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.


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