The Village Book
THE VILLAGE BOOK
First edition, Jonathan Cape,
First published by Jonathan Cape, July 1930:
Limited edition, 504 copies, 2 guineas (£2 2s)
Trade edition, 7s 6d
Reprinted 1930 with some corrections, 7s 6d
E. P. Dutton, USA, 21 October 1930, $2.50
Cape, 1933, reprint in their ‘Life and Letters’ series, no. 53, 4s 6d
Cape, 1937, reprint in their ‘The Travellers’ Library’ series, no. 217, 3s 6d
These stories, together with those in the companion volume The Labouring Life (and some other fresh material), were to be republished by Faber under new titles in 1945, which will be considered in due course.
‘If you want good neighbours, you must first
be a good neighbour yourself’ –
Old Ploughman of Ham at
the Rabbit Supper
Illustrated, twice only, by sketches from the original MS.
The Village Book is a collection of 55 stories illustrating ‘The Spirit of the Village in Winter and Spring’ and ‘Air and Light of the Fields and the Sea in Winter and Spring’; they cover the period 1921–1929 (the period that HW had actually lived in Georgeham). Note, however, that this does not mean the book took nine years to actually write, as many reviewers seemed to think.
Although HW states in his dedicatory preface that this is an imaginative work which should not be read as the history of any particular village or its inhabitants, it would have been very obvious right from the start to anyone familiar with HW’s life and work that these stories present a picture of the village of Georgeham, with its two village inns – ‘The Lower House’ and ‘The Upper House’ – and the inhabitants thereof. The interwoven second theme takes the reader out into the surrounding countryside, mainly the nearby cliffs and sand-dunes within easy walking distance from the village, and notably the steep and dangerous precipices of Baggy Point and Morte Point.
The book has a double dedication:
Mrs Hibbert, known as ‘Grannie’ in the family, was unfailingly kind, courteous and encouraging to the young writer. She died fairly soon after publication of this book. Sarah Catherine Augusta Hibbert was born in 1840, the daughter of the eminent artist Frederick Lee, RA (1798-1879), of Broadgate House, Pilton, a substantial estate on the outskirts of Barnstaple, North Devon. In 1861 she married Col. Hugh Robert Hibbert (1828-1895), 7th Royal Fusiliers, of Birtles Hall, Cheshire (one of several Hibbert estates at that time), and at first they lived at Birtles where all their children were born. They moved to Broadgate House probably after the death of her father (abroad in Africa), but after the death of Col. Hibbert in 1895 and later having to settle the debts of a wayward son, she was eventually forced to move to a cottage within her own grounds. Their fourth child, Margaret Dora (b.1871 at Birtles) married, against the family’s wishes on both sides, her cousin Charles Robert Hibbert, ‘Pa’, son of Leicester Hibbert, the ‘Guv’nor’, of Chalfont, Bucks (another Hibbert estate): this side of the family was already in some financial difficulty.
Virtually disowned financially by both sides of the family, except for income from a Trust, Charles and Dora lived a very impecunious life at the White House, Abbotsham, a tiny hamlet on the coast near Bideford, North Devon, growing their own food, making own furniture (though that was a Hibbert family hobby) and shooting rabbits and pigeons for meat. They had four children, Francis, b.1890, known as Frank; Charles Thomas, b.1899, known as Tom; Ida Loetitia, b.1901 (HW’s wife, ‘Gipsy’); and Robert Edward, b.1902, known as Robin, or Bin. Loetitia is of course ‘Lucy’ in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novels, while Bin is portrayed (rather unkindly) as the hapless brother who helped on the farm – as ‘Sam’ in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, and ‘Tim’ in the Chronicle. Dora, to whom Pa was devoted, died in March 1918 from tuberculosis after some time as an invalid. Grannie Hibbert died on 15 January 1931. HW would have known that she was failing, and no doubt made this dedication for that reason, to express his gratitude for her kindness to him.
Broadgate House, Pilton, nr Barnstaple
Currently a Grade II listed building, it was partially derelict at the time
of listing, and is now divided into flats.
The second dedicatee is Petre Mais (Stuart Petre Brodie Mais, generally known as ‘SPB’, 1885-1975), a prolific writer of about 200 books and a huge number of articles and book reviews, who was to be a life-long friend. His family roots were in Devon (both grandparents and parents) and although he was actually born and bred in Derbyshire he spent considerable time in Devon and considered himself to be ‘Devonian’. SPB was of rumbustuous character, a passionate cricketer and a great walker. He was always hard-up due to his personal extravagant life-style and having to support a first disastrous marriage. He constantly borrowed sums of money off HW (without necessarily ever repaying it), who was possibly even more hard up! Mais wrote an enthusiastic review of HW’s first book published in 1921 and they actually first met in London at the newspaper office in 1922. Mais was often in Devon and they frequently walked together there. HW visited Mais at his Brighton home on many occasions, where they walked on the nearby Downs. (See Robert Walker, ‘S. P. B. Mais – Henry’s longest literary relationship’, HWSJ 49, 2013, pp. 35-53 for further details.)
HW had moved from Georgeham in the autumn of 1929 to Shallowford, a house on the estate of Lord Fortescue (elder brother of Sir John Fortescue, who had written the ‘Introduction’ to Tarka the Otter) at Castle Hill, Filleigh, near South Molton, North Devon – a few miles east of Barnstaple. By the time The Village Book was published the family were firmly in residence, with their third child, a girl named Margaret, born in mid-April 1930.
The original contract for the book is dated 1 June 1928, with a provisional title of ‘LIFE IN A WEST COUNTRY VILLAGE’. The manuscript was to be delivered by 30 June 1928. This date was not of course fulfilled, possibly as the award of the Hawthornden Prize for Tarka the Otter gave HW a rather busy schedule.
The first mention of this book appears in a small pocket-book diary entry (the main diaries covering this period are missing) at the beginning of March 1929, where HW noted ‘Work in hand during March’, which included ‘Village Book’. But there is practically no archive information whatsoever about this work. There is no further mention of it in 1929 (or indeed of anything!). HW was very involved at that time in an affaire with a German girl, Barbara Krebs, who was staying in Georgeham with the redoubtable vegetarian and nudist Miss Johnson (who kept a boarding house just along the road from HW, around the corner towards Putsborough), but who was actually attending lectures on literature at King’s College, London. But Fraulein Krebs, although obviously in love with HW, kept her head and her distance, and finally in mid-January 1930, HW noted in his diary: ‘Barbara writes and washes out everything.’ She returned to Germany soon after that, leaving HW, as always at such times, somewhat distraught. (See AW’s biography, Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic (1995) pp.126, 160, 175.)
On 24 January 1930 he noted: ‘Village Book revised’, and on the following day: ‘V.B. sent to Cape’.
There is a note on 27 March which would seem to indicate he was checking proofs:
Village Book: 2 fat pigs killed 1 week after death. [i.e. to be corrected]
And the next day, 28 March:
V.B. Eating fruit in a haphazard way; this is a sign for women pregnant. Woman who took Arty’s tomatoes.
Other small diary entries reveal that he dined with Arnold Bennett at the Royal Thames Yacht Club on 18 March, and with Mrs Munnings, wife of the great artist Alfred Munnings with whom HW became quite friendly in due course, at their nearby Exford home on 12 April. (She admired his writing.)
His daughter’s birth on 15 April is not recorded – though there is a joke a few days later that she is now called ‘Rhubarb’, since Gipsy merely thought she was suffering from indigestion following eating rhubarb when she gave birth! However the following day, 16 April, the diary reads: ‘Fortescue to lunch . . . The Wild Red of England’ (sic). This has significance for his next book, The Wild Red Deer of Exmoor – so it is possible that the ‘Fortescue’ here is Sir John who himself, had written a book about the wild red deer of Exmoor, rather than his new landlord Lord Fortescue. Note that HW evidently entertained his guest on his own.
The actual publication of The Village Book is not mentioned by HW, perhaps surprising in view of the handsome vellum-backed signed limited edition; Cape produced a 4-page folded prospectus for the trade and limited editions, with a generous review by Sir William Beach-Thomas forming the centre pages:
Sir William Beach-Thomas (1868-1957) had been a highly respected war correspondent during the First World War (for which he was awarded the KBE in 1920 and knighted by both England and France), and he was a well-known writer and journalist on country matters. He is known to have regretted that the tone of his war reports did not reflect the actuality of the Western Front. Although there is very little evidence within the archive that these two men were friends, Beach-Thomas certainly stayed at Shallowford for a fishing visit, and HW had copies of several of his books.
The Contents page divides the book into two separate lists under their main headings but the stories are intermingled in the text itself without any further reference to that division. It is not difficult to see the actual order in which the stories are printed from the pagination.
The book takes us on a meandering journey through the village and the surrounding countryside – and indeed through HW’s life at that time: a journey objectively observed and recorded. So immediate in effect is it that it is as if we were taking part in it ourselves. We know these people and their lives. It is The Archers of the 1920s! Particularly vivid are the cameos of the two village inns, the Lower House and the Upper House, with their respective and contrasting landlords, captured as vividly as if their painted portraits were before us.
The book consists of observations on the lives of the people who live in the village and nearby, blended with a study of the natural life in the area. HW tells us in an effortless way of everyday happenings, of the old rabbit buyer, William Gammon, the village masons, the farmers, the inns, their landlords and customers: and the book includes the essay ‘The Ackymals’, now slightly revised from the private limited edition of the previous year, about John Kift who could not be convinced that the great tits did not eat his peas.
We learn about Billy Goldsworthy’s barn with its hoarded implements of bygone farming days, and how Sparker sets his grandfather clocks to strike in succession so that he can have the pleasure of hearing them one after the other. The book closes with ‘The Firing Gatherer’, the text of which is as printed in the limited edition of The Linhay on the Downs.
Today, not only do we recognise these essays for their literary worth – and many of them are gems, superb examples of their genre – but, further, as a document of social history of an age now lost, an aspect which becomes increasingly of value as time passes.
The twin aspect of the book is a far cleverer device than is immediately apparent for it gives us a dual nature on more than one level. The most obvious are the village characters versus nature aspect, and the good and bad in both people and natural phenomena. But there is a deeper duality running through the book which we recognise probably on a sub-conscious level: an eternal yin-yang theme, giving the book a lasting worth beyond the immediate enjoyment of the stories for their own sake.
As the stories progress the reader will find ‘friends’ (human and animal) who have already appeared in previous volumes; but also several new characters appear. HW changed real names around in these stories, swapping those of one family for those of another. It is known that some of the people concerned were upset at his portrayal at the time: I rather suspect it was this changing of names that was the problem rather than the actual stories themselves. People would not have liked their name being portrayed with other people’s ‘sins’ (the old country word would have been ‘doings’), while they would probably have been quite proud of their own!
It is not possible to mention every one of the stories here, so below are highlights; the omission of an item does not mean that it is any less readable than those included. They are all delightful. Apart from perhaps ‘The Badger Dig’, the harrowing aspect of some of HW’s earlier short stories is not so noticeable.
‘The Donkey’ (pp. 11-13): first published in the Daily Express, 5 December 1927 as ‘A Devonshire donkey’. An interesting opening: a skittish donkey is exercised down the village street – or rather it exercises its owner; the author humorously ponders what ‘truths’ it would tell about its master’s dubious activities if it could speak – the repetitive refrain ‘Not master’s’ translating the ‘hee-haw’ continuum of donkey-talk!
‘The Badger Dig’ (pp. 14-34): first published in T.P.s and Cassell’s Magazine, 1 May 1926, but HW tells the reader in a short epigraph that the story was written in 1923. The story opens ‘On Valentine’s Day . . .’ which is an addition to his typescript (see scan below) and is obviously intended to reinforce the idea of love for one’s fellow creatures. First his much loved spaniel gets its paw caught in a gin trap, panics, is released and shows his gratitude for master. But later our wanderer gets involved with the Badger Digging Club, where we find the rather vicious terrier ‘Mad Mullah’ in attendance. It is quite a bloody story, but with a good underlying moral, reinforced in the ‘Epigraph’ when we find the bloodthirsty farmer of the badger dig in trembling fear of having a tooth pulled: ‘Like many other farmers I knew, this man was timid, afraid of pain for himself, and brutal to weaker things.’
‘Night in the Estuary’ (pp. 35-37): first published in the Daily Express, 19 March 1927 as ‘A night symphony’. A lyrical essay on the sounds of the various birds heard at night on the estuary, likening them to music, especially that of Delius, whom HW compares to Richard Jefferies.
‘Scandal and Gossip’ (pp. 38-42): In which the village men (‘drunkards’), relieving themselves in the ditch after closing time at the inn, shock a lady from the town; and involves the parson in giving a sermon which upsets his parishioners!
‘The Poor Fowl’ (pp. 43-44): Stormy seas throw up an oiled guillemot on the shore, doomed to die as it cannot fly, and once washed up cannot get food to eat. The author is in a dilemma – but an old shore-man’s solution is that ‘’Er would taste proper, baked wi’ tetties, midear.’ So the guillemot is knocked on the head and killed: ‘The best ending for the poor fowl . . .’ (No RSPB Rescue Centre then!)
‘A Mason’s Week’ (pp. 45-49): A tale of Willy Gammon, a mason, who, although ‘his wife had a hard life, bringing up so many children, in a cottage with one dark living room, and one bedroom divided into two by a thin wall of lathe-and plaster’, spent most of his spare time and his money in the inn: ‘bottled stout, sixpenny ale, and a drop or two of whiskey to finish up on’. But nevertheless, ‘a good man, kind and gentle and very fond of the childer’. The family muddled through in its own way.
‘A Winter Fresh’ (pp. 50-52): HW paints a scene of the seashore as the tide ebbs with sharp clear brush-strokes of his pen: a veritable water-colour of delight.
‘Washing Day’ (pp. 53-58): The author looks down on the village from the lofty top of the church tower, from where one can not only see but smell and hear the activities of all its occupants. The church tower was of great symbolic importance to HW, featuring in two important essays (the ‘Apologia’ at the beginning of The Wet Flanders Plain and ‘Surview and Farewell’ in The Village Book’s companion volume, The Labouring Life). Here it is a straightforward description, yet ends with the enigmatic ‘the sky which sees all, and yet hears nothing’.
‘The Linnets’ (pp. 59-61): The beauty of the linnet’s song makes HW think that the bird is in a ‘state of spiritual joy’ but he remembers with sadness a past sin when he set fire to a gorse bush and his thoughtlessness killed off the nestlings it contained.
‘The Village Inns’: (1), ‘The Lower House’ (pp. 62-85); (2), ‘The Higher House’ (pp. 98-112): The fictional village of ‘Ham’ has two inns: so does the real village of Georgeham. The fictional Lower House was kept by Charlie Taylor (actually The King’s Arms, kept by Charlie Ovey), owner of the terrier Mad Mullah (one always feels as if this dog was actually a bloodhound or bull mastiff!) and who was the instigator of the (free) ‘Rabbit Supper’, to which very few of the villagers turned up. But of those that do we are given a detailed description. It is a most wonderful tale of village life, as gossipy as if one was sitting in the fug and listening to the men oneself. There is a slight problem with the landlord of the Higher House (actually The Rock Inn, landlord Albert Jeffery) – in the first part he is called Albert Hancock, but when we actually come to the second part he is Albert Gammon: ‘noo-mye,’ as they said in those days; the two parts are well separated and I doubt if many notice the discrepancy – and if they do – well, ‘noo-mye’! It is the tale that matters.
This essay was first printed in The Monthly Criterion (February 1928), a leading prestigious literary journal (its equal rival was The Adelphi with which HW was to be associated in due course),edited by T. S. Eliot from late 1922 to January 1939. Originally a quarterly entitled The Criterion, it was financed by Lady Rothermere, wife of the newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere, but in 1926 was taken over by Faber and Gwyer Publishing (later Faber and Faber), and for a time it was published monthly. There does not seem to have been direct contact between HW and T. S. Eliot at that time. HW would have sent the story off to his agent, or perhaps Richard de la Mare (of Faber & Gwyer, and HW’s friend and best man at his wedding) had a hand in it. It is interesting however that such an intellectual journal and editor printed what is essentially a ‘domestic’ tale. It was obviously considered to be of sufficient quality by one of the leading intellectuals of the era.
|HW's rather battered copy of The Criterion||
The first page of 'The Village Inns' – this earlier version
differs slightly from that in The Village Book
‘‘Muggy’, The Rabbit Agent’ (pp. 86-92): first printed in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1928), and then in the Manchester Guardian (1929), this is a very true portrait of ‘Muggy Smith of Cryde’ (Croyde):
‘Muggy Smith of Cryde’ is plain as a field is plain, plough, arrish, or pasture; a rare and simple being, warped to no property, true to himself, and therefore to all men. Shakespeare would have loved him.
Muggy died in August 1929. HW tells us in an ‘epigraph’:
Four years after the above was written, my old friend Muggy Smith of Cryde fell down and died as he was going into his hut, at the age of 75 years. During his life he asked me frequently not to omit, when I ‘put him in the book’, the facts that he was ‘proper wild’ as a young man, . . . I am sure Muggy was the first to laugh at the joke of his own funeral in August, 1929, when his coffin could not be lowered into its grave because it was too long.
You will have to read the story to find the significance of that cryptic remark!
|Muggy Smith of Cryde|
‘Old Woolacott’ (pp. 116-125) tells the rather sad tale of the stricken old man who has to leave his home in the village due to the greed of the owner-builders: the young son not caring about the ‘bliddy ould vule’ he was turning out – he has his own, happy, life before him.
Two loose printed pages reveal that this story had already been printed elsewhere as ‘The Spirit of the Village’ in a magazine called The Quiver. This magazine was established in 1861 by John Cassell and continued until 1926: so HW’s story has to be no later than that date. In that version the old man is called ‘Old Watts’ while the anonymous ‘mason-builder’ of The Village Book is named as William Ley and his father as John Ley. (HW’s ‘Village Families’ included below shows that a Ley family did indeed live in the village – but HW is playing around with the names.) One can see also that a sentence from this original story has been removed from the book version. After the sentence ‘William Ley [‘the master-builder’] was always on the look-out for more property’ the original story continues:
The monthly parish sheet, regularly delivered by his wife and daughter to the cottages, advertised his name as rector’s warden; he was most conscientious in church matters and had nothing to do with the chapel.
On the front of the parish's Monthly Bulletin for April 1927 (an illustration of it appears later), the Rector’s Warden is named as Mr Walter R. Brown. How HW kept track of his convoluted renaming of characters is almost incredible!
‘The Sawyers’ (pp. 126-139), although dated 1922 first appeared in the London Mercury in October 1928. The tale tells the felling of the churchyard elms: HW again painting a picture, gradually adding the details. The story features a branch breaking a grave headstone, and interestingly the author can remember the man, who had been in the Labour Corps salvaging on the Somme battlefields. Here there is a superb portrait of Robert Chugg, the top sawyer, whose nimbleness in moving around the tree-trunks like a monkey avoids what would have been a bad accident – if not death. (No safety harness in those days!)
‘The First Day of Spring’ (pp. 140-207) covers numerous sections, twenty-one in all, from both the ‘Village’ and ‘Field’ main headings.
|The manuscript draft|
|The later typescript, with further revisions|
This is the heart of the book. (The writer mentions his two-year-old son, so we assume the time is 1928, but I think most of these pieces were actually written much earlier.) The author sets out for a walk drawn by the ‘Hot sunlight flooding the red lane below my garden wall’. As he sets out he sees a slow-worm enticed out of hibernation by the warmth of the sun, but still very torpid and vulnerable, and he moves it to a place of safety. Mrs ‘Thunderbolt’ (the name given to the club-footed and very deaf ‘Farmer’ William 'Vanderbilt' Carter who lived in the third cottage of the row that contained Skirr Cottage, at right angles to where the author was then living at Vale Cottage. The nickname, bestowed because he was thought to be very rich, was corrupted to 'Thunderbolt') ‘knows’ it is a dangerous snake, despite explanation. He promises his two-year-old son that he will be back for tea.
So the author sets off down ‘The Lane to the Sea’ (147-149), and we meander with him on a most lyrical walk which takes him on a circuit out to the headland of Baggy Point and round back to his own village. As he wanders he sees:
Gulls drifted overhead, rocking and crooking their wings. The fields of plough and pasture, the trees and thatched roofs of the farm buildings below, the flock of yellow-hammers alighting and flitting along the ruddy twigs of dogwood and the young leaves of honeysuckle, the plants of foxglove, the lichens on the stone – all took light from the sky, and freed the thought-cumbered spirit. Air and sun and wind, these are the inspiration of life, the ancient source of renewal, whose inherited essence is the beauty in Man’s mind. A lark was singing, and another lark, many larks . . .
The wind and sun vibrate the tissues charged and impressed in ancient days: I am one with the sunlight, and the lark is my brother. . . .
. . . but I will forget sadness, for this is the first day of Spring.
BUT a few pages further on:
Ten years ago, this very month, I saw it [water-cress] in the waters of the Ancre, flowing cold and swift on its chalk bed under Beaumont Hamel; and a ghost, not long of the thin air, rose up beside me among the charred poplar stumps of the dreadful swamp.
In ‘The Engboo’ (the post on which a gate hangs) (pp. 157-159) he recalls a war-time visit:
Those sands, where in 1916 my friend [Terence Tetley – ‘Desmond Neville’ of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series] and I ran naked and shouting into the sea: the days before the Somme, when the illusion of youth still wandered over the sea and the sky.
In one of HW's early photograph albums there are three much faded photographs of that 1916 visit to the sands:
And then a few lines further, he remembers another holiday – his first visit to this tiny hamlet of Georgeham:
That last day of May, 1914, when a boy walked over thirty miles in the hot sun, taking a last look at trees and lanes and cliffs and streams, taking farewell of enchantment, and saying on the lonely headland while the heart ached with all longing, ‘Goodbye, I shall return but it will never be the same.’
And yet again, two pages on:
[German and British soldier had] smiled at each other in no-Man’s land on Christmas Day, in the year of the prophetic farewell to these very trees and lanes and streams and cliffs.
The lark is our brother; the sun shines in beauty again.
In ‘The Origin of Ghosts’ (pp. 163-164), which one might call one of HW’s ‘scriddicks’, HW uses the word ‘magniloquently’: I looked this odd word up: it means ‘lofty in expression’!
‘The Blackbird of the Blasted Tree’ (pp. 167-168 but actually under a page in length)
As I walked on the wet sand under the Naps, I heard the notes of a blackbird, and looking up at the cliffs, I saw my old friend on his usual perch . . . I had known that blackbird six years before; I recognised him every spring by the quality of his notes . . . and at intervals he repeated a refrain which was a perfect cadence. One year I asked a friend to write it down, and he was amazed by its perfection of time and tune.
Here it is in the original manuscript:
But there is more to this example of so much apparent care taken over such a tiny detail. In the archive there is a letter addressed to HW’s wife, dated 9 May 1926. It is from an old Hibbert family friend from before her marriage, ‘A. H. Hall’, who lived at Westward Ho!, and who appears in the Chronicle novels as ‘Mister’ (as indeed he was known).
My dear Ida,
As I know you are interested in birds & their ways I want to tell you of a blackbird who for some time now has taken up his position in a tree by our front gate, & being comfortably installed in said tree, he sings.
Now this in itself is not very remarkable, but the point is he sings a real tune . . . I was struck by our black friend singing not once, but more than a dozen times at intervals a perfect cadence, not only perfectly in tune, but in time too, so much so that I got a bit of paper & wrote it down & here it is.
With the exception of the first note in brackets, I’ve written the tune exactly as the black-bird sang it time and all! . . . Can’t Bill make this into copy of sorts? The tune was so striking & so perfect I’ve never heard anything like it before & it beat any nightingale from a musical point of view.
Well, Bill (HW – always called Bill by his intimates at this time) did indeed in due course make something of it! And so we can all enjoy this charming little story, embellished by the imagination of our author, even if we might be a little disappointed that it did not originate with HW himself.
‘The Ravens of Bloodhill’ (pp. 174-178), whose eggs get taken every year: here we have a short reprise of the story of the Kift brothers, John and ‘Tiger’, and their amazing feats as egg-collectors hanging off the cliffs, as in the earlier tale ‘Tiger’s Teeth’, which had appeared in The Lone Swallows.
‘Interlude’ (pp. 184-185) shows us our walker, invoking Hardy’s ‘strangers’ and William Blake’s ‘visitants’ as witnesses, throwing a man-forged manacle (that is, an animal trap) over the cliff while screaming curses – so releasing his fury and enabling him to continue to once again enjoy his walk. That is so typically HW in behaviour! (This was perhaps the trap that Billjohn’s leg got caught in?)
On the cliffs (his beloved Baggy Point) he sees peregrine falcons who try to hunt down a tiny exhausted pipit, but it manages to elude them and find safe refuge. We learn of his dog, which all the while has been following him faithfully wherever he walks, and for whom he pays a 7/6d licence every year so it can continue to sleep, eat, act as a pony for his son, and a mattress for the cat (and it’s obviously very much loved): when he bought it for 30/- aged eight weeks it was ‘lousy as a cuckoo’ – now eight years old – and despite delousing at intervals, it is ‘still lousy as a cuckoo’.
So the walker continues, taking the inner path over the Baggy Point headland as dogs are not allowed on the cliff-edge path (much rougher and more dangerous than the modern wide cindered track; it was probably no more than a sheep-track at that time), and going round by Cryde (Croyde) turns back to go up the hill on ‘The Way Home’ (pp. 198-200), past Fig-Tree Farm (still there!), to where the dear sweet old lady, Grannie Parsons, peeps
out of the door of her cottage like a jenny-wren out of its nest . . .
[She calls him ‘midear’:] A usual term of greeting, but truly a thing of sweetness and light when spoken, scarcely more than whispered, from the small brown face, with the bright eyes, and smiling withered lips. All the beauty I had known that day: of wandering air and bright water, the white innocence of thorns, the scent of wild thyme on the headland, the happy burr of the honey bee, the sunward lark-song, the glistening, flowery constellations and red plastic mud of windy spring: all the beauty of the day was fused and made one for me. It seemed that I came home to my village very swiftly.
So he returns to ‘Ham Saint George’ (pp. 200-207) (and this village is meant to be anonymous!) to find a tramp singing (for his supper) on stony ground and a surly prayer-book-thumper getting signatures for a petition to install the ‘New Prayer Book’ to the Rector’s annoyance. He also looks for the totally harmless slow-worm he had so carefully moved to safety at the beginning of his walk: ‘Among the old nettle stalks I found it, battered and broken by stones.’
To the superstitious village people a snake is a snake, and not to be tolerated. All in all, there are several little morals in this section!
Our author goes on to tell the tale of ‘The Old Cob Cottage’ (pp. 208-227) dated 1924, but first published in the Sunday Dispatch, 9 September 1928. The description of the old cob cottage (cob is basically mud mixed with straw and cow-dung and fronted with mortar, and usually lime-washed every year. It was a very common building material in ‘the old days’) is very exact. Such cottages do look very picturesque but tend to be rather damp and cold to live in. We are given very precise details of the location of this cottage, basically uphill from ‘The Higher House’ and opposite the Glebe Field (property of the Church). The occupant of this cottage was old Jacob Ley, called ‘Sparker’, once champion wrestler of renown of the ‘Ham Revel’ (with six silver spoons to prove it). This wrestling was a bloodthirsty affair involving steel-capped boots with kicks from these frequently resulting in quite serious injury! ‘Sparker’s’ name came from the sparks his boots made from the double kick for which he was famous. Sparker’s other fame was for his many clocks which he set to chime one after the other for the pleasure of hearing each one separately. But the old man dies and his effects are auctioned off. The villagers tell each other tales about each item. Our author bids for one of the clocks for which bidding was quite fierce, but gradually others drop out and: ‘at fifty-two and six the clock belonged to Mr. Henry Williamson, who could hardly refrain from giving a shout . . .’ (Fifty-two and six was £2.12s. 6d., or about £2.65p in today’s coinage, and a large amount to pay for an old clock then.)
This is a superb tale of a life that is past: its innocent occupations, its songs; its characters: the charm and essence of village life. At the end we are told that the old cob cottage has gone (even then), although:
Larks and pipits still make their nests in the glebe field, and the summer wind shines in the grass.
Sadly today that exists only in HW’s story: for the Glebe Field is now a car park.
‘A Boy on the Headland’ (228-231) (first printed in the Daily Telegraph, 13 June 1928) tells us of an outing of the author accompanied by a young boy, full of questions about what they see, but hardly listening to the answers before asking another. It is obvious that HW is a little anxious about the safety of his young exuberant charge! We are not told who this boy is – it cannot be HW’s own son, he was still too young: this lad is a schoolboy and old enough to have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He may be the young lad whom HW briefly tutored, or the brother of young Mary Stokes, with whom he fell in love in 1922.
‘Billy Goldsworthy’s Barn’ (pp. 232-250) tells us the story of this little lean-to ‘barn’ which is a veritable museum of country farm items. This ‘barn’ actually adjoined HW’s home, Vale House (now called Crowberry Cottage). Today this is a proper cottage, and has a house sign on it ‘Billy Goldsworthy’s Barn’. Billy Goldsworthy was actually Billy Geen (HW spells it 'Gean'). A tiny plant was growing out of its roof, which to the author’s amazement had survived the severe drought that occurred during his first summer living in Georgeham (1921), when all weeds had dried up and died. After various diversions, as the tale is told in the way of country folk, we learn at the end that this plant is actually quite a large shrub that has its roots in ‘Thunderbolt’ Carter’s cottage garden behind the barn and in a sudden and unusual burst of action Billy Goldsworthy hacks it down:
‘Tidden right that another man’s tree should grow otherwise than on his own property.’
The first MS draft of what would become 'Billy Goldsworthy's Barn', giving Billy's real
name. After a false start, HW begins again towards the end of the page, this time
under the title of 'An Old Barn'.
‘Scriddicks’ (lovely local word for things of little consequence) (pp. 254-269) tells of several superstitions of the village folk concerning religion and witches and cures for ills.
‘The Ackymals’ (pp. 273-288): the story of John Kift and the wilful shooting of great tits because he would not believe that they were not responsible for eating his precious ‘pays’ (peas), wrapped up in a sad tale about the funeral of a baby: the tale was previously only available as a limited edition book printed in 1928 (see entry for The Ackymals for story detail) but now available for all to read.
‘The Water Ousels’ (pp. 289-292) tells of seeing dippers:
Dripple and splash and murmur of water running so clear among the rocks lured me to rest on the green sward by a little fall. A child could step over the stream, which was scarcely half a mile from its source on the northern slope of Dunkery. Beautiful it was in the sunlit solitude of the valley . . . as I listened to the water-song, it seemed to arise from the rocks and the mosses of the moor and to run faint in the sky; and to come to earth again, suddenly sharpened and sweetened . . . my mind was now alert . . . The song ceased, and I heard, above the water-sounds, a noise like a pebble striking a shillet. . . . a bird alighted on a rock eighteen inches away from my eyes .. it was a water ousel, or dipper.
So the charming little story continues. But what HW does not tell his reader is that this incident occurred when he was on his honeymoon in May 1925, staying at a farm (Higher House, Wheddon Cross, near Dunkery Beacon, a famous landmark towards the south-east side of Exmoor). It was recorded by his bride in the nature notebook that she kept:
Loetitia also took a photograph of her new husband fording an Exmoor stream . . . looking for dippers, perhaps!
(For other photographs of their honeymoon, see the photographs page.)
HW quickly continued with his own notes concerning the Dunkery farm; their honeymoon continued with a visit to the battlefields of the Western Front, as I have described in the page for The Wet Flanders Plain.
The next story in The Village Book is ‘A Farmer’s Life’ (pp. 293-304). This is headed by the second little sketch by HW – and unlike the blackbird’s song, this one seems to be totally genuine.
(As with the ‘Blackbird’s Song’ there is also a separate sheet of this sketch marked up by the printer.)
And within this story HW quotes from the Monthly Bulletin of the Parish Church of Ham Saint George – as can be seen, the children from this school were obviously learning farming from the Bible!
‘Swallows in Cliffs’ (pp. 305-307), first printed in The Daily News, 10 August 1925, tells of how the author discovered the most extraordinary fact that hundreds of swallows were actually nesting ‘on a series of ledges about thirty feet above the sea’. Swallows were especially important to HW (remember his earlier book The Lone Swallows), particularly because of their association with Richard Jefferies as he reminds us by quoting Jefferies at the end of the essay:
‘The beautiful swallows, be tender to them, for they symbol all that is best in nature, and all that is best in our hearts – and desert the old sheds and barns of the mind, and return to the simple rock of my being.’
‘My Owls’ (pp. 313-317) relates the tale of the barn owls that lived in the roof of Skirr Cottage – which he named after the quite unearthly noise they made on returning to the nest with food for their youngsters:
You should have been with me in my dark room under the glimmering uneven ceiling, to hear the screeching, the screaking, the screaming, the angry squealing . . . they seemed to be wearing clogs.
(Having slept on more than one occasion with our own young family in HW’s Studio in his Field at Ox’s Cross, where a special barn owl nesting box was installed, I can assure you this description is very exact: sleep was constantly disturbed at regular intervals throughout the night! But it was a very thrilling experience for us all.)
‘The Zeale Brothers’ (pp. 318-342) first appeared in the London Mercury, July 1929. It is a rather sad but insightful tale of two brothers quarrelling. ‘Sailor’ is the younger, an ex-RN stoker, much travelled, but rather too fond of his drink. When he left the Navy his older brother, Stanley and wife Liza, gave him a home in return for board and lodging money and his help with quarrying (stone-mason) work. There are many rather slanting references to goldfinches, which seem to be at the root of the quarrelling. This all flares up and in a mighty quarrel, witnesses by our author, Stanley tells Sailor to leave his house for ever. Two years later Sailor returns to the Higher House: when his brother comes in Sailor offers drinks all round but Stanley will not respond, and when Sailor offers him his hand to shake: ‘It remained unclasped.’
Our author later learns that Sailor and Liza had once courted, but after Sailor left for the Navy, Stanley who was ‘turrible jealous’ had married her. But once Sailor had given Liza a goldfinch; it had been found inexplicably dead at the bottom of its cage. (Goldfinches in cages were common in villages at this time.) The ambiguous references to this bird make the thread as the story develops.
Again, HW is playing complicated games with names and the real-life situation was somewhat different. ‘Sailor’ Zeale and Stanley were not actually brothers. It is believed that they were based on Percy Ireland, who served in the Royal Navy in both the First and Second World Wars, and Stanley Baggett. Percy and Stanley were drinking partners, but always argued when they had downed a few pints in the Lower or Higher House. Percy/Sailor lived at the Lower House until he and Charlie the landlord fell out, so he then stayed with William Gammon (called 'Revvy' Carter in HW's books). They were both well-known characters to HW.
The final story in The Village Book is ‘The Firing Gatherer’, the short but very powerful essay of the old lady who gathered her firing wood along the seashore until one day in her very old age she dies at her task; the story had appeared first in the limited edition of The Linhay on the Downs in 1929.
Readers interested in the background and real-life names of these various characters can find information in: Peter Lewis, ‘Ham: Henry Williamson’s Village in the 1920s’, HWSJ 31, September 1995, pp. 47-58; and David Stokes, ‘Living in Georgeham’, HWSJ 12, September 1985, pp. 41-9.
There is also an interesting short article by HW on 'Village Families' in The News-Letter: The National Labour Fortnightly (October 1932) which is worth reprinting here for background information.
The great nephew of 'Revvy' Gammon (HW's neighbour 'Revvy Carter'), Alan Willey, has researched the Gammon family in Georgeham, and his 'Henry Williamson and the "Gammons of Ham"' has recently been sent to us, together with some photographs, which can be found on the 1920s Georgeham, its characters and other photographs page.
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The first trade edition has one of Jonathan Cape's classic typographical designs of the late 1920s and 1930s:
The US edition (E. P. Dutton, 1930) had the same design front cover.
Jonathan Cape's limited signed edition was published simultaneously with the trade edition, at two guineas. This handsome edition, limited to 504 copies (a curious number!), was quarter bound in white vellum with green cloth, with the top edge gilt and the other edges uncut. It was accompanied by a glassine wrapper which became brittle and fragile with age, and few have survived the years.
Jonathan Cape's reprint in their Life and Letters Series (1933), using their standard cover design for the series: