Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Swaffham Pedlar

From my book  The Folklore of London (unedited version) photos above taken by me in August:

'Visit the fifteenth-century church of St Peter and St Paul in Swaffham, Norfolk and you will probably be impressed initially by the squadron of angels in flight incorporated into the magnificent chestnut roof.  However, a little more time spent inspecting the interior reveals a number of carved bench-ends depicting a man with a dog on a chain; the same image appears on the central pinnacle of the south porch of the church.  The figure commemorated here is John Chapman, who had given a large sum of money to construct the north aisle, together with its stained glass windows, (long since disappeared) showing him with his wife and three children.  The reputed source of his fortune is of interest to anyone fascinated by London’s folklore.

John Chapman was a resident of Swaffham during the fifteenth century who made his living as a pedlar.  He is the subject of the earliest of several legends concerning a pedlar’s dream, in which he is told that he will hear something to his advantage if he visits London Bridge.  As a result of the information he receives he discovers treasure in his back garden.  The earliest written account of Chapman’s tale, recorded by Sir William Dugdale in a letter dated 29 January 1652/3, relates:

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.  After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.” [Sir William Dugdale’s letter is transcribed from Sir Roger Twysden’s Remembrancer in Francis Blomefield An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk  (William Miller, London, 1805-10) 11 vols. vol. vi. pp.211-214.  See also Enid Porter The Folklore of East Anglia (B.T. Batsford Ltd. London, 1974) pp.126-127]

There is another slightly different version of the story in which the lid of the pot or box that contained the original precious hoard, with its Latin inscription unintelligible to Chapman, is placed in his window.  Shortly afterwards he happens to overhear some passing young scholars translate the verse as:

Under me doth lie
Another much richer than I

Thus inspired, he digs deeper in his garden and uncovers a treasure much richer than the first.  The story of The Pedlar of Swaffham was well known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as both a chapbook and as a children’s book.  Though tied to details of Swaffham church, it did not begin there.  It is the earliest-known English version of an international tale, “The treasure at home”, found all over central Europe, and in Eastern collections of stories; in Britain, there are versions set at Upsall Castle, North Yorkshire, and in Scotland and Wales. [Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys (Penguin Books, London, 2005) pp.516-517]'

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Michael Ayrton's Grave

After having recovered from an undiagnosed diabetic neuropathy Michael Ayrton died from a sudden heart attack in his London flat at the age of 54.  His house and studio Bradfields was in Essex so he was buried in the quiet village churchyard of St Botolph's, Hadstock nearby.  I took these photos on a visit there a couple of weeks ago.  The church is of great antiquity and a number of archaeological digs had taken place in the near vicinity.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Urban Exploration

An interesting piece by Robert Macfarlane on urban explorers in last Saturday's Guardian.  Although a lot of it sounds remarkably dangerous I have to tip my hat to some of the achievements of these daredevils and often give them a quick mention in my talks - the websites have provided one or two of my illustrations.

Open House in Battersea

Each year my enthusiasm for London Open House declines (too many crowds and queues and public transport in London is far more crowded than it was when I lived there) but I still manage to drag myself around a handful of places.  This year I decided to stick south of the river.  My plan to visit Battersea Power Station was stymied by meeting someone who'd just passed the massive queues, so I decided instead to revisit some old haunts (from the outside - they weren't part of Open House) namely my old school Sir Walter St John's in Battersea High Street.  Buildings still there, but no longer a state grammar school.  Hard to believe now but round the corner, at what was then called Devonshire House, we had our sixth form common room and various beautiful wood-panelled chambers at our disposal for tuition - now in private hands of course and probably worth millions.  The queue to view the house next to the old school was too long so I wandered off to the De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth.  The collection there used to be housed in Old Battersea House owned by the Forbes Foundation - in the mid-1980s they allowed me inside to see their considerable cache of Evelyn de Morgan paintings as part of the research for my thesis on the influence of Florentine painting on Edward Burne Jones and his followers.  Nice to see them once again - bottom pic Flora by Evelyn de Morgan.

Rother Valley Railway

To Robertsbridge yesterday to travel on the newly reconstructed section of the Rother Valley Railway, which now connects with a main line station. A great deal of work has been going on recently including the construction of a platform, laying new track and installing bridges.  There's still a fair way to go until it links back up with the Kent & East Sussex Railway at Bodiam - there's the busy A21 to cross, but I hope that ultimately it will be as successful as the Bluebell Railway, which recently extended to a National Rail connection at East Grinstead.  My photos above.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Spinney Secret Tunnel

I recently acquired a copy of [Here are] Ghosts and Witches (Batsford, 1954) by J. Wentworth Day, illustrated by Michael Ayrton, wherein another East Anglian secret tunnel legend can be found [pp.22-24], told in Wentworth Day's inimitable style:

'Spinney has several ghosts.  No place is better fitted for them.  Founded by Lady Mary  Bassingbourne, 'of the Wykes', in the twelfth or thirteenth century, it was a lonely outpost of the Augustinian Canons, standing grey and grim, enisled amid reefy leagues of fen and mere.  A bare wind-twisted belt of scrubby firs was all that protected it from the wild nor'easters that howled down on the wings of the frost and battered its doors, rattled its windows, and beat flat the winter reeds in the great fish-stews.

They lived a good life, those old monks - asceticism offset by old wine and the best that the Fen netsmen and decoymen could bring as tribute.  It was too good to last.  When Henry VIII fell upon them Spinney suffered with the rest.  That is how the first ghosts began their earthly span.

The legend is that when Henry's men-at-arms marched on Spinney, the monks fled in terror down the subterranean passage which is supposed to connect the Abbey with Denny Abbey, five miles across the fens, on the other side of the Cam.  They took with them the plate and all else moveable of value.  Half-way down the tunnel they met the monks of Denny, who also had been turned out by Henry's ruffians.  They decided that it was better to yield up the holy treasures and be saved than perish and be glorified.  So they trotted back to Spinney.  There they found the Abbey wrecked and cast down, and tons of debris over the door to the outer world.  The same had happened at Denny.

Thus the monks expatiated their carnal backslidings by dying in that nightmare tunnel.  Some of my family tried to explore the tunnel fifty years or more ago, but it was full of water and noisome gases.'

He goes on to say that a later owner of the house, built on the cellars of the priory, was troubled by tapping under the floor (said to be the ghosts of the monks tapping on the roof of the tunnel).  'At other times footsteps have been heard and horrible sliding, serpentine rustles, as of gigantic snakes slipping about on the brick steps.  Water fills the tunnel to within a few steps of the top. it is extremely probable that the river has broken in at some time and flooded the passage.  This belief has given rise to stories that the tunnel is inhabited by great eels, which accounts for the "slippery ghosts".'  He also reports that workmen digging on the fens 'found the arched brick roof of a tunnel which seemed to run in a straight line between the two abbeys.  The men got down to gault before they struck the roof, so it is possible that the tunnel might have been driven through the sticky tenacious gault with little fear of inundation from the marshes above.  Gault is impervious to water.'

A more prosaic history of the Priory of Spinney can be found here and some information on the subsequent history here.  One important feature of such tunnel legends, common after the Dissolution, was that they reinforced the official propaganda of the 'carnal backslidings' of the monks, as Wentworth Day puts it.

Binham Priory Tunnel

In August we visited Binham Priory in Norfolk, a former Benedictine house established in the twelfth century - after the Dissolution the nave was used as a parish church -it's a beautiful place.  The west front has one of the earliest traceried windows in England.

It's also interesting from a folkloric point of view.  In 1898 a contributor wrote to Norfolk and Norwich Notes & Queries:  'It is believed that an underground passage leads from Walsingham to the church at Binham, where the natives still point out the spot where the entrance is said to be.  The story has it that many years ago a fiddler volunteered to walk through this passage from the Binham end, and to play his instrument all the way.  He began his journey alone...but was followed above ground by a number of people, who could hear the sound of his violin below.  All appeared to go well till about half the journey was accomplished, when the music suddenly stopped, and the man was never seen again.  The spot where the subterranean harmony ceased is still called "Fiddler's Hill"'.

An earlier story from 1892 names the fiddler as Jimmy Griggs and he's accompanied on his subterranean explorations by his dog Trap.  The line of the tunnel could be seen on the surface as a green bank.  It was said that at night 'a grate tall feller, like an old monk and dressed in black' [a Dominican monk] walked along this bank from Walsingham to Binham shaking his head and appearing to look for something.  In this version the dog runs trembling from the tunnel without his master who was said to have been taken by the Black Monk.

We couldn't see any signs of a tunnel at Binham but at the point where the fiddler's music stopped there is a large round barrow known as 'Fiddler's Hill'.  During road works in 1933 the mound was cut into and workmen uncovered human bones and those of a small animal.  The fiddler and his dog?  Despite the fact that there were two human skeletons, one of a girl, the animal skull was thought to be a dog's, so it's understandable that many wanted to believe that the legend was true.  Archaeologists thought that the burial was Saxon.  The mound still stands at a crossroads which would have increased local lore about it.  As Westwood and Simpson state in Lore of the Land (from which much of this information comes) 'Burial mounds in folklore are associated with a cluster of themes, particularly one categorized by folklorists as 'Path from grave to lower world.'  Detailed archaeological information about the barrow can he found here.

The early versions of the story have the tunnel running between Binham and Walsingham (where we were staying on holiday) but the information board at the mound claims that it ran from Binham to Blakeney.  A legend at Blakeney tells of a tunnel from the Guildhall to the Carmelite monastery and a later one that it finished at Wiveton -  there is also a story of a blind fiddler entering the tunnel but failing to reach the other end.  All photos by me.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Fu Manchu's 100th Anniversary

Much catching up to do now that summer is definitely over.

First up: 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication in the UK of the first Fu Manchu novel by Sax Rohmer The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu.  There are a number of events in the autumn to mark this anniversary including a conference at the University of Westminster at which I shall be speaking about Sax Rohmer's life and work.  Phil Baker and Robert Irwin, amongst others, are also involved.  More details including the programme here.

There's also a play called The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York at Ovalhouse in South London offering an alternative perspective on the fiendish Devil Doctor.  In connection with this production there will be a conference later this month at SOAS.

Hopefully, all this will culminate in the publication by Strange Attractor Press of Lord of Strange Deaths in November featuring contributions from Phil Baker, Prof Clive Bloom, Antony Clayton, Gary Dickinson, Christopher Fowler, Paul French, Robert Irwin, Lawrence Knapp, Gary Lachman, Prof Roger Luckhurst, Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Kim Newman, Mark Valentine and Dr Anne Witchard.  More information on Amazon although my name has been misspelled and the link leads to a different writer with similar name.

Salon No.11 at London at the Library will focus on Fu Manchu.