Sunday, 9 August 2009

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

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