Archives for posts with tag: Devon and Cornwall

 

CHAPTER 14

 

It was Cowper’s proposed visit to Cornwall which finally tempted me.  I longed to see the waves which uncle John had described, crashing on the rocks below the cliffs of The Queen’s folly.  Mary, who assured me of her reliability, quickly found a very worthy wet–nurse for Philippe, and Mary would look after him most ably.  Anna also offered to look in from time to time. So I was ultimately weaned away from my baby in the month of September which, we had always been told, was a lovely time to be in Cornwall.  I did wonder how we could afford these journeys, as Cowper was only on half-pay. He told me he had been putting money aside, especially on his long sea voyage back to England.  “There is not much to spend on a sailing ship,” he had said, but I began to wonder if Charles was subsidising his old school friend.

Our preconceptions of the county of Cornwall had evoked: rocky coastlines; pounding white–capped waves; narrow streets; fisher folk; smuggling; tranquillity; friendliness.  We were not to be disappointed.

During the journey Cowper and I decided not to take up uncle’s letter of introduction to the Edgecumbes. A member of Court certainly, but uncle was not of high rank; ‘Lord of the Closet’ was his extraordinary title and the Edgecumbes might possibly have been condescending towards us.  Their Tudor mansion had been clearly seen when we made a rough and windy evening crossing of the river Tamar. This place where the river had been crossed for 2,000 years, was known as Cremyll, named after the hamlet on the western side of the river.  The present ferry turned out to be a none too steady boat, manned by four oarsmen, and we were thankful to arrive in one piece. The coxswain spoke so well of an inn at Cawsand known as the Old Ship that, despite the weather, we pointed the heads of our hired horses in that direction.  Struggling against the wind and the rain along the top road we reassured each other that we did not wish to risk the probable formality at Mount Edgecumbe, but on arrival at the low ceilinged, smoke-filled Inn we wondered if we had made the right decision.

The old buildings nestled up to each other on all sides so there was no approach to the rear, and our horses were taken right through a passageway in the middle of the Inn to be stabled in the small, enclosed yard. Doors led off this draughty passage and there was a rickety staircase to the upper floors.  However, once inside, the rooms, the atmosphere and the temperature improved. The food was wholesome and well cooked and on this unseasonably cold evening, a hot meal was welcome.  A good night’s sleep and a large cooked breakfast improved our opinion of the place.   The inn was over 100 years old, being built around 1703, in the time of Queen Anne.  During our stay we spent many an evening by the dim light from the fire and a couple of candles, often enjoying the salty tales, which we guessed were recounted for our benefit.  Old men declared that they had seen ‘The Little Admiral’, Lord Nelson, sitting in that very room with his lovely Emma, the Lady Hamilton.

A few nights after our arrival we were awoken by the sound of feet running down Garrett Street.  Since there was an unusual urgency about the sound, we became inquisitive and, jumping out of bed we peered through the small window of our bedroom which overlooked the narrow street.  Four or five men entered the door of the inn which was quickly shut.  Another man, apparently in hot pursuit, rounded the corner just in time to witness this and knocked loudly on the door.  Someone obviously kept him talking on the step, until another two joined him.  Whilst this was going on we heard soft movements above our heads which could only be in the rafters. Finally, the men (customs officers, we assumed) entered the inn, so we returned to bed but the sounds above the ceiling persisted. After a while voices from below, led us to think that the pursuers were leaving the inn. As the ring of their heavy boots passed under our window we heard them say: “I know they went into The Ship – I saw ’em.”

“Where did they go then? –  They can’t just melt into thin air?”

The sound of their angry voices moved out of earshot.

 

The following morning Cowper asked the innkeeper: “Did you hear the noises during the night, particularly in the roof?”

He appeared surprised, and said he had heard nothing.

“Not in the roof?”

“I’m afraid Ma’am,” the landlord said looking at me: “You does sometimes gets rats”.

“I don’t doubt you do, plenty of them,”  Cowper said, smiling broadly. Then turning to me he scoffed:  “Rats indeed!”

This, we felt sure, was the famously rumoured smuggling.  Cowper believed the houses to be connected in the roof rafters, thereby enabling smugglers to make a quick get-away.

One evening he remarked to a man pouring drinks “This is a remarkably good brandy. French isn’t it?”

“Ah, an lively–like… like folks ‘ereabouts.  Tharr’s plenny of good spirit.” He said with a twinkle in his eye.

The concealed inlets and coves encouraged smuggling.  Perhaps the coastline always would, but the temperamental moods of the sea did not.  However, the anchorage in Cawsand bay was well sheltered from the prevailing Westerly winds, and the South Westerleys, so the bay was often favoured as a safe harbour.  During our stay, two warships were anchored there, and smaller vessels came and went.  One old salt had told us:  “Boney’s prison ship stayed a couple of days, but ‘cos the Cap’n heard ’bout a plot to rescue ’e do get zum of we fishermen in our boats and us towed ‘is great boat out to sea.”

“I would have thought Plymouth had the bigger harbour.” Cowper remarked.

“So ‘e do, ’till wind blows a wrong ‘un.  This do face Sou/East but Plymouth do get ‘ammered by Sou/Westerleys and Westerleys, but they do say it wont allus be.”

“Oh, why is that?”

“Ain’t yer seen the reef?  They’ve been a’buildin it for years.  They do tell we that’ll make Plymouth one o’ best ‘arbours in’t world.”

“But I thought it always had been – I mean Drake sailed from here didn’t he?”

“Tis fine ’til wind blows a wrong ‘un.”

 

To Cowper and I viewing from a safe haven, the changing moods of the Channel were very exciting.  I wanted to walk to Penlea Point and see the summer house built for Queen Adelaide, about which uncle John had spoken, and Cowper wanted to climb up to St.Michael’s Chapel on Rame Head, but all the land of the Earl’s estate had been fenced in, either to protect his Red Deer or his Pheasants.  Quite a few locals who objected to this sometimes broke the law and just walked where they had always walked.  However we felt that we had two alternatives, either to make ourselves known to the Earl and his family, or observe the law.  We chose the latter.

One of the gamekeepers who visited the inn, told us about the bridle path, which followed the top of the cliff round to Whitsand Bay and this was free land anyway.  Walking in the teeth of a gale along these cliffs – hat tied on – hand firmly held by Cowper, was an exhilarating experience. Returning windswept and cold to the warm inn and to an even warmer welcome was a pleasure, long remembered.  On fine days we stayed out later, and as we returned, we would stop to gaze at the beautiful curve of the bay with its green backcloth of Devonshire hills turned golden by the setting sun which twinkled on the returning fishing boats.  All just as typical of Cornwall as the crashing white-capped waves which produced brilliant emerald hues from the submerged rocks.

On another day this same gamekeeper told us that the Minadhu was sometimes open to the villagers.”Lord Edgumbe leaves it to I to say when gates can be open – ‘cordin to the stage of the nides –  that’s pheasant’s nests. I ‘eard you talk t’other night to old Sam ’bout the reef.  Best place to see it is Minadhu and it’ll be open tomorra.”

After breakfast, Davey the innkeeper pointed us in the right direction and we set off for what turned out to be a large green sloping sward half way up the cliff.  It was a fine clear morning and the view was glorious.  It was still early and the gamekeeper had only just opened the gate, so he walked along with us to show us the best vantage point to see the reef.

“They’ve been building it for years Sam told us. Is that right?” Cowper asked.

“Yes, 1811 they started it, but that’s a mighty buildin’ job – mile long tis. ‘Ard to tell from ‘ere, but it is a mile long.”

“But you can see it above the water from here, it must be nearly completed” Cowper remarked.

“Nay tis not – long ways to goo yet.  First they put in stone – tons and tons, kep bringin’ it oot in boats til arter a wile, three year I think, you cud see it – then they stopped – no more money – then storms cum and moved a lorra stones away – then they started agin, like that, see.”

“So when will it be finished?”

“Well they do say they’m zoon goin’ to start and this time they’m goin on wi’ it til ‘e’s finished.”

“It is, as you say, an exciting project.  Does it afford any protection now?”

“Is it any good d’ya mean for ships like?”

“Yes”

“Well mebbe folks dinna trust it, zo they kep goin’ in Cawsand.”

As we walked back Cowper and I agreed that despite all the setbacks it was an amazing engineering project and we looked forward to seeing it in action one day – protecting the magnificent harbour for which it was designed.

Awaking one morning to a golden dawn reflecting on a sea rippled by a gentle breeze, the reflected sunshine creating a carpet of sparkling diamonds, I stood by the window murmuring: “This precious stone set in a silver sea.”

Cowper laughed from under the bed covers: “What, Shakespeare at this time of the morning?  I had Richard II for a school examination once – not a happy thought. What has got you out of bed so early?  Shall we make the most of it and go for a really long walk?”

“Not today.  I’m up early because I couldn’t sleep, so I’m rather tired. Can we not take a stroll on the beach?”

Cowper was agreeable.  In fact, he was very agreeable in Cornwall, his depressions were noticable by their absence.

After breakfast, Davey asked: “Did ya see ‘ow ‘igh tide was last night?”

We nodded, we’d watched it from above, swirling over the sea wall.

“Bit odd, too late for full moon, but wind was Sou/Easter and low tide’ll be very low the day.”

He was right, the tide was exceptionally low.  I had decided to seek small ginger/brown stones which I hoped might turn out to be Cornelian. If I could find sufficient I would have them made up into a bracelet as a keepsake of our visit.  As my concentration was fixed on my quest I failed to notice the high rocks which surrounded the small beach I moved on to.  The sea, even at low tide, would normally cover this beach.    I wandered further in to what seemed like a small cave and found myself looking at a heavy metal door fitted with large hinges almost spanning its width.  Of course, I found it to be securely locked and immovable.  Wondering what Cowper would make of it, I soon discovered that he had climbed up the rocks.  At the same time he saw me and shouted: “This is Garrett Street, I’m right opposite the Ship.  Can you make it up here?”

Nothing daunted, I set off and got about half-way up, but as the rocks were slippery, Cowper came down to give me a hand.  When at the top, once I had caught my breath, I told him – indicating the spot: “I’ve just discovered a heavy metal door, behind those rocks on the beach. It’s locked, of course.”

Cowper said:”That’s right below the Ship – it might be the entrance to a tunnel, for smuggling, do you think?”

“But how would they get to it?  The tide is not usually so low.”

“They’d bring the boat as close as they dare, then wade in the sea to the doorway, you see the customs men would have difficulty in finding it if the tide is normally over the entrance.  But the smugglers must have misjudged it the other night – it would be submerged at high tide – that’s why they nearly got caught.  I’m hungry; let’s go inside and eat.”

Feeling quite smug about our discovery we sat down to a deliciously herby beef stew and a glass of ale. Glowing and refreshed Cowper said: “We’ve never seen them bring in the catch” – turning he asked Davey: “Will the fishing boats be returning about now?”

For the answer the innkeeper went to his door and looked up at the sky, then walking back in he said: “Might be lucky. S’fine day zo them’ll stay out, but zum’ll be comin’ if them full o’fish.”

We set off towards The Cleave and could see from above the sea wall on Garrett Street, which was half way up the cliff,  that boats were indeed returning, and as we passed the first beach we saw some of the smaller vessels being moored on the beach.  They were secured to stakes at both ends, for safety from the sea and when we asked a boy about it he told us: “Girt, that’s what they they calls doing that.  That’s why it’s called Girt beach.”

We could hear the noise and bustle before we reached the Cleave.   Several boats were drawn up and women and small children were running down with well-used boxes which they pulled up as they climbed aboard. From our vantage point we could see that the sorting abiity which followed was very expert, even among some quite young children. Flat boxes packed with fish, which appeared to be sorted into type and size were being handed down, to be stacked on the Cleave.  Every so often a large fish would be thrown on to the beach and some women hurried to gut an unusual looking Angler fish, keeping some of the offal. The offal, which was usually discarded, was pounced on by hungry screeching gulls. The fish itself was cut into sections and this, with the offal was shared out among the women.

Because there was so much activity, we had not noticed that two men had arrived, bringing pony-driven carts.  They were now haggling with the fishermen; then once a price was resolved, were putting their purchased boxes of fish into their carts.  Another type of boat had been moored just off shore when we arrived, a large boat which had sets of oars protruding from the sides, and a reefed sail.  This too was being loaded with boxes, which had been bargained for, and before each was stacked they dipped it into the sea, either to wash or cool the fish. Close by where this boat was moored, just on the edge of the beach by the flat rocks, which made a path to the rest of the beach, a man was haggling, even more successfully than the others. His successful purchases, which we were told, consisted of herring and mackerel, were being carried off mainly by young boys, along the beach, out of our sight.  By this time the fish had all been sorted and some of the fishermen were hauling their nets over frames to dry and, where necessary, mend. One had a large tear caused we were told, by the Angler fish.  Other men were climbing into the larger boat and taking up their oars, whilst others unreefed the sail which soon filled with the slight breeze and they set off. Silently and we thought slowly, yet when we looked again they were already out of sight.”They’m goin’ Plymouth” said one of the fishermen we had met in the inn who, his work done had come up to join us, adding: “Sell ’em better there.”

“Where are all those boxes going, along the beach?” Cowper asked.

“Dryin’ sheds. Ain’t you seen ’em?  Lots o’ dryin’ sheds ‘ereabouts.  Wen they’m dry they do go to all sorts a’countries, France, Holland and the like. ‘Ere” and he bent down to a box of his own, “take a couple o’mackerel for zupper, nuttin’ like fresh. Davey’l cook ’em for thee… and, he said as an afterthought, “I’ll see you gets couple o’ kipper afore you do go – they be mostly dried ‘ere, but I d’know a fella what smokes ’em.”

How kind they were, I thought.  They seemed to have so little yet they shared what they had, and as the women came up off the beach rubbing their hands on their aprons after dipping them into the sea, there were no surly looks, and many smiled at us.

“Been a good catch.” our fisher friend said, as if in explanation.

A fierce storm only two weeks previously had been in strong contrast. It had claimed the lives of three village fishermen and had been caused by a combination of the autumn equinox, a full moon, an exceptionally high tide and a south easterly gale, which was predictable yet unavoidable.

From such patterns are our lives woven.  An incident, which could not have been predicted, took place the following evening in the Ship.  The day had been exceptionally warm, the sea – calm as a millpond.  As usual, we had taken our meal in the little room to the side of the main communal room where the villagers gathered.  When we’d eaten, it had become our habit to join them, and this we did. Sitting at a table chatting to one elderly seaman we had grown to like, we were disturbed by a lot of noise, as two men who’d obviously had too much to drink, rolled in.”Jes come ashore:” said our seaman friend as he removed his old clay pipe to make the remark out of the side of his mouth.

One of the men, probably the noisiest, suddenly fell into an empty seat near us and stared at me cheekily:”Wha’s this then?  A lady ‘ere, and a pretty one.”

“That will do – have a care, hold your drink man.”

When Cowper said this the man turned and looked at him for the first time.  He said nothing for a while, he just stared and stared, looking right into Cowper’s eyes.  Gradually the room went very quiet as there seemed a sense of drama.

“You – ‘ere?  You dunno me do you?  I was in your reggimen, n’India.  They chucked me out – did they chuck you out?  What ‘appened to all the natives then?  I did’n know nuttin’ – but, did you?  I’m at sea now – whach you doin?”

At this Cowper got to his feet and said with a chilling but controlled voice:  “What right have you to address me – and with such nonsense?”

The man jumped up raising both fists: “Call me a liar, wud yer?”

He leared towards Cowper and seemed determined to cause more trouble, but Davey and a burly customer, who had quietly moved around to the back of the man, lifted him bodily and threw him outside, as he loudly protested – his drunken companion followed, without a word.

Cowper was visibly shaken and we moved to go to our bedroom amid cries of:”Tak no notice o’ee –”

“‘im’s well drunk”

“Lorra rubbish.”

But as I lay awake that night staring at the ceiling I thought of the smugglers on the run.  Was it going to be like that for Cowper?  If he could be recognised as a protagonist in the Madras affair here, in this remote part of Cornwall, what ever might happen next?

Whilst getting ready for bed Cowper had said that he hadn’t recognied the man and that he’d no-doubt been thrown out of the army for bad behaviour, but next morning he had gone out before I woke.  Realising, I suppose, that he could not leave me unaccompanied, he joined me for breakfast but did not speak to me all day.  His mood was much more difficult for me to handle here, with just the two of us and neither able to escape.  In Essex these moods had sometimes lasted for several days and when we went to bed that night I lay awake wondering how I would be able to deal with it.

The following morning he had again risen before me and I pulled the covers up around me for comfort, fearing the worst but to my amazement, his cheery face appeared at the door bearing a tray: “Our friend delivered the smoked kippers and they’ve been specially cooked for you with lots of butter.”

There was a large hunk of freshly baked bread on the tray, which smelt wonderful, along with a glass of warmed milk.

While I grinned my appreciation and put out my hand to take Cowper’s he said: “There’s a drop of port and a drop of brandy in the milk. Davey said it was to cheer you up after the other night.”

A bit early in the day I thought, but was delighted, especially because Cowper seemed to have shaken off his mood.

“Eat away,” he said, “I’ve had mine,” then added: “little Philippe will be getting bigger, you must be missing him.  I’m missing him too and our little house. Let’s go home.”

He made no further reference to the encounter with the drunken soldier/seaman and we went for a last walk to Whitsand, then left reluctantly – promising to return, as everyone who visits such an enchanting place must surely do.

Trotting briskly along the cliff–top road heading for the ferry to Plymouth to catch the London–night–mail, the waning moon rose over the sea and seemed to travel with us.

 

 

//

 

Chapter 6

 

In a household like Fynes, Christmas had to be celebrated in style. Preparations had been underway for weeks.  Even though Harriet and myself were the only residents ‘upstairs’  we were invited down to the kitchens to stir the puddings. Although Harriet liked to be asked, because she remembered that treat as a child, she nevertheless declined. The smells of mincemeats, citrus and many other delectables had been filtering up the ‘back’ stairs for weeks, making my mouth water.

Upstairs, other preparations were taking place. Harriet was following Jackson’s progress closely as he told her how he was checking on the quince brandy he had made in the Autumn.  Oranges were being soaked in rum, ready for making the hot punches that would be served to warm-up cold visitors on arrival.  This rum, I was told, had recently arrived directly from Jamaica.  Port had been laid down weeks before, as had most of the wines, so that the sediment would settle. It was also a time for writing letters and invitations.

These interesting activities had largey kept my mind off the man who’s arrival from India was imminent. When I wandered into the enticing kitchen, the staff delighted in showing me everything – and explaining it all.  I believe they thought we had lived like heathens in Ireland.  This amused me because my father always took great pleasure in the provision and enjoyment of good food and wine.  No doubt as a young man in France, he had witnessed similar grand preparations.

The fear of ‘tempting providence’ seemed to prevent open discussion, but all thoughts were clearly on the advent of the new baby.  A formal announcement had not been made, but everyone seemed to know that Louise was ‘expecting’.   Aunt Em had always been frail and she had had difficulty in  bearing children.  Following the loss of three,  uncle John must have thought that, like his King, he was unlikely to have an heir.  Then Charles had been born to them.  Despite all fears to the contrary he had become a strong and healthy child, and was, naturally the centre of his mother’s life.  Now, after one unsuccessful attempt Charles and Louisa might at last give them a grandchild.

Although delighted, this did nothing to dispel my uncle’s anxieties about the succession of the monarchy.  Even during Christmas itself he brought up the subject.  “Twenty–three healthy children from George III and look at what happened to them!” He would mutter repeatedly.

On Christmas Eve I happened to be sitting beside him.  On the rare occasions that I had met him, he had seemed taciturn and withdrawn, except when talking about matters concerning The Court Of St. James.   I was soon to discover that, in me, he had found  a new listener for his Royal tales.  I had given him an opportunity by mentioning his mother’s love of Bath, ‘in the good old days’:

“She much resents the fact that all the Court followed the Prince Regent to his Pavilion in Brighton,” he revealed, then continued unabated: “Now it is very different; King William does not take pleasure in the high life – thus visits to the Pavilion in Brighton are rare and somewhat subdued.  Also, the Reform Bill, introduced by those meddlesome Whigs, has curtailed the Sovereign’s authority with Parliament.  So King William may feel that the royal life style should be less extravagant.”

He looked to see if I was still listening, noted that I had his attention, then got into his stride:  “His preference is for visiting old friends, quietly.  The Edgecumbes for example.  Their lovely old house, Mount Edgecumbe, overlooks Plymouth Sound and that, of course, appeals to His Majesty as he can view, from a strategically placed telescope, the naval vessels.  It is also a favourite visiting place of Her Majesty.”

“Where exactly is this house you speak of?” I asked.

“Oh, it is on the other side of the Tamar, the River Tamar; can’t recollect whether it’s in Devon or Cornwall – think that the estate is in Devon, not sure. I know Her Majesty enjoys it there,” he added with pride, “because she informed me so herself.” Then leaning forward in his chair and warming to the subject, he went on: “The house is at a place called Cremyl apparently, and the Queen likes to drive from there to the stone–built Arbour which the King arranged to have built especially for her.  It looks like a chapel, she told me, but when draped with tapestries, cushions and rugs it is a delightful place in which to sit. As  it is situated  above Penlea Point.  Her Majesty enthused about watching the Atalantic waves crashing on the rocks below.”

Leaning forward again, he said in a conspiratorial fashion:  “You know of course that His Majesty was really in love with the actress Dorothy Jordan?  He lived with her for twenty–one years and they produced ten healthy, but unfortunately, illegitimate children.”

“What must the Queen have felt  about this when the King married her?” I asked.

“Adelaide of Saxe–Meiningen … yes indeed. It must have been difficult for her to accept. That was why his building of the Arbour at Penlea was important, a token gesture, as it were.  Just two little girls from that Royal union, and now both dead – no heir.  That is why King William is thinking of this very young Princess Victoria as the next sovereign.  Amazing, when you think.  Twenty–three offspring, but, I regret to say that, apart from William, they were so indulgent and extravagant they killed themselves off.  The Princess Victoria is fortunately not indulgent; quite the opposite.”

Charles came over at this point, perhaps to rescue me, because he’d heard it all before,  whereas I felt I was being treated as a confidante, and was rather flattered.  But the thought of being asked by Charles to make up a four for Whist was even more flattering.

Later, during a quiet moment, Charles asked if I had located any old editions  of The Times.

“I managed to convince aunt Harriet that I wished to follow the Court Circular,” I told him,  “in order to keep abreast with uncle John’s movements.  I also told her that I wanted to read more about activities in London, and current affairs… the latter part being true.  She has kept many old copies of The Times, but she misinterpreted my interest, and I discovered about half an hour ago, that she has arranged for me to return to London with aunt Em and uncle John.”

“Well that should be fun, you’ll come back talking about the theatre like Mother. Did you look up the shipping?”

“Yes, a boat left Madras that should have arrived in time for Christmas. Since we have had no word, there is not much likelihood for another month.”

“So now you can relax.” Charles said indulgently.

 

 

**************

 

“Time for me to pack yer box Miss.”  Mary announced one morning.  It was all happening much sooner than I had thought it would, but uncle John’s call to return to his duties could not be ignored, and there’d been no opportunity to seek uncle Henry’s advice on ‘that letter’.

“What should I take?”

“Not a lot, Ma’am says.  She says Mrs John’ll get you some new things in Lunnon, and there’s not much room atop them coaches for yer boxes,  as yer knows.  But I’m told to tell yer to wrap up warm for the journey – not like when you rode over to Dursingham though, Ma’am says.”

How had Harriet got to hear about that I wondered?  Small village, staff gossip?  Not Mary, no she would not have been disloyal to me.  What a good soul she was, and so from what she told me,  was ‘her Will’ whom she hoped to marry one day.  I would miss Mary very much, and I told her so.

Fortunately Charles and Louisa had not left for their home, so we were able to make a few provisional plans before I left.  Charles said he would leave a written message for Cowper with Jackson, which he should present to him if he arrived at Fynes. The message would advise him to go straight to Castle Dursingham.

We left in the brougham for Halstead, then whilst waiting at The Bull for the coach to Chelmsford, we ate a hearty dinner, which uncle had previously ordered. We did not have to arrive until the evening because we were booked on to the London mailcoach.  Sometimes it came from Ipswich, and sometimes all the way from Yarmouth, to pick up passengers at Chelmsford.  Uncle nearly always travelled by The Mail, partly because it had a certain prestige, and partly because it went very much faster.  He had explained that The Mails travelled through the night to maintain speed, because  the roads were virtually deserted.  Therefore, woe betide any farmer returning from a jolly evening at the local hostelry.  The Mails had the right of way and with a call on the post horn would rush past, sometimes running the luckless farmer’s cart into a ditch.

Travelling was quite a performance, as I had learned when returning with uncle Henry from Ireland. On that occasion we had docked at Holyhead and then had journeyed down through Wales.  It had been rather a wet early spring. For some strange reason the mailcoaches crossed the Severn at Aust instead of going through Gloucester.  Speed, uncle Henry said.  We had had no choice but to wade through the river mud to gain access to the ferryboat, then back on to the coach and the Bristol road to London. Here, for some reason, uncle and I had not stayed with his brother at Pall Mall, but at an Inn, which was why this would be my first visit to their London home.   From London we had journeyed to Chelmsford, thence to Halstead where we had been met at The Bull by Jim. Here I was at The Bull once again, but I knew I was embarking on a shorter journey and was looking forward to it.

Once inside the coach, the wooden shutters in the two doors were closed against the cold outside, and with no way of seeing out it was easy to forget that we were travelling through the night.   My uncle appeared to me  to be a man of means, yet he could not afford to travel all the way to London in his own equipage.  It would have been very expensive to provide four horses every sixteen miles, with ostlers and stabling to pay for.  A smaller post chaise  would not have been large enough for all of us and our luggage.   Thus, the three of us were now pressed inside the coach, whereas Aunt’s maid Suzy was sitting outside (on top as it was called), suffering the freezing night air and whatever else a December night might hurl at her.

Just before we left Halstead, a very large lady pushed herself, with great difficulty, through the small doorway.  She sat next to Aunt Em. almost obscuring her.  If this was not enough she was laden with packages of all kinds. These spilled over our knees  which were touching across the small space.  Every bump in the road dislodged another  package and in bending down to retrieve it, which she always did (despite uncle’s entreaties and offers) her very large feathered bonnet bent down with her, constantly tickling our faces and making our eyes water if we did not close them quickly enough.  We soon discovered, fortunately, that she was to travel no further than Chelmsford.

The mailcoach only stopped for twenty minutes to allow the passengers to eat a meal. So I realised why uncle had ordered the most excellent meal at the Bull Inn, served before a welcome log fire, and this had set us up for the journey. During the regular change of horses a quick quaff of hot toddy might be brought out to passengers. I opened the door to watch how quickly the ostlers changed horses.  They were waiting and ready and in six minutes the ‘fresh four’ were in the shafts and buckled up.

“Long practice and a fear of losing their jobs.” Uncle had reasoned. A small, timid-looking man now joined us inside. Since this was to be the longer part of our journey, we were very relieved.   He did rather annoy uncle by asking to know the time, on every occasion that we stopped. Uncle’s carriage clock in its padded case swung on a special hook fixed in the roof above the door.  Each time the little man enquired uncle had to extract the clock and seek a lantern outside to read the time.”

“Ah, we’re not stopping at the Swan tonight” uncle said, lowering the window briefly, to glance out as we rushed past.

“How do the ostlers know whether to be ready or not?” I asked

“There are several tunes which the Guard plays on the post horn, and that is one of them” said uncle.

“Does the tune indicate that we are stopping?” I asked.

“Yes, or passing, or changing horses.” he replied.

“Do they know all the tunes?”

“Of course.  It is their business to do so.  Men in the fields, or in their cottages, know the tunes too.  So if the tune tells them a coach will stop and they want the latest news from Yarmouth, Ipswich or London, they’ll make plans to visit the inn.  London news is usually preferred – the coachman and the guard are the main carriers of news.  When we won the battle of Waterloo all the coaches were bedecked with ribbons to tell the nation the good news. Countryfolk everywhere still talk of that.”

News; everyone wanted to know the latest news … news from India, perhaps addressed to me, would head for Great Maplethorpe by mailcoach.  What would aunt and uncle think of it, and when would it be the right time to tell them?

We arrived in the cold, early hours of the morning and it was delightful to enter the wonderfully warm coffee house.  The smell of steaming hot coffee, and freshly baked rolls, spilled out of the door and swirled around the tables.  Faint traces of freshly lighted Havana cigars added to the atmosphere.  All types of people were there, travellers like us, but also early buyers at the markets, newsmen who’d been up all night and business men obviously anxious for the mail which our coach had brought.

It was very exciting – we’d arrived in London.

 

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