, the pipe should be found. And sure enough, one of the workmen – a quiet thoughtful man who had enjoyed working on ‘making me safe’ that summer – found the pipe. I led him to it and he found it and I watched as he carefulloy lifted it out of its little hiding place and gently carefully held it in his hands. It was a bit grubby to be sure and with a bit of the end broken off but it was still intact enough to see it was new, unused and had a beautiful bird’s claw design on the bowl. He called to his mates and those men took great care of that old clay pipe. They wrapped it in some soft cloth and passed it on to one of James’s and Sarah’s many descendants who regularly come out to visit me. And now, they look after James’s pipe – somewhere away off the moor to be sure but somewhere dry and safe. What would James think? What would Emily think? Sometimes I wonder if they are pleased I gave up the secret of the clay pipe up the chimney. Of a little clay pipe left to keep a dead man company. Well, I like to think so. Sometimes I hear people talking about it – people who have taken the long walk out over the moor to visit me. I hear them tell the story and I watch them go and stand inside my chimney and look up. They are searching for the little gap where the little clay pipe with the elegant bird’s claw foot design was left by Emily, all those year’s back, to keep the spirit of her Pa company out here at Hoar Oak. I wonder if they can see me smiling with pleasure? Probably not. After all I’m just an old cottage in the middle of nowhere.
Hoaroaktalking Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016
If you’d like to learn more about Hoar Oak Cottage and the people who lived there go to www.hoaroakcottage.org