“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
Easter was the feast of the pagan goddess of spring, Eoste. It was a tradition to give a gift of coloured eggs which represented the new life of the countryside.
Hot cross buns were baked on Good Friday and were ‘carefully hung up in the inglenook, and kept for medicinal purposes’! A small piece of the dried bun was grated and mixed with water – it was drunk as a cure for diarrhoea, but to work it must be hand baked on a Good Friday! The provision of hot cross buns on Good Friday is thought to be one of the strongest surviving symbols of pre-reformation England.
It has been said that to wash clothes on Good Friday was considered an awful sin. A story is told ‘A young woman went a –washing on Good Friday. As she were about it, up comes a gentleman, and he asks the way somewhers, most pleasant like’. While he stands talking, the woman chances to look at his feet, and discovers he has a cloven foot; so she answers him very shortly, and refuses the money he offers her. ‘Whereupon the gentleman, who, of course, is the Devil, walks away, and the woman, in a fright, puts aside her washing’. You should always wear something new on Easter Sunday, ‘for good fortune’. A new pair of gloves was the luckiest item, and these were often given as an Easter present. Told by A. Clark in 1893.