On Mendip at the turn of the century

PUBLISHED: 09:50 31 July 2006 | UPDATED: 09:40 24 May 2010

The sweep of the Mendip country viewed from Rowberrow Forest uplands.

The sweep of the Mendip country viewed from Rowberrow Forest uplands.

Mendip is a great tableland, bare and wide, a lonely, windy place of rolling fields and long walls of mortarless grey stone, and there is always a great deal more sky than anything else to be seen there, because until you get near to the edge of the plat

A picture that recaptures the Mendip ploughing match scene of former years.

Mendip is a great tableland, bare and wide, a lonely, windy place of rolling fields and long walls of mortarless grey stone, and there is always a great deal more sky than anything else to be seen there, because until you get near to the edge of the plateau you cannot see the country below."It is an extraordinary desolate place, shut away by its height and flatness from sight and sound of the inhabited world, the world of towns and villages and ploughed lands and tillage and pasture. So great is the feeling of peace, and so intense the solitude, that a wanderer there can believe Mendip to be that 'place between the worlds' which the spirits of the Northmen haunted after they went away from the life of men on the pleasant middle earth."This was penned by H Hay Wilson, one of the few writers of quality who have put the Somerset scene vividly into words, capturing both its outline and its mood. Unhappily there has never been a writer who has done for Somerset what Thomas Hardy did for Dorset.In the descriptive field H Hay Wilson is outstanding. His engaging imaginativeness sweeps us away with him to the corner of Somerset and the people and the events of which he writes.A Somerset Sketch Book was published by J M Dent and Sons Ltd, in 1912. The spirit of the Mendips was vividly captured in my opening quotation, and continuing his picture of Mendip, Hay Wilson says:"The landmarks here are memorials of the dead, camps and barrows of Roman, Dane, or Briton standing up against the sky on every rise of the land with the true pagan instinct of headlands and high places as near the sky as possible.Of Mendip's history he says "it is buried, like the course of its underground springs and rivers sliding far down out of sight and hearing among ways trackless to human feet, their course faintly indicated by the countless swallets that pit the surface of the hills; green, cone-shaped hollows where the water is swallowed down a limestone crevice that leads to some underground channel and causes there depressions by its swirling force as it is sucked down."Many of these swallets carry the water down to places inaccessible to the foot of man, places that send up queer hollow murmurings, and sometimes drenching of spray in unexpected spots, and give the country-people good cause to hint at magic or pixy-work."Many of Hay Wilson's sketches first appeared in The Spectator, and there are such titles as West Country Village, The Ploughing Match, The Sheep Shearing, The Rat-Catcher, Pixy-Led, Traveller's Joy, and Goblin Coombe.In some of his writing Hay Wilson is obviously recording what he saw of the Mendip country in the later years of the last century, when lead mining was on its last days:"Here are deserted mining-huts and the chimney of an old smelting furnace stands up stark and grim amid a desolation of furze and bracken and grey stones and broken ground, and higher yet the Beacon looks down on the long, straight roads that cross each other at rights angles, and seem to go away into space ever so far ahead wherever you turn."They really look as if they had no end, these Mendip roads that run straight like an arrow's flight between their low stone walls, or scanty hedges, to the farthest limit of the world, as it seems, for there is no sign of any other world visible up here on this lofty tableland which is three or four miles across."If you watch a miner coming deliberately from far off with his pick over his shoulder, you could almost believe he was coming to you out of some timeless land without change, and would go away past you once more into the unknown."There is very little life to be seen in this deserted country, and there are few cattle and not many birds except skylarks. Some few villages there are indeed, sheltering behind slopes, like Charterhouse and Priddy with its low church-tower. The bells of these places were in old days thought to have power in subduing evil spirits and demons of the storm, but it looks as though there could be no wide area of control here over the goblins of mine and quarry, and the house-spirits that are said to lurk, for ever about bricks and mortar and any place that human creatures have once lived in and left."We also get glimpses of the former day Mendip villagers. There is Mrs Dando, for instance, recalling on her 100th birthday that "When I were a maid feyther a did hev' eight shillin' weekly an' nine o' we to feed, an' tea wer eight shillin' a pound."We meet, too, the rat-catcher, the last of five generations of his line: "His coat and this cap and his gaiters had a sheath-like fit as if they grew on him; and he had a light step, and a light touch, and a pair of restless eyes that continually glanced away, and a rather sharp chin, and when he talked his upper lip twitched a little now and then under his moustache, and if there might have been a long tooth gleaming underneath, only you never quite saw the long tooth."And in spite of the involuntary gnawing suggestion his manner was polite and persuasive; if he had ever been a rat he certainly had been an agreeable one; so the impression grew upon you until you were almost disposed to wonder what had become of his tail."Presiding at the post office is Miss Popham, whose shop windows were filled with bottles of sweets, copybooks, and small rolls of flannelette, windows against which small noses were flattened to see if there was anything new in the box of penny toys.Miss Popham often wrote letters for villagers who had no fist for putting their thoughts to pen. Sometimes she even penned the lover's letter to his sweetheart.Ploughing matches are still held on Mendip, but they are not the picturesque events they were in the days of horse-drawn ploughs that Hay Wilson recalls."They begin early in the afternoon, and if you are betimes on the road, you may meet some of the teams coming across the hills to compete with our men, who are among the most notable ploughers in the country. The great field where the match is held lies on a slope looking towards Blackdown, and there is a certain road on the way thither called 'Kitchen Chimney' because of its narrow and steep descent."A ploughman came up with his team as we crossed the top of it. The early sun was low above the hills at the back of them, and the long sizzling shafts caught the road at an angle and streamed up between the hedges, filling the uphill road with golden light, and the young man with his beasts came up out of it just as the herdsman of King Admetos might have come one day long ago in Thessaly."His shadow, and the shadows of the great horses, stretched ever so far along the road ahead of them as they came up easily with the deliberate gait of ploughers, the great iron-shod feet of the horses glinting backward in the sunlight."Marnin'," said the youth laconically, and went away whistling in the track of the sunshine, while the horses' heads nodded rhythmically to the regular lifting of their great hoofs.How the ploughing match scene has changed - nowadays the parked cars, the Land Rover, and the tractors, but of old:"There was the field stretched out below us in its wan winter green. There was a tent where the judges were waiting, and a crowd already gathered to look on."There were dogs many and boys many, and carts anchored to the hedges, and horses munching with their noses in bags, and human noses tipped red like the hedge-berries with the nipping November air."Most of the ploughers were there, too, looking carefully over their ground and calculating the swell of the earth as it rose and fell eastward, for a special prize is given for setting the line straightest, and the first four furrows are the standard."Each man had a rood to plough; he set up a twinkling white osier at its extremity, and then he must depend on the nicety of his eye and the steadiness of his horses for drawing the line that goes like an arrow's flight across the field."Thirty teams, good, bad, indifferent, there were in the field that morning, and a more beautiful sight it would be hard to find, nor one more truly local in its antiquity. Before the Norman Duke sent his men round England to count his manors this village was ploughland amidst a forest. And the names of men long dead who ploughed for a Saxon lord are written in that ancient book."Now, all these centuries after, the Somerset peasants go on ploughing, just as their fathers ploughed when "Alwold held it in the time of King Edward.'And a parting glimpse of the ploughing match of Hay Wilson's day: They are beautiful creatures, these horses, that look so wise and patient as they go down the long perspective of furrows, and turning, come slowly back mounting the hollow slopes of the field."They steam white on the white mist that the early sun draws up from the cold damp surface of the earth, and above the splendid red of the soil and the water November sunshine transfigures the mists into a pale luminous wonder of diffused light and palescent shadow."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on February 14, 1969

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