Sunday, 9 August 2009

Walter Raymond and Withypool 1/2

Walter Raymond ought to be Somerset’s favourite literary son. As it is his work is long out of print and obscure with it, so he’s a writer you have to go out and find – much as he sought out the characters he described a hundred years ago. Though Raymond enjoyed a career as a rustic novelist in the 1890s, the books that formed his unique contribution to the literature of the countryside were all written in the tiny Exmoor village of Withypool, in the decade leading up to World War One.

“My heart was yearning for a simple life,” he begins in The Book of Simple Delights, a collection of sketches published in the Spectator and elsewhere. Dreaming of a pre-industrial Arcadia, he remembers a village he once passed through on an Exmoor ramble, and a particular cottage where an old woman gave him a glass of milk. He rushes off to find it, only to discover the place semi-derelict.

“’Well, you see,’ the owner John Creed explains, ‘They won’t have this sort o’ cottage now. ‘Tis ill-convenient, I do own. I offered to do un up for a man, but he looked roun’, an’ wouldn’ live in un rent vree, zo he said. No. His day’s gone. ‘Tis kingdom-come for un, I do suppose. An’ zo ‘twull vor you an’ I, one o’ these-here days.’”

But Raymond took the cottage, and his landlord became the first of many local people to have their characters drawn over the next ten years. Whether or not the facts are strictly correct is irrelevant, because Raymond was neither historian nor social scientist but an observer in the manner of Thoreau or Gilbert White. His eye for detail and exquisite rendition of dialogue, not to mention his deep immersion in the place he disguised as Hazelgrove-Plucknut, make him an important chronicler of times past.

Though a Somerset native, Raymond was an exotic figure in Withypool. Born the son of a Yeovil glove manufacturer in 1852, Raymond worked in the glove trade himself until he was forty, only then embarking on his literary career. By this time he was married with eight children, and while he lived in solitary splendour in Withypool his wife and family were in London – as were his readers, of course. In his Exmoor cottage, Raymond was a cross between foreign correspondent and anthropologist, describing the last years of an ancient rural culture to a generation raised on Hardy.

Thoreau wrote that you should set out on a walk prepared never to return, and Raymond shared this spirit. He was a wanderer, and his wanderings took him deep into the countryside where he encountered people whose lives are now unimaginable, people subsisting on what they could garner from the land. On one walk he meets an old woman out gathering crab apples.

“’Beautiful weather,’ said I.

‘Zo ‘tis, said she, and stepped aside to pour a stream of little yellow, rosy apples out of her apron into the open mouth of the sack.

‘But what be about then, mother? What good is it to pick up such stuff as that?’

‘Lauk-a-massy, master,’ she laughed, ‘I do often zay to myself this time o’ year I be but like the birds that do pick a liven off the hedges.’”

She picks blackberries at blackberry time, and crabapples, and privet berries, and sloes, using her unique knowledge of place and season and working with a network of buyers. So the crabapples go to London for jelly-making, and the privet berries to a dyer and the sloes to ‘the gentry’ for gin.


Walter Raymond and Withypool 2/2

Like so many of Raymond’s characters – like the old stone-cracker and the snail merchant of The Book of Crafts and Character – this old woman is poor but free, her existence rooted but precarious; she is well aware of how the world is changing. While she has lived her whole life under one roof, her children have all left for the city, and the economic system of the village – exemplified by the local mill - is breaking down.

“’The little grist-mill down to brook,’” she tells Raymond, “’He is but vower walls an’ a hatch-hole now. He valled in years agone. Miller couldn’t make a liven, an’ zo he gi’ed un up. ‘Tis the big mills, zo the tale is, do zell zo low.’”

The feeling of ‘last days’ fills Raymond’s work, and he knew well that he was recording near-extinct crafts and characters. To this end he invited Cecil Sharp to Withypool, and took him to hear the songs of the gypsies who camped periodically on the Common overlooking the village.

Of the whole scene, this moorland is the part that has changed least, though the gypsies are long gone, and on the day I drove down the hill into the village it formed a dark, ominous backdrop to a scene that is otherwise idyllic. Like so many Somerset villages Withypool has emerged from hard times to find a new prosperity in the twenty-first century, and people like Walter Raymond showed the way.

In fact his type has become the norm. Like him, many modern residents have come from elsewhere – often to retire - and get their income elsewhere. New houses stand on what was once the orchard adjoining the pub, and the older cottages now boast slate roofs and extensions, and have well-tended gardens. One of these, up the lane beside the pub, is ‘Raymond’s Cottage’, recognisable from old pictures but missing the thatch the author predicted would soon be a thing of the past.

But what of life in the village? The schoolhouse, built in 1876 and thriving thirty years later, is now closed, awaiting development, but the Royal Oak does a good trade as a restaurant and inn. In his whimsical way Raymond called it the Rose in June, and he spent many an evening sitting quietly near the fire, not so much listening to as immersed in the local gossip.

I followed his path down from the cottage and walked into the bar of the pub, which had the cosy dimensions of an old village hostelry, and smelled of woodsmoke. The hunting trophies and memorabilia came as a surprise, until I realised that my guide had little interest in horses. He was a pedestrian, the urban flaneur transplanted to an Exmoor lane, and this was why he encountered the last of the old rural poor who at that time dwelt virtually unseen, close to the earth. Did anyone apart from him, in fact, even notice them and record their presence?

A few regulars sat at the bar discussing the fortunes of a horse, then a family came in – grandparents, parents and three tow-headed kids – and took the biggest table. Suddenly the place livened up, as the children asked questions about the hunting pictures and the grandmother tried to stop the youngest boy shaking salt everywhere. Perhaps, like Walter Raymond, the grandparents had found the place years before, and now they had joined a population living a dream.

I walked up the lane again and on up the hill, following a route I’m sure the author travelled a thousand times. I didn’t meet anyone, but on the moor I noticed the same abundance of linnets he observed. And I found myself looking and listening more carefully than usual, aware that every tree, every stream and every rock had once been vitally important to somebody.

This article was first published in Countryman magazine